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White Dragon (2018– )
2 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Oddly the second British tv series I've seen this week in which 1) someone learns that dead spouse had a secret life and 2) strong emotion is expressed by character who has the emotion vomiting. (For more of this, see TV series Mrs Wilson.)

I really like the concept, and had hopes for the Hong Kong setting, but I'm not going to stick it out, John Simm's character stays on one note through the first two episodes, truculent and shouty from the instant he arrives in Hong Kong upon hearing his wife is dead. Plot-wise - your phone has a crucial recording on it, you hand it over for study to police who have already been weird - really? Sigh.
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Rare precious lovely
4 July 2012
This movie is so funny, moving, charming, intelligent - such a totally engaging illustration of the never-old truth that wit, ambition, creativity, and ingenuity can turn up anyplace at any time.

In a poor and, to most of the rest of the world, not-known part of India, some people make, screen, and enjoy their own low-budget, high-effort versions of famous movies, from Bollywood and, in the adventure narrated here, Hollywood - in this one they're filming the story of Superman, re-presented as a local superhero, retaining of course his distinctive caped costume. Highlights include an interruption for the (very skinny) actor to attend his own wedding, and the wonderful story of the crew solving the problem of making Superman fly.
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Nice Uttam, documentary bonus
4 July 2012
This is the kind of very slight story, held together by little but a theme of inconsequential seeming-naughtiness, that was carried off much better by somebody like Hrishikesh Mukherjee in, say, Chupke Chupke - the necessary sparkly script mostly isn't there. But I found it watchable-to-enjoyable nonetheless, mostly owing to Uttam Kumar's charisma and the overall gentleness of the story-telling.

Anjana Bhowmick is Urmita, a young Hindi film actress who doesn't seem very enthusiastic even though she's apparently just become a star. When she accidentally is stranded in a remote Bengali town -- curiosity has impelled her to get off a train she is riding, and it leaves without her -- Uttam Kumar, the bachelor stationmaster, accommodates her in his quarters. A servant assumes she is his wife and spreads this news to the genteel neighbors.

That's about it. We find out a bit more about the characters. A positive here is -- no hysteria at all, and a bonus is a trip that the couple makes to a local fair, which looks to me as if its filming made documentary use of an actual local fair somewhere in Bengal in the middle 60s. The crowds of people and animals and odd attractions, like an aged man who uses a pet pigeon to tell the customer's fortune, or some traditional folk-singers of a kind I haven't run into in movies, make it more than worth a watch, as does the irrepressible beautiful smile of Uttam Kumar.
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Sexism in a pretty package
14 August 2010
The period right before the sexual revolution of the 60s seems to have produced some movies with an astonishing degree of hatred of women as themes, almost as if America's collective unconscious knew that women were about to take charge of their lives and had to put up a fight. This is one of them. Even though she is provided with a really lovely wardrobe (oddly - or not - at least half the items in it are in the lingerie category -- things you wear only inside the house), Doris Day here plays the infantilized chattel of her handsome, boorish doctor husband, James Garner.

She's offered a job as a spokeslady for a soap company looking for a wholesome image, and when she starts to enjoy it, her husband does everything he can to ruin things for her and mess with her head. This is nothing like the sparring of previous eras, among pairs of people like Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, and whoever they were dealing with. Here Doris Day is sweet, sincere, and childish -- she can't figure out what $1500 a week would amount to for a year!! -- her husband holds all the power, clearly needs to give her permission to do things, and is not above psychopathy. These games are no fun when only one player has any adult power.
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How the World's Bggest Film Industry Got Its Start!
14 January 2010
I love movies about the movies, and this one is a standout.

Often I've thought about the dawn of cinema - that first heady round, the rush of making a picture that moved. Here's an appropriately joyful - and funny! - glimpse of that moment in India, home of the world's biggest movie business, the story of the making of India's first full-length film.

It starts when the man known as Dadasaheb Phalke sees a film for the first time -- British, short, Jesus dying and rising from dead, in a no-frills sort of way -- and gets the idea of making a movie like this for Indians, about Indian culture. It ends with the completion and recognition of the full-length Rajah Harishchandra, an historical film of a virtuous long-ago king. (The present film's title means "Harishchandra's Factory": in India in about 1913, if you've got a job on a film, what do you tell your neighbors who've never seen one? Phalke's advice -- say you work at a "factory" -- the foreign word will impress them and keep them out of your hair.)

The character of Phalke, as played with warmth and charm by Nandu Madhav, would be optimistic "to a fault," except that his persistence is so right, even when he goes to London alone and unannounced to get the advice and equipment he needs. He is in some ways the preoccupied technician/professor type, and in a pitch-perfect decision, director/writer Paresh Mokashi gives us a larger world that meets his somewhat blinkered but brilliant obsession with more or less unfailing appreciation and support. Local appreciation may be slower in coming, but of course we know that it did.

The story, all very solidly researched, is carried more by our itch to see his film get made and shown than by any manufactured tension about too many bad things happening. And by our anticipation of the next comic moment - expect special delight once casting problems arise where no woman will go near the camera, and mustache-retention problems arise when compromise casting for ladies' roles is accomplished.

The husband-wife partnership shines, Vishawai Deshpande's lovely and grounded Mrs P learns to develop film, and whatever is in her heart lets her survive furniture sales and big risks without resorting to nagging. Especially elegant, the matter-of-fact cooperation between Phalke and British film guys, who "get" him more or less right away, the way artists worldwide have pretty much always loved each other and their work in fellowship, irrespective of national tensions and problems.

Finally - production values are high, this looks as beautiful as it should and - for any worried western viewer - this is not a musical!! it's a "regular movie."
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Ball of Fire (1941)
Fizz gone flat
14 January 2010
I love screwball comedy, but this one isn't so high on my list. I was surprised to see it wasn't a play to start with - it's more visually confined and talky than the usual movie farce, and for my money reduced in fizz-power.

Gary Cooper, as the nerdy "English language" guy on an encyclopedia team, realizes he's been so cloistered he doesn't know current slang, so he bumbles around nerd-style in low-life NY of about 1940 and finds some characters to set him straight. Stanwyck, a nightclub performer, happens to need a hide-out -- unexpected complications in mobster boyfriend's life -- so she joins the seven scholars in their oppressive Victorian townhouse as a "research assistant." Some history value - I always like the assortment of European character actors in movies of this time, mostly driven to Hollywood by the war and accommodated there -- but I found most scenes of the 6 old guys (Cooper much younger) more suffocating and repetitive than amusing. The joke of 7 men who know nothing about women doesn't have legs for me, ditto the disapproving elderly housekeeper, and I got tired of their stuffy library and dining room. Gene Krupa in nightclub scene a welcome change.

Whole thing plays too much for "cute," which most screwball spares us. Slang focus also on the annoying side, like your mom saying "word" or something. Don't like Cooper as nerd, but Stanwyck can do no wrong and it's fun to see which slang new-minted in 1940 is still around 70 years later.

PS I think I glimpsed Cab Calloway, did I?
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Little Zizou (2008)
When the Moon Hits Your Eye . . .
5 June 2009
Boman Irani dances to Mambo Italiano - can this fail to charm?

I've seen Little Zizou twice at film festivals, and hope to see it again on a big screen in a US theatre -- it's so fresh, funny, smart, and accessible. Parsi people from India love the depiction of their unique world, and I have totally loved the glimpse this movie gives me.

Zizou, a cool-eyed boy, is our guide to his busy universe. He's ignored by a foolish father with a messiah complex all about "Parsi Purity." He watches the romantic adventures of his teen-age brother (his graphic novels appear on screen from time to time), longs for the mom he lost at birth, and schemes for the love of the mom next door. The happily-married dad next door and lover of old Rosemary Clooney tunes, Boman Irani (the always-appealing and charismatic character actor), is an adult moral center, as a newsman who knows dangerous nonsense when he sees it and is ready to do what it takes to oppose it.

Sooni Taraporevala, who has collaborated as a writer on many of Mira Nair's projects, gives us a sketch of the insanity of religious secularism, drawn with a light touch and observed by kids who are free of illusion and delightfully involved in lives, loves, and plots of their own.

Director, almost all the actors, and most of the characters in the story are Parsis, members of the Zoroastrian group that fled Persia for India about 1000 years ago and are still a colorful thread in the fabric of life in Mumbai. An exception is the sweet and glamorous Bollywood star John Abraham, who puts in a dreamy special appearance. All performances are stellar - besides Boman I particularly loved Zenobia Shroff as the warm and sexy mom next door, and her actual mom, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, as her beautiful, blowsy movie mom.

PS just learned DVD will be released in India July 09. PPS it's now on Netflix
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Screwball Comedy, Twenty-first Century Style
19 September 2008
Manish Acharya's highly original comedy has the bounce, bubbling eccentricity, and perfect comic timing of the best of the screwball era. It's like a visit to an updated and internationalized version of the days when you could count on a movie for an hour and a half of fun and leave your cringe-protection gear at home.

A movie-song singing contest takes places over the course of one weekend in a hotel deep in Indian-occupied New Jersey. The setup provides a sturdy structure for the kind of surprise-a-minute hilarity that gives screwball its velocity. Maybe something about Indian ex-patriate culture, as well as Acharya's talent, produces the lovely mix of naiveté and sophistication, the obvious and the unexpected (and the unexpected obvious, like the Indian-American guy whose job has been outsourced to India) that keeps all the balls spinning.

Acharya (director, co-writer, actor) manages the much-harder-than-it-looks task of braiding together the stories of a set of at least a dozen contestants and side-characters in a way that keeps us consistently laughing about them, caring about them, and even thinking, in an off-hand way, about one or two things bigger than the contest outcome.

In one of the film's many comic peaks, the slogan "Foreigner Go Home!!" is hurled at contestant Josh Cohen by fellow New Jersey residents, but the moment is just a stop on the road to a near-throwaway last word, both idiotic and profound, uttered by a man in crocodile-patterned Lurex, that dizzily pulls to the foreground a thought or two that have been there all along about who, in our country at its most diverse best, is inside, who's outside, and whether it matters if there even is an "inside" anyhow.

If you're worried about having to sit through too much "Indian singing" – don't be! Very few songs are rendered all the way through, and, as in a Bollywood movie, the story almost always keeps going on during the song. And: the show-stopping bhangra rap song is entirely in English, as is the whole movie for that matter..

PS for non-South Asians – the vindictive socialite, Rrita Kapoor, is played by Shabana Azmi, India's equivalent of Meryl Streep (apologies to both), a great and beautiful actress known for decades of roles in serious movies and also for courageous activities on behalf of social causes in India.
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Time, Place, wish for more
14 September 2008
This was worth seeing for me just to see and hear the Warhol icons Paul Morrissey and Joe d'Alessandro "now," or close to now, as they were characters I watched from a small distance long ago. Also as someone has already noted - the environments of the people interviewed bring back the East Village of the 60s and 70s. Now in their own 60s probably, they are probably the last generation of young artists who were able to live in Manhattan.

If you remember the Max's Kansas City/Andy Warhol era, this will bring something back for you. If you don't, you might get a breath of a so-different, now-gone downtown artistic atmosphere of the East Village in the 60s and 70s.

The movie does a nice job of introducing the gender-shifting performer Jackie Curtis and a kind of outrageous whacked-out druggy boundary-trashing theatre/movie scene, part of the moment of giant culture shifts where gender and sex were concerned.

It's well-paced, intelligent, and always interesting. To some extent it's about the Jackie Curtis phenomenon, but the very articulate woman performer called Penny Arcade communicates a feeling for the person himself, and Holly Woodlawn - I am glad she is still with us - is sad when she remembers his death in his 30s.

The DVD extras - don't skip them. If I recall correctly, that's where we hear from the man who tells us about the seven chihuahuas that Curtis' grandmother kept on top of her breasts.
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4 July 2008
The main thing I thought of while I was watching this movie was, when and how did America become so infantile and idiotic about sex? I've spent the last few weeks with some of the great comedies of the 30s, 40s, 50s - The Lady Eve, Palm Beach Story, Love in the Afternoon -- it's honestly shocking to encounter a script with a line in it (from a man to his wife, in public) like "You old bat!! you old bat!!! you old bat!!"

I don't categorically mind misogyny in a comedy, but this movie provides no relief and no charm -- there is not a single exchange of dialogue between a man and a woman that is anything but dopey and vulgar. At the inception of the plot - Jack Lemmon "meets" Virna Lisi when she pops out of a cake at a bachelor party -- the woman can't actually speak English at all, but once she learns she doesn't say anything, she's just a big beautiful smooching doll, whereas the wife of the male friend and lawyer is a harridan.

Virna Lisi is beautiful, and wears some clothes worth taking notes on. Terry Thomas always holds the screen when he's on it, and of course Jack Lemmon does anything well, but it's too bad he had to do this!!
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3 May 2008
The glamour of India, the glamour of the 1920s, the depth-sounding drumbeat of the ancient mythic world, and the woman who loves the wrong kind of man – Nina Paley gets them all together, along with a relevant chunk of autobiography about a disappointing husband of her own, in her dazzling first full-length animated feature.

In the ancient Indian story, the Ramayana, Sita is the wife of the man-god Rama, and the embodiment of the Virtuous Wife. She suffers one awful punishment and test after another from her mistrustful and apparently other-directed (what will people think? etc) husband. In Paley's movie, Sita steps forward from time to time to sing a torch-y Jazz Era song ("Mean to Me," and the like) in the voice of Annette Hanshaw, a stylistically elegant and not-well-enough-known voice of the '20s.

Sita's story (kidnapping by 9-headed king, rescue by Rama, rejection by Rama, monkey-god help) alternates with modern-day episodes about Nina's own real-life inexplicably disintegrating marriage, and also with the occasional very funny and illuminating conversation about the Ramayana and its meanings among several of the filmmaker's witty and well-educated Indian friends ("The king had four wives . . . no, three wives . . . three wives and four sons, that's right!!. . . . " "You know if Sita had just gone with the monkey a lot of lives would have been spared . . . ").

You can enjoy it just for the luxurious pleasure of Paley's use of Indian artistic styles in motion, from powerful ancient Hindu motifs, to detailed Moghul-ish backgrounds, to deliriously gaudy street-market devotional calendar art.

For myself, I also came away with the best grasp I've had yet on the Rama-Sita story, more than worth knowing both on the archetypal front (Some Things Never Change) and as background to the hundreds of Indian movie stories that take it up from one angle or another.

July 28, 2009 NOTE - now on DVD!!
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The Last Lear (2007)
Last Lear: the real tragedy will be if this doesn't get into theatres!!
14 November 2007
I've run into comments about this movie that call Amitabh Bachchan a scenery-chewer in this movie. I'd say he's not. That makes it sound as if you're going to get Prithvirraj Kapoor in Mughul-e-Azam -- but Amitabh's character, Harish Mishra/Harry, not AB, is himself something of a scenery-chewer, and in fact in The Last Lear he gives a nuanced performance of maybe the best character I've seen him play in this career phase, and maybe ever.

(Most coincidentally -- the current New Yorker Magazine - Nov. 19, 2007 -- has an article, "The Player Kings," about this kind of bigger-than-life Shakespeare guy,Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier.)

It's wonderful to see major "Bollywood" stars take on straight acting roles in English. And for some time I hoped Preity Zinta, cast as Shabnam, an actress Harry's co-star in the film he is making, would be given something like this to do that used the mature intensity I thought I saw in her.

Importantly and fascinatingly to me, The Last Lear takes the 75-year-old Harish Mishra and us eventually and starkly into some of the themes of King Lear, not that you have to know the play to be affected by his performance as a retired/withdrawn Shakespearean stage actor in Calcutta, persuaded to take his first film role by Siddarth, the hotshot young director played by Arjun Rampal.

I'd say it's only in the last maybe 20 minutes of the movie that you might start having a cascade of recognitions about the Lear themes here. This guy is irritable and cranky -- plenty of scorn for the movies heaped on Arjun -- but also wise, loving, and fully responsive to life. In a great scene on an outdoors shoot in the mountains, you see true delight replace bluster when the old actor, on a film set for the first time, catches on to the filmmaker's way of using shots of unguarded conversation to compose his story.

What makes this powerful old guy verge on boorish in one situation - he declaims Prospero's big speech about his mastery of the spirits to the back of the house in his own smallish living room, to teach Arjun something or other -- makes him a wise counsellor for his co-star Preity in the next, when he uses what he knows about both life and art to push the unhappy and inexperienced young film actress to shout her anger out to the faraway mountain top, and we can feel and see her grief unlock and blood start to flow.

The movie begins explosively on the Diwali when the film is having its opening, with a fight in a fancy flat between Preity, Harry's film co-star, and a man she lives with who is hectoring her offensively about where she's going. She's going to visit Harry instead of attending her premiere, and he now some kind of invalid. Her character is strong and self-possessed, somebody a woman would want for a real friend. She's also somewhat bottled up.

In the course of a long night with fireworks in the background Shabnam, Shefali Shetty as Vandana, Harish's long-time companion, and Divya Dutta as Ivy the night nurse, form a world in Harry's old Calcutta flat, furnished like the home of a London stage actor at mid-century, and the story leading up to the accident on a film-shoot in the mountains unfurls along with their own stories.

The back-story scenes of Siddarth and Harry meeting in Harry's flat, quoting Shakespeare and bonding over watching guys relieve themselves against the wall outside on the closed-circuit TV Harry has installed, are comical and moving.

As the night goes on - it's really a night of metabolization of what has happened -- the night nurse is fired and then offered tea, and she's agitatedly trying to get hold of a boyfriend who, like Shabnam's man, is a persecutory, entitled jerk, full of offensive accusations, and the two older women -- try hard talk her out of submitting to him.

By dawn when Preity crosses the threshhold into Amitabh's room, I think you start to get it about his tragic flaw - I am not spoiling things if I tell you it has to do with his pride - as well as the flaws in someone he's trusted -- that's ended him up in a tragic situation, and thus you're prepared for the brilliant full emotional finish that follows.

One thing I'd hope for from another viewing is a better understanding of what's going on with a shocking decision made by Arjun's character.

I haven't said much about Shefali and Divya, but they are wonderful. Vandana is loving, loyal, angry, exasperated -- if the spirit of Cordelia is in the story, it's distributed between her and Shabnam; Divya is adorable -- she supplies a comic presence -- and touching as a girl who probably can't help going down a tube she's been warned about, off into her own tragedy in the name of love.

I hope the actors found this first English-language movie as rewarding to make as I found it to watch at a film festival, but I also hope this finds theatre release in English-speaking places – if it doesn't, that will be a tragedy.
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Banaras, Bombay, and strong women characters
19 October 2007
As anyone who has seen a trailer for this movie knows, Rani Mukherjee is a girl from a fine Banaras family on the economic downslide, who goes to Bombay intending to make money to help them out and finds herself in business as a high-class professional escort.

When her younger sister, Konkona Sen Sharma, comes to Bombay to take up her own job in an ad agency, we see the two of them in a tonga on Marine Drive, the Queen's Necklace fulfilling its promise to swirl the city in glamor. When some ladies of the night pass by the carriage, Konkona makes an unthinking provincial girl's harsh comment, and her sister rebukes her sharply for her lack of compassion.

In this passage of perfect dialogue, you have the main tension driving the story, and one of its many moments of good acting between well-drawn women characters. What is going to happen if the younger sister finds out what her big sister has done in order to secure her own future? Will Rani's sacrifice separate her forever from her sister's love and respect, and from a chance at acceptance in romance and marriage?

I gather this is a Hindi movie theme known to the Indian audience. LCMD is far from perfect -- there's a mixing of story types going on probably, the old-style melodrama and something more modern and psychological -- but the good things about it make it more than worth seeing. There are four striking women characters (Jaya as mother, and Hema Malini in a special appearance that blesses the whole movie, including a dance that should have been much longer) who all seem relatively "real" in relation to Hindi movie women. They relate to each other in a decent, normal way (in small roles we have a less-nice girl and also a friend in Bombay as well).

Another good thing: the parents are less than respect-worthy without being "bad" Hindi movie parents -- father clearly is an upper-class slacker who'd rather develop "symptoms" than get a job, rent out a room, sell the property and live within his means; and mother is interestingly ambivalent about what her daughter is doing in order to be sending home the cash.

The cinematography of Banares and Bombay is worth the trip to the theaters, and the clothes are worth taking notes on, both the subtle and stunning cotton traditional clothes of the family in Banaras and Rani's high-style nicely top-of-the-city wardrobe. You might be reminded of India as the home of the most wonderful textiles on the planet.

If the story is still Bollywoodized and Bollywood-y (how did a villain know the thing he knows? why don't we see a bit more of Rani's "work life"? why do we need a song that is actually set in Switzerland -- though maybe that's ironic/postmodern?), it nonetheless is a rich enough, fresh enough, and engaging enough experience, with great performances.

As it really is about its women, the men are fine but you wouldn't focus on them in thinking about the movie. If you see the movie, you may find it raises good questions -- it it progressive? regressive? what do we mean by these things? -- worth talking and thinking about.
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A full cup, a nice surprise from SRK & YRF
10 August 2007
Having originally planned to both not see Chak De and also to hate it, I went to see the first show and I now love it very much!!

Two nights ago I saw Kal Ho Naa Ho for the 100th time. I found it beautiful, as always, but also realized it never makes me want to cry. Chak De!, on the other hand, is relatively "plain" to look at, and understated (at least for Bollywood), and I felt that wonderful emotional brimming-up-but-not-quite-over time and again throughout the story.

The whole thing about this team of girls from all over India who have to be made into a team really works - you get to know enough about several girls to have a secure sense of the essence of each -- the one with the bad temper, the one whose husband wants her to come home and cook, the senior player who resents the new coach's control, the ones who are out for themselves -- and the problem each presents in relation to SRK's task of making a team out of a collection of individuals

Of course this is any coach's job, but I like the moral resonance with the sad back-story of Shah Rukh Khan's character. Kabir Khan, like the real Indian player on whom the story is based, is an Indian Muslim. He was unjustly accused of throwing a match to Pakistan, and lost his career. A team where all have the identity "India" is an actual team; implicitly I think a country with the identity "India" doesn't engage in persecutory projection and hatred toward a member perceived as "other."

A note about the photography, I like the use of a dusty tone for the first half of the movie, and then a much brighter color skin for the second half, when we leave India and practice fields and go to Australia. The girls' exposure to the bigness and luxury of the west was handled so nicely - we're given their pleasure in all that's new to their eyes--giant swimming pools, exercise machinery, lavish hotel buffets -- but in passing: the Bollywood Visual Excess machine is not in operation, and the shed has several locks on the door. At some official function, we get to see them all in saris and a bit of makeup, but here too it's all under control, they're all dressed alike and half of them hate it.

Shah Rukh is great. There is no sentimentality in the movie and his character is restrained. The music -- no "songs" -- is varied and good -- if I could do without the rap music (for life!!), I loved the Sufi refrain that turns up over and over, that seems to express SRK's character's anguish in separation, longing for reunion (with God).

I've always felt that sadness was quite nearby for Shah Rukh -- here he neither conceals nor dramatizes it, he just lets us feel it. On a more mundane note, though I love Shah Rukh in all his Karan-Johar-selected beautiful clothes, I found it relaxing to see him in a small number of normal coach's costumes, shirts, khakis, and blazers that appropriately looked bought off the racks in Macy's.

The movie really never hits a wrong note. It's also just wonderful in its feminist position. Generally speaking I feel just boredom and agitation at movie violence; in this one, when the girls beat up boys who'd been harassing them, I felt joy.
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Refreshing summer fun
27 June 2007
This movie is like a light summer cologne: you're never aroused, stimulated, or heart-squeezed, you can just stay cool and happy, and see what the next breath will bring.

And that's Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: just enough of a story to carry things along -- Abhishek Bachchan as a confidently badly dressed Punjabi who deals in pirated Hindi dvds from Pakistan, and Preity Zinta as an Anglicized Pakistani girl who manages a high-end store: they meet in Waterloo Station and fall in love (we can tell!! can they?) over a few hours of exchanging stories about the fiances whose train they are waiting for.

Abhishek's girl (Lara Dutta) is an elegant Parisian from India who manages the Ritz Hotel (in Paris, of course). Preity's guy (Bobby Deol) is an insanely rich lawyer - he lives in Somerset House, I believe - whom she met when he saved her from a plaster-of-Paris Superman.

Sooo -- now what!!! what will happen now!!! - there is your story, and it's fine with me. Enough on which to hang lots of songs, fun, and dizzy references to old movies. And I was happily surprised by the surprises the story does in fact offer.

(A clue to the stream of movie arcana that babbles alongside the story itself - do you remember whose boys these boys are, and a famous movie their dads were in together? If you know old Hindi movies you'll have some extra fun, but if you don't you won't miss a thing that matters.)

My favorite scenes include Bolnaa Halke Halke, a Bollywood "if I loved you" fantasy which joyfully traffics in all the conventions of the Big Romantic Song, including faraway nature settings, many costume changes (salwar-kameez for Preity, genius-level gaudy long Nehru coats for Abhishek), a tracking camera that circles the couple too many times and too fast, and the Taj Mahal. And also the dance-off at Glassy Junction, a South Asian party place in London, hosted by a portly Indian (or Pakistani?) fellow in an Elvis costume that makes Elvis' own wardrobe look like something from Friendly Persuasion.
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Cheeni Kum (2007)
Fresh grownup romantic comedy
26 May 2007
At the point in this romantic comedy where they are definitely getting interested in each other, Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu are sitting on a bench in a park in London, and she tells him animatedly to run to a tree across a meadow and touch it and run back. It's the kind of thing you tell a little boy to do -- a brilliant touch that captures so much of what's good about the movie: their fresh dynamic, her self-possessedness, his readiness, if reluctant, to step out of a somewhat ossified "grownup" character. I think you'd be sorry if you missed this, supposing you had a way of finding out what you'd missed.

I don't think light romantic comedy is easy to do - at all - and this movie does it very well -- there's not a sloppy or wince-inducing moment . Moreover there's the pleasure of a love story between grownup characters, an especially rare pleasure. Tabu and AB are really good together - it's nice to see them both matched in terms of their size, for one thing, and Tabu emanates the kind of intelligent, self-confident, unsentimental, serious young woman who often is happiest with an older man -- like Jo in Little Women.

Story takes place in both London and Delhi, which is fun. As everyone who's seen the previews knows, AB is an irritable and perfectionistic chef of 64 who owns a very successful restaurant, realistically filmed and with a pleasing cast of comic minor characters. He meets Tabu, a 34 year old visitor from India, via a character-establishing quarrel when she sends back a dish. And eventually there's her father in Delhi to deal with.

AB lives with his 90-year-old mother (Zora Seghal, she's the grandmother in most movies) and one of the great things about the movie is their totally mutually insulting relationship -- she is a horrible cook and he is very mean and funny about it; she watches wrestling and Sex and the City or something on TV all day and nags him to go to a gym. This is delightful in an Indian movie, as relief from the standard Mataji of the brimming-over compassionate gaze -- and we also unexpectedly see his deep reliance on her, and her availability, when something very distressing happens to him.

Alongside the AB-Tabu story is the story of AB's relationship with a little girl next door who has leukemia. She gives him advice and he promises her the "adult dvds" she wants to watch. And the scene where he goes into the video store and demands "adult dvds that are suitable for small children" is the kind of thing this movie excels at.

The presence in the story of people of all ages, from little girl to 90-year-old Mother, as well as Tabu's father who is younger than AB and thinks of himself as elderly (and carries on to AB about how AB is so-lucky to have been "old enough to see Gandhi-ji") -- all of them written as anti-stereotypes -- makes a very nice philsophical background score about life, love, and mortality.

I like the actual music a lot too - no "singing" by characters, but some nice scored passages that won't leave you, if Bollywood is your home, feeling exiled.
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Marigold (2007)
Salman Khan, Ali Larter: happy meeting of Bollywood and Hollywood
25 May 2007
Marigold is by far the best "outsider's" take on Bollywood I have ever seen. (I didn't grow up with Bollywood, but I've seen a few hundred of them now.) I'd say it leaves Gurinder Chadha, Mira Nair, and even Merchant and Ivory (of Bombay Talkie) almost in the dust. Willard Carroll, the director, really loves Bollywood, and he has the self-confidence to allow us to know it - there's humor, but no arch, ironic distancing, no "of course I don't really mean this" stuff. As Jerry Lee Lewis would say, he "gets it," and so he can let us have it too - the joy of a Bollywood movie experience, along with touches that are supplied by a westerner's stepping into the story-teller's role.

It's a story about a caustic, bitchy, beautiful American B movie actress (she's only been in movies with numbers in their titles, like Fatal Attraction 3) who finds herself in a different Bollywood movie from the one she went to India to be in (Kama Sutra 3 has folded its tents while she was en route, apparently because its producers are now in jail). Salman Khan, in real life a Bollywood mega-mega star, is the dancing master of the delightful written-on-the-fly movie she has now been pulled into ("is this before or after I go blind?"), and through the sweetness of his mildly psychically gifted character, she learns more than how to find her inner ecstatic dancing ability.

The strong beginning gives you both Bollywood - a super-energetic troupe of dancers in front of the Taj Mahal (both funny an familiar to the western viewer, as well as providing the high-velocity musical thrill we love in a Hindi movie), and Salman on screen from the outset - no Bollywood 20 minute wait for the hero. He has on an Indian costume embellished with Kit Carson-style Western movie fringe (all in white).

Ali Larter's actress character is pleasing to the western viewer - she's blonde, which is "traditional" for a "white" person in a Bollywood movie, and visually understandable casting - but she's a robust girl, not the ethereal kind of blondie we're usually presented with, and she's a more or less three-dimensional total bitch, carrying on profane and abusive cell-phone conversations with a boyfriend and agent in the US.

We also have scenes of women who are having problems with each other going out to a bar to deal with them - the capacity for people not getting along to relate and have emotional conversations is traditional in Hindi movies, but we seldom see much of any such thing going on between women (other than the discussion between mother and daughter about the daughter's choice of groom), let alone "strangers" - unrelated people - let alone bar-going. So the spirit is the same, the details are fresh, and I was completely delighted by this.

I only saw it once, at a preview showing, attended by the director, a fine speaker and question-answerer - he and Salman got to be "brother-like" good friends over the making of it, he loves India, he has plans to make a Wizard of Oz movie in India. I can't get too detailed about songs when I've seen them just once, except to say I liked them all. They range from a happy parody of the Bollywood number in the movie-within-the-movie - the ladies' costumes, with Leghorn hats and seashell-cased bodices (it's a beach scene) on flowy dresses - are worth the cost of a ticket alone -- to a lovely reflective many-scened romantic song in a sadder and more serious part of the movie.

Mix of Hindi and English in the music, and it works.

Salman Khan gets a lot of credit from me for openness to unusual projects - this and Jaan-e-Mann - and good judgment about which ones to be in. Carroll said he was full of suggestions and ideas all along the way, and totally fine (i.e. not narcissistic at all) whether Carroll accepted or rejected them - clearly just a pro who loves being involved and collaborating.
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Mausam (1975)
The heart lies in search . . .
24 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I got hold of this movie in order to start seeing more of Sanjeev Kumar, whom I admired so much in Silsila, where he plays a husband who probably knows his wife (Rekha) does not love him the way he loves her - the performance was so subtle and intelligent He is wonderful in this one too, but probably it's the performance of Sharmila Tagore I'll remember more keenly.

When I went looking around the Internet for comments on Mausam I came across a message board note from someone who said she knew she could feel all right if she could hear Dil Dhoondta Hai every day of her life. I understand why someone could fall in love with this song, played at the very beginning of this movie and again in a scene of love from the past of Kumar's character, whom we first meet in his middle age.

Translation on screen:

The heart lies in search

Once again for those days

And nights of leisure . . . .

We're right away in the world of the longing and search for long-gone sweet memories, recalled with melancholy.

Dr Gill (Kumar), an unmarried gray-haired man who has become successful through discovering a useful medicine, is spending a holiday at Darjeeling alone. Over twenty years before he had visited the same place, and fallen in love with the daughter of a local Ayurvedic doctor. He did not keep a promise to return for her, and he has come back to see what he can find out about her.

He learns that she never recovered emotionally from his abandonment of her; she had married subsequently, lived in poverty, and had a daughter, who is now a prostitute The movie is the story of his efforts to deal with all of this, including his "buying" several weeks of the girl's time from the brothel where she works.

Sharmila Tagore (the mother of Saif Ali Khan, for fans who know present stars better than earlier ones) plays both the girl Kumar falls in love with and her daughter, the young prostitute. She is a magical creature in both roles - as the brash mountain girl who helps her father get customers (she rounds Kumar up fast when he slips on some steps and gets him to her dad's herbal dispensary), and as the seen-it-all and still enchantingly innocent prostitute girl. We also have a glimpse of her as a gray-haired "old" woman in a sad scene where her decline into madness is dramatized.

She doesn't know what Kumar wants when he takes her to his house, and is emphatic about being paid for her services - he insists on getting her dressed up in a ladylike way, once he's dealt with her insistence that the cost not be taken from her wages. My favorite scene in the movie possibly, besides the car and the song at the beginning, is the scene where she decides she knows what kind of customer he is: not the kind who wants to "have fun" with a girl, but the romantic kind who wants to "roam" and see dancing.

If I recall correctly, she insists on dancing for him, though with a warning that she is not good at it - and she isn't, instead she is entirely lovable. She seems to be about 14.

It's the kind of story Bollywood excels at - there is such artistry involved (the movie is written and directed by Gulzar, so the script is basically perfect) in containing the powerful emotions of a man who abandoned the only person he ever loved, and has returned too late to do anything to benefit her directly.

He is a taciturn, grim-ish character when we meet him, tenderer but also somewhat self-involved in the flashbacks to his "days and nights of leisure."The antic aspects of both the girl he loves and of her tough little daughter keep the movie far away from being a dreary guilt-and-sob-fest. Kumar is a wonderful actor, as noted, but this movie is from the days when the hero didn't have to be in fit physical shape; he isn't, so when he is supposed to be young and handsome, his face is fine but the body detracts from my ability to experience the "young love" thing. But Dil Dhoondta Hai just about makes up for it.

I think the movie also allows some play to the question of whether there is a Lolita-like element to the relationship developing between Dr Gill and the girl - it lets us think about that, I'd say.
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Brilliant movie about the Bollywood movie
15 April 2007
This is entirely charming. A simple and amusing romantic comedy story provides the structure for a lovely movie about the conventions, tropes, whatever you would like to call them, of the Bollywood movie (i.e. popular Hindi language movies made in Bombay). The story's fun on its own, but the real anticipatory pleasure has to do with getting the jokes and looking forward to the next one.

Two of three guys sharing a room in university days have their eye on a pretty neighbor girl - the third is too serious a student to bother. You can guess which one gets the girl.

Each of the first two makes a try at getting to know her by visiting her house on some ruse. Neither succeeds - one runs away, one is beaten up by her brother - but both tell tales of their success which are picturized entirely in Bollywod "love story" conventions:

  • In the first guy's story, he takes her on a romantic boatride (singing, of course), which is filmed with every Hindi movie boy-girl-boat-on-river cliché you can think of, including flights of birds, light glistening on water, cows going for a dip -- and also a non-clichéd real bite, done by the pretty teeth of Deepti Naval - and the movie lets you see the actors having fun doing it. I wonder if it was even in the script - in any event it's "actually" sexual, and so not Bollywood-y at all! --

-In the second guy's story, which culminates in a filmi-style fight of hero and random guys, at least eight very very well-known film songs are picturized, among them the main song from Mughul-E-Azam, with our guy as Dilip Kumar (costume included), and Aap Jaise Koi, with Deepti in a delirious disco setting.

And when the true couple gets together in a park in Delhi, they comment that in a movie, they'd be singing and swinging around trees - and then they do, in a third supremely terrific loving parody song. Oh, and look out for the (real) trained bear.

The two jerk roommates wreck the relationship and then have to help their friend repair it, so they contrive a situation in which he can "rescue" her the way our heroes rescue their movie heroines.
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Howrah Bridge (1958)
Bollywood LA Noir
8 March 2007
This isn't the first movie of Helen, but her entrance here, at about age 19, feels like a triumphant introduction - slim as a reed, with a young girl's face made up lightly, just to emphasize the tilt of her eyes, she glides down a staircase in a Chinese costume to perform Meera Naam Chin Chin Chu, an all-time great Hindi cinema song. I think the movie is worth owning for this and for Madhubala in an Ava Gardner-like incarnation, singing and dancing in full-skirted lush western dresses.

An unusual film to me -- it seems to be a Bollywood effort at a noir-style mystery story. I'd say the "noir" element is present in the milieu and the cinematography more than in the story itself. The world of the story is a world of seedy small hotels and nightclubs in Calcutta. Most of the main dramatic scenes are interiors of these places at night, and people are always moving in and out of light that casts various shadows on their faces.

A dramatic chase scene makes great use of the Howrah Bridge, an imposing Erector-Set structure that is a Calcutta landmark.

There's also a style of Indian Orientalism here, as well I think as a use of some motifs from LA noir of this time period - there is a Chinese villain, played well by an Indian actor (i.e. not the random bowing slant-eyed stereotype we run into here and there in other movies) and the first part of the story takes place in Rangoon, its characters' home - so there are many references to "oriental exotic" outside of India.

Not unusually and not surprisingly, the story lacks the things that make noir noir - we've got our stereotypes moving around, doing things and reacting to things, and we don't have any of the moral ambiguity of the American film noir, where a hero without conventional social moorings has his own ethics, and a woman probably will not turn out to be who she seems to be. We do, though, have wonderful 50s western costumes on the primary characters, as well as Indian-style masala characters who sing, dance, and have a wedding which Madhubala stops to watch when she is pursuing someone.

The story also sticks mostly to the characters involved in the mystery - Ashok Kumar, Madhubala, a Tonga-wallah who is Ashok's guide into the more mysterious parts of Calcutta; the Chinese art dealer, and the man named Joe who owns a hotel and makes claims on owning Madhubala too. There is also the opium-smoker who witnessed the murder, and his lovely fiancé. But there are no extra relatives bringing in "emotion," which, for India, does stick to the noir mystery format and to the single plot line to an exceptional degree.

The basic story: Ashok Kumar, in Rangoon, learns that his brother has apparently stolen the precious family heirloom dragon statuette, and soon thereafter learns the brother has been killed in the course of his effort to sell it, so he travels to Calcutta to try to reclaim the thing and solve the mystery.

Along the way he meets Madhubala, who sings and dances in a hotel. At an early point I think we were meant to wonder whose side she was on, beyond that, the plot lost me somewhat, and I also don't think it was totally coherent but may be wrong. If someone else watches the whole thing, I'd like to know if you think the existence of the duplicate Family Heirloom really had anything to do with anything that happened.

Anyhow enjoy it for its eight songs, Helen (in just the one), and Madhubala.
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Nishabd (2007)
Not Lolita, and not bad either.
2 March 2007
I've been saying that I'd like to see Amitabh Bachchan in a role where he is vulnerable and confused, instead of being the wisdom figure he's been stuck in in too many roles by now, and Ram Gopal Varma has granted my wish. This movie mostly succeeds in creating complex, believable, and interesting major characters, and I'd say the overall story is a good one, even including the ending which a few of the few reviews I've read weren't satisfied with. It did not disappoint me psychologically.

I am glad someone has given AB a role like this, and hope it's the first of many. I feel sure he's happy about it himself, as I've heard him talk a bit ruefully about all the father/patriarchs he gets called to do. This is a real acting job, the creation of an individual character, with the camera almost always on his face, photographed in a naturalistic way that gives us his age, his true skin color, and his sad-eyed good looks. We also see a lot of his hands, and I think it's intentional - a constant reminder of his age, as they show it the most, especially as RGV photographs them.

It's not Lolita (so many people seem to say it is), but the 18-year-old girl Vijay, AB's 60 year old character, falls in love with is neither mature nor well put together, either.

When we first meet her, with her abundant beauty and lovely body, and her crass behavior and flauntiness, I worried that RGV was going to be trying to sell me this package of annoyances as purely lovable and "sassy." But I ended up feeling that she was very well-drawn and that he knew what he was doing: you can see her through the eyes of Vijay, whose need for something seems to be met in her youth, beauty, and liveliness - but Varma also shows her to you through the eyes of "some other adult" -- a grown woman (me, say), a man who's immune to her, etc. She is pretty and sexy-acting, has some idea of her sexual power and tries to use it, but she is also unquestionably a psychological mess, a mixed-up little girl who displays and provokes. A stroke or two of background info, not made much of, grounds a perception of somebody whose needs are all over the place.

She's come to visit from Australia. Her skimpy, sexy outfits -- shorts, tiny skirts, and the like -- are nothing that would be at all unusual in any western country during hot weather, and the Indian family she's visiting doesn't pay attention to them either. Somebody just looking at her body, as the camera often does (but not vulgarly, I'd say) might be captivated by "sex appeal," but anyone paying attention to her behavior -- for example, tickling Amitabh's foot with her own foot at the dinner table, with her friend and the mom present, or running off with the camera he is teaching her to operate, dropping it, and being petulant rather than apologetic -- anybody attending to all that sees a loose cannon.

The movie is a lot of close-ups and a lot of photography of the tea plantation where the family lives, all shot so it looks a dull green all the time. The holding of the tonality so even allows, I think, for our sustained focus on the emotional developments. Also, the story is squarely about Vijay, and he lives in a place that is like this, relatively muted.

I don't think I felt Vijay's "happiness" as much as recognizing it, and that may be a weakness of the performance. I have always found AB a great silent broadcaster of the emotions like sadness, regret, deep concern, and those gifts of his are well-used here. I liked the performance of Revathi as his wife, who conveyed calm, intelligent, mature contentment with her family and life.
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Guru (2007)
Failed by family, system - how do you fight?
12 January 2007
The beautiful photography of India, superb acting, and realistically told modern historical story make Guru a good choice as an eye-opener for someone who doesn't know Bollywood so well. And though the music is extraordinary, there is also somewhat less of it than sometimes.

Guru is the story of the rise of a man from a village to become the owner of maybe the most successful business in India (a textiles manufacturer), which also benefited its mass of middle-class shareholders in an unprecedented way. It spans 30 years. The film is said to be based closely on the story of a real person. It seems intended to inspire Indians to overcome the obstacles presented by corrupt practices, and it raises the question as to what is the appropriate response to a closed and corrupt system that forecloses legitimate opportunity.

It is a joy to find oneself in the hands of a master like Mani Ratnam.  I'd wondered if I'd find this movie at all dull or slow: I did not.  It moves along - there's a lot of plot going on all the time.  I would guess that we get from Guru's village origins to his years working in Turkey to his arrival in Bombay as an adult ready to go into business in less than 20 minutes.

Abhishek Bachchan gave a lovely performance as the son of a village schoolteacher who isn't much of a student, to his father's dismay. He declares his intention to have his own business, and disregards his harsh father's negative predictions about his prospects.  The character, Gurukant Desai, has a wonderful spirit - doesn't take no for an answer, also can laugh off irritants and obstacles, and the laugh is charming, at once boyish and manly.  He's "big" as a personality, and Abhishek is emotionally and physically up to it - you feel his great reserves of self-regard in the various ways he meets opposition, whether from family or business-world characters.

One of my primary responses to seeing the film today was gratitude to be able to see it on a big screen.  The movie occurs in city and countryside, the 50s through the 80s. Every visual image, and the whole field of the movie - scenes, sets, costumes, ambiance, acting style, music - worked together to tell an appealing story with a strong appreciation for India, as well as a potential inspiration and warning. 

I think a good test of a bio-pic, or pseudo-bio-pic, is whether or not somebody who doesn't know much of anything about the putative subject, which is me (in this case, the reference subject is a super-businessman named Ambani), experiences the story as having integrity, and for me this entirely passes that test.

And it's nice to see a Hindi movie in which parental disapproval is met with a "cut your losses" response rather than the sometimes maudlin kind of pining or carrying on about an "incomplete" life we often run into.  Moreover, this dynamic is not at all irrelevant to other levels of meaning in a story about a man in India who take on large defeatist cultural expectations to achieve success.  How should we respond to Father or principles or rules that are truly not serving our interests? It is also not irrelevant to how he plays his hand in relation to the corruption and cronyism he meets when he goes to Bombay to make his way.

Aishwarya is fine in a wife-from-the-village role who is a partner all the way, and I love her dancing. She also shows a definitely womanly aspect as the movie goes on. I am glad to see her in a role that does not confine her to the vulnerable-verging-on-breakable girl she is sometimes stuck in.

Mithun Chakravorty (of Disco Dancer fame) was  nothing but perfect as a newspaper owner who was a father figure to Gurukant and also significantly opposed some of his decisions.  The presentation of that complex relationship is a giant strength of the movie.  I don't recall running into this before, a scenario where an older generation figure is out to bring down a "son" and the love between them is dramatized as going on nonetheless.  I found it emotionally powerful, and insofar as there is a background allegory about India, excellent, about opposing and maintaining ties.

In a subplot that I couldn't find the rationale for, Vidya Balan as a lame girl and Madhavan as a journalist with high ideals and non-idealistic practices were appealing and romantic.
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Lace (1984)
Maybe you would like the Bollywood version
15 November 2006
In case anyone is interested, there is a Bollywood version of this story, called Dil Ashna Hai - a movie in Hindi, with music, made in about 1992.

I haven't seen this English language original movie, just the Hindi one: it's fun. Shah Rukh Khan, technically probably the most famous movie star in the world (and my favorite too) has a medium-sized part in this one. The story is sweet.

I only recently found out that the Indian movie was based on an American TV movie. I wish somebody who'd seen the TV movie would check this one out and write something here!!
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Good exercise of star's prerogative
6 April 2004
I think I put this on my Netflix list because I was in a Jeff Bridges mood - anyhow it arrived in the mail and I was happy to watch it. My main reaction: this is a great illustration of how much fun it must be to be able to make yourself just the movie you want to.

In this movie, Barbra Streisand is able to do the following: be a super-smart but plain-looking woman professor who is loved by her students; as this character, and against her expectations, get herself a man who's both hunky and brilliant (Jeff Bridges); go through an ugly duckling-swan transformation; and have Lauren Bacall for her mother (though the mother is pretty toxic until fairly far along).

Pretty satisfying if you're looking for a feel-good story with a bit of a feminist spin. I wish however that someone had asked me for my opinion about the makeover, the body and dress were fine (from shapeless to fit & foxy), but oh, that hair!!! Why not really splashy blonde, or leave it alone, instead of that too-silvery highlighted frizz? And why no red lipstick? Lauren Bacall was right, she needed more color.

The bit of psychologizing between Barbra & Mom was effective as far as I was concerned, and I like seeing the potential it released in our Barbra. Overall - a B+ chickflick, a good resource if you can't watch any more Hugh Grant or Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan stories & need a nice sniffle.
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Wonderful dance movie
10 November 2003
I see a fair number of Bollywood movies (and this is not one, it is a dramatic story set in India, not a musical-format movie). In the Bollywood entertainment I love the singing and dancing, but also am aware that the dancing is at least in part derived from more exciting and powerful Indian dance forms. As much as I enjoy things as they are, I also often wish for the stronger medicine of the undiluted form as for me (non-Indian) the Indian-ness of Indian entertainment is part of what I am after.

Well -- here it is -- the real thing. In the course of telling a good story about a family where the parents are traditional dancers (the husband, who is less good, in defiance of his rich father's disapproval of this profession for a man), the movie allows us to witness well-filmed mind-blowingly fantastic performances by Shobana, who plays the mother and who is a stunningly talented dancer.

The kind of traditional dancing we see is called Bharata Natyam, and I easily found good information about it from a Google search, which you are better off doing yourself than having me try to summarize it.

The story, in brief: the fiancé of a modern Indian girl comes to visit her and her parents. The parents live in the museum-like house of the grandfather, who is now deceased (father's father).

During the visit a few things are going on: the girl is preparing, or being prepared by her mother, to give a big-deal dance performance, and we learn about her conflict about fulfilling her mother's dreams; and questions about the parents' history, and the reasons they stopped dancing, are bubbling to the surface. Artistic climaxes occur in grand performances by both the mother (in one of the flashbacks through which we gradually learn more of the family story) and the daughter. Dramatic climaxes I will leave to the viewer to experience when s/he sees this exceptional movie.
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