Wednesday, February 03, 2010


I'm beginning to suspect that I will never understand movies from India.

(Come on, say the obvious comeback out loud. You know you want to. Heck, I just did and laughed. It's not good to keep responses to obvious straight lines bottled up, you know!)

While I was walking back home from Rann, I pondered that Bollywood movies really are their own thing, to the point that even the people who only make it to a couple blockbusters a year mentally categorize movies as "American", "foreign", and "Bollywood". These folks likely haven't been exposed to enough to really have an idea of how different they are, and many probably don't consciously know that there's what amounts to an entirely separate distribution apparatus set up to get them to audiences away from the subcontinent, but just enough has seeped into the general consciousness to put these movies in a separate category.

Truth be told, I'm intensely jealous of that distribution system. Why the heck can't foreign movies from other places pop up in areas that have a local community large enough to support them, on the same day that they are released in their native land? I gather it's mainly because the money to be made from Miramax/IFC/Sony/Magnolia picking up one movie probably dwarfs the money that any individual Bollywood release makes here, and the negotiation is easier too. Would CJ Entertainment, Gaumont, or Toho rather deal with one contact who can get at least some of their movies onto shelves at Best Buy and maybe into boutique houses across the country, or would they rather deal with a different entrepreneur in each city and someone else to get their DVDs in ethnic grocery stores? It sounds like a pain.

I half-suspect that there's a cultural element to it, of course. I have no idea about the answer to this question, but do Indian-Americans maintain closer ties to their family and community back at home than, say, Korean-Americans, making them less interested in waiting (either for a US release or a DVD to stick in region-free players)? I have no idea.

What I do know is that watching these movies feels a lot more different to me than watching European, Japanese, or even Chinese movies (etc., etc.). Whenever I see one - admittedly, we're talking about a sample size of about four here - and talk about it, I talk about how Bollywood in general is different. I don't do that with movies from any other location. Part of it is the different culture, but is India that much more different than my usual experience than, say, Iran? I can generally just process Persian flicks as just another foreign movie, making note of the cultural differences but not feeling like I've got to re-learn how to watch movies.

I definitely do get that feeling with movies from India. It's brought into even sharper detail when I talk to the Indian-American folks in my office. Saying that I found Krrish kind of goofy didn't yield a "well, you can't judge it on the same standards as big Hollywood productions" or the like. These are fantastic movies. Brilliant, and without flaw.

And, no, I don't really see that. I keep finding reasons to snicker, and use words like "the musical cues of doom!!!", even on something meant to be as relatively serious as Rann


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (first-run)

Say "Bollywood", and most American audiences will think of cheerful musicals with weddings and happy endings. That's not likely to be the entirety of a large country's film output, of course, and Ram Gopal Varma has built a career in part on grittier material. He opens Rann with a terrorist bombing, but what follows is not a thriller - or, at least, not that sort of thriller.

The bombing is reported on by two major television news networks - the sensationalistic Headlines 24 and the more reserved India 24x7. The former is fronted and run by Amrish Kakkar (Mohnish Bahl), a former employee of the face and soul of India 24x7, Vijay Harshvardhan Malik (Amitabh Bachchan). India 24x7 is hurting financially, and Malik's son Jay (Sudeep), who has returned from America to run the business side of things, is looking for ways to keep the network afloat. His brother-in-law, industrialist Naveen Shankalya (Rajat Kapoor), offers him a way, by getting into bed with political opposition leader Mohan Pandey (Paresh Rawal), who proposes that a story discrediting Prime Minister Hooda would be almost unquestioned coming from the respected elder Malik. A potential problem with this scheme, though, is that India 24x7 has just hired a young reporter, Purab Shastri (Ritesh Deshmukh), who idolizes Vijay Malik and has the same ironclad ethics about reporting the news - and has a sense that something isn't right.

That's a lot, and that's not all that's going on - there's a subplot involving corporate espionage between the two networks, for instance, and another about Jay's love for a Muslim woman (Neetu Chandra). We spend a fair amount of time on the latter, enough for it to be a second heavy-handed social message, with Bachchan actually delivering two separate speeches about how Hindus and Muslims should get along and not fear each other. That's a lot, considering that the central theme of the film, that operating news reporting organizations with a profit motive does a terrible disservice to the people, only gets one. It's the biggest storyline and character that winds up seeming sort of extraneous by the end of the film, adding loose ends and ambiguity to a movie that really doesn't seem to be the ambiguous type.

As you might gather from the talk of speeches, this isn't a particularly subtle movie, perhaps not even by Bollywood standards. It is not just a vehicle for getting the audience to consider the story's messages, but Varma and writer Rohit G. Banawlikar are going to make absolutely sure that you don't miss them. That extends to just about every facet of the production. I'll readily admit that it may just be my relative ignorance, but Pandy seemed almost ridiculously "gangsta" for somebody leading a political party - he always wears tinted sunglasses, even during television interviews, walks around with an Uzi-toting entourage, and otherwise just screams "obvious criminal" (maybe a lot of perfectly nice folks have that look in India, but nobody else in the movie does). The music often works like a hammer, too; though this isn't a musical, there are plenty of songs with thudding hip-hop baselines on the soundtrack that tell you exactly what the movie wants you thinking, and especially during the first half, any line or shot that might be a surprise or a betrayal (no matter how small) is accompanied by the Musical Cues of Doom. The filmmakers at times can't seem to decide whether they want Rajpal Yadav's character to be satirical or broad comic relief.

For all that, there are definite signs of why Varma is one of India's more celebrated directors of crime and thrillers. He does a nice job giving each of the film's dozen or so significant characters time, especially splitting time between Vijay, Jay, and Purab so that none of them dominates the film at the expense of the others. When the conspiracy story takes off during the film's second half, it moves along at a brisk clip and seems neither too complicated nor too obvious. And while things often seem somewhat exaggerated or loud, Varma and company make the theatricality work, once the audience is settled into that mode of storytelling.

It's not a bad cast he's working with, either. Sudeep especially does a nice job of playing Jay as having both noble and unpleasant facets; it's an impressively complex character and charismatic performance. Ritesh Deshmukh has a certain charm as Purab, especially in his scenes with Gul Panag as his girlfriend Nadita. Neetu Chandra is one of those inhumanly beautiful actresses Bollywood produces on a frighteningly regular basis, but makes Yasmin one of the more grounded and familiar characters in the film. And while Amitabh Bachchan at times stiffens up a bit too much, he does give off the trustworthy aura that Vijay Malik must have.

With around two hours and twenty minutes to share among many characters and their stories, Rann falls into the trap of being overstuffed for a straightforward drama and feeling a little too small to be epic. It's not a bad film, though, and a good example of the more serious side of Indian cinema.

Also at EFC

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