Posts filed under ‘india’

The Thrill of It All: Raj Kapoor at the Pacific Film Archive

Raj Kapoor, vagabonding, Shree 420, 1955

Starting this week and running from July 19-Aug. 11, the Pacific Film Archive plays host to The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema, a six-film series of classic Bollywood films by Raj Kapoor, the superstar actor and director whose career spanned six decades. Beginning in the 1930s Kapoor was involved in dozens of films and his popularity in India gained him the nickname “The Great Showman.” He’s probably best known for his lovable tramp persona, modeled in part on Charlie Chaplin’s famous screen character, and he made some of India’s most popular films of the 20th century.

Kapoor began his career in 1935 at the age of 11—his breakthrough film was Neel Kamai in 1947. Many other hit films followed and by the time of his death he was revered as one of the kings of Hindi-language cinema—he acted in as well as directed, produced, and marketed many of his films. Handsome and photogenic, with wavy dark hair and blue eyes, and with a nimble physical grace and keen comic timing, Kapoor was made for the silver screen. As is often the case in India, several of his family members are also members of the Bollywood pantheon including his father Prithviraj, brothers Shashi and Shammi, sons Rishi and Randhir, and grandchildren Karisma, Kareena, and Ranbir Kapoor.

The PFA series is a nice sampler of his work, with films ranging from Aag (1948) to the Kapoor-directed Bobby (starring his fresh-faced son Rishi) from 1974. The films are lovely fables about life, love, and humanity, with Kapoor as the everyman searching for meaning and beauty amidst the chaos of modern times.

Nargis & Raj 4-ever, Barsaat, 1949

Barsaat (1949) stars Kapoor and Premnath as friends who woo two country girls, with Kapoor’s violin-playing idealist looking for love while Premnath looks for recreation. Nargis (who later starred in Mother India) was Kapoor’s real-life extramarital squeeze and she appears in five of the six films in the PFA series. In Barsaat she plays Kapoor’s romantic muse and the chemistry between the two is palpable, reflecting their torrid offscreen relationship.

I watched a DVD screener of Barsaat and even in that degraded format the cinematography was pretty stunning. Despite the fact that it was clearly shot partially on location and partially on a soundstage, the film successfully blends the two visual styles, creating dreamlike mix of realism and artifice. The film also artfully alternates between diegetic and non-diegetic music, further enhancing its surreal, mythical feel.

In Shree 420 (1955), Kapoor in full-on tramp mode is charming and entirely watchable. His lovable rube, also named Raj, wanders the mean streets of Bombay, where, as one character states, “high buildings are made of cement, people have hearts of stone, and only one thing is sacred, that’s money. ” The number 420 in the film’s title refers to the section in the Indian penal code dealing with theft, and literally translates as “Mr. 420,” or respectable thief. Written by K.A. Abbas (a well-known figure in India’s “parallel,” or neo-realist, film community), the movie is an interesting critique of unbridled capitalism, portraying the wealthy as unethical, venal predators who ruthlessly exploit the poor.

Kapoor’s innocent character is seduced by the corruption of the big city, much to the dismay of his love interest, the right-minded and honorable Vidya, played by Nargis. Much like her similar character in Barsaat, Nargis’ Vidya is the film’s moral center, using her expressive eyes and virtuous bearing to great effect.

Despite the harsh realities of life in the big city, Raj finds small kindnesses from the other poor and working-class folks he encounters—a matronly fruit-seller gives him free bananas and, after a brief misunderstanding, his fellow street-dwellers welcome him into their midst. The film’s climax evokes Frank Capra at his populist best, as Kapoor rages against the machine and rallies the downtrodden.

Get your motor runnin’, Rishi & Dimple, Bobby, 1974

Bobby (1974), directed by Kapoor, was the first Indian film to feature the now-familiar Bollywood premise of young protagonists defying tradition in the name of love. Baby-faced Rishi Kapoor, his character named Raja (Hindi for “prince”), and sixteen-year-old Dimple Kapadia play out the classic rich boy/poor girl storyline, challenging the status quo with their caste-busting romance. The film reflects the youth rebellion sweeping the world at the time and at one point, astride a motorbike and dressed in leathers, Rishi Kapoor actually resembles Peter Fonda. Both of the filmic fathers (one played with great zest by Premnath from Barsaat, here with a middle-aged paunch) are tigers, loudly and insistently battling it out for top cat. As is fitting its 1970s release the costume design is amazing, with Rishi in red velour jumpsuits, long striped scarves, and turquoise bell-bottoms.

The film, which takes the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s and filters it through a distinctively Bollywood lens, was the first Hindi-language film to focus on young love, and Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia ably fulfill their roles as the passionately yearning teen couple. Interestingly enough, many years later in his middle age Rishi Kapoor played a similar role in the 2009 film Love Aaj Kal, as a man who overcomes parental and societal pressure in order to pursue his true love.

The PFA series also includes Awaara (1951) another of Kapoor’s renderings of his famous little tramp character, Boot Polish (1954), and Aag (1948), Kapoor’s directorial debut. All three were available on preview DVDs but I instead decided to wait to see them on the big screen, as they should be. I’m sure I won’t regret it.

The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema

July 19-Aug. 11, 2012

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way

Berkeley, CA 94720

(510) 642-1124

July 20, 2012 at 7:48 am 1 comment

Slippin’ Into Darkness: Agneepath and The Viral Factor film reviews

Hrithik Roshan, tattered, Agneepath, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex last week—both of the number one movies in China and in India were playing simultaneously at Bay Area theaters. The Viral Factor, director Dante Lam’s latest actioner, and Agneepath, a remake of a classic 1990s Bollywood revenge drama, both made their way to the U.S. with day-and-date releases in the U.S. and their respective countries of origin.

Agneepath, starring the remarkably hot and handsome Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan, set a record for highest opening day grosses in India and is on its was to joining the 100 crores club, along with blockbusters like Aamir Khan’s Three Idiots and Ghajini, Shahrukh Khan’s Ra.One and Don 2, and Salman Khan’s Bodyguard and Dabangg.

The flick is an old-school vengeance story with new-school stars, including the aforementioned Hrithik, pouty-lipped former Miss World Priyanka Chopra, and hulking villain Sanjay Dutt. It also features an item number with another rising star, Katrina Kaif, who shows off her amazing articulated torso in a fast-paced dance sequence.

The original Agneepath is a cult classic in India and stars OG bad boy Amitabh Bachchan. Both the original and the remake take their title from a well-known poem written by Bachchan’s father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, and it’s featured prominently in both films. Agneepath roughly translates as “the path of fire,” referring to persevering in the face of great struggle.

Sanjay Dutt, evil, Agneepath, 2012

In the new Agneepath the intensity is turned to up eleven for the duration as first-time director Karan Malhotra brings the high melodrama on a grand scale, including child slavery, beatings and hangings, tattooed villains both bald and hairy, machete-wielding transvestites, and a bride who gets gunned down on her wedding day. Not to mention Hrithik Roshan’s smoldering green eyes simmering with rage throughout the movie. At the plex where I watched the show with a mixed crowd of both desi and non-desi audience members, the stoned teenager in the projection booth had jacked up the theater’s volume to “deafening,” but this only suited the movie’s thundering score and accentuated the general more-ness of the storyline.

In contrast to the theatrics of the plot, Hrithik turns in a subtle, intense performance as the tortured hero bent on avenging his father’s wrongful death. Despite being astoundingly hot, as always Hrithik’s on-screen persona is fairly low-key, downplaying his tousled hair and perfect profile. He’s the dreamboat with a heart of gold who is incredibly handsome, cut and toned, yet remarkably unassuming. At the show I attended, Roshan’s first appearance thirty minutes into the movie was greeted by an elated fan calling out, “I love you, baby!” Her sentiment was quickly echoed by a happy murmur from most of the female viewers in the audience.

Producer Karan Johar’s Sirkian aesthetic is all over this one, thought it’s nominally directed by Karan Malhotra. The film’s emotional palette is completely saturated, with every scene staged for maximum dramatic effect. Yet despite the overall fever pitch, some sequences manage to stand out, including a harrowing lynching that sets the dark and violent tone of the film, and a gorgeous orange-toned set piece that takes place during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Malhotra makes excellent use of the festival’s spectacle, skillfully intercutting the riotously colorful celebration with a cat-and-mouse assassination attempt. The film’s sleek production values, its gorgeous and charismatic leading man, and its bloody tale of violent retribution make it a good candidate for crossover success in the U.S. and worldwide.

Nic Tse, misunderstood, The Viral Factor, 2012

The Viral Factor, China’s number one movie last week, is a horse of a slightly different color. Part intense and violent actioner, part family melodrama, and part reunification allegory, the film boasts an amazing amount of property and vehicle destruction, and copious quantities of flying bullets, sheared-off limbs, and characters leaping from high ledges. In other words, it’s a typical Dante Lam movie.

The story concerns a pair of estranged brothers, one raised in Hong Kong by his father, and one raised in China by his mother, who of course end up on opposite sides of the law. Fai, the cop, stiffly played by Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou, and Yeung, the thief, more energetically rendered by Hong Kong pop superstar Nicholas Tse, meet cute after Yeung busts out of police custody in Malaysia. Intertwined with their nascent reunion is a plot involving a mutant smallpox virus, corrupt cops, and a sleek English-speaking gangster clumsily played by Andy On (here billed as Andy Tien).

Jay Chou, cornered, The Viral Factor, 2012

Director Lam keeps the pace cracking throughout, starting with a blistering car chase and shootout in the streets of Jordan—clearly someone’s been watching The Hurt Locker. Yet in true Hong Kong style the action sequences, smartly choreographed by Chin Kar-lok, are interspersed with a melodramatic family subplot. The hoary cop-criminal brothers theme has a long and venerable history in Hong Kong action movies, perhaps most notably essayed by Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung in A Better Tomorrow. Here the conflict is much less dramatically rendered, in part because neither Jay Chou nor Nic Tse possess the passion, chops, or sheer charisma of either Chow or Cheung, and as such the brotherly relationship is more friendly than fraught. Tse manages to be convincing as the hotheaded criminal, despite his slight and wiry stature, but Chou doesn’t bring a lot to his role as the cop. Without much fraternal tension the familial dynamics don’t possess a huge amount of urgency, so the storyline’s resolution ultimately lacks impact.

But the action sequences more than make up for this dramatic slackness, and veteran director Lam makes excellent use of enclosed spaces full of whizzing bullets, hand grenades, and sharp objects. As with his two previous films, The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon (both of which also star Nic Tse), all of the lead characters suffer grievous bodily harm from car wrecks, gunfire, blunt force, and other physical trauma, with each eventually sporting the facial scars that have lately become Lam’s signature. Although he handles the fancier set pieces effectively, including a helicopter chase that weaves through a dense jungle of skyscrapers, Lam seems most at home down in the mean streets of Kuala Lumpur. It’s there that the film really gains some traction, with corrupt cops and scraggly gangsters populating neon-lit outdoor food stalls not unlike those found in Lam’s native Hong Kong. Along with Herman Yau, Lam is one of the few directors in the former Crown Colony still making streetwise commercial cinema, and the success of The Viral Factor both at home and abroad will hopefully enable him to find future financing for his gritty, kinetic Hong Kong-style movies.

Bonus beats: Here’s a clip of Chikni Chameli from Agneepath with Katrina Kaif and her amazingly flexible abs. Props for lighting a match on her forearm. Also includes nice cutaways of Hrithik brooding prettily and Sanjay Dutt getting his mean on.

February 3, 2012 at 8:39 am 4 comments

It Could Be Sweet: 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

A Letter of Fire, 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

This Wednesday sees the opening of the 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival here in San Francisco, which is one of the best chances to see local theatrical screenings of films from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the South Asian diaspora. The festival primarily focuses on movies outside of Bollywood’s massive scope, including documentary, narrative, experimental and short films.

According to 2010 U.S. census data, South Asians are the fastest growing Asian American subgroup and have surpassed Filipino Americans as the second-largest Asian American ethnicity. In California the Indian American community grew an amazing 68% between 2000 and 2010, to more than half a million people statewide. This population growth is reflected in the increasing desi flava in pop culture, from banal TV sitcoms like Outsourced to Das Racist showing up on the cover of Spin magazine.

Not to conflate an entire subcontinent’s creative outlet, but since Slumdog Millionaire won big at the Academy Awards back in 2009, the profile of South Asian films has also increased here in the US. Of course Indian-centric theaters such as the Big Cinemas multiplex in Fremont have been showing Indian movies for years, but since Slumdog ran the table at the Oscars, Hindi-language movies have been making more appearances at mainstream cinemas. Just last week, Shah Rukh Khan’s deliriously escapist sci-fi superhero movie Ra.One opened in select theaters across the U.S. and scored the highest per-screen gross of any film that weekend, beating out Puss In Boots and other Hollywood releases.

The Third I festival brings an eclectic mix of films to the Roxie and Castro Theaters. Opening night film Big In Bollywood is a fun, energetic documentary that captures some of the star mania of the commercial Indian movie industry. The movie looks at the experiences of Indian American actor Omi Vaidya, whose meteoric rise to fame in India follows a supporting role in Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots, the highest grossing film of all time in India. Vaidya’s small but popular role allowed him a taste of the fanatical devotion Indians have for their film stars as the documentary follows Vaidya from his home in Los Angeles to the Mumbai premiere of 3 Idiots. The doc captures the rapid escalation of Vaidya’s public profile as the film smashes Indian box office records. At one point Vaidya makes an appearance to what looks like about 5,000 cheering fans lining several city blocks, reprising some of his lines from the film as the massive throng wildly cheers him on.

Disheveled Imran Khan, Delhi Belly, 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

The festival’s centerpiece movie, Delhi Belly, exemplifies a new breed of Bollywood movies far removed from the conventional Hindi-language film industry. A hilarious, fast-paced, and vulgar flick, Delhi Belly follows the misadventures of three twenty-something slackers as they chase down jewel smugglers, gangsters, and other marginal denizens in India’s capital city, with one of the main characters fighting the severe gastrointestinal dysfunction that gives the movie its name. Running a tidy two hours, the film has none of the song-and-dance numbers for which Bollywood is reknowned (except for one tongue-in-cheek OTT production over the end credits that guest-stars executive producer Aamir Khan) and owes more to The Hangover than Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

Indian American actor-director Ajay Naidu debut feature Ashes gives a desi spin to the venerable gangster genre. Set in New York City, the film follows a small-time pot dealer (also portrayed by Naidu) as he struggles care for his mentally ill brother while trying to resist falling deeper into the vortex of New York’s underworld.

Dhanush & friend, Pudhupettai, 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

Closing the festival is the awesome-looking Tamil-language crime thriller Pudhupettai, starring the intense and feral Dhanush, which follows the rise of a Chennai gang lord. As seen in the clip below, the film manages to be gritty and realistic while also including outstanding dance numbers. Also notable are Vipin Vijay’s surreal feature length experimental narrative The Image Threads, and  A Letter of Fire, Asoka Handagama’s gorgeous drama of a wealthy, twisted family in Sri Lanka. The festival also features two programs, The Boxing Ladies + Shorts: Gender/Sexuality in Frame, and The Family Circus: Local Shorts, which showcase often-overlooked short films.

While South Asian films have yet to completely break through to the mainstream in the U.S., the Third I festival is an excellent opportunity to see the wide range of production from the region and beyond, reflecting the growing desi influence in this country’s cultural landscape.

The 9th Annual 3rd I San Francisco South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF),

November 10-13, 2011

Roxie Cinema & Castro Theater

Tickets, complete schedule, and film descriptions here.

Brilliant dance number from Pudhupettai, 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

November 9, 2011 at 6:16 am 2 comments


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