Piku (2015)

Piku-poster-2

Shoojit Sircar’s Piku could be summarised as two hours of Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) and his shit, literal and figurative. He is a man obsessed with his ever-present constipation, and that and his intelllectual superiority are his favourite topics of conversation. Luckily there is more than just a constipated old man to this story and for me, Piku (Deepika Padukone) is the real heart of the film.

Bhaskor is well intentioned but domineering and contradictory. I found him slightly monstrous as his self-absorption is limitless, and for all his manners he is often unkind. He won’t let his daughter marry saying that is a ‘Low IQ’ thing to do and he wants more for her than to be a man’s wife, but he also insists she do as he says. On the one hand he talks about how much he loved his wife, then criticises her for being so unhappy (because he made her unhappy by marrying her). He introduces her to prospective suitors by telling them she isn’t a virgin, and asking if they have a problem with that. They mightn’t care, but for me his lack of empathy for Piku is very off putting. The family is loud and shouty, all of them totally obsessed with their bowels or Bhaskor’s motions, but there is no lack of love. Arguments get heated then suddenly devolve into giggles or reminiscences, a nicely realistic note.

Piku-Bhaskor

Amitabh effortlessly dominates the scenes he is in, even when he is sleeping. He does a little OVER!ACT!ING!, particularly towards the beginning of the film when Bhaskor is being set up as irascible and a bit quixotic. But when he hits his stride, he is delightful and charismatic. My favourite scene was when Bhaskor comes home from a party a little drunk. He puts on old records and starts dancing. At first he is playing to his judgemental daughter, twisting and mugging to get a laugh and stop her from telling him off. But then his moves change and he seems to have journeyed back to an earlier happier time, not even looking at Piku, as he gently dances to a much loved song. Her expressions are perfect as she moves from anger to concern to grudging amusement before sashaying back to her room, half dancing along. For me, that perfectly expressed the love and tension when the child becomes the caretaker and has to deal with their parents’ mortality.

At first I thought this was going down the path of a modern woman has to be an aggressive, unpleasant, and possibly slutty woman. But Piku is overruled by her father and his innards, her clients often ignore her design advice, and she has no one who will really listen so I can’t blame her for getting irritable. Piku is aware of how much her father’s needs and demands are shaping her days, but she is doing what she thinks is right so doesn’t feel bitter. Her love life is limited to the occasional hookup with her business partner Syed (Jisshu Sengupta) and she doesn’t invest time in notions of romance. At first glance Piku is abrasive, but Deepika is lovely, warm, and…real as she adds and removes layers to her character. The rapport between Piku and Rana develops slowly, borne by the conversations and observations of people stuck in a car with a cranky old man. He sees past her tough front, and she sees his apparent laziness is more of a weary pragmatism which she can relate to.

Irrfan (apparently he needs no surname these days) can be hit (Life in a Metro) or miss (do we all remember Krazzy 4?). This performance is a hit for me, and Rana suits his slightly offbeat delivery and everyman style. He and the Big B do indulge in one scene that is more like an improv no one knows how to end, but generally he concentrates on being Rana rather than on skills demonstrations. I felt Rana was a kind of proxy for the viewer as at first he is overwhelmed by Piku’s bolshy character, all the cacophony, and the incessant examination of digestive functions, but gradually he sees behind the bluster. He tries to offer advice and be helpful at home and at work, but his platitudes are rejected. It’s only when he gets real that he is heard. The nascent relationship between Piku and Rana is based on mutual understanding and respect and there is no insta-love personality transplant or makeover required.

Moushimi Chatterjee is a whirlwind as Piku’s Aunty, and brings some fun and a much needed opposing voice to Bhaskor’s benevolent dictatorship. Budhan (Balendra Singh) is a hapless servant, attending to all Bhaskor’s bathroom related chores. While I did laugh at some of his scenes, I could have lived without all the poo jokes.

Whistling in a soundtrack is generally an indicator of whimsy, which is not my most loved style. But apart from a propensity for emo guitar tweedling, Anupam Roy’s soundtrack suits the drama and the pared back style very well, and I enjoyed it and the songs used in the background.

Piku has a flavour of the middle cinema of the 70s; not realism but realistic. The characters felt like they had roots. While the cinematography was beautiful, it wasn’t distracting, more often giving the viewer a fly on the wall glimpse of what was going on. There were a few indulgently arty shots in Kolkata, but who could complain about that? Some of the dialogue feels improvised and Juhi Chaturvedi’s screenplay gives a distinct voice for each character, whether through their blend of languages or the formality of their speech.

Not much really happens in Piku, but all the characters go on a bit of a journey beyond the physical road trip. I laughed, the lady sitting next to me cried and we all did a bit of ‘you go girl’ affirmative nodding. See this for Deepika Padukone giving a fine performance as a modern, complex woman and for some late career Big B magic.

(Note: Maybe don’t see this if even mild toilet humour grosses you out.)

 

Bahu Begum (1967)

Bahu Begum-title

M Sadiq’s Bahu Begum opens with a happy song, featuring prettily dressed girls playing on swings in a rain drenched courtyard. But it stars Meena Kumari so you know things won’t stay on the bright side for long.

Melodramas are not always my cup of tea, but I like Ashok Kumar a lot and the lovely soundtrack has enduring appeal. And Bahu Begum places a heroine who lives a secluded and blameless life in a moral dilemma, and then pushes her out the door to see what might be. It’s not an uplifting girl power story at all, but there is a charm in the tone and the respect between key characters.

Yusuf (Pradeep Kumar) visits his friend Achchan (Johnny Walker) but his ulterior motive is to see the lovely Zeenat (Meena Kumari). Her family is not as wealthy as they once were and her father Nawab Mirza Sultan (D.K.Sapru) has rented half the house to Achchan. Achchan and Zeenat’s friend Bilqis (Zeb Rehman) help young love as much as they can. Bilqis is less theatrical than Achchan, but they both get results. Yusuf and Zeenat are flowery and poetic, and have more of an idealised love rather than a passionate attraction.

One fateful day Nawab Sikander Mirza (Ashok Kumar) accidentally sees Zeenat’s face and cannot help but look his fill. Sikander Mirza sends his man to present a proposal and at the same time Achchan asks Yusuf’s uncle to send a proposal. The uncle says yes but has no intention of surrendering his control over the estate or of marrying Yusuf off without a big dowry. He sends Yusuf away on a bogus business trip, timing his return for after Zeenat’s wedding. Zeenat only finds out about her wedding when her trousseau arrives, and no one thinks to mention the groom. All overheard conversations point to Yusuf so she assumes it has been fixed, and he himself is sure he is the one.

Bilqis breaks the news to Zeenat on her wedding day. Zeenat gets Bilqis to cover for her and slips away to where Yusuf should be waiting for her. The qawali sung in the dargah seems to be a direct challenge to her to face the tribulations but she cannot comprehend that her true love is not there. Zeenat passes out, regaining consciousness well after the wedding formalities have taken place. An empty palanquin was sent to the Nawab, and there is no bridge left unburned. Some time later Zeenat is found unconscious (again), this time by Naziranbai (Lalita Pawar) and one of her girls (Helen). They take her to the brothel (or whore house as my subtitles have it) as they would not abandon a stranger in need.

Zeenat hears Helen singing about straying from her intended path (the lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi seem to be very well linked in with the drama) and is drawn to the sadness in the song. It is not until a male guest sees her and waves a fan of banknotes that the penny drops about her current abode. Naziranbai throws the vulgar fellow out and the ladies bond over their miserable histories and a good cry. Zeenat asks for shelter in the brothel and Naziranbai promises to protect her so at worst I guess she would be a virgin prostitute (you know, the ones who only ever dance).

Sikander Mirza asks Naziranbai to send him a plausible fake wife so he can get his little sister Suraiya (Naaz) engaged. Of course, Zeenat is the only girl who can pass for decent. She and her ‘husband’ finally talk about what happened and it is a genuine conversation. I liked that when he asked her why she went to the brothel, meaning why did she throw her honour away, she was firm but polite saying she didn’t take herself there but the brothel that offered her refuge when no one else would. Suraiya guilt trips her fake sister-in-law into staying longer but once she is married, there is no reason for Zeenat to stay. Except that the Nawab loves her, and asks her to remain in his house for their shared honour if not for mutual affection. So of course Yusuf turns up because it is very important that he tell her all about his feelings. What will she do?

Meena Kumari is the tragedy queen, and Zeenat is like the Typhoid Mary of Tears. The longer people are around her, the more they cry. Everyone, at some stage, turns into a soggy mess. Well, except Helen.

Zeenat’s father loses the plot after one of her teary fits, Suraiya goes from manic pixie to weeping wreck. Even pragmatic businesswoman Naziranbai has a sob when proximity to Zeenat finally wears her down. I admired Meena’s ability to cry prettily without getting blotchy or running at the nose, and her makeup artist must have been on call around the clock. She does have some chemistry with Ashok Kumar but I think he could portray rapport with a cabbage so I am not sure who deserves the credit.

Bahu Begum-Ashok Kumar

Ashok Kumar plays Sikander Mirza with regal poise and excellent eyeliner. While the character is obsessed with honour, it is mostly in relation to ensuring his little sister has the opportunity for a good marriage and a happy life. He is not so blinded by his own prestige that he fails to consider Zeenat’s position and desires. There is a bit going on under the surface and Kumar shows the inner turmoil through beautifully judged facial expressions and the pauses and beats in his dialogue delivery.

I liked that the film showed a small space between being married and not, between doing what was right and maybe doing what you wanted. Even though Zeenat was unlikely to deviate from the norms, she could have. And to see her and Nawab Sikander Mirza thoughtfully considering that she had options was quite lovely, especially in the midst of so much heightened emotion and melodrama.

Pradeep Kumar has the charisma of a limp lettuce leaf but since Yusuf, like Zeenat, is more likely to recite a couplet than actually do anything I suppose that is a good fit. Once he learns of Zeenat’s betrayal he goes a bit Devdas, wallowing in self-pity and dramatic eye shadow.  Zeb Rehman is delightful as Bilqis, Zeenat’s mildly rebellious friend. Naaz is afflicted with a character that is either giggling or sobbing so she must have been exhausted at the end of every days shooting. And any film that gives Helen some lovely songs and pretty costumes is doing something right. Johnny Walker has a significant role in the drama but still manages to drag in the comedy sideplot complete with cock jokes and pratfalls.

The opulent sets and costumes give Bahu Begum a timeless quality as does the beautiful soundtrack by Roshan. I have no idea when the story is supposed to have taken place. I think Johnny Walker did slip into some Hinglish in one of his rants but other than that the dialogue is in Hindi and Urdu. I loved the house furnishings, the soft light streaming through draperies and screens and the measured way of life.

I have my issues with the way women are segregated and dismissed, but since this is a vintage film and possibly set in ye olden days I could step back from that a little. But if someone had just asked Zeenat if she wanted to get married and to who, the movie could have been over in one tear sodden hour and had room for a couple more songs. 3 stars!

Singapore (1960)

Singapore

Singapore may not be one of Shakti Samanta’s best films, given the gaping plot holes and rather slow start, but his first film with Shammi Kapoor still entertains with plenty of good songs and a competent support cast. Like many of Samanta’s early films, Singapore is a mystery thriller with the usual assortment of criminals willing to kidnap and murder to get away with their loot. Where it falls down is in trying to spin together too many threads with the underlying story rather lost beneath the extra flourishes. The additions also defuse much of the tension, which isn’t helped by a distinct lack of chemistry between Shammi and his co-star, with the result that the film initially feels rather flat. However Shammi’s uncharacteristic restraint doesn’t last for too long and there is plenty of his trademark craziness to liven up the final scenes.  Add in a dash of Helen, Shashikala and Padmini, the gorgeous Maria Menada and the exotic locale, and Singapore is worth at least a one-time watch.

The film opens with Ramesh (Gautam Mukherjee) and his girlfriend Shoba (Shashikala) meeting in a club in Singapore. As Shoba happily learns that Ramesh plans to stay in Singapore, their conversation is being closely followed by local gangsters Chang (Madan Puri) and Kapoor (Rajan Kapoor) at a nearby table. Also listening in, by way of a hidden microphone in the lamp is Shoba’s uncle Shivadas (K.N. Singh), but despite all this effort the only information Ramesh gives out is that he has found a treasure map and as a result won’t go ahead with the sale of his boss’s rubber plantation. That boss is Shyam (Shammi Kapoor) and later that night Ramesh finally manages to contact him by phone. However his conversation is interrupted by two shady characters that kidnap Ramesh, although they don’t manage to get their hands on the treasure map. Left to wonder what has happened to his friend, Shyam boards the next plane to Singapore, and the hunt is on!

Samanta does seem to delight in giving his characters rather ridiculous names, and Shyam is met at the airport by his company secretary Cha Choo (Agha) and in the office by the typist Chin Chin Choo (Lilian), which at least does invoke memories of Howrah Bridge. Shyam also meets Lata (Padmini) and initially confuses her with Shoba since he has been told that Ramesh’s girlfriend dances at the New India Club and naturally assumes that the dancer she sees is Shoba.  I’m not sure what the point of the confusion is, other than as an introduction to the family and as a way to ensure Padmini gets to dance. However it’s worth the convoluted storyline as Padmini does look absolutely gorgeous here and really shines when she is dancing.

While in Singapore, Shyam is also pursued by the beautiful Maria (Maria Menada) who met him on the flight from India. Maria seems overly interested in Shyam’s affairs, and since it’s revealed almost from the start that she is involved in the plot to steal the treasure I expected a little more from their relationship. However mostly this is just another complicating plot thread that has a lot of potential that is never fully realised, although Maria Menada is excellent as a villainess.

There has to be a love story of course, and Shyam and Lata fall for each other on their first meeting. There isn’t great chemistry between Padmini and Shammi, but they do have a couple of good songs together where there seems more empathy and at least they seem to be enjoying themselves. I love this one where they dance through a number of shops before Padmini pushes the dancers into the pool at the end, seeming totally delighted as each one drops into the water while Shammi prances along behind her. Oh My indeed!

Meanwhile, Shyam is still trying to find Ramesh and uses the tape recording of their last phone conversation to track down a musical cigarette case which may have the answer. This part of the plot is perfect – naturally Ramesh records all his phone calls, and why wouldn’t a cigarette case in the shape of a Vat 69 bottle also be musical – but once Shyam finds the map things start to get unnecessarily complicated. This slows down the action and the film starts to drag while various embellishments are added to the plot.

Shyam uses the map as bait to try to lure out the kidnappers, and in the ensuing chase has to hide out from some of the gang in a village. Obviously he has to escape their notice and what better way to remain inconspicuous than to dance and sing with Helen? Naturally this is the best way to escape detection!

Shoba is kidnapped too and there is a convoluted thread involving Shivadas who may or may not be dead, although it doesn’t really seem to matter in the end.  Eventually Shyam infiltrates the gang as an assassin from Kabul, which gives Shammi licence to unleash the crazy and the pace of the film finally picks up. I wish the energy in the last scenes could have been present for the whole film, but at least  the film ends on a suitably chaotic note with the inconsistencies in the plot swiftly swept aside to concentrate on the final action sequences.

The main reason to watch Singapore is of course Shammi, who looks fantastic throughout whether he’s romancing Lata, cavorting around the dance floor in disguise or fighting off numerous villains as required. His Shyam is suave and sophisticated, romancing the ladies while out and about in Singapore and easily charming Lata on one hand while elegantly turning down Maria on the other. At least until his disguise kicks in, when he becomes totally OTT Shammi and revels in his persona as a gun for hire. My favourite kind of Shammi!

The support cast are all solid, despite the erratic storyline and gaping plot holes, and Agha is impressively competent as Shyam’s sidekick.  I can’t remember noticing him much in other films of the era, but here he provides some gentle comedy without disrupting the flow or resorting to slapstick. Padmini looks gorgeous and at least has a couple of good dance numbers even though disappointingly her character has very little to do in the second half. Although Singapore isn’t a film I will watch over and over again like Chinatown, I do like the songs from Shankar-Jaikishan, particularly those included here along with Tum Lakh Chhoopana Chahoge, Tu Kahan Kho Gaya and Dhoka Khayegi Na Yaron Ki Nazar for some classic Shammi dance-floor magic. As I said at the start, not one of Samanta or Shammi’s best films, but there is still enough to enjoy to make Singapore worth a watch. 3 stars.

Funky Bollywood

Funky Bollywood_Cover art

Funky Bollywood – The wild world of 1970s Indian action cinema (A selective guide)

I was chuffed when Todd Stadtman kindly sent me a review copy of his book. Not just because the book is fabulous (What a relief! I don’t have to be polite – it is really well done!), but also because Todd is the reason I first watched Pistolwali. A debt of gratitude of such magnitude is nigh impossible to repay.

 

Stadtman intends Funky Bollywood to be ‘the “gateway drug” into the world of Indian action cinema’, which is one of my favourite worlds. If you don’t know where to start, Todd’s guide could help you decide how to first dip a toe into the waters. If you’ve been there done that, enjoy the quips and asides as you spend time with some familiar faces.

Saturated with colour and illustrations, dotted with random facts and wry observations, the book has one thing that a masala film can often lack. Logic and structure. Opening chapters give a brief overview of the who’s who of the era, and has an excellent additional feature I would like all DVD manufacturers to adopt post haste; symbols representing recurring themes found in each film.

Funky Bollywood_The Key

Imagine how simple it would make selecting a film if you could pick the one with Helen, a lair and some separated siblings? I know that around 60% of the time you could select ANY 70s Indian action film and get that combination but sometimes I don’t want to take a punt. Amusing and insightful reviews of select film make up the remaining chapters.

Todd’s glee at the best (and not at all the best) films of the era leaps off the page. It’s a little like watching a film with a friend who knows what’s going to happen next and can’t wait to see your reaction. I particularly enjoyed the section on spy films and westerns as they also included a few of my Telugu favourites. There is a persistent spelling error (Telegu for Telugu) that belies the detailed and well researched content, which made me a little sad. But this is clearly a labour of love and a lot of attention has gone into every page.

Funky Bollywood_insightful

Like a really good masala film, Funky Bollywood is wildly entertaining and you might even learn something along the way (probably nothing to do with medicine or science, but other stuff). My cunning plan is to leave it lying around at home and wait for the unwary visitor to pick it up. I’ll have Parvarish in the DVD player before they know what hit them!

If you’d like your own copy, it’s available on Amazon or via the publishers Fab Press. And do pop over to the official Facebook page and say hi to Todd!

99 (2009)

99-Poster I generally enjoy heist or caper type films, and 99 is a fairly good example of the things I like most about the genre. Raj and DK have a keen eye for the little moments of absurdity and joy that pepper our lives, and the characters in 99 have hopes and schemes that are real world sized. Their ambitions fit within their neighbourhood – a really good coffee shop, a fresh start, a comfortable life with no running from the cops. Empathising with their flaws and stupid choices comes a little more easily when the dreams are so relatable. 99-the plan Sachin (Kunal Khemu) and Zaramud (Cyrus Broacha) are small time crims, working a technology angle rather than being standover merchants. They see themselves as perpetrating a victimless crime in a situation where nobody really gets hurt and lots of people benefit. Things go awry, as they often do, and while running from the police they steal and crash a Merc belonging to AGM (Mahesh Manjrekar).

AGM is an old school boss, the kind of bookie that newspapers here would have called a colourful racing identity. Rahul (Boman Irani) is separated from his wife, probably because of his gambling addiction. He keeps bargaining with God to win another hand, win another bet, and thinks he can beat the house. He places a bet on the cricket while having his own away game on conference in Mumbai, and is referred to AGM as his bookie. He goes home to Delhi, skipping out on the debt.

AGM sends Sachin and Zaramud to Delhi to recover the losses from Rahul, part of their agreement to work off their debt. Another character says they looked like Laurel and Hardy, and they do have about the same degree of acuity. Sachin uses AGM’s credit card to put himself up at a fancy hotel and meets duty manager Pooja (Soha Ali Khan). In between waiting around and menacing Rahul, he romances Pooja and generally looks on the bright side.

Rahul wants to win one more big bet to settle all his debts and maybe even get his wife back. The boys won’t wait, and they steal the money he is ‘borrowing’ from a client to settle the outstanding. But in a classic Delhi taxi scam their bags, including The Bag, are stolen. Rahul and Laurel and Hardy team up to win back the cash in another bet on the cricket finals, targeting high-roller JC (Vinod Khanna) as the key to success. The game is afoot! The cricket theme permeates all aspects of the characters’ lives. They’re all stuck on 99, waiting for the opportunity to make their century and claim success. None of them wants world domination or is chasing the money just for the sake of it, except maybe Rahul, they just want to get ahead. The match fixing scandal of 1999-2000 is well known so that adds another dimension as honest crooks rely on a match controlled by bigger crooks.

Kunal Khemu has a boyish charm that works well for Sachin, who isn’t the brightest crayon in the box. He and Cyrus Broacha have an easy chemistry that makes their scenes seem fresh even though the plot direction may be predictable. I could be underestimating Sachin as the subtitle team were a law unto themselves and even I know enough Hindi to know some dialogue was a bit mystifying. The boys make it up as they go and I enjoyed their antics as they tried to stay one step ahead of all their pursuers.

Boman Irani is quite restrained in terms of comedy excesses, but doesn’t shy away from showing Rahul as a jerk who will lie and wheedle his way out of trouble. He’s kind of seedy but respectable at the same time, an average man with a secret addiction. He is plausible and can be charming but there is a glint in his eye whenever he sees a chance. Rahul never learned any lasting lesson, but continued to coast on his luck and maybe God coming through on a bet or two.

Soha Ali Khan is adequate but for a film that works hard to build a little world, Pooja’s character is a bit lacking. I would have liked to see more of Pooja’s own decision making articulated. Initially she only agreed to help because Sachin whined at her, and while she did strike her own deal I didn’t really get why she would even consider getting involved to begin with. Simone Singh plays Jahnavi, Rahul’s wife. Like Pooja, although she is set up as a smart and down to earth woman there is little sense of anything about her other than her tension with Rahul. I didn’t have so many quibbles the first time I watched the film, but on a repeat viewing I felt that they existed to provide a foil for the relevant male character and not much else.

Vinod Khanna is perfectly cast as the smooth, slightly larger than life, JC. He is understated but faintly menacing under all the expensive charm. Amit Mistry and Pitobash round out the supporting cast with an entertaining blend of comedy, histrionics and sharp eyed opportunism. The soundtrack by Ashu is more bland than not, and quite formulaic – the whimsical acoustic song, the bhangra number, the sights of Delhi song, you know the drill. But they are integrated into the drama well and don’t derail the story at all. The song montages were often quite entertaining and let Raj and DK get a lot of slapstick out of their systems without dragging the main narrative down.

I hate to sound all hipster about Raj and DK but I do prefer their earlier stuff (I wasn’t blown away by Go Goa Gone) and 99 is lots of fun. While I am slightly disappointed with the female characters I genuinely like the good natured feel, the slightly dodgy characters, and the great use of locations. Even the opening titles incorporate the cast in the locations and foreshadow the twists and turns with some quirky angles and animation. The jokes take a swipe at everything from intercity rivalries to the film industry, and there are some zingy one liners courtesy of writers Raj and DK with Sita Menon. Of recent films in a similar genre I slightly prefer Ko Antey Koti and Delhi Belly, but I really have no complaints about spending a couple of hours in 1999 with these dudes. See it for a good modern robbers and more robbers caper with an appealing cast and a sense of humour about itself. 3 ½ stars!