Hyderabad Blues (1998)

Hyderabad-Blues-title

Hyderabad Blues opens with a montage of Hyderabad landmarks and the usual sights of men pissing and spitting, cows wandering the streets – the stuff any first time visitor to India would notice. Varun narrates, his American accented English sounding slightly Zoolander-ish; ‘As scared as anyone would be in a foreign land – but wait a minute, this is my home’. He has to be coached on meeting relatives, what to say to a servant, who everyone is, and he feels caught betwixt and between.

Varun (Nagesh Kukunoor) is health conscious and snooty – his mum is determined to feed him up but he can’t stand the high fat high carb meals. He droops around the house looking disgruntled and superior. His mates rib him about his bad attitude and encourage him to remember how things are in India. Harish (Anoop Ratnaker Rao) is married and Sanjeev (Vikram Inamdar) will be soon. Most of his time with friends consists of happy reminiscing over the past but when they talk of current times the differences are apparent and there is lots of “Fuck you man!” Kukunoor produced, wrote, and directed the film on a shoestring, and cast himself in the lead. He sounds like he is just reading the script with little modulation in his voice. His performance is among the weakest and the character is self-centred and often obnoxious, so the sympathy I had for Varun evaporated quite quickly. (I thought that about his appearance in Dor as well.)

Sanjeev says arranged marriage makes him the king as he can chose whoever he wants and since Varun views his marriage as solely his choice I don’t think they are really so different. Varun fancies a friend of Sanjeev’s selected bride Seema (the ebullient Elahe Hiptoola), and asks for an introduction.

Ashwini (Rajshri Nair) is a doctor. Despite his progressive foreign ideas Varun is both surprised at a woman being a doctor and dismissive of her ability since she got in on a seat reserved for women. They celebrate Holi with friends and Ashwini takes bhang to be rebellious. While she is off her nut, Varun takes advantage to ask the most important question in his life – why doesn’t she like him as much as she should? She calls him out on his contempt for Indians and his put on foreign airs and stupid accent, calling him a pseud. She believes he expects all dates to end in sex, and she is not interested in being a notch on his belt. But they make a date to see Hum Apke Hain Kaun (13 songs! He must fancy her!). Rajshri Nair is generally quite good and her girl next door look suits Ashwini. There are abrupt shifts in tone required by the dialogue and she is shrill and over the top in some of the more explosive moments. She is much more effective in the scenes when Ashwini is joking around with her friend Seema or in the conversational interludes between arguments with Varun.

I liked the setting for the story. People are ordinary middle class, and live normal relatable lives. They play out the large and small rituals of life; weddings, funerals, cleaning, preparing food, and conversations that sound like duets of well rehearsed lines. I liked the mix of languages as people would start a conversation in Telugu, wander into Hindi and end with English. It’s a familiar sound to me and also helped define the characters as on more serious topics people reverted to their preferred language and cadence. Some of the one-liners are quite witty and the family rivalries and bragging about whose son was better added some levity. There are nice touches as Varun starts to soften or reconnect with his culture, like when he deigns to offer money at a shrine and then dashes back to make sure he left an odd amount just like his mother told him. I liked seeing the little bit of playfulness as Seema and Sanjeev completed their wedding formalities and the way these details added depth to the characters and relationships. The clash of generations and of different cultural influences is interesting and I know so many of my friends have gone through similar experiences so I expected to love the film. But between some dodgy plot development, Varun’s endless whining, and Kukunoor’s suboptimal acting, too many things tried my patience.

I really liked that the relationship is not plain sailing and Varun has to work to win Ashwini over. His parents object as Ashwini is a different caste and they had several someone elses in mind. Ashwini and Varun meet daily at the hospital and she says they will be the subject of gossip and that she does worry to an extent as she needs to live her life once he has returned to the US. She also tells him he is probably just another NRI coming to find a maid/slave/wife. He says he is different but he is confused about what he wants and where they would make their home. Ashwini scolds him for assuming she would want to marry him (and that he hasn’t asked) and for also assuming she would just leave everything she has in India and follow him. It’s fair enough that he doesn’t want to throw away 12 years of hard work, but he doesn’t extend the same courtesy to her.

But while Ashwini opens up about her fears and hopes and how she thinks the cultural gap is just too big to bridge, Varun strikes a more adolescent note. He and Sanjeev have a lame running gag about wanking and they constantly leer at Shashi Aunty and her precariously draped pallu. Varun has a track record that inspires scorn and envy from his mates. But then Varun likens Sanjeev’s wedding night to a drunken one nighter as he has only just met his partner, and Sanju is (understandably) pissed off. Harish and Sanju don’t seem to think sex outside of marriage is an option and caution Varun about treating Ashwini lightly. When she pushes Varun away mid-kiss he cracks it as that must be a sign of backwards values, not her preference or a reflection on his kissing. It was interesting that Varun could be disparaging of custom and society, but when Ashwini’s criticism of culture was directed at her father, Varun came to his defence saying you couldn’t ignore 5000 years of tradition and that her dad did his best. Hmmm. Sounds like a typical manchild to me!

The resolution to the on again off again romance is totally filmi and not really in a good way. I was disappointed after the relatively realistic build up that too many people acted in a way that was inconsistent with their previous behaviour. I appreciate the challenge of making an indie film, especially in an industry that is geared towards formulaic blockbusters, so Nagesh Kukunoor deserves credit for getting his film out there (even if I don’t think he deserves any for his acting). But for me there are some substantial negatives in the acting and the story that are detrimental to the overall quality. The movie is on YouTube with subs. 3 stars.

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