Dharam Veer

Sometimes in a world full of mean spirited decision making and demonstrations of crushing privilege it really does the soul good to see some unambiguous comeuppances and outrageous costumes. This being a Desai film, I got my wish. But the exercise of privilege and bad decision making was never too far away, although usually dressed up in fabulous boots and an explosion of ruffles.

However. The very sensible and worthy women in this film get short shrift and I did have the occasional moment of murderous rage.

Princess Meenakshi (Indrani Mukherjee) is out in her gilded chariot, searching for game to hunt. She spies a stuffed tiger on a rock in the river and goes to kill it even more. Villains appear, paid off by her brother Satpal Singh (Jeevan, aka Creepy Jeevan). Just as her death seems imminent, a stranger appears. The unknown warrior is Jwala (Pran!), who had been alerted to the kerfuffle by his trusty falcon Sheroo (Sheroo). Meenakshi offers him any reward he names, and he names her. Jwala has been harbouring a secret love for the princess, and had made a hideous statue of her. She is a woman who believes in keeping her word, and I think was swayed by his artistic flair, and they marry there and then with the fire as their witness.

Then follows some tiger wrestling, a misidentified corpse, and Meenakshi becoming catatonic with shock.

She remains in shock long enough for her father to get her married off to Pratap Singh (Pradeep Kumar) who says he doesn’t mind that she is basically a living doll.

How good was Pratap Singh to stop her killing herself, and accepting that she had an heir in the oven while acknowledging that he had no right over Meenakshi’s body. But how does a headache provide a pregnancy diagnosis? But how creepy is Pratap Singh to marry an unconscious woman and plan to consummate the marriage. You know you’re in a topsy turvy world when that is one of the good guys.

Satpal Singh steps up his efforts to rid himself of rivals and avoid unpleasant destiny. More bad decisions help the chaos along and babies are swapped, swapped again, and face near certain death. It’s only about 20 minutes in the movie at this stage and already there is so much plot.

Question: If you picked up a baby swaddled in red velvet who had been delivered by a falcon, and you worked for the palace that was awash with rumours of a baby swaddled in red velvet who had been stolen by a falcon, would you not put two and two together? I’m not blaming Sheroo for protecting his family. But come on humans!

In what represents the present day Meenakshi’s babies have grown up (a lot) to be Dharam (Dharmendra) the adopted son of the blacksmith, and Veer (Jeetendra) the prince.

And Satpal’s son Ranjeet Singh is played by Ranjeet so you already know all you need to know about him. But here are some of his many moods.

Will Dharam and Veer ever find out they’re twins, not just bromantic soulmates? Will Ranjeet ever meet a woman without trying to rape her? Will the family be reunited, true love win, and villains get their just deserts? Whose couture will reign supreme? And what of highly intelligent and faithful Sheroo?

The heroes are the least interesting people in the film, which may explain the costume choices. If you lack substance, add more ruffles. Perhaps a fringed leather mini dress will distract from the absence of matter between your ears. They have some cracking dialogues, especially when their friendship is under strain and Dharam calls Veer out on his privilege. But they also do bad comedy costumes and behave boorishly to the people they supposedly love. Pran is my pick of the heroic litter. His costumes and wigs are a sight, he has a sparkle in his eye when he leaps into the fray, and he has integrity. He isn’t great at decision making, but who is in this world. Luckily Desai amped up the action with jousting, gladiator style fights, and pirate action on shonky looking ships so there is no need for nuanced acting. Now if 80’s Chiranjeevi had some of these fancy duds added to his wardrobe, I’d be delighted. There might be some boot plagiarism afoot as this is a Megastar-less Megaboot treasure trove.

Meenakshi is a stickler for the law and honour but she understands her son and sees through his flouncing. Her weakness is that she expects everyone to be as honourable as she is. And Indrani Mukherjee’s probably younger than her “children”. She and Jwala are kept apart due to their own unbending principles. But she is warm and approachable as a mother, and is affectionate to Veer and Dharam.

However women aren’t actually people with individuality, needs, or rights. When Dharam’s mother is murdered and the royal family is framed, he demands a mother to replace his mother. The queen must go be his Ma. And he is genuinely delighted. It’s like his poor deceased mother never existed, as long as he had someone to feed him and tell him he was perfect. And he had no remorse about taking the queen, his bestie’s mother, away because a manly man’s man needs his mummy.

Pallavi (Zeenat Aman) is a bossy, entitled, aristocrat. Sadly she fails to put a stop to Dharam and Veer who tag team with dated shtick about having to keep a woman on a tight rein so you can be sure to break her. That would have been justifiable homicide I reckon. Dharam thinking that he can just take any woman because he is so awesome is very unpleasant and when he ties Pallavi up and sings to her about how he is worthy of her love…blergh. Dharam’s amazing super strength and very short skirts eventually win her over, because it’s not like she has a day job or anything to occupy her mind. On the upside Zeenat gets some fabulously OTT costumes and some kickarse action scenes which slightly compensate for her “dancing”.

Speaking of “dancing” – Jeetendra is literally carried around for most of this.

Veer meets Rupa (Neetu Singh) when he is hiding from Pallavi’s brother and fiancée and of course has to scrub Rupa’s back while she is in the bath. It’s interesting that the older generation in this film are no nonsense about sex and relationships but the “boys” are quite sleazy. It’s a shame Veer wasn’t more like his progressive but creepy dad. Oh that’s not a good aspiration.

Veer falls for Rupa but like his BFF, decides that treating her mean will keep her keen. Rupa is almost raped by Ranjeet. And then when she is traumatised and shaken, Veer pretends he has no feelings for her. Unfortunately before Veer can sort out their engagement, Ranjeet wins Rupa from the gypsy king and things look grim. Rupa was indignant at the injustice but she didn’t get anywhere with actually changing the outcome. It took Dharam speechifying to make the men decide they could do the right thing. But generally, Rupa was up for rescuing herself and others and never sat back waiting for a miserable fate. Neetu is feisty and fun, and certainly made the choreographer’s life easier.

Manmohan Desai is a master of apparently throwing random masala ingredients together but actually having a tightly plotted and well planned story to tell. Dharam Veer has the stars, the spectacle and the silliness in spades. 4 stars!

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One Cut of the Dead

Ueda Shinichiro’s One Cut of the Dead was a highlight of the recent Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne, and possibly my favourite film of the year. It’s a budget horror flick, a movie about movie-making, and a sweet story about the shared love of things that can bring people together.

Opening with Director Higurashi making a low budget zombie movie in a spooky abandoned facility, the film quickly takes a turn as the cast find themselves under attack by “real” zombies. He sees this as an opportunity to get genuine emotion and real horror from his cast so he will not stop shooting and actually pushes the actors into more peril. Bloody, profanity laden, decidedly B movie, unintentionally funny, the story speeds to its conclusion. All in one epic 37 minute take. But then the clock winds back and we get to see how Higurashi and his crew came to be in this place, all the planning and preparation for their movie, and what motivated them to do it. And finally, Ueda takes us back to the day of filming, but this time we see the things happening on and off camera and what that means for Higurashi and co.

The director Higurashi is completely over the top, threatening his performers and demanding they keep filming even when their life may be at risk. He has one shot at making the film and will do what it takes to deliver. I really enjoyed Takayuki Hamatsu’s performance as he would swing from politely earnest to literally spitting with rage and back, all in the service of his film. His relationship with his sulky teenaged daughter Mao (played by Mao) and retired actress wife Nao (Shuhama Harumi), who are both on the set, gives the film an unexpected sweetness amidst all the gore and dismemberments.

Akiyama Yuzuki and Nagaya Kazuaki play Chintatsu and Ko, the stars of the film. I enjoyed their deliberately bad acting in the movie within the movie, and the contrast with their vacuous celebrity sides. When things started to go awry they were the least prepared and therefore, among the funniest. Shuhama Harumi’s Nao is a walking cliché in some respects, intoning warnings and urban legends straight out of every other horror movie. Her hobby and practical application of her skills almost brought the house down, and her character really comes to life in the latter part of the film. The rest of the cast includes stock types like the has-been actor who drinks to steady his nerves, the goofy AD who never challenges an order, the finicky cameraman, and his enthusiastic assistant who just wants a chance to try her style.

Things move at a frenetic pace but there are beats where you can simply enjoy what’s going on before plunging back into the thick of it. I was constantly delighted by small details like the appearance of a hankie wiping blood spatter off a lens as the cameraman gamely ran in pursuit of a screaming actor and zombie.

The narrative structure is brilliant and the editing is timed to perfection. Things that looked like bad acting or glitches in the movie might later be seen in a different light and instead make you want to cheer for this game little bunch of movie crazy people. The jokes were sometimes funnier from the second perspective too, which is quite an achievement. Dolly Parton once said it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. Ueda Shinichiro has managed to make a highly technical and polished film look like it was made on a shoestring, but in a good way. It’s a tribute to the spirit of making do.

I flinched, I groaned, I cheered, I laughed so hard I cried. If you can stand a lot of swearing and fake blood splashing around, see this.

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura

The Japanese Film Festival is on in Melbourne and I’ve found lots of gems to enjoy in this year’s programme.

Yamazaki Takashi’s adaptation of Saigan Ryohei’s manga, Destiny: Kamakura Monogatari, is beautifully odd and charming.

Akiko (Takahata Mitsuki) moves to Kamakura after marrying Isshiki Masakazu (Sakai Masato), a popular author. The town is unusual, and there are supernatural creatures living alongside the human residents. Akiko is a high spirited and curious young woman, and she generally enjoys her new home and the strange goings on. However an entity from the underworld takes an uncomfortable interest in her, a bad luck god sneaks into the house, and things start to go very wrong. She is separated from her husband all too soon. But Masakazu is Kamakura born and bred, is matey with a grim reaper, and he finds a way to travel to the underworld to rescue Akiko’s spirit.

The film is as much a rom com as it is a fantasy. Akiko is quite a bit younger than her husband Masakazu, and she is worried she won’t be able to be a proper wife to a fancy author. He is a little worried about his precarious work situation, how she will settle in, and if she will be able to deal with the supernatural. They are both quirky characters and the actors sometimes go for energy over subtlety. But I was won over by their mutual affection and sense of fun. Sakai Masato is wry and charming, unless Masakuzu has a deadline. Then he becomes a panicky work avoiding child, obsessed with toy trains. Masakuzu also has a side line in helping the police with hard to solve cases, and they act as small episodes within the story, showing more about the village and how things operate between the communities.

Akiko learns some household tips from elderly and enigmatic Kin (Nakamura Tamao) and finds out more about the mysterious side of Kamakura. She is generous and impulsive, and that is both a curse and a blessing, quite literally. Takahata Mitsuki plays Akiko as wide eyed and a bit too perky, but she has an endearingly goofy energy that plays well off her co-stars. I particularly enjoyed the quieter scenes between the couple when they were just happy to be together, and the warm contentment was palpable. She wants to do the right thing for her husband and that gives her strength to make some hard choices. And when they are separated, she stays strong because she has faith in their love.

I liked Ando Sakura as the administratively overwhelmed and under-resourced grim reaper. It’s quite a change of pace from her amazing performance in Shoplifters (the film that had me crying in public at MIFF earlier this year). This grim reaper is kindly disposed towards humans, fancies clothes at the more garish end of the all black wardrobe spectrum, and seems to enjoy having local celeb Isshiki Masakuzu as a new friend. Masakuzu’s mate Honda (Shinichi Tsutsumi) strikes a deal with her and his story takes quite a turn. Again, his story is about family and regrets as much it is about magic or gods. The bad luck god Binbogami (Tanaka Min) is loud and blustering but develops a soft spot for Akiko who treats him like a welcome guest. Guests are god, after all.

The visual effects are often jawdroppingly lovely, and I think anyone would want to go to Kamakura as a result. Every shot counts, and some things that seem to be a bit of whimsy become more meaningful later in the film. Scenes at the Goblin Market were both magical and relatable, with a blend of real world and supernatural. Little creatures scuttle in the background, or ramble around in Akiko’s garden apparently unnoticed and unremarked. The yokai can look very elaborate and non-human, but some blend in quite well unless they choose to reveal themselves. The underworld is where the effects skills get a serious work out, creating a vast expanse of structures and landscapes with incredible detail. I love that they catch a train to get there, and the journey on the way in was gorgeous. Getting out was a bit less relaxed!

I was in the right mood for a feel good film with tons of charm, and this was perfect.