Watching the documentary Most Sunny, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what felt off about the film. Only later did I read that the documentary’s subject, actress Sunny Leone, has all but disowned the movie, refusing to attend its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. I can’t say I blame her, because the film is a mess.
During her interview segments, Sunny comes across as warm, funny, and smart. She’s candid about not just her history in the adult film industry but about money as well, celebrating the $100,000 signing bonus she demanded to appear on the Indian reality show Bigg Boss in 2008 as a life-changing sum.
Her killer curves and salacious past distract from her most admirable quality: her business acumen. With the help of her husband and business partner, Daniel Weber, she parlayed a lucrative career in porn into a production company and eventually success in mainstream Indian movies. Sunny herself says, “One thing I was good at was turning a quarter into a dollar.”
It’s difficult to tell Sunny’s story chronologically because her extended family cut ties with her when she became Penthouse “Pet of the Year” in 2003. No one from the Sikh community in her hometown of Sarnia, Ontario — where she was raised as Karenjit Kaur Vohra — would agree to talk about her on camera. Her parents died several years ago, so the only relative to speak on her behalf is her younger brother, Sunny (whose name she stole in a panic to invent a stage name). Even though the siblings maintain a close relationship, they never appear together in the documentary.
There are hardly any interviews with people who’ve worked with Sunny in India either. Director Mahesh Bhatt says some kind words about her potential, as does the CEO of the channel that airs Bigg Boss. Sunny’s Ek Paheli Leela costar Rajneesh Duggal mentions that other actors turned down his role before him because they didn’t want to work opposite Sunny, but he doesn’t mention what it’s like to actually work with her. Sunny’s costumer and close confidant Hitesh isn’t comfortable talking on camera.
Sunny Leone’s story is about her fame and acceptance in sexually conservative India following a career in porn, but filmmaker Dilip Mehta is hung up on Sunny’s racy past. Topless shots of the actress scroll across the screen multiple times, a choice that does nothing to inform the audience about the woman herself but to capitalize on a career she acknowledges but has left behind.
Mehta makes a bizarre choice during a segment about Sunny’s adult film production house, SunLust Pictures, where she directs movies but doesn’t appear in the them. There is a shot of a movie in production featuring a full-on sex scene between a man and a woman, their genitals blurred as they engage in intercourse. What is the narrative purpose of this shot? If the point is to titillate, why bother blurring the genitals? It’s not like we can’t tell what’s happening. Mostly Sunny has no MPAA rating, but this scene alone makes otherwise PG-13 content into a hard R.
The topless shots and the sex scene ensure that any people still reluctant to embrace Sunny will never watch the movie. What is the point of Mostly Sunny if not to showcase her as an interesting, normal person? Who does Mehta think his audience is?
It’s hard to decipher Mehta’s objectives for this movie. Scene transitions frequently consist of footage of poor people shot from inside a moving car. Sunny herself isn’t in the car, so this isn’t meant to show what she sees on he way to work at a Mumbai movie studio. It neither reinforces nor juxtaposes with anything else we’re hearing and seeing. It’s just poverty porn.
The footage that runs behind the ending credits is likewise inexplicable. As patrons exit a movie theater following a film showing, they notice Mehta’s camera pointed at them and start dancing or mugging for the camera. What purpose does this serve?
As is often the case in her Bollywood movies, Sunny’s charisma transcends the mediocre quality of this film. That a documentary specifically about her lets her down is disappointing.
The documentary Song of Lahore chronicles the surprising journey of an ensemble of classically trained Pakistani musicians to their performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The film is as touching as it is educational.
Since the Mughal era, Lahore had been internationally renowned for its music. Movie studios employed orchestras to record film scores during the golden age of Pakistani cinema, until a military coup in 1977 shuttered the studios and banned most public musical performances.
Even when restrictions eased in the 1990s, young people turned toward rock ‘n roll and away from traditional music. The Taliban’s rise in influence again drove musicians out of the public sphere.
Fearing the loss of his culture, Izzat Majeed established Sachal Studios in Lahore as a place for musicians — not just players of traditional instruments like tablas and sitars, but guitarists and violinists as well — to jam together. Ignored by local audiences, Majeed made a bold suggestion: “Let’s try to understand jazz.”
What makes the suggestion especially audacious is that the membership of the Sachal Ensemble skews old, as evident by the high number of white-haired members. The notion of ditching fifty years worth of training in a particular style in order to learn a new one is remarkable and inspiring.
Majeed himself was introduced to jazz in 1958, when his father took him to a performance by Dave Brubeck as part of the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program. One theme that’s repeated throughout Song of Lahore is the way politics can shape culture. During the Cold War, the United States used jazz as a weapon against communism.
Famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis appreciates the historical connections between American jazz and traditional music in Pakistan. Jazz was born out of the persecution of African-Americans, he explains, just as the Sachal Ensemble perseveres in a country where musicians face violence from Islamic extremists.
A YouTube video of their infectious rendition of Brubeck’s iconic hit “Take Five” garners the Sachal Ensemble international interest and an invitation to perform with Marsalis’ big band at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The second half of the film focuses on that performance and the rehearsals leading up to it.
Even though the performance is assured to happen, the rehearsal scenes are tense. The Ensemble seems unsure whether to look to Marsalis for cues or to their own arranger and conductor, Nijat Ali. When they ultimately take the stage in front of a packed house, their performance provokes tears of both pride and relief.
Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken keep their story focused, giving some social context but prioritizing this particular moment in the lives of these musicians. Showing the rough patches during rehearsal with Marsalis’ band highlights the practical difficulties of their mission.
Of course, all of the music in the film is tremendous.
Song of Lahore is a wonderful example of not only the power of perseverance but of adaptability. When passion compels you to do something, find a way to get it done.
The insightful documentary Katiyabaaz (international title: “Powerless“) highlights the ingenious — and often illegal — methods residents of the northern Indian city of Kanpur use to cope with chronic power shortages.
As filmmakers Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa navigate their cameras through the city streets, one thought springs to mind: this is insane. Just overhead, electrical wires crisscross in a tangle that looks like the work of caffeinated spiders. The transformers supplying current regularly catch fire, prompting well-meaning passersby to climb on top of them with buckets of water. (So you need not watch the whole film in terror, I’ll spoil that no one gets electrocuted.)
There’s a method behind the crazy mess of wires hanging above Kanpur’s streets. Power outages are routine in the city, so residents utilize short, removable wires — katiyas — to connect their homes to live wires. It’s also a convenient way to get power without paying for it.
Families needing power often call a katiyabaaz — an expert in dealing with katiyas — before they call the power company. An opinionated katiyabaaz named Loha Singh serves as the movie’s guide to black market electricity, railing against the inept power company as he shorts out one of their transformers so that he can work safely.
The city’s power company, KESCO, is headed by a woman in a no-win situation. Ritu Mukeshwari is responsible for running a company deeply in debt, and with nowhere near enough power to meet the demands of the city’s five million residents. The only obvious source for revenue is unpaid bills.
But of course, Kanpur’s problems are interconnected. Many of the residents are poor because limited electricity limits economic opportunity, therefore they can’t pay their bills. But if they don’t pay their bills, KESCO can’t invest in better equipment that would make electric service more reliable. Mukeshwari is set up to fail.
Interestingly, no one raises the prospect of help from the federal government. Kanpur’s problems are too entrenched to be dealt with internally, but apparently Delhi has no interest in resurrecting a place that was once called the “Manchester of the East.”
The city’s ability to function in such conditions is remarkable. One nighttime shot features images from an intersection crowded with pedestrians, cars, and bicyclists. All of a sudden, all the streetlights and lights from food stalls go out, leaving the cars’ headlights as the only source of illumination. It’s a wonder that no one is run over, but the bicyclists pedal on as though nothing has happened.
It’s clear in Katiyabaaz that everyone is just doing the best he or she can. Singh has capitalized on the rare opportunity in a city short on opportunities. Mukeshwari understands public frustration with KESCO, but she can’t do her job without her customers’ help.
Mukeshwari is the most fully developed character in Katiyabaaz, a real person set up as a scapegoat. Attempts to make Singh similarly sympathetic feel staged, particularly late scenes with his mother and a dismissive uncle.
Still, the whole film is fascinating. America has its share of cities with inadequate infrastructure, yet they look nothing like Kanpur. Katiyabaaz is — pardon the pun — illuminating.
The story behind the Hindi horror flop Hisss is as much about the film that wasn’t made as the film that was. Documentarian Penny Vozniak recorded director Jennifer Lynch during the making of Hisss, resulting in Despite the Gods: an engrossing feature about a filmmaker pushed out of her own movie.
Lynch spent eight months filming Hisss in India, her first time working in the country. When we first see her settling in to her Chennai apartment, she observes that India is loud. Lulls in the concussive sounds of construction work outside her apartment are filled by chatter from the noisy street below. It makes concentration and relaxation difficult, to say the least.
Lynch is accompanied on her trip by her 12-year-old daughter, Sydney, who is the real star of Despite the Gods. Sydney is wise beyond her years, encouraging her mother to stop fretting about her weight and focus on her movie. The fact that Sydney endures this odyssey with a minimum of whining is a testament to her maturity.
Hisss is beset by a number of problems: rain, a jumbled schedule, a union strike that forces the production to move to Kerala. The funny, foul-mouthed Lynch stays positive throughout, insisting that adverse circumstances often result in a better finished product.
Little does Lynch know that she’s being sabotaged from within. The producer who brought her onto the project, Govind Menon, repeatedly tries to take control of the film away from Lynch, under the pretense of serving the greater good. Touting his past directorial experience and familiarity with the way things are done in India, Menon offers to shoot portions of the film himself in order to speed things up. Lynch doesn’t bend, insisting on doing things her way.
Only after shooting ends does Menon finally get control. A note at the end of Despite the Gods reads: “The producers reject Jennifer’s final cut of Hisss. The film is over schedule and over budget. They re-cut it without her. Jennifer has publicly distanced herself from the finished film.”
Having watched Hisss, Menon clearly overestimated his ability as a storyteller. The movie is awful, although the footage Lynch shot actually looks quite good.
One issue with Despite the Gods is that Vozniak is a friend of Menon. He initially brought her onto the set to babysit Sydney, and it was Lynch who invited her to stay and film the documentary. Lynch told Indie Outlook:
There were some incredibly painful moments that were kept in Penny’s cut and other things that didn’t end up in it because producers wouldn’t allow them to be shown. Sometimes I see myself upset onscreen and think, “I was sad because this happened, but nobody will ever get a chance to see it.” And yet, this is Penny’s film, not mine. She made the film that she wanted to make to the best of her ability, and I’m honored to have been seen through her eyes.
Even with an incomplete accounting of events, Menon’s desire to shoot the film himself is obvious. He also takes it upon himself to scold Sydney when Lynch is not around. A confused Sydney seeks out her mother and asks, “Did I do something wrong?”
Besides Menon, the rest of the Indian crew is devoted and professional. The second assistant director, Yogi Dixit, is particularly charming. The caterer, Krishna, fills in as a sound effects artist and on-set masseur.
Hisss star Mallika Sherawat is smart and self-aware. She’s cognizant of the boldness of her career choices in conservative India, and she and Lynch spend much of their downtime discussing social issues.
Lynch explains the theme of her film (originally titled Nagin: The Snake Goddess): “It’s an admiration of sensual, sexual female bravery.” Sherawat wryly replies, “Oh yeah? In India?”
There’s no guarantee that Lynch’s version of Hisss would have been a success. It’s hard to imagine the scene of Sherawat making out with a snake puppet looking anything other than silly, no matter who edited it.
Still, Despite the Gods highlights that Lynch was using her film to make a point about female sexuality, and that aspect was eliminated from the version ultimately released. Maybe someday we’ll get a director’s cut of Hisss. I’m very curious to see it.
Another new release with a South Asian focus is the documentary He Named Me Malala, about the heroic teen activist Malala Yousafzai. It opens on Friday across the Chicago area and the nation. Click here for a national theater list.
Meet the Patels takes a hilarious look inside one family as the parents try to achieve their dream: getting their kids married.
The documentary starts humbly enough, with filmmaker Geeta Patel testing out a new camera during her family’s annual trip to India. Her younger brother, actor Ravi, is recovering from a breakup with a white woman he’d never told his parents about.
With his thirtieth birthday on the horizon, Ravi decides that maybe all of his relatives are on to something: it’s time for him to get hitched. He agrees to let his parents find his dates for him, drawing him into the vast web of Indian-American matchmaking services.
For anyone who hasn’t experienced said matchmaking, Meet the Patels is an eye-opener. The scale of Indian-American matrimonial infrastructure is immense. Beyond his own family’s network of relatives and acquaintances, Ravi finds his dates though a variety of specially targeted dating sites. His ultimate destination is a national convention just for single people named Patel.
As Ravi crisscrosses the country looking for his ideal woman — she must live in America, and she must like him — it forces both him and Geeta (who is also single) to examine their assumptions about marriage. Are their imagined versions of their future spouses the only possible versions, or should they be looking elsewhere? How do they reconcile their internal cultural conflicts as first-generation Indian-Americans?
Their parents — dad Vasant and mom Champa — face their own sort of reckoning. Why aren’t their kids married yet, when everyone else’s children are married and having kids of their own? They love their unconventional kids, but Champa feels as though she and Vasant must have erred in raising them, otherwise she’d be a grandmother already.
The hook to Meet the Patels is the loving relationship that the family shares. All four of them are funny and opinionated. Ravi and Geeta like each other well enough to live together. The Patels are an endearing bunch, struggling through the ubiquitous contemporary American problem of young people putting off the traditional markers of adulthood for as long as possible.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the Patels and my own family. Like Geeta, I’m the elder sister to one younger brother, who is as much a best friend as he is a sibling. We were raised by parents as devoted to one another as they were to us.
Yet I recognized the piercing familiar tone of maternal guilt when Champa complains to Geeta about Geeta’s unmarried state: “I hope you never go through what we are going through.”
Champa sounds exactly like my mom, who — upon my speculation that I might never marry — asked, “So you’re just going to live in sin, eh?” I did get married, to my mother’s relief, but my husband and I decided not to have kids. This then prompted my mother to declare in front of all the relatives at my cousin’s baby shower that she was okay with this because, “Kathy would be a bad mother.” (To be fair, she was probably right!)
Apparently, Gujarati parental guilt and Catholic parental guilt are two sides of the same coin.
Few documentaries are as funny and accessible as Meet the Patels. It’s a real treat to get an honest look inside an adorable American family. This is a must watch.
Perhaps the best part of watching Hit the Road: India — a documentary about an auto rickshaw race from Mumbai to Chennai — is knowing that I don’t have to run the race myself. The movie follows two North Americans as they pilot a tiny, unreliable vehicle across India for an adventure that is equal parts beautiful and terrifying.
The race is the Mumbai Xpress, part of a series of road races that make up The Rickshaw Challenge. All of the races require participants to drive auto rickshaws: the dinky, three-wheeled vehicles ubiquitous in Indian cities.
Auto rickshaws are designed for quick urban jaunts, not highway driving. The vehicles driven by the racers have no doors, seat belts, or windshield wipers, a barely functioning headlight, and an engine that puts out a whopping seven horsepower.
Our guides in Hit the Road: India are Canadian chef Keith King and Chicagoan Ric Gazarian, who works in real estate. They are the least organized of the six teams competing, eschewing maps and GPS in favor of, well, who knows?
The twelve-day, 1,900 km race starts with the simple-sounding yet nerve-wracking task of getting out of Mumbai. Overloaded motorcycles dart in between humongous trucks, nearly clipping the small, slow auto rickshaw driven by two guys who elected to pack a Spider-Man mask and an Elmo costume for a trip through rural India.
Ric and Keith and their auto rickshaw
Once out of Mumbai traffic, it’s surprising how quickly the city fades and the scenery becomes lush and green. What’s delightful about seeing India from this perspective is realizing how much beauty exists in areas that Bollywood filmmakers tend to ignore.
Part of that has to do with when the race takes place. It’s run in August during monsoon season, a time when it doesn’t make financial sense to shoot a film outdoors. However, the overcast August skies make the greenery more vibrant and augment the power of the churning ocean waves.
Virtually all of the drama in Hit the Road: India is due to Ric & Keith’s decrepit vehicle. It burns through gas at a furious rate, and it needs a new engine after just a few days. The long drives up winding hills are as hard on the rickshaw as they are on the drivers.
As funny as some of the mishaps are — like when Ric loses a shoe while lifting the rickshaw out of a watery ditch — it’s impossible to ignore the real danger of the race. The men must navigate potholes while avoiding driving into the path of annoyed bus drivers. Rural roads are poorly lit at night, so one could hardly blame a bleary-eyed trucker for failing to notice the sputtering little auto rickshaw in time to avoid a collision.
Somehow, the guys make it to the finish line alive, enabling Ric to present Hit the Road: India at the 2014 Chicago South Asian Film Festival. Ric spoke of plans to turn Hit the Road into a series, filming other adventurous road rallies around the world. It’s a natural fit for The Travel Channel, PBS, or even Netflix.
With more corporate financial backing, future editions could add some neat features. Onscreen text in Hit the Road: India notes the day of the race and the remaining distance to Chennai, but a map graphic could give a sense of how far the racers travel each day.
A bigger budget could also enable the filmmakers to follow more than one team. Ric & Keith’s adventures are captured by a dash-mounted camera as well as a camera crew in a pace car that drives alongside them. By only following one team, it’s hard to get a sense of how the actual race is unfolding (especially since Ric & Keith are almost always in last place).
All of the other racers are introduced by name during the closing credits, and until then, I had no idea that so there were so many women participating. One team consists of three women from the United Kingdom and Australia. It would’ve been fascinating to see how they fared in a country with a troubled history of gender inequality and a well-known lack of public restrooms for women.
Hit the Road: India presents an interesting side of the country as well as a great first entry into what should be a series. I can’t wait to see where Ric & Keith Hit the Road next.
The documentary The World Before Her is a fascinating examination of India’s struggle to figure out what to do with its young women as the country forges greater economic ties with the outside world. Filmmaker Nisha Pahuja follows the lives of young women training for their futures through very different means: a beauty pageant and a militant religious training camp.
The beauty pageant in question is Femina Miss India 2011. Pahuja’s camera follows a pair of contestants: Ankita Shorey and Ruhi Singh, whose parents also feature prominently in the narrative. The filmmaker interviews Miss India World 2009, Pooja Chopra, and her mother, who tells a moving story of divorcing her husband when he suggested ending newborn Pooja’s life because of her gender.
The other half of the narrative takes place at a Hindu nationalist boot camp for girls ages 15-25. One of the drill sergeants is 24-year-old Prachi, who feels most at home while training other girls how to fight and die for their religion. She accepts the paradox that she’s working for a movement that believes — in her zealous father’s words — “a woman is only complete after she becomes a mother,” even though Prachi herself wants no children. A female speaker at the camp says that women should be married by age eighteen, before they become too “strong-willed.”
All three of the young women are thoughtful and articulate, though Ankita and Ruhi are more hopeful for their future prospects. As odd as some aspects of pageant life (e.g. Botox and bikini contests) seem, the women choose to participate because pageants are a proven route to careers in film or modeling. Within two years of winning Miss India World in 2009, Chopra landed a lead role in a Tamil film, and shortly thereafter starred in the excellent Hindi action flick Commando: A One Man Army.
One wonders what life for a spitfire like Prachi would’ve been like had she been raised in a different city or by different parents — how her drive and determination might have been put to better use than training bubbly teens to want to shoot Pakistanis.
What stands out most in the film is how much happier the parents of the pageant contestants are with their daughters than Prachi’s father is with her, and how much freer they are in expressing their love for their children.
Both Ruhi’s parents and Pooja’s mother beam with pride at their daughters’ achievements. Their pride doesn’t stem from the place the young women finish in the contest but from the fact that their daughters are living their dreams. Ruhi’s mom mentions that her daughter’s happiness is a sign of her own success as a parent.
Contrast those parent-child relationships with that of Prachi and her father, Hemantji. Prachi knows that her father wishes he’d had a son. She’s so grateful to him for not having murdered her as an infant that she forgives him when he punches her for disobedience or when he burns her with an iron rod for lying.
From the footage shown in the film, Hemantji appears to derive no joy from his only child. The best Prachi can do is not screw up. That includes obeying her father’s orders to get married and have children, even though Prachi herself would rather teach at the camp full-time. Hemantji says that the only thing Prachi could do to make him happy is to die a martyr.
I enjoy watching movies about making movies, especially those that are able to remind us of why we like going to the cinema in the first place. Supermen of Malegaon is one of those films.
The documentary follows small-time filmmaker Shaikh Nasir as he creates a localized spoof titled “Malegaon Ka Superman” (“Superman of Malegaon”). Nasir doesn’t consider himself an artist, rather a hobbyist who enjoys making low-budget versions of big-budget films for the enjoyment of the cash-strapped residents of Malegaon. His ultimate dream is to earn enough money to reopen his own video hall, which famously once ran James Cameron’s The Abyss for two months.
Nasir’s versions of blockbusters like Sholay rely heavily on local references and dialect and utilize local talent. Teen boys relish the anticipated boost to their social status just for appearing in the background of “Malegaon Ka Superman.”
Superman himself is played by a skinny guy named Shafique, who takes time off from his job working a power loom to star in the film. Shafique’s other film duties include organizing props and shopping for makeup with Nasir.
What makes the story especially interesting is that “Malegaon Ka Superman” actually looks entertaining. It’s not a ripoff but a comical remake. Malegaon’s Superman spends more time being saved than he does saving people. He can’t swim, so he floats around the lake on a rubber tire. If he flies too high, air pollution inflames his asthma.
The documentary’s director, Faiza Ahmad Khan, never makes fun of Nasir, Shafique, or the other crew members. One of my problems with another excellent documentary about a low-budget filmmaker, American Movie, is that the documentary director sometimes seems to poke fun at the men being filmed. Supermen of Malegoan doesn’t do that. The circumstances of making “Malegaon Ka Superman” are funny, but the men themselves are not.
In fact, the experience of working on “Malegaon Ka Superman” is a stepping stone for a couple of members of the crew. With his acting, editing, directing, and musical abilities, crew member Akram knows he stands a chance of building a real movie career in Mumbai. Co-writer Farogh is also aware that his job prospects are limited in Malegaon.
Farogh gives one of my favorite interviews in the film when he talks of the pain of being a screenwriter. He laments that 80% of the film he sees in his mind won’t make it to the screen. It can’t. Farogh explains that it’s a pain all writers have to live with, and that no amount of accolades or money can relieve it.
The sentiment illustrates the truth at the heart of the film: in its purest form, filmmaking is a passion. Urged on by the need to create, a group of people make a special film on a shoestring budget and with outdated equipment. Supermen of Malegaon is as inspirational as it is fun.