Tag Archives: Omkara

Retro Review: The Blue Umbrella (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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I always feel like I’m missing something when I watch Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies. Much of that is due to the fact that I have to rely upon English subtitles that are often poorly translated. In Omkara, the subtitles were so sanitized as to obscure the meaning of conversations made up of crass colloquialisms. In Kaminey, the characters’ speech impediments caused malaprops that surely meant more in the original language than when they were translated into English.

But there’s something else about the way Bhardwaj tells his stories that leaves me a bit muddled. He jumps right into the story, without much explanation of who the characters are or what their relationships are to one another (again, it could be a language issue). While identities and relationships are usually sorted out over time, it adds a feeling of confusion early in the movie: something that might be acceptable in a mystery film, but Bhardwaj doesn’t make mysteries.

I had the same feeling while watching The Blue Umbrella, based on a novella by Ruskin Bond. I’m sure everything was clear if you’d already read the book, but that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for enjoying a movie.

The protagonist is Biniya (Shreya Sharma), a precocious girl who lives in a picturesque mountain village. The town is a stopping point for tourists on their way through the mountains. One day, Biniya meets a group of tourists and trades her lucky necklace for a beautiful, blue Japanese-style umbrella. The blue umbrella stands out among the alpine greenery, and Biniya and her umbrella become the town’s main attraction. Tourists pose for photos with her when they stop at the local snack shop, run by an old man named Nandu (Pankaj Kapoor).

Nandu covets Biniya’s blue umbrella, as do several other adults in town. He tries to trick and bribe her into giving him the umbrella, but she isn’t interested. When the umbrella is stolen one night, Nandu is Bindiya’s prime suspect.

At her request, the cops raid Nandu’s shop, but the umbrella’s not there. Humiliated, Nandu vows to buy his own umbrella. A short while later, Nandu receives a delivery: an umbrella exactly like Biniya’s, only red. He becomes the de facto mayor of the village, though heart-broken Biniya still harbors suspicions about him.

The confusion creeps into the story around the time when the umbrella is stolen. A number of the adults shown as potential suspects have so little screen time until that point that I wasn’t sure who they were. They seem like unnecessary red herrings. The question isn’t whether Nandu stole the umbrella (it’s obvious he did) but whether Biniya can prove it.

Some of the relationships between characters are also initially unclear. Biniya lives with her mother and a man who I thought was her dad; turns out he’s her older brother. Nandu has a young assistant who is, apparently, not his son. None of these are huge problems, but they were distracting. A few lines of dialog could’ve cleared things up without disrupting the narrative flow.

The natural scenery of the village is fantastic, and Bhardwaj occasionally filters the light to give the town a surreal glow. Winter sets in after the umbrella is stolen, and the snow has an unreal blue tint, echoing Biniya’s sadness. There’s a brief, early action scene in which Biniya uses her umbrella to fend off a snake, presented as a comic book come to life.

Overall, the movie succeeds because the story is so charming, as is the girl who plays Biniya. It’s a wonderful parable about the difference between justice and vengeance, as well as the liberating power of forgiveness.

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Marketing Hindi Movies as Art Films

Superstar actor — and up-and-coming director — Aamir Khan is reaching out to American companies in the hopes of forming new marketing relationships. Specifically, Khan wants to start marketing his movies in the U.S. as “art” films, similar to the way other foreign-language films are marketed.

Currently, Hindi movies are dropped into theaters with little promotion or fanfare. Indian production houses rarely screen their movies in advance for critics, so few get reviewed for newspapers. Fans in the U.S. must seek out information on upcoming releases themselves.

Without any promotion, mainstream American filmgoers likely scan past the names of Hindi movies on the theater marquee. At times, theaters may unintentionally steer people — especially those not obviously of Indian descent — away from Hindi movies. On several occasions, I’ve attempted to buy a ticket to a Hindi movie only to have the cashier say, “That’s a Bollywood movie,” or “You know that has subtitles, right?”

The shift to marketing at least some Hindi films like other foreign films is long overdue. U.S. theaters lump all Hindi movies together under the “Bollywood” label, evoking images of 3-hour epics full of romance, drama and action punctuated by flashy dance numbers.

Of course, those types of movies don’t make up the whole of Hindi cinema, even if they remain some of the most profitable. Just as the Indian film industry is shifting to producing more genre-specific films and away from all-encompassing epics, the industry is also producing films that American distributors would consider art movies if they were produced in other countries.

Some Indian directors, like Mira Nair, already have their films marketed in this way. But many of these Indian art movies, such as Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated Water, are primarily Canadian productions.

Khan is a natural choice to forge this new marketing path in America. His recent efforts behind the camera have focused on smaller stories about specific issues, rather than mainstream blockbusters. Taare Zameen Par, which Khan directed in 2007, is about a boy with dyslexia. Peepli Live, which opens on August and is produced by Khan, is a black comedy about destitute farmers driven to suicide.

If Khan is successful, it could pave the way for other Indian directors to reach a much larger American audience. There are a few directors in particular whose films deserve this kind of treatment.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies are tailor-made for American fans of arthouse cinema. Westerners could consider Bhardwaj an Indian Kenneth Branagh. He’s already adapted two of Shakespeare’s plays into modern Indian stories — Maqbool and Omkara (MacBeth and Othello, respectively) — and he’s currently adapting a novel by Ruskin Bond for the big screen.

The criminal underworld of Uttar Pradesh provides the perfect setting for Bhardwaj’s updated classics. And since he broke into the industry as a composer, his have excellent soundtracks.

Bhardwaj’s frequent collaborator, Abhishek Chaubey, recently directed his first film, the atmospheric and charming Ishqiya. I can only assume that Chaubey’s future efforts will also deserve the arthouse promotional treatment.

Another obvious choice is director Mani Ratnam. His films are known for heartbreaking stories and stunning visuals. In keeping with tradition, he includes elaborate dance numbers in many of his movies, which add a surreal element.

Though it may take extra effort on the part of American distributors to determine which Indian movies are art versus simple popcorn flicks, it’s past time to stop grouping all Hindi movies under the Bollywood umbrella.

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Movie Review: Ishqiya (2010)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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My enjoyment of most movies doesn’t hinge completely on the quality of the acting. I suppose that, when done well, you’re not even supposed to notice the acting. But the three leads in Ishqiya elevate an otherwise small and straightforward story to a work of art.

The film opens on a loving young couple engaged in a disagreement. The wife, Krishna (Vidya Balan) asks her husband, Vidyadhar (Adil Hussain) to abandon his criminal ways. He’s non-committal, though he professes to love her. As she walks through a dark hallway carrying a sacred flame on a tray, the camera cuts to the exterior of the house as an explosion destroys one of the rooms.

We next see Krishna as she opens the gate surrounding what’s left of the house to admit two of her husband’s former associates. Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) are an uncle-nephew pair of thieves on the run from their latest victim, Khalujaan’s brother-in-law. They arrive at the house hoping that Vidyadhar will be able to help them cross the border into Nepal. Krishna informs them that her husband is dead.

She allows them to hide out at her house until they can figure out an escape plan. Krishna’s beautiful voice, which she uses to sing old movie tunes, enchants Khalujaan, even though he’s old enough to be her father.

Khalujaan considers Krishna’s reserved nature evidence of her modesty; Babban thinks she’s hiding something. His suspicions are confirmed when Krishna reveals a dangerous plan to earn them enough money to pay off the brother-in-law and make them all rich.

Ishqiya has some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in a Hindi movie. Okay, any movie. Balan plays Krishna perfectly. She’s not your typical seductress. She’s cautious, as a woman who’s been living on her own should be, but she knows how to entice both men to fall for her. Whether that was part of her plan all along or just an impulse of a lonely woman, it’s impossible to tell.

Lately, Shah seems to only get cast in smaller, cameo roles that don’t give him much to do. Khalujaan is the meatiest role I’ve seen him play, and he’s tremendous. Shah is nearly 60, but plays Khulajaan like a teenager with a crush. The performance is both charming and heart-breaking because the odds are against Krishna reciprocating Khalujaan’s feelings.

Before Ishqiya, I disliked Arshad Warsi. In movies like Krazzy 4, Golmaal Returns, and Short Kut, I felt his performances were more loud than funny. I was happy to be proven wrong. Babban is a lech, but Warsi gives him a vulnerability that makes him a viable romantic match for Krishna. His falling for her is inevitable, and a lesser movie would make that love reason enough for her to fall in love with him. Thanks to Warsi, Babban is just charming enough that we believe Krishna could have feelings for him.

Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey does a superb job with his first movie. The story is small, and Chaubey, appropriately, doesn’t overreach. No big special effects, lavish dance numbers or distracting cameos. The attention stays focused on the three leads with straightforward camera work and a direct storytelling style.

Chaubey previously worked with director Vishal Bhardwaj on movies like Makdee, Omkara and Kaminey. The two worked together again on Ishqiya, which Bhardwaj produced and co-wrote. He also wrote the movie’s wonderful music.

In one scene, Krishna sings to herself while chopping vegetables. There’s no accompanying music, just a solo woman’s voice. The visuals and sound editing were so seamless that I was sure it really was Balan singing. Turns out it was the voice of Rekha Bhardwaj, Vishal’s wife.

The scene exemplifies all that’s great about Ishqiya. Chaubey pays close attention to small details, making the film immersive. And he’s willing to give time to such a simple scene that reveals so much about the characters. After such a terrific debut, I’m eager to see what Chaubey does next.

Note: I watched Ishqiya on a DVD produced by Shemaroo. A watermark of the company’s logo appeared in the bottom right corner of the screen throughout the whole movie. Eventually I was able to ignore it, but I found the practice annoying.

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Retro Review: Omkara (2006)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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There’s something compelling about director Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies: the dark atmosphere, the impending sense of doom, the heroes who are just barely heroic. I just wish I understood Hindi well enough to fully appreciate them.

More accurately, I’d need to understand Hindi and a handful of colloquialisms from Uttar Pradesh, where Bhardwaj grew up. A knowledge of U.P. politics and the associated gangster culture would also be useful. My cultural and linguistic deficiencies hampered my enjoyment of the first Bhardwaj film I watched, 2009’s Kaminey.

Cultural differences troubled me less in Bhardwaj’s 2006 movie Omkara, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Prior familiarity with the story certainly helped, as did an English-language book that was written about the movie’s development.

The book — Stephen Alter’s Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief — is essential for appreciating the film’s dialogue. English subtitles are often translated in a way that compromises the subtleties of the original words. Alter, who speaks Hindi, explains the true meaning of the words and gives context for the dialogue, making sense of the movie’s otherwise confusing opening scene.

According to the scene’s subtitles, Langda (Iago in Shakespeare’s play) discusses with Rajju (Roderigo) the difference between a “fool” and a “moron.” The two words are used somewhat interchangeably in American English, so the conversation seems odd and not very insightful.

Alter explains that the Hindi words translate more accurately to “fool” and “fucking idiot.” The scene — and the message Langda is conveying to Rajju — makes more sense with the uncensored translation; it ends with Landga explaining that, while they were talking, Rajju’s fiancee, Dolly (Desdemona), ran off with Omkara (Othello). Rajju realizes too late that he’s not a mere fool, but a fucking idiot.

The rest of the story follows the original, even though the setting has changed. Instead of a soldier in the Venetian army, Omkara is a gangster working in the service of a U.P. politician. The action takes place in the modern-day, as evidenced by the fact that the gangsters carry cell phones. Yet the town at the center of events is small and rural, evoking the story’s timeless quality.

Omkara (Ajay Devgan) and Dolly (Kareena Kapoor) are happy together, even though she’s defied her father to be with the illegitimate son of a village leader and his servant. During the course of their wedding planning, Omkara is promoted to a political position. When picking his successor as gang leader, he defies expectations and chooses Kesu (Vivek Oberoi) — a college-educated city kid — over his childhood friend, Langda (Saif Ali Khan).

Langda commences an attack on Kesu’s character, subtly trying to convince Omkara that Kesu is having an affair with Dolly. He’s aided by Dolly’s spurned suitor, Rajju (Deepak Dobriyal). Langda’s wife, Indu (Konkona Sen Sharma), inadvertently gives him the piece of physical evidence to validate his lie, and the tragedy unfolds.

The acting in Omkara is as nuanced as Langda’s machinations. Dolly and Kesu are youthful, charming, and utterly bewildered by Omkara’s suspicion. Rajju is twitchy and eager to reclaim his stolen bride. Omkara’s authoritative facade only breaks in front of Dolly, who coaxes smiles out of him with a glance.

Saif Ali Khan’s Langda walks a thin line. He’s vengeful, but not without cause; devious, but not totally malicious. His only interest is ousting Kesu from the position he wants. However, he fails to consider the toll this will take on Dolly and, by extension, Omkara, his benefactor.

Konkona Sen Sharma’s Indu is the film’s most relatable character. She’s caring, funny and smart enough to figure out that something is wrong. She probably could’ve solved the problems between Dolly, Kesu and Omkara, if only her husband weren’t secretly working against her.

Another highlight of Omkara is the music, especially the sexy dance tune “Beedi.” Bhardwaj got his start in Bollywood as a composer, and the music he’s written for Omkara sets the mood perfectly.

It’s hard to recommend a movie that requires further reading to really understand, but Omkara is worth it. The acting, atmosphere and music are of such high quality that American film fans should just enjoy the ride, knowing that Stephen Alter’s book will clear up some of the confusion. Vishal Bhardwaj is a director of such talent that it would be a shame to overlook his work because of a few cultural differences.

Movie Review: Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge (2010)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The Hindi phrase “Atithi Devo Bhava” translates as “A guest is a god,” meaning that one should treat guests with the utmost respect. That sounds fine until one realizes that “atithi” more precisely means an unexpected guest.

For most Americans, that conjures up memories of the time your mother-in-law dropped by on a Friday and declared she was staying the weekend, then complained because the sofa bed was lumpy, and because you didn’t have any grapefruit in the house while she was on an all-grapefruit diet. But that situation is hospitality for amateurs.

I know a married couple in Chicago who hosted both of their mothers — who only speak Turkish — in their one bedroom, one bathroom apartment. At the same time. For a month. That’s the kind of extreme hospitality Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge is about.

The movie (the title of which translates as “Guest, When Will You Leave?”) stars Ajay Devgan and Konkona Sen Sharma as Puneet and Munmun, a happily married couple with a six-year-old son. Puneet works as a screenwriter and Munmun as an architect. They live in a modern one-bedroom apartment in the city.

One day, Puneet’s uncle arrives at their apartment building unexpectedly. Puneet doesn’t remember this uncle, but admits that he could’ve forgotten him in the decade since he left his small village for the city. Uncle Lambodar (Paresh Rawal) explains how he’s related to Puneet’s deceased father, and the two get Uncle settled into the family apartment.

Uncle (which is how he’s primarily referred to in the movie) proceeds to turn the couple’s life upside down. Since he doesn’t understand what Puneet and Munmun do for a living, he assumes that they can wait on him hand and foot. He rattles off a list of six or seven dishes for Munmun to prepare for him, since he only wants a “light” dinner. He spends the rest of the night fouling the apartment with his chronic flatulence.

Uncle Lambodar isn’t an unlikeable boor. He’s a decent guy who’s simply clueless about what life is like outside of his village — not that he’d have a clue about how annoying Puneet and Munmun find him anyway. They do most of their grumbling behind closed doors, grimacing with every new demand Uncle makes. They yearn for Uncle to leave but are too polite to ask how long he plans to stay.

The veneer of politeness is what makes everything in Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge work. Devgan is at his funniest when holding a blank expression on his face, conveying contained rage to the audience and nothing in particular to Uncle Lambodar.

Likewise, Sharma’s best moment consists of her repeating an elaborate list of snacks and beverages Uncle expects her to prepare for him and his friends, as though she enjoys being treated like a servant.

But Rawal is the star of the movie. By underplaying the performance, he imbues Uncle Lambodar with humanity, rather than letting him exist as an irritating plot device. Lambodar is exactly the kind of person about whom people amend any complaints with the phrase, “…but he means well.”

Because this is the type of slapstick comedy that’s trendy in Hindi cinema at the moment, it contains its share of slapping. There are also the requisite goofy sound effects, including an elephant trumpet. But strong performances by actors with serious dramatic credentials elevate Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge above other movies in the genre.

Note: If the song “Jyoti Jalaile” sounds familiar, that’s because composer Vishal Bhardwaj adapted it from the song “Beedi” from his movie Omkara, turning a lusty bar tune into a devotional number. Like Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge, Omkara also stars Ajay Devgan and Konkona Sen Sharma and is co-written by Robin Bhatt.

*Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge‘s runtime is listed as 2 hrs. 35 min. Including previews, it’s really closer to 2 hrs. 5 min. — a more appropriate length for a comedy.