Tag Archives: Retro Review

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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Retro Review: Harishchandrachi Factory (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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I normally review only Hindi movies, but I made an exception for Harishchandrachi Factory. The Marathi movie was India’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2010 Academy Awards. Ultimately, it wasn’t one of the five nominees, but it is worth watching.

The film is about the creation of the first full-length Indian motion picture in 1913: Raja Harishchandra, a depiction of the life of an ancient king renowned for always keeping his promises and telling the truth, no matter the consequences for him and his family.

(I didn’t think the moral of the story of Harishchandra was explained clearly via the movie’s subtitles. I had to look up the story later to appreciate some of the references.)

Dhundiraj Govind Phalke was the man responsible for Raja Harishchandra, in addition to dozens of other movies over the span of 19 years. He’s credited for founding the Indian film industry, back when cinema was dominated by the British.

Harishchandrachi Factory begins in 1911, when Phalke (Nandu Madhav) sees his first motion pictures: a documentary on bullfighting and a depiction of the life of Jesus Christ. He’s instantly seized with the notion of making an Indian film for an Indian audience.

Phalke, having recently sold his stake in a printing company, convinces his wife, Saraswati (Vibhawari Deshpande), and several investors that movie making is just another kind of printing, winning their support. He spends two months in England learning the trade and returns with the necessary camera equipment.

Phalke’s path is remarkably free of obstacles. Saraswati takes her husband’s career change in stride, never complaining as he sells most of their furniture to finance his London trip, which he schedules when she’s supposed to give birth to their third child. And Phalke has little trouble getting money from investors, who are impressed by his hard work ethic and the potential of the new storytelling medium.

The only hiccups occur when Phalke actually starts making his movie. Motion pictures are held in such low regard that even prostitutes refuse to join Phalke’s production, for fear of ruining their reputations. The men he hires to play the female roles are reluctant to shave their mustaches.

The lack of conflict, despite conventional wisdom, actually makes Harishchandrachi Factory more enjoyable. There is enough inherent risk in being a pioneer. Manufactured arguments between, say, Phalke and Saraswati would’ve been depressing, rather than dramatic. Happy onscreen relationships are rare enough as it is.

Harishchandrachi Factory is impressive, given that it was made for less than $500,000. But the meagreness of the budget is evident in some aspects of the movie. The costumes, particularly those of the British characters, look cheap and made from modern synthetic fabrics.

Despite the fact that they’ve little to do, the Anglo actors are distractingly bad. Most of the extras look like they were kidnapped from a British university field trip. Still, Harishchandrachi Factory is a fun and educational experience, if not a completely immersive one.

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Retro Review: Jab We Met (2007)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The recent release of Milenge Milenge prompted me to watch Jab We Met (“When We Met”), a 2007 romantic comedy. Both movies star Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor (no relation). Had I not committed myself to reviewing the movie, I would’ve turned off Jab We Met within the first 45 minutes.

The movie’s first act is a prolonged meet-cute between the two leads, Aditya (Shahid) and Geet (Kareena). Aditya, emotionally exhausted by legal battles over the rights to his deceased father’s wealthy corporation, wanders the streets in the kind of depression that only exists in movies. He stares at nothing, silently boarding buses and trains, with no idea where he’s going.

He’s a lot more mobile in his melancholia than most depressed people. If the movie was going for authenticity, Aditya would’ve left the boardroom, headed home, and crawled into bed.

On the train, Aditya is verbally assailed by a fellow passenger, Geet. To call her a chatterbox is insufficient; Geet won’t shut up. She jabbers in a manner that, like Aditya’s ambulatory despondency, only exists on film. She flits from topic to topic without pause, utterly self-absorbed and failing to notice Aditya’s blank stare out the window.

The clueless chatterbox is one of my most hated movie clichés, because she doesn’t exist in real life. At least not in such an extreme and irritating form. An ordinary person wouldn’t last a minute on the receiving end of such a soliloquy before faking a trip to the bathroom and finding an empty seat at the other end of the train, thus depriving the clueless chatterbox of her audience.

Writing deliberately annoying characters is tricky because — as with Geet — they often wind up annoying the audience as well as their fellow characters. An example of annoying-done-right can be found on the television show Glee. Supporting characters refer to the main character, Rachel, as annoying, but she rarely acts in a way that’s irritating to us viewers. We get that she annoys the other characters, without having to be annoyed ourselves.

Through a series of idiotic decisions, Geet gets herself stranded at a station, minus her wallet and luggage. She berates Aditya into helping her, then berates cab drivers and beverage vendors on the way to her parents’ house. Geet’s abuse of service workers further diminishes her attractiveness.

Thus ends the first 45 minutes of a 140-minute-long movie.

The rest of the movie is pleasant enough, as Aditya finally engages with his surroundings. There are colorful wedding decorations and Geet’s equally colorful family to liven things up. But, for the most part, the remainder of Jab We Met is just above average.

The big problem is Geet. Though Kareena Kapoor does a fine job acting the part, Geet is not a nice character. She starts out annoying and fails to develop throughout the film. She reacts but doesn’t grow, remaining clueless until the last few minutes of the movie. It’s hard to believe a decent, rich guy like Aditya couldn’t have found someone better.

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Retro Review: Yuva (2004)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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My recent (and long overdue) viewing of Dil Se sparked my interest in other films by Mani Ratnam. I thought 2007’s Guru was okay, and I was interested in watching some of the director’s previous films. I was pleased to discover a copy of Yuva at my local library and even more pleased by the movie itself.

Yuva (“Youth”) begins with a drive-by shooting on a bridge. Arjun (Vivek Oberoi) sees Lallan (Abhishek Bachchan) shoot Michael (Ajay Devgan), the stranger who’d just given him a ride on the back of his motorbike. The context for the shooting is provided in three flashbacks, one for each of the young men.

Lallan is a career criminal who does the dirty work for his older brother, Gopal (Sonu Sood), an aide to the corrupt politician Prosonjit Bhattacharya (Om Puri). Violence permeates his life. When Lallan isn’t beating up student protesters, he smacks around his wife, Sashi (Rani Mukerji), who clings to the hope that he’ll find a respectable job. That becomes unlikely when he’s contracted to kill Michael.

Michael is a student leader who inspires disenfranchised village voters to stand up against politicians like Bhattacharya. When need be, he’s not afraid to resort to violence, just like the politicians he opposes. The contract for Michael’s death is issued after he and dozens of students invade Gopal’s home as a means of intimidation.

Arjun is a recent college graduate who dreams of moving to the United States. He considers changing his plans after meeting Mira (Kareena Kapoor), who’s engaged to someone else. He stops Michael on the street and begs him to chase after Mira’s taxi, which they catch up to on the bridge.

The trend in American movies and TV shows with a similar construction is for the opening scene to double as a climactic scene, but Yuva’s opening scene returns to end the first half of the movie. The second half sees the three men decide whether to continue on their present paths, or make a change for the future. Their lives intersect again in the climax.

While the plot is generally about politics, Yuva‘s main theme is violence. It’s a gory film, compared to other Hindi movies. Even though most of the violence involves fists, it graphically shows just how much damage a punch can do.

The three main characters relate to violence in different ways. It defines Lallan, who learned to fend for himself after being abandoned by Gopal at a young age. He can’t get away from it, even for the sake of his pregnant wife.

Arjun fights as a matter of self-preservation. As the witness to a violent crime, his life is in danger unless he’s prepared to defend himself.

Michael’s relationship with violence is the most complex. As a student leader, he opposes the brutal tactics of intimidation employed by some established politicians, yet he’s happy to pick a fight with their goons to achieve his own ends. He’s more of a populist than Bhattacharya, but one wonders if he’s really interested in changing the political culture.

Yuva is engrossing and fascinating, as it seems to present a practice of politics so different from that in America. But with a man bringing a gun to a presidential rally last summer and an armed march in April to demand Second Amendment rights, it might not be as different as we think.

Retro Review: Sholay (1975)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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I’ve seen a lot of recent Hindi movies, but I knew my Bollywood education was incomplete until I saw Sholay. After watching the nearly three-and-a-half hour behemoth, I understand why it’s a classic. But that doesn’t mean it’s a movie without flaws.

Sholay (“Embers”) is the preeminent example of the “curry western,” the Indian version of the “spaghetti western” popular in the United States in the mid-1960s. Its story and style borrow liberally from films like The Magnificent Seven and Once Upon a Time in the West.

Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan play thieves recruited by one of their former jailers, Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar), to capture a bandit leader. This bandit murdered the jailer’s family and has spent the subsequent years robbing the jailer’s poor village. Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Bachchan) initially agree to the job for the reward money but fall in love with two women from the village, giving them added incentive to succeed.

At its best, Sholay is an exciting action film. An early chase scene in which a coal-fired train is pursued by bandits on horseback contains some amazing cinematography. The camera cuts from static long shots of bad guys falling from their horses to a dynamic shot from Jai’s point of view as he rolls onto his back to fire at an assailant approaching from above.

Another highlight is the romance between Jai and Radha (Jaya Bhaduri), Thakur’s widowed daughter-in-law. Unlike the heroine in Once Upon a Time in the West, who tries to fulfill her deceased husband’s dream of building a railroad depot, Radha’s widowhood renders her a virtual ghost. She seems expected to exist in perpetual mourning, executing her household chores in silence. The longing looks between Radha and Jai defy social convention, adding poignancy.

But Sholay has one undeniable flaw: it’s too long. To justify a runtime of approximately 200 minutes, every shot needs to feel essential. Sholay doesn’t meet that standard.

There’s a lengthy sequence early in the movie that involves Jai and Veeru getting intentionally thrown in jail, only to break out and split the reward money with the pal who turned them in. The sequence is supposed to be funny as the thieves trick their high-stepping jailer with a Hitler mustache, but the jokes feel forced and the Hitler references a bit too casual.

Another failed comic device is plucky horse-cart driver Basanti (Hema Malini), Veeru’s love interest. She has a few touching moments, but she’s written to be annoying. The problem with deliberately annoying movie characters is that they annoy the audience as well as their fellow characters.

While many of the songs in Sholay are memorable — “Yeh Dosti” and “Mehbooba Mehbooba” in particular — their accompanying dance numbers bring the action to a halt.

The movie’s final battle is completely preposterous but is executed in a way that elevates it to campy art. For that reason alone, it’s hard to dislike Sholay. It’s certainly a classic, but it’s not a film for Bollywood newcomers.