I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with dozens of Indian movies added in the last week. Amazon India is wrapping up its Prime Day promotions, with last of its big 2019 releases — the Marathi film Mogra Phulaalaa — due to join the streaming service on July 14. I’m surprised that Student of the Year 2 wasn’t ultimately part of the promotions, but it’ll make its way to Prime eventually. Besides the previously announced 2019 releases, several more were added to Prime in the last week:
On January 19, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its shortlist of nine films vying to be the five nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 83rd Academy Awards. India’s submission, Peepli Live, didn’t make the list and is out of the running for the Oscar.
The recent comedy Tees Maar Khan jokingly referenced the perception that movies about poor Indians are guaranteed Oscar winners. Considering the subject matter of awards show success Slumdog Millionaire and India’s most recent Best Foreign Language Film nominee, 2001’s Lagaan, there’s a degree of truth to that belief. Unfortunately, that belief seemed to guide the decision to submit Peepli Live, even though it’s nowhere near Lagaan in terms of quality.
Peepli Live suffers from the same structural flaw as Taare Zameen Par, the Film Federation of India‘s unsuccessful submission to the 81st Academy Awards. Both movies — creations of Aamir Khan Productions — feature a main character in the first half of the movie who’s pushed out of the spotlight in the second half of the film.
The lead character in both films is an underdog: a poor farmer in Peepli Live and a dyslexic child in Taare Zameen Par. The first half of each movie establishes the dire circumstances that surround the very likable hero.
In the second half of each movie, both heroes largely disappear. The farmer wanders around in the background while TV news outlets fight over a story and an aspiring journalist tries to get a break. The dyslexic child cries in his room while his art teacher fights on his student’s behalf.
In both cases, the hero’s story arc is not resolved through his own actions, but through the actions of others. The hero only retakes an active role in his destiny at the very end of the film.
What’s disappointing about the Film Federation of India’s selection of an “issue” picture like Peepli Live is that it prioritizes subject matter over craft. There were a number of other Hindi movies more worthy of submission. The pool widens considerably when Indian movies of all languages are considered.
Movies eligible for selection needed to be released between October 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010 and complete a seven-day run in theaters. The primary language spoken in the film must not be English. The language rule likely eliminated The Japanese Wife from consideration. The same rule may doom Dhobi Ghat‘s chance for submission to the 84th Academy Awards.
Better candidates for nomination would’ve been Raavan, Ishqiya or the 2011 Star Screen Best Film award winner: Udaan. My personal choice would’ve been Road, Movie, which was the best movie I saw last year — Indian or American.
After reviewing my lists of the best Hindi movies for 2008 and 2009, I’m convinced that 2010 was Bollywood’s best year among the three. Of the approximately fifty Hindi movies I reviewed this year, here are my picks for the top films of the year. (Click on the title of each movie to read my original review.)
Some movies are worth seeing just for the stunning visuals, like the updated epic Raavan — which takes place primarily outdoors amid stunning natural beauty — and Guzaarish, which paints a personal struggle in super-saturated blues.
Another romance, The Japanese Wife, deserves an honorable mention. It tells the story of two pen pals — one a Japanese woman and the other a man from Bengal — who fall in love through letters written in beginner’s English. Because it’s not in Hindi, it’s not in the running for best Bollywood movie, but I heartily recommend it.
The two best Hindi movies of 2010 defy easy classification. Part drama, part comedy, part romance and part adventure, they represent cinematic storytelling at its most complete. Both movies are less than two-hours long, emphasizing that it’s the quality of the story, not the length of its runtime, that makes a fulfilling cinematic experience.
Ishqiya features memorable performances by Vidya Balan, Arshad Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah as a widow and a pair of petty thieves trying to pull off a heist. The story is simple but compelling, and the performances make it shine. It’s a remarkable effort from debutant director Abhishek Chaubey.
The movie that has stuck with me more than any other is Road, Movie. After playing at international festivals in 2009, it opened in limited release in the U.S. in May of 2010. I caught it during its short run on On Demand. It tells the story of a city guy who drives a dilapidated truck across the desert, meeting strange companions along the way and learning the secret history of the truck: it was once a mobile movie theater.
Road, Movie is so charming and engaging that it briefly made me believe that I could make a career of driving a truck though rural India, projecting old movies onto the sides of buildings for grateful villagers (never mind that there are few things in the world I’m less qualified to do, and the need for the service is shrinking). The film embodies the escapism that cinema provides and inspires us to dream improbable dreams.
Road, Movie isn’t the easiest film to find in the U.S. — it’s not yet available on Netflix or Amazon (though my local public library has three copies) — so seize the chance to watch it when you can. It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
But the bigger deal is the opening of Enthiran, the most expensive Indian movie ever made. Its budget of just over $35 million doesn’t seem large by Hollywood standards, but it’s a huge amount for an Indian movie. The movie, which features a soundtrack by Oscar-winner A. R. Rahman, stars Rajnikanth as a cyborg, with Aishwarya Rai as his heroine. A Slate article described the Superstar: “If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth.”
To reach the widest audience possible, the Tamil-language movie is being dubbed in Hindi (this version is titled “Robot”) and Telugu (“Robo”). The Big Cinemas Golf Glen 5 will show the Tamil and Telugu versions of Enthiran beginning on Thursday, September 30, with the Hindi version opening on Friday. Sathyam Cinemas in Downers Grove also begins its run of the original Tamil version on Thursday night. The South Barrington 30 will carry the Hindi version, “Robot,” beginning Friday. The movie has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 35 min.
Dabanng carries over for a fourth week at the South Barrington 30 and Cantera Stadium 30.
This weekend also marks the inaugural Chicago South Asian Film Festival, which starts on Friday. The festival lineup includes the terrific Bengali/English movie The Japanese Wife, with screenings being held at the Chicago Cultural Center and at Columbia College. I’m planning on attending the screening of Raspberry Magic on Saturday.
On rare occasions, I break with my policy of reviewing only Hindi movies, and instead review a movie in another Indian language. I recently watched The Japanese Wife — which features dialog in English, Japanese and Bengali — because it will be featured on October 3rd at Chicago’s inaugural South Asian Film Festival. Also, it’s directed by Aparna Sen, mother of Bollywood actress Konkona Sen Sharma. Since the movie is already available on DVD at Netflix, I thought I’d give it a shot.
The DVD’s menu screen describes the movie as “A Love Poem by Aparna Sen,” and that seems appropriate. It’s a heartbreakingly romantic film about the lengths we go to on behalf of those we love and how the written word brings us closer together.
Rahul Bose stars as Snehamoy, a high school arithmetic teacher in a small, remote village in West Bengal. He lives with an aunt who raised him after his parents drowned when he was a boy. He’s unbearably shy and has only one close friend: Miyage (Chigusa Takaku), his Japanese pen pal. She’s just as shy and lives with her ailing mother. They write letters to each other in imperfect English every week.
Scenes from the present — a giant package from Japan making its way through Snehamoy’s village to his house — are intercut with voiceovers and scenes cataloging how the friendship between Snehamoy and Miyage develops through their letters.
After three years of correspondence, Snehamoy writes to Miyage about his aunt’s attempt to find a bride for him. The girl, Sandhya (Raima Sen), is so timid she won’t even let Snehamoy see her face. He turns down the marriage, and Sandhya weds another man.
Miyage proposes that she and Snehamoy get married, even though they’ve never met and have no prospect of doing so in the near future. She has to take care of her mother, and his monthly $100 salary isn’t enough to afford an expensive plane ticket to Japan. But they agree to get married anyway. She sends him a silver ring, and he sends her some coral bangles and vermillion powder to wear in the part of her hair, signifying their status.
Several years later, widowed Sandhya and her son, Poltu (Sagnik Chowdhury), move in with Snehamoy and his aunt. Sandhya becomes Snehamoy’s unofficial wife, in practice: she cooks and cleans, and he escorts her shopping and helps her raise Poltu. She’s at least physically present, while Miyage remains in Japan.
The movie raises questions about the definition of marriage. Can Snehamoy and Miyage really be married without having ever met? And what of Snehamoy’s relationship with Sandhya? They actively build a life together with some degree of mutual affection. Which “marriage” is more real?
The movie unfolds beautifully as the love between Snehamoy and Miyage is revealed through their words. Because English isn’t either of their native languages, they write honestly and without euphemisms. The musical score alternates between traditional Indian and Japanese harmonies.
Probably the most striking aspect of the movie is the contrast between their places of residence. Snehamoy lives in a small village with no electricity that’s only accessible by boat. I wasn’t sure in which decade the movie was set until he journeyed to a big city and mentioned that he had Miyage’s email address.
Yet it makes complete sense that Miyage, living in a big city in Japan, could fall for Snehamoy. One can be lonely and isolated even in a crowded place.