Thoughts on Anurag Kashyap ~ halfway through Bombay Velvet

I am about halfway through Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet (2015), and wanted to talk a few things through before I finish the film.

bombay-velvet-reviewI’m going to be honest about this: I started watching the film because Ranbir Kapoor is so dreamy and found out that Kashyap directed it after consulting IMDB when I realized that the film was stylistically different from the typical Bollywood fare (this revelation struck me about twenty minutes in). Kashyap has been involved with a number of different Bollywood films, those that seem to work around the Bollywood formula and not within it, and I am not surprised whenever I find his name attached to projects that fall under the Hindie umbrella. He co-wrote the screenplay for Satya (1998) and wrote and directed the absolutely amazing Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). He even has a writing credit for Talaash (2012).

When I say that Kashyap works around Bollywood, what I mean is that he uses the Bollywood formula as an extension of his films, and does not adjust the narrative of his films to conform to the expectations of the typical Bollywood audience. This, I have heard, is risky in an industry where song and dance numbers are integral to the Bollywood identity and are in and of themselves an art form that is both part of and separate from the films. Musical sequences are released before films in advertising campaigns, and are consumed by audiences that may or may not ever see the film. In this way, they are critiqued as part of and apart from the film, and maintain an identity that is tied to, yet separate from the films for which they are made. I have noticed that musical numbers have taken a more realistic feel in some recent films. For example, a song begins as background noise in a restaurant; a stage performer begins her song, the dialogue between the characters comes to a close as the chorus picks up and the volume of the song increases. Cue the romantic splash sequence. Song over. Back to ‘reality’. Sometimes they dance at the bar while the song is playing and sometimes they dance in the streets to the same song, but the song is a part of the actual experience of the characters, and is not from a separate reality. Kashyap tends to use music in this way. In Gangs, songs are heard at funerals where they are performed by a live singer, and also score the film beginning as ringtones or as background television noise where gradually the volume increases, and the audience watches events unfold to the beat. In Bombay Velvet, songs are performed by jazz singer Rosie (Anushka Sharma), and when Rosie stops singing, the music stops. For Kashyap, music is not an escape from reality or the motivation for a fantasy sequence, it is incorporated into the reality of the film. Which says something in an industry where suspension of disbelief is often essential. In this regard, it is obvious that Kashyap takes inspiration from Western cinema.

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In Gangs, Bollywood as an element of Indian culture comes up throughout the film. Faizal’s wife’s eyes glaze over as she becomes lost in television melodrama. Amitabh Bachchan films are often referenced by admiring tough guys, but a footman also admits to seeing Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Big-Hearted Will Win the Bride) in a theatre. A family gathering around the television for Kyunki… Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi… is interrupted by gunfire. It all comes together when Ramadhir Sing says, “Every fucker’s got his own movie playing inside his head. Every fucker is trying to become the hero of his imaginary film. As long as there are fucking movies in this country people will continue to be fooled.” Kashyap sees that film is often an escape from a harsh reality, and thus he attempts to ground his own films with the very grime that people are looking to escape. Bombay Velevet is so stylized, but when  Johnny gets his face pounded in, the blood and filth don’t disappear when he walks away from the cage. This is exactly what enables us to see right through the jazz esthetic, the flapper dresses, the art deco facade that might trick us into believing that the film will provide an escape from our humanity. It won’t. He won’t allow it.

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Watching Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998) in 2017

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The conversation around the ways in which the current political climate in the United States has divided and pitted people against each other kept surfacing while I was watching Deepa Mehta’s film Earth. The film takes place in Lahore, India (now Pakistan), during the partition of India. Through the eyes of Lenny, a Parsi child, we are privy to the humanity that is devoured during the independence of India and its partition in 1947. Ayah Shanta, her Hindu nanny, sits in the park with Lenny, surrounded by a group of admirers; the potential suitors are Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu. Given the tension over the impending partition of India, religion and politics are a point of conversation within the group throughout, but as the film progresses, discourse becomes heated, and differences between the group members become points of division.

1947earth630One day, I am with a friend who happens to be ten years my junior. It is a week or so before Christmas and she is agonizing over the oncoming family festivities. It isn’t that she is overwhelmed with the holiday season in general, it is that her family is full of right-wingers who cannot seem to keep their opinions to themselves. She decides to spend the holidays alone, and tells them that she has made other plans. I get it. I do. I too have several outspoken family members whose political beliefs I do not share. But I don’t go out of my way to avoid these relatives, though I do admit to avoiding conversations about politics when I am with most of my family. When I was 25 years old, I too probably didn’t. I don’t think that I was ever as idealistic as some of the younger people that I know today, but I remember some arguments that ended with my just giving up and accepting the differences between us. Sometimes with hope that they will eventually come around. Other times knowing that they wouldn’t and accepting this. My friend also gives up, but there is a divide in her family. She dislikes them and decides not to engage. At all. I see these kinds of reactions a lot lately. Facebook posts about dropping friends who are on the other side are not uncommon, and are often met with supportive comments from others who have ‘had to do the same thing.’ I recall hearing Garrison Keillor talk about how politics have changed our culture (on Charlie Rose?). Back in the day you would share a meal with relatives and friends who all had different perspectives on politics, and they would argue them out over a meal, but could maintain a relationship of respect in spite of these differences. When he first started campaigning for politicians, democrats and republicans lived side by side. As time went on, the urban areas were becoming noticeably left-wing, while the suburbs/countryside had become right-wing. He found that over time, campaigning in the city wasn’t as necessary: everyone already shared the same opinion. It was as if at some point, people with opposing viewpoints stopped talking to each other.

hqdefaultEarth was released in 1998, when tensions were high between India and Pakistan; after a few quiet years, there were incidents at the Line Of Control that had escalated, resulting in nuclear tests on both sides of the LOC in 1998. While I have doubts that this film was made specifically with these events in mind, the continued conflicts reveal how the issues that lead to one of the greatest and bloodiest migrations in human history continues to impact the two nations today. The ‘ban Pak artists’ movement in Bollywood has been making headlines lately, even impacting films from big-name directors like Karan Johar. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) is rumored to have had scenes featuring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan cut because of the Uri Attack. On the other hand, Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) is a recent example of a compassionate and humanizing portrayal of people on both sides of the divide (this one from an Indian perspective), but such films only graze the surface of the complicated relationship and its history. Given Bollywood’s tendency to skirt around complicated political issues, it is understandable that a film like Earth had to be made outside of the Bollywood industry (Mehta is Canadian), but is impressive that it does target its audience (as is apparent by the use of the Hindi cinema formula and the very presence of superstar Aamir Khan, who portrays Dil Navas). 

In Earth, there are key events that mark turning points for certain characters. When Dil Navas, a Muslim, goes to meet his sisters who have arrived on a train from Guardaspir, he is confronted with a bloody massacre. The scene is heavy, and marks a significant change in the formerly jolly and carefree ‘ice candy man’. From this point forward, his love for Ayah evolves. A once an innocent and devoted longing takes the form of revenge fueled passion. After witnessing the murder of a Muslim man by a mob of Hindus in the streets from the safety of a rooftop with Ayah, Lenny, and Hassan, Dil begins to celebrate when a group of Muslim firefighters retaliates by alighting a Hindu building, and its occupants, afire. Ayah looks at him, disgusted, and a few moment later he responds,

“This is not only about Hindus and Muslims. It is about what is inside us. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs – we are all bastards, all animals. Like the lion in the zoo that Lenny-baby is so scared of. He just lies there, waiting for the cage to open. And when it does, then god help us all. Shanta, marry me. If you are with me, then the animal that’s within me will be controlled.”

Ayah nods, refusing his proposal. Sometime after this scene, Ayah and Hassan are making love in an old abandoned structure (ruins?), and Lenny appears watching from the window above. Her innocent curiosity has taken hold of her, and her eyes wander across the room to an adjacent window, where Dil is seen, also watching. In the safety of the ruins, a Muslim and a Hindu are reduced to their human state. Their animalistic desire is the other side of the coin that Dil mentioned when he asked Ayah to marry him, to tame the beast within. Through love, Hassan and Ayah are protected from becoming the beasts that the people outside have regressed to. As marked by the ruins, the relationship between Ayah and Hassan can only exist in the past, while the pair who are ultimately responsible for their demise wait outside. Dil’s betrayal is one of animalistic passion. It is a powerful statement; humans are animals at their very core, and they must balance their animalistic tendencies. Dil represents both sides of this coin: he is capable of the kind of blind love that Hassan and Ayah share, but without cultivation and validation, his passions turn. Lenny is a Parsi, descendants from Iran, a group which remained neutral throughout the partition. Her mother says early in the film that Parsis are supposed to be invisible, like sugar in milk. Lenny loves both Ayah and Dil, but her role in the film represents the indifference of her people when she betrays Ayah, revealing that true indifference is impossible.
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Earth is not about the political divide in the United States today – this particular moment in American history is not even comparable to the atrocities of the partition of India -but watching the division of friends and neighbors brought to mind the slow migration of like-minded groups of people who feel unsafe in the presence of people who have opposing viewpoints. Fear based mistrust of our neighbors inspired by the media and the powers that be. And, the internalization of religion, and politics, as identifying and intrinsic characteristics, when at our core we are all bastards and animals with a desire, no, a need, for compassion: to be loved and to give love. I can think of quite a few people who should watch this film (good thing it is free on youtube), perhaps you should too.

Talaash (2012) & back to back with the Khans of Bollywood

1280x720-tfkI’ve been on a bit of a Bollywood watching rampage lately. So much so, actually, that I want to start learning Hindi. This is what happened to me several years ago with Japanese films. I fell in love with Japanese movies, from Ozu Yasujiro to Koreeda Hirokazu, and became determined to study the language. And I did. For years. I majored in East Asian Studies and focused on Japan, and even lived in Japan two times on someone else’s dime: for one summer as a language student in Tokyo, and then in 2014-15 I spent a year at Kyushu University in Fukuoka as a Fulbright research student. As a Film Studies grant recipient, I was able to study language, film, and culture, while living with my husband and our son in Japan. It was amazing, and I miss living in Japan, a lot, but I don’t watch as many Japanese movies as I used to. When I was in Japan I found myself feeling overwhelmed with all of the translating that I had to do for myself and for my family from time to time, and I looked to Bollywood to escape it. The films were lighter than the Japanese movies that I was watching for my project, and I think that I needed them for balance. I must still need them, for something else perhaps, because I can’t seem to get enough of them. So here I am. Thinking about studying Hindi. Thinking about studying India. Thinking about studying film. So, I figure I’ll go back to writing and see where it takes me.

So back to that Bollywood watching rampage.

I’ve been dabbling in the films of the other Khans lately. For those of you who don’t know, the three reigning kings of the Bollywood box office are Aamir, Salman, and Shah Rukh Khan (no, they are not related). They are Muslims in a country that is predominately Hindu, which I have been told makes their success even more unlikely and therefore, amazing. They are the same age, born in 1965. They began their careers around the same time, mid to late 1980’s, and have been the biggest ticket sellers in Bollywood for well over twenty years; the younger generation has yet to surpass their sales or produce this level of superstar. It was Shah Rukh Khan’s films that made me fall for Bollywood in the first place, and I have probably seen around fifty of them to date (I’ll have to update the list), but I became curious about these other guys. So I watched a few, and I get it. I totally get it. I’ve seen too many om_id_335065_talaashf Aamir’s movies to start at the beginning and work my way up (like I want to do with Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, and several other stars and directors), but I might be able to do this with Salman. Hell, I’ll even make it a goal, but I’ll have to tackle a few more Aamir Khan films before I get started on that.

I started with Talaash (2012) and was blown away. First of all, I was surprised that a major Bollywood release would dabble with the underworld. The underbelly of the city, of the film industry and of the police force. It was dark, noir-ish, beautifully shot, and the acting was superb. I was all around impressed with Aamir. He was especially subdued in this role (I know this now). He wasn’t just a good actor, he apparently took good, different, rolerani-mukherji-in-talaash-hindi-movie-stillss. Rani Mukherjee was at her best. This was the first time that I had seen her in such a serious role, and it was also the first time that I ever forgot that I was watching Rani. There is something about Rani, maybe it is her raspy voice, or her look, but I can never seem to separate Rani Mukherjee the person from the characters that she is playing. But she owned this one, and was completely convincing. I have a newfound respect for her as an actor. I have always been fond of Kareena Kapoor. She is funny and charming, and it was refreshing to see her take on a role that used this to mask deep sadness. However, it was Nawazuddin Siddiqui who stole the show as Tehmur, a crippled lackey, who is scheming an escape from the ghetto. He was excellent. All around. I saw him in Bajrangi Bhaijaan soon after this, and cannot wait to see more of him.

I have read some criticism of the film, particularly the plot twist, which kind of surprised me. I have to admit that I saw it coming, but I was told a long time ago that we don’t watch Bollywood to see what happens at the end, because we can almost always see it coming (I mean, Bollywood films are formtalaash2ulaic. Duh.). So, we watch it for the journey. This film was an emotional rollercoaster of a different kind. I could see where the plot was going, but I couldn’t tell where it was going emotionally. I didn’t know if Surjan would face his past, or reconcile with his wife (and to be fair, I don’t know if he ever did), but it is apparent that he comes through this difficult period of time having faced something extraordinary. We may not get to see the results, but are privy to the journey, to his breakdown. As a viewer, I appreciate this.

I think it is worth mentioning that I was surprised that this film was directed by a female. This is something I find happens occasionally in Hindi cinema, where female directors are far from the norm, but when I find out that the film that I am watching was written or directed by a woman and I begin to ask myself: why I am even thinking about this? The fact that it even stands out says quite a bit about the lack of female directors in the U.S. (and in Japan – Naomi Kawase is the only one that comes to mind). Aside from Karyn Kusama (who is hardly recognized in Hollywood), I had a hard time thinking of a single famous female director (until my friend reminded me of Kathryn Bigelow). That is it (and please, if you know of others, enlighten me. Save me from my ignorance). Talaash’s director, Reema Kagti also co-wrote the screenplay, and was the assistant director on Aamir Khan’s films Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai (both excellent films that I plan to write about soon). I loved her technique in all of these films, and hope that she plans to do more.

Pardes (1997)

Pardes

Pardes (1997), director Subhash Ghai’s ode to India, opens and closes with a dedication to India’s 50th year of independence, which provides some explanation for the film’s patriotic tone (the song “I love my India” can be heard no less than three times in the first two hours of the film). Pardes examines the relationship between the diaspora and India and highlights differences between American and Indian values. Some viewers have suggested that the film lambastes American culture with its harsh portrayal of the Indian come American, but I disagree with this interpretation because Arjun and his crew who maintain connections to tradition also represent the diaspora. Ghai may compare the American diaspora to rural India in Pardes, but what is really examined here is how the loss of connection to one’s homeland can impact the ability to interact with it, or even in this case to claim it as one’s own.

Kishorilal (Amrish Puri) returns to India on business and visits his longtime friend Surajdev (Alok Nath) and he is thrust back into the traditions and customs of Indian family life. After meeting Surajdev’s daughter Ganga, he decides that his American son Rajiv should marry her, connecting the families and, with that, the traditions and values of India to the future generations of his family in the U.S.. Mahima Chaudhary gives an impressive introductory

Ganga
Mahima Chaudhary as Ganga

performance as Ganga, and by backing innocence with a fierce adherence to traditional values, she convincingly embodies Kishorilal’s ideal India; she is gorgeous and innocent, fierce and filial. Ganga comes across as annoyingly perky at times, her lines sound loud and stiff, but I believe this is done deliberately and even brilliantly by Chaudhary to emphasize Ganga’s lack of self awareness and innocence. Ganga is not worldly and this is apparent in her very first scene, where she lists Kishorilal’s accomplishments in the fashion of an excited child. Apoorva Agnihotri’s performance as Rajiv is not nearly as impressive by comparison, especially when considering the typical performance of other Bollywood villains, though he does, however, come across superblyas a spoiled rich American, and I believe that he is intended to be received in this way. The match between Ganga and Rajiv is made with the help of Arjun, Kishorilal’s ‘adopted’ son who hails from India. Shah Rukh Khan gives an excellent performance here, on par with that of Swades, and tames his charms for the role of a middleman who knows his place in spite of any feelings he may have developed for Ganga. Arjun has an innate understanding of India’s traditions and values, and acts as the cultural ambassador for Rajiv in India as well as for Ganga in America. And with this, we have our love triangle.

Khan and Chaudhary
Arjun and Ganga

The juxtaposition of the American Rajiv and the Indian Arjun is not the only vehicle for the contrasting values in the film, as ideals, both Indian and American, are depicted through the eyes of Kishorilal and Ganga (the visiting NRI in India and the foreigner in America). Kishorilal’s ideal India comes across with his opening statement as he stands before the Taj Mahal, “In America love means to give and take, but in India it means to give, give, give.” He arrives at Surajdev’s home where he is embraced by the family who treat him with great regard. So much regard in fact, that other NRI’s who have returned are put off by his presence and ask: successful or no, why should anyone suck up to this deserter? These other NRI’s are depicted as comically ‘worldly,’ with light hair and westernized fashion, but without the social graces that Kishorilal possesses. They have returned to India, but have failed abroad, while Kishorilal is successful in America, but returns as a visitor who holds India in high esteem. The picture of India painted in this first half of the film is Kishorilal’s vision, and not the reality: children sing I Love My India while dancing on fields of green and daughters happily dote on their elders. To Kishorilal, Surajdev’s family embodies India’s traditions, their interactions with one another are exaggerated to emphasize its social structure and values. Ganga exemplifies this vision during the first half of the film where she is devoid of the complex humanity portrayed while in America. She is objectified, just as the first half of the film depicts Kishorilal’s objectification of India. In the latter portion of the film we are shown Ganga’s America, which will be examined later, and her India, which contradicts Kishorilal’s ideal. When she and Arjun return to seek refuge with her family, the illusion is destroyed and the traditional ideal is turned upside down: her father attempts to kill her when he assumes that she has abandoned her marriage arrangement to have an affair with Arjun, and after he is stopped, she is made a prisoner in her own home. Ganga’s India is oppressive and exposes Kishorilal’s vision as nostalgic longing for connection to his roots .

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Apoorva Agnihotri as Rajiv

Rajiv and Kishorilal embody some aspects of American values, but they are distorted to emphasize the fear and culture shock that Ganga is experiencing. Kishorilal’s Indian values are not reflected by his American persona, which is most apparent when considering his relationship with his adopted son. Arjun is more of a devoted employee than he is family member, as his interactions with the family fall in line with his duty and obligation to them. If Kishorilal describes India as a place where to love is to give, his relationship with Arjun is indicative of his perspective on America where “love means to give and take.” It is with this value system that he raises his son, who, in many ways, embodies this ‘American’ ideal. Rajiv is the antithesis to Arjun, who is selfless (to love is to give) and loyal, as Rajiv personifies the very idea of exchange and demands that he receive when giving. His relationship with Ganga is viewed as charitable, she will inherit his riches and therefore his commitment to her is one of generosity, so he treats interactions with her like a chore and demands that he receive his due. The scene in the Las Vegas hotel room drives this point home, as Rajiv pressures Ganga to give in to him sexually and as she pleads with him to wait for them to take their vows: traditions and values that he sees as contractual, and insists have no real meaning. Given this and other culture clashes, the problems that arise between the pair are not unrealistic and I believe are exaggerated to convey the emotional states of the characters, and not to proclaim either culture as morally superior. When Rajiv explains that in America people often have sexual relationships before marriage to his extremely disappointed fiancé, it seems as if the director is passing judgment on American culture by claiming that it is devoid of values, but it is important to recall that like Kishorilal’s skewed perception of India, Ganga presents us with a picture of America that is heavily informed by isolation and culture shock.

Amrish Puri as Kishorilal
Amrish Puri as Kishorilal

Pardes is not simply a warning against different cultures coming together and the erosion of values which inevitably follows. Subhash Ghai uses a ‘foreign’ perspective to expose contradictions in both systems of value and asks the viewer to examine what has been internalized more deeply. Just as Kishorilal’s India blinded him to its flaws, and Ganga’s America was devoid of morals, we are asked to examine our own ideologies so that we have a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. If Ganga is ‘India itself,’ as her grandmother suggests at the end of the film, then the lesson for Kishorilal would be that you can love it and leave it anyways, but you can’t take it with you. Just as status attained abroad does not make the homeland successful, taking ‘India itself’ to America does not make it India.