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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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.

Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)

ImageIn Jab Tak Hai Jaan director Yash Chopra takes us back to London for his directorial finale. The story begins in a flashback, with Akira Rai (Anushka Sharma) reading the journal of military officer Samar Anand (Shah Rukh Khan) which describes how he fell in love with Meera (Katrina Kaif) in London some ten years before. Samar and Meera begin their relationship when she asks him to teach her a Punjabi song for her father’s birthday and he, in turn, asks her to teach him good gentleman’s English. After a night of wild dancing, he tells her that he loves her, and with a kiss a seed is planted and Meera is faced with a dilemma: she is engaged. She asks Samar to pray with her and ask Jesus to help her remain strong so that she doesn’t “cross the line” and go against her father’s wish for her to marry her friend Roger. A timely visit with Meera’s estranged mother follows, and we learn how she was able to find true love only after following her heart and leaving her family behind. Meera decides that she too should do the same and admits her feelings to Samar. In true Bollywood style, song and dance highlights their romance while the pair paint the town red. The affair comes to a close when Samar is hit by a car while excitedly riding his motorcycle and shouting ‘I love you’ to Meera as she heads to explain her decision to father. She watches as paramedics struggle to save him, and offers to sacrifice her love for Samar in exchange for his life with a prayer. Having lost his love and his passion for life, Samar returns to India determined to prove to both god and Meera that he is in control of his destiny, and becomes known as ‘the man who cannot die’ while defusing bombs for the Indian Army. A documentary on the famous bomb diffuser for Discovery Channel and his friendship with its director, Akira Rai, brings him back to London where he is hit by yet another car, and the subsequent memory loss from the accident brings Meera back into his life to help with his recovery. There is, of course, a love triangle, more drama, and some personal revelations which bring the film to its conclusion.  

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 The love story is unlike any other Bollywood films I have seen, as the hero’s adversary isn’t a strict father or a villain, but God, or rather, his lover’s relationship with God (more specifically, Jesus). In fact, the film almost entirely lacks the presence of any family at all, with the sole exception being Meera’s father, portrayed by Anupam Kher (a personal favorite of mine). I think that because of this, certain things are allowed to take place in Jab Tak Hai Jaan that wouldn’t necessarily work in other Hindi films. The romance, for one, is very western, and there is no hinting around premarital sex, as Samar and Meera are shown rolling around in bed together, eating and dancing in their underwear, and having romantic liaisons on a rooftop. I have to admit that I was completely caught off guard by these Imagescenes, as I have been immersed in Bollywood cinema as of late and have become more conscious of sex on screen that I might ordinarily take for granted. However, this is done very well in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and I find that the presence of actual kissing brings their chemistry to life. When Samar kisses Meera in the station you can see him blushing as he backs away, nervous, yet self-satisfied. I felt nervous. Excited. If emotions are the driving force of Hindi film, then Jab Tak Hai Jaan has hit the nail on its head. 

 As is the case with just about all Bollywood films, there are several aspects of Jab Tak Hai Jaan that aren’t meant to be taken literally (see Bollywood for the Not Yet Initiated). The scene where a blonde European actress depicts Meera during her childhood as she prays to Jesus that she not be married to a dark skinned Indian man, for example, is not meant to suggest that Meera was actually white when she was a child, but is a comedic display of her Britishness. The other misrepresentations of British culture should also be taken with a grain of salt -a fishmonger might not necessarily be the best person to buy foie gras from, but perhaps this is meant to paint Samar as a jock of all trades- because these scenes don’t impact the progression of the plot, nor do they affect the emotional exchange between the film and its audience (which I believe is at the heart of Hindi cinema). We should suspend our disbelief and accept them not on the basis of a misrepresentation of ‘reality,’ but as a subtle metaphor that doesn’t have a significant impact on the film on the whole.

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SRK does an excellent job of separating Samar in London from Samar the military officer while putting across that we are still seeing the same character throughout, even if they come off differently down to their very physicality. Samar is full of life in London, and his excitement comes across with his passion to succeed (working multiple jobs to build his life) and his love for Meera. Whereas In the military, Samar’s passion turns in to utter determination, and his hardened exterior reflects the emotional baggage he carries. SRK’s performance is more subdued than some of his other roles where he can come off as self-aware and camera-aware and turns the charm all of the way up (consider his performances in Chennai Express for contrast). Katrina Kaif is great as Meera, a wealthy NRI who grew up in London, and she seems to fit in with the landscape in a way that Samar does not, which makes sense given that Kaif herself was partly raised in London by a British mother and an Indian father. Meera walks and talks like a cosmopolitan, and is emotionally restrained but is able to let go and open up in just the right way when she does. The pair make a convincing couple, which makes it all the more difficult to watch Meera ask Samar to leave London: his

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 anger and her anxiety come across superbly, and his feelings here set the stage for Samar’s military persona, making it apparent that he has absolutely nothing to lose. As for Akira Rai, I didn’t find that the role complimented Anushka Sharma’s ability as an actress, though I do feel that she did the best she could do with what she was given. It isn’t that Akira is all that bad, and even though her free spirit and passion for life is meant to conjure memories of Samar in London, I found that her character lacked dimension, and because of this, I couldn’t sympathize with her. This being said, I felt that the film was well cast, all around. 

The departure from the Bollywood formula may have impacted the reception of Jab Tak Hai Jaan, with its inclusion of premarital sex (and not to forget Shah Rukh Khan’s first onscreen kiss), but the film did make my heart skip a beat, and, as I have mentioned before, the ability to connect with the audience on an emotional level is the very essence of Bollywood. I believed in their love and I believed in their frustrations, and because of this, I feel that Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a solid culmination to Yash Chopra’s body of work: a love story that goes straight to the heart.

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.

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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.