With very few exceptions, this site contains a post about every Indian movie or India-related movie I have seen in the last eight years, even if just a paragraph or two. Every once in a while, though, a movie slips through the cracks, and I neglect to write about it. This offends my sense of order and completeness.
And yet, for a variety of reasons, the chances are slim I will ever write a full review of some of these films. So, here are brief notes that will fill in three gaps that have dogged me for months or years.
Haay bhagwaan, this movie is awful. It is the kind of awful I would have relished shredding in a full review, and I very much wish I had done so at the time I watched it. But for whatever reason I did not get around to that, and I just can't bring myself to view it again as I would need to do to treat it properly. Now, I remember little save the visceral shuddering sensation it induced, and the sense of embarrassment for the actors one feels when watching a truly horrendous work of cinema.
Banaras, as I recall, is a dreadful, ham-fisted attempt to weave profound religious philosophy into the filmi archetypes of an inter-caste love story. I can't say for sure that this idea is doomed from the outset; perhaps it has the potential to be a fine idea, and the film's near-unwatchability is due to irrecoverable flaws in execution. Most of the film's cast is competent; Urmila Matondkar stars as a philosophical Brahmin woman, Raj Babbar and Dimple Kapadia play her parents, and Naseeruddin Shah makes an appearance as the enlightened mentor of the low-caste young man (Ashmit Patel) that Urmila's character falls in love with. This Ashmit Patel is thoroughly outclassed in this company, and his stiff, breathy, awful performance contributes in no small measure to the cringeworthiness of this terrible movie.
Having now been to the titular city in the years since I endured this film, I might at least enjoy its mystical setting. There is something remarkable about being on the Ganga in Banaras; one can feel the holiness of the place in the collective sincerity of the pilgrims that flock there to worship. But I would not risk desecrating those memories by superimposing this embarrassingly clumsy film on them. It's just not worth it.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
I saw this movie when it came out, but I didn't write about it right away, and after a week or two it seemed so much ink had been spilled about it that I had nothing to add to the greater discourse. Now, more than four years later, I feel much the same. It is a good film, tightly scripted, well-acted, manipulative in all the right ways, entertaining and moving (*). But as a western movie by a western director, it raises issues that make me uncomfortable, issues I am not sure how to address.
I don't think there is anything wrong, a priori, with people telling stories set inside cultures other than their own. I do not think such stories are necessarily exploitative or colonial or presumptuous, although many are all of these things. I do not even know whether Slumdog Millionaire errs in these respects, or whether its director Danny Boyle has treaded carefully enough to paint a legitimate picture. But in a sense, it doesn't matter. Western audiences with little knowledge of India will draw the conclusions they draw, regardless of how much care has gone into crafting the story.
The portrayal of Bombay life in Slumdog Millionaire may be faithful in some respects, but it is a faithful representation of only one of Bombay's multiplicity of truths, much less the truths of all of India. Of course, no movie can explore all realities at once. But there is an unfortunate tendency among western audiences without nuanced knowledge of India's many cultures to extrapolate from what they see in a movie like Slumdog Millionaire. It is because of movies like Slumdog Millionaire that my mother accused me of neglecting the "real India" when I chose to take a walk on my own through Kala Ghoda and Fort rather than accompany her on a tour of Dharavi.
After her visit to Dharavi, I showed my mother Dhobi Ghat (**), and I hope it helped her understand that the "real India" is in fact many real Indias, a layered and intertwined complex that cannot be experienced in an afternoon, whether one chooses to spend that afternoon in a poor or an affluent part of town. But none of this means categorically that movies about India shouldn't be made by western filmmakers and marketed widely in the west. It has to be better for westerners to learn something about India, even if it is an oversimplified, undernuanced something, than to learn nothing at all. Me, I would rather watch Indian movies made for Indians than western attempts at capturing Indian authenticities. What I learn from, I suppose, is eavesdropping on the stories Indians tell each other. But if even a small fraction of the westerners who filled theaters watching Slumdog Millionaire was inspired to go learn more, then the movie has already done more than a mainstream entertainer has any responsibility to do.
(*) I've been half-watching it while writing this, and I have to note that I am not finding it as well-acted or as moving the second time through.
(**) Once before our trip I had tried to show her Dharavi but she didn't get into it.
Jaanwar aur insaan (1972)
Shashi Kapoor made a lot of movies. His work ethic is legendary, but he could not have been terribly discriminating in his choice of scripts. The truly worst movies he ever made are probably - blessedly - forgotten, tucked away in dusty cans in some moldy storage locker in Bombay, never to be transferred to digital medium. But others of his clunkers do remain. And some Shashi Kapoor fans are devoted enough to be as undiscriminating in our choice of films to watch as he was in his choice of films to act in.
When I stumbled across Jaanwar aur insaan on YouTube, I knew I had to bring it to Beth's attention. In addition to Shashi Kapoor, it offered Rakhee, another favorite of hers. I briefly scanned the file for subtitles. It didn't have them, but I could tell it wouldn't matter; the scenes I watched had little dialogue, just Shashi Kapoor beating up bad guys and Shashi Kapoor stalking a tiger. This was a movie we simply had to see.
When I watched the movie in the company of both Beth and Amrita, we were not fully prepared for how dreadful it would actually be. It starts out promisingly, with terrific overture music over the opening credits and legitimately impressive wildlife photography. It treats you to some of the more hilarious fight choreography that Hindi films offer so richly, and Meena (Rakhee) in a memorabe sun-yellow pantsuit. Make no mistake - the movie is stupid. The plot, such as it is, consists mostly of Shekhar (Shashi) stalking a tiger which he remains unable to catch for much of his adult life. There is also the obligatory "yeh shaadi nahin ho sakti" sort of story element, whereby tension is caused by Meena's father having murdered Rakhee's father. But for a while the stupidness is fun, at least when enjoyed with a like-minded friend or two.
Jaanwar aur insaan takes a decided turn for the WTF when Shekhar and Meena's child enters the picture. Shekhar contends for father of the year in his approach to teaching his spoiled, miscreant child a lesson: He takes the boy to the wilderness, ties him to a tree, and leaves him there to be sniffed and nuzzled by wild animals. This is how Shekhar finally defeats the tiger that has troubled him for years: using his own son as bait. The loyal Shashi Kapoor fan who suffers through this movie may wish that it was she tied to that tree instead.