Sunday, November 21, 2010

I've unintentionally started on an Amitabh Bachchan string...

One of the things I’ve tried to take time to do is get to know the popular culture in Nepal better. I’ve started purchasing the daily newspaper (which nicely covers what is going on in India and Southeast Asia as well), reading English translations of Nepali prose and poetry as well as original English writings by Nepali writers (the good, and most popular ones, have all studied, worked, or spend significant time abroad). I thought I’d write a bit about the films this time around.

Ironically, the Nepali films I’ve asked for at the local DVD and video game store have all been out of stock, so I’ve been purchasing—for a mere 30 rupees each—Hindi films. Nepal and India are very different countries, no doubt, but much of the Indian culture, economy and political structure have direct bearing on these respective spheres in Nepal. So far, the films I’ve watched have all featured the film actor Amitabh Bachchan, as well as his Bachchan clan (son Abhishek and daughter-in-law Aishwaraya Rai Bachchan).

Aladin (2009, Eros International): Aladin Chatterjee is just your (extra)ordinary, bumbling, geeky college student who has been bullied from childhood by Kasim and his gang—who in fact, continue to childishly tease him about his name, primarily by making him rub lamps (conveniently purchased at the “Ancient Thing Store,” run by the local Chinese dude). But after Jasmine (an American exchange student, who is of Hispanic heritage—they had to get someone who could dance and look a little indigenous in a sari) gives him a lamp that is in fact, magic, his life changes. Enter Genius (Amitabh Bachchan), who is just months away from retirement as a genie and would like nothing more than to grant Aladin three wishes QUICKLY so he can move out of the lamp (and NOT have his contract extended by another million years!). Things are of course not this easy. Ex-genie “Ringmaster” is looking for the lamp to recover his powers, and Genius in fact knows “dark secrets” of Aladin’s past that are key to stopping Ringmaster from reclaiming his powers. Be it winning Jasmine’s heart, foiling the evil Ringmaster’s plans, or escaping from Kasim one more time, all involve a good amount of elaborate choreography and cheesy singing, which had all of us viewers in stitches. As one of my hostel mates put it, “you just don’t know what’s going to happen next! I love it!”

Aladin has been hailed as one of the best Hindi films to use special effects. That’s what originally intrigued me when I saw part of it on TV at a friend’s house. From Genius’ hand going through Aladin’s head, to flying carpets, transforming guitars, floating objects, and an electrocution scene (which just serves to embarrass Aladin, not kill him), the effects really add to the believability of the extraordinary happenings in Aladin’s life. The other things I found interesting were all the spoofs or commentary on Hollywood films. One of the early scenes involving an escape from Kasim includes some Bourne and 007 antics of climbing through windows, jumping over gates, escaping up clotheslines, avoiding flying shoes and barrels, all while navigating through a crowded bazaar. A student party crashed by Ringmaster has a shot that prominently shows a two students costumed as Spiderman and Superman respectively, colliding into each other in their desperate attempt to exit the building. The fact that it’s an American student that Aladin falls for is also intriguing.

Overall, the twisting story line, song and dance, and interesting turns on American exocticism make this a classic and entertaining Hindi film.

Sarkar (2005) and Sarkar Raj (2008): I’ve not seen any of the Godfather films, but reading the summaries online made me think of these classics. The director’s note at the beginning of Sarkar was in fact a dedication to the Godfather films. Completely opposite of the comic film Aladin, Amitabh portrays a very serious gangster mastermind, known as Sarkar, who is feared as well as respected. The storyline makes use of local, national as well as family politics, and draws on conversations about modernism and development that are so prevalent in this part of the world.

Hindi films have a reputation for being violent, and while certainly the story line of these works made violence inevitable, I feel that they were relatively less bloody than if they had been made in Hollywood. What made it so bad was the suspense involved—Hindi films build suspense through an unsubtle music score and long, artful shots that leave you anticipating an action for a long time. When the suspense breaks is completely unpredictable.

The other thing that caught me (and I appreciated) was the evident tenderness between couples, but without the innuendo or scenes involving full consummation. In addition, the director had the sense to kill off the hero’s wife BEFORE he showed any romantic interest whatsoever in the primary heroine. The religiousity woven into these films was also artfully done to augment both Amitabh and Abisheck’s characters as well as to explain some of the motivations and actions behind murders and intrigues. The soundtracks to each had a chant to “Govinda,” that was played when either of the Bachchans had completed some significant work or were in a public mob scene. After referencing Google and Wikipedia (very scholastic of me, I know), I found out that “Govinda” is a name used to refer to Krishna, especially when referring to him a source of power and as a protector. Sarkar’s whole persona is built around the ideas of power and protector. In convincing Vishnu to murder his father, Sarkar, a swami (religious teacher) counsels him that he will not be destroying Sarkar, just killing Sarkar’s body—his body is in fact just a case or shell for his soul, which will be reincarnated elsewhere. Later, when this swami attempts to talk Shankar (Abhisheck's character) out of killing him using religious reasoning, Shankar cuts him off by telling him "I'm an aetheist," thus justifying his power to be an arbiter of truth.

While not my favorite films, they comment visually and thematically on issues of change, right and wrong, and justice, and how these are realized--or could be realized-- in South Asian culture.