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Aaja Nachle (India, 2007)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3
Director: Anil Mehta
Cast
Madhuri Dixit, Raghuvir Yadav, Konkona Sen Sharma, Kunal Kapoor, Akshaye Khanna, Divya Dutta, Irrfan Khan, Ranvir Shorey
Plot: A single mother from New York tries to save a theatre from demolition in the village she grew up in.


The film is available to rent or buy on youtube.

About the film

Madhuri Dixit (perhaps the only actress in Bollywood to achieve stardom on the level of the biggest male stars) made her comeback after a 5 year break with this film and it’s clear that her presence gave the makers the confidence to break all the rules. It’s unlike any Bollywood film I’ve ever seen before.

This film doesn’t just have a female protagonist, it has no leading man at all. The leading lady, on the other hand, was 40 years old at the time of the film’s release. Whether we’re talking Bollywood or Western mainstream cinema, a 40 year old female protagonist with no leading man is a huge rarity.
Even more interestingly, all of the men Dia (Madhuri’s character) has any sort of romance or innuendo with, are played by men younger than her. The actor playing Steve (the man who Dia elopes to the USA with) is 11 years younger. Akshaye Khanna (the politician who makes a very amusing pass at Dia) is 8 years younger. The actor playing Mohan (Dia’s fiance who has his heart broken when she elopes with another) is 5 years younger. Finally, there’s a sort of flirty scene in which Dia tries to make Imran take the leading role in her play. Kunal Kapoor, the actor playing Imran, is 8 years younger.
These age differences are even more striking in that nothing is made of them. Dia is not a “cougar” or anything of the sort. She’s simply an attractive woman that men take notice of. In one case (the 11 year difference) the male character appears solely in a flashback to Dia’s youth, so at that point Madhuri is playing a character much younger than she really is. But for the rest of the film she is playing more or less her actual age.
In other words, Madhuri is treated much like a leading man would be. It’s quite normal for men to be cast alongside younger women and for nothing to be made out of it. But for me it’s probably the first time I see it done with a leading woman in either Bollywood or Hollywood. I guess 5-11 years isn’t that much when in both Hollywood and Bollywood it’s not uncommon to have leading men in their forties cast alongside ladies in their twenties, but I still appreciate that this film did even that much.

Aaja Nachle starts in a very matter of fact way. In the first minutes of the film Dia gets “the phone call” during a dance class she’s teaching. The man who taught her to dance is dying. It was nicely done – that way in which those kinds of phone calls happen, one is never ready for them. Everything has to be put on hold because Dia needs to be there – both for her teacher’s sake and for her own.
Dia’s little daughter demands an explanation for the sudden plane trip to the small Indian town her mother vowed she would never ever go back to. And this is how we learn Dia’s past. She mistakes a summer romance with an American for the love of her life and elopes, despite her family’s arrangements to marry her off to a really nice guy from town. Soon after she and Steve arrive in the US, she realizes they’re not right for each other. Pregnant and divorced she makes a life for herself in New York, completely cut off from family and friends. A difficult reality, but Dia appears to have coped well with it. She loves her daughter to bits and she’s clearly enjoying a successful and fulfilling career. All of this is shown so bluntly, raw and real.

I really loved the blunt and matter of fact way in which they handle Dia’s life choices. The way Dia just lives her life as it is and the way the town judges her – nobody actually calls her a slut to her face, but it’s clear what they think. There’s a scene where she gets reaquainted with a childhood friend (Divya Dutta) and meets said friend’s husband (Irrfan Khan). The way in which Irrfan Khan reacts upon hearing she is divorced is so so real. No direct comment is made, but it’s obvious what he thinks.

As much as I loved certain aspects of the film, it does, IMO, have a very major flaw. It failed to make me care about the main storyline – saving the Ajanta theatre from demolition. Sure, it was interesting enough to watch Dia’s attempts to do so. The whole argument of why art is such an important thing to have in a town is nicely put together. But did I really care how the film would end? Did I root for Dia’s success in this endeavour? Nope, not really. And judging by other people’s reactions, I’m not the only one. IMO that’s probably why the film seriously flopped, even though there’s a lot of quality things in it.

That said, there is still much to appreciate in this film. It’s a good quality production with some wonderful dance scenes and good acting.
While it doesn’t have any really big names other than Madhuri in it, it has an absolutely fantastic cast of character actors – Irrfan Khan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Raghuv Yadav, Divya Dutta.
But by far the most enjoyable part of the movie for me were the scenes between Madhuri and Akshaye. Akshaye Khanna does a very small guest part in this, but it’s a really good one. The “flirtish adversary chemistry” between the two of them is awesome and the scenes where they’re trying to keep to certain standards of politeness while actually being incredibly rude and mean to each other are hilarious. It was also fun for me to have so much of the dialogue between them in English. Dia’s daughter, having been brought up in New York, is much more comfortable with English than Hindi and both Dia and Uday (Akshaye’s character) is very comfortable with English (Uday was educated abroad), so much of their conversation ends up being in English. I loved the way they intonated and played with the English dialogue. The “I’m the bad guy” line was particularly amusing.

Overall, an interesting film for quite a few reasons, but IMO it didn’t entirely come off.

Quite a few Bollywood films are “heavily inspired” by Hollywood ones, though the original Hollywood films rarely get any credit for this (Brothers which came out last year was the first time I’ve seen an Indian movie actually marketed as a remake of an American one).
Nonetheless “Aap Ki Khatir” very clearly takes its plot from “The Wedding Date” and I figured it would be interesting to review these in tandem.

The Wedding Date (USA, 2005)

My rating: -1 (Disliked it)
Bechdel Test:
2 out of 3
Director: Clare Kilner
Cast
: Debra Messing, Dermot Mulroney, Amy Adams
Plot: A girl has to face her ex at her sister’s wedding. She hires a male escort to pretend to be her boyfriend to feel more confident at the event.

Aap Ki Khatir (India, 2006)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it)
Bechdel Test:
2 out of 3
Director: Dharmesh Darshan
Cast
: Akshaye Khanna, Priyanka Chopra, Ameesha Patel, Dino Morea, Sunil Shetty, Anupam Kher, Lillete Dubey
Plot: A girl who is still infatuated with her ex, has to face him at her sister’s wedding. She pays a man to pretend to be her boyfriend in the hope of making her ex jealous.

Introduction

Neither of these films is particularly groundbreaking or high quality. But Aap Ki Khatir is the one I enjoyed far more and it got me thinking about why I watch romantic comedies and what I want to get out of them.
Aap Ki Khatir lifts pretty much the whole storyline from The Wedding Date, changing only a few details here and there. It lifts a few scenes as well, but where the films are very different are in the character dynamics. And I think that’s the crux of the matter here – who actually watches a romantic comedy for the plot? Surely, it’s the interaction between the characters that truly matters in romance? And why did I enjoy the character dynamics in Aap Ki Khatir so much more?

The major difference between Kat and Anu

Kat and Anu have both been dumped by their exes in very unpleasant fashion and neither of them have got over this. But the big difference is that no matter how stuck she is in her love live, Anu is a successful career woman. As for Kat, we have no idea what her professional life is like, but it doesn’t seem she has much to boast about.
Kat and Anu both have a lot of insecurities and easily get agitated, but Anu nonetheless comes across as a much more confident and independent woman. In one scene in which she has a very bad argument with Aman, she tells him to stop pitying her and says bluntly “I don’t need anyone, Mr Aman Mehra” and I think that’s sort of true. Anu may be confused and stressed about a lot of things, but she definitely doesn’t need a man to take care of her.

Nick and Aman – completely different types of romantic heroes

Nick and Aman have very little in common. Both of them are quite cocky and that’s about it for similarities.
Nick is a professional escort. He is like a model from a catalogue, very suave, a high earner, confident and everything else you might expect. Or to put it a different way – he is sickeningly perfect. He’s also rather arrogant.
Aman is a very different kettle of fish. In his own words, he is an average-looking guy with an average wage. It’s unclear whether he’s ever done an escort job before, but probably not. This one is just side income for him. He works in Mumbai, in the same office building as Anu, but 11 floors below (and is clearly on a much lower wage than Anu). Although Anu and Aman work for the same company (in different departments) they have not interacted much previously.

The dynamics of the romance

As you might expect, these character backgrounds create vastly different dynamics. Nick has the upper hand over Kat almost all the time. Kat is constantly apologetic and never really takes control of the situation even though she’s paying him to take care of her needs.
Anu, on the other hand, is a rather bossy lady and has no problem with telling Aman what to do. Aman dutifully does what she’s actually paying him for (pretending to be her boyfriend and doing whatever he can to make Danny, her ex, jealous), but doesn’t necessarily do everything else she wants. Who has the upper hand changes from scene to scene, but Anu can certainly be rather forceful.
Case in point, lets compare the two sport playing scenes from the two films. Here is the baseball scene from The Wedding Date:

And this is the cricket scene from Aap Ki Khatir:

It’s a rather striking difference in the power dynamics, isn’t it?

To be honest, I really don’t understand why The Wedding Date chose to have these sorts of dynamics. To me the “spicy” and unusual part of the premise is that a woman is paying a man to service her the way she wants. Why did The Wedding Date choose not to play into the most original part of the premise?

Also, the plot actually makes a lot more sense with the Aap Ki Khatir character backgrounds.
Nick is an escort, he’s done this so many times before without falling love, so why Kat all of a sudden? I’d maybe buy into the whole escort falls in love with his client thing if the film gave me a clear reason for why Kat was particularly attractive to Nick, but it didn’t. Not only that, but the love happens so suddenly. Until Kat drunkedly gets Nick to have sex with her there’s no indication that he loves her (I think the fact that he didn’t ask her for money before getting into bed with her was supposed to mean he loved her).
Aman falling for Anu makes a lot of sense on the other hand. Aman is not a professional escort, so he would not have been in this sort of situation before. He also openly flirts with Anu pretty much from when they board the flight to London, which indicates that he probably noticed Anu at work and found her attractive even before taking the escort job.

The ex-boyfriend dynamic

Aap Ki Khatir again chooses a much better approach IMO. Anu really pines for Danny. This makes it more uncomfortable for Aman as he starts falling for her, more painful for Anu when things don’t go according to plan, adds comedy to the situation and gives Anu very strong motivation to go the whole male escort route.

In The Wedding Date, I never got the impression that Kat was hoping to get back with Jeffrey. The motivation for going the male escort route seems to be insecurity and the whole set up is much less interesting.

Why Nick is a bigger jerk than Aman

Aman has some slightly jerkish moments. Mostly, there are a few moments when he’s a bit mean with his jokes and a bit too pushy in how he flirts with Anu (though in Bollywood romantic hero terms he’s actually unusually unstalkerish and unpossessive). Other than that, he’s quite nice and fairly polite (it helps that he’s played by Akshaye Khanna obviously, but even so I think he’s quite likeable).
Nick is not pushy, but he’s rather rude and insensitive on quite a few occasions and other than being handsome and suave doesn’t seem to have many redeeming qualities.
There are two instances in which the difference between the two characters shows up particularly well. Firstly, the sex scene (or in the case of Aap Ki Khatir – the almost sex scene). The plot is that the heroine gets really drunk and in her drunkedness, decides that having sex with the hero is a great idea. Nick takes advantage of this – he sleeps with her even though she’s so drunk she doesn’t remember anything in the morning (to be fair, at least he doesn’t charge her for this). Aman teases her about this a lot the next morning (including about how much he would have charged her if he had slept with her), but he doesn’t take advantage (I suppose her being so drunk that she calls him Danny could have had something to do with it, but he didn’t seem that bothered about it when she was trying to take his shirt off).
The second instance in which Nick’s jerkishness shows up very obviously is in how insensitively he goes about Kat’s preoccupation with her ex. Other than at the twist at the end (he hugs her when she finds out something she really didn’t want to know), he gives her very little emotional support in that regard. He also really ruffles her feathers when he lectures her about how she’s single and can’t get over her ex because that’s exactly what she wants to be at this time (this may or may not be true, but it’s certainly not a sensitive thing to say).
Aman, in contrast, is actually relatively sensitive about Anu’s infatuation with Danny. There’s a real sort of warmth about how he listens to Anu’s story of their breakup. He does lecture her on how men get over their heartbreaks much quicker and how she should be stronger, but the way he does it is a bit of a tease and it actually seems to put her in a better mood.

The family

Perhaps one of the most striking differences between The Wedding Date and Aap Ki Khatir are the dynamics in the heroine’s family. Kat’s only decent family member is her stepfather really. Other than him, her family is very insensitive about her heartbreak (to the point of ridiculousness actually – I can’t quite imagine a real family behaving like that). In some ways having a good-looking man as her date brings her more relief with her family than it does with her ex-boyfriend.
Anu’s family, on the other hand, is genuinely worried for her and how she’s coping with her heartbreak. Her stepsister apologizes profusely for inviting Danny (the ex-boyfriend). Unfortunately, he’s her husband-to-be’s best friend, so they can’t easily uninvite him.

Aap Ki Khatir also has a lot more detail in all the family relationships. In particular they really flesh out the relationship between Anu’s mother and her stepfather. It’s very clear the two of them love each other very much and are still very sexually attracted to each other, which is extremely cute. You don’t often get relationships between two middle-aged characters portrayed like that. Very unusually, they even have a sort of kissing scene, which is kind of ironic in that Anu and Aman do not have one.

General comments

Aap Ki Khatir has become one of my go-to feel-good movies. Even though the quality of it is poor on a few levels, there’s something about it that brings me a lot of amusement and happiness.
I wish the dance numbers weren’t edited in such a jumpy style cause the actual choreo and dancing is rather good.
I love the chemistry between Akshaye Khanna and Priyanka Chopra – they really work well together. And I really enjoy Akshaye Khanna in this sort of romantic hero role.

Wedding Date is a film I will probably never see again. Even Amy Adams, who I usually really like, is kind of blah in this IMO.
It has better production quality and the script is much more tightly structured, but the film just doesn’t have any charm.

Finally, on a completely random note, Aap Ki Khatir seems to have some sort of weird censorship going on (or was this cut made for other reasons?). There’s a very short shot in one of the songs where Aman’s face is against Anu’s uncovered back. It’s rather sexy and a little bit more racy than standard, but not really that adventurous (especially considering it’s so so short). You can see it here as it was released in the music video, but oddly it is missing from the actual film.
For some reason he’s also wearing leather gloves in that song. I’m not really sure why since he has cotton/woollen ones for the outdoor scenes in the rest of the film. Fetish?😛

 

RIP Alan Rickman

It feels strange and very, very sad when one’s heroes and film crushes pass away. It’s not like you really know them or like they are a big part of your life. Yet there’s something about their death that shakes you.

For me Alan Rickman was a very special actor, one of the select few who I loved so much I’d sit through even a film or performance I didn’t like much, just to see him. And his death is a bit like an end of a certain era for me. It’s the first time a celebrity I grew up with (I’ve been watching him since my teens and I’m now in my 30s) and loved this much has passed away.

RIP Alan Rickman. You will be missed.

Doli Saja Ke Rakhna (India, 1998)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
2 out of 3 (possibly you could say there’s a conversation between two mothers that is not entirely about men, but since it’s mainly about an upcoming wedding which does involve a man, I’m not going to count it)
Director: Priyadarshan
Music:
A.R. Rahman
Cast
Akshaye KhannaJyothikaAnupam Kher, Amrish Puri, Paresh Rawal, Moushumi Chatterjee, Aruna Irani
Plot: A love story in which the lovers’ families very violently show their dissapproval.

About the film

Bollywood (particularly in the 1990s) has done a lot of melodramatic beating scenes – the hero proving his love by getting beaten up to a pulp and that sort of thing. I get a bizarre sort of enjoyment out of them. There’s probably many strange reasons for this (and judging by how popular this theme is, I can’t be the only one). But I think my love of melodrama and dislike of the whole macho ideal play into this a lot.
This film doesn’t disappoint on that count😉 The hero and in some scenes also his sidekicks go through a loooot of beatings and other indignities. There’s a beautiful fantasy dance sequence in which the heroine is reading a novel and imagining herself as the princess and the hero as the peasant boy. Even in this fantasy, the hero must go through a certain amount of indignity and violence before he gets the girl –  the sultan-like figure sentences him to death and the hero is trussed up and blindfolded as he awaits his beheading.
I really enjoy watching Akshaye Khanna getting beaten up on screen (weird, but true).  Like with everything else he does – he’s very earnest in those scenes. There’s no attempt to make the scenes more dignified, he just earnestly goes through with them and for me there’s something very beautiful about that.

But the beatings aren’t the only highlight of the film😉 It features one of the most wonderfully awkward first date scenes ever. They end up talking about the weather and have amazing lines like “Do you watch weather forecasts?”. The date is interrupted just as the hero decides he must show the heroine some grass seeds and is crawling on his hands and knees in front of her, trying to find some.
The second date doesn’t disappoint on wonderfully awkward lines either (Inder tries to find out how she feels about kissing).

I really appreciate the scene in which the hero asks her if she loves him back. A lot of the time in Bollywood the hero assumes that if he tries hard enough he will win the girl over, so he doesn’t necessarily ask or take a no answer seriously. Inder asks and there’s a sense that if Pallavi says no, he will walk away from the relationship, even though he’s completely stricken with her and has by this point already taken some nasty beatings from her brothers.

What really stunned me though is the second half of the film.  It has many of the problems that second halves of 90s Bollywood romances usually do. The first half tends to be there for them to fall in love and set up the drama that will make their love difficult. The second is when all the family drama comes together with lots of soap operaish melodrama and far-fetched scenarios.
Dola Saja Ke Rakhna is the first film I’ve seen that has all of that non-sensical second half drama happening and yet it didn’t bother me. If anything, I got a bigger emotional kick out of the second half than I did from the first.
SPOILER ALERT! (select the whitespace to view the text) In the middle of the second half, the lovers make a rather unusual decision. Having eloped together after some nasty happenings, they then change their minds and decide to give up on their love and return to their families. The scene in which they talk this over is really intense. By this point they’ve been completely shunned by both their families and both are heart-broken at the thought of having to remain away from their families for the rest of their lives. When the heroine asks the question “Should we separate?”  it’s an amazing moment. What’s even more amazing is that in some ways they separate out of love for each other – they don’t want to see the other partner so unhappy. And if the English subtitles are to be believed, they even use the word “possessive” to describe the love of their families when they try to make sense of why all of this is happening to them. For me it was a really beautiful scene and an amazing contrast of two kinds of loves – the possessive kind their families feel for them and the pure, non-possessive kind they feel for each other.
And then there’s the scene towards the end of the film that blew me away. The heroine is serving drinks to both her own and Inder’s families. Finally, just one glass remains on the tray – she has to take it to Inder and face him in front of everybody without being able to express any of the love they’ve given up on. It’s a very awkward moment. A lot of discomfort passes through the room. All the two of them do is look at each other, but it’s so so beautiful and so much emotion passes between them.
Eventually, the families do finally recognise their children’s love for what it is. It turns out that just as the two lovers didn’t want to make each other unhappy by separating from their families, their families don’t want to make the two of them unhappy either. It’s a very convoluted path to get to a happy ending! END SPOILER

Like with most 90s Bollywood films, the film has that air of a low budget and poor production quality. That said, it is actually better quality than the average film of that era. They certainly had some very good ideas for shots and cuts.
One of my personal favourites is the first beating Inder and his two sidekicks receive. It’s quite unusual to do a beating scene in one shot, but that’s how they play it out. The camera shoots the action on one particular bit of wall. One after the other, each of the three people receiving the beating get thrown at that wall and then hit with enough “force” to remove them from the frame. Each of them has their shirt in a different state of disarray when they appear in shot which IMO adds to the whole choreography of it somehow. It’s nicely done.

The music in this film is a bit of a disappointment. I have a soft spot for A.R. Rahman – he really does help movies come to life, even when he’s not at his best (as is the case in this film). Nonetheless, the soundtrack does have an air of having been quickly put together. The music in this film was, apparently, originally used by A.R. Rahman in a Tamil movie and simply reused here.

Finally, most of the acting is of really high standard in this film. Unfortunately, I think the writing isn’t of high enough standard to really show off the skills of the actors😛 But if you look beyond the writing and Bollywood clichés then there are some interesting performances.
This was the first time for me to see Jyothika, which is hardly surprising considering this was the only Hindi film she ever made. These days she can be seen mainly in Tamil films, though she’s made appearances in other languages as well.
What I most loved about her on screen is that I totally understood why the hero might be so stricken with her. Although she has none of the glamour that I usually associate with leading ladies in Bollywood, there’s something so shy, soft and adorable about her that I really had no trouble believing the hero could fall in love at first sight.
Besides that, she put in a very subtle and nuanced performance – even the most melodramatic scenes have a lot of restraint.
I loved Akshaye Khanna in this as well. It’s a very early role of his, but you can see he was already a very conscious performer. When he’s at his best, he really adds in a lot of detail. In the beating scenes, for example, his sidekicks are just acting out being hit, whereas he’s also playing out what’s going through Inder’s head – stuff like wondering where the next punch is going to come from.
I’m happy to have seen another romance with Akshaye Khanna where the chemistry between him and the heroine really works. Maybe I’m just being fussy, but in most of the films I’ve seen, I’ve not liked his romantic chemistry much. Not only that, but this is the first time I’ve liked his chemistry with a leading lady that is very shy and delicate rather than strong and forceful. There’s really a lot of beautifully tender and awkward moments between them.
Anupam Kher shows off why he’s so well respected as an actor. There are some really tender father-son scenes between him and Akshaye Khanna. I particularly liked the melodramatic one when he sees Inder after a really bad beating. It’s a shame that Anupam Kher’s role really isn’t written that well – the father’s actions feel very inconsistent and good acting can only go so far to fix those problems.
Amrish Puri is in a completely non-villainous role for once (he is a fisherman, the father of one of Inder’s friends), which is really weird but interesting. One thing that comes across is how powerful his on-screen presence is. In some ways I appreciate that even more seeing him in a role like this.
Paresh Rawal is somebody who I’ve really warmed up to during my Akshaye Khanna retrospective (they star opposite each other a lot). He’s at his best when he gets to do a lot nuance, which he has quite a bit of in this film. As Pallavi’s oldest brother he juggles a deep love for his sister with a deep dislike of Inder and rage at his sister when she falls for Inder anyway. Again, the writing is the not the most graceful at handling some of the contradictory things he does, but IMO you can see Paresh Rawal’s class as an actor all the same.
The two mothers (Moushumi Chatterjee and Aruna Irani) of the hero and heroine also put in good performances, though they are both rather on the sidelines for most of the film.

Overall, this is probably not exactly a great film, but it happens to totally rub me the right way and it does have some interesting things about it. It flopped when it originally came out and many people seem to hate it, but there is a small group of people (that clearly includes me) who absolutely love it.

Fifty Shades of Grey (USA, 2015)

My rating: -1 (Disliked it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3 amazingly enough
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast
: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora, Callum Keith Rennie
Plot: The story of a relationship between a young woman and a wealthy young man who is into BDSM

About the film

Urgh…. like really… urgh… That’s how I feel about this movie. I did a lot of cringing and sniggering during this film. To be fair, not everything about it is terrible, but urgh accurately describes what I feel anyway.

So, one aspect of the film I did like was Dakota Johnson. She’s actually pretty good, especially considering Anastasia Steele is not a particularly well-rounded character. There’s something about her on screen that makes her very interesting to watch and she’s well cast for this too. There’s a certain kind of vulnerability and hesitation about her that’s really attractive.
She has good chemistry with Jamie Dornan – they look pretty natural together on screen. But I’m afraid I didn’t like Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey at all. To me it feels like they cast him for his looks and for the chemistry he has with Dakota Johnson, but forgot the third part of the equasion – Christian Grey is a very domineering man. For a part like this you need a guy who can do that dominant sort of vibe well and Jamie Dornan just isn’t that guy.
The other problem with a role like Christian Grey is that he’s a very boring character if you portray him exactly as he’s written. IMO to actually make a character like him interesting, you need to find a different angle on him.
So, for example, Edward Cullen from Twilight is a very similar character (hardly surprising considering Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a Twilight fan fiction). But the reason Robert Pattinson worked for me in Twilight was that he put a lot of focus on Edward being a creepy stalker who has killed a lot of people and really wants to drink Bella’s blood. Edward is still sickeningly perfect, handsome and all that obviously, but when the focus of the performance is so clearly on him being a creep it makes things so much more interesting (and IMO also very amusing).
Jamie Dornan just didn’t find a good angle on Christian Grey from what I could tell. The one moment in his performance that I remember as being a bit different and interesting was in the climax of the film. *SPOILER WARNING* (select the white text that follows to read the spoiler) The movie culminates in a scene in which Anastasia and Christian have an argument in which she expresses her frustration at all kinds of things, but in particular about him holding back so much from her. He keeps saying she wouldn’t understand, so she asks him to make her understand – to show her exactly how bad the full extent of what he wants to do to her can get. So he spanks her really hard with a belt. For me, that was the only moment where Jamie Dornan did something that felt emotionally bold and interesting. Even though they’re not doing anything that sexual in the scene (it’s a beating, not sex), Jamie Dornan really makes it look like Christian is getting off on it in a way that’s rather disturbing. Until then everything about Christian was rather soppy and boring, so for me that was the only moment when things actually started feeling kind of dark.

For the most part, I was really disappointed with the sex scenes in the film. There was one sex scene I thought was really well done and the rest were kind of blah.
I’m also really annoyed with Hollywood for its prudishness about oral sex. Apparently, it’s fine to show a man being violent with a woman for sexual reasons, but oral sex is just too kinky to make an appearance. Even more annoyingly, whilst the word fellatio is visible on a page of the BDSM contract they are talking over, cunnilingus is not (and if you’re wondering – the book was not squeamish about either fellatio or cunnilingus). There is a scene in which for a moment it looks like Christian is about to go down on her, but they make sure to show she is still in her underwear and he very quickly gets back up.
Another thing that really annoyed me was the double standard on pubic hair. Christian’s almost full frontal  is annoying in and of itself because it looks like somebody said “hmmmm… I suppose we should show his genitals at least once or the audience will be disappointed… but we can’t be too graphic or they’ll give us an NC-17. We better only show only a little bit for a second or two”. But the really annoying bit is that he has plenty of pubic hair whilst Anastasia is hairless. I wouldn’t have really minded whether they had gone with hairy or hairless for this movie as long as it had been consistent for both genders. I hate that double standard *sigh*

Overall, I felt this was a movie that failed because Hollywood doesn’t yet have the guts to do something like this properly. Obviously, the source material isn’t that great (disclaimer: I’ve only read the first book), but I actually thought there was a good chance they could make an enjoyable movie out of it if they cut and softened some of the most cringeworthy bits (they did cut and soften some but I was still cringing and sniggering loads).
The truth is that if you’re going to make a mainstream BDSM erotic movie, it has to be really bold and daring to work. In this film they chickened out on way too many things.
It’s a shame as I really wanted to like this. So much sexual content in the media (and in the porn industry) is created by men and this film is a bit of a rarity. It has an unusually large number of women behind it – the writers, the director and the editors of Fifty Shades of Grey are all women which almost never happens in Hollywood (the last time I was aware of all those positions being taken by women was on the first Twilight film).
I can’t really argue with the sentiment that both the book and the film are rather bad pieces of fiction, but I don’t like the patronizing tone most people seem to use when discussing the franchise. Labels such as “mummy porn” and suggestions that only really desperate women can enjoy the franchise really annoy me. It’s as if pornography made by men for men is somehow considered superior, simply because it caters to a more male point of view on sex. Characters like Christian Grey get very sharp criticism for being so bland and underdeveloped, but people are so used to the objectified (and very underdeveloped) female characters in action films and other genres with large male audiences that those cases don’t get anywhere near as much criticism.
Anyway, double standards suck – that’s really the point of my rant!

Bollywood/Hollywood (Canada, 2002)

My rating: +0 (Liked it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3
DirectorDeepa Mehta
Cast
: Rahul Khanna, Lisa Ray, Moushumi Chatterjee, Dina Pathak, Ranjit Chowdhry, Jessica Paré, Akshaye Khanna (cameo)
Plot: After the hero’s white girlfriend dies in a levitation accident, his Indian family breathes a sigh of relief and pressures him to find a nice Indian girl instead.

About the film

This is a really mad film. It’s the sort of plot that would not be out of place in some particularly crazy and over the top comedy, but that is not at all what it is. In some ways it’s the really subtle and art house tone of the film that makes this feel even crazier.

The film starts with a scene that had me laughing so hard I could barely continue watching it. It’s a deathbed scene in very melodramatic style (we’ve seen those in many a Bollywood movie), where the father imparts his wisdom to his young son, using completely ridiculous baseball references (presumably as a nod to Hollywood – Americans use baseball terminology to describe even sex after all).
Then the story starts properly. Rahul, our hero, is all grown up now. He’s lived in Canada all his life, so he’s in some bizarre cultural in-between state where he’s kind of Indian, but not entirely. The film does a beautiful job of portraying what it’s like to be a second generation emmigrant – something I can very much relate to due to my own upbringing (in my case, I grew up confused between Polish and British culture).
And so, our sort of Indian hero has a white girlfriend, which causes a lot of drama in his family (cause that’s what happens in Bollywood love stories – there is always family drama because something is always wrong with the social standing of either the hero or the heroine). When the white girlfriend is removed from the picture (due to a levitation accident), the hero is practically blackmailed by his family to find a nice Indian girlfriend ASAP.
As it happens, an Indian-looking girl approaches the hero in a bar and is willing to play the part of his girlfriend for an agreed sum of money. The hero presumes she is Spanish, but her looks are such that he knows he can pass her as Indian to his family. From then on, a bizarre version of “Pretty Woman” follows.
The film has a lot of very strange (but funny) dialogues, a lot of passionate kissing (Hollywood expressions of romance) and a few dance numbers (Bollywood expressions of romance), as well as an adorable transvestite character. It also features a cute cameo from Akshaye Khanna. He gets to say “Rahul is like a brother to me” (about the character played by his actual older brother) and does a very happy and flirty dance with Rahul’s date, just as Rahul realizes his date can speak Hindi and is therefore not in fact Spanish.
I also really love the whole “slut” theme. The hero presumes that Sue cannot possibly be Indian simply because she approaches him in a bar. Indian girls don’t do that kind of thing apparently and her general “sluttishness” poses all kinds of problems to Rahul’s Indian sensitivies. There’s something very direct about how they raise that whole double standard in the film.

Overall, this is a very interesting and funny art house film. But I think it’s also a slightly hard sell in that many of the people who are most likely to see it will either not get the Bollywood references or not enjoy something so art house.

Taal (India, 1999)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
I’m going with 2 out of 3, but you could try arguing 3 out of 3
Director: Subhash Ghai
Music: A.R. Rahman
Cast
: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Akshaye Khanna, Anil Kapoor, Amrish Puri, Alok NathSushma Seth
Plot: A love story between a rich London-born Indian and a girl from a small Indian village in the mountains.

About the film

Whenever I consider watching a Bollywood film from the 90s I’m always a bit wary, even more so when it’s a straight out romance like this one is. There’s always the worry that it’ll be too soppy, take itself too seriously or the conservative treatment of gender roles will annoy me too much. On top of that, there are the low budgets of that era, which really effect production quality.
Fortunately, Taal is a much better film than I anticipated. Then again it’s the first Bollywood film ever to break into the top 20 in the US box office, so perhaps I should not have set my expectations so low!

Taal has two things that left me in awe. Firstly, it’s just so beautiful. The mountain scenery is practically one of the characters in the movie and it is stunning. The cinematography is very beautiful. The dance sequences, though very traditional, are head and shoulders over what you see in most 90s movies. The music (both the songs and the background score) is amazing and it really gives the film a very special mood and style.
Secondly, what has stayed with me is how tender it is. There’s something so innocent and tender about the romance between Manav (Akshaye Khanna) and Mansi (Aishwarya Rai) that I found it easy to forgive the things that would have usually got on my nerve.

The plot is extremely basic and done hundreds of times before in Bollywood. Rich boy pursues poor girl, they fall in love, the father of the rich boy dissapproves and drama ensues. But there are a few minor differences to the standard script that made it easier to stomach for me.
Something that can be annoying (if not downright creepy) is the way the guys pursue village girls in many Bollywood films. Interaction between genders is very limitted in villages, so the rules of romance tend to be very weird in these kinds of romantic films. Generally, the guy starts stalking her after she shows very little or no interest in him. Manav starts off as the stalking kind also. He begins by sneaking up on Mansi and taking photos of her. But what’s different about this film is that Mansi’s father complains to Manav’s family and Manav is made to apologize for his behaviour – it’s kind of refreshing to not see it condoned!
Next up in the standard village romance storyline is that the couple suddenly falls very deeply in love even though they have had hardly any interaction and don’t know each other at all. In some films I’ve seen, the lady will have shown almost no interest in the guy until this point. Manav and Mansi’s interactions may be quite limited, but they actually have a few conversations and quite a lot of non-verbal interaction happens before they declare undying love and all that. In fact, for me, the way their romance builds up is the best part of the film.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where so much of the romance happens with relatively little dialogue and almost no touching. Coca cola becomes a reocurring (and adorable) theme at this stage in the story. Who’d have thought there can be so much teasing and erotic tension in drinking coke? The first coca-cola scene is really cute. The second one really builds on that and gives Mansi the upper hand in the teasing by the end. The credits even include a thank you to coca cola which I found amusing.
Like in many of these sorts of stories, Mansi does not initially make things easy on Manav. But, refreshingly, it’s clear that she is interested. In fact both of them treat the whole pursuing/getting pursued thing a bit like a game.
Eventually, all the teasing and pursuing has to culminate in something and of course it does. In most Bollywood films, it culminates in some sensual song. But Taal is again a little different and amazingly enough (considering how traditional it is) opts for a “kissing” scene instead. Naturally, the “kissing” is not quite on the lips, but I’m still surprised a film as innocent as this went as far as it did. The scene is really beautiful. Bollywood almost always makes a huge event out of a kissing scene, but this one is really quite something – so soft and tender.

One of the other things I found really adorable about Taal is that the relationship between Mansi and Manav is by no means the only tender one in the film. Both Mansi and Manav have very close relationships with their fathers (which of course makes the drama all the worse when the fathers are not happy with the idea of them getting married).
In fact, for me, one of the most beautiful scenes of the film is the one in which the relationship between Manav and his father (Amrish Puri) is first introduced. It’s actually amazing (and almost creepy) to see Amrish Puri do a scene that’s so loving and tender. I’ve only ever seen him as characters which are either evil or very strict and scary and he does them extremely well. So to see him do so much hugging and teasing in a father-son scene is just weird.
To anybody Western, like me, the scene will feel a bit foreign I think. There’s the whole young man respectfully touching the feet of his elders Indian thingie, but it’s done extremely sweetly and teasingly. He even reties his father’s shoe while he’s down on his knees and they jokingly call each other “Your Highness” and “Your Honour”. And on that note, Akshaye Khanna and Amrish Puri really have great chemistry together on screen.
Later on in the film, the two of them have another scene that left a huge impression on me. They finally sort some tense issues out between them, they laugh, hug and then cry (I love how the best Bollywood films seem to acknowledge that laughter and crying go together very naturally).

As much as there is a lot in Taal that I found adorable and I really loved it on the whole, there were some things that made me cringe.
In the second half of the film the romance is stopped short because of all the family drama and various misunderstandings. It is then that Mansi and her father meet Vikrant (Anil Kapoor) and Mansi is talked into trying to make a career as a pop star in Mumbai. Manav continues to pursue her and tries to convince her this whole path she’s choosing is wrong.
On the one hand, it’s hard not to agree with Manav – Mansi was clearly much happier living a quiet life, singing, dancing and doing yoga in the mountains. On the other, I did have a knee-jerk reaction to that – the moment a woman starts making a career, her would-be-lover tries to convince her that she’s happier not having one? argh…
The bit that really made me cringe though was the whole necklace theme. There’s a scene where Manav tells Mansi he doesn’t go to temples. He tells her different people see God in different things and says he believes a part of God is in him. That in itself I actually liked. But I cringed when he bought a necklace in the temple shop and gave it to Mansi, essentially saying that when she wears it she’ll be worshipping the God in him.
To be fair, it’s a somewhat two-way street. Manav happily wears a scarf on which Mansi has embroidered their names and declares to his family that the scarf means Mansi owns him. But there’s never any mention of the Goddess in Mansi or worshipping her (on the other hand there is also no mention of him “owning” Mansi, so make of that what you will).
Debating how much sexism there is or isn’t in this film is a tricky business I think. Certain gender norms are simply part of the social circles depicted in the film, to represent them differently would feel false, even if one doesn’t agree with them. And to complicate things, it’s also true that different women feel differently about the roles society puts them in – for some they are comfortable, for some not comfortable but acceptable and yet others find them very much against their nature. Is it sexist to show female characters that are comfortable in traditional gender roles? For me, personally, I think it’s important that films portray all kinds of women – both those who are happy in traditional roles and those who are career women, tomboyish or otherwise outside of the “norm”.
And on the whole, I don’t think this film does that badly on its representation of women. Mansi is actually a rather well-rounded character (she is, btw, definitely the lead of the film – Manav has less screen time in the second half of the film). While she’s an innocent village girl at heart, there’s a certain kind of independence and strength about her. She has her passions and interests. She loves singing and dancing (her father is a folk musician and she has a great relationship with him) and teaches yoga to a group of village girls (I really liked all the yoga scenes in the film!). She has two loyal friends too. In the romance, Mansi is definitely the more passive (i.e. pursued) character, but she certainly does tease Manav back. And Aishwarya Rai really gives a terrific performance – I think the best performance of the film (and this film generally has a lot of good performances!).
The film does fail the Bechdel test though. Pretty much all conversations between women are about men unless you count the one line of dialogue where one of Manav’s relations unpleasantly remarks that of course Mansi’s first friend in their house would be the dog.
Finally, something that I find quite interesting on the whole sexist/feminist front is that even the conservative Bollywood films from the 90s acknowledge that not just women, but men can also be eye candy and fun to sexualize. There’s a beautiful song in the second half of the film where for part of it they have Manav solo, in an unbuttoned shirt, dripping wet – all clearly done to titillate. It’s very sexy.
And it’s kind of weird for me that you can have a very gender-conservative film like this be perfectly happy sexualizing a man and yet a modern TV series like Firefly (which I recently reviewed) is not comfortable doing so, even though it has a lot more sexual content and is happy portraying women doing very macho professions. Weird, huh?

The second half of the film is, IMO, the weaker part. The whole pop star plot feels a lot more far-fetched and there are few very cheesy soap operish moments (of course Manav has to run into a burning building). I also didn’t particularly like Vikrant as a character (or Anil Kapoor’s performance for that matter) and he’s got more screen time than Manav in the second half.
Manav is also annoyingly confident that he will get the girl in the end, as long as he perseveres. He keeps telling everyone who tries to stop his involvement with Mansi that his love is so true that they will all personally bring Mansi to him eventually (he says this to his father and even to Vikrant, Mansi’s would-be husband). His confident talk annoyed me so much that I actually found the one scene when his confidence is finally broken extremely satisfying. That said, it is a rather beautiful scene in and of itself. There’s no dialogue that directly suggests he’s lost hope, it’s more the manner in which he behaves, how he clings to his dog – he really looks defeated.

Overall though, it’s a really beautiful (if rather old-fashioned) movie with an amazing sense of the language of film. It’s unusual to see a film (Bollywood or otherwise) that does so much “showing” in place of “telling” and where the scenes have so much going on in the background.
It’s quite a challenging film for the cast as well because of how much happens in between the lines or without any dialogue at all, but they all do extremely well.
For anybody who likes romance this would be a good one to watch. For those not inclined that way, it’s probably a film to approach with caution although if this sounds interesting then you might want to give it a go.