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Archive for July, 2015

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.

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36 China Town (India, 2006)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it) – but only because Akshaye Khanna is in it *sigh*
Bechdel Test:
1 out of 3
Director: Abbas Alibhai Burmawalla, Mastan Alibhai Burmawalla
Cast
: Akshaye Khanna, Kareena Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Payal Rohatgi, Johnny Lever, Tanaaz Currim Irani, Isha Koppikar, Upen Patel, Vivek Shaq, Rajendranath Zutshi, Priyanka Chopra (cameo)
Plot: A crime movie with a very heavy dose of comedy about a murder investigation in Goa’s Chinatown

About the film

I am going through a serious Akshaye Khanna fixation at the moment and since for the first time such a fixation has happened to me in the UK, where legal access to Bollywood films is fairly easy, I have been obsessively going through his filmography.

36 Chinatown isn’t really the best of films (it didn’t do particularly well in the box office either AFAIK), but it has stuck with me more so than some of the other films I’ve watched in my Akshaye Khanna mini-retrospective. This is because I really love his performance in this.
He plays the police detective investigating the murder. The whole point of his character is to be as ridiculously macho as possible and make all the other characters very uncomfortable the moment he appears on screen. I’ve really wanted to see a film where he has a very domineering sort of screen presence, so this made me very happy.
But it gets even better than that… I don’t know if I’m imagining this, but to me it seems like part of his intimidation tactics is to come on to his male suspects, so they’re even more uncomfortable. It’s very, very subtle and yet the body language, the winking, the unbuttoned shirt, the facial expressions… there’s something about this role that’s very sexual and it’s definitely not directed at the female characters.
The most suggestive bit IMO, happens towards the end of the movie. He tells all the suspects that he’s looking for one final piece of evidence and then he’ll know which one of them will be sent to the gallows. Then he tells them there’s a festival going on in China Town and he wants all of them to go out and enjoy themselves in the meantime (obviously they’re all too nervous to want to do so). And that’s when this song happens:

There’s no subtitles on the video, but in case you’re wondering, the line he’s singing for most of the song (while glaring at male characters) is “I’m interested in you”.
Nor is the song the only part of the movie that I find suggestive. There are other small moments in the dialogue scenes. Like the bit when he tells one of the suspects that he has some bracelets for him, takes out a pair of handcuffs and winks at him.
There’s even a scene at the end where the line he says is in that vein. One of the murder suspects is a playboy, who uses really bad pick up lines on any pretty woman he meets (married ones included) and should they respond positively, takes them on what he calls “long drives”. At the end, when the playboy tries to pick up yet another woman, the police detective gets involved in the conversation and teasingly offers a “long drive” to the playboy.
The character itself is most definitely straight, so I’m not suggesting there’s any real attempt at portraying homosexuality in this film – far from it. If it’s even there (I’m still not convinced I’m not simply imagining it), then it’s only there as a device to make the scenes look that little bit more uncomfortable and funny.

Gay innuendo and Akshaye Khanna aside, there’s not much more I really like about this film.
It’s unusually short – at just 2h 14min. it is probably the shortest commercial Hindi movie I’ve ever watched. It still manages to squeeze in 5 dance sequences (which is probably the standard number of songs in a Bollywood film nowadays), though one of them is during the ending credits.
It has an absolutely huge ensemble of characters. This abundance of characters makes for an interesting murder investigation (oh so many suspects), but it also brings in a fair share of problems. With that amount of characters, very little screen time remains for each of them and all of them suffer – particularly (oh so predictably) the female ones.
There are five female characters which drive the plot (and if we’re counting named ones we could probably add 1 or 2 onto that), which is a lot more than in most movies. Even with that many female characters it fails the Bechdel test completely – I don’t remember a single conversation between two female characters (even in a group scene). There are, naturally, plenty of conversations between men. That tells you a lot about how little focus the stories of the female characters get.

The resolution (i.e. who actually murdered) is quite predictable (turned out to be the character I suspected from the very beginning) and while there are some funny scenes and ideas, I found the comedy a bit heavy-handed most of the time. The romance between Raj (Shahid Kapoor) and Priya (Kareena Kapoor) felt rather tiresome to me. I think it would have been funnier (and much more original) had they not fallen in love and simply remained at each other’s throats for the whole duration of the murder investigation. And the production quality isn’t particularly high either.

On the positive side of things, Priyanka Chopra has a really great (and very funny) cameo at the end. It’s actually amazing how much screen presence she has.

And I did love how they dealt with India’s short-lived smoking ban. The ban made it illegal for Indian films to show smoking on screen because it supposedly makes it look cool and influences people to take up smoking. It only lasted a few years though. It was essentially censorship, and as is often the case, people always come up with ingenious ways to get around it or simply challenge it.
There was a film with Amitabh Bachchan soon after the ban came into place where they simply blatantly disregarded the ban. Then there was Don, which showed the smoke coming out of the main character’s mouth, but never showed the cigarette itself, while adding lines said in a very over the top way about how smoking kills you.
But I think this film’s way around the ban may be my favourite yet. The police detective keeps trying to light up a cigarette, but the lighter keeps failing – either no flame appears at all or the flame is way too big. And then at the end when the police detective almost succeeds in lighting his cigarette, they hilariously put up a sign about how smoking is injurious to health.

Overall, this is probably not a film I would particularly recommend, but I did find it a very pleasant way to satisfy some of my Akshaye Khanna fixation.

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Jab Tak Hai Jaan (India, 2012)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
I’m going with 3 out of 3 but it’s borderline
Director: Yash Chopra
Music: A.R. Rahman
Cast
: Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma, Anupam Kher, Neetu Singh, Rishi Kapoor
Plot: An epic love story in which the lovers are separated by the heroine’s beliefs.

About the film

You can’t really write about Jab Tak Hai Jaan without mentioning that the director, Yash Chopra, died that same year. This in itself makes the film a bit of a milestone – Yash Chopra is known for his classic love stories and his death is in a way an end of a certain era in Bollywood.
But there’s another thing that caused this romance to make the news in a major way – it marks Shah Rukh Khan’s first on-screen kiss. Kissing still doesn’t necessarily happen in every romantic movie in Bollywood, but it’s certainly not as unusual as it once was. Nonetheless, for the last 20 years Shah Rukh Khan, arguably Bollywood’s biggest romantic hero, has had a no kissing on the lips policy. Unlike Salman Khan (one of SRK’s contemporaries), his stand was never against kissing in movies in general, just a personal choice, but until now it seemed like a firm one. To add a bit of spice and irony to it, Shah Rukh Khan does not one but three kisses in the movie and they are all with Katrina Kaif, Salman Khan’s ex-girlfriend!

That said, even without the more obvious reasons why this film is a landmark of sorts, there’s still more that makes this film feel like a bit of a game changer. I’ve not watched that many of Yash Chopra films, but it seems to me that Yash Chopra’s romantic heroines are usually very classical. I suppose we could call them the Bollywood version of Disney princesses – they’re very beautiful, at some point in the film appear dressed in a white sari (because white signifies purity) and are very respectable girls.
This film does away with that concept to a certain extent. Meera (Katrina Kaif) may fit the classic Yash Chopra heroine at first glance. She’s from a rich and respectable family, has a classical sort of beauty and indeed does appear in a white sari at one point in the film, but… she’s also a modern girl. It’s made pretty clear that the reason Samar (Shah Rukh Khan) is attracted to her is that although on the surface she’s very suave with upper class manners, her true nature is not at all so well-behaved. When nobody is looking she smokes cigarettes on the sly and does some swearing too. It’s also spelt out very clearly that they have sex before marriage, which is a huge contrast to the more traditional heroines that would never have considered anything of the sort.
Akira (Anushka Sharma) is an aspiring documentary filmmaker. She breaks the Yash Chopra heroine mould even more so than Meera does. She’s a bit tomboyish, does not wear a sari even once in the film and openly says that she has boyfriends for about 3 months before she breaks up with them and that these relationships are just about sex for her. The best bit – the film doesn’t pass any judgement on her for this!
A Yash Raj Films production with an 80 year old Yash Chopra directing strikes me as a very conservative combination, so to see female leads like that really is a positive sign.
On the not quite so bright side, it’s debatable whether this passes the Bechdel Test. The conversations between Meera, Akira and Dr Khan are all about Samar. Akira has conversations with her (female) boss at the Discovery Channel which are career-related, but seeing as Akira ends up making a film about Samar, this is also a bit debatable. Early on in the film Akira has a conversation about how it sucks that she’s an intern and won’t be able to go to London with other young aspiring filmmakers (and collects money for a dare she completed), but these are in mixed-gender company. Meera has a conversation with her mother, which is about her mother’s reasons for separating from her father, but seeing as those reasons relate to a man it’s again debatable. I would tend to give it a pass as I think Akira has enough career-centred conversation that doesn’t relate to Samar, but it is a bit borderline.

Regardless of all of its modern ingredients, Jab Tak Hai Jaan is still an epic Bollywood romance at heart with all the beauty, sensuality, passion and tragedy that comes with that. It’s very beautifully shot – the most beautiful portrayal of modern day London that I’ve seen, it really captures the spirit of it. The cold tones that are used somehow really suit the film and London in particular. This is also the first film I’ve ever seen that uses Southbank, my favourite part of central London, as a location.
The sequences in Kashmir (or rather Ladakh as that’s where they were really shot) are also extremely beautiful, as are the dance sequences. The Ishq sequence in particular is very spectacular and very modern (and oh so London in those grafittied tunnels!).
This is also probably the first Bollywood film I’ve watched, that has charmingly pointed out that if you start randomly dancing in public places in London, you may get arrested. They also managed to make getting arrested look very sexy.
The music is very beautiful as well – A. R. Rahman (the man behind the oscar winning soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire) really outdoes himself IMO. It’s not just the dance numbers, but the background score that really makes this movie.

The acting is really good. Shah Rukh Khan kept it pretty subtle 99% of the time – none of the over the top crying scenes or over the top emotional speeches that he’s known for. The story spans across 10 years, so I was expecting him to go over the top in either the younger or older version of Samar as I’ve seen him do in other movies, but not so.
He has many strong moments. One that is particularly memorable to me is just before Meera and Samar’s separation. He says very little – he congratulates her and then repeats one of Samar’s comedic sayings, but this time there’s nothing funny about it. The anger and whole range of emotions behind those words really gave me a kick in the gut. It was clear Samar was going to be a very different and very resentful man from now on.
I suppose that has always been SRK’s strong point – whatever people say about how well or not he gets into character, to me there’s never been any doubt about how great he is with subtext and layering lots of (sometimes seemingly conflicting) emotions.
I’ve not seen much of Katrina Kaif before, but I really liked her in this. I think one of the best things in this part was how she did Meera’s relationship with God (or Sir Jesus as Samar calls him). Meera has a very particular relationship with God and how she prays to Him. Essentially, she makes deals with Jesus. She asks him for things that are important to her and promises to give up something she really likes in exchange (chocolate, fur coats and so on). At the beginning of the film this relationship is quite lighthearted, even comedic. But as it goes on, there’s more and more depth to it and there’s actually a kind of intimate feel to it. It also becomes apparent that because she gets what she asks for every single time, she really believes in the importance of these bargains.
This relationship between Meera and God turns out to be pivotal to the film. SRK usually has to win the heroine from some other man in his romantic movies. This time “the other man” is God.
It’s the first time Shah Rukh and Katrina have been paired up together on screen and they really work well together. When Meera finally opens up to Samar it’s quite special. There’s a real intimacy in how she talks about the issues in her family and how she has him take part in one of her “deals” with God. I got a sense that she’s inviting him into her own private world in a way she’s never invited anyone else before.
From that emotional intimacy, physical intimacy naturally follows… as does kissing *grin* When I heard SRK explaining himself about why he did the kissing, I was kind of sceptical when one of the arguments he used was that the movie required it. In Western cinema, kissing on the lips tends to be a shortcut for telling the audience “they are passionately in love”. Bollywood, and Shah Rukh Khan in particular, have so many ways of getting that point across that I found it difficult to believe he truly needed to do a kiss. In Dil Se, one of his 90s movies, there’s a scene where the story truly requires his character to kiss the heroine (it’s not a romantic kiss, he forces himself on her and the fact that he does this is important to how the story develops) and they managed to get away with a shot of the back of his head as he “kisses” the girl – looks real enough.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally in favour of watching gratitious kissing scenes with my favourite Bollywood actors, but I still wondered what was so different about Jab Tak Hai Jaan. To my surprise, upon seeing the film I found myself agreeing with SRK. Perhaps the third kiss was a little bit gratitious, but the first two sure as hell weren’t. There’s a real sense that they’re crossing an important boundary and I don’t think they could have achieved that without the kissing.
Mind you, all the kisses are still rather coy – you only get to see their lips touch either just as they’re starting or just as they’re finishing. The rest of it is all wide shot where you can’t see a thing really. And to be honest, I’m really not sure why the fact that you see the lips touching for a few seconds makes such a difference, but somehow it does.

Are there disappointments? For me, unfortunately yes. The first half of the film had me mesmerized (if it had continued as strongly I think it would have become one of my all time favourite films), but the second half is much weaker IMO.
The writing in the second half gets too soap operish (of course we have to have one of the characters get amnesia *sigh*) and some characters and storylines that are introduced in the first half never get a resolution. The storylines of Meera’s parents are pretty important to how Meera makes her decisions in the first half of the film, but in the second half when she changes some of those decisions, these are not considered at all. We never learn what happens to her father when she makes some decisions he definitely would not like. Or what happens to her mother for that matter. These were both well developed and memorable characters, so really needed a resolution IMO.
Another reason why the second half doesn’t work so well for me is that while Katrina Kaif is the leading lady for the first half of the film, in the second half it is Anushka Sharma who takes up more of the screen time. I liked Anushka a lot more in this than I did in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (the only other film I’ve seen her in). She did a decent job as Akira and it was good casting, but for me she just wasn’t able to carry the film the way Katrina does.
I am, however, relieved that they did not try for any sort of romantic relationship between SRK and Anushka. For me Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi was once too many. As much as Shah Rukh can still easily pass for 10 years younger than he is, I find it a little disturbing when they pair him up with young 20 somethings. He is going to be 50 by the end of this year, so could they not stick with heroines no younger than their early 30s? *sigh* Or if they’re going to pair him up with a 20 something then at least they could make the age difference a plot point IMO.
Anyway, the relationship between Samar and Akira is kind of nice in how it develops. Akira does sort of fall for Samar, but it’s a one-sided love and he makes it clear that he’s too old for her. And actually, the way she falls for him is quite believable – I’ve seen young girls fall for older men in that sort of way. They develop an odd sort of friendship.
What’s also very disappointing in the second half is that Meera loses her “edge”. In the first half she has a bit of that “bad girl” vibe, but in the second she loses it. She’s pretty much written as the more classical Yash Chopra heroine.

Overall, this is a movie that will stay with me for some time. Though I really wish the second half was as good as the first. I imagine most people who like a good romance would respond well to this, but how well this would go down with people who aren’t into romance I have no idea. But whether this film is your cup of tea or not, there’s no doubt that aesthetically it is stunning.

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Firefly /TV series/ (USA, 2002)

My rating: -1 (Disliked it)
Bechdel Test: 
2 out of 3 for some episodes, 3 of 3 (but barely) for others. Detailed Bechdel test breakdown for Firefly
Creator: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Plot: Hundreds of years in the future, a crew of a small spaceship earns their living doing all kinds of (usually illegal) ventures.

About the series

Disclaimer: I’ve watched 5 episodes out of 14 (first 4 + “War Stories”). So my criticisms may or may not apply to the rest of the series.

I watched a few episodes of Firefly because my colleagues highly recommended it and it was a mistake! I suspected my film tastes were quite different to those of the majority of people at work and now I am sure 😉

The idea of Firefly in and of itself, as far as I’m concerned, is revolting. It’s basically a western, but set in space. With a premise like that, it is of course horribly macho, in a way I find difficult to stomach. I’m not sure why certain types of machoismo turn me off quite so strongly, but they just do :]
That said, what probably affects my enjoyment of this series the most is how underdeveloped the characters are. I need characters that draw me in to be able to enjoy any sort of fiction and Firefly is an epic fail in this. I just couldn’t get into any of them.
Part of my issues with the characters might just be that there’s a very macho feel to most of them (even some of the ladies), which is not normally my thing. But I also think there’s some bad writing going on here. There’s a basic rule in storytelling and that’s to give all of the characters their own story goals, which Firefly just doesn’t follow.
Here’s a breakdown:

  • Mal: The captain of Serenity (the ship). Being the central character, he’s actually got a bit more depth than most other characters in the series – he has a story goal and even a proper dramatic arch. As a soldier he fought a war against the Alliance which was eventually lost and he wants to get back at them – that’s his story goal. This sometimes motivates him to make very risky decisions.
    There are other things about Mal’s characterization that annoy me. It feels like they try to make him out to be all mysterious and deep, when I find him rather simple-minded actually. He’s the honest crook type of character who is out for personal revenge on the baddies. A pretty common type of character IMO, especially in American action moves.
    And also he makes sexist jabs at the girls sometimes, which annoys me… Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfectly ok to have sexist characters in a story, but I rarely find them likeable, which I think the creators want him to be.
  • Zoe: Zoe served with Mal in the army and fought with him against the Alliance. She’s his most loyal and reliable crew member.
    Zoe is the character that annoys me the most. She has no real story arch or goal of her own. So far, in the episodes I’ve seen, her motivation seems to be loyalty to Mal and love for her husband.
    Her lack of any story goals of her own is particularly frustrating because she’s portrayed as such a strong woman. She is brave, smart and strong. She also constantly goes around wearing tight clothes that show off the shape of her perfect body and heavy, sexy make up to complement that. And if perfect soldier and super attractive lady wasn’t enough, she’s also the perfect, domestic wife – the “War Stories” episode even shows her serving breakfast to her husband in almost 1950s style.
    All that and yet her whole being in the series is just to support the male characters’ storylines. Even when she’s in situations when she must take matters into her own hands, she seems to do it because that’s what Mal or her husband would have wanted. What’s even more frustrating – she’s the first character every one mentions to “prove” the series is feminist. Well, to me feminism isn’t about showing that women are smart and strong, it’s about showing women who are complete human beings with their own goals and even *gasp* flaws. Whether they are super strong or very vulnerable is beside the point.
  • Hoban: Zoe’s husband. Any series as macho as this has to have a counterbalance. That’s what Hoban is. He’s a guy who would like to be macho, but it’s not within his nature. His insecurities are often the but of the jokes in Firefly.
    His story goal? I’m afraid I can’t identify one.
  • Inara: The premise behind Inara’s character is actually quite interesting. She is a “companion”. In the reality of the series, “companions” are essentially high-class prostitutes. They are highly educated, cultured, officially registered and very well-respected in society. They choose their clients and therefore (at least in theory) never have sex with somebody they don’t want to.
    Does Inara have her own story arch? You guessed it, nope. To be fair, she might do in episodes I haven’t seen. There’s definitely some kind of unrevealed back story between Mal and Inara that has been implied. This might be what’s motivating her. But then this would be another case where a female character’s motivation lies solely with a male character.
    As you might expect, she’s also sexualized a lot. Understandable, considering her profession, but the way it’s done still annoys me (I’ll get back to that later).
  • Jayne: Jayne is as stereotypical as you can get. He’s the macho macho guy, the kind who is unreliable and only thinks of himself, but is still useful on the ship because he’s good at beating people up.
    His own story arch? Nope.
  • Kaylee: Kaylee is actually the only character in Firefly that I found endearing. I’ve since seen Jewel Staite (the actress) in Stargate Atlantis and I adore her as Dr Keller. So perhaps it is down to Jewel? That said Dr Keller is a hell of a lot more developed as a character than Kaylee is (we actually have Dr Keller’s story arch/goals spelt out fairly clearly in the first episode of Stargate Atlantis that she appears in).
    The premise behind Kaylee isn’t that bad. Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic. So on the one hand she’s in charge of stuff that’s usually a man’s job and is somewhat tomboyish, but she’s also very girlish in some of how she behaves and what she likes. Naturally, the girlish part of her (her crushes, her admiration of dresses with ruffles and probably other things in later episodes) gets ridicule from Mal and Jayne. And this annoys me too! I don’t like when “girlishness” gets ridiculed. I see it too much in day to day life. And it’s damn annoying that the only of the main female characters that doesn’t get ridiculed for anything is Zoe, who is the perfect sexy woman who serves two men without a word of protest or defiance ever.
    Kaylee naturally does not have a story arch or story goals of her own either.
  • Simon: Simon is a doctor. He has rescued his sister from the Alliance and is in hiding. He’s not a very developed character, but he’s the only character other than Mal who has a strong story goal (to keep his sister safe from the Alliance at all costs), which counts for something.
  • River: River is Simon’s sister. Whatever experiments the Alliance did on her have made her crazy. She does not have a strong story arch/story goal, although I’m inclined to forgive that as it’s harder to give someone who is not of sane mind a good motivation for what they’re doing. What I’m less inclined to forgive is that River is more of a condition than a character. Better films than Firefly have done this – made a character to be about the mental condition they’re suffering rather than about personality (for example – just because somebody is autistic doesn’t mean autism is their whole personality), so perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it’s a pet peeve of mine.
    What was more shocking to me about River is that she gets sexualized! In episode 1 she appears naked for a relatively silly reason. I get that Inara will get skin show, I can even get that Zoe needs to have sex scenes with her husband to show how good they are with each other, but why on Earth does River need to be naked because freezing her is supposedly the best way to transport her and apparently she needs to be naked for it?
  • Shepherd: A preacher. Little is known about his personality and his motivation is very, very general (spreading religion, doing good?). He seems to be the token man of colour, just so there is one on the show. And the snarky part of me wonders if it’s an accident that the one non-white male character happens to be old and completely asexual. In reality I doubt that was done on purpose, but it’s not nice.

It’s no coincidence that many episodes do not pass the Bechdel test and those that do, do it feebly – you need to have female characters with goals of their own for them to have something to talk about with each other.
What’s particularly frustrating is that this series seems to have an aim of being feminist and racially diverse. For the kind of show it is, four is a lot of major female characters. Usually we don’t get that many on shows with a lot of fighting and action. In a politically correct sort of way it also makes sure that one of the female and one of the male characters are not Caucasian.

Apart from how the characters are constructed, what bothers me about Firefly is the way it sexualizes women. It hits a particular nerve in me. Don’t get me wrong – I like films and TV series’ with a lot of sex and I don’t mind female characters getting a bit sexualized, but there needs to be some counterbalance for me to not get grumpy about it.
For one thing, when I see a sexualized female character, it’s particularly important to me that the character is well written – she needs to have a personality, a back story, an arch, story goals and all of those kinds of things they teach in writing classes. Without all those things she becomes more about being sexy and pretty than about anything else and I don’t like that.
But just as importantly, if a film or series is catering to the sexual tastes of straight men, I want them to cater to the tastes of straight women too! In Firefly, women are sexualized a lot (especially Zoe and Inara), but men are not. Even though the principal cast of men has four young and handsome guys, there is little effort to titillate the audience with them. Particularly disappointing as the premise actually gives a lot of scope for that – the show is clearly styled to be a bit like a western, so there honestly is room to dress the guys up in sexy attire and put some effort into this.
Another of my pet peeves is about how movies and TV tend to portray sex – why does it always have to be from such a strongly male viewpoint? The episode that particularly got on my nerve was “War Stories”. In that one Inara takes on a female client – she explains that she does this because sex with a woman is more satisfying for her. So what kind of scene do we get? The two women are in full and very heavy make up and it looks like a TV-censored version of fake lesbian porn for men. Honestly, does female sexuality really have to be shown like this? I get it, they want to titillate, but would it really be so bad to show something that looks a bit more like what two women might actually do when they want to have fun? That could still be titillating.

Some say that the macho thing in this series is actually made fun of, but I don’t see that. To me it seems the joke is in it being impossible to live up to the macho ideal (hence, Hoban, the least macho of the guys, is the but of the jokes). There is no effort to undermine the macho ideal itself, that is still portrayed as cool and worthy of trying to live up to.
It seems to me that this series ridicules pretty much every feminine trait (whether it’s in a male or female character) with the exception of being sexually desirable (Inara gets unpleasant comments from Mal for sleeping with many men, but her being sexually desirable is respected). On the other hand, it shows pretty much all masculine traits as either positive or neutral regardless of whether these traits appear in a man or a woman. Since Zoe has many masculine (macho) traits and is sexually desirable, she is pretty much never ridiculed for anything.

In short, I hated this series! I realize it has a bit of a cult status and clearly I’m in the minority here, but for me, I’d need a very different treatment of machoismo, vulnerability and female characters to be able to stomach it.

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