Nov 28, 2008

Mumbai My Life

The horrifying terrorist attacks in Mumbai are still going on. Reaching 48 hours now. Many speculations, many stories, many emotions. One of the issues will be how the city is collectively going to process this trauma. This made me think of a movie I saw recently, Mumbai Meri Jaan (Mumbai my life, 2008) by Nishikanth Kamath.
I would say this movie is an Indian version of Crash. It revolves around the lives of different people that come together because of the terrorist attack on the Mumbai train on 11 july 2006. Over 200 people lost their lives then. The movie is original and touching in the sense that it is not so much about the blast itself, but about a few people dealing with its impact. At the same time it is a movie about the way media deals with these happenings. A big newschannel wants to cover the horrors and at the same time get the most viewers.
The movie opens with a speech of Nehru, who adresses the public about the awakening of India. In the context of the images to come the speech gets a different meaning. Maybe 'the nation' is not able to provide security for all. And maybe it is more the people themselves that have to learn how to live together. No one is going to do that for them. Mumbai Meri Jaan shows how the people of this mega-city struggle, but that human contact is possible.
In the light of the terror currently happening, Mumbai Meri Jaan is an important movie and could help the people in talking about their experiences. I wish the city inspiration for finding connections between people, instead of further clashes and divisions.
By the way, the title refers to the classis song Bombay meri Jaan from the movie CID. It already said that living in a big city is difficult, with so many material things and danger around. Apparently it can not be sung and shown enough...

Nov 14, 2008

Paper Flowers

Guru Dutt (1925-1964) is seen as one of the main directors from the golden age of Hindi cinema, the 50's. He was someone with the gift to make movies that were commercial as well as artistic, to use those two container terms. Besides being a director, he loved to play the main roles in is own films as well, in a style that perhaps reminds us of
Perhaps the most famous movie was Pyaasa (The thirsty one, 1957).
Dutt was not the most happy filmmaker though. This is best illustrated with his movie Kagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959).
We see Dutt playing the highly respected film director Suresh who is looking for a leading actress in the upcoming production Devdas (a movie that has been made 9 times in India so far). His marriage is broken, his daughter lives in a hostel. He only lives for the movies. After finding the girl Shanti, the beautiful Waheeda Rehman was his real-life muse as well, they start shooting. But in the meanwhile the two lost souls fall in love with each other. This is the start of a long slide downwards. Because of his love for her, he can't shoot the movie how he wants, and because of the show that must go on, he can't commit his love to her. His other movie is a big flop; he sees a furious audience leaving the cinema halfway.He gets fired by the production house, he loses the court case over the courtesy of his daughter, and Shanti is asked to leave by a third person who tries to save the movie. With 'bollywood hope' we assume that things will be allright, but they don't. Suresh gets more lonely, and Shantis trials of getting back to him fail. In the end we get back to where the movie started, an old man wandering through an empty studio. We now know the old man is Suresh, who wanted to visit 'his world' once more. The next morning he is found dead, sitting in the director's chair.
Kagaz ke phool is a movie about loneliness. We see a movie director wanting to infuse his work with pure passion, the love of a woman. But when passion becomes obsession, it is not unifiable anymore with commercial cinema, where roses are fake. Nothing more than paper flowers.
The movie is also clearly a movie about Guru Dutt himself. His love for Waheeda Rehman, and his actual broken marriage are well-known.
The movie shows his fight between wanting to make the greatest movie ever, and an industry that only allows for a certain amount of passion. Dutt must have seen himself as a dreamer, for whom there is no place in a commercial world. It is because of these thematics that this movie has to be watched even today.
And then there is reality again. Kagaz ke phool was a big flop, and apparently Guru Dutt could not take this. It lead to an even bigger depression than he was already in. Three years later Dutt was found dead in his room, with next to him the remains of pills and alcohol. Few say it was an accident.
His black and white movies are beautifully lit; stark contrasts that create gloomy atmospheres. It is this lighting that might also have reflected his thinking. When asked about the failure of Kagaz Ke Phool and the succes of another he said: "What is there in life, friend? There are only two things - success and failure. There is nothing in between." (
The following song illustrates everything above. We see the director in a push-and-pull scene with Waheeda Rehman. And to make things more intense, it is sung by Dutt's wife, Geeta Dutt. Can it be more intense?

Jul 1, 2008


While the Indian film industry likes to claim that they are ready to go global; other sides of the planet mainly like to find bollywood an interesting cultural phenomenon to make things funnier than they already are. Spice it up Indian style. Here's one of them (again).


Chameli is a movie directed by Sudhir Mishra, and was released in 2003. One of those movies that are considered to be 'off-beat bollywood', a little more on the artistic side. Whatever we call it, it is absolutely worth watching.
Prostitutes have often been portrayed in Hindi films as beautiful but dangerous seductresses of the hero. Vamps. They dance, drink and smoke, like the men do (especially the villains). They come when the hero doesn't know what to do anymore, and tries to forget his miseries in the bar. But ofcourse, most of the time the seduced hero gets back to his senses and hence to a normal woman.
Chameli (Kareena Kapoor) is also a beautiful, smoking and drinking seductress. But her seduction doens't touch Amar (Rahul Bose), the lost soul who lost his wife as well. Not untill they start sharing their lives with each other, and in the meanwhile help eachother get rid of corrupted bad guys. Then, there is another seduction. A transvestite wants Amar as well for his services. I held my breath, expecting another comedy scene where the poor man/woman gets exposed and made fun of. Which is usually the case. But this time the character is a person, with feelings, and a future of love with another person.
After these 'shocks' you get sucked into the lives of the two persons. Just two people in the dark, trying to get a little light with eachother. The end might be expected, but then again, unconventional as well. The tension that builds between the two characters culminates in the scene on Marine Drive, sitting on a wall, when the rain has finally stopped. But tears start flowing. Seperation is near. She learnt to love. He learns to cry. Is the light gonna take over the dark?
The movie is wonderfully slow and small. No big sets, big special effects, huge songs. It plays with conventional themes of bollywood movies, but in a less glamorous way. With that it is one of the typical new movies. It uses the cliche's, song, dance, wealth and corruption, but with a twist. A twist that might tell us that bollywood is ready for movies with less predictable narratives, and possibly less conventional morality. And it is also great to see Kareena Kapoor acting before she reduced her waistline to size 32. Here's one of the first scenes.

May 28, 2008

Bombay TV

An interesting website is this one: Bombay TV, by the French communication bureau Grapheine. They provide you with 30 second clips from classic Hindi movies, like Deewaar and Sholay, under which you can put your own subtitles. I have to admit, very funny to do, but also a nice insight in the western attitude towards bollywood. Some people have put their results on YouTube, and it seems that turning the characters in gays is especially popular. And, as one youtuber says, 'stupid subtitles for stupid movies'.

bollywood as cultural citizenship

It's been a long time. Basically because I have been watching loads of movies and endulged myself in theory, theory and.. theory. I felt lost in bollywoods. That what i thought was 'just Indian cinema' turned out to be a culture in itself. Slowly I'm creeping out and trying to see things from a distance again. What was it I wanted to find out about this huge world? And what is it now?
Things are still not as clear as a research design should be, but there is something emerging on the horizon. Cultural citizenship is it's name. Thanks to the work of Joke Hermes, which I had 'accidently' picked up a long time before dreaming of Indian moviestars, my thoughts on popular culture are getting direction. Cultural citizenship in her view basically stands for the 'positive' powers of popular culture. There is always a lot of attention for the possibly negative side of movies (and glossy magazines, internet, etc.); they would be putting the wrong values in the heads of our kids, and maybe even the grown-ups!
But, since some time now we realize that these kids (and even the grown-ups) are actively processing and interpreting those movies. This means that everyone 'reads' different values and different messages. This is a very complex proces, especially if we take into account that a lot of things might be happening unconsciously and subtly.
However, it might also mean that the products of popular culture could have a 'positive' aspect. Not in the sense that they can form kids into 'good citizens', but in the sense that they can help in shaping our identities and our sense of who we are and which groups we belong to. It is very thinkable that popular culture is playing this role more and more, in these postmodern days where no-one knows exactly who he or she is anymore. Am I Dutch? A little Indian maybe after such a long time? Or just Mark?
In this light, Bollywood has complex stories to tell. Some movies might show a very strong patriotism, like Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, or the more recent Rang de Basanti. But does the watcher identify with this message? Or does it stimulate them to have more complex opinions?
Questions I have to ask the watchers themselves. And if you are one, please let me know what you think. For example about the clip below. Does watching this make one nationalistic?
Btw, from now on, expect some more contributions from my side. How about a weekly movie-review to start with?

Feb 17, 2008

Watching Indian movies a religious experience?

For a lot of westerners, watching a Hindi-film is confusing. Why is there suddenly a song that has nothing to do with the story? And why are they in Switzerland? Weren't they in Singapore before, or was it Mumbai? Although most of the stories in a general Bollywood movie aren't that complicated as, let's say a Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the factors of songs and sudden jumps in time and the motivations of the character, can make it a difficult task to stay tuned. It started dawning on me, that watching a Bollywood movie, might be a fundamentally different kind of watching, than watching a movie from Europe or the Hollywood studios. Ashish Nandy says that for Indians the act of watching movies is like 'darshan', which stands for the way Hindus look at images of their gods. By gazing at a picture of for example Shiva, it is believed to get in touch with a divine reality. Now, with moviestars, it could work the same way. Staring at the images of stars with great powers, one could get 'in touch' with some of that power. That's why filmmakers give their stars often almost divine powers, by being able to fix world problems, or being an extremely 'good' person. And also, by giving the story a metaphysical twist (sudden intervention of a god after prayer, or extremely coincidental meetings between persons), the divine reality of the images on screen is enhanced. Watching a movie can become a little bit of a religious experience. It is not for nothing, that some decades ago, people would actually perform prayers in cinemahalls, when actors playing Gods appeared on screen. And it is not for nothing, that when the hugely famous South-Indian actor 'MGR' died, a temple was built for him in Chennai. This gives a lot of new food for thought. Especially regarding the ever returning question: Is Indian film high or low culture?
Here's a nice clip of people worshipping MGR at his temple.

Jan 8, 2008

The movies to us... (By Kriti Toshniwal)

This post is written by my dearest Kriti Toshniwal, who tells me which movies to watch. And then we watch them together... She will post now and then on Indian movies from her perspective as an Indian viewer. Enjoy!

The movies to us…

The movies to us were always a source of entertainment. By us I refer to friends, family, the general public, and myself included; basically all of us anonymous film watchers in India who technically belong to the category of film science illiterates, and have always watched movies for the sole purpose of recreation rather than as insights to an existent culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the reactions Mark gets on disclosing his thesis topic to us are those of bewilderment. It can be understood that one is an avid film watcher and watches every single movie first day, first show, but studying movies in the sense of writing a research paper on them is a different ball game altogether. In fact, it is considered to be more of a ball game than a serious matter.

It isn’t that we Indians are narrow-minded in our view of the world, though I don’t completely put that beyond us, or beyond anyone for that matter. It’s just that popular film analysis for most of us extends up to the star rating by the critics declaring a movie as watchable or unwatchable, and the selection of the top five films every new year’s. Studying films from technical, cultural, historical or commercial perspectives however, is something relatively new to us in India. It’s only recently that we were exposed to the idea that Bollywood with its extensive reach both within and outside India, is such a major revenue generator that the rest of the world is also interested and hooked on!

But, discounting for the fact that I have never really had much film education, I am clearly opposed to the critical stance most foreigners and some overtly (and sometimes ostentatiously) intellectual Indians take on Bollywood and Indian films. The success of any endeavor cannot be measured in isolation from its targeted recipients. In that sense, how justifiable is it to form an opinion on an Indian film from an American/European perspective? No, this isn’t a question directed towards film academicians (if they can be called that), but more to the general people; the counterparts abroad, of the us here in India.

How then would I propose rating a film as good or bad? The answer depends on the way one looks at it. Take for example, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun; an extremely popular movie which came out in 1994. It was a big hit for several reasons, the star cast particularly Madhuri Dixit, the story line based on family values and sentiments, the intense emotional drama (which is not unusual J), and 14 songs (almost all of them where hits and reasons for the movie to be successful). My take on this movie, now with my urban sentimentalities, greater exposure and eccentric maturity (with a hint of sarcasm) would probably be different than back in those days as a child when I must have watched the film close to a dozen times. At the risk of causing some damage to my reputation, I admit that given a chance I could still sit through it again. And so I guess is also the case with quite a few people I know. Considering the fact then, that the film succeeded and is still succeeding in keeping its target audience happy, I think it can be called a reasonably good film; one successfully fulfilling its purpose. Its fate might take a different turn if one were to probably discuss its originality (which was practically zero as the story was a direct lift of an earlier film Nadiya ke Paar), practicality in reference with reality, or its cultural impact, but that sure didn’t keep the movie goers out of the theatres.

The point I’m trying to make here is that we Indians at large are sticklers for happy endings. We love the drama, the song and dance, the intense emotions. Movies are like a canvas of our dreams, where anything can happen; where we consider it acceptable and we enjoy that anything can happen. In other words, our movies are the way they are also because of the way we are, and not on account of some inherent lack of talent among our film makers. We’re faced with harsh realities every day of our lives. Spare us at least the big screen!

But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate serious cinema. In fact, Indian films are sadly always reduced to the flashy song and dance dramas by those who are inadequately informed. The beauty of Indian films, are that they encompass all genres. Afterall, we have also had out of the box films like Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Fire, Monsoon Wedding, Kaun, Shatranj ke Khiladi… (and the list can keep going on). Just today I was watching a film Johnny Gaddar, a thriller which didn’t have any of the classic songs and dances that Bollywood is famous for.

Also, Indian films so to say, should probably not only be confined to Bollywood. Apart from mainstream movies, there are a number of art films and some regional cinema which deserve acclaim as well. I might have used Bollywood and Indian films interchangeably here, as is quite frequently done. But I’d like to also mention parallel worlds outside of Bollywood, but very much products of India that are often overlooked.

We have art here, and talent, not forgetting the big bucks. And these are not just movies, they’re also our culture. I begin to understand now why someone would want to study them, and appreciate the effort. What lies beneath flashy sequences might be much deeper. So all those Bollywood critics, both Indian and Non-Indian, how about dropping the skepticism and taking another look?

Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994), one of the biggest successes of the 90's. This movie is often seen as the typical 90's movie, where it is all about romance and family. Watch the title-song: