Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bizarre Chors, Motherly Whores: Ishqiya and the Underworld Chic

“Surrender,” the gangster moll tells her underworld lover, citing sections of the Indian Penal Code in which he cannot quite be convicted. She longs for the company of her fugitive mate, and the respect she must be planning for her child to be conceived some future day.
He says he plans to. He hopes his benefactors’ political party will come to power in three months. If not, he says, he will “cylinder.”
“Surrender,” she corrects him, “not cylinder.”
The mispronounced surrender becomes a teasing metaphor, turning a symbol of devotion into an explosive instrument, as Ishqiya winds through a tale of love, longing, sex, violence, competition and the eternal mysteries of life in the rugged gangster-land movie set in the rural zones of Uttar Pradesh. Here caste wars and crime meet the Freudian rivalries of men and women fighting over each other.
They are all lovers, or Ishqiya, in this hyper-realistic saga woven around the common attraction of a foster-father and young nephew duo (Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi) for the abandoned moll whose persona’s layers are as engaging as the thickening plot.
Look at Mushtaq, the caricatured gang leader who torments the duo, listening only to his wife who calls him on the cellphone that plays, “O meri zohra jabeen.”
Look at Iftikhar (Naseer), who plays a quiz mastermind on old Bollywood songs as he cuddles up with Krishnaji, the gangster widow that he tries to woo – and one who makes him peel garlic over musical banter.
Look at Babban (Warsi) who frequents whores but turns on his rugged, boyish charm to seduce the homely woman and anger his competitor-guardian.
Look at Krishnaji (Vidya Balan) who conspires for a crime, plays the tanpura, exchanges sublime musical notes and then gives in to the raw advances of a seductor.
Look at the woman who runs Mona beauty parlour as she plays the small-town mistress in cheap lingerie laced with promises of eternal love.
Look at her secret lover who stutters through industry, worship, prosperity and dubious devotion to mistress.
“So your love is love and my love is sex?” Babban asks his uncle of sorts, turning an unintended spokesman for the new sexuality of the Bollywood woman.
It is okay now for her straddle a troika of men, even as she craves for the social respect, mysteriously exhibited in a cocktail of wriggly filmsong shakes in jeans and shades on the one hand and the humming of a soulful classic as she flips phulkas in a seedha-pallu saree.
Is Krishnaji (played with surprising aplomb by Vidya Balan) for real?
In director Abhishek Chaubey’s saga schooled in producer Vishal Bhardwaj’s mentoring, the mother and the mistress dance in the same persona, surprising and shocking her menfolk as he does us.
This is a new idiom for Bollywood, mixing elements of Shyam Benegal, Quentin Tarantino and the eternal Shakespeare, who inspired Bhardwaj’s Omkara set in the same country.
Omkara, Kaminey and Ishqiya form an unintended triology of underworld chic of the Hindi belt, complementing and contrasting another uintended triology from the Karan Johar school – Kurbaan, New York and My Name Is Khan set in exotic overseas locations.
If the KJo school looks at the international terror that visits skyscrapers, the VB school peeps into the hearts and minds of the people that supply its raw version in the rural hinterland.
Ishqiya comes in the league that is spelling a new wave in alternative cinema--blending social realism with literary depth and yet somehow managing storylines and musical narratives that stay mainstream.
Pictured with a camera that makes a Cartier-Bresson or Raghu Rai photofeature come alive on celluloid, and musical motifs that blend with the mysterious motives of its multiple protagonists, Ishquia has elements of an epic narrative as characters plunge headlong into events that make them lose themselves in a labyrinth of violence, hatred and competitiveness – all in the elusive quest for love and acceptance.
This is not the message of love sent in a Page 3 half-page ad This is the focus on the human heart that is as capable of deceit as it is of sacrifice in its quest for love.
If you watch Ishqiya, the next time you chuckle at a Mayawati statue, you might connect it with a Dalit boy called Nandu, who takes the gun to defend his lot as they fight the Thakurs who dishonour their womenfolk.
If you watch Monica Bedi in a reality show, you might just spend an extra second spotting Krishnaji in her.
If you watch the Breaking News tag chronicling the heinous crime of a previously unheard-of Hindi belt gangster on AajTak, you might just pause and wonder if there is inside the gun-runner a Verma, going home in stealth to eat puffed phulkas burnt in the corners by a woman swathed in love unexplainable in editorial columns
You might just recall a woman called Phoolan Devi, who, long long before she became the Bandit Queen, was a gangster’s moll not far from Chambal river.
As the tale that weaves kidnapping and gangsters reaches its denouement, Ishqiya’s characters are lost, but not their quest for love.
As cylinders blow up in tall fires that burn a barnyard home with its beautiful-brown interiors in the tender village landscape, serene water flows in a canal over which the characters walk across a bamboo bridge.
The bamboo bridge is hard enough to walk over, but comes with an unmistakeable fragility. That bridge must be an Ishqiya torn between devotional surrenders and explosive cylinders.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

H1B Visa Dipped in Desi Ghee: MNIK and the KJo Kool Aid

When you are Karan Johar, you have a magic wand.
You wave it, and financiers give you money.
You wave it, and Shah Rukh Khan stars for you.
You wave it, and characters morph away to defy their roots.
A single mother Muslim weaver woman in a Mumbai suburb steeped in poverty has a child who suddenly props up on a scholarship in the US and equally suddenly manages to bring his brother afflicted with autistic Asperger Syndrome to the streets of San Francisco after quick, hurried morbid shots of a little boy learning English from a Parsee and doing enough to send him to America, where a story awaits to be told.
Whose story?
Not that of the victim of riots in Gujarat, Bhiwandi, Thane, Mahim or Bandra which is closer home to the noisy streets where KJo has spent most of his young and well-groomed life.
Not even, really speaking, of the 26/11 victims in downtown Mumbai.
This one is for America, by America and of America.
Oscar wish? Fox money? NRI box office?
Whatever it is, My Name Is Khan is like an H1B visa dipped in desi ghee. Very alluring in an Indian American Pizza Mom and cute kid way, with the worldview of those who live in nice homes, cool offices and clean streets with fancy cars.
Oh, the story is about 9/11 and what it did to the average South Asian Muslim in America, with the universal, award-winning message thrown in.

Didn’t you know what happened after 9/11 in the US? Fairytale capitalism gave way to neighbourhood racism because of terrorism.
And some Indians, who had never seen the homegrown variety, described in boring editorial page articles as communalism, suddenly discovered this whole Hindu-Muslim thingie.
Between the tandoori Western teen flick and the post-modern girlfriend angst, KJo discovered that the topic that bothers neocons in Washington and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi could be his muse too.
Oh well, history is like the flu. You never know when it hits you.
KJo is burdened not by history, of Islam, India or Pakistan or Palestine. Everybody is a chocolate boy from South Mumbai with a loving mom, or is converted into one.
Love is a nice message, and multiplexes are nice places to sell it. Add a dash of Koran here and there. Like oregano. Pizza Moms love them. Get the formula: Only love, silly. No analysis paralysis.
And so, Rizwan Khan, the hamming, hamstrung protagonist, lives through the experiences of the Wounded South Asian, stuttering and stammering his way through a love affair with a Pizza Mom hairstylist whose baddie husband left her with a son and little else. To the strains of Martin Luther King’s we-shall-overcome-and its Hindi honge-kamyab, the movie stutters through its steps with the uneasy but persuasive discourse that would do the Indo-US nuclear deal proud.
“My Name Is Khan,” the King of Bollywood announces. “And I am not a terrorist.”
Ingredients for this message: Some Koran. Some metropolitan cosmo-liberalism. Some leave-us-alone-we-love-everybody logic.
As the story unfolds, nice kids fall apart. Neighbours become uneasy adversaries.
Of course, we have heard that before. In tales of 1947.
But this one is for a generation for which Partition happened on 9/11 in the tall, aspirational buildings of New York.
There is enough of America in this film to think that terrorism did not even come to KJo’s Bombay, who survived enough riots in his hometown before making a subject out of the same theme in faraway US. Stunning landscapes flow from a delectable camera: San Francisco, New Mexico and then Georgia, where Hurricane Katrina and suffering blacks suddenly find themselves in a South Asian plot.
Like Mira Nair, KJo badly wants a place in Obama’s sun. So you have to become the endearing, enduring South Asian with chocolate syrup political correctness surrounding the Original Identity. This is McSouthAsia.
KJo wields the story-teller’s tool. He counters a stereotype with an archetype.
Rizwan Khan is one: nice kid, bright engineer type, loves mom and everybody, is productive. Oh yes, namaz-reading Muslim. If this is not enough, there is his Asperger Syndrome with Forrest Gump memories for the Hollywood-bred. Makes you laugh. Tugs at your hearstrings. Makes you reach out for hankies when you are done with that sticky caramel popcorn.
And moms. Lots of.
Nevertheless, the freshness of a story set in the American South and the chirpily warmth of a glowing Kajol make it all worth it. A disjointed script is redeemed by the occasionally punchy dialogue and an amusing sort of storyline, if you survive the first half.
Why didn’t anyone hype the music by Shankar Ehsaan Loy? It is actually a great feature, complementing the beautify of the American South and West Coast. You have Bush and Obama in the plot. You have Iraq and Afghanistan and innocents dying. You have a message. If you have come thus far and still don’t get it, this is the one about all religions being good and love conquering all.
This is Bollywood trying to be Hollywood.
This is crossover trying to play the world movie.
This is KJo thinking he is Spielberg.
Like Spielberg, he is making a movie on aliens he loves. Only, they are from the other side of the same planet and feel like they are from a different one.
When KJo was busy making tandoori Westerns, McDonald’s invented the aloo-tikki burger. Like the Mumbai riots, that too, escaped KJo’s Kool Aid.
He was busy peering through the telescope at aliens he identifies with.
If Bunty and Babli at the local multiplex like it, it is because the loop is complete. We are all ETs now.