Film Review – Kabuliwala

September 22, 2009

A while ago, I watched the old classic, Kabuliwala. I wanted to write about it then, but I just couldn’t. The movie really moved me, so I’m going to talk about it a bit here. If you haven’t watched it and you plan to, I might spoil it for you by telling you the story… but really, that’s not going to spoil it, not this movie. It is a Hindi movie – with sub-titles nowadays – so you can watch it even if you don’t follow Hindi. If it doesn’t interest you, skip ahead to the book reviews and see if those do.

The Kabuliwallah is a man from Kabul – a Pashtun Afghan. He’s a strapping, strong fellow, not rich, perhaps not poor either, a rural man and a straightforward and honest person. He’s shown working in the fields and coming home to his daughter, a small, sweet girl whom he absolutely adores. That’s in the first minute or so of the movie. Then, as the credits roll, there’s a caravan across the mountains and a long train journey across the plains, till at last he is in Calcutta. He finds lodgings and trudges around town all day, selling nuts and spices and trying to save up enough money to take home.

Meanwhile, he meets this girl. This is no ordinary love story – the girl he falls in love with is like his daughter, a small child. She lives with her family in a house on his beat. He meets her, it seems, everyday, and a rapport and mutual affection builds up. There’s no sinister twist… he never tries to kidnap her (though there is some suspicion amongst the family servants that he might, and even, at one point, that he has done), and his affection is never anything other than paternal.

What happens instead is that the man gets word – indirectly – that his own daughter is very sick. He decides to leave for home immediately, stopping only to say bye to the other little girl. Just as he is about to leave, he fights with the “landlord” (if you can use such a grand term for this person) of the room where he has been staying. The landlord accuses him of cheating, and, his honour insulted, the Kabuliwallah hits and kills the landlord. Thereafter, he lands in jail – and there, unrepentant, he spends the next fourteen years. There are various developments in the interim, but through it all, the man thinks as much or more of the little girl he met in Calcutta as he does of his own wife and daughter. At last, when he gets out, he goes straight to the girls house. To his shock, she is now all grown up, almost 20 years old, and it is the day of her wedding. She has, of course, forgotten him and is quite put out to have to meet this strange and undignified person.

The man starts to leave in despair, realizing that his own daughter too would have grown up and that he will be a stranger to her as well. But the little girls parents tell him he must go him, and they give him the money to do so, and so he does.

And there the movie ends. We don’t know what he will find when he gets home, but we do know at at last, after almost 15 years or so, the man goes home, to a daughter he does not know or who might not even, after all, be alive any more.

The most poignant parts of the movie are when the man is remembering either his daughter or the other little girl. He cannot read, but there’s a letter from his home where it says that his daughter misses him, and this letter he treasures and looks at fondly and opens and folds and opens and folds until it is all but in tatters, even though he can’t read it. Then, at some point, the other little girl gives him a five-rupee note. He is so touched that he swears never to spend that money, and likewise, he treasures that note as much as the letter from his home. It is these two keepsakes that get him through all his lonely years in jail.

Described as I have describe it, the movie sounds a bit like sentimental mush… and sentimental it is, but done is such a simple and sincere way that it cannot be described. I don’t think I’m too much of a cry-baby when it comes to sentimental movies – at any rate, no more than the next woman – but in this movie, more than once, I just couldn’t hold back my tears.

It’s a movie made in the old style, in the old days (1961) in a slow, relaxed, leisurely manner. It doesn’t drag, but it doesn’t gallop. It starts out with a touch of romance (not in the sense of love-romance, but in the other sense, more like nostalgia, if you know what I mean) and slides gently into something so deeply, profoundly touching and sad that it never has a chance to become maudlin or affected. And perhaps the most haunting thing about it – apart from the thought of the illiterate man ‘reading’ and re-reading a letter he can’t read – is that at the end, you just don’t know what he’s going to find when he gets back home.

A movie I regretted watching – because I really would much rather watch a movie that makes me laugh than cry – but that I’ll never regret having watched and I’ll never forget having been touched by.

Film Review: Wednesday

July 15, 2009

Amit had been very keen to watch this film, so we got the DVD and watched it last night. With Anupam Kher and Naseeruddin Shah, no women (to speak of), no romance, no songs, it looked like being an interesting change from your usual Bollywood offering.

I must add for the sake of clarity and honesty, that I’m not much of a Bollywood aficionado. I’ve probably seen ten Bollywood films in the last ten years, but not necessarily one a year. Those I can recall are, in no particular order, Black, Lagaan, The Blue Umbrella, Rang De Basanti, Chak De, Slumdog Millionaire, Taare Zameen Par… And that’s not even ten.

Still, I’d heard a bit about Wednesday, it was supposed to be a good, tight, fast-paced action film. I suppose my mistake was, on hearing that, expecting something Hollywood.

I was disappointed on several accounts. First, by Hollywood standards, there wasn’t much action or suspense in this movie. It kept trying to slowly lead up to something, but when the climax came, it wasn’t an action-thriller climax at all. It was a social message. And obviously, since it was Bollywood, the message was verbose, in your face, emotional, overdone, out of character, and completely overboard. It only stopped short of being melodramatic (if it did, I’m not even sure of that) because it was delivered by Naseeruddin Shah.

In any case, I don’t like films that set out to tell a good story, rush ahead full steam until half-way through and then stop short and say: hang on; this isn’t about the story at all: it’s about this social message, and here it comes! Rang De Basanti did exactly the same thing and I hated the second part of that film, especially because it followed the good-fun type of first half. This is so disappointing, when the social message could have been kept to about two lines (instead of 200 or so), or, better still, could have been made part of the story itself. A prime example of this – from Hollywood, because I haven’t seen enough of Bollywood – is Blood Diamond. There is a social message, but it is delivered through the story – which remains a good action drama – instead of suddenly hijacking the story and completely subjugating it to the delivery of the message.

There were other things I didn’t like about this film as well. I think the characters – as in so much of Bollywood – are stereotypes, in fact almost caricatures, of themselves. Like the hacker-techie chap, for instance. And the CM. A politician who manages to become the CM of Maharashtra is nobody’s fool, the way this fellow seems to have become.

Anupam Kher and the great Naseeruddin Shah did their parts well, as would be expected. But I found too many flaws in Naseeruddin Shah’s character. If he is such a “common man,” how come he speaks such super-upper-class English? I’d sooner accept this in a well-educated, well-bred, upper-class terrorist, than in a “common man” gone mad. And how does this extremely humble “common man” know so much geeky cellphone technology (quite apart from bomb-making technology)?

I also don’t really understand this: Even if you accept that the common man has had it with terrorism; and that the common man has had it with terrorists getting a decent trial and jail sentence; and that the common man would rather see terrorists dead than back out in the real world; even if you accept all that, would you really go so far as to have sympathy with a person who is willing to bomb and kill another round of innocent people in an effort to nail a few terrorists? Isn’t one sort of violence just as bad as the other? Can you really elevate vigilant-ism over out-and-out terrorism on moral grounds? Ok, so finally the fake-terrorist-common-man character hadn’t in fact placed six bombs all over Mumbai. But when the techie-hacker and that other fellow start suddenly developing sympathy and goodwill for him, they don’t know that. Besides, nobody said that the bomb kept in the police station, which was found and defused, wasn’t capable of killing people. How about that? Or is this the famous argument about the ends justifying the means? In which case, mustn’t you measure terrorism also by the same token? Terrorists also (claim to) have an ideology… we may not agree with it, but to them it is as valid as any other ideal that anyone else aspires to. Isn’t it the “means” (violence, murder, innocent victims, communal bias etc) that make it so wrong?

And how about the Commissioner of Police going and shaking hands with the common-man-terrorist who almost bombed his police station? And how about the police cold-bloodedly murdering the one remaining terrorist who wasn’t killed in the bomb? Do we condone that as well? Do we say, “Well, it happens all the time…”? Do we say, “Well, he deserved it…”? Do we say, “He was scum, anyway, so who cares?”

So, the more I think about it, the less I like it. I want my action-drama to be an action-drama, and if I must watch a preachy film, I want the ethics clearly thought out and well presented. I don’t want a sentimental mish-mash of the two, not even with Anupam Kher and Naseeruddin Shah. Am I the only one to think like this?

The Namesake

May 4, 2008

I caught this movie on TV on Friday night. I’d heard a lot about it – not all of it good – when it was released, so I was quite happy for the opportunity to watch it without making any special effort. But I have to say, I was quite, in fact thoroughly, disappointed with it. So disappointed, in fact, that now I must read the book to find out whether it is just as bad, or whether much has been fouled up in the process of translating it to screen.

As usual, what follows is not going to make sense if you haven’t seen the movie. Also, spoilers ahead (if anything I say can be considered to further spoil this movie.)

I have several “minor” complaints with the movie – it is too jerky and episodic and there is no continuity till at least halfway through the film; characters are not built up at all; there are gaping holes in the story line. Why, for instance, does Ashima not go with Ashok to Cleveland or wherever it was he went where he dropped dead all of a sudden? What did he drop dead of? Why did he ask her to change her mind about not accompanying him, and she later say that he had gone away to train her to live alone? Whose decision was it and why? Why did Moushmi feel that, having got married to Gogol, she had to stop living her life and be a “good bengali housewife who fries samosas every Thursday”? What was the basis for Moushmi’s wedding with Gogol anyway? Did they have anything at all in common or was it only because they had sex on their second date? (And, by the way, what happened to that chicken on the stove, while they retired to the bedroom? That worries me greatly, that does – did she turn it off, or did it burn? Or was there, as Amit suggested, a timer on the stove that turned it off automatically when it was done?) Why was all that emphasis on locating Gogol when his dad died, and not much concern about his sister? Why did Gogol have such an awkward relationship with his father anyway? That scene where Ashok gives Gogol the Gogol book is so weird! That, and the breaking-up scene with Max – what was that all about? If either scene were to make sense, it had to have a lot, LOT more context and character-building preceding it. Max is looking like a real nice gal, so well suited for Gogol and all of a sudden, bam! – there’s a complete disconnect.

But those are all the minor inconveniences. What I really didn’t get about the movie was, whose movie was it anyway? It started and ended with Ashima, and for the first quarter or so, she seemed to be the protagonist. But then, it suddenly became all about Gogol and his obsession with his name. Which might have been ok, only, it never convincingly made Gogol its subject. At least, at the end we know that Ashima returned to India and found her life waiting for her there. What happened to poor Gogol, cuckolded by his wife and abandoned to loneliness? At the end, his fate seems quite irrelevant – he never even reads the book by his namesake gifted to him by his father, and therefore understands nothing about Gogol (the original) or his father.

Humph. A completely unsatisfactory movie and the best that can be said of it is that at least at one point it made both of us laugh out loud (probably by mistake). Here’s how that happened.

Ashima is upset that Gogol is too busy to come home to mom and dad, but not too busy to spend a weekend with his girlfriend Max (Maxine) and her family. She complains to a friend/colleague:
Ashima: “How come… blah blah blah… and what kind of a girl calls herself Max anyway?”
Colleague (without losing a beat): “Maybe it’s a guy.”
And this is supposed to be comforting and sympathetic?

Two Brothers

March 14, 2008

If you want to see tigers, watch this movie. It is about two tigers and how they get separated at a young age (by cruel humans, of course) and what becomes of them. It is a treat for just the tigers, specially when they are tiny babies. There is a story, but it doesn’t matter too much – it’s the tigers that make you go “awwwwwwwwwww…cho chweet!”

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