The Velvet Café

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The café goes to Bollywood

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“Oh, well. What’s an international film festival? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and-and-and boring, and-and completely… Completely wonderful.”

I feel like Cinderella watching the Toronto film festival coverage which has flooded several of my favorite movie blogs lately.  While it satisfies my curiosity about incoming movies, it’s not the same as being on the spot, inhaling the atmosphere, chatting with fellow bloggers and seeing the filmmakers talking about their work in front of a live audience.

However: I’ll stop whining here. I’ve actually been to a film festival too. Obviously it wasn’t TIFF, but it was quite an experience in its own way. The festival had an Indian theme and was arranged by a small cinema in my city in cooperation with the Indian embassy, which saw it as an event to promote tourism.

It lasted three days and contained a bunch of Indian movies, most of them Bollywood productions, and the response was far beyond anything I had imagined. Long lines lined up before every show and not everyone would get a seat. I guess many people wanted to grab the chance, since Indian movies normally never come up at Swedish theatres. And it probably helped a bit that the admission was free.

My main reason to attend the festival was to broaden my horizons. I considered it a part of my education as a film buff. After all Indian film industry is huge and much talked about, so I figured it was about time that I watched some to form my own opinion.

The closest I had been to watch something originating from Bollywood was Monsoon Wedding and Bride & Prejudice. I liked both of them, but as far as I understood it, they were intended and adjusted for a western audience and probably not representative. I wanted to get “the real thing”.

The Japanese wife
The first movie I watched was The Japanese Wife. It’s a story about a poor, Bengali schoolteacher who has a Japanese penpal How they met in the first place was unclear. Despite the difficulties in communication – both write and speak in very broken English – they fall in love and get “married”. This distance marriage lasts for 15 years, during which time they never meet. He is too poor to afford the journey and she can’t leave Japan because she has to tend to her mother who is ill. They keep sending letters and gifts to each other, resisting the pressure from relatives to marry someone more nearby. Finally she’s ready to travel, but alas – then she gets ill in what turns out to be cancer. The Bengali teacher consults various doctors and sends her various ayurvedic and homeopathic medicines. Will she survive? Will they ever meet? I won’t give away the ending here, but to be honest I didn’t care too much either way. The plot was too silly and the acting to bad for me to get involved.

Worst:

  • The readings from badly written letters broken English gets annoying to listen to after a while.
  • No dancing! So disappointing.

Best:

  • Getting a glimpse from the countryside. As opposed to the other movies I watched, this wasn’t only about the rich and wealthy people.
  • A scene from a kite flying competition. I didn’t get it. Two guys duelled each other with flying paper kites – what? Is that what they do in India instead of fighting? It was exotic. Intriguing.
  • The length. Only 105 minutes long. Very much appreciated.

The Japanese wife (Aparna Sen, IN, 2010) My rating: 1,5/5

3 idiots
Next up was 3 idiots, which is a comedy set in college environment. In the centre is the freethinker Rancho, a natural leader who takes up the stride with an old fashioned school system and overly conservative teachers. There’s no end to his virtues – courage, intelligence, wittiness, creativity and kindness – basically he’s flawless – and we get this rubbed in as we get to know about his time in college through a number of flashbacks. The frame story takes place ten years after the graduation. Rancho has been mysteriously disappeared all this time and now his closest friends take up a search for him. Of course there’s also a love story: Rancho falls in love with the daughter of his worst opponent among the teachers. Will they find their way back to each other before a marriage gets in their way?

3 idiots felt a little bit more modern, more similar to a standard second class Hollywood comedy than the other movies I watched. There were some standing jokes that made me cringe, especially a mooning thing they did repetedly. It wasn’t fun the first time and watching it several times was painful. Still, as a whole it was the movie I liked best.

Worst:

  • The infantile humour. A lot of pee and poo humor. It doesn’t get better just because it takes place in the far east. A bad joke is a bad joke, sorry.
  • The length – almost 3 hours. Cut it down one hour and you wouldn’t miss a lot.

Best:

  • The singing and dancing. There weren’t a lot of musical numbers, but I enjoyed those that were a lot. I wouldn’t have minded a few more.
  • The serious side. It’s not just a comedy; it also brings up some serious issues, such as students being driven to suicide when their families put too much pressure on them to succeed. The message – to follow your heart and find your own way through life – isn’t new, but there’s something heart warming about it.

3 idiots (Rajkumar Hirani, IN, 2009) My rating: 2,5/5

Kabni Khushi Khabie Gham
Over to my final encounter with Bollywood: Kabni Khushi Khabie Gham, which was the hardest movie to get through and a worthy final to my Indian adventure.

The story goes like this: the oldest son in an insanely rich family falls in love with a woman from a rich, but not insanely rich family. The insanely rich father gets furious because she’s not worthy his son, for which he has chosen another girl. The son disobeys his father, marries the woman he loves, is expelled from the family and goes to England with his wife. Meanwhile his younger brother transforms from being an annoying fat little kid to a well trained cricket player as he attends a boarding school. After graduating ten years later he returns home, only to find his older brother missing (no contact during all those years, heh?), and decides to go after him to convince him to come home and make peace with his parents, bringing everyone together.

This plot, suitable for a 25 minute TV series episode, was drawn out to 3,5 painful hours. I had to fight quite hard not to fall asleep or to give up and leave, disgusted with the ridiculous amounts of tears, violins and sentimentality.

Every time I was about to go, they countered with another musical number (there were loads of them) and in the end this turned out to be enough for me to sit out the whole thing. That and my promise to myself that if I only made it through this movie I wouldn’t have to watch another Bollywood movie for a very long time. I had done my homework and given it a fair chance.

Worst:

  • The monotony. The movie was repeating itself, running the same scenes, the same conversations and the same musical lead motive over and over again ad nausea.
  • Every time the father was about to open his mouth there was a loud lightening crack and the screen turned dark, as if they wanted to make sure no one missed he was pissed off. Believe me. We knew.
  • The sugar level. It was far beyond anything I had imagined. The most ridiculous crappy short story from the teenage magazines that were popular when I grew up was gritty realism compared to this. But for all sentimentality it couldn’t touch me. I didn’t shed a single tear, I didn’t feel any joy, I didn’t laugh. I just moaned. Food poisoned.

Best:

  • The musical numbers once again, even though I could have lived without a couple to bring down the length to a bearable level.
  • The glimpses I got from Indian culture and way of life intrigued me, especially the way the children looked at their parents, treating them as gods rather than as mom and dad.
  • How the men cried. Constantly. I was surprised at the many tears in 3 idiots, but then I had seen nothing yet. I’ve never ever in my life seen as many men crying as in Kabni Khushi Khabie Gham. For some strange reason it pleased me to see that they actually can.

Kabni Khushi Khabie Gham (Karan Johar, IN, 2001) My rating: 1,5/5

An enjoyable tourist trip
In the end, what did I make of the festival? Well it’s kind of double.

On one hand: as movies regarded, they were quite terrible, as evident from my write-ups. If anything I’ve been overly kind in my rating, afraid to be too judgemental because of my western glasses, because my lack of understanding of a foreign culture. I recognize my limits in this area.

But if I’m completely honest I can’t escape the fact that they were mediocre compared to anything else I’ve watched this year. If someone made exactly the same movies, but in a European or American setting, I would dismiss it immediately because of the bad script, the bad acting, the embarrassing clichés and melodrama.

On the other hand: for all their negative sides, I actually enjoyed my little trip to Bollywood quite a bit. Because of the change of view. And because the movies are more than just movies. They are doors to India, they are tourist trips, and as that they work very well. I could almost feel the smell of curry in my nostrils.

However there is a limit of how much exoticism you can stomach and towards the end I had had enough. When Kabni Khushi Khabie Gham finally ended, I was immensely relieved.

I don’t regret my Bollywood experience, not at all. It was lovely to taste something completely different to my ordinary diet. But I’m glad it’s over and I’ll definitely need a long break from it before I can consider a revisit.

Written by Jessica

September 20, 2011 at 1:00 am