Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Musical Greats of 2008

Award season may be verging upon completion in Hollywood, with the mother of all ceremonies falling this Sunday in L.A. (the Oscars, for those of you perhaps living on another planet), but they are all but halfway done over on the other side of the world. The Hindi film industry’s two main ceremonies, Filmfare and IIFA, are in fact yet to occur, and hence I will be taking you along my Top 10 lists for the year 2008.

Given music really is the first thing that attracts us to – or in some cases detracts us from – many a Hindi film, it only makes sense that I begin by outlining my Top 10 Songs of the year. Let it be known that these songs are chosen based on a combination of lyrics, melody and vocal performance rather than anything else, which is also why you will not see foot-tapping chartbusters along the lines of Maa Da Laadla, Talli Ho Gayi and Pappu Can’t Dance. It’s not that those songs are not enjoyable in their own right, but rather the fact that there is a huge dearth of the classic, Indian music that once defined Indian cinema – a genre of music that did not have to rely on 2/3 of a song being in English rather than just about every participant’s mother tongue…

Top 10 Songs of 2008, in Order of Release

1. Jashn-e-Bahara (Jodhaa Akbar)

It makes all too much sense that A.R. Rahman kicked off 2008 with a stellar album for Ashutosh Gowarikar's magnum opus. While Khwaja Mere Khwaja may be the most unique and inspired track on the album, the soft sweetness of this ditty and Mr. Javed Akhtar's incredible lyrical imagery leave it with a much wider appeal than any of the other tracks can boast of.

2. Pehli Nazar Mein (Race)

The term ‘overplayed’ was no match for Atif Aslam in what could very well be termed the love anthem of the year. The lyrics may be nothing spectacular, but it’s the melody and Aslam’s soulful singing that rendered this song a favorite for slow dances, Valentine’s Day surprises, long drives and even entrances/first dances at weddings. Who knew a simple song could go such a long way?

3. Falak Tak (Tashan)

In the midst of the loud, borderline strange music of Tashan that could probably serve as a pinnacle for how Hindi music has changed over time, this Udit Narayan/Kavita Krishnamurthy duet almost seemed recycled from the 90s. But let’s face it: Wouldn’t it be nice if those hilltop love songs weren’t so few and far between? We did, after all, listen to them for the last 60-odd years.

4. Zara Si (Jannat)

Love him or hate him, Emraan Hashmi never ceases to deliver at least one chartbuster per film. Kay Kay’s crooning could easily be confused for the aforementioned Aslam, as could this song for Hashmi’s own Tu Hi Meri Shab Hai (Gangster). Nonetheless, it’s devotional enough for girls to wish a guy would sing it to them, and for guys to wish they were clever enough to do so.

5. Kabhi Kabhi Aditi (Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na)

This Top 10 may not be ranked in any particular order, but you better believe if there was a song of the year, this would be it right here. It’s an unconventional song with an equally unconventional singer and alarmingly has nothing to do with romance. But who said a song about embracing the concept of loving, losing and moving on in life would have no takers? Even if in the end it was all about a cat.

6. Bakhuda Tumhi Ho (Kismat Konnection)

Some people referred to this album as a meek attempt to recreate the success of Jab We Met. Those people may be on to something, but on that same token so were the music directors. In another album full of club-like, Hinglish numbers (what else would Shahid Kapur gyrate to?), what really stood out was a song that utilized the Urdu of yore and called upon magic man Aslam yet again, and the now sadly underexposed Alka Yagnik.

7. Khuda Jaane (Bachna Ae Haseeno)

Real-life lovebirds Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone may have failed to live up to on-screen chemistry expectations in the majority of the film, but somehow they absolutely sizzled in this song more or less akin to a breath of fresh air. With unusual lyrics and the picturesque backdrops of Venice and Capri, to see it was to further appreciate it. If there would be one complaint, it’d have been to find a better singer than the rather one-tone Shilpa Rao.

8. Tu Muskura (Yuvvraaj)

It was a near two-way tie between this and Tu Meri Dost Hai, but then I decided not to be as accommodating as our desi awards sadly are in reality. The album as a whole may have been a disappointment from the Rahman-Subhash Ghai (read: Taal) combination, but it was a sincerely welcome return to classical music. You know, the one that makes use of an orchestra and lives on for generations? It was also nice to hear Alka Yagnik back in full form, after having sadly been replaced with the Shilpa Rao’s of this world.

9. Haule Haule (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi)

Again, I was tempted to create a tie between this one and Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai. The latter may have superior wordings, but it’s Sukhwinder Singh’s rustic outline of slowly falling in love that was as infectious as they come. The accordion base that also made up a large part of the background score could not have added a better touch.

10. Guzarish (Ghajini)

If Rahman kicked off the year, he also rounded it off. The sad case of Guzarish is that it maybe promised more in the promos than it turned out to be as a full song, but that does not take away from the fact that this series of ‘requests’ from a love-stricken Aamir Khan were all that disappointing. We do wish Sonu Nigam had sung it instead of Javed Ali, because what we ended up with was Ali putting on his best Nigam impression. That notwithstanding, it is the one song you truly take away from the film.

Honorable Mention: Teri Ore (Singh Is Kinng)

The song is very much as pretty as can be, but what prevented it from making the list was: a) the idea of anyone lip-syncing to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, especially Akshay Kumar in a pagdi b) the video’s attempt to unsuccessfully do its own Suraj Hua Maddham and c) the fact that for all the nice little wordings in there, 80% of the song still passes with nothing but the words ‘teri ore’ on repeat, at times making you wonder if it was your track that was skipping.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Winner By Chance

It is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of Hindi film viewers that any seemingly intelligent film, one that invites its audience to use their minds and embark on a truly engaging journey, are immediately branded as a form of parallel cinema, also known as being 'offbeat' or on occasion referred to as 'art films'. As a result, these realistic and often thought-provoking projects - that are so few and far between - seldom get their due. Zoya Akhtar's directorial debut Luck By Chance could very well be a prime example of one such endeavor, a film that is truly a cinematic treat and in any thinking cine-goer's book ranks far ahead of the more commonly-found commercial successes with absurd titles along the lines of Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehke Bhi Aap Se Shaadi Na Kar Paaye (HADMRBASSNKP for simple reference).

With her insight into the trials and tribulations of the world's largest film industry, Ms. Akhtar emerges like a breath of fresh air with a cohesive script, stellar cast, appropriate balance between humor and hardship and, above all, an eye for continuity and purpose. Rather than simply creating an exposé on the inside world of Hindi cinema, Ms. Akhtar rather hits the nail on the head in showcasing the deeper facets on the other side of the camera: the personalities, the aspirants, the networking, the production; you name it, she addresses it.

To aid the director is an outstanding cast that would be a shoe-in for Best Acting Ensemble in a Motion Picture, alas if only such an award existed in the subcontinent. In the lead is Ms. Akhtar's own brother Farhan, who recently made his foray into acting via the cult hit Rock On, and you better believe he does not disappoint. Transitioning from director to actor is no piece of cake, but Farhan truly gets right the nuances of his character and delivers a performance that is both understated and as good as any accomplished actor.

By his side is the wonderfully gifted Konkona Sen Sharma who wouldn't know bad acting if it came knocking at her door. She remains as delightful as ever, someone who achieves the rare habit of silently suffering from the sidelines without ever losing grip of her integral role in the proceedings.

But what truly separates LBC from your average fare is that every member of the supporting cast more than pitches in with their best efforts. Rishi Kapoor is in full form, downright hilarious at times and walking away with most of the laughs, while Juhi Chawla's return to the screen is a pleasure in the role of his wife. Dimple Kapadia is elegance personified and particularly shines in her character's telling moment toward the climax, whereas Isha Sharvani is miles better than her outings in Kisna and Rocky. Sanjay Kapoor gets into the spirit of his role, while Arjun Mathur strikes a significant chord as Farhan's secretly envious friend.

Hrithik Roshan, although credited as having a Special Appearance, is around for many of the proceedings and is downright perfect for the role. He exudes confidence and charm and, of course, he dances his heart out in Baware. A plethora of celebrities make fleeting appearances, but Aamir and Shahrukh Khan register the most impact, the former poking fun at his perfectionism and the latter sharing his haunting words of wisdom.

Shankar Ehsaan Loy once again come up trumps for the Akhtars, lending a soundtrack that is both catchy and situational, a rather rare feat. From a listening perspective, Sapno Se Bhare Naina is perhaps the pick of the lot, while visually Baware is worth the admission price alone. The homage to all the behind-the-scenes individuals during the opening credits is admirable and beautifully shot.

Verdict? Luck By Chance is a monumental achievement for a first-time director, a film that is simultaneously enlightening and enjoyable, full of character and even replete with an underlying moral message. Hats off to Ms. Akhtar for a welcome entry into direction, and here is hoping for more films of this caliber to come soon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Aamir the Incredulous Hulk

This review is long overdue, largely due to a relatively busy period but also perhaps out of fear of all the die-hard Ghajini fans out there. That the film is a success is no question, what with its status as the biggest hit of 2008; one of the biggest hits of all time; and enough to inspire an actual video game of the same nature. But I’m going to break down for you why I think this is a classic case of much ado about nothing, and thus I will begin with what is wrong with this entire endeavor:

Return of 80s Cinema

Based on a Tamil blockbuster which was in turn inspired by Christopher Nolan’s cult classic Memento, this film takes the serious and intriguing subject of a revengeful man with short-term memory loss piecing together clues to reach his target. Fair enough, except sadly this version lacks logic and consistency.

· Aamir Khan is a suave CEO, cute, charming and little, who strangely dresses like a bodyguard to show off his newfound biceps. We never learn just how he turns into an oversized superhero. Are we meant to believe he really just trained himself in each 15-minute period that he remembers the loss of his ladylove? For that matter, sometimes he forgets in a 15-minute span, and other sequences are so long and drawn out that you know he has exceeded this “15-minute limit” and yet is still going about with what he was doing all along.

· Rich CEO that he is, whose love life is splattered across the tabloids, how did this whole case go unnoticed? His model girlfriend’s death yields no investigation, and Aamir is left to fend for himself? His manager and doctor showing up at his doorstep with pictures of themselves and then leaving is hardly convincing. Would they not check in the time that passes what he is up to, how he is surviving, etc.?

· He is followed around by the biggest dimwit on earth, a “medical student” obnoxiously played by Jiah Khan who is the single dumbest girl you will ever encounter, let alone trust as a future doctor. When she discovers he is plotting against some Ghajini, she picks up the phone and calls Ghajini? Did she forget the part where she learned Aamir’s state is a result of a brutal attack in which he was struck in the head by an iron rod? Instead she mumbles something about being too scared to talk to the police and hence reaches out to Ghajini directly. Yeah…right.

· Aamir, oh Aamir. His physical transformation is incredible, no doubt, but why on earth does he shout, erupt and growl like some sort of maniac at the drop of a hat (namely after being stuck in the hostel)? He is at his best in the flashback scenes playing the besotted and witty rich boy in love with a lower-middle class girl. And before you say he is just doing what he was asked, no director in India tells Aamir Khan how to play a role. Aamir Khan tells the director how he will play a role, and after a long, long time he has missed the boat with this performance.

· Absurd characters: How is it that all the characters are so incredibly one-dimensional and plain stupid? Save for maybe Aamir who is just confused, the other characters make the most idiotic decisions at the most inopportune times. Maybe that’s how they want to build suspense, but it’s no fun watching a plethora of dummies in what is supposed to be a serious film.

· Ghajini, the title character, is some horrible actor who cannot even say a single line appropriately. Naming the film after him is being touted as some incredibly selfless act by Aamir the actor, but that is beside the point. Is this really the best they could find? He apparently played the same role in the Tamil counterpart, but he is simply appalling here.

· A.R. Rahman sure is making us proud out West with one award after the next and hopefully a historical Oscar, but the only track in this enterprise that truly makes a mark is Guzarish. The haunting Kaise Mujhe is a nice effort but not one that makes for easy listening. Both Behka and Aye Bachchu try too hard and are ruined by strange verses.

And now, the few saving graces…

· Aamir, as mentioned, shines in the flashbacks and reminds us of the commercial Aamir of yore. A smitten lover boy with a flair for comical situations. Why he made his plight in the revenge saga so over-the-top is the film’s biggest tragedy.

· Asin – although portrayed as that annoying, do-gooder girl with the heart of gold – is both pretty and endearing enough to set herself up for a commercially viable career. It’s a nice change to see a curvy heroine, even if she is mostly found in ill-fitting clothing. We certainly could have used more of her as opposed to that inane Jiah.

· The love story itself is entirely moving, which is ironic given most critics blame the film’s downfall on the romance. I say the opposite: the love story makes for the actual enjoyment as Aamir is humbled by the lifestyle of the lower-middle class and sees another side to life. The scene where he loses Asin is far more heart-wrenching than any of the illogical proceedings that formulate the revenge angle.

Alas, that’s about all I have in my list. This is no superhero flick, and yet Aamir’s character is made to be far more powerful than Hrithik Roshan’s Krrish could ever aspire to be. Training and muscles notwithstanding, this is the sort of 80s action that sees one punch throw down 10 men, except in this case the hero almost never speaks. He glares and growls, he screams and shouts, but unless he is found by the beach with his sweetheart, he seldom has any lines, much to everyone’s dismay.

Just to point to another example, just look at the difference in how he reacts to Asin's death when it is actually happening versus toward the beginning when he is looking in the mirror. In one, he is so effective, heartbroken, weakened and shedding meaningful tears. In the other, he pulls an Amrish Puri with his eyes, heaves his chest, flares his nostrils and turns into a beast. And this is a 'serious film'?

Verdict? This is a public service announcement to both Aamir and Shahrukh Khan: Different as your most recent films may have been, the similarities in both of your approaches is unmistakable; the two of you are 43-year-old senior actors who have both taken it upon themselves to only appear as a lead in 1 or 2 films a year. Find some actresses your own age and give us a little more than mere timepass.