(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Fourth film in my Aamir Khan mini-binge, Rang de Basanti certainly dovetails with the first three: staying away from stereotypical Bollywood tropes, this is an ambitious film that engages with contemporary social issues and keeps the song-and-dance to a minimum. Boldly making its way to a full-throated denunciation of political corruption in India, Rang de Basanti bolsters its (fictional, but relevant) case with historical parallels, a strong sense of friendship between its leads and a tragic ending that ennobles the characters’ struggles. Saddled with a 157 minutes running time and a weighty subject matter, this is not a film to take in lightly. I didn’t quite like it as much as many of Khan’s other features, but that’s probably because Rang de Basanti makes few concessions to foreign audiences in discussing issues of national importance: There’s a British character that frames the film’s story but does not really impact it (a good story choice), and there’s the sense for North American audiences that we’re listening in on an important conversation taking place elsewhere. This limits but does not diminish Rang De Basanti‘s effectiveness—the film’s length and tragic ending may be more effective deterrents. Still, Khan is an effective force as an actor here, and I didn’t need anything more to satisfy me on a mini-binge of his most noteworthy movies.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) I’m in the middle of an Aamir Khan mini-binge these days, and there’s something really interesting in pairing Dangal and Taare Zamden Par so close together—I feel that both of them are representative of a more modern Indian cinema than the acquired notion of Bollywood musicals. Both of them offer a relatively grounded take on Indian society: they don’t feature actresses in flowing robes, musical numbers or simplistic love stories. Both of them tackle social issues, feature most of their music during montages and show Khan willing to take roles that differ a bit from the usual Indian movie archetypes. Taare Zamden Par is specifically about an arts teacher (Khan) helping a dyslexic kid go beyond the social demands for conventional career-driven success. There is an earnestness to the film that may register as naïve by Western standards, but that’s unfair—dyslexia as a topic matter in western societies has been beaten into the ground by countless “special episodes” of TV shows, socialized widely throughout the educational system and fully digested by various social actors including those best placed to help the affected kids. India, as of 2007, still had to catch up to that level (Wikipedia details how the film led to some national policy changes), and it’s in that spirit that Taare Zamden Par becomes endearing in boldly (but vividly) engaging with the same issue for a different social context. The execution matters a lot, and it’s fun to see Khan fully embrace his likable character, becoming a paragon of ebullient charm as an arts teacher mentoring a young protagonist to success. There are a few welcome expressionist sequences that take us in the mind of its imaginative protagonist, adding some more interest to the result. For North American viewers, there isn’t much here that hasn’t been seen elsewhere … but it’s handled well and a compelling view even if it tries audience patience with its 164 minutes running time.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Considering that Lagaan was for a long time the highest-profile Indian film to make it to North America (where it was nominated for a Foreign-language Academy award), it was high time that I took a look at it—and even better if it fit in the middle of an Aamir Khan mini-binge. For a very long 224-minute film, not a whole lot happens in Lagaan: A sports drama set against the oppression of the British Raj, this is a cricket movie in which the climactic match seems to play nearly in real time (and it takes place over three days). Still, it’s too easy to criticize Indian cinema’s tendency toward inflated duration: it’s much more acceptable to embrace the deliberate pace of the film. Shot in an immersive near-desert environment, it’s a film with strong cinematography that helps define its mood. Despite the inclusion of a few musical numbers, this is not a typical Indian masala, and much of the film is given to a meticulous description of the Raj’s oppressive taxation, various conflicts between the populace and their British oppressors, and an immensely detailed depiction of a cricket match meant to decide the fate of a small community. I swear that even cricket newcomers will learn most of the rules of the game by the time the film is over. The plot elements are incredibly familiar to a broad swath of viewers, ensuring its worldwide accessibility. It all builds to a triumphant conclusion, although—once again—the duration of the film may make its ending more meaningful. Lagaan regularly shows up on various lists of essential Indian movies, and for good reason.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) I’ve been working at expanding my knowledge of Indian cinema beyond the usual masala clichés, and Dangal is a good reminder that there’s a lot more to it than song and dance. Under Aamir Khan’s supervision (he didn’t write or direct, but he produces and stars in the film, and there’s a clear link between this and his other recent movies), Dangal tells the story of a family in crisis over several decades: an ex-wrestling star father despairing over having two daughters, and then in seeing his girls go on to have success in his own chosen sport, upsetting a number of expectations along the way. (The film is considerably messier in practice, concatenating roughly three plot arcs in a single film and expanding its running time far beyond what we’d consider appropriate in more focused western sports film, but that’s how it goes.) The film is heavy on female empowerment from the perspective of an older man, an imperfect viewpoint but one that probably echoes the current inner fault lines within Indian society as more egalitarian values are challenging a traditionally conservative society. To be fair, Dangal‘s use of familiar tropes doesn’t break expectations (training montages being the least of them, although they are noteworthy for being where the film’s musical numbers are integrated in a semi-natural fashion), but its execution is nicely done. For western audiences, Dangal does feel like a throwback to an earlier kind of gently pro-feminist cinema but everything has to be graded on a curve appropriate to the producing country: what may seem old hat to Canadians may be radically progressive in India. [November 2018: After seeing a few more of Aamir Khan’s films available on Netflix and especially Taare Zameen Par, I’m struck at how many of his recent films adopt western conventions to tell stories of social issues digested in North America two or three decades ago but relatively progressive by Indian standards.] Aamir Khan turns in a convincing performance as a flawed, aging character (a feat made even more impressive by looking at the ripped heroic roles he played in other movies made a few years before Dangal), and the actresses playing the two daughters are quite good as well. Length of the film and multiple peripheral dramatic arcs aside, I had a relatively good time watching Dangal—it’s meant to be a rousing inspirational drama and it works as such.
(On DVD, December 2015) I’ve been meaning to take a closer look at Indian cinema for a while, and 3 Idiots seemed like an inviting entry door: I’m sympathetic to stories about engineers, the film was a massive box-office success and the reviews didn’t look bad either. Fortunately, the resulting film doesn’t disappoint too much: It’s got a strong structure going back and forth in time, decent actors (Aamir Khan is particularly likable as an eccentric engineering student, while Boman Irani makes for a ferocious antagonist and Kareena Kapoor is just about everything to like in a romantic heroine), some suspense, a good conclusion… and so on. I can’t speak about the particular cultural resonances of the film or whether it’s an accurate portrait of what it’s like in Indian engineering schools, but it does have a decent amount of cross-cultural appeal. What’s not so appealing, unfortunately, is the film’s length. While I gather than three hours is unremarkable by Indian cinema standards, it definitely feels too long for a comedy like 3 Idiots. (The repetition of simple plot points doesn’t help.) The tonal shifts in the film are also strange from a western perspective and they have something to do with the length: In trying to cram everything masala-style in a single film, the result feels long and unfocused. Still, some of my favourite moments are the film are when it goes full-Bollywood: The two musical numbers are insanely catchy, and the choreography can be spectacular at times. While I’d like 3 Idiots to be 30 to 45 minutes shorter, I’m pretty happy with the result and look forward to more Indian cinema in the near future.