Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Two "Lucky" Films

Since my son was born two and a half years ago, I have pretty much given up on staying current on Indian cinema. It's difficult to get out to the movies, and our local Indian store really doesn't seem to have a very good collection of stuff. I saw more Indian movies on the plane from Mumbai to Newark in January than I probably did in all of 2008.

On a recent day-trip to New York, we picked up two DVDs of what might be termed "anti-Bollywood" Hindi films that might get us back in the habit, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, and Luck By Chance.

By anti-Bollywood, I mean films that try to be "realistic" rather than sentimental, and that have limited use of songs to accompany, rather than interrupt, the plot of the film (the "diegesis," for you film geeks). Many conventional Bollywood films don't have written scripts, and star-power, branding, and memorable songs often have more to do with the success of those films than acting skill, or good, believable stories. In the old days, the emphasis on realism in Indian cinema was mainly the province of art-house directors, and mainly involved glum themes and a certain ponderousness (Mira Nair is a prominent exception, though she is really better thought of as a diaspora filmmaker).

Happily, in the past few years, with the rise of Indian multiplexes, a realist sensibility has started to take hold on the margins of Bollywood itself. To my eye, the movement started with gangster films, and directors like R.G. Varma. But now it seems like we're increasingly seeing a broader range of themes and styles of filmmaking in this space: an anti-Bollywood Bollywood. (Meanwhile, the same-old same-old of Hindi commercial cinema sputters along, effectively unchanged.)

Below are my brief reviews of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Luck by Chance.

I almost don't need to say anything about Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, since Jabberwock/Jai Arjun Singh has already said most of what I would want to say in his own review:

Dibakar Banerjee’s delightful Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! is a Delhi movie that doesn’t much linger on the city’s physical landmarks but captures many vital aspects of its mood and character. At a basic level, this film is about the (improbably) charmed life of Lucky Singh, a Sikh lad from a middle-class West Delhi household, who grows up to become a master thief and gets away with one audacious theft after another – often doing nothing more strenuous than sauntering into a house and sauntering out again with a TV set tucked under his arm. This makes for a lightheartedly amoral story, anchored by a superb Punjabi-rap soundtrack and by that earsplitting old song “Chahiye Thoda Pyaar”, but Oye Lucky! is also a film that understands the spiraling nature of class aspiration and upward mobility. It knows a thing or two about surviving in a dog-eat-dog world where the kindly, “God-fearing family man” who befriends you and encourages his little son to call you “maama” might well have a dagger ready to plunge into your back. (link)

Jai also goes on in his comments on the film to note some parallels with the upward-mobility plot and the "eat the rich" attitude of The White Tiger, which I think seem quite apt. (I have no idea whether Dibaker Bannerjee had read Adiga before making his film.) I also agreed with Jai on one of the best lines in the film: "Yeh Gentry log angrezi bolte hain par karte hain desi" (These elite people may speak English, but they act all too desi.) It's a brilliant reversal of the usual way of thinking -- the idea that wealthier, English-speaking Indians are somehow deracinated within their own society. In Oye Lucky, English-medium privilege, and the luxurious commodities associated with it, are part of a class struggle played entirely within the Indian frame.

As with The White Tiger, I do disagree slightly with Jai. With Adiga, I felt there was an element of fakeness in the construction of the character Balram Halwai, which I couldn't overlook. Here, I was a bit frustrated with how Oye Lucky! ends. The filmmaker really had two intelligent choices for this character -- go up, and actually join the wealthy Delhi society he has heretofore been preying on -- or go down, and end up in jail, or dead. I won't say how the film ends, but let me just say that I think Bannerjee makes a less interesting choice than either of those options. This film verges on being a hard-hitting satire of the Delhi bourgeoisie from a lower-middle class perspective, but it isn't fully committed.

Incidentally, the director of Oye Lucky!, Dibaker Banerjee, also made a terrific film called Khosla ka Ghosla, about the Delhi obsession with acquiring real estate and property. I would strongly recommend that film too...

Next up, Luck by Chance. Like Oye Lucky, it's not quite accurate to say that this film is really outside Bollywood. (Oye Lucky's star, Abhay Deol, is a nephew of retired Bollywood great Dharmendra -- hardly an outsider, though he has apparently made the choice to stay mainly with edgier, more marginal films.) For its part, Luck by Chance is a self-reflexive satire of the Bollywood system, which manages to have its cake and critique it too. The film satirizes the fakeness of the Bollywood star system and the romance/melodrama formula, but even as it does that, the filmmaker decides to enjoy some of the cheese too, by including, for instance, full romantic songs from the film-within-the-film. Also, the leading man, Farhan Akhtar, is in fact an established Bollywood insider, though he has generally worked behind the camera (as director) rather than in front of it.

Luck by Chance has dozens of cameos from big bollywood stars, many of whom show up to play against type, though Shah Rukh Khan does figure as an ultra-glamorous superstar who has managed to keep it real. It also has Dimple Kapadia, as the pushy and demanding mother of an emerging Bollywood starlet (Isha Sharvani).

People who liked Page 3 (2005) a few years ago will likely like this film as well, though I think, on the whole, Page 3 was a more provocative, riskier film. (Interestingly, Konkona Sen Sharma played a similar role in both films, though here she gets to glam it up in a few scenes.)

Labels: , ,

Monday, April 09, 2007

Misadventures in Government: Delhi and Nandigram

The dream of speeding India towards globalization and economic liberalization has encountered quite a number of hiccups over the past year, though two failed government policies in particular stand out: the sealing drive in Delhi, and the Special Economic Zone plan in rural Bengal.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi had elections over the past few days, and the Congress Party lost heavily, while the BJP gained the majority of seats, primarily because of "sealing," which is the process of closing down illegal commercial enterprises in residential areas. The government's mismanagement of the sealing drive, which has led to repeated interventions by the Indian courts, including the Supreme Court, can be compared in some ways to what happened recently in Nandigram. There, a group of villagers gathered to protest the conversion of their farmland into a "Special Economic Zone" (SEZ) found themselves under fire by police. Fourteen people died in the violence, and in the ensuing uproar the Communist government of Bengal has been forced to suspend (temporarily?) its plan to develop a massive chemical factory and the four-lane highway that would lead to it.

There are of course ironies in both instances. It's remarkable, for instance, that the Communist government of Bengal is so pro-globalization that it was ready to force several thousand people in Nandigram to relocate to make way for an Indonesian corporation (the Salim group). But it seems to me that what is happening here isn't so much about conventional ideology (left vs. right) as it is about pro-development policies, that might make sense in principle, being terribly mismanaged.

Both issues are incredibly complicated, and alongside your opinions and arguments, I'd like to humbly request that readers suggest links that shed light on the different sides of each issue.

The Wikipedia entry for the 2006 Delhi Sealing Drive is pretty helpful, as it gives a detailed timeline of events (supported in many cases by external links to news articles). Another helpful starting point is this Rediff article from last November. There is also a blog of sorts on Delhi Sealing; the recent entries refer to the "Delhi Master Plan 2021," which was unveiled by the Congress government last fall as a way to offset the political damage created by the misguided sealing drive that unfolded over the course of 2006. The new Master Plan compromises on several issues; for instance, it aims to create more "mixed use" areas, thereby reducing the need for sealing under the previous plan. In all of this, the Supreme Court has been a major thorn in the side of the Congress government; it has required the government to implement a deeply unpopular policy, and in some sense pushed the Congress Party in Delhi into its current situation. (The Supreme Court has also bucked the will of the legislative branch on the question of reservations for OBCs, though that is another whole can of worms.)

On Nandigram and the SEZs, Wikipedia is again a good place to start. I would also recommend this Tehelka article from March 3, which also discusses a controversial SEZ plan in Singur involving a proposed Tata Auto plant. There's also an interesting Op-Ed in the Indian Express, from a writer who is clearly pro-SEZ and pro-globalization, but who recognizes the failures in the plan as it was enacted. And finally, try this leftist critique of the rather non-leftish policies of the CPI(M) in Bengal at Znet. (You may or may not agree with Akhila Rman's assessment of what happened at Nandigram, but her footnotes/links are very helpful.)

The biggest problem with the SEZ program from a civil rights perspective is the way the government can acquire rural land from peasants who may not have any papers to support their claim to ownership. (In this sense, they are similar to the traders who run unlicensed shops in Delhi -- and the claims of both groups are, in my view, legitimate.) A new policy is being put in place that will require that SEZ land in the future be purchased, rather than simply possessed, but it's unclear whether that is now going to be tried at Nandigram.

Labels: , , , , ,