Monday, November 28, 2005

Quirky American Art Films and Terrible Bollywood Comedies

We recently signed up for cable in our new apartment, and as one of the incentives, the cable company threw in a bunch of movie channels, including IFC and Sundance. I'm not exactly sure how long we have them, so I'm watching a fair bit: it's a good way to catch up on foreign and art movies that might seem like dubious rentals at the video store.

The Journey (1997). I'm not sure how I missed this little indie film with Roshan Seth and Saeed Jaffrey the first time around. It's in the intergenerational acculturation mini-genre that also includes classics like Bend it like Beckham as well some lesser-known/ low budget movies (i.e., Chutney Popcorn). Here, an ABCD and his caucasian wife have to come to terms with a father living in India (Roshan Seth) who comes to stay with them in their suburban home in Pittsburgh. What distinguishes this film from movies like ABCD or American Chai is that it isn't a coming-of-age film (i.e., who should I marry? what should I do with my life?). If anything The Journey is a dysfunctional family/can't we all get along drama with lots of intelligent insights on the cultural divide. The greatest strenght of the film is the script, but the major flaw is the weak acting on the part of the U.S. based actors.

A Tout de Suite (2004). After leaving grad school, my intake of European art films really declined, which is too bad, because there are a lot of interesting films being made. A Tout de Suite ("Right Away") is a little bit of a throwback to Godard, but it does some interesting things with multiculturalism and social class in contemporary France. I could have done with a little less of melancholy heroine staring off into space, but the heist/ getaway part of the plot keeps you engaged.

The Last Waltz (1978). This Martin Scorcese film of the last concert of the band known as The Band was re-released in theaters last year, with color correction and audio re-mastering. I never saw the original, but clearly the updated version is a damn good rock band documentary. The songs with Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, and of course Bob Dylan are among the best, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing.

The Red Violin (1998). If you get past the cheesy and far-fetched premise, this is actually a beautifully shot art film with nice music. I'm not too surprised that I liked it, because the same director, Francois Girard, also did 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which, if you haven't seen it, you must (immediately).

The Celluloid Closet (1995). I kept thinking of ethnic minorities in Hollywood as I was watching this breakthrough documentary about gay and lesbian themes in the movies over the weekend. (How did I get away with never having seen it earlier?) Several of the showbiz people interviewed for the film talked about how minority viewers watch films differently from mainstream viewers: we look for representations of ourselves, focusing in sometimes on the bit parts or throwaway moments that others might not notice. For gay viewers, it might be Mrs. Danvers' strange obsession with her former mistress' wardrobe (in Rebecca), or a certain look that William Boyt gives Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. For South Asians, it's the convenience store owner in Barbershop (or most recently, in Syriana, where according to Manish, South Asian workers in the Persian Gulf play significantly more than a bit part).

One important difference between an ethnic/immigrant audience and other minority groups is that most immigrants have had direct access to other filmic traditions, which weren't as saturated with stereotypical roles and bad accents as the American film industry has been. One isn't as bothered by Sabu as one might be because there is a vast repertoire of more honest images of India available from the same era. Whereas there really aren't positive or "out" representations of gay characters avaiable at all (anywhere?) until the 1990s.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). Forgive the grammatical mistake(s) in the title of the film, and see the happily Quirky art film beneath. Think Todd Solondz (except less nihilistic), and maybe also shades of recent John Waters (Pecker) and Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World). The best part might be the satire of the pretentiousness of the "art world" (which virtually assures that pretentious artist types will love it).

Garam Masala (2005). We saw this at an actual movie theater, and oh, how I wish we'd just seen Harry Potter instead.

For starters, this is about the most flagrantly misogynistic film I've seen this year, in any language. The premise is, Akshay Kumar is engaged to one woman, but decides he needs to have affairs with three other women -- all flight attendants -- at once. Akshay Kumar is sometimes funny as the harried polygamist, but much of the humor in this film is predicated on the audience having no respect for women whatsoever. Why does he want to date three women at once while being engaged to a fourth? What on earth is he looking for? The film seems to suggest that playing this game would be something that every guy would naturally want to do, just to show that he can.

Something similar is afoot in the recent hit comedy, Shaadi No. 1, another "Cheating Mangetar" (fiancé) group comedy (this seems to be almost a mini-genre all of a sudden; I wonder what that's about?). Shaadi No. 1 might be excused because it is, well, pretty shoddy. (Sorry for the bad pun) But clearly the filmmakers and writers put a lot of time and thought into Garam Masala, which aims to go beyond the disposable teen sex-comedy realm of Shaadi No. 1 and last year's trashy Masti. The ugliness of Garam Masala is all the more palpable and offensive because it is, technically, a better film.

* * * * *
Oh, and I just wanted to note: I didn't watch all of these this past weekend! I've been watching the films mentioned above over the past month, in between moving, teaching, house-hunting, etc.


anangbhai said...

Its not a sex-comedy if there's no sex or nudity involved. Call it a tease-comedy, enough to get you hot and bothered but no release.

2:31 PM  
badmash said...

Amardeep - the premise of Garam Masala appears to be based on a popular Malayalam film from the early eighties called "Boing Boing" The "reason" the character in the Malayalam version film plays the double life (and rents an extravagant appartment)is because he's trying to compete with his friend who's just received a promotion at work.
Made at a time when disposable income was increasing in Kerala (from Gulf state remittances) and women were also becoming more financially independent. Does a god job of questioning (then) common double standards towards womens' careers and the veracity of conspicuous consumption and individualism.

3:09 PM  
Jane Sunshine said...

Ha, ha, ha. It's okay to admit if you did watch all those movies in a weekend. Really.

3:20 PM  
Niraj said...


Thanks for the thumbs-up for The Red Violin, a very underated film. It's not that the film's subject itself is good (like you said, a bit far-fetched), but how seamlessly the director brought the various vignettes together into a complex but satisfying film.


3:45 PM  
Amardeep said...

Anangbhai, I called Shaadi No. 1 and Masti sex-comedies because they trade on sexual innuendo and double entendres. Granted they aren't as sexually explicit as some American movies (i.e., Wedding Crashers), but that is basically what you get from Bollywood.

I didn't actually call Garam Masala a sex comedy, though I think that's probably a good way to define the genre. (You can distinguish it from the more serious genre of "romantic comedy" -- i.e., Salaam Namaste. Romantic comedies have some element of reflection or serious transformation involved. Sex comedies don't seem to have any space for reflection.

And Jane, um, I did watch a lot of movies over the long weekend...

Badmash, I'll look for the Mallu film. I really don't get to see very many of them (and now that I'm out of New Jersey, they will be basically impossible to get -- smaller desi video stores here in Pennsylvania).

Niraj, glad you agree on The Red Violin. Some films grab you visually; this one grabbed me via synesthesia.

4:57 PM  
zp said...

"I kept thinking of ethnic minorities in Hollywood as I was watching this breakthrough documentary about gay and lesbian themes in the movies over the weekend. Several of the showbiz people interviewed for the film talked about how minority viewers watch films differently from mainstream viewers: we look for representations of ourselves, focusing in sometimes on the bit parts or throwaway moments that others might not notice. "

An unequivocal yes and no. The relationship between representations of queerness and ethnicity is most productive, for me anyway, as a contrast that moves towards the specificities of industries and audiences - when you ask who made or makes queerness visible (what industry practices, actors, what roles, what bodies) in Hollywood and who made or makes (which) ethnicities visible? What does it mean to believe that queerness is visible at all? What does it mean to believe that ethnicities are? Would ethnic actors, directors or producers speak about their relationship to Hollywood in the same terms as the showbiz folks in CC? What happens when I ask this last question?

Thanks for adding my link; I've been reading your blog for awhile, but I never comment. And best wishes on your move to Philly. Lucky!

7:40 PM  
Shreeharsh said...

Amardeep - the premise of Garam Masala appears to be based on a popular Malayalam film from the early eighties called "Boing Boing"

Actually Garam Masala is based on an old 1965 Jerry Lewis/Tony Curtis movie, also called Boeing Boeing. (See

Amardeep, I enjoyed Garam Masala (even though it was far too long and its length should have been reduced by at least an hour). I'll grant that it's "flagrantly misogynistic" but isn't that a part of the fun?

And just by the way -- what did you think of The Aristocrats? (I loved it!) :)

9:16 PM  
Mrudula said...

I see you are having a great time. :)

11:44 PM  
aquamarine said...

Hello Professor:))

u might as well as add TAJ Mahal to the list. Humour Akbar Khan if u can afford that kinda time...spent a couple of crores on it...of course, the best time to watch this one would be during house hunting...teaching.and ur other activities.

Garam Masala: The titre was enuf to put me off!

Shaadi no.1: No comments

On movies that look at cultural differences, be it whether the east meets the west...or north merging with the south, they have been reduced to nothing more than cliches. That's quite sad actually. We have far more important issues to contend with and noone's listening. Does that mean we lack an elite audience or perceptive filmmakers. Living in France is not fun anymore and neither was it intended to be. I wonder how much of the American Dream is actually a reality...or is it just a dream....

I try to catch up on the Film Festivals whenever I can. I missed out the RUssian FIlm Fest, but couple of months ago, made it for the French movies though! I can't recollect the titles..but they were interesting.

ENjoyed reading ur post.

5:16 AM  
brimful said...

Interesting- I found Me & You & Everyone We Know a wee too precious for my taste. However, I couldn't agree with you more about the send up of the "art world." :)

And thanks for steering Garam Masala off my queue.

11:35 AM  
badmash said...

Thanks Shreeharsh - didn't know about the Curtis/Lewis film.

2:01 PM  
Quizman said...

Thanks for the list. Will look out for them.

Some unsolicited recommendations of recent-ish follow. You can get them from Netflix or if you're lucky, your neighbourhood public library:
1. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Hindi)
2. Turtles Can Fly (Iraqi-Iranian-Kurdish film set in post-2003 war Iraq)
3. Shwaas (Marathi)
4. Goodbye Lenin (German)
5. In July (German)
6. D (Hindi) - especially if you have seen 'Company'.
7. Ab Tak Chappan (Hindi)
8. Welcome Back Mr. McDonald (Japanese comedy)
9. Two Women (Iranian. See Roger Ebert's review

More later.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous said...

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10:12 AM  
Deepak said...

The Malayalam version was also titled "Boeing Boeing" (probably referring to the stewardress connection). Having seen the original, me thinks a lot has been lost "in translation".

In the 80's, there was alot of questioning of increasing independance of women in the wake of the gulf boom in Kerala.

But I guess that didn't make a difference to the box office registers?

10:17 AM  

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