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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.



Week 10: Lagaan (“The Tax”)
2001, Color, Hindi
Dir: Ashutosh Gowarikar
I probably wouldn’t even be writing this User’s Guide to Indian Cinema if it weren’t for LagaanLagaan initiated the era of the “cross-over movie,” Hindi films that are made and marketed for an international audience. Who would have thought that the most recognized Hindi film in the world would be an art movie about cricket? Cultural theorist Ashis Nandy sums it up perfectly, “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.” As irony would have it, the game of the oppressors is embraced and transformed by the oppressed into something new, invigorating and culturally in tune with India’s heritage. Lagaan starts off with a bet. In 1893, a remote village has continually been harassed by the local British authorities who have been extorting tax money on the village’s meager crop.  The charismatic youth, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), in a fit of rage, rashly challenges the British to a game of cricket. If the villagers win, they’ll never have to pay the back-breaking taxes.  If they lose, they’ll pay double. Unfortunately, none of the villagers know how to play cricket. Enter Lucy (Rachel Shelly), a lovely memsahib who sympathizes with the villagers—and fancies Bhuvan. She teaches the villagers, a veritable dirty dozen of hapless blokes from various religions and castes, the rules and secrets of the game. It’s a lavish period piece and a rousing sports movie. At face value, Lagaan is a typical movie about the Raj: privileged, nasty whites in regimental uniform beating ragged villagers, poor farmers wearily praying for rain so that their crops grow, the whiff of forbidden love between a white and a native.  But his gentle direction of his actors, his staging of the musical numbers and the final, pulsating cricket match, a game for survival, is what sets the movie apart as the best of Indian cinema.


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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.



Week 9: Dil Chata Hai (“The Heart Wants…”)
2001, Color, Hindi
Dir: Farhan Akhtar
It was India’s first yuppie movie. Dil Chata Hai was so hip and “modern” that audiences referred to it as a Hollywood movie dubbed in Hindi. The influence of Doug Liman’s Swingers and the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s pervades Farhan Akhtar’s coming of age story about three wealthy Bombayites fresh out of college and experiencing love for the first time. Akash (Aamir Khan), Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) and Siddharth (Akshaye Khanna), who have been friends since childhood, find their relationship threatened by Siddharth’s attraction to a lovely, but emotionally damaged divorcee.  The three guys finally find romance, and each has an accompanying musical number according to true Bollywood fashion. The attractive leads and the beautiful locations in Goa and Sydney aside, the songs are the high point of Dil Chata Hai. Buoyant, catchy, sophisticated, they prove that long-time screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar (Farhan’s dad), a staple the ‘70s and ‘80s, only got better with age. One particular song, “Woh Ladki Hai Kahan” (“Where is That Girl”), is a rare delight. Sameer takes his new girlfriend Pooja to the movies and as the film starts they envision themselves as the leads in the movie they’re watching, dancing through time, tap-dancing on a black and white soundstage, twisting on a beach, and frolicking along a picturesque mountainside like the famous heroes and heroines of past Hindi movies. It’s one of those glorious musical numbers where everything, the song, the chemistry between the dancers, the timing, is perfect. Dil Chata Hai was a refreshing aberration from more traditional, ritual-laced family fare to more stylish, progressive movies for upper-middle class audiences.


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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.



Week 8: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (“Something’s Happening”)
1998, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Karan Johar
Karan Johar is the boy wonder of Bollywood. He wrote and directed Kuch Kuch Hota Hai when he was only 25. It went on to become the biggest hit in Indian cinema - surpassing even DDLJ. What was the secret to the phenomenal success of this sweet musical romantic-comedy? That idyll of bourgeois pleasure and prosperity: 1960s America.  Johar, like many Indians from wealthy families, grew up reading Archie comics and watching Disney films and The Brady Bunch.  Archie and his gang of frisky teenage friends and that co-ed paradise of jocks and cheerleaders known as Riverdale High serve as the inspiration for Johar’s tale of Punjabi puppy love. Cocky playboy Rahul (Shahrukh Khan) falls for the principal’s stylish daughter, Tina (Rani Mukherji), breaking the heart of his best friend, brash tomboy, Anjali (Kajol). Tina dies shortly after childbirth leaving poor Rahul to raise their daughter alone. But through the help of Tina’s letters, Rahul and Tina’s daughter, who Tina named Anjali (a little cloying, perhaps?), reunites Rahul with his best friend and fated love, Anjali.. The appeal of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai operates largely on nostalgia—Archie, The Parent Trap, Beach Blanket Bingo, the Hollywood movies of the ‘60s that worshiped teens, mass consumption, and the wholesome nuclear family. And Johar cleverly reunited Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, two stars whose palpable on-screen chemistry was endearing and achingly tender.


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Tuesday, Sep 12, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.



Week 7: Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (“He Who is Brave of Heart Takes the Bride”)
1995, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Aditya Chopra
DDLJ, as it’s often abbreviated, is the masterwork of a young second-generation filmmaker, Aditya Chopra, whose father Yash is a famous director and media mogul.  The movie was a phenomenal success, running in theatres for a record time of five years. DDLJ hit a nerve amongst many Indians because of its increasingly relevant subject matter: the struggle of a NRI (Non-Resident Indian) family to make a living abroad in the West, yet still uphold the religious and cultural traditions of their ancestral homeland. The film signaled a return to ritual and relations, values that gradually eroded during the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s. By the ‘90s, the overcrowding and lack of jobs in India forced more and more people to relocate to other countries. Nearly everyone who saw DDLJ  was an NRI, or had a NRI relative and could completely identify with the characters. The story revolves around two spirited teenagers, the lovely, Simran (Kajol), the middle-class daughter of a stern, hardworking Punjabi gas-station owner in London, and Raj (Shahrukh Khan), the fast-talking, self-indulgent son of an Anglo-Indian millionaire. The two meet while traveling through Europe with their friends, discover they have nothing in common, hate each other, keep getting left behind by the others, bond, discover they have more in common than they thought, and grow to love each other. The romantic-comedy plot is painfully clichéd, but what makes DDLJ  so enduring are the earnest, doe-eyed performances from Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, who quickly became the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of Indian cinema.


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Tuesday, Sep 5, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.



Week 6: Umrao Jaan
1981, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Muzaffir Ali


Perhaps the most successful commercial art film Bollywood ever made. Think of it as India’s answer to Memoirs of a Geisha coupled with the raw power of Jane Campion’s The Piano. It has it all—exquisite period costumes and sets, nuanced performances from classically trained actors, and a hauntingly beautiful score. Based on the fictional memoir of a 19th century tawayaf (prostitute or public woman) of Lucknow, Umrao Jaan chronicles the life of its title character, the most celebrated courtesan of her day, from her childhood up until the British invasion of Lucknow during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Rather than simply vilify men for their treatment of women, the movie celebrates the resilience of women who are able to succeed within these patriarchal restrictions. Director Muzaffir Ali’s attention to detail in recreating the heady atmosphere of 19th century Lucknow is so precise you feel like you’re watching documentary footage. But the strength of Umrao Jaan lies in Rekha’s blessedly controlled and intelligent performance in the title role.


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