Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Musical Moments: Chicago: The Cell Block Tango



As a 14 year old, “Chicago” was the first (non-animated) musical I had ever seen from start to finish and it marked the beginning of what now appears to be a life long affair with Musicals. However, even more generally, I believe that “Chicago” as a movie was probably one of the most important movie events in Hollywood in the last 20 years or so. Thanks to the sassy performances of its sparkling leads, Zeta-Jones and Zellweger, and Rob Marshall’s confident direction, the movie was a gigantic success and almost single-handedly resurrected the Musicals genre in Hollywood. Unlike “Moulin Rouge” (which was released a year before in 2001) it was a better motion picture and enjoyed greater financial success and accolades. It presented the Musical as a much more attractive financial proposition than it was seen previously. It proved once again that musicals aren’t restricted to a tween audience in animated features (a la Lion King, Aladdin etc.) or “wholesome family entertainmeners” like “The Sound of Music” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” It can be just as gritty, biting and adult as any solid drama or black comedy. This was proven by Bob Fosse way back in the 1970s with musicals like “Chicago” and “Cabaret” inter alia. However, musicals practically died out by the late 1980s. A new form of music movies emerged headed by successful films like “Flashdance,” “Footloose” and “Dirty Dancing” which weren’t really musicals as much as they were dance movies. A number of musicals went kaput like “Xanadu” and “Wizard of Oz” (taking the acting careers of those involved, Diana Ross and Olivia Newton John most prominently, with them). Consequently, musicals were relegated to the stage save for the Disney features. However, post “Chicago” a number of musicals were revived for the big screen leading to a number of successful films including “Dreamgirls,” “Mamma Mia” and more.

Now, one of the most iconic moments in the movie is the Cell Block Tango. A grandiose picturisation that is set on a cinematic scale while retaining that stagey feel, it is one of those jaw dropping sequences in the movie, for several reasons. For starters, it is about a bunch of female convicts telling their tales of crime set to a tango. All of them have stories involving love, lies, betrayal and revenge. Some of them are victims, some the vamps and all are bit insane. Their tango is hot and their stories are distubingly amusing. The Cell Block Tango shamelessly celebrates these criminals, their lives and their exploits and we love it for that. The humor is black as coal and has all the bite of a blood-sucking vampire. It represents not only great music and picturisation but a fascinating exploration of several dark (and often taboo) themes which is a sharp departure from previous works on the same. The movie glorifies the villians by pointing out that the lines aren’t as distinct as often made out to be.


What I also loved about this sequence in the film in particular is that it makes the background actors rise above being merely extras. Each of them is given the spotlight, a story to tell and even Zeta-Jones is not given any special preference over the others. They are all equal, at least for this song. And thereafter, whenever you see one of them, you see them as more than just fillers or background vocalists. Each of them has a character to portray which has its own tale, its own distinct personality. Each of them plays a woman who went dramatically against societal norms at a time when ideas like feminism were restricted to the right to franchise. They are each independent, fiery and a reflection of a bygone era. And yet, even today, they shock you. Therein lies the timelessness of Bob Fosse’s work revived here by Rob Marshall most successfully.

To conclude, “Chicago” marked the beginning of a new era. Even if it is not seen so now, it will be without a doubt some day. It revived an old genre with all the style and flair that was most typical of the best works therein. At the same time, it boosted the careers of its actors considerably scoring Oscar gold for Catherine Zeta-Jones (who hid her pregnancy to get the role). But most importantly, it reinvented the old musicals format in various ways, by bringing a stronger cinematic feel to the work and making the transformation from stage to film a much more creative, innovative anbd consequently, worthwhile enterprise. Its financial success only cements my position further. The Cell Block Tango is an excellent example if this; as is the puppeteering sequence in “Oh Yes, They Both Reached for the Gun.” The result not only appealed to the lovers of the stage version but also won over a whole new generation of fans, for both, the movie and the genre. Subsequently, it has been applied for teens in shows like “Glee” and the “High School Musical” franchise. It has resulted in investment of relatively astronomical sums into musicals like “Hairspray” and “Mamma Mia” with phenomenal returns. “Chicago” was the film that started it all. I can’t wait for Rob Marshall’s “Nine” which brings Daniel Day Lewis and a bevy of beauties including Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie and Dame Judi Dench together in a musical adaptation of an Italian play inspired by Fellini’s “8 ½”.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Girls with Gumption: Part II

Here, I had to draw up a list of female actors with gumption when it comes to take on risky roles and delivering on them in the currently active ones. This, as it turned out was a lot more difficult as I struck off one name after another in my head. However, there were some clear contenders. Once again, in ascending order of awesomeness:

Shahana Goswami: She has played some excellent supporting roles in "Rock On!" and "Firaaq" which show her great potential as an actor. She also has some interesting projects to look forward to in "Mirch" and "Basra." With a career filled with eclectic choices, she definitely qualifies in this list.

Mahi Gill: Not many actors would choose to play a sexually charged partly egoistic and partly obsessive lover for their debut vehicle. In “Dev D” Mahi Gill stunned one and all with her performance of a modern day Paro, one who is not only madly in love with Dev but also independent, fiery and spirited enough to stun even the most liberal moviegoers. Barely 3 movies old, she has the potential to carve a niche for her much like Tabu did. In fact, she comes across as a mix of Shabana Azmi of the 80s and Tabu. A girl with gumption without a doubt, see her scene in “Dev D” when her character meets Dev in the rundown hotel for the one last time to know what I mean.

Priyanka Chopra: Once again, like Kajol, she is perhaps the only mainstream actress worth mentioning for having any gumption when it comes to take on challenging roles and delivering on them. Among the host of movies that she has done which range from conventional to pure crap, there are some truly sparkling performances from different points in her career that show her to be an actor with substance. First in line is “Aitraaz,” a reworking of “Disclosure” where she played the role Demi Moore played in the original. A powerful performance for a relative newcomer, she single-handedly made the movie worth watching. Then came “Fashion” last year where her pheonix-rising-from-the-ashes act in the backdrop of the fashion industry was pure gold. And recently, her performance in “Kaminey” was brilliant and practically re-wrote the role of the heroine in the masala movie from a damsel in distress best known for running around the trees to a gun-totting, fiery and yet down to earth urban babe who can do just about anything. All of this and more, certainly qualifies her for this list.

Chitrangada Singh: Now this was another gutsy actor in choosing her debut vehicle. Sudhir Mishra’s “Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi” was perhaps the only political epic in its truest sense to ever come out on modern India. And her role was one of at once a woman experiencing political confusion and emotional catharsis as she is caught between two men, one she loves and one who loves her. A complex and difficult role, she wowed me with her performance. Following this was “Kal” (which I have not seen) and “Sorry Bhai” (another risky role involving an affair between her and her brother-in-law to be), both of which were eclectic choices and showed her acting prowess and range quite well. Striking in her resemblance to Smita Patil, this unconventionally beautiful actress is capable of a lot more than what she has already shown and only time will tell if she fulfils her potential or not.

And finally, (drumroll sounds)

Konkana Sen Sharma: Lets let her work speak for her. She played a married conservative Iyer wife who falls in love with a Muslim man in “Mr. And Mrs. Iyer,” a struggling actor who realises the true meaning of success and failure in “Luck by Chance,” the schizophrenic girl who thinks she loves in an imaginary house with her loved ones in “15 Park Avenue,” a naive gossip columnist lost in the world of glamour in “Page 3,” a swinging wife in “Mixed Doubles,” a woman in search of her identity in “Amu” and more. Truly the best and most courageous female actor in the industry today by almost any standard.

Honorary mentions: Rani Mukerji for movies like Yuva, Hey Ram and Black though they are three films in over a 15 year career spanning nearly 40-50 films;

Vidya Balan for "Parineeta" and the upcoming "Ishqiya" in which she looks promising after a long time and a dozen crappy mainstream movies.

Anyone I have missed out? Do tell!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Girls with Gumption: Part I

“What I can understand is that his co-star, Deepika Padukone, abandoned a promising start as a badminton champion to become a model and actress. She is breathtaking, which of course is standard in Bollywood, where all the actresses are either breathtaking or playing mothers.”
- Roger Ebert (on Chandni Chowk to China)

Recently, the above passage from Ebert’s review got me thinking: is beauty really the only determinant of the success of an actress in India? I mean look at the mainstream female actors in India today. The first ones that come to mind are Priyanka Chopra, Rani Mukerji, Preity Zinta, Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif and the like. They all look gorgeous and they all rarely act (and most of the times they do, the standard set is quite a low one). Few experiment with roles and practically none dare to consistently take on bold, challenging and career-wise risky roles the way actors did once upon a time. This led me to prepare of list of female actors of both, the past and the present who had gumption and took on some daring roles and delivered unforgettable performances. In this first part, I look at the women of the past in ascending order of brilliance:

Kajol: She is probably the only mainstream actress to have some interesting career choices worth considering. Not the conventionally pretty gal, she has given some fabulous performances in difficult (and consequently, unbecoming of an actress on the top) roles. Apart from the iconic roles of Simran in DDLJ and Anjali in Kuch Kuch, she has also taken on the role of the vulnerable sister in “Dushman,” the sinister and obsessive vamp in “Gupt,” the Alzheimer stricken wife in “U, Me Aur Hum” among others. While the movies themselves might have often been below average at best, her performances have never been faulted by anyone.

Manisha Koirala: Before she became known for doing movies like “Ek Chotisi Love Story” and “Chaahat – Ek Nasha” and a string of exotic boyfriends, MK was a highly respectable actress with several impressive performances in demanding movies like “Bombay,” "Khamoshi," “Grahan” and “1942: A Love Story” to her credit. She took on roles which were, while mainly of a victim, highly challenging and required a considerable amount of acting prowess which she proved she was capable of over and over. Sadly, those days seem long past now.

Nadira: Now one may see this as an odd choice. Nadira was never a mainstream actor as such and certainly not the leading woman. However, she was one of those first women who made the vamp look good on the silver screen. With a host of powerful performances in the black and white era, she very much reminds me of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.” In fact, if any actress could have carried that role off in India, it would have been her. Absolutely unrestrained and extremely powerful, she was, at once, intimidating and alluring in all her roles. A truly powerful actress with more balls than most men can lay claim to.

Helen: The first bombshell of Bollywood, she brought the oomph factor to the silver screen with her cabaret numbers. She isn’t an actor but a performer. But through her performances, she has built a position and reputation few can lay claim to. She was bold for her time and showed great courage in the kind of numbers she did. For what she did, she sure had the gumption required to pull it off, and it shows even today.


Pooja Bhatt: Despite all the poor mainstream choices and the occasional bad publicity offscreen, Pooja Bhatt has the guts and the gumption that has made Mahesh Bhatt, the director a force to reckon with. Her career as an actress is much like her father’s as a director: some highly sparkling works littered across wastelands. In fact, her best performances have come when she has worked for her father. Memorable roles include the powerful role of the daughter in “Daddy,” the mother in “Zakhm,” the prostitute in “Sadak,” the unwanted daughter in “Tamanna,” the small town girl in the big city with a bad husband in “Everybody Says I’m Fine” and more. Sure, there were plenty of bad choices in movies. However, when one mentions her name, these are the performances that immediately spring to mind and each of them is as difficult as it is different from the previous one. Rarely given the credit due to her, Pooja Bhatt is one girl with gumption.

Shabana Azmi: She is one of the two goddesses of the parallel cinema movement of the 1980s. Need I really say more? With tons of national awards, critics awards etc. etc. in her bag along with performances like “Arth,” “Godmother” and “Fire” to name just a few, she is without a doubt, one of the most diverse actresses to arrive in the film industry. An Indian Meryl Streep of sorts, she is a powerhouse of talent with oodles of elegance, charm and personality.

Smita Patil: She is the second of the goddesses. Her career is much like Guru Dutt’s: an impressive list of performances within a short time, a highly controversial personal life and an untimely death that robbed Indian cinema of one of its finest talents. What more she could have achieved, we can only guess. Her good performances? “Arth,” “Bhumika,” “Mandi,” “Waaris” and lots more.

Tabu: Without a shadow of a doubt, she is the most talented actress of her generation in India. With the (very) rare exception of movies like “Tu Chor Main Sipahi” and “Vijaypath,” she has given one knockout performance after another in movies like “Maachis,” “Hu Tu Tu,” “Astitva,” “Cheeni Kum,” “Maqbool,” “Chandni Bar” and more. She has never enjoyed the spotlight in the industry and her work speaks volumes of her talent. There is no role she cannot do. She can play the wronged Sikh terrorist in “Maachis,” the unapologetic adulterous wife in “Astitva” and the woman in love with a man twice her age in “Cheeni Kum” with equal aplomb. With a piercing gaze she can cut any man to size and one long sad stare is enough make the audience weep. Nearly no role of hers is ever conventional or similar to her previous one. It’s a pity she has been working lesser and lesser in recent years. Much like Gulzaar this one is.

So, this is it. These are the only women in the past I can remember off hand who can lay claim to have taken on bold and courageous roles consistently and excelled at them. They are one of the reminders of the fact that Hindi movies aren't, after all, all song and dance and its actresses aren't either breathtaking or playing mothers. They can be raw, powerful, sensuous and aesthetic; all at the same time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On Bastardism and Judaism

An interesting alternative perspective on Inglourious Basterds within the larger issue of the depiction of the Jewish identity in recent movies was recently written by A.O. Scott of the New York Times. The same is available on the following link. Hope you like it as much as I did.

P.S.: Thanks AT for the link. :)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Of Historical Inaccuracies and other Irrelevancies

History-writing, as Madame E pointed out to me (and the rest of my class) has more to do with ideology than accuracy. While historians are increasingly becoming aware of that, movies still seem to value “factual accuracy” (if there ever was any) over all else not realising how much of a role the ideology and entertainment value play in the way in which such movies are made. Cinematic liberties can only extend so far when dealing with historical issues. Then, one fine day, Quentin Tarantino comes along and throws the rule book out of the window.


With “Inglourious Basterds” Tarantino gives us his best work since “Pulp Fiction.” The result of 10 years of labour, it is basically one gigantic “Fuck You!” to both, History and the English language. Rich in both, ideas and movie references, Basterds is not merely a spaghetti western merged with a war movie. It is so much more than that. Tarantino takes a fair few risks with Basterds and explores territories that are a far cry from his usual comfort zone. Perhaps, in many ways, for me, this was his most intellectually stimulating work, though not necessarily his most intelligent. Even with 20 minutes of blood and gore edited from the original in the theatrical version released in India, this is one movie meant to be seen on the big screen.

Basterds has a smart plot and the story is told in chapters similar to “Kill Bill.” However, there is much more meat to the story here than any of his previous movies. One might argue that no one really goes to a Tarantino movie for the plot, which is true. But the fact that there is one, and a fairly ingenious one as this, is only a good thing. I do not want to give out the plot here. There is Wikipedia for that. What I do want to discuss is the climax. Now, without giving away the details, it is safe to say that Tarantino breaks all the rules when it comes to concluding the movie. His conclusion is audacious, unabashed, unthinkable and for that reason, according to me, simply brilliant. Tarantino chooses to take a deliberately retrospective look at history which leads to some shocking results. The symbolism and the subtext left me thinking for a long while after. It is the conclusion of the tale that makes Basterds such a heady concoction. You think you know how it will all play out. You think you know how it will end. But you don’t. That is where the sheer genius of the film lies.

Another master stroke of Tarantino lies in his execution of scenes. It is extremely heartening to see how much he has grown as a film maker from “Pulp Fiction” when it comes to creating atmosphere and tension. He summons all the tools at his disposal: the art, the actors, the sound, and the background score; to create scenes that strike the perfect note and make you laugh and squirm uncomfortably in your seat at the same time. The opening scene and the bar sequence were simply fantastic. It is an excellent return to form after “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” where the pivotal scenes between Bill and the Bride were just disappointing, even yawn inducing. The dialogues were a clunky mess and he just failed to create the right atmosphere there. With Basterds, he makes up for it, and more.

Basterds is also Tarantino’s best independent script so far. The movie is replete with references: from old classics like Cindrella, King Kong and Wizard of Oz to propaganda movies, war movies, westerns and more. Certain parts of it even reminded me of Cinema Paradiso though I’m not sure if it was intended or not. His dialogues are devilishly sly in places; his characters are extremely well sketched out. In terms of technique, the film is par extraordinaire. The detailing in the art, the make up, the costumes and the cinematography is simply breathtaking. It has all the style and flair of any other Tarantino movie.


Lastly, every Tarantino movie has at least one standout performance and Basterds is no exception. Enough has been said about Christoph Waltz’s performance. Just give him the damn Oscar already! In Hans Landa, he gives us the most interesting villains I have seen in recent times. He is sharp, diabolical, cold, and logical and is armed with most of the best lines in the movie. His performance to this movie is what the combined performances of Jackson and Travolta were to Pulp Fiction. His mere presence on the screen sent a chill down my spine. Next in line is Melanie Laurent, the French beauty who gives a fantastic performance as the runaway Jew out for revenge. She looks ethereal throughout and outshines all the remaining actors. Eli Roth also pitches in a brilliant performance as the Bear Jew. With barely four lines in the entire movie, he leaves a remarkable impact as a sociopathic baseball bat wielding Basterd. Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger are both impressive. Daniel Bruhl perfectly captures the underlying aggression of his character.

All in all, Basterds is the most ambitious and audacious World War II movie I have ever seen. It is a unique movie I think, even for Tarantino fans. It is powerful, effective and (literally) mind-blowing fun! Tarantino re-imagines the past and comes up with a solution that is satisfying and disturbing for that precise reason. A part of me even wished that the climax was based on fact and that is what, I think, Tarantino sought out to achieve. The implications of the end he has to offer are simply insane and warrant a second viewing. As far as the “facts” are concerned, history be damned!