Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Great Romances You’ve Probably Never Seen

As I sat at home on Valentine’s Day, alone and very much single, I watched “(500) Days of Summer” for the third time straight and fell in love with it all over again. I recalled trying to convince a friend the other day to watch it. He hadn’t even heard of it! I realised that most people know of “Casablanca”, “Titanic”, “When Harry Met Sally”, “Love Story” and other popular romances. However, there are several other great romances that are great films with lovely stories and characters but few have heard of them, let alone see them. Sure, they aren’t box office blockbusters or even widely released for that matter. However, these are films that are interesting and often refreshingly different or unique in their take on romance and must be seen. Moreover, most are easily available on DVD. Hence, the list which goes as follows:

Romuald and Juliette: Apart from the names of the titular characters, there is no resemblance between this French film and the Shakespeare classic. Romuald here is a handsome rich executive of a company producing milk products and Juliette is the black obese cleaner at his office with five kids from five different husbands to raise all on her own. When Romuald is falsely implicated in an adulteration scandal, Juliette gives him shelter and helps him deal with the mess created by the spilt milk. From there begins a highly unconventional love story that works delightfully because of its seemingly conventional ingredients. The basics remain the same. However, it is in the execution of the film where the difference lies. The observations on the class differences, adultery, prejudice and sexism with a comic touch throughout are both, entertaining and enlightening. Lovely performances from the principal actors and a superb (albeit a tad long) third act make this film a different and refreshing romance.

Once: Now, this is an Oscar winner that few know about and even fewer have seen. Most who know about it refuse to watch it because it’s a musical. However, as I have pointed out in an earlier post, it is a highly atypical musical without lavish, over the top song and dance and with a very contemporary setting. The music has elements of rock, folk and jazz and the tale is a modern day story of two musicians, a broken hearted hoover fixer sucker guy and a married rose selling Czech mother. As they work together to create the music, they affect each other’s lives in unexpected ways. “Once” has a good story set to fantastic music with lovely spontaneous principal performances. The music actually drives the plot forward and the film resonates for a long time after it is over.

Some Kind of Wonderful: John Hughes understood teen angst like nobody else. The 80s were his time and each film he wrote on the topic is a classic. It’s amazing how well most have aged and still remain relatable in an age of “Gossip Girl” and “Hannah Montana”. Most people think of him as they recall, at best, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles”. The more ignorant ones only know of “Home Alone” which is something of a travesty. However, the one film of his I really loved and which is rarely spoken about is “Some Kind of Wonderful”. It takes a very basic love triangle premise set in high school in the 80s and deals with issues like peer pressure and class differences. In that way, it’s “Pretty in Pink” (another work written by Hughes) done right. The writing is much more sensitive and convincing. The observations on class and the need to conform from the viewpoint of Amanda (Lea Thompson) are much more believable. Moreover, Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) is perhaps one of the more interesting heroines in romantic comedies and steals the thunder from all the other characters. Teen angst is very well personified in Keith (Eric Stoltz) and the way in which the story is very well culminated. There are only two ways in which the story could have ended. But the lovely thing about it is that the movie keeps you guessing almost till the very end and does not botch things up by making it painfully obvious. An under-rated romance, it is a very good watch and the most believable fairy tales that John Hughes came up with.

In Search of a Midnight Kiss: This movie is a small independent film that was loved by critics and is a truly different take on romance. Set in Los Angeles, the hero is a washed up nobody living with his best friend and the best friend’s girlfriend. On New Year’s Eve, when he is caught by the girlfriend masturbating to a photoshopped nude picture of hers, the best friend suggests that he find a date online for the evening. No one should spend new years alone and have someone to kiss at midnight. So he makes a date online with a woman, who turns out to be a beautiful aspiring actress who is enigmatic, inscrutable and very rude. After several missteps, the two decide to spend the evening together and embark on little adventures. In the process, each affects the other’s life in unexpected ways as the characters slowly reveal little quirks, secrets and sides to their personality that both startle and endear.

The interesting thing about this movie is that it features two central characters that are hardly the typical romantic leads. He looks ordinary, even ugly. She is beautiful, emotionally volatile and has much to hide. The popular template of a one night romance is well used here thanks to interesting characters and a very different ending. You think you know how it will pan out. But you don’t and enjoy the movie all the more for that. Shot in black and white, it is very contemporary and yet, has a classic feel to it. The scene when midnight strikes while they are stuck in traffic is poignant and memorable much like Jack and Rose with arms spread wide or Anna Scott proclaiming in a travel book store that she is also just a girl. A small film that remains with you for a long while after it’s over, this one is truly a great romance.

Kisses: The second Irish film in this post, “Kisses” is about two troubled kids, Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) and Dylan (Shane Curry) who run away from their home to spend a night on the streets of Dublin on Christmas Eve. Shot partly in colour and partly in black and white, the film captures the magic and horror the children experience on the streets of Dublin. Featuring an amateur cast, this film, while undeniably slight, manages to draw you into its world and keep your attention throughout. It is simultaneously warm and cold, happy and sad, a celebration of life from the perspective of two teenagers. Some moments make you laugh; some others scare the hell out of you. Each part of the film has been executed well and falls in place into a solid whole. The performances by the teenage actors are very good. As the morning dawns, you see two different people emerge from the night from the ones who entered it. And as you leave the characters, you take a part of the night they shared together with you.

Say Anything: Before his most popular works, "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous", Cameron Crowe made this little gem of a teen romance. Fairy tale romances have rarely ever been this warm and endearing. John Cusack, a nobody at high school, decides to ask the most popular and intelligent girl there, Ioan Skye. She is heading to London to study and his only career interest involves professional kickboxing. But he is good hearted, earnest and sensitive. What starts out as an odd pairing soon develops into a beautiful relationship that runs into trouble as it faces parental opposition (John Maloney) and an uncertain future. Featuring some fabulous writing, performances and soundtrack, "Say Anything" is one of the great romances of the 80s that few know about or have seen. It is poignant, mature and really well written and directed. Cameron Crowe wrote the film as a 90 page novella before writing the script. It remains an enduring classic featuring the fabulous theme song "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel. Watch it for the quirky performance of John Cusack, the intelligent direction of Cameron Crowe and you will not be disappointed.

Harold and Maude: This is perhaps the most different love story of all time. Satiric, black and deliberately odd, this is romance at its most unbelievable. Yet, there is poignancy to the romance here that is undeniable. This is one of those movies that draws extreme reactions: you either love it or hate it. I loved it. Hence, I write about it in this post. Directed by Hal Ashby, “Harold and Maude” is a love story between a rich young man obsessed with death (Bud Cort) and a septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) who is obsessed with life. While he spends his times conceiving various (and increasingly painful and gory) ways to die, she lives life entirely on her own terms with absolute disregard for everything else, even the law. They run into each other at funerals of peoples neither are related to nor even know. Set to the music of Cat Stevens, theirs is a romance that evokes shock. As they fall in love, she teaches him a thing or two about life. This is like “The Graduate”, only darker, edgier, quirkier and much better made. It features characters that are despite their oddities, very much human. Be it his obsession with death or her quirky collection of art, there is a sweetness to the movie that is undeniable. You see Harold’s neglectful family and you get some idea of where the kid is coming from. There is sadness to his humorous obsession with death. You see Maude and she is disarmingly adorable as the liberated and free-spirited septuagenarian. Ultimately, this is not for everyone. Ebert, probably the most popular movie reviewer in the US (and one of the few I regularly follow) hated this film. This is also one of those films (along with “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dead Poets’ Society”) that I think he is wrong about. Sure, this is not a great romance for several. But for the rest, it is a rare gem that makes you laugh, cry and leave the film with some rare perspective.

Before Sunrise/Sunset: Now this may be seen as an odd inclusion by a few as it is a relatively popular film(s). Directed by Richard Linklater (“School of Rock”, “Waking Life”, “Dazed and Confused”) and starring Ethan Hawke (“Dead Poets Society”) and French actress Julie Delpy, these two movies in my opinion together form one of the greatest romances of all time. It is easily my favourite romance of all time. Nevertheless, most people I have spoken to haven’t heard of the movies at all. The story is of two young people: an American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), touring around Europe and a French girl, Celine (Julie Delpy), returning from Hungary get talking on the train and decide to spend an evening together in Vienna to get to know each other better. They talk about the things most people do: life, death, aspirations, disappointments, their pasts, futures (together and apart), friendships etc. In that process, they fall in love and make certain commitments to each other. The second movie takes up the characters again 10 years later and looks at what happened between them and what could have been. While the first movie is a beautiful and surprisingly believable fairy tale romance, the second makes things real in a way few romances have been able to achieve.

While the first movie covers the event of one night, the second takes place in real time and sees how the characters have grown and evolved in the time gone by. Both are embellished with excellent conversation wherein the true magic of the film lies. It lends so much credibility to both the movies: in the first, it makes us believe that such a romance is actually possible and in the second, it provides the much needed insight into the characters for the revelations it has to offer. The second film has an added punch probably because it is co-written by Hawke and Delpy and (particularly in the case of Hawke) bears some uncanny resemblances to his own experiences in the 10 years gone by. The characters are sketched out over the two films with great care and seem straight out of life. The movies are also so rich in detail that each repeated viewing adds a new perspective. A friend recently wrote a fantastic post on the first film analysed purely from his observation of the eyes of the actors throughout the film. Ultimately, this tale of chance meetings is a modern day fairy tale romance that achieves something rare: it not only makes us long for such a romance but actually almost convinces us that it is possible. While it may be too talky for the half-brained, for the rest, it is not only a stunning romance, but also, in my humble opinion, the greatest of our times.

Monday, February 15, 2010

My Name is Khan

Today, we live in a world that is an integration of disconnected individuals. With increasing links, connections and removal of barriers, assimilation has forced people to face differences, bias and prejudice like never before. Despite this integration and yet, in many ways, as a consequence of this, ours is a world fraught with trust deficits and fear. This fear has caused us to act inways that have entrenche these identities of "us" and the "other" so strongly that there seems no solution to it anymore. Nevertheless, ultimately the problem is simply one of lack of trust which requires an immense leap of faith to be overcome. The need for this is an insurmountable barrier which is exploited by few to their economic and political benefit. It is this seemingly impossible and yet highly simple solution that MNIK offers us in the very first few minutes of the movie when Rizwan's mother (Zarina Wahab) explains to a young Rizwan (Tanay Chheda) that there are only two kinds of people: those who do good things and those who do bad. It is only these deeds that matter. The rest (religion, caste etc.) are irrelevant.

9th September 2001 did change the world dramatically. In retaliation to the attack on the Twin Towers, the Bush Administration took strong measures in reaction which have changed the political landscape on a global scale forever. In the post 9/11 era, the Muslim has emerged as this universal "other" which has forced many devout Muslims to defend their stand. It is a painful reality that there is bias against the members of the community which has caused tremendous tensions and fractures in our society. It is this society that MNIK chooses to portray and in so doing, it makes you squirm, sit up and listen.

It is very surprising that Karan Johar should make a movie like MNIK. As subject matter, it is a significant departure from his trademark candy floss cinema. In scope, it is immense covering the Bombay riots, pre 9/11 America, post 9/11 America, Afghanistan, Iraq and even Hurricane Katrina. However, what is most remarkable that instead of making a mess of things as expected, he manages to tie these contemporary events into a narrative from the micro perspective of Rizwan (Shah Rukh Khan) so well that, despite some glitches, the message comes across highly effectively. The ideas are well thought out and the execution has that required maturity for such a provocative issue.

It was an interesting choice to portray the central character as one afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Although certain liberties have been taken with the disease, this lends to him the simplicity, honesty and frankness that is much needed for driving the message of the film home without sounding conceited or phoney. Through him, they construct a viewpoint of the events of the last 20 years much like Forest Gump did for the socio-cultural history of the United States before that. Like Gump, the movie requires a certain degree of suspension of belief. However, I think what makes My Name is Khan different is the fact that it has certain universal relevance for the times that we live in. It has an urgent message and it delivers that with such simplicity and effectiveness that one is simply bowled over.

The prime reasons why the movie works on such a scale is because it structures the macro events around characters we care for. At the centre is of course, Rizwan (Shah Rukh Khan) who is afflicted with Asperger’s and comes to the United States to his estranged brother (Jimmy Shergill) and his wife (Sonya Jehaan) in the pre 9/11 era. Despite an aptitude with machines, he is forced to sell beauty products for his brother’s company. As a salesman, he meets single mom Mandira (Kajol) and her son Sameer. Love happens followed by marriage. They move from San Francisco to a small town Banville on the outskirts and live a comfortable life. One day, they wake up to a changed world as the World Trade Centre is attacked. The family struggles to make ends meet as they face prejudice in small ways for many years until one day, an event changes everything irreparably and their world comes crashing down. From thereon, Rizwan makes embarks on a remarkable and unforgettable journey to meet the President of the United States.

In the first half, Karan Johar takes time to establish the characters completely. The love story of Rizwan and Mandira is, without a doubt, the most refreshing love story in ages. It is sweet, charming and simple much like the character of Rizwan. Each character is given the necessary screen time right from Rizwan’s mother and his loving sister in law to Mandira’s friend Sara and her family. The changes in the after the attack on the Twin Towers are dealt with great care and based in a lot of true life incidents and facts, which lend a chilling authenticity to it all. As a consequence of this, in the second half, when the journey actually begins, you care for these characters and their fates. From the moment when Rizwan proclaims, “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist,” I got goosebumps.

What is truly remarkable about the film is its screenplay which is certainly based in solid research. This is a pleasant surprise as the screenplay was one of the biggest problems in Johar’s previous outing “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna”. Here, it treats its themes with care and never looses focus on the point it is trying to make. Even the minor characters are believable. Thankfully, unlike “Kurbaan” and “New York” it does not portray the Americans as idiots run loose upon the world. It shows the diversity of peoples and opinions through its smaller characters. Sure, there are problems in the latter reels of the film like the terrorist track. However, by then, there are so many points stacked in its favour that it is easy to overlook these in favour of the larger point the movie is trying to make. The performances are splendid. Kajol returns after a hiatus and delivers one of the best performances of her career. Zarina Wahab is brilliant and leaves a remarkable impact despite the limited screen time. Sonya Jehaan also pitches in a solid performance. Even the American actors succeed in becoming more than mere fillers. However, at the centre of the film is Shah Rukh Khan who gives, I think, the best performance of his career. As the autistic Rizwan, he achieves something highly elusive: he conveys the hardships and trials of his character and moves us to tears without ever showing emotions conventionally.

Ultimately, it is ironic that the Shiv Sena should choose to oppose Shah Rukh Khan in relation to this particular film. It is symbolic that a political party that peddles in the politics of hate should oppose a film which promotes the message of reconciliation and coexistence. As a Mumbaikar, I was proud of the fact that the movie was ultimately released with state cooperation and I had the opportunity to see it with the rest of the world. It marked a remarkable shift in the political landscape of the city from a time when Mani Ratnam had to show “Bombay” to Bal Thackarey in 1995 to secure his approval prior to its release. As I ventured out to see the movie on Valentine’s Day (another day for the Sena to go gallivanting around Mumbai with their moral policing), I was glad and proud to be a part of this changing dynamic. Many movies are entertaining but few are an experience to remember. “My Name is Khan” is the latter. In fact, I truly believe that it is amongst the most important and relevant movies in recent times, in any language.