प्रेम रतन धन पायो
Dir. Sooraj Barjatya
Some of the most awkward moments of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo come when it tries to be progressive and modern while still hewing to its regressive Rajshri roots. When our hero Prem (Salman Khan, of course) learns that the princess Maithili (Sonam Kapoor) has slept with her royal fiancé before the marriage was solemnized, he tries to look shocked, then tries to shrug his shoulders in acceptance. The whole scene falls flat; it's not cute or hip, it's just uncomfortable for both Khan and audience. Later, when Maithili makes it clear to Prem that she wants to have sex with him (he's a doppelganger stand-in for the real fiancé-prince, incapacitated by an assassination attempt), Prem just looks stern and pained. Is he wrestling with his own desire for Maithili, a temptation to take advantage of his resemblance to the prince, and of her? Is he a little repulsed that the woman he idealizes and adores is so ready to succumb to an immoral desire? The scene doesn't make it clear, and that inscrutability may be a bit of sleight of hand by director Sooraj Barjatya - you, dear viewer, may supply whatever interpretation best suits your worldview.
Points to Barjatya, anyway, for daring to acknowledge (under the Rajshri banner no less) that an adult woman in 2015 might have sexual desires and be bold and aggressive about acting on them. And then some points docked, at the end, for having the royal family - including the recovered prince - offer Maithili to Prem as their gift to him. What could better underscore that women are mere property to be negotiated for and transferred as their families see fit? Maithili gets her happy ending, but only because her fiancé and her grandmother are willing to hand her over to another man.
Admittedly, life is different for royal scions, even in the 21st century when their regality is only a matter of tradition, not a matter of power and military allegiance. Maithili has been raised to value such traditions and know her role in them, and promised to Prince Vijay under that same set of values. But Maithili's submission to them, as cinematic message-delivery, is really no different from a spirited village girl submitting to her family's expectations in a movie of 30 years ago. Though Barjatya's worlds are always scaled by enormous sprawling mansions and populated with the most extreme members of the leisure classes, the people they portray are stand-ins for an aam aadmi audience. Viewers are meant to identify with them, as a means of escape - imagine yourself, for three hours, a part of this world where everyone is beautiful, where people gift exotic sports cars to one another on whim, where even the crummy substandard home occupied by cast-off royal bastards is twice as big as anything you've ever lived in. And if you want to be like them, you also of course must also act like them. So the packaging and sale of Maithili is not just a matter of royal obligation; it's a model for young women, even sexually forward young women, to follow. Kings and princesses, as Shakespeare had Henry V point out, are the makers of fashion.
And what about that Barjatya world - is it still entertaining, 20 years after Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, to be whisked away into a sparkling kind of Maine-Pyar-Kiya-meets-Mughal-e-Azam fairy tale world where princes ride in horse-drawn carriages while taking calls on their iPhone 6es and kings build crystal palaces on the precipices of waterfalls? Well, yes - most of the time, it is. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is pretty to look at and loaded with good-enough songs and picturizations, and even a few excellent ones - a picturization that is a battle-of-the-sexes football match is especially fun, as is a song that breaks out when Prem and his buddy are left to cool their heels on top of a desert fort, and somehow find a set of giant drums to bang on. Indeed, except for some melodramatic indulgence in the last third - including interminable fight scenes cleverly staged in a mirrored maze - its nearly-three-hour running time doesn't really feel that long. It's a very simple story, with its mixture of Prince-and-Pauper tropes with classic Barjatya themes that elevate family above all other concerns. But the grand visuals are appealing, and throwbacky melodrama can be unchallenging fun on its own terms.
Salman Khan is not quite in his finest form; this incarnation of Prem doesn't match the sweet innocence of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. He is too beatific, almost sanctimonious in his confidence that love can fix all that is wrong in the royal family. He takes on a smarminess that Barjatya's Prems of 20 or 25 years ago never had. That means that if you already don't like Sallu, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is not the film that will change your mind. The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to good enough to elevate the material they have to work with. Sonam Kapoor gives a mostly adequate performance; I am not convinced she has rajkumari-level gravitas in her, but she is not distractingly bad. The show stealers are the same folks who almost ran off with Tanu Weds Manu - Deepak Dobriyal as goofy Prem's manic sidekick, and Swara Bhaskar as the prince's estranged, illegitimate half-sister. The latter so capably shoulders her melodramatic role and so expertly carries its heightened emotions that perhaps Barjatya should make her his lucky charm from now on, and finally put Prem out to pasture.
दम लगाके हईशा
Dir. Sharat Katariya
Let me start with what I do like about Dum Laga Ke Haisha: its lead woman, Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar). I can think of vanishingly few characters like this one, not just in Hindi films but in western popular narratives as well. Sandhya is a smart, with a modest but sincere ambition to be a schoolteacher. She is confident, giving as good she gets when her family or her in-laws give her a hard time. (One friend on Twitter taught me the expression "muh-tod type" to describe her.) And she is kind and patient, doing all she can to give her marriage to Prem (Ayushmann Khurana) a fair chance to succeed.
She is also overweight. And the way Dum Laga Ke Haisha handles Sandhya's weight is exceptional. It doesn't pretend she's not overweight - it doesn't pretend that Sandhya's lived experience as a woman in a chubby body is the same as any typical slim heroine's. But the film doesn't judge her for it, either. When characters comment about her weight, the comments serve to show the smallness of the character, not to get the audience laughing at the fat girl. Jokes about her body are offered as mean, not as funny. And, in a very true-to-life that many overweight women can identify with, Sandhya both steels herself against them and is wounded by them.
Physical type aside, Sandhya shows an impressive maturity and commitment in her approach to life, while never forgetting that she is entitled to get something out of the bargain. Dum Laga Ke Haisha is set in the mid-90s, a time when Hindi films were often still peppered with dialogue about how suffering and sacrifice is a woman's lot (this came up in 1994's Anjaam, for example). But Sandhya isn't having any of that. She wants to do what is right, which in her world is to be a good wife, supporting her husband and keeping him happy. But she refuses to subsume her entire self, to subjugate any desires and needs of her own, for the sake of the bharatiya-nari ideal. She is committed to making a serious effort at this. She tries more than one tack to make her marriage work, but she's only willing to beat her head against a wall for so long. When her efforts go unrewarded - and worse, when Prem outright insults her for them - Sandhya shifts her focus to taking care of herself, to finding a new life path without Prem. She even initiates divorce proceedings, an astonishingly bold move in a conservative community. The result is of all of this is that Sandhya is a terrific character, remarkably portrayed. She is real, likable, and flawed (that tongue can be a bit sharper than is called for). It is so easy to get behind Sandhya, to be invested in her and to care what happens to her.
And because I care what happens to Sandhya, Dum Laga Ke Haisha fails for me as a romance. I just can't stand to see her saddled with Prem, as dour, unappreciative a jerk as ever was the hero of a movie.* Crumpling spinelessly under pressure from his parents, Prem marries Sandhya early in the film, and then sulks like an angry five-year-old through all her game efforts to connect with him. In the first two thirds of the movie, Prem insults Sandhya, and alienates his family, his friends, and even his mentor. All of them offer him advice in the direction of pulling up his big-boy chaddees and acting like a decent adult. But Prem is too self-absorbed to do that kind of work, and too shallow; his main objection to Sandhya (whom he did consent to marry, after all) is that she's fat. He is an all-around odious and unpleasant person.
When I complained of this on Twitter, someone asked, is it necessary to like the main characters to like a movie? The answer depends strongly upon the movie. Satirical comedies are often populated by awful people, and many a gangster movie centers on an anti-hero. But for a romance, likable principals are an absolute necessity. In a romance, the conclusion is foregone: one way or the other, the couple will end up together. The pleasure of a romance lies not in the whether but in the how; the journey is everything. So that journey had better be in the company of people you enjoy spending time with. And, of course, you have to want the couple to get together. If you can't root for the success of the pairing, watching a romance is an irritation, not a diversion.
With its petulant, obnoxious hero and a heroine who deserves far, far better, Dum Laga Ke Haisha becomes a frustrating ride. And even if Prem does undergo some character development - which he arguably does, though I'll have more to say below about the facile device that demonstrates this - it weights the dynamic part of the story toward Prem, when Sandhya is the better and more interesting character to watch. An annoying brat realizes he's been an idiot, and a gutsy, interesting woman who was all ready to strike out on her own decides instead to forgive him for having been an annoying brat. That's just not an enormously satisfying story arc.
As for that device by which Prem finally proves his readiness to contribute some effort to his marriage: It's not so much that after avoiding cheap fat jokes, the film culminates in a contest in which Prem must literally hoist Sandhya's extra weight on his back. The movie handles that with some dignity and steers clear of body-shaming Sandhya right until the end. It's more that the symbolism of the wife-carrying contest itself gives me indigestion. I can't get behind the metaphoric notion that a woman is a dead-weight burden that her husband must bear. For Dum Laga Ke Haisha to use this, of all metaphors, to represent what Prem must do to shoulder the burdens of adulthood and contribute to his own marriage is discomfiting, not cute as the movie was going for. And it short-changes one of the most interesting and deserving heroines I have ever seen.
* Ayushmann Khurana might be making a career out of such characters; I had similar problems with Vicky Donor.
Dir. Sriram Raghavan
I've watched a lot of movies lately but haven't put together a post on one in a while. I'll fix that sooner or later. In the meantime, here is another chat between me and Beth about a violent movie that we watched together.
Beth and I cover a lot of territory in this chat, from the exploitative aspects of portraying toxic masculinity, to manipulation, to righteous and anti-righteous vengeance in films, to grief and forgiveness. Those last two topics reflect Badlapur at its most thought-provoking and compelling.
One thing that Beth and I talked about while we watched that did not make it explicitly into our post-film redux captured below is whether Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) gains in sympathy even as Raghu (Varun Dhawan) becomes more and more sociopathic and less and less sympathetic. I rather felt a smidge of sympathy with Liak in the last third, though he clearly had made some despicable choices and remained manipulative and twisted his entire life. It seemed to me that toward the end Liak at least acknowledges that he has done horrendous things, where Raghu is on a rampage with a broad swath and doesn't have much interest in nuances of right and wrong. And it is Liak, not Raghu, who notes that there's not so much difference between the two men. I don't think that Beth shared my view of Liak; she pointed out that this view only makes sense if you take the things Liak says at face value, not just more manipulation. "They're both awful," was her conclusion, and I cannot in good faith disgaree with that.
Anyway on to our chat.
Carla: Where would you like to start?
Beth: How about why we watched it?
Carla: As you know, this is a genre I normally don't expect to like much. I decided to watch Badlapur, though, because I found this year's other revenge drama, NH10, startlingly affecting. Going outside of my comfort zone for NH10 was rewarding in a way I hadn't expected. So that, combined with the great praise Badlapur had received from many, made me curious enough to give it a look.
Beth: And what had led you to watch NH10?
Carla: I have to laugh a little, because the answer is: some folks from my Hindi practice group were going, so I decided to go along with them, I'd probably watch almost anything with friends.
Beth: Watching with friends makes almost anything bearable. Except Dance Dance, as we learned the hard way.
Carla: Haha, I was just thinking about that Dance Dance day too. What made you want to watch Badlapur?
Beth: I wanted to watch it because 1) I'm trying harder to keep up with new releases this year (I have some more momentum now that we get most of the big releases in the regular multiplex), 2) I like Varun and Nawaz, 3) I like the director's other films, and 4) ditto hearing good things.
Carla: All very good reasons. I want to talk about your expectations going in, because I have been having a hard time thinking about Badlapur as the film it is, rather than the film I expected or wanted it to be.
Beth: I was in India when it came out, so I heard quite a bit about it, including from Amrita and other friends who saw it. I knew about the revenge rape and I remember there being some discussion about its treatment of women overall. So I knew it wasn't necessarily going to be a film for me, really, but I was intrigued.
Carla: I want to talk about that rape, but I also want to hear your thoughts on the broader question, the treatment of women in general in the movie.
Beth: I was saying to another friend who has also seen it that I have cautiously semi-arrived at the idea that the film is just flat-out anti-humanity in many ways, women being a subset of that.
Carla: Yes, I agree, it is very, very bleak.
Beth: I'm not sure it does much to women that it doesn't do to anyone else, with the exception of sexual violence, because of @*&%$ course it has that. And it does actually have a man sexually menace a man, sort of, doesn't it? (Note: not the same as rape.) But still, the writers made that choice, and I don't know why. It's not like they did it to be titillating as some other films do. It was just a mark of the lead's descent, I guess. But unnecessary.
Carla: I'm not convinced that they didn't put it in there just to be titillating. On the one hand, the movie is, in some ways, about male violence, about toxic masculinity. And male violence, when turned toward women, more often than not takes on the dimension of sexual violence. So the movie maybe has plausible deniability to say it's merely documenting what toxic masculinity does.
Beth: Like we don't already know! Badlapur = #YesAllMen.
Carla: On the other hand, yes, we all know this about male violence—we don't need a film to document it for us.
Beth: Just read a newspaper.
Carla: And it happens so early in the film, that I question whether it's legitimately showing descent. Indeed, my main difficulty with the film as a whole is that it never shows any descent.
Beth: So there's descent and then there's snap. The further I get from the discomfort of watching the film, the more I am willing to give it "snap."
Carla: Yes, I think that's more what it is going for—snap rather than slow burn or spiral.
Beth: It's not like this was a super upstanding man with tons of community connections etc etc. (For example, the famous commercial that he’s saying is his idea—I’m not sure if that’s just a fun pop culture reference or if the writers are setting him up as a [time-traveling] plagiarist.) He was a dudebro. And I'm not saying it's easier for dudebros to snap, but he had less far to fall on a matrix of movie heroics.
You pointed out his immediate isolation after the crime; maybe that's when it happened. He can't even look at other people.
Carla: Not just that he can't—but no one steps up to force him to.
Beth: This is not someone weeping into comforting arms (which were there for him). He is not helped by humanity.
Carla: I was shocked by that when we were watching—everyone just says "sorry, bro" and files out. His family and friends abandon him to his grief.
And I think I said to you, wow, I would not leave my friend alone at home the evening of the day he loses his wife and kid. I just would not.
Beth: Although I guess we don't know if those people are actually gone or if he just doesn't interact with them?
Carla: I suppose I'd have to watch it again, but the impression I was left with on first watch is of a lot of people patting him on the shoulder on their way out the door. Next he's alone in the kitchen with the leftovers.
Beth: Oh the leftovers—that was so sad. His parents and in-laws are around somewhere, but the result is: he has no one.
Carla: And later he voluntarily isolates himself. For 15 years. In "revengetown".
Beth: I think we discussed while watching that it's kind of too bad we don't know what happens to him in those 15 years, whether he tries to put his life back together. But again, the result is: nope, he's a wreck.
Carla: I'd say there is no evidence that he made any effort. He did nothing but stew in his own juices for that whole time. I rather wish the film had shown us some of that time. The isolation seems to have allowed him to fester and get angrier, rather than healing and gaining any distance. But we are left to speculate about it based on very little.
Beth: I assume we're not supposed to see him as particularly human either, and this stalling and isolation helps make him seem that way? Or is it a cautionary tale—if this happens to you, DO NOT CLOSE OFF or else!
Carla: He's clearly unsympathetic and, as a result at least to me, not particularly relatable.
Beth: He's awful and somehow allowed to stay that way. People who should help him do not. On this point, I reeeeeally hated Divya's character. It was interesting to write such a tone-deaf person who supposed to be kind of a care-giver, an NGO do-gooder type is actually destructive.
Carla: That is an interesting point. I had seen her through the lens of being a victim of his psychopathic manipulation.
Beth: That too. I just think that one conversation with this man is enough to show you that he is in no place to issue any mercy, and she most definitely provoked him. Not that that means she deserves to be his pawn. But he was her pawn too (for less awful purposes, obviously).
Carla: I don't agree that he was a pawn to Divya's character. To use someone as a pawn you have to have some power, and she has none.
Beth: Ok. But she sure tries. She tries to guilt him.
Carla: She is naive, and too focused on her do-gooding to think through his responses to her and what they mean. But she has no power. To the extent she can manipulate him, it's only through that application of conscience—guilt as you say. That's a very weak hand.
Beth: If she had been _his_ social worker, that would have been an utterly different scenario. As is, she waltzes in and asks him for something incredibly difficult without knowing the first thing about him. So he's her tool, not her pawn, maybe?
Carla: Sure, that's a better way to put it. She is naive and idealistic in a way that makes her insensitive.
Beth: And pushy too.
Carla: And it also makes her too trusting, which gives him the opening he needs to play her.
Beth: Let's talk about the performances. I thought they were across the board really quite good. Even if just for that, I'm glad I saw the film.
Carla: I have to say, I could watch Huma and Nawaz as a couple in anything, despite neither this nor Gangs of Wasseypur being a favorite of mine.
Beth: No age difference yuck for you? She’s 12 years younger.
Carla: Not especially; perhaps because she has a maturity about her or because he manages a certain boyish demeanor even when playing these deeply sociopathic character. Perhaps 12 years by itself would only be yuck when the woman is so young as seem girlish or ingenue-type?
Beth: I don't know. I'm not really on board with them as a concept but neither of these relationships is at all...nice or good.
Carla: No that's for sure. I just find them compelling to watch.
Beth: Totally. Both of them are great. But e.g. Deepika is the same age as Huma, and Deepika with Nawaz would just be BIZARRE. I don't know why.
Carla: That's interesting. I can't say I disagree. But Deepika has (cultivated?) a more girlish demeanor.
I have said about her before and continue to say that I am interested in her as an actor but really want to see what she does on the other side of 30. Also Deepika has a more refined quality, even when she's playing rougher-hewn women, that doesn't match well with Nawaz's physicality, maybe?
Beth: What other strengths does Badlapur have for you?
Carla: Well, we did have a little talk about forgiveness while we were watching, and as you said it's interesting that the film provoked those thoughts. Do you want to talk about that a bit more?
Beth: Sure! It's something that I have been thinking about as a result of all the just horrendous news we've had in the last few years. I really do not know what we are supposed to do at a societal or even individual level with some of the evil in the world. And for me that is what made this movie more interesting than just "BTW revenge is hollow, did you know?" To be a successful human do you have to be able to hold the concept of evil in one hand and not let it shape you to much with the other? You do not have to forgive, but you cannot give in, either? The movie ends before we know how Varun will deal with that. Revenge as a concept is less interesting to me but forgiveness is something we all have to deal with even if just in little ways.
Carla: That's true. I'm going to speculate that he deals with it badly.
Beth: I assume so.I would not be surprised if he committed suicide, actually.
Carla: Yeah, I was thinking the same. Although that song over the closing credits (tone lurchy though it was) showed him continuing in his anger and defiance.
Beth: It's pretty fascinating that a mainstream film is unafraid to have its hero left on a moral knife's edge like that. But that song is so out of place. Maybe he'll dance it out.
Beth: Debbie Allen is in the corner tapping her cane on the floor.
Carla: You raise a great point, though. I often like it when movies end with something other than facile resolution, like when a story of a troubled marriage ends on a note of hope but with implicit acknowledgement that there is a still work to be done. It's not all that common in mainstream films (of any industry).
Beth: Yeah, or all those 70s films we love where the hero actually has taken revenge and the bad guy is in handcuffs and then everyone literally lines up in a row, as though they're on stage and are taking a bow.
Carla: And so there is no resolution for him, and no note of hope either. The only constant is utter bleakness.
Beth: I tend not to like it when movies just stop rather than conclude, but it made sense here.
Carla: It was not a conclusion, but also not a mere stop either—it was a turning point, a change in his world.
Beth: It also underscores that taking revenge does not make you a better person, which is another thing movie heroes tend to sort of swim in.
Carla: There's nothing honorable about this revenge.
Carla: That was true in NH10 as well. The revenge is not so much satisfying as horrifying.
Beth: Even though he is utterly blameless in the tragedy—it's not like he was aligned with the wrong politician or even tried to save a friend who had gone off the straight and narrow and got sucked in—and it had zero meaning. Maybe that's why the revenge has no meaning? The thing it is avenging had no meaning. Hmmmm.
Carla: Well that brings us back to the Gangs of Wasseypur, the-cycle-of-violence-is-pointless idea. Everyone blind and toothless, etc.
Beth: And there it's armies, more or less, and here it's just...nothing.
Carla: The thing about Varun's character's spree is that it is not merely revenge.
Beth: More of a dismantling and erasing?
Carla: His violence extends beyond hurting the people who hurt him; he hurts the people they love, too. Yes, it's an obliteration. And that is part of what makes it totally anti-righteous, the complete opposite of classic filmi hero revenge. By coincidence I recently watched another revenge drama, an older one that is much more in the righteous revenge mode. That was Anjaam, in which Shah Rukh Khan ruins Madhuri Dixit's life after she rejects his advances, murdering her husband and framing her for the crime.
Beth: Does she take him down?
Carla: She snaps, about three-quarters of the way through the film, after enduring and enduring and enduring (with lots of talk about how enduring injustice is women's superpower).
Carla: Yes, a whole tray of them.
Beth: I was just thinking "I bet this movie was made ca. 1994" and sure enough.
Carla: She kills the (female) prison warden who had been pimping out the prisoners, she kills her brother-in-law who had just been horrible from the very beginning and eventually she also gets Shah Rukh Khan—she finds him catatonic in a hospital, and actually nurses him back to health and makes him think she has fallen in love with him just for the pleasure of knowing he has full awareness of her hatred when she kills him.
Carla: It's actually a pretty interesting dovetailing of nurturer-type womanhood with death-goddess-type womanhood.
Beth: What could be more terrifying to a Bollywood hero than a woman being maa-like and then killing him instead?
Carla: That's what is so interesting about it. She lulls him by playing into his own fantasy of how a woman, and especially this particular woman, should treat him.
Beth: That sounds pretty interesting. I like evil SRK performances a lot.
Carla: I've gotten a bit off topic talking about Anjaam but I've been thinking about how it compares to Badlapur and NH10 in its statements about revenge, especially. As it occupies that classical (for lack of a better word) space in which revenge is pure and righteous, it is a very different story from the revenge dramas of 2015, which are all about bleakness and damage. But like NH10, Anjaam shows how a good and ordinary and relatable person can turn into a bloodthirsty force, when pressed hard enough and forced to endure enough extreme suffering.
Beth: I did not see Ek Villain last year, which I mention only because it's the other recent revenge film I can think of.
Carla: I also did not. How about the end of Mardaani?
Beth: Ooooh which I liked, against my beliefs about how the real world should work.
Carla: Yes, I can see that—one of those satisfying in the movies even though it's morally wrong sorts of things.
Beth: And it to me felt very much like something 70s Amitabh would have done. Speaking of, sort of, another recent revenge movie is the Agneepath remake, which I also didn’t care for story-wise.
Carla: Another one I did not watch.
Beth: It is not a type that appeals to either of us, really. Our next movie should be something that DOES appeal to us.
Carla: AMEN. We have broadened our horizons together quite enough lately.
Carla: Anything else to say about Badlapur, to wrap?
Beth: I love that the sketch artist is led to draw Ranjeet.
Carla: That was a great moment. I don't think I can top that.
Dir. Anurag Kashyap
With Anurag Kashyap's magnum opus recently becoming available on various streaming services in the US, I sat down to watch it with Beth as my teddy bear in case the violence got to be too much. As it turned out, the violence wasn't as awful as I'd expected - more on that in a moment - and Beth and I had some good conversations about the movie. In lieu of an ordinary review, I've supplied below a transcript of a discussion Beth and I had after watching both parts of the film.
A few additional thoughts first, though. The films are not great, though I can see why a different sort of person from myself might get more out of them than I did. The story spans several generations and has a lot of players, so there is a lot to pay attention to and keep straight in your head. While the exterior world changes quite a bit - Wasseypur starts out as a small village and is later swallowed up by a growing city - the goals of the characters, moored in an endless "you killed my kin so now I must kill your kin" cycle of violence, are unchanging. And while that is part of the point of the film, such an obvious statement as "the cycle of revenge is pointless and destructive" does not require five hours and dozens of characters to drive home.
Several times in the second half, a new character is introduced, engages in a quickly-summarized sequence of deals with Faizal Khan (Nawazzudin Siddiqui, the savior of the film - more below), betrays Faizal Khan, and is killed. The result is a film that is more repetitive than engaging. It's frustrating to invest a lot of attention in figuring out who the new guy is, how he fits in, and what is happening with him, only to realize that this is the exact same arc you saw played out twenty minutes ago. Again, this may be part of Kashyap's point, but it doesn't make for hugely engaging movie-watching.
As to the violence - don't get me wrong, Gangs of Wasseypur has plenty of it - it doesn't get under my skin in the same way as, say, that in NH10. I've given some thought to why, and concluded that it is more cartoonish than it is horrifying, more hitting the "ew, gross!" parts of my brain than the sympathetic suffering parts of my brain. For example, in a climactic scene, a man is cornered in a toilet, and his enemy empties an automatic weapon into him. Blood and bits of gore fly everywhere in slow motion. But the man is dead in an instant; there is no sense of suffering to go with this violence. Stylized cartoons like this are merely boring to me; I don't need to see it, but it's not especially horrible or stomach-churning. There's not enough emotional engagement to it. I now understand that when I say I cannot tolerate movie violence, what I really mean is that I have a low tolerance for watching characters suffer. I am far more horrified when a character is shot in the kneecap, crumples to the ground, and screams in agony, than by all the backlit jugular spurts of Gangs of Wasseypur.
And now, on to some of the other things Beth and I thought about while we were watching the film.
If I had to summarize Gangs of Wasseypur in one sentence, I'd say that it demands more attention than it rewards. What do you think, Beth?
I think that would probably be my averaged-out assessment – there were parts I found boring and parts that were great, parts that were too complicated and others that were really satisfying.
Yes, I agree with all of that. What did you find most satisfying?
Two things. One, thinking about what kinds of choices and power the (very, very few) women had/chose to exercise. Two, all the direct conversation about movies and their role in the lives of the characters. For example, the big baddie says that as long as India has movies, people will be fooled. But in the end it's one of the biggest movie nuts who triumphs – or two of them, depending on how you define "triumph."
Yes, or none of them, depending upon how you define “triumph.”
What were the high points for you, if any?
I am trying to think about the times when I felt most engaged, because much of it did not engage me especially well. Nawazuddin Siddiqui's character, Faizal Khan, has the most arc, the most complexity – the most conflicting desires and goals. And so the parts that worked the best, for me, are some parts of his story.
Based on how many times we said "Oh FAIJAL" while watching, he was more sympathetic to us than anyone else.
Yes, and given how removed the lives being portrayed are from the lives of most viewers – certainly from yours and mine – Faizal being sympathetic is essential.
I've been trying to figure out how much of his sympathetic-ness is the written character, and how much is just pure Nawaz, who elevates, if not flat-out saves, so many things he's in.
As you know, I don't generally get a lot out of stories that are primarily about men expressing masculinity in its most toxic and destructive forms, for its own sake. There's only so much uninterrupted dick-waving I can take without throwing up my hands and saying “Good God, I just don't care what happens to these people!”
So yeah, there is definitely something in the way Faizal Khan is written and/or the way Nawaz performs him that, sometimes, can overcome that reaction for me – those moments when the movie is not just about the dick-waving itself, but about something else, of which dick-waving is a part.
As much as I...liked? Faizal, I was not sad at the end. Because, DUH.
Well, it's inevitable.
But he came off as someone who tried, at least sometimes, in his own way. And he knew it. That little speech he has with his wife on the balcony.
One of the points of the film is the pointlessness of that cycle of violence – Faizal expresses that explicitly in that speech you just mentioned.
Pointlessness yet LET'S SHOW A WHOLE LOT OF IT ANYWAY!!!!!!
That's why I said earlier that maybe no one triumphs, because what is triumph in this context? Just that you get to be the top guy on the other team's hit list for a while, until they get you.
And yes, a whole, WHOLE lot of it. I think I said to you while we were watching that it don't think one needs five hours to make the point that the cycle of revenge is pointless.
For viewers like we are, who don't want to see splatter and gore and suffering, this felt a little bit like a bait and switch, because at the end of Part 1 we thought "Yeah, okay, we can do this," but then preeeeetty soon into Part 2 it got gross. So at first I thought maybe Kashyap was going to make some points about the futility of it all without showing it, but no.
There is a notable uptick in the grossness when Faizal takes over, when he beheads the friend who set up his father. And that uptick itself means something – Faizal is a new generation, and the rules change a little when he takes over. Everyone becomes more ruthless.
And he's shown to be quite different from his father or older brother and man I feel like I'm talking about The Godfather.
Surely Kashyap knows that you will think these thoughts while pondering his film.
Oh of course. Faizal is at first kind of pleasingly weird. But then we see it manifest itself as psychotically violent at times instead. Whereas his dad was mostly...efficient? Rather than with a flourish?
For Faizal's grandfather, violence was a means to an end – he used it for survival. For his father, it was all in the service of revenge. For Faizal, it is still revenge, but there's something else, too, isn't there?
For Faizal and Definite it's for their moms. In different ways, but still for their moms.
Yes, that's a good way to put it. And, it's a good segue to talk about the women in the film.
After we finished Part 2, it occurred to me that I don't think we really see the women parlay any social power, do we? It's not as though they choose to be with these men – and I do think the younger generation chose pretty freely – because they gain a lot that we can see. They're not leading cliques of aunties or anything. They still do housework. Etc.
Another comment I made while we were watching is that half of the lines spoken by women are turning down men's requests for sex. That is one power that they have.
But even that doesn't seem to add up to much does it? I mean one of them STILL has four kids.
Indeed, despite her best efforts. But I think you're right, we also talked about why a woman would want to be married to a man like Faizal, and there must be some social cachet to it.
I don't know what social power would look like in their world but I don't think we saw it, either. They do get refrigerators? And TVs? But Huma's character had a TV in her room before she got married.
Even in a mad patriarchal society, there are spheres where women can wield power in different ways, and there are occasionally stories that are about that – but Gangs of Wasseypur isn't one of them.
No, it's not.
It is about a wholly male set of interactions, and the women are marginal at best. I guess the social cachet in being Faizal's wife, for Huma Qureishi's character, Mohsina, wouldn't necessarily be in the form of things, but in the form of regard and respect of other people in the community. But that is speculation, because Gangs of Wasseypur didn't find a way to squeeze any of that into its five hours.
No, there's pretty much no sense of community in this, except for perhaps before the weddings and at the funeral. But that's special occasion community, not everyday. They don't even give birth to women. There is no place in the family for them.
That's right, I noticed that too – no daughters, at least none that we get introduced to.
Yeah only the enemy family has girls, don't they? And one of the few female characters, Durga, has to be set up as the enemy of one of the others, Nagma.
Of course. Pit women against each other, in competition for what? A man – Sardar Khan, Faizal's father. A man who, incidentally, doesn't treat either of them with a ton of respect. Remember the scene where he tells them he wants them all to live in one house, and he can't even fathom what the objection would be?
He's one of those "well, he doesn't literally beat his wives, so I guess he's a catch" kind of characters – though at least the women seem to know it.
That dynamic around the first and second wife is probably the only thing Gangs of Wasseypur has to say about how women's lived are damaged by the norms of the society they live in. The rest is all about the damage inflicted on men.
I think the last scene between Mohsina and Faizal shows some. Or, implies it, anyway.
Yes, Faizal's wife tells him she is pregnant, and he says, "say hello to my kid," and you know they both know he isn't coming back.
I don't know how they managed to convey so much there, but they really did. But of course we knew the run time of the film too.
They both do a lot with their faces, as actors. But all that interaction does for me is reinforce the question, what does Mohsina get out of being married to him?
I think perhaps they're just genuinely attracted to each other. He's clearly amazed by her in the cinema. And then she's so flirtatious at the...engagement party, I think it is. Maybe she likes having him dance to her tune. Actually maybe she just finds the whole thing filmi, and we know she likes that.
Oh yes, that is definitely true. They really dig each other. That's what makes the scene on the balcony work, even though it's a bit heavy-handed – he is imagining a different life in which he could just enjoy his amazing wife, without having to worry about killing and revenge and which family member he's going to lose next.
A rare moment of clarity for Faizal when he's not high on drugs or killing.
Do you want to talk about those filmi connections some more?
Sure! For example, the flat-out outlining of generational heroes by Ramadhir is kind of funny. And how he tells his son, "You just can't hack it as a gangster because you're too busy watching DDLJ, you dope."
It's clunky and clueless, which is very funny – he doesn't follow them himself, and doesn't remember them all.
He remembers enough as sort of cultural signposts, but yeah, he does not connect with them. And we get different people identifying with different heroes. Faizal likes Mithun, right?
Aww, yeahh. (But Faizal also does a Travis Bickle sort of thing in the mirror.)
So I guess by default Sardar likes Amitabh but I can't recall if he says so. Oh and there's that GREAT moment where Faizal turns around in his chair and it looks like the start of the warehouse scene in Deewaar. And Mohsina likesMaine Pyaar Kiya, and also Amitabh – she's a cool girl that way, maybe even a Cool Girl.
Perpendicular and Tangent are also big Sanjay Dutt fans. They are engrossed in an almost homoerotic fantasy about him when they are set upon by the goons who kill Perpendicular.
And Mohsina is definitely a Cool Girl. She can afford to be, because she knows Faizal digs her.
And the whole family likes the TV serials apparently. There were like 20 people watching that!
"Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi" ... that one line of melody is repeated so many times and gets stuck in one's head.
And to open with it and then repeat it in the second film.
So, when the ultimate male explosion happens, this huge raid on the Khan house with automatic weapons and bombs, all the women of the house are gathered watching some saas-bahu serial, and the repeated line is all about the relationships of household women. Everything the movie is NOT about.
True. Many of the men are watching it too, interestingly. Maybe it's a reiteration of Ramadhir's point: If you just sit around watching movies/TV, your house is NOT in order and it makes you stupid.
That's very bleak, though, because most of these people are collateral damage. They are not responsible for this war, just because they are watching TV.
(Also a marker of changing technology, I would think, which the film likes to do.) Collateral damage is always part of stories like this though.
Yes, it is. What I am saying is that it is very bleak if Ramadhir's critique that TV and movies makes people weak gets taken out on folks who aren't directly involved in the war at all. It's one thing for him to harass his son for watching movies; he'd rather have raised a son who is a strong general in his army and a worthy successor. It's a very different thing to apply that criticism to people whose only crime is being part of the enemy household.
His soldier actually says that, remember? Kill them all, even the cook, the washer boy, the pets (or something like that).
Yes. By that time, after Ramadhir's sister and Nagma have been killed, the rules of engagement (such as they were) are out the window. This is no longer an honorable conflict.
The scope of the violence expands with technology, too. Sardar's dad starts out mostly hitting people, I think, and burning their property.
And then Sardar has...knives and swords, etc., and then guns come in, and then bombs.
The first time Sardar's father sees a gun up close, it is used on him. It's all downhill from there.
And somebody, maybe him, has a line about "Wow, now every Tom Dick and Harry has a gun."
So here are two questions to wrap up: 1) Why did we watch this and 2) do we think those rationales will actually be met or pay off?
What are your answers?
For me, this was a movie I felt like I Should See, capital letters – that somehow it's an important film from an important filmmaker. And I will admit that afterBombay Velvet was SO disliked by so many people but I loved it, I was more intrigued to see this one, even though I'd tried once and been turned off instantly by the violence.
I don't know the answer to my second question yet. If Gangs of Wasseypurkeeps showing up in conversations, I'll be able to participate more than I would without having seen it, and I like that feeling. But honestly, do I see it come up all that much now? I'm not sure I do.
I don't think I see it talked about much either, and there may be a bit of a backlash against Kashyap because of Bombay Velvet (which I also did not think was as bad as all that), that will make people stop talking about Gangs of Wasseypur for a while.
However, my answers are very similar to yours. When I write, I put myself out there, and the more I have seen of the works that are significant and interesting, the less likely I am to make a complete idiot of myself. Also, while I don't like gangster films as a rule, I generally do like films about political machinations in India. And films that focus on areas other than the big cosmopolitan cities are also of great interest to me.
I have definitely had enough of hinterlands assholes at this point.
I would very happily watch more movies about how the machinations of hinterlands assholes affect women.
If I had to watch hinterlands assholes, that would be the slant I would appreciate, I guess. But I'd rather not watch any at all, at least not for a while.
Give me more Mrityudands, more Revolver Ranis, more Godmothers. Even more Gulab Gangs, if not that exact film over again.
I definitely don't regret watching Gangs of Wasseypur, even if I didn't find it thoroughly engrossing. It's a five-hour investment in the big picture and I do think it will pay returns.
I don't want those hours of my life back, but I don't think I'd be particularly missing out in ways or arenas that I personally car a lot about if I had not decided to watch it. "Timepass" isn't quite the right word for me for this film, but it's somewhere in that general neck of the woods.
And with those ringing endorsements...
Carla, nobody cares what we think about Gangs of Wasseypur three years after it came out.
This was really fun and interesting, Beth. With this chat Gangs of Wasseypur is already returning on the investment.
Good! Yeah we always make our own fun, don't we?