Sunday, April 29, 2007

DDLJ (1995) - 600 weeks strong

The Shah Rukh Khan/Kajol starrer Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) entered its 600th week of continuous showings at a theater in Bombay on April 13 – an all-time record. The magic of the evergreen romance keeps pulling audiences back to the Maratha Mandir cinema ever since its release on October 20,1995 - and shows no signs of slowing down. The movie delighted audiences, who fell in love with the SRK-Kajol pairing, the fresh story and hit music. It was also the first Indian movie that was received well overseas by NRI audiences. DDLJ was director Aditya Chopra’s first film and at 23 (even as the son of the legendary Yash Chopra) it was a tremendous & risky undertaking. Since then he has directed only one other movie, Mohabbatein, but has been successful as a producer for many others. DDLJ went on to become one of the largest grossers in Indian film history and did extremely well at that year’s Filmfare Awards. In 2001, DDLJ broke the exhibition record, established by the classic Sholay at Bombay's Minerva Theatre (5 years: 1975-1980).

Historically and personally this movie is important to me for many reasons. After the death of Kishore Kumar in 1987 I went into a Bollywood exile of sorts and this was one of the first films that I saw upon emerging from it. It was also the first major hit of SRK as well as Kajol. I was really impressed by the acting of SRK (not realizing he would duplicate that character for virtually every role to follow) as well as the freshness of Kajol (whose unibrow had not yet become a point of distraction for me). Note to Kajol - if you are keeping the unibrow to be 'natural' why even bother with any makeup at all? But DDLJ was also special because it showed that one could grow up in the West but still have an intact Indian value system - something that sounds trite now but was rare to see in Bollywood back then. DDLJ, for all intents and purposes, brought me back to Bollywood and although Kuch Kuch Hota Hain remains my favorite SRK/Kajol starrer - this one is still close to my heart for the aforementioned reasons. For a more in depth review of this movie please visit our friend Filmi Geek's website.

The songs for today also represent an important milestone in my opinion for a true legend in Bollywood, Lata Mangheskar, but not in the way you may think. For the last time I had heard her sing, before this movie, was in Khuda Gawah (1992) and I was saddened by the obvious decline in her voice only three years later. It was subtle mind you but for a true Lata fan it was nothing less than heartbreaking. 'Mehndi Laga Ke' sung by Udit Narayan & Lata is the centerpiece of the movie musically as well as emotionally. But my favorite song remains 'Ghar Aaja Pardesi' sung by Manpreet & Pamela Chopra as it made me miss India in ways that stay with me to this day. As they say - see it again for the first time... DDLJ.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Parzania (2005) - Gujarat Burning

Parzania is an unflinching account of the communal violence that erupted in Ahmedabad (my birth city) after the Godhra incident in 2002. It tells the true story of a Parsi family who lost their son on that fateful day when their livelihood was destroyed by right wing Hindu mobs in what can only be described as planned genocide. It shows how the government & police (later verified by multiple eyewitness reports & the International Human Rights Commission) stood by while their citizens were looted, raped and murdered. Nearly 1000 Gujarati Muslims lost their lives that day and 100,000 were rendered homeless. This movie was incredibly difficult for me to watch as I was brought up in a very secular household and the fact that the atrocities were being committed not by 'foreigners' but by Gujaratis to other Gujaratis. Parzania was directed by an LA based Indian filmmaker, Rahul Dholakia. After incredible resistance in finding distributors for this movie it was finally released worldwide and in India this January - everywhere except Gujarat. Sharmila Tagore (current Indian Film Board Censor Chief) has blasted the Gujarat authorities who have refused to provide extra security to the theater owners who want to show the film but are afraid of reprisals from Hindu fundamentalists.

The movie is mostly in English and while it is lacking at times technically, like the legendary director Satyajit Ray said, those flaws are "like spelling mistakes in a beautiful sonnet". The two main actors, Nasureedin Shah & Sarika, deliver extraordinary performances. This is expected from Shah but the performance delivered by Sarika (an 80's Bollywood glamor girl) is incredibly poignant and makes you numb with grief. Corin Nemec portrays an American journalist who has come to India to complete his thesis on Gandhi's teachings of non-violence. His character is quite jarring and comes off as an alcoholic boor who drops the 'F' bomb entirely too much in the beginning of the film. By the end though he is more restrained and does well as the narrator to the story that he was not yet ready to see. 50 years ago the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, while flying from Delhi to Ahmedabad, told reporters "I came to India as a tourist. But I go to Ahmedabad as a pilgrim." These days many say that no one associates Gujarat with Gandhi. In fact, Gujarat and communal madness seem to now be sadly and permanently intertwined. Filmmaking is about telling a story, but every now and then the story is so strong that the telling isn't as important anymore - this is one of them. Parzania.

When I last went to India in 2005 I was determined to see my Gujarat as a tourist would and to that end bought the 2005 edition of 'Fodor's India'. Imagine my surprise when I got home and realized that out of every state listed in the book - Gujarat didn't even get a mention. I realize that Gujarat doesn't have the glitz and glamor of other Indian states but to not even include it just seemed downright rude! A friend of mine, Anjali Desai, has been living India for the past four years and has published one of the first guidebooks to Gujarat that I know of, check it out here. The song for today is a Gujarati folk song that called 'Ramo Ramo' by Meena Patel and it reminds me of some of my happiest trips to India to see my family. Despite the problems that face it, I truly believe a visit to Gujarat is still one of the safest and most tranquil journeys a tourist can make to Gandhi's ancestral home.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tribute to Kalyanji Anandji

Bollywood of yesteryear was much easier to classify in regards to it's music than it is today. The male singers short list consisted of Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh & Kishore Kumar - if you needed a female voice you called Lata Mangheshkar or her sister/rival Asha Bhonsle. Similarly the music composers carried more weight than the film directors, as hit songs could all but guarantee a strong opening for the movie. Those composers are mostly gone now but far from forgotten and their names still invoke fond memories for many a Bollywood fan - S.D. Burman, his son R.D. Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Shankar Jaikishen, Naushad, O.P. Nayyar and Kalyanji Anandji.

Kalyanji Shah & his brother Anandji Shah moved from Kutch (in Gujarat) to Bombay in the early 1950's to start a family business. A local businessman who owed their father money gave them their first musical lessons in lieu of paying his bill and the rest as they say is history. They worked with most of the musical greats of that era and were responsible for many memorable film scores (Don, Qurbani, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar & Lawaaris). It was a different time back then as evidenced by a story recalled by the surviving brother (Anandji) from the late 1970's...

"Lataji was a regular at our place for Kutchi home-cooked food, while Ashaji would frequently come over as well. Once we had a major concert lined up with Kishore Kumar in Mumbai but he suddenly took ill. Ashaji and R D Burmansaab called us up at that critical hour and without accepting any money, performed at our show all evening. Burmansaab even belted out our hits like 'Khaike Paan' from Don. Shortly after they had called, we also had got a call from Lataji offering to come sing at the same show."

R.D. Burman singing 'Khaike Paan'? Live in Bombay? Where's a time machine when you need one? Below is a picture of Lata Mangeshkar flanked by the two brothers Shah.

It was a different era back then but lest someone think that these legendary musicians are no longer relevant, one needs look no further than the resurgence that their music is enjoying today. Everyone from the hottest DJ's (who have the hipsters wearing these cool t-shirts) to the Black Eyed Peas (who credited Kalyanji/Anandji on their Grammy award winning album last year) are exposing their 1970's songs to a worldwide audience paying homage to the maestros' tracks that featured funk breakbeats, wah-wah guitars and Motown-style orchestrations. Kalyanji passed away five years ago but his brother is still doing concerts in front of packed crowds - if you live in the Atlanta area don't miss this once in a lifetime chance to see a true Bollywood legend. Click here for more info.

The two tracks from today are from one of their classic but lesser known films, Janbaaz starring Feroz Khan, Anil Kapoor & Dimple Kapadia. They both feature the telltale funk that Kalyanji Anandji are famous for without sacrificing the intricate layering of the music which gives the song it's evergreen status. The first song is 'Jaane Jaana' by Manhar & Sapna Mukherjee, the second is 'Tera Saath Hai' by Kishore Kumar & Sapna Mukherjee.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Beauty Academy of Kabul (2004)

Although not officially Bollywood, I figured any movie that shows a poster of Madhuri Dixit within the first 5 minutes is good enough for me to be considered a desi flick. The Beauty Academy of Kabul is a movie that my wife picked up randomly at our local Blockbuster. I had little interest in seeing it due to the fact that the subject matter (beauty parlors & Afghanistan) was not high on my 'must see' topics for movies. But it turns out this movie is much more than that and was one of the more interesting and moving movies I have seen this year. I had no idea that Afghanistan was such a progressive country prior to the Soviet occupation in the mid 80's or that it's citizens had so many cultural freedoms. And whatever your position on war, after seeing this movie I for one agree that Afghanistan (and humanity as a whole) is better off without the Taliban. In addition to putting crippling restrictions on what women could do in society they also banned all forms of movies, music and song. Learning about this amazing group of women who stood firm, literally risking their lives at times to bring beauty to their small corner of the world, is truly inspiring. For those fluent in Hindi/Urdu, you will be able to catch many words & phrases that are familiar to you - not enough to not need the subtitles but enough to appreciate the Pashto language. And just for fun, keep a running count of all the Bollywood actress posters in the movie - I got up to fifteen :)

To keep with the Middle Eastern theme of the post, today's song selection is Baaran by the band, The Third Planet, a multicultural band representing Italy, Algeria, Iraq and India. Their music seamlessly combines each of their heritages and adds a few more traditions besides. Lying behind their sound is the philosophy that disparate peoples have always, thoughout history, influenced each other's musical styles. The songs on this particular album (Kurdistani) are all upbeat with rhythms that are hard to resist. None of the songs are sung in English, so it's rather difficult to say what they might be singing about, but when you're dancing around your own living room, who really cares?

Finally, just wanted to give out a plug to a good friend - Sunkrish Bala. He is an actor (whom you may know from Greys Anatomy & My Name is Earl) whose new show Notes from the Underbelly debuts this Thursday (4/12) on ABC at 10 pm EST. According to him "the show chronicles the misadventures of young, hip thirtysomethings as they embark on life's greatest adventure (parenthood, not bungee jumping). I play a young father-to-be named Eric and it is very rare that actors of color are given the opportunity to play parts in which their ethnicity does not come into play. I can tell you that a good 50 percent of the auditions and parts afforded to me in the film and television industry require me to be rather conspicuously... well... ethnic. This new show has not once deferred to that lowest common denominator, I am just another proud dad-to-be and HILARITY ensues :) If you like what you see then write a letter to ABC letting them know how much you appreciate an actor-of-color playing an ethnically-ambiguous part on television, because yes, TV execs do read them." Check out more about Sunkrish & the show here

Monday, April 02, 2007

Rajasthan on my mind

Don't know if it was the last post I did (on the movie Dor), the amazing dance troupe of Gulabi Sapera (aka the Gypsy Queen of Rajasthan) that we saw live in New York over the weekend or the New York Times travel article that offered guidance on how to see India in under two weeks with the advice to 'skip Rajasthan'. Or maybe it was a combination of all of these things and I just needed an excuse to share some great music that found it's way to me...

Yes, Rajasthan is one of India's most popular tourist destinations (for Indians & non-Indians alike) but suggesting one should skip it because it has become too touristy is just plain silly. It reminded me of when U2's 'Joshua Tree' came out and propelled them to the legendary status that they enjoy now. A friend of mine told me that he was no longer a U2 fan because they had sold out and were now popular. Pardon? Things become popular with people because they are good and are worth visiting (or listening to, etc.) and shouldn't be shunned just because you are now not the only one to appreciate them.

The pictures you see are from our visit to the city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. This city is literally in the middle of nowhere and takes eight hours via train to reach from the closest rail link - air travel is not an option due to security concerns over it's proximity with the Pakistan border. But if you go there you will be amply rewarded as it is akin to stepping back in time, 'Lord of the Rings' style. One quarter of the population lives in a 13th century fort (the city's centerpiece) that is now home to several inns as well which fill up rather quickly I might add. The picture below is the view from our room in the fort itself. If you do go to India take the time to visit this city, it is something you will not soon forget.

The two songs from today are inspired by Rajasthan - one is from a Bollywood movie (Bhawander) and one is a classical piece. Abto Jagna and Rajasthani Instrumental are both rich in their melodies and make me miss the mythical 'Land of the Kings' that much more.