Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I heart luv stories... though not quite

I recently realized that I'm late to the party as far as a slew of retro love stories in apna Bollywood are concerned. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting old, but I never felt motivated enough to go out and watch I Hate Luv Stories, Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Rockstar, Ishaqzade, Student Of The Year, Ashiqui Thoo, Ranjhana, and while I was curious about Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, I let that pass too (and no, I won't include Jab Tak Hai Jaan in this list, dead director zombie hero or whatever). So pardon me for admitting that Lootera took me by surprised. I mean, the era of anti-romantic love stories heralded by Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Hum Aaapke Hain Kaun is over, and nobody bothered to share the good news with me!

Now before you start pelting stones at this blog, let me explain. First, stop throwing stuff at your computer screen. Second, well I loved DDLJ and HAHK as much as anybody else in 1994. In 1994.

Those films were good. They stood apart in a time when love stories meant a creepy hero stalking a pink-frocked heroine till she gave in to his rakish charms, then beating up a few baddies before riding off into the sunset. Or creepy hero stalking pink-frocked heroine till she gave in to his rakish charms, then getting into trouble with local don who dutifully plunges at hero's sister who in turn proceeds to die either before or after getting raped in order to be avenged by brooding Bhaiyya who then rides off into the sunset or goes to jail, depending on whether brooding Bhaiyya was played by Akshaye, Sunil or Sunny.

All this changed when Yash uncle and King Face Khan stepped in with a film that, for the first time on Indian screen, put stalking in perspective and reminded us all that in the real world, carving someone's name on your chest is a sign of mental imbalance, at par with talking to your dead mother on phone and killing people. Then came HAHK which reminded us that while finding The One you can frolic around the pool with is really nice, you need to think of your family and their interests too - and chances are, Divine Pomeranian Intervention will step in at just the right time before your sacrifice goes too far.

Then DDLJ put a final seal on the new rules of romance, rules that were to be followed for nearly two decades of Bollywood romances:
  • You may hanky-panky against pretty European locales as long as you are appropriately chaste, wear your Hindustani values on your sleeves and can rattle off some lines on the moral superiority of desi boys and girls
  • The girl is dad's property, to be taken with permission only
  • That means dad's permission, not the girl's. You may hand over the girl to Daddy to be married off as he may please, never mind what she wants
  • Love is... leaving some poor guy at the altar to be with your puppy faced lover because... awww....
Over the next couple years, the last rule got slightly reset to:
  • Love is... the poor guy at the altar happily relinquishing marital bliss for the sake of puppy faced lover because... awww....
And so it went. Whether it was a big banner NRI wedding video or its cheap knockoff, the hero no longer bothered to propose marriage till the girl was properly attired for the ceremony. Even wedding guests got so used to the routine, their faces rarely registered surprise in the event of grooms getting swapped: notice the reactions on all of Kajol's sahelis in the climactic scene of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. They are so damn relieved that Kajol was ditching Salman for the blast from her past, it's like... I mean, if I was invited to a wedding where the card says Bunty weds Babli, and then Bunty stops mid-ceremony and hands Babli over to his good friend Bunny, I'd be very, very confused. Unless I had an unreciprocated crush on Bunty.... anyway, I digress.

A nice twist to the last-minute groom swapping tradition came in Jab We Met. 

(Spoiler Alert for losers who don't want to know the denouement of a six-year-old movie
Here we have a girl, the guy she's supposed to want to marry, and the guy her family thinks she's going to marry, and all she has to do is to tell everyone that while the wedding preparations and decoration are spot on, they might want to change one of the names on the card in time to spare some unsuspecting guests a lot of confusion. The only problem is, she no longer wants to marry the guy she's supposed to want to marry, and wants to marry the guy her family thinks she's going to marry instead! Now that was a deliciously confusing conclusion to a simple love story if there ever was one. 
(End Spoiler Alert for losers who don't want to know the denouement of a six-year-old movie)

From all evidence, love stories are becoming more real, more relate-able now, where actions have consequences, locations are more earthy and matters of who marries whom are settled outside the Mandap.

Coming back to Lootera...

I liked the somewhat bratty, strong headed heroine in Lootera as much as I liked its flawed hero. What I liked most, though, were the little things - like Barun Chanda's colonial accent, Vikrant Massey's no-head-bobbing Dev Anand impression, the haveli with its colonial knick-knacks and its lime-washed walls, and all those little details so lovingly compiled by Motwane.

Now some of my favorite critics have already given some beautiful reviews to this film, so I won't go into all that. Just sharing a few thoughts here.

The setting:
The first time Sujay suggested watching Lootera, I flippantly dismissed the idea - "Not another period film." The heavy costuming, the posturing, the affected speech from most characters, all the artificiality of your average period flick usually wears me out. It was a bit refreshing then, to see a lot of outdoors, bright & fresh colours and a Sonakshi with very little jewelry and brocade. I'm also glad that the two leads do not try too hard to fit into the period setting, and focus instead, on the story of these two people they're portraying, and their emotional journey.

I've mentioned before that I'm not a sucker for authenticity in my movies. My views were reinforced recently by the first half of Matru Ki... I am no more motivated to finish the movie than to finish typing its name here. All the hilarious sounding capers - and this film puts you through two crazy drunk scenes with the spectacularly talented Pankaj Kapur (one of them in a twin seater plane), a pink buffalo, a pink Navneet Nishan, a corrupt Shabana, a gorgeous Anushka, a buffoonish fiance, kidnapped zulu dancers, a flying Mao... all in the first half - just didn't do it for me. Perhaps because Imran, who is given an enviably complex role here, puts all his energy into the Haryanvi accent instead, which by the way sucked.

What I found in Lootera instead was just as much detail of the era as was necessitated by the story. The many little treasures in the old haveli of the landlord are also an important component of the story, and they walk out of the picture once they have played their part in catalyzing some key events. The lavishness here never tapers towards the obscene, and the buildings, the people, feel like people and stuff in a real world rather than the ghosts haunting one of SLB's blue-green studios, rehearsing the roles they were meant to play in the local Ram Lila before tragedy struck. It is interesting that Motwane has been mentored by the man Bhansali himself. If the ambiance of this film owes anything to said mentoring, then Motwane is the best kind of student out there, one who can really cherry-pick the best qualities of the mentor and thrash the rest.

O' Henry:
When I first read The Last Leaf, and during my many subsequent re-readings (I can never have enough of O' Henry, sue me) I often fantasized about turning that story into a film. I had even sketched out a possible adaptation, in which the girls would be struggling actresses living in a cheap apartment in Andheri, and the old man would be an out of work painter of film hoardings. So pardon me for being a little biased, but great choice of story there!

The chase scene:
Am I the only one who thought the chase scene in the second half was somewhat inspired by the one in Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday? The way Ranveer gradually wears out, how that messes up his orientation, how the inspector calls out to him by name, the initial assurance that gets drained out as he finds himself cornered... do read Baradwaj Rangan's piece where he has beautifully captured this part.

So yeah, maybe watching a love story every once in a while may not be such a colossal waste of time. Now that Bollywood has some actual young people to act as young people, we might perhaps get more of these, and maybe, just maybe they won't turn into the assembly line products of the noughties too soon. Hopefully they won't be too much in the Hollywood template either (more on that later). Needless to say, Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog remains the greatest love story ever told.