Thursday, August 27, 2015

10 Spectacular Bollywood Song-and-Dance Scenes


When most people think of Bollywood, the first thing that comes to mind is surely the song-and-dance numbers, and for good reason. Since the start of the Hindi film industry, the musical has been an essential component of popular cinema. Bollywood filmmakers take pride in staging the most lavish spectacles they can envision and thus, skilled choreographers, composers, songwriters, art directors, singers and costume designers are always in high demand. Indeed, musical numbers have become so important that Bollywood invented the "item number". While other cinema traditions promote a tight focus on the central narrative, Indian audiences have become appreciative of these musical interludes, which are often completely unrelated to the plot and feature actors who aren't part of the film. For the most part though, the musical numbers follow the same narrative purpose as the Hollywood musicals we're used to, just bigger and brighter.

These vibrant scenes are truly one of the best aspects of Hindi cinema. It's therefore more pleasure to present my list of 10 Spectacular Bollywood Song-and-Dance Scenes:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

10 of Bollywood's Hottest Stars


In our era of heavily branded franchise filmmaking in Hollywood, celebrity obsession is at an all-time high and the same applies to Bollywood, where they take fandom to a whole other level. As we unfortunately found out earlier this year, not even manslaughter charges can deter the diehard support. The simple fact is that movie stars are the lifeblood of Bollywood, no matter how hard the directors and writers are trying to change that. It doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon either, with the advent of the "100 Crore Club" (referring to box office grosses of 100 crore or more) driving competition between actors to get butts in seats. This elite status offers an enticing pay-off, as it ensures further high-profile acting gigs, increased earnings and the adoration of some of the world's most devoted cinephiles.

Below are some of the actors we can't get enough of, all of whom have lead multiple films to the 100 Crore Club. I present to you 10 of Bollywood's Hottest Stars:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

10 Awesome Bollywood Soundtracks


The close relationship between Bollywood and music can be traced back to the genre's earliest days. As the template for this new artform was being developed, filmmakers looked to the established traditions of Indian theatre, as well as the popular Hollywood musicals of the time. But while American audiences turned away from the lavish musical by the end of the 60s, Bollywood audiences couldn't get enough of the song-and-dance driven spectacle. Now many years after Bollywood's Golden Age (roughly the 1940s to 1960s), the musical is thriving and composers and playback singers (actors very rarely sing the songs) have become as popular as the movie stars. Soundtracks are now a key component of film marketing, generating buzz through the release of songs and item numbers (essentially a music video specifically created for marketing purposes). By the time the film is released then, the songs are therefore already dominating the pop charts. It's a method that works and for fans like myself, a good soundtrack can enhance the most mediocre of films.

With that in mind, I decided to highlight some of the best music Bollywood has given us over the years, with my list of 10 Awesome Bollywood Soundtracks:

Monday, August 24, 2015

Announcing...Bollywood Week!


If you've been following the site lately, you'll have noticed that it's been quite heavy on Bollywood films. Indeed, I caught the Bollywood bug this summer, re-kindling a love affair that began 10 years ago when I started college in the US. It was then that my closest friends (most of them being South Asians) introduced me to a whole new world of cinema unlike anything I'd seen before. During this time I watched films like "Hum Tum", "Kal Ho Naa Ho" and "Jab We Met", which sparked my fascination with this unique style of filmmaking. Since then, time constraints haven't allowed me to keep up with Bollywood as much as I would have liked (these films tend to be more than 150 minutes long!) but its always held a special place in my heart. So this summer I decided to marathon some of the classics I'd missed, in anticipation of the project I'm announcing now. For your reading pleasure, this week will be Bollywood Appreciation Week here at Film Actually, where I'll celebrate the best of Bollywood.

But first, here's a brief introduction to Bollywood for the newbies...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

REVIEW: Singh is Kinng


They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but after watching Anees Bazmee's "Singh is Kinng" I wish I had trusted my instincts. With its corny title and dubious premise, I didn't expect much from this comic caper and it still managed to disappoint. Starring Akshay Kumar as the titular king, "Singh is Kinng" is a contrived, preposterous farce.

The film is set primarily in Australia, where Punjabi immigrants have taken control of the criminal underworld. At the top of the food chain is Lucky Singh (Sonu Sood), who rules the Sikh mafia. Lucky comes from a village in Punjab, India, where the clumsy but kindhearted Happy Singh (Akshay Kumar) lives. The two are polar opposites, but through a series of mishaps, the men find themselves tied to each other. When the villagers decide that they've had enough after Happy unintentionally wreaks havoc on their community, they devise a ruse to send Happy to Australia to fetch Lucky. Fully expecting the ill-equipped Happy to fail in his mission, they villagers celebrate being rid of their nuisance. Little do they know however, Happy's faults will work to his benefit throughout his journey. Before long, Lucky is conveniently inflicted with an unusual paralysis (leaving him fully conscious but unable to speak) and Happy is named as his replacement. But not before an accidental detour to Egypt where he'll meet a beautiful damsel in distress.

From the time Happy sets out on the plane, "Singh is Kinng" gradually devolves into a rambling mess. In an effort to facilitate his rise to power and his romantic subplot, the narrative resorts to a level of contrivance bound to induce copious eye-rolling. Consider for example, that his eventual love interest - who he meets by chance in Egypt - ends up being directly related to characters he encounters randomly in Australia, one of whom is the person whose ticket he mistakenly took in an airport all the way back in India. I mean, it's a small world, but not that small.

Of course, this is a work of fiction which obviously requires suspension of disbelief. But the sense of serendipity required to pull off such far-fetched shenanigans is lacking, mainly due to the poor acting. Kumar was nominated for an Asian Film Award for his performance and for the life of me, I can't understand why. Though he is undoubtedly an impressive stuntsman, his comedy style feels hammy, like a second-rate Shah Rukh Khan. Kaif meanwhile fails to embody anything other than a pretty face, excelling only in the dance routines where she gets to gyrate and look beautiful.

It's not all bad in "Singh is Kinng" though, as the early screwball scenes in the village are genuinely entertaining. The jokes and sight gags become progressively crude however, reaching the nadir when Lucky gets angry and his blood literally boils to the point where his IV bag explodes. Unfortunately, not even a random Snoop Dogg appearance in the end credits can save such poor filmmaking taste.

This film is part of my Bollywood marathon.

Monday, August 17, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Swades


This week's top pick is a drama from one of Bollywood's foremost directors, released in 2004. "Swades", directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, is the story of one man's journey from USA to his hometown in India, where he realizes that his heart never left his motherland. Starring Shahrukh Khan, this touching drama exemplifies why Gowariker is one of his country's most gifted storytellers.

"Swades" follows Mohan (Shah Rukh Khan), a brilliant NASA scientist on the verge of a major breakthrough. His pet project - Global Precipitation Measurement - is about to be launched, providing valuable data on water resources around the world. If successful, it will be able to address issues related to water shortages around the world. The culmination of his life's work, Mohan's latest endeavour would put a fine cap on his career.

Mohan feels something missing in his life however, a void that money and success are unable to fill. After coming from a small village in rural india, had lost touch with his roots. Now he feels a yearning, which prompts him to return home to visit Kaveri Amma (his childhood nanny who was like a mother to him) with the intention of bringing her back with him. But what begins as a brief excursion turns into a life-changing experience, as he finds himself deeply affected by the people and vice versa.

In the Caribbean we have a saying, "My navel string is buried here", which essentially means your birthplace will always be your true home. It's a feeling that many Caribbean persons - like myself - have felt when living in foreign countries and it's the same sentiment that guides Gowariker's direction in "Swades". With rich depth of feeling, he conveys that spiritual connection and longing for your homeland. The tone is understated throughout, while the images wash over you with genuine warmth. The camera captures the village in all its simple unblemished beauty, carrying us along as Mohan explores its tranquil waters and expansive landscape.

Indeed, the cinematography gives us a strong sense of place but most of all, the film shines because of its attention to the people. From the moment Mohan arrives, the beautiful screeenplay attunes us to their lives. Like his Oscar-nominated "Lagaan", Gowariker again displays a deft understanding and empathy for the struggle of India's rural societies.

I always approach uplifting dramas with skepticism towards the glorification of poverty, but all my cynicisms were quickly alleviated with this story. The central conflict of "Swades" boils down to whether Mohan will leave his important job and First World affluence for the charitable cause of providing a better life for the underprivileged, and the writing gives this decision all the complexity it deserves. In fact, one of the film's most triumphant scenes comes when Mohan lays into these humble people for their backwards views towards women's education, the outdated caste system and general socioeconomic inertia. In a lesser film the scene would come across as overly judgmental, but in this case it's just the jolt that the film needs. Culture and tradition is nice, but when it hinders progress, it needs to be re-evaluated. I loved that the film doesn't ignore this amidst it's pervading sense of nostalgia and patriotism.

Of course, the story becomes entirely predictable in the end. Like most commercial Bollywood films, there's also a romance that steals focus from more interesting characters and plotlines. Along the way however, the ever reliable Shah Rukh Khan and the gentle direction from Ashutosh Gowariker ensures this narrative is a smooth, pleasant ride. It's a true heart-warmer, and a smart one at that.

This film is part of my Bollywood marathon.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Chicken Run


For this week's Hit me with your best shot, I was able to relive one of my fondest movie-going experiences with Aardman Animation's "Chicken Run". I distinctly remember watching it upon its release back in 2000 and thought it was just one of the most awesomely funny and exciting animated films I'd seen. I would have been around age 12 at the time and admittedly, the film doesn't feel as major upon a re-watch 15 years later.

But the film's simplest delights haven't lost their effect on me - the endearing British-ness of the voices, the oddball animation and course, the humor. The comedy is especially noteworthy for its dark elements, stemming from the slavery/concentration camp/POW camp allegory of its premise. As I considered all these aspects for my best shot, I ended up focusing on the hilarious Babs character.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, August 10, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Devdas


With so many new films releasing each year, we cinephiles are bound to have our "blind spots". Well, this week a Bollywood film gave that term a literal meaning for me, as the experience of watching Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Devdas" made me feel like I was seeing for the first time. This epic romance saga is one of the grandest things I've ever seen on film, a true visual treat.

Based on the beloved novella of the same name by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, this 2002 film marks the 13th film adaptation of the story (3 more have been made since). The tale centers around 3 lovers - childhood sweethearts Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) and Paro (Aishwarya Rai), and a courtesan named Chandramuki (Madhuri Dixit) who completes the love triangle. "Devdas" begins with its title character returning home for the first time since age 10, eager to rekindle his love for the beautiful Paro. Despite their deep affection for each other however, Devdas' aristocratic family conspires to prevent their union, scornful of the lower caste of Paro's more middle-class family. Through a public humiliation denouncing the couple, Devdas' family makes good on their promise, separating the lovers.

Devastated, Paro and Devdas head down different paths in life. In the aftermath, Paro's mother vows to marry off her daughter into an even richer family. Devdas on the other hand, spends the rest of his days in misery. He takes up a life of heavy drinking, which eventually leads him to a brothel. It's there that he meets Chandramuki, who enchants him and ends up falling in love with him herself. But Chandramuki only exacerbates his pain, as Devdas and Paro still pine for each other, even though fate seems to have doomed them to a life apart.

Although this was the 13th iteration of "Devdas" on screen, it was the first Hindi version shot in colour, and Bhansali certainly embraced that fact. Every shade of every colour of the rainbow is depicted in this film, with art direction so lavish it could overwhelm Baz Luhrmann. In this world, even the brothels are luxuriously decorated with dazzling chandeliers and jewels. At the time, this was the most expensive Bollywood film ever made and it really showed in the gorgeous costumes and set design. What makes it even more impressive is that despite the contemporary price tag, the film employed old-school methods by building physical sets.

Rumour has it that this bright spectacle was too much for Western audiences, as it prompted numerous walkouts at its Cannes premiere. However, I do hope that most of those attendees stayed behind to bear witness to Madhuri Dixit's sensational performance as Chandramuki. Khan and Rai are at their heartbreaking best here, but it's Dixit who steals the show. Her iconic "Maar Dala" scene proves why she's often referred to as the "Dancing Queen of Bollywood", declaring her passion and love with every fibre of her body. There's a genuine warmth to her smile that reveals her inner fragility - her "heart of gold" if you wish - which betrays her defiant, seductive physicality. Indeed, it's the kind of show-stopping performance that would have swept every Supporting Actress award if it were a Hollywood production.

"Devdas" is truly a maximalist's delight and admittedly, it does lead to one too many instances of sensory overload. The performances given by Devdas' family are too coarse as well. These setbacks keep the film from attaining the "masterpiece" level, but when you consider each aspect on an individual level - acting, choreography, costume design, direction, production design, music - there's no denying that this was a collaboration of masterful artists. The craftsmanship transports you to another world and the powerful story takes you on an epic, emotional journey that leaves you devastated by film's end. This may all read like hyperbole to you, but once you watch "Devdas", you'll know it's a film that demands it.

This film is part of my Bollywood marathon.

Monday, August 3, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Fort Tilden


It took a while for "Fort Tilden" to finally hit theaters, but the 2014 SXSW Grand Jury Award winner is finally here, and its upcoming August release couldn’t have been more timely. As we head into the final dog days of summer, this indie comedy portrays a common objective – going to the beach. In this case, the beach is Fort Tilden, and for best friends Allie and Harper, the journey is even more important than the destination.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, August 1, 2015

REVIEW: Dhoom


Nothing says "Hollywood" quite like a big budget action movie. From "Fast and the Furious" to "Mission: Impossible", the American film industry is basically living off the receipts from such popular entertainments. It's no surprise then that the world's biggest film industry (Bollywood) would seek to imitate this phenomenon and thus, similar film franchises like the "Dhoom" trilogy were born. The Bollywood-Hollywood mashup of the first installment however, is an unfortunate example where the formula fails when all the right elements aren't in place.

"Dhoom" largely takes place in Mumbai, where a new motorcycle gang has sprung up on the streets, looting banks and other businesses. They've eluded the authorities with ease and the Assistant Commissioner of Police Jai Dixit (Abhishek Bachchan) has decided that he's had enough. In order to stop the gang's leader Kabir (John Abraham) and his followers, he enlists the help of a pesky thief named Ali (Uday Chopra), who infiltrates the group as a new member. But Kabir has a few tricks up his sleeves, as he aims for bigger targets, including a major casino in the tourist haven of Goa, India. The pressure is on, as Jai and Ali must pool all their skills to stop the criminals from getting away with their biggest heist yet.

Directed by Sanjay Gadhvi, "Dhoom" looks to be crafted as a star vehicle for Abishek Bachchan and John Abraham, with ample gratuitous scenes where they both get to pose and look "cool". This is where the film falters from the outset however, as the star wattage is low with these two performances. Indeed, both actors seem to be approximating their idea of "Hollywood movie star", but their generic takes fall flat, bordering on amateurish. Admittedly, Abraham's does find his bad boy groove towards the end - it helps that he looks the part - but the usually charismatic Bachchan is flat, especially when paired with the cartoonish Uday Chopra as his sidekick. As for the two female characters (Jai's wife and Ali's love interest), they serve no purpose apart from being eye candy as they get drenched in water for no reason. Seriously, both are introduced in musical scenes where they get hosed down and dance in the rain respectively. Oy vey!

This discord between Bachchan's mellow performance and the flashy movie around him, particularly highlights the fundamental clash of styles that plagues "Dhoom". As pure action filmmaking, it lacks the scale and audacity required to get your heart racing. Mired in limp procedural and low stakes motorbike action, the pacing is off and genuine thrills are sorely lacking.

Likewise, as your typical Bollywood musical masala - a uniquely Indian mix of action, comedy, romance and drama - it also fails to entertain. Juxtaposed with the more serious tone of the action-thriller tropes, the haphazard song-and-dance interludes come across as corny, especially since the songs are so forgettable. Mainstream Bollywood films are almost always entertaining if nothing else, so something is clearly not right here.

Essentially, "Dhoom" isn't big enough to replicate Hollywood spectacle and it's not masala enough to have that Bollywood appeal. Though I count myself as a fan of this film's sequel "Dhoom 2" (a major improvement in every regard), I remain baffled that it managed to spawn such a wildly successful franchise (the biggest in Bollywood history). Too frivolous to be taken seriously and too blandly serious to be an effective parody, this bastard child of Bollywood-Hollywood intercourse is stuck in no man's land.