Saturday, October 24, 2009

San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF 2009): Three Unlikely Indian Films

Where else will you get to see films like this? I have been trying to indulge as much as possible at the ongoing 2009 San Diego Asian Film Festival, within the confines of time and scheduling. Over the past week or so, I got to see three Indian movies at SDAFF and they are simply unlike any other Indian movie I have seen. This is not faint claim. And I am not necessarily praising these movies, just scratching my chin at the previously unimagined diversity within the diaspora of Indian cinema. 

The standard Bollywood masala movie is nothing if not consistently predictable. The three movies I saw, 'Karma Calling', 'Tandoori Love' and 'Bombay Summer' will never be confused for a typical Bollywood movie, or marketed like one. And I am grateful for film festivals such as SDAFF that offer this opportunity. 

Take 'Karma Calling', for instance. This is a film about an Indian family living in New Jersey that is struggling with the usual woes: assimilation into the foreign culture, mother in law problems, first-generational disconnect with parents, unrequited love, unlikely alliances, financial get the idea. This is a little movie, with little production values. It looks like it was made with a pittance because it probably was. It has no big name actors, and is the kind where you would not be surprised if many of the roles were played by friends of the film-makers. The soundtrack seems like it was pieced together on somebody's computer. For all of these setbacks though, it has one big thing going for it: its sincerity. The movie has so much genuine affection for its characters, that it won me over in spite of its technical deficiencies (large, loud, empty Bollywood movies should take note). Each character is granted a fantasy sequence in the film. And each clip is played for genuine humor or as an opportunity for incisive commentary. I look forward to what these film-makers next do, because this movie had that Kevin Smith feeling of 'see how you can find sparks of genius even in his earliest films'.

'Tandoori Love' goes the other direction. It is made by a Swiss director with a fondness for the Bollywood tradition that verges on obeisance. This translates into an exercise in the juxtapositioning of unlikely motifs. What we have here is a story set in Switzerland that incorporates indulgent Bollywood dance routines! We have carefully constructed scenes with competent writing suddenly invaded by the need to burst into song and dance. We have a requirement for the suspension of belief every ten or so minutes as the plot veers wildly. We have actors mouthing typical Bollywoodesque songs in intermixed English and Hindi, and some German thrown in for good measure. We have a beautiful blonde heroine being wooed by Vijay Raaz, that comic Indian character actor who is physically the unlikeliest of romantic leads. We have a story that remains defiantly absurd: an Indian man who cooks for a crew of filmmakers shooting a Hindi movie in the Swiss Alps falls hopelessly in love with a Swiss girl who happens to run the local hotel with her boyfriend. We have Europeans in a quintessentially Swiss snowy resort inexplicably falling for the charms of Indian cooking. I also found it odd that the movie harbors a surprising fondness for graphic violence, that borders on the macabre. It goes on like this until you start to relish the audacity with which the filmmakers keep tossing random concepts together seeing which ones will stick. Eventually I stopped rolling my eyes and accepted the movie for the carnival that it was. I should also add that the movie is beautiful to look at, particularly in spectacularly filmed sequences of food preparations. There is a scene halfway through the movie where luscious, freshly-sliced, deep red strawberries get tossed into a pan on the stove with perfectly golden friend onions. Why? Because it makes for incredible eye candy. Nobody is actually going to eat strawberries cooked with fried onions, but what does it matter. This is that kind of a movie. It is absurd yes, but I have to grant that it is quite entertaining. Where are you going to get to see a movie like this?

Consider finally 'Bombay Summer', the most unlikely of the three unlikely Indian movies I have seen at SDAFF so far. As Indian movies go, this one comes closest to embracing neorealism than any other I have seen. The entire movie can be summarized as follows: an unlikely friendship develops between a young man and a young girl and her boyfriend in contemporary Bombay, and an event occurs that changes everything. That is it. This is a shockingly spare film by Hindi movie standards. The movie spends a lot of time observing these three young characters, the minutiae of their individual lives, who they know, what they do, how they live. The camera pauses long as someone reads a book, or as two characters rest during a lull in their conversation, or as someone stares at the ocean. The young director of this movie (in attendance for the screening), a previous maker of documentaries, applies the tenets of that style of film-making to this, his first narrative feature. And it takes some getting used to. But it also forces a measure of meditation out of the audience. This is not a movie for those with short attention spans. Or for those that need to see the gears of the plot move clickety-click through every minute of the movie they are watching. There are episodes in this movie -  a long, nearly-wordless visit to an abandoned textile mill, or a song sung by a local musician which plays in its near-entirety as the main characters simply listen - that require full surrender from the viewer. Getting impatient or irritated would not be useful. The acting is top-notch, particularly from Tannishtha Chatterjee (who I also saw in "Road, Movie" at TIFF 2009) and Samrat Chakrabarti (who was incidentally, also in 'Karma Calling', but in a far different role). This sort of movie demands an austere submission - on its own terms - for the audience to fully enjoy it. And I am not sure if I truly enjoyed this movie, but I admired its organic, defiantly non-commercial soul. After the movie was over, I felt I had experienced something. And again I ask, where are you going to get to see a movie like that?

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