Monday, May 14, 2012

Second Thoughts on "You Don't Get Life a Second Time"

My youngest niece has been begging me to watch the Indian movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (You Don't Get Life A Second Time) since its release last summer.  It's a great movie, you will love it, she kept saying, but I had my doubts.

I was not looking forward to the sophomore effort from this director, Zoya Akhtar, because I had a problem with her first film, Luck By Chance. That film wanted to give the audience a bottom-up insider's peek at the ugly underbelly of the Indian film industry, by telling the story of an unknown young actor (played incidentally, by the director's twin brother, Farhan Akhtar) trying to gain success in the insular, nepotism-heavy Bollywood. Nothing wrong with that. Only that it seemed awfully hypocritical that a film with that story was being made by the brother-sister team (of lead actor and first-time director) who themselves were children of Hindi film royalty. Zoya and Farhan Akhtar are the grown kids of Javed Akhtar, arguably one of the more regarded screenplay writers / lyricists in the history of Indian cinema. It was like if Sophia Coppola made a film whose central premise was the terrible inequity of trying to become a successful female film director if you are an unknown in Hollywood. I will not deny the talents of Sophia Coppola. Or for that matter, Farhan Akhtar, an accomplished film director in his own right, who in my opinion, has made the definitive modern Hindi film of the past two decades: Dil Chahta Hai (The Heart Wants). But still, for me, Luck By Chance was undone by its queasy, morally muddled intent. 

But I digress. I was not particularly inclined to rush to watch Zindagi No Milegi Dobara, but happened upon a good deal on an original DVD, and eventually got around to viewing it. The film is about three guys, best of friends when they were younger, who decide to take a trip through Spain prior to the impending wedding of one of them. Of course they have a past history, and of course there are resentments to be worked through during this road trip through some of the less touristy destinations in Spain.  The three male leads are played by Hrithik Roshan, Abhay Deol and (again) Farhan Akhtar, all in real life, sons of Indian cinema giants of the previous generation - but don't get me started on that again. The film was a huge commercial and critical hit in India, and so as I watched it, I kept waiting for the film to wow me. I awaited the point when it would take off, but it remained resolutely grounded. To be certain, the film is entertaining and I watched much of it with a smile on my face. But I wanted it to amaze me, and it didn't. Write about what you know, they say, and clearly Zoya Akhtar is good at penciling in the script around the lives of privileged, highly educated, and confidently successful Indians living in the global new world, and in many areas, defining that world. I say this with nary a resentment. The director knows this world well, and damned if she is not good at anchoring her story within it. But I just did not find the film to be as smart as it thought it was. And where was that spark of genius that I have noticed in so many Indian films of the past few years. Compare Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara to the go for broke, gonzo humor of Delhi Belly from last year. Or the breathtaking, hard-boiled, Tarantino-esque wizardry of Kaminey (Scoundrels). Or the gentle sensitivity of Udaan (Flight), or Wake Up Sid. Or just the hardworking, exquisite purity of entertainment of Jab We Met (When We Met) or Three Idiots. And so I said, meh, and set aside Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara as not a particular achievement. 

But to my surprise - and this is what I love about films - that movie would not leave me alone. Over the next few days, I kept thinking about the film, even when I had acknowledged to myself that it was no great shakes. And now, several months later, the film has worked itself into my conscience. And I am forced to give it second thoughts. 

What is it about this film that has given it durability in my head?

For one thing it is the easy-going rhythm of the film. It does not make a big fuss every time it makes a lap around the racetrack. I appreciate the understated calm with which it paces through plot developments; this is considerable evolution by Indian cinema standards. 

I like that the movie embraces the road-flick genre but does not burden it with cheap, gimmicky plot elements. While it does not possess the melancholy and austere beauty of Road Movie, the best example of the genre in Indian cinema (which incidentally also had Abhay Deol as the lead), Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara still maintains an unpredictability about it through much of its running length. 

I liked the Naseeruddin Shah character in the film, which, for its limited screen time, remained beautifully flawed, and altogether real. I liked that the script did not chicken out and give him a crutch by way of an obvious motive for his behavior. That would have been the easy thing to do and the movie bravely resists that temptation.

Even more so, I liked the Katrina Kaif character in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Most movies of the recent few years, from Dev D to Omkaara to Ishqiya would have you believe that they have created the quintessential female character of modern indian cinema. Those are all great films with marvelous lead female roles, but they are all heavy, deliberate, force-of-nature characters. Compare that to Katrina Kaif in this film, who at first glance may even seem like an afterthought, a perfunctory love interest for one of the three male leads. But consider how casually independent her character is. She makes a decision during the course of the film, a minor thing really, which would have been inconsequential, if not for the deftness with which the scene is written and the off-handed confidence with which the character takes ownership for her action. And for me, that all but sealed this individual as one of the most genuinely, believably modern female characters in Indian cinema in some time. It is not necessarily an overly feminist take, but one that values individual choice, even when the choice is to concede to the will of someone else. 

And finally there is that end of the film. It is difficult to say much about it without spoiling it. But like most of the film, it is not overwrought or tedious. It comes quickly, with a light-handedness of touch, and carries about it the grace that The Gray did in its conclusion earlier this year. Not too many movies can speak to evoking grace in their conclusion. 

So this movie was a lesson to me. That sometimes a film can grow on you by lingering within your mind even after you have shrugged it aside. And that a little piece from here, and another piece from there in a film can build up to reasonable esteem. My niece was right. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

But Nothing Happens In This Film (Still Walking ****)

There is a particular kind of complaint that moviegoers sometimes voice: Nothing happens in this film. I have done this myself. And as I dig into my brain as to when I might have first done so, my memories coil all the way back to an utterance made in relation to a 1974 Indian film called Avishkaar ("Experiment"; in retrospect, how much more experimental could a film have been than one that announced it in its very title). Upon watching this film on television as a child of eight or nine in India, and already by then conditioned by the steady and robust ingestion of the standard Bollywood film diet, I recall telling my sister with utter incredulity: how can someone make a film where nothing happens? Of course, a lot happened in that film, but not within the specifics of the sharply angular plot turns I expected then from a cinematic experience.

These were the thoughts that came to me as I watched the Japanese film Still Walking for the first time. At first glance, nothing substantive appears to happen in this film. Over the course of a day, a family gets together in a small town away from Tokyo. A brother and sister visit their elderly parents in the home they grew up in, and they bring their own spouses and children along. They talk. They eat. They go for walks. They cook. There are resentments. There are laughs. There is remembering of the past. And by the time the next morning comes along, the families are on their way back to their original lives.

All of this transpires with a rhythm that is unrushed. And a gentleness that suffuses the entire film. To the impatient viewer this film may seem formless, purposeless, without substance.

But like the best films, this movie takes a specific experience, in this case a family reunion in contemporary Japan, and makes it resonate with universal truths. And you realize that the film has all along planned, to bring within its sight of observation, all those things in the world that we ought to care about.

To map out the members of the family in detail is to take away from the quiet pleasures of this film. Here is the grown-up daughter, now a wife and mother herself, who does not have the desire to cook the elaborate dishes that are so much a part of her mother's life. Here is the patriarch of the family, who having retired now from his physician's practice, is lost, but he still exerts the same ruthless command over his children that he probably has all his life; he is short and brusque with them and everyone walks around him on eggshells. And yet, given more consideration, it is his wife who is quietly driving the tides in this household. There is the disapproval that is inherent in parents from an older generation, sure. But there are also the grown children who feel that they can never measure up to their parents' expectations, and while oppressed by it, are too good-natured to make much of it. And inevitably there has been a death of someone young, from which the family has never recovered; years since the death, it is something that is palpably part of the present. There is disapproval of professions taken up by sons and daughters that are outside of rigidly traditional vocations. There is the new daughter-in-law trying to integrate into the larger family, and only slowly realizing the extent to which she will need to give in, in order to do so. There is the lament that the older parents spend more time remembering the dead than in considering the ones alive and present.

Does any of this strike a chord of recognition? To watch the delicate grace with which the ties within this family are revealed is to realize the accomplishment of this film. There is not a bad or selfish or thoughtless person to be found here. The script is too nuanced to allow an easy give such as that. These are people who all mean well, and are inherently good human beings. But even then, unintentional affronts occur. Something said innocently to one person unexpectedly becomes cruel within the context of the person it was never meant for. The younger generation grapples with modern ideals that are tugging and picking at traditional mores, while the older parents do not know how to behave in any way other than how they were taught. And yet, bonds are made between kids and grandparents. Grief manifests unexpectedly. Young children learn a little bit about being grown up. And the bickering between the older couple, while sometimes cruel, hides the inevitability of two lives irreversibly entwined together.

The director of Still Walking, Hirokazu Koreeda, frames the film with long shots. Of family members gathering around the dinner table in conversation. Of individuals coming and leaving the kitchen, in and out of the camera frame. Of children playing in the periphery as elders talk. Sometimes many speak at once, as in an Altman film. But Koreeda summons a larger cinematic giant in his deft, non-judgmental, minimalist take on families: Yasujiro Ozu. In fact there is much in this film that appears to bear the blueprint from Ozu's Tokyo Story. In cinema, it is easy to depict characters that are miserable or mean, but to have wondrous actors display decency and kindness of spirit takes a greater gift. Koreeda seems best poised to carry this gift forward from Ozu. To have a viewer come away from a film hungering to spend more time with its characters is a high accomplishment. To have him recognize his own life within it, is a higher laurel still.

Many years ago, Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Touchez Pas au Grisbi, "I responded to the way (the film) understood that a great movie can involve not plot, but life, and the daily living of it, and that although movies can amuse and excite us, their greatest consolation comes when they understand us". He could have been talking about Still Walking.

I have come back to Still Walking and re-watched it with gratitude, peeling layers from it, and finding truisms within almost every piece of its dialog. I can think of few better ways to spend two hours of my life.