Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Movies Within Movies

Jerry Herman's 1974 flop,  Mack and Mabel, opened with Robert Preston as Mack Sennett singing about the magic of silent film:
"Movies were movies when you paid a dime to escape
Cheering the hero and hissing the man in the cape
Romance and action and thrills
Pardner, there's gold in them hills
Movies were movies when during the titles you'd know
You'd get a happy ending
Dozens of blundering cops in a thundering chase
Getting a bang out of lemon meringue in the face
Bandits attacking a train
One little tramp with a cane
Movies were movies were movies when I ran the show!

Movies were movies when Pauline was tied to the track
After she trudged through the ice with a babe on her back
Girls at the seashore would stand
All in a row in the sand
Rolling their stockings an inch and a quarter below
The line of decency
And Swanson and Keaton and Dressler and William S. Hart
No one pretended that what we were doing was art
We had some guts and some luck
But we were just makin' a buck
Movies were movies were movies when I ran the show!"
Ever since 1898, when the Oberammergau Passion Play became the first commercial motion picture ever produced, the library of film has allowed many a filmmaker to reference other works of cinema. Rarely, however, does this happen with quite such serendipity.  The plot lines of two new films being shown during the Eighth San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (Bollywood and Beyond) revolve around the effect movies have on people in every culture. However, this is the first time I've encountered a situation in which one film (I Hate Luv Storys, which was released in India on July 2, 2010) has a shot containing the poster for another film (Road Movie, which was released in India on May 5, 2010) that had only been in theatres for two months!

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Written and directed by Dev BenegalRoad, Movie could easily be categorized as one of those "journey of self discovery" movies. But there's something else lurking below the surface that some audiences will miss if they don't pay careful attention.

Vishnu (Abhay Deol) is a young Indian who wears tight jeans, likes to listen to music on his iPhone, and has absolutely no interest in his father's business (selling Atma hair oil to men). When he volunteers to do his father a favor and drive a beat-up 1942 Chevy truck from Rajasthan to the seaside town of Samudrabad (where he is to deliver it to a museum), he embarks on an adventure that defies description.  The truck and its two 40-year-old Victoria film projectors have been sold after years of service showing movies to isolated communities.

The 1942 Chevy truck Vishnu must drive through the desert.

Along the way Vishnu picks up an orphan (Mohammed Faizal Usmani) who desperately wants to leave the tea stand where he has been trying to sell drinks to a nonexistent public, Om (Satish Kaushik), an elderly mechanic who helps fix the truck when it breaks down and teaches Vishnu more than a few lessons about humility, and a widow (Tannistha Chatterjee) whose husband was killed by a brutal Water lord (Yashpal Sharma).

Vishnu also has an unpleasant encounter with the Chief of Police (Veerendra Saxena) in an isolated district of the desert, a group of women walking across the desert in search of water, and the Water lord -- who threatens to kill Vishnu until the young man's supply of Atma hair oil comes to his rescue.

Occasionally referred to as India's answer to Cinema Paradiso, Road, Movie is a film filled with fantasy (an amusement park materializes in the middle of the desert) and frustration (both the truck and the story line keep breaking down). Although it received mild reviews in India, it bombed at the box office.

And yet, if you stick with the film, you'll be treated to an amazing sequence which sums up the magic of cinema. After Vishnu realizes that his greatest asset is his ability to show movies to people in isolated parts of the Indian desert, he tries one last time (after the debacle with the Police Chief) to bring some happiness into the lives of strangers. 

Unlike the other films he has shown, some silent film sequences starring Charlie Chaplin (or possibly Buster Keaton) have everyone laughing their heads off, showing how the magic of film can transcend any cultural boundary. It is a beautiful and rare moment that makes the rest of the film worth sitting through. Here's the trailer:

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If nothing else, I Hate Luv Storys can claim that it's "not your typical Bollywood musical." Its framework is rather fragile, its story gets pounded into the ground, and there are times when its audience can easily lose interest.

But in the eye candy department? Give it five stars!

I Hate Luv Storys puts Bollywood's musical numbers far in the background. Veer Kapoor (Samir Soni) is a Bollywood movie producer with severe mood swings who constantly makes a point of humiliating Jay Dhingra (Imran Khan), one of the go-fers on his production team. Jay's best friend is Kunal (Kavin Dave), a fat bearded clown who likes to throw eggs at pretty girls.

As the movie opens, Veer is starting production on yet another Bollywood musical starring Aamir Ali that will be shot in Mumbai and New Zealand. His art director, Simran Sharma (Sonam Kapoor) is engaged to marry her childhood sweetheart, Raj Dholakia (Sameer Datani).

As far as Simran and Jay are concerned? It's loathe at first sight.

Imran Khan as Jay in I Hate Luv Storys

Here's all you really need to know about this movie:
  • Jay is a deeply cynical young man who isn't interested in love. He hates all the corny love stories that have been the basis for Veer's movies (and that seem to feed the foolish fantasies of Indian women). Instead, he prefers no-strings-attached hookups with attractive women like Giselle (Bruna Abdullah).
  • Raj is so boring he might just as well be an accountant (he never understands that each time Jay compliments him on the shirt he's wearing, it's not really meant as a compliment). Raj has fetishized his love for Simran to the point that he knows precious little about what motivates her and, although hugely predictable, has started to bore her.
  • Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Punit Malhotra, I Hate Luv Storys tries very hard to mock its genre -- and every single one of its clichés -- by having Jay fall into every single trap on the way to love that is echoed in Bollywood movies.
Were it not for the gorgeous cinematography by Ayananka Bose, the genuine appeal of Imran Khan (who looks like a younger Gil Bellows), the fashion model beauty of Sonam Kapoor and a couple of exotic location shoots, the movie could easily be dismissed as an excuse to watch Sonam Kapoor's hair respond to a blowdryer for nearly two hours (she gets lots of good head).

Sonam Kapoor as Simran in I Hate Luv Storys

This is the kind of movie that will appeal to people who like Travel + Leisure and fashion magazines. No need to bring a book -- all the romantic clichés are right up there on the screen waiting for you. Go for the eye candy and try to ignore the script. Here's the trailer:

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