Sunday, October 25, 2009

Crazed Cowboys and Indians

Many people have trouble talking about death. Whether due to religious inhibitions, fear of their own mortality, or an inability to confront reality, some avoid the topic for as long as possible. The hard truth is that death is unavoidable. Nobody has "beaten the system."

Some may ask: What about the afterlife? What about reincarnation?

Such questions are all very well and fine but, as a person ages, he tends to give more thought to how he will die. Will he battle a terminal disease or die in an automobile accident? Will he commit suicide or fade into the mental fog of Alzheimer's disease.

Given my druthers, I would prefer to die of an aneurysm. It's unusually swift, painless, and not the least bit messy. While not necessarily a popular way to die, it's interesting to see which celebrities have, indeed, succumbed to the effects of aneurysm.
While many people do their best to avoid talking about death, George Carlin was not one of them. Here he is in one of his great iconoclastic rants on the topic:

Two of the films that have been chosen for the Seventh Annual 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival show how Indian families deal with death. One, a domestic soap opera about a dysfunctional ethnic family living in a London suburb, could give Neil Simon a run for his money. The other involves one of the wackiest dramatic uses of reincarnation as a plot device that I have ever seen.

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Written and directed by Avie Luthra, Mad, Sad, and Bad begins with the death of Usha (Leena Dhingra) a meddling Indian matriarch and control freak from hell who has left behind strict instructions for how her funeral should be conducted. As her youngest son opens a letter she wants read during the service, he discovers that his mother is convinced that none of her children deserve to inherit all the money she has saved over the years.

Therefore, she has cashed it all in to buy department store vouchers which can be used by the people who actually showed up for her funeral. Her dying wish? That they use the vouchers to purchase sensible things like socks and underwear!

Hardeep (Zubin Varla), Rashmi (Meera Syal), and Atul
(Nitin Ganatra) stand over their mother's coffin.

It would wrong to suggest that this Luton-based family is anything less than highly dysfunctional. So are most of the people they know:
  • Hardeep (Zubin Varla), the eldest son, is a very fucked up psychiatrist and sex fiend. But, because he is the first son and a doctor (of sorts), he can do no wrong in the eyes of his mother. That doesn't stop him from putting the make on his younger brother's live-in girlfriend.
  • Rashmi (Meera Syal), the daughter who works as a children's librarian, has had to put up with her mother's incessant attempts to marry her off. Nearly 40 years old, she has never left home. When her mother's last attempt at matchmaking turns out to be an unmitigated disaster, Rashmi is thrown out of the house and told not to come back until she is married.
Rashmi (Meera Syal) and her mother (Leena Dhingra)
  • Dillip (Jeff Mirza) is the extremely arrogant man Usha has chosen as a blind date for her daughter. He may be a male chauvinist pig, but at least he's Indian.
  • Jason (Les Loveday) is a shy Brit who offers to buy Rashmi a drink at a hotel bar. As they chat, she confesses that she's never really met the right man, is not a lesbian, and that all she really wants is a child of her own.
  • Atul (Nitin Ganatra) is Usha's youngest son, an acclaimed sitcom writer who finds inspiration for his plotlines in his own dysfunctional family. Although Atul thinks his work is crap, his fans (and, in particular, his relatives) keep asking where he comes up with such brilliant ideas. The Indian equivalent of a shlemiel/shlimazel, Atul would like to produce one piece of meaningful art. His dream is to create an opera about a homeless boy who is torn between his love for a beautiful woman and his love for cheese.
  • Harry (Gordon Kennedy) is Atul's best friend and Roxy's husband. A rich funeral director whose family license plates are "Hearse-1," "Hearse-2," and "Hearse-3," it doesn't take long for Harry to figure out that Roxy is cheating on him.
Atul (Nitin Ganatra) and Roxy (Ayesha Dharker)
  • Roxy (Ayesha Dharker) is Harry's wife. A wealthy, bored housewife who wheedles an invitation from Atul to visit the set of his sitcom, she wastes no time in letting herself be seduced by the sitcom's producer/director, Graham.
  • Julia (Andrea Riseborough) is the Caucasian artist/sculptor that Atul has been living with for several years. After her doctor refers for a counseling appointment with Hardeep (who starts prying into her sex life), she takes her revenge on Hardeep by sending him a very special gift she stole from the specimens at Harry's funeral home.

    Hardeep (Zubin Varla) and Julia (Andrea Riseborough)
Luthra's film raises touchy questions (what should a young woman who's in the middle of using a turkey baster to inseminate herself do when her meddling mother interrupts with yet another phone call?) and about communication issues in a dysfunctional family. There are many poignant moments in this film as people's relationships start to fall apart. And yet, a year after Usha's death, Rashmi has a child of her own and Atul is appearing in a performance piece with four dancing pieces of cheese to which he sings:
"When I first met her
She was eating cheddar.
I thought it was unfair
So I gave her Camembert.

I got her on her knee,
Just like a piece of brie.
I tell her, I said no.
No, no, no, pecorino.

There's too much bliss
In the holes in Swiss.
And a little BabyBel
Keeps me from hell.
A tiny bit of brie
Makes me so happy.
Emmental, feta,
Make it so much better."
Here's the trailer:

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At the opposite end of the comedic spectrum is Quick Gun Murugun, a rip-roaring farce that starts off like a mock "Tandoori Western," veers into Matrix territory, and ends as a bigger, wilder, and crazier spoof of the James Bond genre than Austin Powers.

Written by Rajesh Devraj and directed by Shashanka Ghosh with the exuberance of someone who got his biggest budget ever, Quick Gun Murugun features the following cast of unlikely characters:
  • Quick Gun Murugun (Rajenda Prasad) is a flamboyantly dressed South Indian Tamil cowboy who is a protector of cows and all things vegetarian. Mocked by the villain as "a pumpkin-eating veg cowboy," he is an ace sharpshooter who, when in a tight spot, asks himself what Clint Eastwood would do under similar circumstances.
  • Locket Lover (Anu Menon) is Murugun's deceased girlfriend, who continues to nag him from the grave. Her picture, encased in the locket Murugun wears around his neck, is always available for tender words of love or fierce scoldings.
  • Gun Powder (Shanmugha Rajan) is a dark-skinned villain whose hair gets singed and starts to smoke after one of Murugun's bullets travels through it.
  • Rice Plate Reddy (Nassar) is the ultimate villain -- an entrepreneur who wants to transform Indians into beef eaters (cows are sacred to Hindus). After he kills Murugun, he spends the next 25 years attempting to build a hotel empire. His ultimate dream is to market non-vegetarian dosas under the MacDosa label. When Reddy is told that his machine-manufactured dosas lack a mother's love, Reddy instructs his thugs to start randomly kidnapping Indian grandmothers and forcing them to make dosas until they can find the perfect recipe.
  • Chitragupta (Vinay Pathak) grants Murugun's request to be sent back to Earth in order to prevent Rice Plate Reddy from converting Indians to beef eaters.
  • Mango Dolly (Rambha) is Rice Plate Reddy's girlfriend and accomplice who develops a soft spot for Murugun.
  • Rowdy MBA (Raju Sundaram) is one of Rice Plate Reddy's key thugs.
  • Dr. Django (Ashwin Mushran) is Rice Plate Reddy's lead man in "research & development."
American audiences who lack previous knowledge of the Murugun character (originally created in 1994 to help promote India's music channel, Channel V) will have no problem laughing their heads off at the grand silliness of this film. This is the kind of spoof in which numerous cultural icons are referenced with merciless mockery and absolutely nothing -- not even a cow -- is sacred. Here's the rather discombobulated trailer:

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