Programming note

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Weeds have begun to sprout in the corners of this blog as I attend to other matters — mostly, other blogging. This "other blogging" I’ve been doing is top-secret – related webseries stuff, which will be trumpeted loudly from every promontory the moment we have something decent to show you fine people.

In movie-viewing news, the Bollywood-related project I was working on came a cropper, so I haven’t needed to become an expert in Bollywood musicals after all, although I did set aside three hours or so to view Devdas, a period romance (a sort of Indian Wuthering Heights) starring Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, based on a classic novella which has, apparently, been filmed no less than 11 times, twice in this decade alone. Take that, An Affair to Remember!

I know Devdas was not on any of the lists that my kind and attentive readers sent me — rather, it was the recommendation of my local video-store clerk. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hi, do you have a Bollywood section?
Clerk: Um, not really. (To be fair, this particular video store doesn’t have an anything "section," they just have heaps of empty DVD cases sitting around — you kind of have to know what you’re looking for when you go in — an excellent selection, just not at all walk-in friendly.) What are you looking for?
Me: Well, um, I’m not really sure. I just kind of have a need to familiarize myself with the genre.
Clerk: (grabs a DVD of Devdas off the shelf) Well, this was popular.
Me: (scrutinizing DVD) Um, do you have a copy of Sholay? (That is, a movie that was recommended to me by Indian Scriptwriter.)
Clerk: Um, yeah, but, that’s like, old.
Me: Um —
Clerk. I mean, that would be like if you wanted to learn about American movies by watching something like, you know, On the Waterfront.
Me: (the downside of this eludes me) Um, yeah — okay — can I take it anyway?
Clerk: Um, if you want.

Anyway, I have no idea if Devdas is a shining example of Bollywood cinema or not, but it’s certainly a head-turning spectacle. It features what I was expecting from "a Bollywood movie," ie: a slightly giddy style of overacting, beautiful women paired with goofy-looking men, grand emotions set against luxurious, stylized backgrounds and spectacular production numbers with cultural signifiers that feel peculiar to westerners. I had planned to write a whole big thing about my first foray in Bollywood but the project I was doing it for fell apart too quickly for me to articulate my thoughts.

Instead, I have turned to Bergman, viewing not only the aforementioned Thirst but also Persona, Shame and The Passion of Anna, and looking forward to tackling Cries and Whispers in the near future. Persona I intend to dissect scene by scene in a "Favorite Screenplays" piece.

When Hollywood folk ask me what I’ve been doing with myself (that is, when I’m not working on projects for them), and I respond with "I’ve been watching a lot of Bergman," they always look at me with a furrowed brow, as though I might soon require psychiactric care.


18 Responses to “Programming note”
  1. Anonymous says:


    From Indian Scriptwriter:

    Hey Todd, it was very brave of you to watch Devdas. Back in 2002, when the thing released, I and a friend went in to see it and within 5 minutes I wanted to flee. But the friend wanted to recoup his investment so we stayed. It’s one of the worst films I’ve been to. Total, undiluted headache.

    But from a western perspective, I can understand that the whole racket would have been very novel and eye-popping and cliche-fulfilling, what with all those dancing women and pining men and shouting and crying and singing and more singing..

    Devdas is originally a 1917 novel written by Sarat Chandra, who himself didn’t think too much of it. But it ended up being his most popular work. The reason could be that it was about losing and pining. Losing is habit and pining a guilty pleasure for the Indian male. Devdas is revered for being the ultimate loser who died pining. Lethal combo.

    The latest avatar of Devdas is DEV D, and it released just two months back in February. It’s supposed be a ‘modern’ take on Devdas but is just partially better than the version you saw. The best thing about it is its brilliant soundtrack. And to a certain extent the ‘trippy’ camerawork courtesy a certain Mr Danny Boyle who advised his director friend Anurag Kashyap on how to shoot the drug-fuelled scenes (the movie even begins with a ‘special thanks to Danny Boyle’!). But all in vain since the thing is still a pain. There’s no hope for Devdas.

    But I do hope you don’t abort your curiosity about Bollywood. Try looking at the shelved project as a sort of a window-opener to another culture of storytelling. There are many interesting things there, a world to be explored.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Devdas

      I’ll admit that it took me a few days to wade through Devdas. Because it was using a whole different narrative vocabulary I was hesitant to dismiss it as simply “weird” — it took me a couple of tries to understand Ozu as well, and now he’s one of my favorite directors. But I’ll take your word for it that it’s a nightmarish racket compared to what’s out there.

  2. …it’s certainly a head-turning spectacle.

    Speaking as a man with Indian ancestry, that pretty much sums up Bollywood Films.

    There are a few good movies in the genre — the most recent one I can think of is Jodhaa Akbar –, but by and large the majority fall either into the category of “lighthearted fun” or “meandering waste of time.”


  3. curt_holman says:


    Mindful of the latest entries in the Terminator/Transformers franchises coming out this summer, I was envisioning you following your Monsters! and Superheroes! viewing projects with Robots! Just consider the possibilities…

  4. eronanke says:

    I disagree with your friend the Desi Screenwriter – I loved Devdas all the way through. It is exactly what it is supposed to be – a spectacle. It’s gorgeous and has some of the best dance sequences I have ever seen put to film.

    Bansali is famous for his cinematography, and I found the film sumptuous. The one critique I had for the film was too much emphasis on Devdas and his lost love- the novella mostly focusses on Chandramurki and Devdas, the alcoholic and the prostitute, trying to find a way to live as individuals and together, and ultimately failing. The criticism of the acting would be best summed up in a failure by ShahRukh to act an alcoholic, rather than someone who drinks all the time.

    In terms of Madhuri, she’s golden. Ash is always a little wooden, but her grace more than makes up for it for me.

    Sholay, for me, was the upset. I never could appreciate it because I saw too much of a Western in it. My mind couldn’t stop the comparisons between it an Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven, or any other western made around that time. The best part of the movie for me is the friendship between the leads, evidenced nearly immediately in the song “Yeh Dosti”. If you’re expecting great art from Sholay, I don’t know that you’ll get it. There are plenty of lame gags, puns, and slapstick that seem out of the place with the somber story line.

    And even as a non-Indian, I kinda take offense at the “goofy-looking men” comment. The Western standard of beauty is just that – Western. You’ll also find that Madhuri was much rounder than most western actresses, as are many other Indian actresses. Hell, Kajol has had a unibrow for her whole career, and she’s a top earner.

    Really, I’m surprised you didn’t enjoy Devdas more. Maybe after a few more Bollywood films, you’ll find yourself closer to the Indian viewer’s perspective. I think it’s important to remember that this movie wasn’t made for a non-Indian audience, unlike Slumdog Millionaire.

    There’s a full range of Bollywood films out there, from action to romance, to comedy, and, more recently, fantasy & science fiction. If you didn’t like the sweeping epic, then try a hand at something like Mother India, which is much more subtle than Devdas.

    Try some Mani Ratnam. His movies might be more your style. “Bombay” is fantastic.

    • Todd says:

      I don’t think it’s a question of enjoying or not enjoying Devdas, it’s just that I spent too much of the movie thinking “What does that mean to its intended audience?” and not enough time thinking “Wow! What a great story!” And the dance sequences, which are indeed wonderful, became the whole reason for watching the movie.

      And when I say that the men are goofy-looking, it’s all part of the mystery for me — again, I’m not saying “Well, but this is silly,” only that it’s new and mysterious to me.

      • eronanke says:

        Bollywood is extremely foreign for non-Indian audiences. Maybe this was not the right one to start with. Cutting teeth on an epic is hard enough when you’re well read on the cultural differences and preferences.

        It took me about 5 viewings of Khabi Khushi Khabie Gham to totally unpack it as a non-Indian. (Maybe I haven’t even done that, but I haven’t watched it in ages.) Perhaps a bolly-version of a genre film *would* be the way to go. Maybe Sholay would be better, I don’t know. There are tens of excellent Bollywood films that I could recommend, but now I’m a little cautious.

        From my own experience, I started with Asoka, from Blockbuster, just trying to view a foreign Action flick. That worked out well enough, and soon I was renting others (sticking with ShahRukh films at first, and then branching out to Ajay Devgan, Anil Kapoor, and Aamir Khan).

        Aamir Khan might be a good idea actually – Lagaan. It was accepted by the international community very well, so that might be the key. If if can do Cannes and the Oscars, maybe it’s a better gateway movie for a film critic.

  5. clayfoot says:

    This “other blogging” I’ve been doing is top-secret – related webseries stuff, which will be trumpeted loudly from every promontory the moment we have something decent to show you fine people.

    No! We insist you tell us now!

  6. blinovitch says:

    The Bollywood project may not have worked out, but I now know the phrase “came a cropper.”

  7. urbaniak says:

    I mean, that would be like if you wanted to learn about American movies by watching something like, you know, an American film masterpiece.

    • I love On the Waterfront, but I can see what the guy meant… If you were completely new to American cinema (imagine..!) and wanted to see what was going on, wouldn’t you start with something that came out in the past couple years and was popular, rather than a classic that probably wouldn’t be made by the Hollywood of today?

  8. jnicholson says:

    Watching a lot of Bergman

    Is it that the watching of Bergman is a symptom of incipient madness, or that watching too much might easily drive someone mad?

    • Re: Watching a lot of Bergman

      They probably think it’s a symptom. Because, you know, he did dark dramas in Swedish, rather than blockbusters in English, so clearly there was Something Wrong With Him. Sure, he happened to be one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, but who’s counting..? 😉

  9. noskilz says:

    Too bad about the project and its attendant movie reviews – your write-ups are always interesting and Indian cinema is something I can’t even pretend to know anything about (on the bright side, the earlier film request entry looks like it’s full of handy suggestions.)

  10. katsuben says:

    Devdas is revered for being the ultimate loser who died pining.

    Heh, that explains a lot.

    Maybe Devdas isn’t such an awful introduction. It does have a couple of fabulous dance sequences (Madhuri Dixit doesn’t even need to stand up to dance wonderfully) and successfully concentrates the formula melodrama underpinning so much other contemporaneous muckity muck.

    I don’t know about it not being made for a non-Indian audience. Given it’s huge budget, international marketing push and overt prettiness, I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t partly aimed at western specialty audiences seeking a lush orientalist experience. Just more of a fantastically flavoured one than Slumdog offered. Case in point: Indian Scriptwriter and his friend hated it! And, anecdotally, those amazing dance sequences have been a massive spur for thousands of western women to attend Bollywood dance classes.

    Next up, I agree that Lagaan would be an appropriate complement/antidote. Bit hard to justify vs Bergman, though.

  11. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Devdas. A good Bollywood film to start with would be the Oscar nominated Lagaan, which has been described as a “Bollywood for beginners type thing.”

    Speaking as an American born Indian, I honestly believe that it’s impossible to ever understand Bollywood if you haven’t grown up watching it. Films like Devdas take a sort of suspension of cynicism and rationalism to truly enjoy. Something that westerners (me included) sometimes have difficulty doing. I’ve been able to understand Bollywood all my life, but I’ve never been able to enjoy it until I saw Devdas and other films by this director. It truly is the bar when it comes to Indian cinema.

  12. Anonymous says:

    A new masterpiece

    From Indian Scriptwriter:

    Hi Todd. There’s a fabulous movie out in the theatres here in Mumbai – KAMINEY (Bastards/Rascals). A magnificent experience. Reinforces your faith in what great cinema can do. Do not miss it. It would be running in theatres in the US too. Try catching it on the big screen. You won’t regret it.

    PS: Waiting for District-9 to release in India.