Sunday, January 11, 2009

Flashback: L.R. Munna Bhai

Pass the ghee, yaar
posted 09/07/06

Bollywood coverage continues at the LA and OC Weeklys.

The latest expedition was one of those occasions on which the quality of the movie was redeemed by the excellence of the food and the company. So when, mid-afternoon, well into the post-movie video and CD shopping phase of the excursion, Ramesh suggested that it was actually more about the food for me at this point than the movies, I found myself hestiating a moment before denying it. I then told him a story that Nora had already heard a few times too often, about the Chinese food feasts that always accompanied our trips to China Valley in the '80s and '90s, with Dennis and Jeff and Andy and Matt, to watch Hong Kong films. (Even when the picture was terrible the "Pork Pump" [sic] at Lake Spring was always tasty.)

A few years later, long after all the Chinese-language movie theaters had been killed by video, a well-dressed expert from a Far Eastern festival asked me pointedly if I had ever had a Chinese girlfriend. To my credit, I knew exactly what he was insinuating: a prominant critic in the field had published an essay a few years earlier about a phenomenon he dubbed "the Lawrence [as in T.E Lawrence] critics," which was soberly discussed by other experts as if it was a phenomenon of some significance, but was in fact an ad hominim rabbit punch aimed at just two people, pioneering English-speaking popularizers who were also men of large appetites. The Far Easterner's question, in other words, was about ulterior motives; wondering if an aesthetic enthusiasm had been adopted to mask a more primal inclination. I was able to say no to that one, but I asked Ramesh on Saturday if he thought food was close enough, and he said he thought it might be.

At least in cases like this, when the movie seems to be an excuse for the food rather than vice versa.

This odd duck sequel to one of Bollywood’s smartest recent crowd pleasers edges perilously close to repudiating the beloved original, Rajkumar Hirani’s Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), in which a lovable hulk of a soulful Mumbai gangster (Sanjay Dutt) bullies his way into medical school to win the respect of his estranged parents, and his unselfconscious street wisdom transforms dozens of lives. With a script as clear and simple as a fable, and frequent injections of street-thug sarcasm to cut the sentimentality, Munna Bhai was an almost perfectly calibrated mainstream entertainment. (Mira Nair’s looming U.S. re-make, Gangster M.D., has been offered to Chris Tucker.) Writer-director Hirani’s new Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Keep On Going…) squanders most of the good will generated by part one, banishing most of its supporting characters to the Shadow Zone in order to start all over again from scratch, with Dutt’s still engaging sad sack goonda re-imagined as a lonely-guy mobster with a moony crush on a popular radio personality (Parineeta's Vidya Balan). Munna spends so many sleepless nights studying Gandhi to impress her that he ends up hallucinating the ghost of the Mahatma, who materializes tagging along behind him offering advice, like the spirit of Bogart in Play it Again Sam. The obstacle that Munna is determined to overcome with his new-found non-violence is the greedy developer (Boman Irani as a stereotyped Sikh vulgarian) who has evicted the residents of a retirement home. The only suspense factor is how often Hirani will feel obliged to cut to a close-up of expert comic scene stealer Arshad Warsi, who gets most of the big laughs, mouthing off irrepressibly as Circuit, Munna’s right-hand stooge. (Fallbrook 7; Naz 8.) (David Chute)
Of course the weekend family excursion w/ movie used to be a common thread in a lot of American moviegoing, when whole families still attended together, and it was still wholesome. As early as the 1980s this was no longer the norm in China Valley, though it did still apply for a few more years at the Spanish-language theaters on Broadway, downtown. The day began with mass, followed by a family restaurant meal and the new Vincente Fernandez at the Million Dollar. The model does still apply for the NRIs who head to Little India on the weekends, and part of the fun of going there for an outsider is the sense of participating in the last surviving variation on a winning social ritual.

An additional angle on the story is that most of the NRIs who assemble in Artesia on the weekends don't live there. Which is apparently why the town's mostly Hispanic politicians keep rejecting attempts to officially re-name the area "Little India," or to add a promotional/directional sign off the 91 freeway. Even though the businesses on that one two-block stretch of Pioneer, operated by the area's most important "minority group," generate a hugely disproportionate share of the burg's tax revenue. You could cut the irony with a hacksaw.


c said...

"if an aesthetic enthusiasm had been adopted to mask a more primal inclination."

and that would be wrong because why? because some white men in the 1700's pretended to be interested in the local literature because it would get them into harems (& pants)?

my point is that the appropriate answer to the girls question is "know any good looking ones?" and the food question, the eternal "so when can we eat".


c said...

its not like i've been trying to get you to meet piggy chops like, forever...

Generic said...

"piggy chops"?

c said...

priyanka chopra

Generic said...