Friday, February 20, 2009

Christian von Cinerati on the disconnect in responses to "Jhoom Barabar Jhoom"

Cinerati's Christian Lindke ably tackles the vexing puzzle posed by one of our favorite recent Bollywood movies:

"...we are given two distinct representations regarding JBJ's entertainment value. American critics giving one opinion and the domestic Indian reaction providing evidence of a disconnect between the American critical reception and popular opinion. What's going on here?"
Here's mine again, for the umpteenth time:
JHOOM BARABAR JHOOM Now this is more like it: Flirtatious repartee between glamorous stars in travel-poster international locations, a gratifyingly simple plot with puzzles and slight of hand surprises, and at regular intervals outbursts of gaudy, energetic dancing infectiously explode. After a dispiriting series of summer films that aimed at nothing more than fun and failed to deliver even that, Shaad Ali’s glossy and sexy and inventive Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is light entertainment so gratifyingly well-crafted that it’s uplifting. The good feelings don’t evaporate. The central romantic situation couldn’t be simpler: Preity Zinta and Abishek Bachchan are strangers meet at a café in London’s Waterloo Station while waiting for their respective fiancées. Or so they claim. Right from the start the movie seems to be playing complicated “unreliable narrator” games. Because JBJ distinctly resembles two other recent hits, Bunty aur Babli (which was made by the same producer-director team) and Rohan Sippy’s Bluffmaster, in both of which the dashing young Bachchan played high-stepping con artists, we can’t help squinting at the flashbacks looking for evidence of some elaborate hustle. (When the underlying agendas are revealed they may seem to be a cheat in genre terms but they reward our affection for the characters, and this is a higher code than the rules of any genre.) The entire last half hour or so is one long blow out of a production number, at a dance contest in Southall at which all the relationships are sorted out. Dancing, in fact, is the movie’s governing metaphor: the title translates as “Sway Baby Sway,” and it clearly refers not just to a dance step but to an attitude toward life. The dancer who expresses this best, with little more to work with than a running cameo as a Greek-chorus-like street performer, is the star’s masterful father, veteran superstar Amitabh Bachchan, adorned with hippy hair and a Technicolor dreamcoat, who effortlessly invests a minimalist-macho strut ‘n’ shrug two step in a London train station with the poise and attitude of a lifetime. (Naz 8; Fallbrook 7.) (David Chute)


Tulkinghorn said...


Seems to me that trying to figure out what people in Glendale think about American blockbusters is hard enough if you speak English and live in Glendale.

Trying to figure out from Southern California what people in Bombay think about Indian blockbusters is almost certainly pointless.

It violates either one or both of David's rules in the immediately preceding post.

On the other hand, figuring out why YOU like the movie is very useful...

David Chute said...

The Incredible Tulk. Hole in one.

David Chute said...

To expand on that somewhat:

One reason I enjoy writing about Indian movies is that it's so much easier to avoid knowing how much money they made opening weekend, or whether they were truly popular or merely "multiplex hits." As I understood the code of the profession when I was coming up the ideal was not care whether a given film had been validated by the box office or other critics. If you liked something, you said so. To do other wise was dishonest and/or cowardly. Each critic creates his/her own Pantheon. Endorsing something the cool group despised was a badge of honor; in a twisted way this made you even cooler.

One of the things I understand Mr. Lindke to be saying is that as he he learning to like Bollywood movies one of the odd things he is noticing is that his taste doesn't always correspond with that of the Indian audience. I could say the same, and will confess that I have lost very little sleep over this. If anything the point I'm trying to make writing and publishing these reviews is that as an American I have found a lot to like -- and so others of my ilk. Neither more nor less.

Lindke's delight in discovering that this work of foreign cinema still manages to speak to him seems just right.

Christian Lindke said...

"If you liked something, you said so. To do other wise was dishonest and/or cowardly. Each critic creates his/her own Pantheon. Endorsing something the cool group despised was a badge of honor; in a twisted way this made you even cooler."

I believe a critic should always examine his/her own views in relation to the views of others, both other critics and "the masses." One should always be reflective when reviewing. The box office may not be a perfect measurement of the zeitgeist, but I have taken to many economics courses to dismiss Price, and the willingness to pay, as at minimum a proxy for what people enjoy.

I firmly agree that the views of others, the "public" if you will, should not shape what a critic says. Otherwise, their opinion is a mere populist voicing that adds nothing to the medium. And adding something to the medium is one of the legitimate roles of the critic.

Equally, reviling something the cool group likes, merely because they like it (I know this isn't what you are advocating) is as pointless as liking something because other like it. Certainly, another legitimate role of the critic is to champion that which might otherwise be overlooked, or even reviled, were it not for an astute critical mind.

I believe that by examining the disconnect between critical reception and audience reception, one can find both why one enjoyed a film, but also what one might otherwise overlook.

I would never have overlooked the slow first act of JHOOM BARABAR JHOOM, it was readily apparent but as readily overwhelmed by the overall enjoyment of the film. A large rock takes a lot of effort to move, but once it is moving it really moves. JBJ was the same.

I might have overlooked the soft gloved, almost trivial, way the movie dealt with Pakistani and Indian relations if I wasn't focused on thinking about the disconnect. A part of the film takes place in England, and I've read enough John King to understand that setting the film in England involves certain assumptions -- which are barely touched on in the film. Partly because we are dealing with Romantic Comedy and you don't want to go too dark. But that is what separates "Loves Labours Lost" from "Much Ado About Nothing," the stakes are different.

While I would never presume to speak for why the Indian public responded to JBJ less enthusiastic than I did, knowing that they did helps me examine beyond first impressions. One must find tools to break through their visceral and vicarious eyes to get to the voyeuristic one.

As an aside, I still believe that the unnamed critic is gothtentious. Actually, the more I read from this critic, the more I believe this person is an intentional provocateur. To answer Tulkinghorn's earlier comment, "It isn't 7th Heaven this person watches in secret, it is My Little Pony."

I have no real evidence of this, but I am merely being judgmental so I don't need one.

I have yet to understand how our humble host can think that Rocky is a 2 1/2 star film and can have no interest in seeing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It boggles the mind, but those are mere disagreements. Thinking that THE INCREDIBLES, FINDING NEMO, and RETURN OF THE KING deserve 1/2 a star while thinking DONNIE DARKO deserves 4 is gothtentious.