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Movie Review: Abu, Son of Adam

27 Nov

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the opening night film of the 8th annual South Asian International Film Festival,  Abu, Son of Adam.

The theatre was packed as Abu made its American premiere. Though my friend complained the dubbing of the film in Hindi (from the original Malayalam) was inaccurate, it didn’t bother me.

Abu, Son of Adam, is the story of a humble salesman and his wife whose lifelong wish is to make the Hajj pilgrimage. He slowly sells his prized possessions to pay for the trip. Through this planning process, his life in Kerala’s verdant Malabar region is – his hardworking nature, the respect he has earned from wealthier community members, his livelihood a relic of earlier times.

Seeing Abu’s childlike wonder upon receiving his first passport, even going so far as to gently scold his wife for touching the pictures invited laughter from the audience. By the end of the film, I was sure disaster was inevitable and the calm ending was a surprise.

Variety said “The film has a tendency to shy away from overt dramatic conflict, as Abu’s gentle decency sees him escape or mollify one practical or personal opponent after another. As such, he’s a more admirable protagonist than he is a compelling one…” I agree, though I sympathized with Abu’s desire to earn the money for the trip himself, I wanted to see anger or sadness as he faced his inability to do so.

I wish the couple’s family life had been explored more. Allusions are made throughout the story to the couple’s only child, a son who has abandoned his parents to start a new life in Dubai. The son no longer speaks to his parents, ashamed of his humble background, though his mother hears tidbits of his life from friends and neighbors: a new baby, a new job, each new accomplishment hurting his mother left behind.

Reading of Abu‘s low national box office numbers was unsurprising, as the film moves at a steady pace, no thwarted love stories or fight scenes to be found.

The film is India’s official entry in the foreign language film category of the 84th annual Academy Awards. Though the film has its flaws, I hope Abu, Son of Adam is given a chance as Abu’s graciousness and piousness is a representation of India I am proud of.

Photo from film courtesy of Deccan Chronicle 

I walked out an Indian

25 Feb

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

Growing up, I spent more time learning about the Pilgrims and Revolutionary War than I ever did about the Indian quest for independence from Great Britain.  Yes, I did the requisite research paper on Gandhi and dutifully attended Republic Day celebrations with the Indian community on January 26, shivering as we raised an Indian flag at the local university, but I had no idea how India went from being ruled for hundreds of years to the world’s largest democracy.

I had the vague idea that everything started with Gandhi’s clothing strike and nonviolent protesting, but wasn’t aware of how arduous the journey to independence was until I saw the Abishek Bachchan period drama Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey

Based on the book, Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-1934 by Manini Chatterjee, the film dramatizes the true story of 16 teenagers in Chittagong in 1930, who successfully planned a takeover of government facilities in Chittagong to rock the British Empire. Led by revolutionary leader Surya Sen (Asbishek Buchan), the group was partially successful but the army ended up killing and jailing the teenagers involved. Surya Sen was brutally tortured by his captors before being executed.

Despite the violent end, the Chittagong uprising marked one of the first successful attempts to overthrow the British government.  And though the movie employs some of the usual Bollywood theatrics (unrequited love, drawn-out fight scenes) the story is still powerful.

Amitabh Bachchan’s popular blog includes an excerpt from his daughter Shweta’s movie review where she states, “I do hope people go to watch this movie. Not because my brother acts in it. I hope they go and watch this movie because it deserves to be seen, this story deserves to be heard and those brave young boys deserve to be saluted.”

Like Shweta, I was embarrassed I did not know this story before I saw the film, that I had neglected to show an interest in how my mother country defeated a powerful empire to become the world’s largest democracy.

The boys portrayed in the film were as young as thirteen, but were proud to serve their country, even as they became aware of the dangers involved.

After I watched the movie, I began researching the quest for India’s independence.  I was surprised to learn freedom fighters had even reached the United States through the Gadar Party. The Gadar Party was a mostly Sikh organization which started operating abroad in 1913. The group’s leader, Lala Hardyal, helped convince Indians in California to donate money to the cause and even return to India to join the freedom movement. The US government eventually arrested him and his associates for spreading anarchist literature; the incident became a reason to limit Indian immigration until the Naturalization and Immigration Act of 1965.

Indians in America have faced far less discrimination than other ethnic groups and it is easy to forget the struggles of our past.

Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey just portrays a small slice of the Indian freedom movement. As an Indian, I feel obligated to learn about my history and spread my newfound knowledge among other first generation Indians. I thank the movie for inspiring me to learn about my culture.

As Shweta said in her review, “I walked into KHJJS an anxious sister, I walked out an Indian. Allow this movie to convert you the way it did me.”

Brown Girl Movie Review: Up In the Air

11 Mar
I finally saw Up in the Air last night.  My coworkers have been talking about the film for months, going so far as watching the trailer at work, laughing in recognition at the talk of hotel points, airline miles, and the challenge of earning the most.  As a new consultant, I have listened to these conversations since I started work in September – they are as obsessive as those in the movie, though I don’t think any of my colleagues are close to achieving the 10 million miles George Clooney’s character Ryan has flown. 

To the movie: while there were many similarites to my life, I thought the story was weak and almost exploited the audience’s emotions.  The ending, as many critics noted, was too open-ended and wasn’t even substantial enough to debate afterwards (other movies, like Sideways, were substantial enough to prompt after-movie conversations).

I won’t spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it,  but I will say it can be difficult to watch.  Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is the dreaded firing consultant, like the Michael-Bolton loving ones from Office Space, but far more depressing because the movie is a drama.  He fears for his own job (and self-worth, by extension) when wunderkind Natalie (Anna Kendrick) develops a new system to virtually fire employees over a Skype-style system.  I love the way Kendrick plays Natalie’s character – the way she spouts off b-school buzzwords, her sensible clothes and hair style, and how she understands at a young age that women maybe can’t have it all but has accepted it.  I see a lot of myself and my peers in her performance.

From The Chicago Reader

It might be triggering to see the reactions of those who are fired in the movie, if you’ve been in their shoes.  But it was very realistic and makes me wonder if the virtual firing actually happens.  Hiring consultants to do your dirty work is bad enough! There’s a twist near the end of the film I’m still mad about but it’s a great movie and relevant to those working or unemployed in today’s America.

Baz Luhrmann + Bollywood

4 Feb

My dad sent me this article from the Hindustan Times:

Baz Luhrmann, the fantasy and love obsessed Hollywood director of films like Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, professed his admiration for Bollywood and its Shakespeare-inspired stories.  He plans to make films in India in the future and work with “music maestro A.R. Rahman.”

Bollywood is the perfect fit for Luhrmann.   Everyone knows Indian films are full of extended song and dance sequences that come out of nowhere.  Luhrmann’s films have a sophistication and attention to detail which would allow traditional Bollywood films to be taken more seriously by critics.

Chamma Chamma, the song below, is from the movie China Gate, and is used in Luhrmann’s most famous film, Moulin Rouge.

I say Whip It. Whip It good.

15 Nov

I finally saw the roller derby girrl power movie Whip It this weekend. My friend Julie and I found the movie after discovering our first choice Precious wasn’t yet playing in my area. Julie and I wanted to see it, but its easy to figure out why its not in wide release yet since I described the film to my brother as “about a pregnant 300 pound teenage girl. Oh yeah, she has AIDS.  And her dad is the father of her baby.” 

Whip It has received much praise especially in feminist circles for its strong female cast and direction by Drew Barrymore. But it didn’t appeal to me – the roller derby scenes bored me the same way any sports movie does.  As Alia Shakwat’s character, Pash, explains to her best friend, Ellen Page’s Bliss, when she gets excited about roller derby: “I never had a roller skating phase. I had a fat girl, sit in the shade, reading a book phase.”  


Other parts of the movie I wish had been explored were the values placed on both beauty and athleticism in Bliss’ small Texas town.  Her father sits in his truck watching a football game and is jealous of his neighbor’s sons playing for the high school team.  I learned about the religion of football from the non-fiction portrayal of a similar town in Friday Night Lights. Bliss participating in a contact sport like roller derby seemed to play a big role in her father’s acceptance of her new hobby – would his feelings change if Bliss’ hobby wasn’t athletic in nature?

The book Friday Night Lights also explored the entrenched sexism in these dying towns left behind by the oil boom. Bliss’ mother Brooke is a former beauty queen, but is obviously so much more as evidenced by her working-class mail carrier job and tearful admission of her own mother’s lack of involvement.  What exactly is the story behind Brooke’s broken dreams? And why does she cling to pageants as a way for her daughter to snag a wealthy man instead of encouraging academic/professional success instead?

The movie was a much greater commentary on small-town American values in postmodern society than a representation of third-wave feminism.  Perhaps that accounts for Whip It‘s less than stellar box office performance.  I’d like to think audiences aren’t buying cinema’s misunderstood daughters with dream-thwarting parents anymore — life is always more complicated.

Dig! vs. This is Spinal Tap: such a fine line between stupid and clever

13 Jun

I was way late to the game in viewing the “rockumentary” Dig! but I’m not really a music fiend anyway.  The closest I got was the Gilmore Girls episode paying homage to the showcase where The Brian Jonestown Massacre broke up in the movie (Hep Alien has to be the worst band name ever).  Dig! follows two indie bands in the 90s: The BJM and The Dandy Warhols.  The film has been called a real-life Spinal Tap, with The BJM presumably playing the role of Spinal Tap.  But This is Spinal Tap is one of my favorite movies and Dig! is decidedly not.  I compare the two films below:

  1. Band leader: David “I would be more upset if I weren’t so heavily sedated” St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap vs. Anton “I’m not for sale, I’m fucking love” Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre  

David has to win this one, simply because he doesn’t take himself so seriously.  Anton, dude, you’re kind of a downer.

2. Musical talent: The BJM are portrayed as musical geniuses straight of the 60s in Dig! and I have to agree after listening to the free music on their website.  Spinal Tap tries to make a comeback but their taste is definitely less sophisticated than BJM.  


3. Fights: Both bands had epic fights on stage, but BJM wins just because it was a real fight. 


4. Sidekicks: Matt Hollywood of BJM vs. Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap.  Matt is just as crazy as Anton but knows how to rein it in.  Nigel seems more aware than David, particularly about his blind spot, girlfriend Janine.  Of course, Nigel also comes out with statements like the most famous scene of the movie, below:

Nigel wins, because of his anatomically correct wardrobe.

Final winner: I would rather hang out with the members of Spinal Tap, who were recently profiled in Vanity Fair.  I would rather attend a BJM show.  So everybody wins!

Disclaimer: Yes, I know Spinal Tap is a spoof of old metal bands and not real.  Both movies are still worth seeing but have a magazine handy when watching Dig!

Rachel Getting Married: Love and Frustration

31 May

I finally saw the movie Rachel Getting Married…and had mixed emotions about it.  It was a touching story about a fractured family coming together for a joyous occasion, but there were tons of plot holes.  I feel the audience was supposed to be so overwhelmed by the beautiful costumes, exotic music, and overall peacelovehappiness theme, we’d forget about them.  (I didn’t.)

Reviews seem to be mixed (on the Internet, at least) as to whether an Indian-themed wedding (food, costumes, cake) for a black (maybe West Indian?) groom and white Jewish bride was adorable and kooky or tacky and overdone.  

Indians were brought over as indentured servants to the Caribbean to harvest and grow sugarcane and tea, traditional Indian crops after Indians rebelled against colonialism and slavery was abolished, in the late 1800s and early 1900s  The Indian men married the native women and created a new hybrid culture which is still present in such countries as Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and Guyana.  So maybe the groom has ancestors from these places.

Funniest moment of the movie: The scene where the effeminate father is offering various friends of the couple food as they plan the wedding in the days before the big event.  “Who wants hot dogs and hungabungas?” he announces.  I’d be willing to excuse the dorky dad using a nickname for hamburgers he probably used with his children when they were young, but so many of the other characters specifically ASK for a “hungabunga” with such seriousness, I thought there actually was a food called a hungabunga! Of all the unbelievable aspects of this movie, this was over the top. 

And finally: Rachel’s blue elephant wedding cake is awesome.  I’ve already showed it to my parents as the cake I have to have at my own wedding.  You can’t see all of it, but it’s beautiful.