Special CSAFF Reviews: The Best and the Worst

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Once again guest reviewer Beth Watkins takes keyboard to hand to give usher thoughts on the films at the most recnet Chicago Asian Film Festival This time she give us her choices for worst and the best of the feature films, both of which had their world premieres at this festival.

Best: Listen Amaya (2012, dir. Avinash Kumar Singh)
Full disclosure: I was very primed to like this film, even just by the description of Farooq Shaikh in a romance with Deepti Naval. I figured that if nothing else, I would respond positively to a sure-to-be-well-acted age-appropriate romance between two stars I have always loved. I barely managed to keep myself from running up to Farooq Shaikh when he entered the cinema for the screening; the next day he paused briefly to talk with the man in front of me in a line and I think I let out a breathless “Eep!” He looks so huggable! (I have since been chastised by several people for not hugging him— though really, I’m not that crazy.)

This is a very sweet film about decent people who are given time and space to figure themselves out when an unexpected obstacle disrupts their good and pleasant lives. What really distinguishes Listen Amayaa, I think, is that all the characters’ problems result from a surfeit of love. 20something Amaya (Swara Bhaskar) cannot accept her mother Leela (Deepti Naval)’s romantic relationship with Jayant (Farooq Shaikh) out of an inflexibly-defined loyalty to her deceased father. Leela cannot simply write off Amaya’s anger as mere selfishness even after many unsuccessful attempts to actually talk with her about Jayant because she can see the stung and frightened child inside her grown-up daughter. Jayant never walks away in frustration because he is so fond of them both. Even Amaya’s annoyance at the friend who has a massive crush on her results from him showing it a little too grandly and too often for her liking, but pleasingly by the end of the film he shapes his affection into a form of tough love that she really needs.

While the story and the performances are what I found most special about the film, it is very nicely done in many other ways as well. The interiors of the houses, shots of Chandni Chowk and Delhi rooftops, several rainstorms—the Delhi of this film is lush and glowing and calm, so critique it for realism if you will, but it sure would be a wonderful place to visit. Maybe the city was hushed so that the personal drama could stand out? Everything looks so classy, with subdued but very beautifully coordinated colors, elegant jewelry, expensive-looking furnishings, etc. The film’s one weak spot is its handling of songs. I only remember two, but they were both really inconsistent with how layered and careful the rest of the movie is.

There’s a range of lovely parent-child relationships in this film the balance out some very sad histories. Leela and Jayant’s first spouses are deceased, as is Jayant’s daughter. Both Deepti and Farooq are, of course, more than capable of portraying these stories in ways that seem like genuine loss rather than filmi filler. In the present day, Jayant clearly sees Amaya with eyes almost brimming with tears for his dead daughter; his affection for her is palpable, and I think Amaya’s anger at Jayant and Leela’s romance wounds him as much as as it does Leela. Leela, in turn, has a mostly friend-like relationship with Amaya, respectful of her daughter’s free spirit and supportive of her attempts to be a writer, while also serving as a sort of den mother to Amaya’s friends and some new transplants to Delhi who turn up at the bookstore/coffee shop she runs.

While the story is centered most directly on Leela and Amaya’s relationship, for me it is Farooq who walks away with the film. Jayant is very nicely written—a careful and creative man who has deliberately decided to look on the bright side of things and to reach out to everyone he meets to keep from being crushed under the pain of his past—and Farooq makes him bubble with goodness and cheer that emanate from a steady depth. The wrinkle to Jayant is that he is slowly succumbing to a disease that may—or may not—threaten the core of his character, and it’s hard to decide whether either of those eventual outcomes would be a calamity or a relief.

There’s a scene towards the end of the film in which Jayant is walking to Leela’s café and just stops dead on the tiny median of grass amid the rushing lanes of a major Delhi street. I was so afraid he would wander out in traffic as he struggles to proceed; he doesn’t, but Farooq keeps Jayant right on the edge of an immediate tragedy while clearly showing that he might be close to a much longer-ranging and more complicated one.

It is Amaya who finds Jayant in the street and guides him to safety, which I just loved. I know it’s cheesy, and maybe I’m just a sucker for daughter-and-dad stories (a thread seen in other CSAFF films like Lessons in Forgetting and Jalapari too), but the film ends with a sense that these characters have resolved to have an expanded approach to being good to one another from that point on.

Watch a promo of Listen Amaya

Please do keep an eye out for its wider release.

* I also have huge respect for journalists who sit back quietly, with just a hint of amusement or disgust on their faces, and let their guests be badly behaved, taking themselves down in a giant ball of flames, But that is a different set of skills and, as someone with zero poker face, one that I will never be able to master.

Worst: Shobhna’s 7 Nights (2012, dir. Sudipto Chattopadyaya)
Full disclosure again: I was not primed to like this film. On the previous day, I had been been offered the opportunity to interview its star, Raveena Tandon, a few hours before the screening. Due to scheduling problems—or perhaps just the whims of the star, I have no idea—Raveena did not show up for her press times, and, to my knowledge, only arrived a few minutes before the scheduled start of her film. I was already in line to get into the cinema when festival staff told me I could interview her right that moment, but since I wanted to, you know, actually see the film and didn’t have anything incredibly important or intelligent to ask her anyway, as I’d only had a day to prepare (and a day filled with festival screenings at that), I declined. They also said I could interview her after the film, but I was staying with a friend on the edge of the city and needed to bolt as soon as the film was over to make it back to the house.

But in the kind of masala-approved coincidence I love, even after the first ten minutes of the film, I realized what a blessing it was that I would not be able to speak to her after the film, because I have no idea what I could have said that wasn’t dripping with disdain or just a hopeless pile of laughter. I have new respect for the professional journalists who manage to keep themselves pulled together while interviewing people who are responsible for cinematic garbage on scales far grander than this film.*

The trailer

This film is a complete disaster. Pointless. Boring. Low-rent Bhandarkar. An awkward and offputting combination of teenager’s idea of edgy or shocking—older woman/young man, gossip, skin, booze, smoking, swearing, infidelity, dead children, desperate film industry figures, “Your dream has become a nightmare! Mwahaha!” fantasy sequence—with the vibe of a Lifetime tv movie, thanks to being centered on the suffering of a 40+ woman. No teeth, no heart, and nothing to say. Tons of trash with no substance and no intellectual interest, entertainment, or even moral lesson from the portrayal of by-the-numbers badness. Waste of experienced actors (Anupam Kher, Lillete Dubey). Terrible direction of and performance by someone who may never be master thespian but should still know better (Raveena Tandon, who is still trading in the sexy-moan-as-acting she employed in the 90s). If you thought she was bad in Bbuddah Hoga Tera Baap, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The stranger in the seat next to me leaned over and said “When will this end so I can go home?” and “My god, this is bad.” The audience laughed at places that were clearly not meant to be funny. People began trickling out after the midway point despite it being the final film of the festival and the presence of the star in the back of the cinema. A star who, I must add, introduced the film by saying it had been a labor of love, and I left the cinema thinking “A love of what, exactly? This film gives the audience absolutely nothing.” I’ve seen only a very few Raveena Tandon films, but surely she is better than this. I know Anupam and Lillete are. At one point Raveena’s character, who is a gossip columnist, says “I write good trash.” Too bad the people making this film couldn’t manage to do so themselves.

Bas. This film deserves no more of anyone’s time or thoughts.

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