Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara: Movie Review

Movie: Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Hindi w/ e.s.t.)

Directed By: Zoya Akthar

Starring: Kalki Koechlin, Farhan Akthar, Abhay Deol, Hrithik Roshan, Katrina Kaif, Naseruddin Shah

I don’t watch many Bollywood movies, and not all the ones I watch are exceptional, but among the good ones there are a few that I like enough to recommend to my Hindi filmi watching family and friends. My taste in hindi film (I will use the term Bollywood sparingly here, as it excludes the breadth and width of Indian cinema done in other languages) has been acquired over many years. I have cultivated it by watching everything from multi-generational family epics like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, classic love stories (of the 1980’s) like Hum Aap ke Hain Koun and Maine Pyar Kiya, comedies of the NRI variety like Dostana, and straight up masala (you say popcorn, we say masala) action movies like Dhoom 2. So, in their own way the hindi films have their own genres, each catering to different demographic, much like Hollywood.

In truth, there are a few significant differences between how a Bollywood film handles those cinematic tropes versus the Hollywood treatment of the same material, but I digress. Keeping in mind that a large majority of this blog’s readers may not be familiar with Bollywood tropes, here is a small primer courtesy of Wikipedia. Bollywood turns out thousands of films a year, a number of which are shot primarily for Indian audiences living abroad.

Which brings us to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Won’t Get Life Back Again). The movie features three friends Kabir (Deol), Arjun (Roshan), and Imran (Akthar) who take a three week road trip through Spain before Kabir gets married. The road trip movie as an archetype is about a journey of self discovery and we learn through intermittent flashbacks that each of the characters are dealing with internal struggles that seethe to the surface over the course of the trip. Kabir is getting cold feet, and is not certain that he wants to marry. Arjun who’s professional life is sucessful is facing the prospect of an unfulfilling personal life. Four years ago, we learn, Imran brought Arjun’s relationship with his girlfriend to an end over an affair. Imran is hoping to reunite with his father, a painter living in Spain, over whom he’s had a strained relationship with his mother. Zoya Akthar has a knack for directing both Farhan Akthar (her twin brother in real life) and Hrithik Roshan (whom she previously directed in 2008’s Luck By Chance), and it shows in their performances. All three male leads pull off warm personable performances without ever over acting or melodramatizing a scene.

Zoya’s cinematic language is often subtle and self aware, never drawing attention to itself.  What I mean by this is that the gorgeous Spanish cityscapes from Costa Brava  to Seville and Pamplona are allowed to speak for themselves without the riot of colours and song that usually accompany a Bollywood movie. In an industry where the song, dance, and colorful costume are a given fact in nearly every movie, Zindagi’s rejects the norm to use a  storytelling style that lets it walk the fine line between Indian and western movie-making.

Alas, you know what that means: no dream sequences. Instead of dream sequences, what we get are four passages in the movie where Imraan recites a Hindi poem in voiceover to highlight a particularly emotional moment. I found these passages to be utterly riveting and wished that I had a better grasp of Hindi so that I could fully understand the poems.

Music is certainly an integral part of any Bollywood movie. With Zindagi, Shankar-Eshaan-Loy have stayed with a fairly tight selection of pop and electronica beats. Stand-out songs include: Ik Junoon (Paint it Red) and Senorita.  The video for the former was shot at the Tomatina festival in Buñol and it looks like everyone involved just had a blast shooting it. (Check out the video here.) And Senorita stands out in particular for the clever sleight of hand that the composers used to blend Hindi and Spanish lyrics into the song. (See the video here.)

The best part is that although the movie runs 153 minutes, it never suffers for pacing. All of the characters are given their due in screen time and the emotional climax of the movie delivers (I’m not giving it away here) a resounding conclusion that could have been in a movie a third of its length. Looking back, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who likes Bollywood movies and to the more adventurous crowd willing to try out a Hindi movie.

Khwaja Mere Khwaja: A Beautiful Sufi Song

This Sufi devotional song to Khwaja Gharib Nawaz, composed by the inimitable A.R. Rahman and featured in the Bollywood movie Jodhaa Akbar, puts me in a very peaceful, calm mood every time I listen to it. I thought I would share it with all of you today. Give it a listen:

Note: Lyrics and translation here. The choreography in the song is really well done as well. Watch towards the end where Akbar starts to dance with the sufis.

Why Shantaram the Novel Reads Like a Bollywood Movie

shantaram novel

I must admit: I’m a sucker for well written novels about India. In the past two years, I’ve sampled R.K. Narayan, Suketu Mehta, Salman Rushdie, Vandana Singh, Ian McDonald (not Indian himself, but writes damn good stories) and now Gregory David Roberts, the inimitable author of Shantaram. First impressions run something like this:

Shantaram  reads like a Bollywood movie.

Now let me explain that premise. Roberts takes many of the narrative conceits that are put to work in the typical Bollywood movie (the melodrama, the action sequences, the true love, the poetry, the religion, the philosophy, the happy endings and by god even the dance sequences) and deftly weaves them into an overarching narrative about the big questions of life:

Where are we from?

Why are we here?

Where are we going?

The novel is loosely based on Roberts’ life, particularly his experience as a heroin addict and armed robber breaking out of a maximum security prison in Australia and the story of his life in Mumbai, India where he spends approximately the next eight years of his life. He learns to speak Marathi and Hindi, lives in Mumbai under the assumed name of Lindsay (Lin), joins the Bombay mafia as a passport smuggler, runs the currency black market beat, falls in love, gets imprisoned in an Indian jail, acts in Bollywood movies, and even goes to Afghanistan to fight with the mujaheddin. The book weighs in at over 900 pages, and as a writer I’m jealous at how superbly he pulls off these tricks without overwhelming the reader. But this is not the book’s biggest strength.

When authors write cities in fiction, at some level, as the writer, they populate those vasty spaces with all the characters of their own mind. In that sense, Roberts’ Mumbai is not the one Rushdie wrote about in Midnight’s Children and its not the city Mehta explored in his travelogue Maximum City. This is a city that is uniquely Roberts and its streets, its pubs, its markets are all populated with the ghosts of his memory brought to life. His deep understanding of the hitmen, mobsters, prostitutes, slum dwellers, tourists, chai wallahs, taxi drivers, sinners, and saints that populate Mumbai are what bring the book to life in the reader’s mind, because its only through them that the reader can access Roberts’ Mumbai to the fullest.

A Few Minor Objections About the Book:

Although the poetic narrative is one of the book’s biggest selling points, it does slow down the book a few times with its overly verbose description. I did, however, like Roberts’ use of Hindi words in the book. I have a feeling that some readers will be frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary nature he inserts these phrases into the book, but it grew on me. Especially when it led to singing and dancing afterwards.

Roberts uses the novel as a platform to explore some philosophical themes that he calls The Theory of Complexity. The few times he brought this up verged on being pedantic, but the intrusions to the narrative were minor and I guess this can be given a pass when looking at the book overall.

Roberts is currently writing a sequel called The Mountain Shadow, that takes place after the events in Shantaram, but the novel can be read as a stand-alone as it ties together most of the loose plot ends. And, as is typical of Bollywood movies, we get a happy ending, one that borders on bittersweet, to the novel, but we’re never really given a closure to Lin’s story. As to what may happen to him next, I  recount to you the popular dialogue from Bollywood movie Om Shanti Om:

Picture abhi bakhi hai meri dost!*

*The movie is still not over my friends!