20 January 2008

Use your words, _Dil Se_

Believe me when I say there will be plot spoilers ahead. I'll give another warning when I get closer. If you haven't seen Dil Se and want to see it without knowing what I think of it, and without knowing important points of the plot, stop when you see "PLOT SPOILERS IMMEDIATELY AHEAD."

When I taught day care a billion years ago, wee ones were told, "Use your words" in the Brady Bunch-est tones of voice. We did it as a way of encouraging them to say things like, "Hey, Phil, that's my fucking Play-doh!" rather than using copies of Goodnight Moon in a way that would make certain unnamed intelligence agencies envious.

It didn't always work, but I can get with the idea. I'm a word person.

It always pisses me off in (non-Indian) movies when kisses are used to answer questions. The music and lighting tell me that I am supposed to interpret these responses as being terribly romantic. "Do you love me?" Smooch. "Do you have to go?" Smooch. "Will you marry me?" Smooch. "You're pregnant?" Smooch. "What's our ZIP code?" Smooch.

Please. The only question a kiss ever answered, in the history of the world, is this one: "Will you kiss me?" (OK, it may also answer the question, "What did you have for lunch?" but that rarely is a major point of plot development. And, OK, escape artists were said to receive the key to their locks in a kiss from their wives or girlfriends just before being locked in a barrel and sent over the falls, so perhaps the question answered there is, "Are we going to make a mint from this crowd or are you aiming for wealthy widowhood?")

All this is a long way around to saying that I didn't understand Dil Se (From the Heart) when I first saw it. I bought it in the fall's Bollywood Buying Binge, which required several explanations to people who receive packages at the front office at work that "Eros Entertainment" sells Bollywood movies, which usually don't include kissing, let alone anything steamier. (The fact that the announcer pronounces it as "ehr-OSS" and identifies the company as being named after "the goddess of love" cracks me up irreparably, I fear.)

It didn't help that it took me five or six days to watch the movie, in shifts. I don't remember why; I tend to have a better attention span for movies, especially those with Shah Rukh Khan (sigh), for reasons I will have to take up in other posts.


When I saw Dil Se in the fall, I wanted words. I couldn't understand why these two characters liked each other at all. He was obsessed with her with very little encouragement; she was distant, pouty, clingy, alternately indecisive and aggressive. She was Doctor Doolittle's pushmepullyou, an animal that only I seem to recall from the book, even though I don't think I ever read it. It's a two-headed llama-like mammal. (That could be bad for knitters; with no flanks, there's less acreage for growing yarn.) When the beastie wants to move, it tries to go in two directions at once. I don't find pushmepullyou people very enticing as potential partners, and I don't understand people who do.

I have had the Dil Se soundtrack in my car for weeks, alternating with Saathiya. A.R. Rahman is brilliant. The music does a fine job of moving the characters into position as soulmates, but the rest of the movie does not.
  • Part of this is because, as I said before, I need characters to use words, and most of the questions in Dil Se, by design, go unanswered.
  • Part of this is because most of the romantic connection between the characters is established in fantasy sequences; in their real lives, most of their communication is done with varying shades of irritation. She wants him to go away, he wants her to explain why she holds him off.
  • Part of this is because they communicate so much with eyebrows.

Shah Rukh Khan's eyebrows are just about trilingual. When I first developed my embarrassingly prepubescent Tiger Beat-worthy cinematic crush on him, I set about collecting pictures of him from the Internet. I couldn't figure out why none of them were adequate. I realized that one of the things I like about his acting is that his face is constantly in motion, acting and reacting to the situation his character faces. That means that still pictures will rarely capture the emotion that he exudes. This may well be what makes some people dislike him as an actor.

Monisha Koirala has expressive eyebrows, too, of the sort that would inspire poetry about small frightened birds and elegant butterflies and stuff. Some people would want to protect her, but after a while, I was thinking of medication for PTSD.

Now, I can get with eyebrows. I am very glad to have two. One arches menacingly, flirtatiously, full of question and caution and wry humor, as the situation requires. But my damned eyebrows can't be expected to carry a novel.

"Satrangi Re" ("[You] of the Many Colors," according to Bollywhat?) is one of my favorite Bollywood songs. The sequence illustrates difficulties in showing the struggle of the characters who are coming to terms with their love for each other. It's a mixed bag. The song includes some of the sexiest vocals (there's an alto!), but the choreography is, for the most part, pedestrian. (Perhaps after the amazing "Chal Chaiyya Chaiyya" Farah Khan got exhausted and farmed out this bit to her assistants.)

The staging is excellent, and there are a few good parts, but there are not many inspired dance moves in this sequence. The section in which the characters are in one costume, alternately adoring their metaphorically sexual connection, which is not the least bit foul, and then struggling to move apart, is great. I also love the section that's played backwards. It lends an otherworldly David Lynch-like air to the swirling garments without too many weird reminders of lines such as, "Sometimes my elbows bend backwards," or whatever it was that Laura Palmer said. The "Lovers' Pieta in the Snow" bit is lovely. But these are thirty-second stagings, not dance.

There are times when the characters' romantic conflicts get played out in this dance sequence with inadvertently comic results. The choreography and costume departments conspired on a "hearts in bondage" trope, a decidedly non-erotic scene, in which Monisha Koirala is wrapped in the stern lines from the QE2 and does a hobbled little sideways Charlie Chaplin-esque dance. What possessed them, I just don't know. In the scene where she is wearing a purple dress and shawl, the wind gets the better of her, and the lack of choreography is tangible.

This movie also includes a line that may work a lot better in Hindi, but in English subtitles, it's sadsadsad. At one point, he has been beaten up by her comrades (for the second(?) third(?) time) , and he calls her on the phone, asking, "Don't you feel our love is more important than terrorism?"

But I knew there was more there than I could see the first time, so I watched the movie again. And this time, I got it. These characters can't say what they mean. He, as a journalist, needs words to understand and connect, but he'll settle for the nonverbals because he needs something in his life that is not business. She relies more on gestures and action because she has had her words stolen from her by violence, but at the end she will settle for his words because they are more comforting, more personal than the words of her comrades in violent revolution. In the last scene, just before the explosive ending, she accepts his words as he accepts her actions.

And though I can not accept double suicide as the height of romance, within the context of this movie, these characters, I get it.

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