Friday 4 January 2008

Cheeni Kum (2007)

The PPCC's favorite moment, aesthetically. We just love the fake background.

Cheeni Kum (Less Sugar) is a conventional romance in the guise of a provocative "arty" film. The two main themes - sugar and Electra May-December romances Electra - are interestingly presented, but all in all, we have the usual, not-provocative message: 30 year age gaps are perfectly acceptable between aging male superstars and much younger actresses. For example, Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.

Still it's odd that Amitabh should be playing romantic roles in his 60s, when he spent most of his virile youth cavorting with gangsters rather than girlfriends. Consider the fate of Amitabh's Angry Young Man's various heroines: poor Parveen in Deewaar, poor Jaya in Silsila, poor Rekha in Silsila, poor Rakhee in Kasme Vaade, poor Rakhee in Trishul. Rarely did the big B deign to pay attention to his female accessory, and when he did, something terrible usually happened to him or her. And even amidst all this seemingly inevitable tragedy (AYM must have been jinxed as a boyfriend), the romance always felt like an afterthought. His iconic status wasn't built on his prettiness (we cannot resisting mentioning Shashi here: Shashi Shashi Shashi), it was built on rage and tallness.

The bustling restaurant.

The Big B, suddenly going soft and mellow in old age.

Buddhadev Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) is the crotchety head chef and owner of London's hippest, trendiest Indian restaurant, spice6. Lush interiors, crisp exteriors - London is bustling and happening and with it. Buddha has lived here for many years and, no doubt because of his ogre-like social skills, he is unmarried, alone and living at home with his mother (Zohra Sehgal, as usual, and we were so happy to see her). When Buddha is not terrorizing his staff or being sarcastic to mom, he chats with his only friend and neighbor, Sexy (Swini Khara). Sexy is an eight-year old cancer patient. (Members of the PPCC readership are no doubt groaning about how manipulative and shameless the inclusion of such a character is. We agree, but we also think she fits into the whole Electra theme. See below.)

One day, someone in the restaurant sends back a dish, claiming it has "too much sugar". Buddha is appalled and he confronts the restaurant guest, Nina (Tabu), humiliates her, and demands that she bring him a better version of the dish, since she thinks she's such a better cook. A few days later, the same dish is sent back. Buddha tastes it, remarking on how perfectly cooked it is, and then is told that the dish comes from down the street. Buddha is flabbergasted. He goes outside, and there is Nina, coyly smiling as she walks triumphantly down the street. Buddha is smitten. We are smitten. The music is smitten. Voila, love!

The rest of the film is standard courtship, with the major conflict arising when Nina's father (Paresh Rawal) refuses to allow Buddha and Nina to marry. A somewhat superficial Gandhian, Nina's father decides to emotionally blackmail the couple by fasting until they call the wedding off.

Buddha and Nina.

A comical moment when Buddha has to ask for condoms from the local chemist.

Sugar is everywhere in this movie. The film tries very hard not to be saccharine and, for the most part, succeeds. While Tabu's Nina is elegant and romantic, Buddha is just a cranky old man. Characters talk about sex in a blunt, open way. They do not go on filmi dates, they do not say or do melodramatic, filmi things . They are very subdued, and, as a result, almost quirky.

Sugar itself also shows up several times as a symbol for romance: the chef who mixed up salt with sugar in the first sequence was dazed by a photo of his distant wife; Nina's father, who refuses to believe that love can be blind to age, is diabetic. Eventually, even cranky old Buddha is forced to admit that a little sugar can be just what a person needs.

Sexy, AKA Electra 1.

Nina, AKA Electra 2.

And then the bizarre Electra thing. We specify Electra (that is, the "feminine Oedipal complex") rather than just May-December romance, because there are a number of scenes where Amitabh is (well, justifiably!) identified with father figures, and neither of the women have mothers. First, and most obviously, his age in relation to Nina and Sexy. Second, the fact that there is a Sexy - that is, a second much-younger female character who has the hots for Buddha. Indeed, Buddha's mother says Buddha's only meaningful relationship before Nina was with Sexy (creepy as that may sound). Buddha is often shown in worried consultation with Sexy's father; her mother is never mentioned. Similarly, Nina's mother is not present, and the comparisons between Buddha and Nina's father are constant. Buddha is older than the father. He claims the father is "jealous" of losing his daughter to him. And (massive spoilers) in the pivotal scene, when the father lets go of his daughter and little Sexy passes away, Nina soon says, "I wish I was Sexy," to which Buddha replies, "You are very, very, very sexy." But did he mean sexy or Sexy?

The PPCC finds this creepy, but symbolically it seems like Sexy and Nina were the same person. As soon as Nina was allowed to marry, she effectively "grew up", and hence Sexy, the little girl, died. Indeed, throughout the film it seems that Buddha's feelings for Nina and Sexy are largely the same. There is the name thing (again, making everything creepy) with Sexy and the explicit "let's have sex" song sequence with Nina, and there is the scene when Buddha is once again flummoxed by Sexy and Nina's contemporaneous medical crises. (It does seem like he spends a lot of time bewildered, doesn't it?) When Buddha wants to marry Nina, he wraps his arms around Asoka's pillar. Immediately, he gets his wish granted: Nina calls to say they can marry. When, later in the same scene, Buddha wraps his arms around Asoka's pillar again and begs to have Sexy back (insert your own Justin Timberlake joke here), his wish is again granted. Nina arrives, and "assumes" Sexy's identity via the dialogue exchange above.

Are we being too intellectual? Well, it gives us something to do!

Especially in those moments when, aesthetically, everything is just every which way, higgledy piggledy. Who thought Amitabh with a rat tail was a good idea? Who thought the "Mujhe Sexy chahiye!" ("I want Sexy!") would be anything but slightly farcical and disturbing and painful to watch? And what was up with Tabu's robotic delivery in the early scenes?

Zohra Sehgal as Buddha's mom, kickin' it old style.

Segue, segue. As Buddha, enlightened and grumpy as he is, Amitabh plays on his strengths. That is, a rough paternal figure who's soft in the middle and lovable because of it. See also Black. Others have mentioned his talent for delivering sarcastic lines, and that is well on display in this film. If anything, the PPCC does not like to see Amit ji cry. Not only because we are empathetic, but also because the Tears of Amitabh are just blubbery and excessive and always somewhat indulgent. See Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. Ugh. We just feel compelled to yell, "Oh, get a grip!" But mayhap we are cruel. Though, we should say that Muqaddar Ka Sikandar's O Saathi Re plays during one emo-Amitabh scene. Coincidence? We think not!

Tabu was oddly rigid in her role for much of the film. The PPCC is starting to wonder why we think Tabu is so good and the natural heiress to Shabana Azmi, because she was equally awkward in Fanaa, the last film we saw with her. Beautiful she may be, but her delivery felt very wooden, sometimes during crucial moments. Things picked up considerably when the story moved to India, but still. Hmmm.

Zohra Sehgal as Buddha's Mother was comforting to see again - oh, we just love our Hindi Movie Moms - and Swini Khara as Sexy was just sweet enough, not too sweet. The PPCC did not think any of the chef subplots were funny, as they seemed to be based on repeating the same two jokes over and over again: "Look, the head waiter has big teeth! Isn't that funny?" and "Look, the British waiter speaks Hindi with a silly British accent! Isn't that funny?" The PPCC did not find either joke funny.

Music, cinematography, colors and composition were all sleek. There were no properly "Bollywood" songs.


Filmi Geek said...

I'm interested in your characterization of the film as "a conventional romance in the guise of a provocative 'arty' film." I have not thought of it that way; to my eye it has a very mainstream sensibility. One of the things I like about it is that it presents mainstream tropes in a fairly fresh way. But it doesn't feel to me anything like an arty film. I didn't see anything in your comments that would unpack the observation, so would you mind elaborating a little bit? Maybe we're not using the word the same way.

a ppcc representative said...

Basically, the PPCC uses "arty" for Hindi films whenever they don't have the typical item numbers and the hint of masala. I would say Cheeni Kum is a very standard Western film (though it's probably rendered "arty" by its foreignness), though fairly unconventional by Hindi standards. Another example of an "arty" Hindi film which I wouldn't say is particularly artistic would be Black, or also Iqbal. Just anything that doesn't fit the mainstream Bollywood mold of songs, tears, and moments of surreality.

That said, I find the romance itself fairly conventional. It would have been far more unconventional to have the genders reversed (SRK-Shabana, remember?! come now, they'd be wonderful!).

In terms of films which are "arty" by the definition of being actually more artistically unique (or at least awake!), I'd put Dil Se and Awaara in that category. (And those two films have also much more genuinely unconventional and/or provocative romances too!)

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

I think Tabu was expressing awkwardness. In some ways Nina is a self-assured character, but I think her emotions for Buddha made her nervous.

To my mind, Tabu is the best thing about Fanaa, second only to Aamir (swoon) in knitwear (swoon).

Indy said...

The scenes between Paresh and Big B are classic in this one and probably the only reason to watch this movie:

Watch Cheeni Kum on


yves said...

Thanks for this provocative review: I too had trouble with Buddha, he just didn't seem "sexy" enough! But well, I'd credit the director for trying, and the fact that we're here discussing AB is a sign that he did something, at least. Can't have been that easy for him, hm?
Same feling about the choice of that little prodigy called Sexy. I was rather at a loss to place the significance of her role.
Does the film try to say something like "OK we're of the XXIth century now, everybody talks about sex, there's nothing wrong there" - but if that's the film alpha and omega, it doesn't reach very far.
BUT I disagree about Tabu: I found her very credible, she's soft (outside) and smouldering (inside, mind you). She's got that seriousness, that poise which I find very attractive in women of her age. I think she improves as she gets...older!

NidaMarie said...

I'm with you on the "arty" stuff. I'm not even quite sure what the defintion would be in Western cinema (which I grew up on) but I've found myself using it loosely--for simply anything that happens to give me personally an "arthouse" feel. Like "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", probably not an arthouse film, but wasn't advertised too much and I saw it at an arthouse cinema with my fairly arty boyfriend...

As for "Cheeni Kum"...I was more disjointed by the dragging second half (weird, because it wasn't so long by Hindi standards) than Tabu. In fact, I loved Tabu here.

But I'm so glad you brought up "Fanaa"! I forgot to put this in my comment on your "Fanaa" post, but I thought Tabu was VERY wooden in that film! I've got a perfect example to back it up, too...Remember when she's with her unit and they get word that they lost Rejan or something and she goes "Damn!" ...that particular delivery of that word came across very fake. That was the first film I'd seen Tabu in, and since she has so much respect across the board as being a fabulous actress in Hindi cinema, I've decided to forget about it and move on. But now that you brought it up...

The Sexy thing was extremely creepy. I usually don't spend too much time trying to figure out what the director is trying to tell me with parallels and hidden meanings, but even I picked up on this one.

silvan said...

this is one movie of bachchan recently which i loved a lot

He was very natural and his sarcastic humour with his mom and his romance was damn believeable

The movie was a nice pleasant film with believeable characters

a major highlight was Zohra Sehgal who even at 94 was a pleasure
While Paresh was subtle and fun