27 November 2011

Cinemascope: Desi Boyz; The Help

Few surprises amid cliches

Director: Rohit Dhawan
Starring: Akshay Kumar, John Abraham, Deepika Padukone, Chitrangda Singh


From the very first scene where a guy from Southall with "parents from Bhatinda" warns a derisive John Abraham that "you brown people" are going to get laid off first, we know that the desi-ness that is at the core of this film does not include second or third-generation South Asian immigrants, to whom the UK is most definitely home. Our protagonists, Nick aka Nikhil (John Abraham) and Jerry aka Jignesh (Akshay Kumar), may spend their entire lives making it big in London, but they will always be Hindustani at heart: i.e. they can be thoughtless and irresponsible and sexist, but you know they're good family-types deep down. They also watch out for brown women who have made the cardinal error of dating goras and teach them the error of their ways. Unlike those terrible white people (who're not family-types, you see), they also do not actually sleep around, even when the Recession (and some good-guys-finish-last logic) forces them to become male escorts for an agency called Desi Boyz, run by – who else? – Sanjay Dutt.

A film with these ingredients could have been insufferable. But debutante Rohit Dhawan (son of David) has managed to create a fast-paced, breezy film that manages to do everything it does in an endearingly goofy sort of way that's often actually funny. John and Akshay bring an irrepressible energy to their antics, there's a cute kid who isn't milked quite as unabashedly for teariness as you might imagine, and I quite enjoyed Anupam Kher's turn as a dapper little retired gynaecologist with a taste for the occasional joint. Deepika Padukone's sore lack of acting talent doesn't show up so glaringly when all she has to do is sulk prettily (in contrast to, say, Aarakshan). Chitrangada Singh, however, is excruciating to watch as the sultry Oxford economics professor (yes, exactly) whose idea of exam preparation is to play strip poker with the older student (Akshay Kumar) whom she has a massive crush on. (But really, it's tough to carry off a role where you have to say things like, "Tab main moti aur bechari thhi, ab main sexy aur powerful hoon" and be taken seriously.)

The film even manages to bung in some gentle criticism of consumerism: a scene ridiculing the fancy marriage with the Valentino gown and exotic honeymoon as the hollow stuff that everybody aspires to. However surface this may seem in a film where the central romance begins and ends with a vision of "house in Hampstead, two kids, two cars and a dog", one can only be surprised that it's there at all.

Mississippi Churning

Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain


Tate Taylor's corny but heartwarming film is adapted from Kathleen Stockett's bestseller about an early 60s Southern world where black women must work as maids, cleaning the houses, cooking the dinners and bringing up the babies of white women. The white women, meanwhile, spend their early adulthood plotting potential marriages ("Isn't that what all you girls from Old Miss major in: professional husband hunting?" says a rude young suitor in the film) – and the rest of their lives in a whirl of bridge parties and society benefits.

This is a fictional world set exactly a century down from the Civil War era of Gone With the Wind, but Southern belles from the 'better families' are still preoccupied with the all-important task of ensnaring men (and occasionally, the other all-important task of snubbing white trash). The Help has also been accused of reinforcing stereotypes by creating black characters who don't seem to have moved much distance at all from the comforting nurturers of white children that the Mammies of yore were reduced to.

Now, it's true that the stable, strong-minded black maid teaching her young white charges to trust themselves and dishing out helpful advice such as "Fryin' chicken jus' tend to make you feel better about life" is undeniably clichéd, and the film's vision of a cross-colour sisterhood in the face of bigotry may seem simplistically crowd-pleasing. There's also the fact that the black women's words must come filtered through a white protagonist: Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone), a Mississippi girl who comes back from college to her hometown determined to find a story that will turn her into a writer.

But The Help's dramatic premise – the well-intentioned white girl who wants to get the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi, to describe this world from their perspective – is brought to life by some fine acting: Viola Davis as the muted, thoughtful Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as her feisty friend Minnie make the screen sparkle every time they're on, and I also thoroughly enjoyed Jessica Chastain's over-the-top performance as the desperate and confused Celia Foote (unrecognisably different from her Tree of Life avatar). The leitmotif of the film is a campaign for a separate toilet outside the house for "the help". We in India could do worse than watching a film that forces us to think about the notions of 'cleanliness' that form the core of every caste system.

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