I love stories in any form. I love books and movies and TV shows and radio plays and story songs and… you get the point.
And I love talking about stories. Absolute favorite things. If small talk were about stories I’d be far more comfortable chatting with strangers.
But I don’t really like recommending things, or critiquing things, or even summarizing the plots of things. What I like about certain stories tends to be so strangely specific it’s hard to say whether anyone else would even like something that I adore. Critiquing I do enjoy doing, actually, but it’s time consuming to do it properly. And I suck at summarizing because plot is so seldom what I like about a thing.
Just for an example, I once enjoyed a film about a Roman soldier played by Colin Firth who teams up with an Indian warrior played by Aishwarya Rai. They bond while sparring with swords. It was awesome. Less than a week later someone asked me if I’d seen the movie that was like an Arthurian prequel where Merlin had been a Druid sneaking a boy emperor out during the fall of Rome and how in the end the Pendragons were descended from Julius Caesar and Exacalibur was his sword? I said no, that didn’t ring any bells, but my husband had to correct me. We had totally just watched that movie, and the A plot had not stuck with me at all. (It’s called THE LAST LEGION).
So that’s all sort of by way of warning. I’m going to be telling you from time to time about things I love. But the things I love, they tend to be pretty unique to me. Your results may vary.
Where to start? There are two films I love most in the world. Both films that felt, the first time I watched them and within the first five minutes, like the filmmaker had crawled inside my own mind and made a movie just to delight me. The first is from India and it’s called JAAN-E-MANN.
As you may know, I’ve written a novel called MITWA where the main character is from India. I had done a lot of research to get this character right (and taking place in the future lets me hand wave a little bit too), but then I happened to be talking to a friend who was from Delhi and admitted I had never seen a Bollywood movie and didn’t even know where to start. She gave me three, and halfway through the first film I was sold on the entire genre. I ordered them by the box from Eros Entertainment and watched several a week for years.
JAAN-E-MANN was probably the tenth or so movie I watched. I already knew the lead actor Salman Khan, and had picked up this movie because he was in it. It was the debut of writer/director Shirish Kunder. I had enjoyed some of the other films I had been watching, but this movie just blew me away.
It’s pretty rare to see a Hollywood movie totally unspoiled. Even if it’s something that doesn’t sound familiar and came out a decade before, I’ll still vaguely remember the ad campaign, or a review, or maybe the trailer. I’ll have certain expectations based on the actors that appear in it. But for this movie, I knew nothing except to starred a guy I’d liked in two other, very stylistically different films. I didn’t even read the blurb on the back of the box, just stuck the movie in the player after getting my then-young boys down for a nap and pushed play.
It opens in space, on board a space station tumbling in free fall. This movie grabbed me before the first line of dialogue on the strength of its visuals alone.
This movie I do remember the A plot, and not just because I’ve seen it a million times. It’s because it riffs off of one of my all-time favorite stories: Cyrano de Bergerac. In this story a wannabe actor owes his estranged wife more alimony than he can afford, so he cooks up a plan to get the nerd that adored her from afar all through college to marry her. But first the nerd needs a makeover, and to be fed all the right lines. This was the first movie I’d seen Akshay Kumar in, and he sells both the before and after versions of the former nerd, now astronaut.
I had to stop the movie at the intermission because naptime was over. That afternoon waiting until bedtime when I could finish the movie was the longest afternoon of my life. Because what happens just before the intermission changes everything.
I kind of think if this had been a Hollywood movie, this plot twist could not have blindsided me the same way. Then again, I saw THE CRYING GAME on opening night when I didn’t even know there was a secret to THE CRYING GAME, so sometimes these things still happen. But still.
The second half of the movie, after that Event, recontextualizes everything that happened in the first half of the movie. Rather like how the ending of THE SIXTH SENSE changes the entire movie you’ve just seen, except here you get to see it all played out. Because the story isn’t over.
But as good as the storytelling is, and it’s awesomely satisfying, this movie is just visually so cool. The main character tells his uncle about his college days by running a flashback on the back wall of their office like a film (complete with the 3 – 2 – 1 run up and beep). The camera does complete rollovers (did he build a special rig a la Guillermo del Toro in CRONOS? I may never know; Bollywood films almost never have director commentary tracks). The songs are an integral part of the story (kinda rare in Bollywood), even the dance choreography is storytelling.
The colors are lush, the sets gorgeous, it’s just beautiful. But it’s what del Toro would call eye protein, not eye candy, because it’s all part of the story.
I can direct you to a trailer, but why not check out my favorite song from the film? It opens just after one of my favorite moments, when the main character and his uncle start to sing on their own but are interrupted by the sound of someone knocking inside the wardrobe in the corner of the room. The uncle opens the doors and an entire musical group comes out and sets up because you can’t have a musical number without musicians.