Now that John Woo (Face Off ), Jackie Chan (Rush Hour ), and Ang Lee (The ce Storm ) have become established names on this side of the Pacific, the most recent significant “ethnic” wave in Hollywood comprises names like Kapur, Nair, Chandrasekhar, and, of course, Shyamalan. Supported in part by the Oscar-buzz creating theatrical and home-video successes of subtitled Lagaan and to a lesser extentAsoka , Indian-American names have jumped to the frontlines of the American film scene. With a handful of carefully selected high-profile American releases spearheaded by Shyamalan’s huge hit Signs, 2002 is shaping up to be the biggest year ever for Indian-American names in Hollywood.
Jay Chand-rashekhar may not be that well known, but that may change soon. His Broken Lizard comic ensemble—something like a Monty Python for this side of the Atlantic—earlier this year released Broken Lizard’s Super Troopers , a $3 million spoof of highway cops gone amuck (face it, is there any other kind of highway men-in-blue movies?) set in the New England boonies. Lead by Chandrasekhar himself in the role of the head instigator of a hilariously inept band of state troopers whose outpost is on the verge of being shut down due to budget cutbacks until these backwoods Sherlocks literally stumble onto a conspiracy. With a bawdy, well-written, script supporting the sexual vagrancy all their criminal investigations invariably lead to, Super Troopers has achieved minor cult status and a very respectable $18 million gross—an astonishing 600 percent return on investment, a coveted figure anywhere.
With the extremely well received Monsoon Wedding , Mira Nair cemented her reputation just about everywhere. After the success of Monsoon Wedding, which grossed nearly $20 million worldwide, Nair has become something of a darling of the international film pantheon. Her newest release, Hysterical Blindness (see accompanying review) shows her in comfortable and complete control of her turf. Because Nair’s films don’t cater to any one demographic strata or any particular country, she is a perfect example of a new breed of truly international filmmakers.
Other names also feature into the newfound confidence Indian-American filmmakers have gained recently. Two years ago Tarsem Singh made a minor splash with the $62 million grossing The Cellstarring Jennifer Lopez, while Ismail Merchant and partner James Ivory continue their prolific output with their latest offering, The Mystic Masseur .
Ever since The Sixth Sense achieved blockbuster status two years ago, taking in $672 million across the globe and a solid No. 12 on the all-time moneymakers list, Hollywood has pretty much surrendered itself to M. Night Shyamalan. Even though his Unbreakable did not quite see the spectacular box-office that had been anticipated in the wake of The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan easily got his way by making Disney put up $70 million to make, and an additional $40 million to promote Signs, the alien invasion thriller that has wreaked havoc on the box office in 2002. Its $60 million opening weekend is the best ever for both Shyamalan and Signs star Mel Gibson, giving Gibson his biggest movie to date. Within a month of release, Signs has raked in more than $195 million in the U.S. market alone.
These statistics are all … er … signs that Shyamalan will be around for a while. A recent Newsweek cover story on Shyamalan boldly anointed the young director “The Next Spielberg.” The media has zoomed in on this 30-something filmmaker, dwelling on such details as to the origin of the name “Night” (one story has the name coined on the fly by Shyamalan for his U.S. citizenship application) or the name of the artist that drew the child-paintings in Signs (Shyamalan’s daughter gets the artistic credit).
Shyamalan has also boosted his own stock by being approachable, having a camera-friendly face and even giving himself a short speaking role as the veterinarian-with-a-secret in Signs. Looking beyond Signs, Shyamalan has yet to give Disney the green light for a sequel to Unbreakable, a decision that is his alone. In addition to directing, Shyamalan has also been writing scripts. After Stuart Little II , he has been tapped to write the script for the next film in the Indiana Jones mega-saga.
Rounding out the desi year in Hollywood will be Shekhar Kapur’s newest Hollywood venture, an update of the popular The Four Feathers, a tale of chivalry and cowardice set in the desert fringes of the former British Empire. Kapur has created wonderful films both in India (Masoom,Bandit Queen ) and Hollywood (Elizabeth).
With an impressive cast of Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, and Kate Hudson, the epic feel and late-in-the-year calendar timing has already attracted some muted pre-release Oscar-buzz for Kapur’s film.
The influx of these distinguished filmmakers into the world’s most lucrative box-office market adds credence to the belief that films are being transformed into a global commodity. One film muse recently observed that Hollywood is no longer a place, but a state of mind. When Spiderman was released in India within three weeks of it’s New York and L.A. release, it broke India’s all-time one-day and opening weekend box office grosses. By joining a larger potential pool of talent that can be tapped into, these are exciting times for any Indian filmmaker seeking to swing out internationally.
Carrying On Doctor
HUM KISISE KUM NAHIN . Director: David Dhawan. Players: Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, Ajay Devgan, Aishwarya Rai. Music: Anu Malik. DVD (Spark). Eng. Subtitles. Widescreen. 165 mins.
A tightly laced comedy at times allows a director his best foot forward. By bringing together a quartet of A-list names into what is really a shallow spin on Analyze This, David Dhawan’sHum Kisise Kum Nahin (HKKN) also successfully spoofs the doctor-patient comic exchanges pioneered in British films in the 1960s (Carry On Doctor). Combine this with a catchy tune or two Indian-style, and the result is both entertaining and easy to hum to.
The ditsy Dr. Rustogi (Bachchan at his absent-minded professorial best) has in his proverbial side not one but two major thorns. Rustogi’s dance-instructor sister Komal (Rai), it seems, has attracted two suitors, neither of which Rustogi approves of. One is the notorious gangster Munnabhai (Dutt smartly winks at his own past brushes with the law) and Raja (Devgan), a good-for-nothing bowling alley owner. Deciding on the lesser of the two less-than-gentleman fuels a hilariously fast-paced narrative that swings between Bombay and Kuala Lumpur.
Bachchan is a class comedy act after whom all others must follow. In one memorable scene, the dignified Dr. Rustogi unexpectedly resorts to a high-flying martial arts outburst to ward off some high-priced hooligans encroaching Munnabhai’s turf. The moment captures both a serio-comic highlight as well as Bachchan’s own subtle homage to his tough-guy iconic persona from the 1970s.
Spark’s DVD sparkles with extras. The “making of” featurette comprises the second disc of this two-disc set. The extra footage includes extended chats with all principal players as well as director Dhawan, producer Afzal Khan, and storywriters Robin Bhatt and Rumi Jafry. HKKN is a perfect dose of plop-plop, fizz-fizz comic relief.
Women on the Verge
Hysterical Blindness. Director: Mira Nair. Players: Uma Thurman, Gena Rowlands, Juliette Lewis, Ben Gazarra. HBO Films.
While Mira Nair was shooting for Monsoon Wedding in India last year, she received a call from Uma Thurman asking her to take behind-the-camera charge of the screen version of Laura Cahill’s play Hysterical Blindness. Attracted by the chance to work with a great ensemble and what, on the surface, reads like a period piece, Nair accepted readily. The resulting film is an exact glance at the inexact lives of three New Jersey women set two decades ago. It pinpoints an inflamed neurotic vein bubbling up just beneath the surface of working-class America during the Reagan Eighties.
To breath life into an era symbolized by big hair and excessive make-up, Thurman (who also co-executive produced) casts herself as Debby, a chain-smoking 20-something gal whose existence is devoted to nightly jaunts to the local pub in hopes of bagging the perfect man. Together with her best friend Beth (Lewis), a single mom only slightly more grounded to reality outside the pub’s seedy doors, Debby’s routine becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of heavily-made-up come-ons to bored-looking working class men from the neighborhood.
Debby’s high-strung behavior, and the film’s title, is a clinical medical condition, something the script hints at only in passing. That matters little as Debby and Beth pad on yet more layers of make-up as they continue their nightly prowls for love and self-affirmation. Debby’s life is a sharp contrast to that of her mother Virginia (Rowlands), also a single mother whose unending turn at waiting on tables shows a promising change for the better with the arrival of frequent customer Nick (Gazarra). The suspicious glance that Debby casts on Nick stems from the angst Debby suffers from being abandoned by her father at an early age.
Hysterical Blindness is an acute balancing act between Thurman’s delivery of tightly controlled hysteria in the role of Debby and the old-fashioned romantic courtship between Virginia and Nick. One especially touching scene is a slow, intimate dance between Virginia and Nick. Rowlands and Gazarra inject a down-to-earth conviction in each step that has us readily believing they are the only ones dancing on an otherwise crowded dance floor.
Filmed in a free-floating hand-held camera style reminiscent ofMonsoon Wedding (Declan Quinn photographed both films), Blindness also gets mucho mileage from Kasia Maimone’s costumes. The big hair that always has one curl too many, the eye lashes that arrive before the eyes do and the Flashdance-era threads add significant credibility to the roles.
Some of the best moments in the film are the small, fleeting bouts of self-actualization where Debby and Beth see themselves as something more than mere skanky man-bait at happy hour. Nair’s deft handling, however, makes the distinct components of the story—an unpredictable mother-daughter tug, a curious rivalry between two friends, a gentrified romance—gel together with natural ease, making it easy to see Hysterical Blindness.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.