Padmaavat, 2018

Over the past year, even as we’ve watched the news and read reports online and in the newspapers of death threats to the director and the actors, and of school buses being pelted with stones in protest, and even village women from the town of Chittorgarh, that the movie is said to have been set in, protesting the movie’s debut just two days ago by threatening to self-immolate themselves, one couldn’t help but wonder what the hoopla was all about.

Well, it took the better part of almost three long hours on a Sunday afternoon to find out.  And the verdict?  It’s a long stretch of time to admire the beauty of Padmavati, the legendary queen who according to lore set herself on fire rather than be enslaved by a Muslim sultan. Equally awe-inspiring are the beautiful clothes and jewelry – of both the queen and her consort – and of course, the palace décor in both muted and vibrant colors set off by lamps and lanterns floating in lovely ponds with lotus blooms all around.

There’s plenty of beauty everywhere.  There’s no doubt about that, and there’s even no doubt about the convincing performances of all three protagonists – the queen, her king, and the sultan named Alauddin Khilji.  And while there’s a disclaimer at the outset about how the movie does not support jauhar and sati, the ancient barbaric customs of women willingly self-immolating themselves on burning pyres, there’s somehow no satisfaction in the fact that this barbaric act is glorified to the point of making it the pièce de résistance of Mr. Bhansali’s magnum opus.

And it is on this point that I wonder as to the reactions of the audience in India, especially those already heavily influenced by the extremist right-wing groups – many of whom have drawn conclusions about the film and have already protested and pledged to take lives and give up their own life – in their mission to preserve the honor and dignity of the Rajputs, the community that claims Padmavati as belonging to their community.

The fact of the matter is that the Rajputs need not worry about being portrayed in a poor light.  They’ve been shown in the most flattering of lights, and their character and values seem to be highly civilized and superior to that of Khilji and his armies.  But are they really?  Are they truly the paragons of high culture and civilization that places such a high degree of importance on the woman’s body that preserving her dignity and honor is indeed valued more than her life itself?  And while this may not be the place to enter into an existential debate on the pros and cons of medieval practices, it is certainly worthy of some debate in light of current events that have taken up a large swath of people in India by storm and have caused them to do harm to others and to themselves.

And so, while there may be many among us who may have the luxury of engaging in such philosophical debate and may even agree that India ought to thank the British who colonized the country for two hundred years and abolished the barbaric practice of sati and jauhar, I fear that there may be many who watch this film and become so influenced by its overarching theme, that they may actually place more value on such an irrational, horrific, barbaric, and selfish act than on life itself.

There is no amount of beauty in this world more beautiful than life itself.

And so, while the film might have been true to the legend of the queen, it left me more than a little nonplussed.  It’s a whole lot of beauty that was quite useless in the end.

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The Mountain Between Us, 2017

Well, let me start with a preface:  First, I knew exactly what I was getting into, and second, I was feeling less than my usual cynical self last Sunday night.  So, I was prepared for a mushy story that I thought was “sweet” despite being far-fetched.

It might have actually had something to do with the silly yellow lab that reminded me of my own dog, but regardless, there’s more holes in the plot of this movie than there is in a slice of Swiss cheese.  But since I was in a forgiving mood, I let myself sit back, relax, and take in the spectacular scenery of the Rockies in the dead of winter, and didn’t let anything dissuade me from believing that when chance throws two people together, of course, they’ll fall in love and all their troubles will soon be behind them.

So, pay no mind to the impossibility of surviving a plane crash, killing a mountain lion in just the nick of time, stumbling upon a cabin in the woods after crossing what seemed like multiple mountains, not just one like the title suggests, making glorious love in spite of a broken leg, surviving on a can of beans for three weeks, and then just stumbling onto civilization in the midst of practically one mountain after another.  If all that were not just a tad too far-fetched for you, well then, perhaps you wouldn’t be too impressed with how each of them just waits for each other and finally, when all hope seems to be gone, fate brings them together once again, and the rest as they say, can only be history…

Long story short:  if you have a penchant for soapy dramas and syrupy romances – that make little to no rational sense whatsoever – you must see it at once.  If you don’t, well then, unless you go with an open mind and leave your sharp logic and analytical skills behind – like I did – you’re better off letting this one pass.

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Bitter Harvest, 2017

It’s all one big messy bowl of borscht: the politics, romance, faith and famine all mashed up in this story which follows two Ukrainian lovers through a mass starvation in the early 1930s known as the Holodomor.  The mass starvation imposed by Joseph Stalin on the Ukrainian people is one of the underrepresented horrors of the 20th century, and it is said that twenty million people were sent to their deaths.

Thanks to Martin Amis’ book Koba the Dread at the turn of this century, I had gained an uncommon education into the history of Russia and the murderous Stalin, and was therefore eager to see this film.  I regret to inform that this was not by any stretch of the imagination an effective representation of Stalin’s overwhelmingly significant blot on world history.  While it may have been completely well-meaning to have woven a romantic story in the midst of the famine and bloodshed of the time, the fact is that it did nothing to enlighten or enhance the gravitas of the situation.  And while the beautiful landscape of the Ukrainian mountains and its people made for some lovely scenery, it did little to convey the rape and pillage of the land and its people.  Given the current state of world events, this film had the potential to build and shape world opinion on Russia, but sadly, it is more a flimsy gossamer offering that fails to teach and impress.

As for the actors, they’re all a fine bunch despite a dull script.  And Max Irons is a fine young man, but does not, unfortunately, have the presence of his father, Jeremy Irons.

On a most inconsequential note, I was quite taken by the lovely embroidered shirts and blouses that the peasants wore almost like a uniform.  That small detail highlighted in some measure the unique arts and culture of the land.

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