The small town of Wasseypur is located in northeastern India, absorbed in many ways by the larger city of Dhanbad. Wasseypur is sort of the Newburgh, New York or Camden, New Jersey to Dhanbad’s New York City or Philadelphia — a small, incredibly dangerous, largely lawless enclave attached to the outskirts of a much larger town. Or maybe like one of the many towns controlled by narco-syndicates south of the border. It was a coal company town. In the case of Wasseypur, it’s lawlessness was derived from when the British packed up and called it a day, and India was once again a sovereign nation. The coal mines, which had been entirely British-owned, were turned over to India, but they were basically dumped into the laps of a lot of people who may have been skilled laborers and assistant managers but had no experience whatsoever with how to run a single mine, let alone an entire network and industry. Sort of like the United States freeing its slaves with no real interest in actually equipping them for life, Great Britain folded its flag and wished the Indians good luck.
It’s been said that in an effort to appeal to as massive a population as possible, the average Hindi film tries to cram every film genre into a single movie. Asambhav is the rare entry that maintains a relatively narrow thematic focus — this is an action film, stripped of the romantic comedy and estranged mother that appear in almost every other film, be they action or horror or whatever — but it makes up for its lack of schizophrenic genre-hopping by trying to cram every single editing and camera trick from the last fifteen years into one film, and often into one scene, and occasionally into a single shot. The result is a dizzying nightmare of over-direction that turns an otherwise average action film into a complete wreck that could almost amuse you if it wasn’t so busy inducing seizures.
Arjun Rampal plays Aadit Arya, super-duper Army commando and part-time international spy. When evil Kashmiri Muslims hatch a scheme to kidnap the President of India while he is in Switzerland, it’s up to Arya, and for some reason only Arya, to foil the dastardly scheme. You might think that the kidnapping of a country’s president would inspire a slightly more forceful reaction and better security, but I guess the security here is orchestrated by the same people who arranged the security for the transport of weapons-grade plutonium in James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. I also thought by the time of this movie, the whole evil Pakistani/Kashmiri Muslim thing was played out. Didn’t Sunny Deol single-handedly defeat the entire Pakistani army and all radical Muslim terrorists groups simply by staring at them in an intense fashion with a flag waving behind him in slow motion? Years after the fact, however, Rai returns to that seemingly eternal well, though frankly, the whole Kashmiri/Pakistani thing is really little more than window dressing by this point. It doesn’t feel like the movie’s heart is really into it. I reckon they assume you pretty much got the gist of things at this point, so they throw the Kashmiri terrorists in as a way to get the ball rolling without having to explain motivation.
In Switzerland, Arya poses as a reporter and meets the obligatory hot female pop star, Alisha (Priyanka Chopra). Since this is a Bollywood film, we can’t have just one plot. So Alisha is the unwitting drug mule for slick Switzerland-based Indian criminal Sam Hans (Naseeruddin Shah, who steals the film, though that’s no big feat considering the rest of the cast), who works with her handlers to hide the drugs inside musical instruments. Having Alisha in the movie means that we now have our excuse for gratuitous musical numbers, though in all honesty, they’re pretty tame by comparison to many musical numbers. Most of them are just passed off as club performances or video shoots, which is kind of weak even if it is more “realistic.” None of the songs are all that catchy, and the choreography is pretty listless. In an effort to add to the realism, we frequently cut from people who do look hot and are able to dance to people who don’t and can’t. Seeing big hulking gangster henchmen beaming big, goofy smiles and doing that “I can’t really dance” dance is pretty funny, though.
Eventually, we learn that Sam is involved with the terrorists who kidnap the president, but he’s hardly in the scheme for political reasons. And since he’s the coolest character in the film, you can also figure that he’ll be the one with ulterior motives and depth of character that allow for the obligatory “moment of redemption.” There’s another subplot that unveils the fact that someone in the Indian Embassy has betrayed their country as well and is in league with the terrorists. Incidentally, the Indian Embassy in Switzerland is apparently staffed by a number of incredibly leggy bombshells in micro-skirts and cleavage-revealing tops. Let’s pray they never discover the boxy, ill-fitting pantsuit.
Naseeruddin Shah seems to be channeling a bit of Gary Oldman crossed with Graham Norton’s wardrobe in his portrayal of Sam Hans. He’s flamboyant but stops just short of scene-chewing or going needlessly over-the-top, though he does wear lots of lavender silk suits and whatnot. Whatever the case, he turns in a good performance made better by the fact that everyone else is pretty bad. The hitman in the long shiny blue trenchcoat is just silly, and he looks sort of like Benny Urquidez mixed with Christian Slater, but with none of the menace such an abomination would actually exude. Our hero Arya is pretty much a non-entity through most of the film. He shows up from time to time to kungfu the crap out of people, but Arjun Rampal really isn’t much of an actor at this point in his career. He looks good, he handles action believably, but his character is thoroughly uninteresting. Villains are always the better and more complex characters, and it takes an actor of tremendous talent or a very good (for the hero) or bad (for the villain) screenwriter to make the hero more interesting than the villain. Compared to Sam Hans, Arya barely even registers. For long stretches of film, you’ll forget that he’s even in it.
Priyanka Chopra has little more to do besides tag along, get captured, and look hot. She does all these things well, and also handles most of the movie’s musical numbers. The one that doesn’t involve her is also the only one that isn’t set in a club and grounded in some daft semblance of reality. Upon successfully kidnapping the president, the vile terrorist organization retires to their lair of villainy to celebrate with a musical number that involves a very hot, very scantily clad woman singing and dancing with a whole cast of bald gay guys in short shorts, combat boots, and chain mail. It’s like these terrorists pack an entire dance troupe of Right Said Fred clones with them. Maybe they should have just unleashed their nightmarish Right Said Fred army on the world. No one would be expecting some Islamic Fundamentalist to stand in front of a camera and broadcast through Al Jazeera that he’s “too sexy for this Jihad!”
But then, this terrorist organization does have a martial arts hitman in a shiny blue trenchcoat, and a squad that drives around Switzerland in generic “mercenary” fatigues, including a woman in camo booty shorts and a halter top. And you thought the revolution was all chadors and guys with scraggly beards. This is by far the battiest musical number, and as such, the best.
There are a couple things this film does differently than the average Bollywood film, and even the average Bollywood action film. Most noticeable is the more or less complete absence of a romantic subplot. Oh sure Alisha and Arya are going to fall in love, but the film spends hardly any time at all on this. There’s not even a musical montage of them set against the various famous landmarks of the world. No, they simply meet, and then we assume they’re in love because this is a movie and they’re the male and female leads. Some Bollywood films would spend a good hour on a romantic comedy subplot, but Asambhav is content to simply take the well-worn path all action films take, and just say, “Look, they fall in love, OK?” Then it’s on to some kungfu. There’s also precious little comic relief. Arya gets saddled with a comic relief sidekick agent in Switzerland, but his mugging is graciously limited.
Even with all that, the director must have thought that the real star of the film was the director, because he crams every cheap trick and technique he can into the film. It’s like watching distilled essence of 24 mixed with Mission: Impossible, which seems to be this film’s main inspiration, especially since “mission asambhav” translates more or less to “mission impossible.” Or if that’s too good for you, then Mission: Impossible 2. For starters, this film can’t go ten seconds without a split screen. Sometimes, it’s five or six different frames in one shot. And it’s not just in scenes where split screen might heighten the tension or give us an alternate point of view. No, much of the time, it happens when something as mundane as a guy reaching for a tissue is all that’s going on. Need to pick up a pencil? Show three different angles, and make sure one of them is in slow motion with thumping techno music in the background. This movie also loves that thing where you start in slow motion, then the action speeds up to super-hyper fast motion for a second, then goes back to slow motion. Once again, this is used at the drop of a hat, often with no meaning at all. Walking down the street? Why not shoot it slow-hyper-slow? And it’s not like anyone is walking to a fight or anything. They’re just walking down to the mailbox to see if their new issue of India Times has arrived.
There’s also the tendency to have “ghost images” of a person appear, again for no real reason. Rather than augmenting or working with the action in the movie, all these goofy tricks simply distract you. They muddy the waters. They stink of a first-time music video director getting final edit on a feature film, though Rai is not a first-time director. He’s just a bad director. The one thing I will say in his defense, however, is that as far as I remember, there was not a single instance of “bullet time.” And let that be a lesson to all other directors: if bullet time is too tired even for Rajid Rai, who has never seen a stupid editing trick he didn’t like, then it’s really past its prime. So let bullet time go, people. Let it go. Rajit Rai did, and he replaced it with doing four-thousand split screens in one shot.
It’s amazing just how crippling over-direction can be. Asambhav would not be an especially good film even if it had a good director, but Rajid Rai’s relentless over-indulgence really pulls the carpet out from under what was otherwise an unimpressive-but-enjoyable action film. At the same time, I might have been bored if this movie had been competently directed. The sheer insanity exhibited by Rai does, I must admit, turn this film into an absolute disaster, but one that is largely entertaining. I don’t like to pull the “so bad it’s good” card all that often, but it sort of applies here. You have an average film. It’s made awful by an over-indulgent director. But then, it becomes so over-indulgent, so awful, that it comes full circle and manages to be sort of entertaining in a way. It’s by no means much of a recommendation, but it’s the best I can do. The fight scenes are solid but uninspired. The acting is mostly below-average. The musical numbers are largely unengaging. But you know, the whole thing is such a hideous eyesore that it kept me watching.
Plus, Sam Hans was all right. Every single time he shows up on screen, no matter how mundane his appearance, the soundtrack blares with “O Fortuna.” And it can’t bear to stop the song. They thought it was so cool that even when Sam talks, they keep “O Fortuna” rolling, only at a nearly inaudible level. As soon as Sam pauses, the song volume rockets back up, then back down if he speaks again. So Asambhav really has few redeeming features (Naseeruddin Shah’s hamming is the only one I can think of at the moment. Well, that and Priyanka Chopra’s midriff, and that crazy-ass hard gay musical number the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists put on).
It’s a crummy action film with awful direction. It’s a completely soulless, paint-by-numbers action film that could have been churned out by a computer. It’s never thrilling, and the lead male and female character disappear for large swaths of film, and you don’t even notice or care because they were pretty boring anyway. This movie is a total bomb, and that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. Don’t listen to me, because I’m going to tell you to go ahead and see Asambhav. The near universal chorus of bad reviews this movie received are right, and I am wrong. Don’t do it. Why do you even trust me any more? For God’s sake, man, that’s the road to madness!!!
My time has come. Another Frolic Afield over at the Cultural Gutter. A Halting Fire takes a look at the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, a show with subject matter — the micro-computing revolution of the early 1980s — near and dear to my heart. It’s also about the unwillingness of so many modern television shows to commit to an emotion other than a sort of listless misery.
The shift of the whisky market toward whisky with no age statement on the label is causing all sorts of controversy. In my latest Frolic Afield at Alcohol Professor, I throw myself into the debate. Blinded By the Truth is an account of Diageo’s “Blind Truth About Aging Whisky” seminar at Tales of the Cocktail, a tasting meant to illustrate that a whisky’s age and its quality are not dependent upon one another. However, partway through, it became pretty obvious that the tasting was designed to stack the deck in favor of the point the presenters were asserting.
On August 4, 1914, Germany declared war on and subsequently invaded Belgium, a declared neutral in the escalating conflict between France, Russia, and the allied countries of German and Austria-Hungary. Europe at the time had been spoiling for a war, and the Byzantine tangle of pacts, treaties, and agreements ensured that it was only a question of when, not if, the entire continent would find an excuse to kit up and march off to battle. That excuse came in June of 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian radicals. And so the dominoes fell. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia was allied with Russia, who had no choice but to declare war on Austria-Hungary. Germany was allied with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and so declared war on Russia. France, which had treaties with Russia, thought about staying neutral in the matter, but that became a moot point when Germany declared war on them, launching an offensive that bulldozed its way through Belgium en route to France and brought the United Kingdom into the war as a result of a pact Britain had with Belgium.
I spent the better part of a week in New Orleans, seeking out voodoo hotspots and attending Tales of the Cocktail. My latest Frolic Afield for Alcohol Professor is about one of the many (very good) seminars I attended during that week. Bartender, There’s an Anchovy In My Drink is a look at the Italian Futurist movement and the futurist opinion on cocktails. And yes, one of the cocktails — or polibibita — had an anchovy chunk floating in it.
Some of you might have noticed that, beyond some posts linking to things I’ve written elsewhere, Teleport City has been a little stagnant lately. After explaining why on our Facebook page, it occurred to me that only a small percentage of our readers look at that, so I figured I should spread the word directly from the source. No, we’re not shutting down production. You think I’m gonna let THE MAN off that easy? What we are doing, or rather, what I am doing (the royal We), is writing a book. For honest and true this time.
And that, it turns out, takes up a tremendous amount of time and energy.
Time for another Frolic Afield over at The Cultural Gutter, where I am writing Einstein and the Bearded Lady, about the Czech science fiction comedy I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (Zabil jsem Einsteina, panove) from 1970. The film asks the question, “What would men of the future be willing to risk to make sure women don’t have too much body hair?” Silliness ensues.
Also, the Gutter is having a fundraiser to help pay for hosting and writing, so if you have a few bucks, consider sending it their way. You’ll get stuff in return, in addition to helping keep the site alive and kicking and slinging the wisdom about comics, romance novels, film, and science fiction.
A new frolic afield back over at Alcohol Professor. All Hopped Up on Whiskey is a look at the small but interesting trend of distilling finished beer into whiskey, or integrating the use of hops into the whiskey distilling process — not to mention the notion of seasonal whiskey like seasonal beers. I also talk to the guys from Sons of Liberty Distillery in Rhode Island and Darek Bell from Tennessee’s Corsair Distillery.
Another stroll through some of (but by no means all of) my favorite places in New York City, this time spread out across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and The Bronx (we’ll get to you, Queens; as for Staten Island, I’ll see what I can do). Another of the many things I like about this city — and really, about most places — is that it’s basically one big, open-air museum. Between free exhibits and things that are just on the street there to be witnessed, you can take in a tremendous amount of history, both mainstream and obscure, simply by doing a little research and walking down the block.