Monday, January 27, 2014

Benito Bautista's "Mumbai Love" - Pedestrian Effort, Failed Ambition

While on a fashion assignment in Mumbai, Ella (Solenn Heussaff) is pursued by Nandi (Kiko Matos), an Indian resident in Manila who’s in the Indian city to attend a cousin’s wedding. Sparks fly after their first date, but as fate would have it, Ella had to abruptly leave. What’s worse, the note she left for Nandi gets misplaced at the front desk of the hotel. With no contact details nor full names to go on with, both settle back into their lives with deep regret.

Back in Manila, Nandi tries the television talk shows to find Ella to no avail. The girl seems to have disappeared from the face of the Earth. One night, while watching a gay pageant where his cousin Romni (Romy Daryani) is a judge, he finds Ella backstage attending to the contestants’ wardrobe. Ella’s Mama Nikka (Jason Gainza) is the pageant’s costume designer and make-up artist. The couple briskly rekindles their budding romance, but finds resistance in Nandi’s parents. They have earlier arranged for their 25-year-old bachelor’s betrothal to the daughter of a rich Indian family. Though warned of being cast out from the family, Nandi fights to keep Ella in his life.

But there’s more trouble brewing in the horizon. Ella gets abducted by Marco (Mart Escudero), her colleague from work and secret admirer, who takes her to a desolate farm house in Laguna, keeping her a prisoner. With the help of a nasty crew of “bumbays” – the loanshark gang headed by Rashid (Raymond Bagatsing), Nandi scours the town to secure the girl. Will they find Ella before it’s too late?

The Philippines is home to an estimated 150,000 Indians, mostly of Sindhi or Punjabi ethnicity; this according to a 2008 statistics. But this I believe is a conservative estimate. The number could be triple. After all, this minority group has been in the country since pre-colonial times, and the 17th century Gujarati merchants made sure that their transoceanic empire flourished long before we've even acquired modernization.

Moreover, anthropological studies have revealed proofs of active trade between Tamil Nadu (the south Indian region) and the country as early as the 8th and 10th century. These days, the “bumbays” have become part of our sociological existence: the turbans, rotis, 5/6, the tongue-burning gastronomy, snake charmers, Kashmirian fabrics, cheap surgical instruments and cancer drugs, and the frolic of Bollywood.

Gradually spilling over in the entertainment field, a number of the latest Indian features have been screened in SM cinemas last year. This includes Shahrukh Khan’s highly entertaining “Chennai Express”, Reema Kagti’s suspenseful ghost drama “Talaash” (“The Answer Lies Within”), Rajkumar Hirani’s “3 Idiots” (shown 4 years too late), and Yash Chopra’s “Jab Tak Hai Jaan” (Til There is Life) – also with superstar Shahrukh Khan. These screenings were always well attended, underlining the sizable population of Indians in the metropolis. Is it any wonder then that “Mumbai Love” would eventually come into being?

Kiko Matos is Nandi and Solenn Heussaff as Ella.
 “Mumbai Love” is constructed in the same Bollywood template: a main narrative premise, colorful Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, and a protracted story line that stretches for hours, Benito Bautista’s lighthearted tale is well anticipated. With spirited performances from its charming leads, a sparking cinematography, a traipse into delightful Mumbai and a director who showed immense promise in his two earlier films (the searing "Boundary" and documentary “Harana”), how could it fail? Unfortunately, this movie disappoints.

Bhansali's "Ram-Leela"
To begin with, the dance sequences are shabbily choreographed, the dancing not even synchronized - and dancing is a key element in Bollywood, for those who hid in the caves for the last century or so. 

Bollywood and its Hollywood-inspired nicknames (which officially started in 1932 as Tollywood based in Tollygunge, West Bengal)  treat their dance sequences with due attention, diligence and precision. Meanwhile, the dancers in “Mumbai Love” looked like they rehearsed for a fortnight then began shooting. Very few Indian movies do away with dancing and music, like one of my all time favorite, Aparna Sen’sMr. & Mrs. Iyer” (2002). 

Let’s take the case of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s…Ram-Leela”(2013) which is essentially “Romeo and Juliet” uprooted to the colors and exoticism of India’s Udaipur. This tale of the star-crossed lover becomes sexualized like it hasn't been before, yet its tragic comeuppance is nonetheless cloaked in some of the most eye-popping musical numbers I've seen in a while. And we're talking about a tragic narrative. Moreover, the plump guys in many Telugu films can out-booty shake anyone from “Mumbai Love” – and that’s a shame since we Filipinos are known for our universal musicality. In Bautista’s tale, music and dance become part of the ingredient, but they seem like after thoughts, i.e. expurgated flights of fancy.

You’d expect a “harana” (serenade) scene from Benito Bautista to work, but believe me, you’re better off forgetting the aforementioned scene altogether. 

There are commentaries about Indian customs like the arranged marriage, but even this was handled without much thought. After Nandi was warned against marrying another girl, the succeeding scene has the parents celebrating the rescue of Ella and their son’s engagement to the French-Pinay. What made them change their minds so fast? Fast resolutions can be attributed to 1) laziness to unspool the kinks in your narrative clutter; 2) carelessness of the storyteller; 3) a myopic vision on situations that should otherwise make sense. We blinked and Nandi’s dilemma for his “arranged marriage” is suddenly gone. How convenient.


Now the obvious lapse in the script: You go out on a fantastic date in a foreign land and you won't even ask for each other's full names? You won't even talk about which area you live in Manila? "Saan ka banda?" Ako doon sa malapit sa peryahan." Nothing? You ride bikes all over and have romantic rendezvous yet you won't even exchange numbers? No exchange of call cards or email addresses? What is this, the 1930's? Isn't that a little too incredulous to believe? That - or the thinking cap's been compromised.

There are misplaced side stories that didn't help move the plot, like Jun Sabayton and his son’s anti-Indian sentiments. Strike them off the story plate and you won’t miss anything. Raymond Bagatsing’s loansharks are another. Gym-buff loanshark Indians, seriously? And a commentary that the “5/6” scheme helps propel our nation's economy -  “because this is micro-enterprise” - sounds too superfluous to digest.

The scenes in Mumbai are another problem. In the movie, Mumbai forfeits its grandiose colonial sheen. Suddenly, the glorious streets of Colaba seem like little Quiapo, except for the iconic yellow-and-black taxi cabs inherent in Mumbai. The Gateway of India seems like an oblique view of UST’s century arch. If they WERE indeed filmed in Mumbai, then someone got shortchanged.

Beautiful scenery from Pila, Laguna.
Martin Escudero is hopelessly stuck in his “Zombadings” persona. His character Marco, who’s in love with Ella, is so effete, you’d understand why she never looked at him as a romantic possibility. When he starts acting out as the spurned lover, I half expected him to come out of the closet. Jason Gainza hams it up as Ella's cross-dressing adoptive “mother”. But we just didn't find him that amusing to begin with. Angelina Kanapi does another cooky "lady boss" role, but she comes off like a drugged out hipster. Hasn't she done this in 4 - no, make it 7 - other films in the past? The Indian cast does better, but then I am probably scraping the bottom already.


If there’s a flicker of light in this lackadaisical ouvre, it would be Solenn Heussaff and newcomer Kiko Matos (last seen in Jason Paul Laxamana’s stirring “Babagwa”). While decidedly easy on the eyes, Heussaff is also earnest and makes for an adorable romantic heroine. There's much to admire about Heussaff because she has always been a sincere performer. She does away with extraneous emotions that would unnecessarily spill over a characterization. Her Tagalog is amazing – and remind me again how long has Sam Milby worked in the Philippines?

Kiko Matos, on the other hand, is just too gorgeous to ignore. Sometimes you want to click the pause button and just gaze at Matos’ smile a second longer! How's that for a romantic lead? He occasionally stumbles with his slapstick scenes, but you’re far from picking an egg to throw on screen. He is just adorable. Check out his bharat scene. He looked so awkward prancing around, but you hardly mind him. Beauty indeed has distinct advantages because sometimes, it helps you get away with murder. But what happens when novelty wears off?

In 2011, Director Bautista’s “Boundary” blazed the cinematic trail. There's no doubt that a great film maker was born. This was further reinforced when his documentary “Harana” opened in the festival circuit the following year. Then comes “Mumbai Love” which is nothing short of a rudimentary work. What happened?

If “Mumbai Love” gets a commercial screening anywhere in India, it would be an absolute embarrassment. The Indians who are weaned on the pomp and pageantry of Bollywood, Tollywood and Kollywood might find “our” craft too amateurish. Do we really want that? Do we deserve such pedestrian effort? 
Ikaw na, says Kiko Matos.
Solenn Heussaff and Kiko Matos pose in Mumbai.


Anonymous said...

Have you ever thought that Bautista is not even trying to copy Bollywood but just paying homage to the latter? He mentioned this once to an interview that he never intended or even aspire to copy Bollywood - that takes a lot of effort and much bigger budget to do so.

Obviously, Mumbai Love was packaged to go mainstream - and the exec producers usually dip their hands into films most of the time without the director's control. Judging from Bautista's film history (he actually garnered multiple Audience Awards for Harana from major international film festivals and is a Gawad Urian Awardee), you can't help but think this was the case.

I still give him kudos for making such an effort to do this film. I think he made this film simpler and easy to grasp so that his message of racial equality can be understood by the Filipino mass. It's a better alternative to preachy art films that nobody watches and to mainstream trash they spew out every year.

Cathy Pena said...

On a normal day, I wouldn't entertain a comment who can't even "invent" a name for himself; one that would lend his opinion credibility, but let me allow this for now.

Paying homage means shabby musical numbers? In this day and age of sophisticated music videos, this is what a full-length movie's capable of doing? Crappy, under-rehearsed musical numbers? You gotta be kidding me! So I should give the director a pat on the back "for effort" despite tacky presentation? Have you ever thought that his disclaimer on "not copying Bollywood" was to try to convince the impressionable people who take the words of a director - hook, line and sinker - just because he's had a spate of awards in the PAST?

We are talking about "Mumbai Love" here, not the multi-awarded "Harana" or "Boundary" which I have seen - so no need to remind me what superior works they were. "Mumbai Love" is NOT.

If you've been diligent enough to actually read this review, you would easily gather the several points I mentioned - why I think this film is pure crap.

In the real world where movie goers pay good money to watch films and be entertained, people DO NOT and SHOULD NOT give kudos to sloppy work. This isn't the grade school where we apply positive reinforcement to under-achieving subjects, is it? I DO NOT owe the film makers anything that I should declare it a good film when it obviously isn't! In fact, it is my consumer's right to call a spade a spade. I paid. I didn't like it. I enumerated why. Twenty paragraphs should be adequate explanation. Who cares if this was a product of blood, sweat and tears? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. And this was a rancid cinematic serving.

2013 was one of the best years of the Philippine Movie Industry. In fact, some quarters refer to it as a good candidate for another "Golden Age of Philippine Cinema" - and this covers both festival fares AND mainstream movies. For you to actually take swipe at those "preachy art films that nobody watches" as well as the "mainstream trash" - smacks of ignorance; of someone who hasn't been a patron of the local movie industry in the last couple of years. You don't seem to know what you're talking about because all you can spew are the hackneyed issues about an otherwise flourishing industry.

I am sorry if Solar Films actually spent a fortune to produce a mediocre product but when has Solar ever produced a good local film? Remind me.

But this is THE glaring fact: award-winning film maker Benito Bautista made a CRAP not worthy of his earlier filmography. Patting him on the back won't change that.

Anonymous said...

The first commenter lost me at "preachy art films which nobody watches". Nobody watched Mumbai Love too despite its mainstream trappings. We were only 3 at the 500 seat SM cinema and I only watched an hour of the movie because of the great boredom it cast on me. I think the first commenter is part of the Mumbai Love team. Face it, it's a fugly movie with high ambitions.

Cathy Pena said...

Fugly's a term I ought to use often. Amen. :)

Nico Antonio said...

I would just like to say that yours and Philbert's reviews are the only ones I read and enjoy reading. Hope to read more from you in the near future :-)

Cathy Pena said...

The Nico Antonio? Awww that's so sweet, and I am tickled pink. Thank you, Nico. (Let me hide in my room while I am still blushing.) Hahaha.

Anonymous said...

nico, ako rin! philbert + cathy pena =)


Cathy Pena said...

So so sweet of you, Jason. Coming from people whose works I absolutely enjoy, I am thrilled. Hugs! :)