Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles preview: Delhi Belly, Anima and Persona (Aaranya Kaandam)

The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles has become one of my favorite annual events, and not just because it’s next door to Amoeba. Once more, the tenth edition has a killer lineup of films that dispel the popular image of Bollywood as reflected in The Simpsons (although I love that, too). I was fortunate enough to acquire two screeners in advance of next week’s fest, and both of them kicked my ass.

Delhi Belly (2011) is an Amir Khan-produced flick about three slackers who get entangled in the city’s underworld. The notion of regular dudes getting their hands on an unmarked bag, handling it like shit, and getting into serious trouble is nothing new, but director Abhinay Deo does it very well, skillfully balancing humor and tension, style and action, while never forgetting to make the protagonists likable and their relationship bordering on real. The elements of youth culture are tempered by surprisingly mature filmmaking, and the storytelling only benefits from the honest energy.

While most fans of Indian cinema will note the cursing, raunchiness, scatological humor, burqa jokes, and Aamir Khan’s son in the leading role, I especially enjoyed the recurring references to a fictional kung-fu influenced flick called Disco Fighter, which stars the senior superstar/good-humored producer Khan. The leitmotif escalates as the film goes on, tying into the plot in surprising ways, and actually evolving an official sequel to the movie that’s in the works. It’s symbolic of how far Deo is willing to go with every detail, plot twist, and story-telling device, as well as how good the payoffs can be. Definitely stay for the credits.

Anima and Persona (2011) is a more serious, Tamil-language crime movie. Writer/director Thiyagarajan Kumararaja’s first feature is as somber as it is stylish, loaded with dark thoughts and black humor. Ace actor Jackie Shroff plays the seasoned, impossible-to-read, and erection-challenged kingpin whose conscribed 20-year-old mistress and lowest underling dare to steal his drug money and run away together. As if that harebrained idea didn’t provide enough tension, there’s also the threat of a hostile takeover and gang war, as well as a mix-up that drags a destitute, foolish father and his streetwise young son into the mess.

The various plots are woven skillfully and poetically–kind of like a Johnnie To movie with monologues–and the cinematography and editing are stunning. The tension is impressive (with no musical numbers to break it up) and the violence is presented sparingly but unflinchingly. Adding to the subtly Shakespearean power struggle, double-crossing, and doomed young lovers is how the fool’s banter imparts most of the wisdom in the chaotic world without rules or honor. Kumararaja gives audiences a lot to think about, and actress/model Yasmin Ponnappa is pretty hot, too.

See these movies and more on the big screen from April 10-15 at the ArcLight in Hollywood. And then go shopping at Amoeba. Below: Yours truly with Aamir Khan while he was promoting the excellent Peepli Live in 2010.


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