Friday, September 30, 2011

Personal hygiene at the movies

Kate Winslet in Contagion

I had started putting together this post about two weeks back in the comfort of my living room (even though I had birthed the idea much earlier). The morning began with a heartfelt (cough, liar) lament about my inability to get to office. I didn't go to work as I believed there was a fever in the mail (it was). At the time of posting this review, I had already been through the ordeal of what my physician had termed as a respiratory tract infection. At that time, I had felt the symptoms appear in and around my nose. But, I was filled with a certain sense of contentment. Chiefly because, this ailment had appeared after less than 36 hours of exposure to Steven Soderbergh’s latest offering – the epidemic disaster flick Contagion. I had seen that movie as part of an unplanned double bill movie outing – the other film being Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots.

Having seen the two films back to back, a million dollar brainwave crisscrossed my mind. Contagion was centered around an epic virus on the likes of the H1N1/SARS that came close to wiping out mankind. And a considerable amount of screen time in Contagion is dedicated to telling audiences about the number of ways in which one could get infected by the strain. Which in this case, translates to any and every form of contact – direct, indirect, active, passive, you know the drill. The fomites (yes, that’s the new word I learned in film school today) are present in each and every permutation and combination of human activity – don’t touch that glass, don’t touch your face, don’t touch anybody, don’t breathe, and oh yes, please sanitize. In fact, go wild. Sanitize your ass off.
A still from Contagion

It’s a cinematic summation of the things you should or  shouldn't be doing to keep off the virus. Armed with a host of new terms like incubation period, r-noughts and more, I was ready to embark on yet another exercise in prurient self gratification. In other words, I was ready to churn out yet another film review. But then, an act of free will changed things. Instead of writing an entire piece centered on Contagion, I decided to spread my literary wings and bite off more than I could chew. That’s where this blog post of mine comes in. Dedicated to the singular task of comprehending personal hygiene at the movies, we’ll enlist the help of a few popular films to help us do that in this post.
Yet another still from Contagion

To start off with, consider Contagion. The film is rife with shots of people donning gloves, applying sanitizers on their hands and walking around town with face masks resembling the fall collection of the apocalyptic hour. You also witness the million different ways in which an infection is transmitted. There are lots of points to ponder, which are interspersed around the film - centered on the seemingly inane everyday activities that cause contagion. One of my friends went so far as to say that it would make us reconsider the importance of washing our hands at every opportunity we got, whether warranted or not. Somehow, the film couldn’t leave an impression on my mind. Maybe, it’s because I am so used to the idea that Soderbergh had made better films in the past, like sex, lies and videotape, Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight. However, one of the dialogues in the film did manage to linger in my brain for a while. The scene in question involves an important character brushing away a citizen journalist by telling him, "You're not a writer, you're a blogger. It's graffiti with punctuation."  
Kalki and Naseeruddin Shah in That Girl in Yellow Boots
Moving on, let's jump onto Anurag Kashyap’s bandwagon and focus on That Girl in Yellow Boots. The story here revolves around a firang masseuse (played by Kalki) living in Mumbai on a tourist visa. Kalki’s character makes ends meet by giving her clients a happy ending. Don’t ask me what a happy ending is – any masseuse worth her salt would whack you on the side of your head if you asked her for a happy ending post your session. At least, the respectable ones would. Having said that, you won’t be surprised to find several shots of Kalki, methodically washing her dainty little hands before and after the deed is done.

But that’s not all. There are more surprises in store, but not the spoiler kinds. Underscoring the importance of personal hygiene, the film offers us a spliced-in shot of Kalki shaving her underarms in full view of the camera. I tried understanding why that shot was included in the film. Was it plain character development or the settlement of a fetish? It seemed a throwback to the time Jennifer Connelly appears in House of Sand and Fog in a public restroom and faces a mirror while taking care of some stubble that needs trimming.
Jennifer Connelly in House of Sand and Fog

In the aforementioned film, the director needed to establish Jennifer’s character as a woman so down and out on fortune, that a public bathroom seemed to be the only place in the world that could offer her some solace, or even an opportunity to get down to some basic hygiene routines. Speaking of routines, it seems Indian filmmakers have grown a lot more liberal with respect to the depiction of personal hygiene and the human condition. Delhi Belly, our randy darling of a potty-mouthed romp across the capital city, went ahead and made its tag line Shit Happens. We should have been warned, for the film is replete with several delightful moments of scatological humour.
Imran Khan in Delhi Belly
There are so many instances of feces thrown around in the film – both metaphorically and literally, that one tends to forget when things got so crappy. Even the catalytic event of the film is set into motion (yes, pun intended, go ahead and sue me) by an event of such nature. For those who are yet to see this gem of a desi comedy, all I’d say is think fried chicken/tikka masala meets its crotch-scratching match in a vendor so filthy, you’d go vegan for the rest of your life. Of course, we lapped up the potty humor with so much gusto you’d think we were at the wedding banquet of Mere brother ki Dulhan.

However, before you decide to give a standing ovation to these purveyors of personal and impersonal cleanliness, you might want to bow down at the shrine of the one man, who, in my humble opinion, gave toilet humor the recognition it deserves, at least in mainstream cinema. That legend is none other than the maverick Brit filmmaker Danny Boyle. He set the ball rolling in Trainspotting by making Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton dive down The Worst Toilet in Scotland in order to retrieve the opium suppositories he had just expelled in the most visually and audibly repulsive scene in movie history. I still tend to skip this scene every time I watch Trainspotting.
Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting
But for those who can stomach it, the film is a treasure-trove of even more stomach-churning, gut-busting scenes, where the very concept of basic hygiene is done away with. Junkies inject heroin and share infected needles that are filled with several foreign sediments that would certainly find it hard to pass through a syringe. But Danny doesn’t rest on his laurels. His quest to explore the depths to which humankind was ready to devolve to, just to satisfy a craving – whether it was a drug or the autograph of one’s favourite movie star, continued unabated with Slumdog Millionaire. Here, Danny gets the young Jamaal to take a leap into a cesspool of poop, a public outhouse in Mumbai, no less. And for what – an autograph of the greatest superstar India has ever seen – the Big B, Amitabh Bachchan.
A still from Slumdog Millionaire

Jamaal does manage to get the autograph and it establishes his character as someone who would not back away from the task at hand, no matter what is thrown at him. It’s like an ‘inside joke’ inside the ‘inside joke’. Jamaal goes through all this shit in order to get to a show that was originally hosted by the man who prompted him to take his very first dive into the open pile of shit. We never get to see Jamaal washing the filth off his body (maybe we wish not to). I guess that’s one of the comforting things about movies. You think it’s not real. Maybe, you know it’s not real. But you don’t care. You hop on for the journey anyhow. And in most cases, you’re in it till the end of the ride – just like in real life, which, as it goes without saying, is as real as it gets.

This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com

6 comments:

  1. Nice post Bijoy :)liked the way u've linked the movies together. Ur own quirky sense of humour becomes so evident...a nice enjoyable read:)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Love the review, Bijoy, and the way the intro set the mood for the rest. Also, the comparison between the Hollywood and Bollywood armpit shaving scenes of House of... and The Girl... Think it goes to show the necessity vs cool factor aesthetics of the two.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey Priyanka,
    Thank you so much for reading through. Glad u liked the connection points in the films. The sense of humor is the saving grace da. And the main idea was to make it enjoyable.. if it did that for you.. my job is done.. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey Mads,
    Overjoyed that you love the review. One more pal commented on the manner in which the intro helped set the mood and led the reader into the analysis. The shaving sequences in the two films did pique my curiosity. And I was confused with the Bollywood version's placement of the scene as I thought it was more of a stylistic exercise. I don't think it told me anything about her human condition. Maybe you're right, it must be a need vs luxury fundamental.. :) Thanks for reading through..

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Bijoy, enjoyed reading it. I love the quirkiness of the topic you're chosen and the way you linked it to a variety of films. What I loved the most is your attention to detail, now I know what you observe in films ;) Keep writing! :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hey Isha,
    Thanks a gazillion for stopping by. Very sweet of you to read through the whole post. I did try making it as quirky as possible, else most folks would have zoned out in three lines. The attention to detail is all courtesy of filmy OCD... ;) Will Keep writing and entertaining ya all :)

    ReplyDelete