Sunday, November 27, 2011

Two New Docs from HBO

I don't often review films that air exclusively on television, but as the advertisements say, "it's not TV, it's HBO."

A scene from THE BENGALI DETECTIVE.
The highly regarded network has become a go-to destination for cutting edge shows, but also for documentary films that may not have otherwise been seen. Two such recent films, The Bengali Detective and The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical, are surprisingly good and honestly deserving of theatrical distribution.

Remake rights to The Bengali Detective have already been purchased by Fox Searchlight to be turned into a narrative film directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen), and it will definitely make for an interesting feature, because this is one of those cases where reality truly is stranger than fiction.

The film centers around a group of private detectives in Kolkata, India, who pick up the slack of a police force in a country where 70% of murders go unsolved. Mostly, however, they spend their time chasing down counterfeiters on behalf of corporations, busting petty criminals selling fake merchandise. But the occasional murder case comes along, and the one that falls in their lap during the two years the film was shot is a doozy - three young men found dead on railroad tracks, their naked bodies mutilated almost beyond recognition. The police still have not classified the incident as a murder, but the Bengali Detectives are hot on the case, and the mystery provides the film with its central conflict. It's a frightening, crackling whodunit to rival any Hollywood thriller, but that's not all that makes it special. During filming, not only is one of their ranks dealing with family problems of his own, as his wife becomes gravely ill from complications arising from diabetes, but the detectives are rehearsing to audition for a television dance competition.

It's a strange mix - private detectives trying to bust counterfeiters, solve murder, and dance sounds like material for some sort of strange sitcom, but it works. It's a wonderfully idiosyncratic and the film is at times endearing and nail-biting in equal measure. I will be looking forward to seeing what kind of narrative film Frears will make of this, but you can't get much better than the real thing right here.

A scene from THE SOUND OF MUMBAI: A MUSICAL.
Almost equally charming is The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical, a completely joyful documentary about a children's choir out of Mumbai, India, and most specifically, three ambitious young kids' hopes and dreams. Focusing on their attempt to sing Rogers and Hammerstein's score from The Sound of Music, whose vibrant hills seem far removed from the slums of Mumbai, the film centers around Ashish, an 11 year old aspiring singer who writes "I will not be self conscious" in a notebook every single day. His passion and drive are the inspirational heart of the film, as he tries to catch the eye of a wealthy overachiever, and vies for solos against jealous rivals. It has all the usual ingredients of films like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, but there's almost something more beguiling about these young kids' adorable attempts to sing classic showtunes. More straightforward than the wholly unique Bengali Detective, The Sound of Mumbai is nevertheless an exemplary documentary, a kind of Young @ Heart with children that can't help but put a smile on your face.

THE BENGALI DETECTIVE - ★★★
THE SOUND OF MUMBAI: A MUSICAL - ★★★

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