Saturday, July 16, 2016

30. Brahman Naman

A team of four quizzers have booze only to puke, approach girls only to get rejected, try for sex only to end up masturbating. This is as accurate and non-judgemental a description of Brahman Naman as I could manage.
One of them is the clear leader of the pack – Naman – who is also a Brahmin supremacist and an absolute jerk to boot. He is crass, rude, ungrateful, pretentious and incorrigibly horny. Nothing wrong with any of these as traits of a movie’s central character. 
Except that each of these traits are so grotesquely exaggerated that they don’t make sense after a point. And the film – one I was looking forward to, as an ex-quizzer – just didn’t work for me. I felt repulsed at some of the scenes but I will ignore that as a personal reaction to something I don’t agree with.

Quizzers – or geeks of any persuasion – are supposed to be obsessed with alcohol and sex. Their interactions with women are supposed to be fraught with nervousness and/or aggression. Misogyny is rampant in quizzing circles. Snobbery is common and meritocracy sometimes reaches absurd levels. Investing a band of quizzers with these characteristics is a natural thing to do but I can’t imagine how horribly wrong they have got the characters and the milieu despite going for the stereotypes.
A quizmaster will never debar a team from a quiz because they ate and drank too much at a previous quiz. It’s a different matter he wouldn’t have the authority either.
No quizzer would ever admit to be “preparing for quizzes” as Naman does. Not even while joking, not even to avoid the worst kind of chipku. You just don’t.
They get the facts right. For example, Royal Challenge is mentioned as an aspirational drink of the mid-1980s. But not the mood. A random student (played by standup comic Biswa Kalyan Rath) describes his sex fantasies in front of a group of random classmates, one of whom happens to be a girl he doesn’t know. Bit of a stretch in the 1980s, no?

So, is this the biggest grouse I have with Brahman Naman? That they get the mood/setting completely wrong and show quizzers – a species I am quite fond of – as horny assholes?
Well, no.
My biggest grouse is that the questions used in the film’s quizzes are alarmingly easy.
The last two questions in the opening quiz – that propels Naman’s Bangalore University team to join the national finals of a quiz – are so easy that Neil O’Brien wouldn’t include them in his prelims. I am commenting on only them since they are the two questions in the film that had a shred of workoutability in them. The overwhelming majority of the questions asked in the film were just of the “Who was…” and “What is…” kinds. To indicate quizzing proficiency, the characters indulge in pseudo-intellectual banter (where one quotes a poet and the other names the source) and lose points because they pronounce answers wrong.

And at the end of it, we get a film that is ‘of little or no value’.


Frivolous Footnote: In a sequence completely unrelated to the film, Sid Mallya plays himself – a spoilt brat hosting booze parties at his mansion in Bangalore. Or since this was set in the 1980s, he was probably playing his father. 

Complimentary Footnote: Netflix has done a great job of making this their first Original offering in India. The demographic who will be interested in this genre is 'bang-on' the demographic who will also be interested in Netflix. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

29. Raman Raghav 2.0

From the moment Nawazuddin Siddiqui appears on the screen with a deep scar coming from the top of his forehead all the way down to his nose, he owns Raman Raghav 2.0. The man’s presence as the serial killer – no, that’s not a spoiler – is as magnetic as it is repulsive. Anurag Kashyap seems to have constructed him as the embodiment of everything that is despicable in human nature. Physical, mental and sexual violence come to him naturally and the police are no match for him. In fact, the police force is shown either as deviant (Vicky Kaushal as the drug-addict police officer) or benign (soft spoken, roly poly officers unable to give chase to a criminal).

The first half of RR2.0 is like a Dementor's kiss. It squeezes out all hope and fear runs through like a slithering snake in the grass. You have no control over it, you know it is around and you resignedly wait for it to strike. The second half is somewhat of a relief as the hunter and the hunted circle each other to an unexpected climax. While it is a relief from the viewer’s perspective, I felt the storytelling weakened a bit. Thank God for that!
Broken up into eight episodes, RR2.0 is a masterclass in the making of thrillers. In the first half, The Sister episode is twenty two minutes of pure terror. You don’t know what is going to happen. After a point, you don’t know what to feel. Sickening violence – both physical and mental – hit you in stomach, even inconsequential sequences building towards the climax.

In a way, RR2.0 is a classic chase thriller. A serial killer is on the loose and a cop is after him. How it plays out is where it makes a departure.
The hero is not like regular heroes. He is a misogynistic, drug addicted, commitment-phobic asshole with whom women can't but fall in love. The serial killer (seemingly) has none of the intellectual method of a Hannibal Lecter or the smoothness that we see in American TV shows. The cop snorts cocaine at a crime scene, with dead bodies lying around. The criminal kills a woman and sings Sheila ki jawaani as a lullaby to her child. The grungy, dirty, shady parts of Mumbai form an unusual backdrop where we flit between nightclubs, dance bars, slums, sweatshops, claustrophobic 2BHKs and even cramped lifts as unlikely scenes of action.

Raman Raghav is an iconic figure in Indian popular culture. By putting that name in the title, a certain kind of expectation is raised and RR2.0 uses that expectation very cleverly to create suspense and the eventual denouement. It helps all the departments – art, makeup, casting, music and above all, writing – perform magnificently and absolutely to the brief. And in the end, RR2.0 doesn’t just kick ass. It kicks you in the balls.

Interesting tidbit: The promos for RR2.0 are different in a way because they have scenes that don't feature in the final film but give glimpses into the two main characters' psyche. Check out this, this, this and this in which the serial killer is finishing off people and this one in which the police officer recounts his life of crime.

Frivolous Footnote: Mukesh Chhabra, Anurag Kashyap’s regular casting director, plays the loan shark who provides a vital lead to reach Raman.

Slight Spoiler Question: Why did the sister not call in the police when she came out of the house?

28. Udta Punjab

Within the first few minutes of Udta Punjab, it becomes quite clear as to why a section of the political class wanted the film banned. And why their opponents wanted it released. In the course of one headily written and performed song when the titles appear, the drug menace of Punjab becomes crystal clear. And the rather absurd attempts to censor/ban the film start making sense. But even without the political angle – that surely peaked curiosity in the film – Udta Punjab is a sometimes soaring, mostly gut-wrenching film.

Four stories come together. A cop (Diljit Dosanjh) on the payrolls of the drug mafia, for whom the menace hits home suddenly. A lady doctor (Kareena Kapoor Khan) fighting a losing battle to treat and rehabilitate addicts. A Bihari migrant labourer (Alia Bhatt) who gets sucked into the cesspool through a coincidence. And a popstar (Shahid Kapur) who can’t compose or perform without the highs.
Alia is brilliant in her performance that has a fairly radical physical transformation as well. Shahid plays the over-the-top buffoon with aplomb, replicating some of the raw physical energy we saw in Haider. Diljit Dosanjh doesn’t have scope for too much of a performance but his looks and poise indicate why he is a major star in Punjab. Kareena has a somewhat angelic, moral-high-ground kind of role and comes across as the only unreal character in the mix.
The character actors – Diljit’s brother Balli, his ruthless boss, Satish Kaushik as Shahid’s manager/uncle, Shahid’s cousin – are all superb, getting the accent, body language and sensibilities down pat.

What works for Udta Punjab is the complete absence of sugarcoating in showing the scary lives of the protagonists. The brutality of the mafia is unnerving and the jovial Sikhs we see in cliché-ridden Hindi cinema are suddenly doing alarmingly cruel stuff. The yellow mustard fields give way to grungy rooms, crowded jail cells and ruins where addicts are digging hypodermic syringes in their veins. That, with the added impact of raw dialogues, just kills you.

One thing I found very interesting was the angle of freedom of speech in the film where the popstar is jailed specifically for hosting a drug-addled party and generally for misleading the youth by glamourizing drugs. I wondered if this is against FoE of a creative person, exactly what the film was accused of doing. Shahid’s Tommy Singh wrote odes to acid trips and white powders, which the youth lapped up and he was accused of promoting drug usage. He could, of course, claim that he was merely warning the people against drugs. Even the CBFC and assorted political netas justified their cuts by claiming that film promoted/glamourized drug usage.
The other thing is the misguided notion of the cultural police that filmstars and music stars ‘mislead’ the gullible youth – showing them the path of substance abuse, sexual crimes etc. In one scene, this myth is debunked where Tommy Singh’s fans turn against him when he starts saying things he doesn’t want to hear.

Overall, one of the better films of the year. Like an acid trip, Udta Punjab takes you to unimaginable highs and plunges you to depressing lows – after which you end up wanting more but are scared of it as well. There couldn’t have been a better anti-drugs film than this one.

[Frivolous Footnote: Hindi films on the drug menace have mostly shown a sanitized version of it.
Sridevi in Jaanbaaz was turned into an addict by the villains and finally killed by an overdose, though her chubby frame and made up face betrayed none of the ravages brought about by drug abuse. Priyanka Chopra in Fashion was supposed to be dabbling in recreational drugs as was Kangana Ranaut but that track was never the focus of the film. Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 does a bloody good job of showing what casual and sustained drug abuse means.]

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

27. Balak Palak

Produced by Riteish Deshmukh (of all people!), Balak Palak is a sweet exploration of growing up in the 1980s seen through the eyes of four teenagers in small-town Maharshatra. The initials (BP) allude to the central enterprise of the kids in the film – that of watching a BP (blue picture), after being egged on by a slightly older friend.
The film reminds you of those clumsy days when you smuggled in cassettes of recommended movies, in school bags and under t-shirts having managed to discreetly rent it from a video parlour, averting the stares of aunties and their kids. It brings a smile to your face when you remember an enterprising soul who had smuggled out an entire VCR from his home (wrapped in a slightly damp yellow towel) for a group screening. The consequent ‘awakening’ that often made girlfriends and boyfriends out of mere friends is done quite well and is very real. You start noticing newly married couples quietly excusing themselves from social functions and now have a fair sense of what they are doing.
The film skews a little towards the reactions of the boys, one of whom falls in love with a buxom older neighbor and even professes his love for her. His awkward attempts to impress his crush seem to have happened to someone in your immediate vicinity, if not you directly. It would have been interesting if the film had tried to trace the fantasies and thoughts of the girls too. After they ‘get to know things’, the boys start chasing girls and the girls develop a revulsion for the ‘thing’. Various versions of this theme have come in films and BP follows the same template. They could have done it from the girls’ POV and broken fresh ground.
However, instead of wishing what BP could have been, it would be better to laud BP for what it is. The four lead players act brilliantly, with maturity and restraint. The awkwardness, the innocence, the frustration and the awakening are brought out superbly for which a lot of credit must go to the director (and writer) Ravi Jadhav.
What didn’t work for me at all is the rather preachy ending – a veritable moral science class – where a sermonizing uncle makes a long-winded attempt to make children bond with their parents. The cluelessness of parents in understanding their children is well depicted in the film and one wishes this last bit of unreal ‘lecturing’ could have been left out.
At the end of the day, Balak Palak is a very good film on the growing up years and how they shape the rest of our relationships. Hormones do get in the way of friendships. Sometimes, they end up in a mess. And sometimes, it is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

26. Deadpool

Deadpool was slaughtered by India's overzealous CBFC, even after giving them an A certificate. So all gaalis invoking mothers and usually covered body parts were snipped out as well as some of the gory action and sex scenes. I managed to catch the film on an international flight and had the pleasure of watching spurting blood, burping abuses, crazy-ass action and badass sex.

Oh well, I exaggerate. Let me just say it was the kind of movie I would have loved to see when I was in my teens. A mercenary abandoning his sexy girlfriend to join an experiment to become a superhero... when parts (most parts, actually) of the experiment go wrong and he becomes a freak - Deadpool.

If you like in-jokes, superhero references, the Marvel universe, go and watch Deadpool. 

25. Te3n

If you are a thriller lover, you can give Te3n a miss. There have been better thrillers and indeed, this one itself is an official remake of 2013 Korean film, Montage. Many aficionados have confirmed the original has a tightness that is probably missing in the remake. 

If you are a Calcutta lover and love seeing this beautiful city in films, its lanes and landmarks lovingly captured on celluloid, you could do better than this. Te3n's producer, Sujoy Ghosh, himself has directed - what I think is - the most bewitching depiction of the city: Kahaani. 

If - on the other hand - you love acting, love seeing actors get under the skin of a character and lift the film from where the script leaves it, then you should probably not miss Te3n.
That Amitabh Bachchan is a phenomenal actor is no longer a fact that needs to be repeated. We have also lost count of the number of times he has transformed a mediocre script into a gripping film through his acting. But what still happens rarely is when Bachchan gets the opportunity to metamorphose into a completely different animal from what we have grown accustomed to. 
For example, I loved his performance in Sarkar but I also knew that it was not something novel. The swagger, the style of his earlier roles were given a silvery polish and presented with a flourish. However, with a film like Paa, he manages to do something that is outside the grammar and vocabulary of his regular acting. There, he shifted his speech, facial gestures and gait to match that of a thirteen-year old. And that, I think, was an unbelievably brilliant performance. 
In Te3n, the way Bachchan gets into the body of a tired, defeated, septuagenarian is again magical. You could argue that he is really playing himself - an seventy-something grandfather. But you have to see his confident body language as India's biggest star and realise how far apart John Biswas of Te3n really is. The loose skin of his neck, the stoop, the gasping to start the scooter, the tired chases, the dropping eyes... it is a defeated man who fills up the scenes in Te3n and that transformation is masterful.

If you are a fan of Amitabh Bachchan, you have probably watched Te3n already. Good choice. As always.

Calcutta: The place where they know which Gods to worship

Thursday, June 09, 2016

24. Praktan

In a way, Praktan can be broken down into a simple formula:
1. Main story track of estranged lovers
2. Add a comic track (another couple, newly married)
3. Add a music track (four well known Bengali musicians, playing themselves)
4. Add a commentary track (an elderly couple, played by two yesteryear superstars)

This seemingly simple mathematical formula can fall flat due to a variety of reasons - boring setting, indifferent actors, lacklustre music, emphasis on the tracks, so on and so forth. But writer-director duo, Nandita Roy and Shibaprasad Mukherjee, do a masterful sidestepping of all these pitfalls and delivers a script that is thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measures.
In fact, after their previous success - Belaseshe - where they looked at a separated couple at the twilight of their lives, Praktan looks at a young couple's life after their divorce.

As a train goes from Kurla to Howrah, a first class bogey has twelve characters (as above) and film traces their journey. The focus is on Prasenjit and Rituparna, as a divorced couple and a series of flashbacks reveal their falling in and out of love beautifully. Quite interestingly, they are always in the beautiful parts of Kolkata when falling in love and always in their claustrophobic bedroom when falling out of it. There are some cliches in this relationship but the music lifts some of the regular scene really well.

Rituparna and Prasenjit are both good, looking alarmingly young in their pre-marriage avatars but the scene-stealer is Aparajita Adhya as Prasenjit's second wife. Soumitra's presence becomes critical because he closes the interval and the ending with two wonderful readings from Rabindranath - something that only he can do. His role doesn't require an actor of his stature otherwise. Sabitri - as his wife - brings the house down with a monologue in Bengali-accented Hindi. The newly married couple provides a killer comic track, with all sorts of gags. And the quartet of musicians - them of Chandrabindoo, Bhoomi and Anupam Roy - liven up the proceedings with great background music, superb songs and a brilliant antakshari!

About the absolutely stunning visuals of Kolkata in the film, these are some of the most memorable that I have seen in recent times. While Kahaani's Kolkata was grimy, sweaty, mysterious and set to retro music, Praktan's Kolkata is bright, happy, inviting and set to the music of its present day residents. If someone had to make a tourism video for Kolkata, I would recommend nothing but this song.

Overall, Praktan is one of those films that are not entirely novel in their theme but bring in a freshness in its treatment. The direction and acting are competent, the music is great and there is never a dull moment. As commercial Bangla cinema becomes a clone of the worst successes of Hindi cinema, I would love to see more such middle-of-the-road films gaining greater commercial success. On a weekday evening in Bangalore, we had a near-capacity crowd to see a subtitled print. That commercial success may already have been gained.

[Frivolous Footnote: The last time I remember Rituparna Sengupta in a train journey was when she got killed. In Partho Ghosh's Teesra Kaun, she was the victim of a murder during a train journey that also starred Mithun Chakraborty.]

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

23. Waiting

What would you do if your significant other was on life support and there was no chance of recovery?
What would you if there was some chance of recovery but you had run out of money?
What if the chance of recovery was higher but there was commensurate of him/her turning into a vegetable?
Waiting asks some of these difficult questions and, instead of answering them, makes comments on modern day relationships, love, friendship and reactions. And also asks that most difficult question: "What is Twitter?"

The devout and the atheist
Naseeruddin Shah is brilliant (yawn... what's new?) as the husband who's waiting for his wife (played by Suhasini Mani Ratnam) of forty years to come out of a coma. Kalki Koechlin also puts in a good performance as the newly married wife, steeling herself for a long wait for her husband to recover from a disastrous road accident. Together, they form an endearingly odd couple whose philosophies towards life are radically different and yet, they are bound by a common fear, in a tight space. (One minor quibble: Wasn't Kalki Koechlin over made-up all through?)
The supporting cast consists of some very fine performances. Rajat Kapoor, by now, has made a name for himself as the handsome antagonist. What started as the perverted uncle (Monsoon Wedding) has become even better - subdued yet effective - in this film, where he plays the doctor who is trying to make his patients see reason while they are on an emotional roller-coaster.
Rajeev Ravindranathan (Rama of English Vinglish) plays a comic bit-part and looks to be well on his way to becoming a regular as the bumbling colleague in Hindi cinema.
After a patchy debut (London Paris New York), Anu Menon makes a strong impression with her assured direction in a story where very little happens but the interest levels never drop.

Waiting reminded me of Rituparno Ghosh's Dosar, where a husband was in a near-fatal accident which killed his lover and his wife had to nurse him back to health, while being disgusted by his infidelity. For a brief sequence, Waiting hinted at a similar plot before swerving off in another direction. Both films - excellent ones - were masterful explorations of the modern Indian psyche by asking very uncomfortable questions.

Do you want your ailing husband to die?
Because he is in pain? Or because you hate that he cheated on you? Or because you don't want to spend the rest of your life taking care of him?
Why do you want your wife to live?
Because you love her? Or because you need her to take care of you?

[Frivolous Footnote: As Naseeruddin Shah read PG Wodehouse to his comatose wife, Kalki read James Dashner. The former doesn't need any introduction while the latter writes speculative fiction for young adults. An interesting contrast between the two sets of characters.]

[Frivolous Footnote 2: SPOILER ALERT
In one scene, Naseer confesses to his wife about an one night stand he had thirty years ago. Knowing Naseer's penchant of playing fathers to illegitimate offspring, I wondered if Kalki or her husband could be his progeny. Manmohan Desai has scarred me for life!

Friday, May 27, 2016

22. U Turn

A newspaper intern tries to write a story about traffic rule breakers, specifically the ones who remove divider blocks to take an illegal u-turn on the Double Road flyover (in Bangalore). After she goes to interview the latest rule-breaker, his dead body is discovered and she becomes a murder suspect herself. Further investigations reveal that ten people who had taken that risky U-turn in the last few months had all committed suicide on the day they broke the rule. 
Pawan Kumar’s U Turn has this very interesting premise and the first half builds up brilliantly towards an expectation of ominous revelations. However, the second half degenerates partially into a rather unsatisfying resolution of the mystery and partially into a public service message from Bangalore Traffic Police. To me, this was a rather disappointing end to a film I was enjoying tremendously for most part. The scary parts were really scary and the investigation as well as the police procedures were all done well.

The lack of bite in the final resolution is a big letdown considering the obvious professional finesse with which the film is made. All the actors are fit perfectly into their roles and act very well. Lead actress, Shraddha Srinath, is particularly good and does all kinds of scenes – light and dramatic – with confidence. The dialogues are very real and have the typical mix of Kannada and English Bangalore is famous for. I particularly liked the opening scene where the heroine’s mother is trying to get her to see prospective grooms, which is genuinely funny even though the situation is a cliché.

Pawan Kumar’s first film, Lucia, was a big critical success (and incidentally, made by crowdfunding). U Turn shows he clearly has the talent to pull off interesting genres and I will certainly look forward to his other films. If only he tones down the public service messaging.

21. Captain America: Civil War

A group of twelve – each member with a different kind of superpower – divide themselves into two teams of six and have a go at each other till my son’s brain exploded into a million small pieces. Totally the kind of film I look forward to watching. NOT.
The opening sequence – a Bond-like chase – and the runaway sequence in which the 6vs6 fight happens, are the only two places that held my attention though my son was hooked to the whole thing.
Must watch for fans of American superheroes. Must avoid for fans of Indian superheroes.