Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: A Roundup

Started 2016 with a resolution to revive my near-dormant. The plan was to watch 100 movies (#100MoviePact) and write at least 100 words about each movie watched. Happy to report that I hit the target (110 movies!) but didn’t write after the first thirty-six.
As I usually do, here is a roundup of 2016… the things I loved the most. Listing them alphabetically…  

Afreen afreen  
Many years back, we used to play the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan song at our b-school parties and get on our knees, dancing around a batchmate and embarrassing the hell out of her. The reprise – featuring Nusrat’s talented nephew – is almost as magical.
And Coke Studio. Oh, Coke Studio.
While at it, you can listen to my favourite songs of 2016. Includes a couple of Bangla songs as well.

Blossoms 
I have been in Bangalore for a little more than a year now and have not ceased to marvel at this bookstore. As social media laments the closure of bookstores all over, Blossoms not only survived but managed a new branch just down the road from their original outlet. Both store have mindboggling range, chaotic displays, helpful staff and a genuine desire to sell books.

Clinton, Hillary Rodham
It is now fashionable to say she was the wrong candidate to be pitted against Donald Trump but for all the charges you can throw at HRC, there was no doubt she was simply the best-prepared candidate to run for the US President. She did many things right but I loved for this one tweet (that came after she lost)… which is still pinned to the top of her Twitter page.

Dangal
An important character is unable to watch a critical wrestling match in the film. As he sits helplessly in a room, he suddenly gets to hear the first strains of the national anthem. As he realizes the significance (only the gold medallists are honoured by playing their anthems), he stands up – almost as reflex – as do cinema halls across the country. Much has been said in praise of Dangal but writer-director Nitesh Tiwari won it for me when he made me stand up in this scene.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
For fans of the seven legendary books, this was like the highlights package of an epic World Cup victory with some bonus DVD features thrown in. Many fans didn’t like it. Many were disappointed that it was a script (dudes, read up on JKR!). But I loved it. Time travel and alternate histories – always the theme of satisfying stories – didn’t disappoint this time either.

Jeffrey Archer
With two books of the Clifton Chronicles bringing the saga to a satisfying close, Jeffrey Archer managed to reaffirm his position as the number one storyteller of our times. His Harry Clifton turned out to be that perfect English gentleman who would be missed long after he is gone.

Kapoor & Sons
This – along with Phogat & Daughters – was the movie of the year for me. A difficult story of a dysfunctional family soared and uplifted me with a crackling script. Established stars, established actors and an established producer came together to make us really look forward to the forthcoming works of Shakun Batra, who became an established director with his film.
Earlier review on blog.

MAMI (JJWS, Old Stone, After the Rain)
At the beginning of the year, I had promised myself that I’d watch a few films at a film festival. I fulfilled that promise by spending three days at the MAMI Film Festival, watching nine films – including five on day one. A Chinese (Old Stone), Japanese (After the Rain) and an Arabic (Barakah Meets Barakah) film stand out from what I watched as did a nostalgic reunion of the stars of my teen-favourite, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. What I really enjoyed was the unplanned forays into unknown films, rushing from one screening to the queue for another, gasping at particularly felicitous moves on screen and occasionally dozing off (!) during not-so-interesting ones.
Planning to do Kolkata International Film Festival in 2017.

Nasir Husain
One of my favourite directors got an authoritative biography – Music Masti Modernity – that caught the magic of his cinema through a thoughtful lens. Drawing extensively from past interviews as well as fresh interviews of his family and colleagues, MMM shows how well-researched and readable books on cinema can really be.

Pink
Amitabh Bachchan played – with his customary aplomb – a mentally unbalanced lawyer fighting for three victims of sexual abuse. His mental affliction was probably symbolic of the disadvantages anyone taking up a cause like this faces in our country. Bachchan and the three actresses made a slogan out of ‘No means no’ and one wonders if this line is half as effective as Bachchan’s other clarion call for polio (‘Do boond zindagi ki’), he should be given all the public service awards – in addition to the acting ones.

Produnova, PV Sindhu
An unknown Russian gymnast became the talisman of a billion (exaggerating here, but it's okay) people as people stayed awake cheering a girl from Tripura make her mark at the highest sporting stage of the world.
PV Sindhu suddenly showed us how badminton can be the next big thing in India - short matches, lots of drama, glamorous adversaries and a fair bit of talent.
They didn't win but hey, we waited 28 years for a second World Cup in cricket. Surely, we can wait (ahem) four years for the other sports.

Raman Raghav 2.0
I don’t think I will have the stomach to watch this film again but will remember it – along with Ugly and Gulaal – as part of Anurag Kashyap’s Underrated Trilogy. It was somewhat expected that RR2.0 won’t set the box office on fire but somehow, it didn’t even managed to get a lot of fanboy praise.
Earlier review on blog.  

Rekha  
Yasser Usman followed up on his biography of Rajesh Khanna with an equally readable book on Rekha. Rekha’s heady life in Madras and then Bombay has been chronicled with a rare balance that is usually missing Bollywood biographies. Rekha is a polarising character and this book does a great job is looking at her life from the multiple perspectives.

Sultan of Delhi – Ascension
The first part of the saga of a gun-runner-turned-Emergency-era-fixer-turned-Delhi-mover-and-shaker took the pulp fiction saga template – underdog rising to the top of his profession – and gave it a solidly desi twist. The book ends tantalizingly, with the promise of a sequel coming up next year.

Udta Punjab
I don’t know if I am including Udta Punjab the soundtrack or the movie. As a music album, it was fantastic – a heady mix of the crazy and the soft – picking up the flavours of Punjab and created a modern soundtrack around it. The movie was studded with some fantastic performances, most notably Shahid Kapoor.
Earlier review on blog. 

Virat Kohli
No further comments required.

Waiting
Again, one of the underwatched movies of the year. Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin put in brilliant performances in a superbly written film.
Earlier review on blog. 

Zen Pencils and other web comics
Got to know of, got addicted to and ended up buying two volumes of Zen Pencils, a simple yet thought-provoking compilation of comics around famous, inspirational quotes. 
Found other cool web comics like Lunar Baboon and Shuffle Photo

2016 wasn't the greatest of years, maybe for the world at large. It wasn't too bad, for me personally.
I guess it was the 'could have been better' kind of year. Hoping to get into 2017 with a lot more reading, a lot more writing, a little less movie watching (110 was too much!) and a lot more fun-having. 

Happy 2017.
Like the number, may the year also be a prime one of your life! 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

36. Dishoom

There are some actor combos that become just dynamite when they come together. One of the best examples of this is what Beth Watkins calls Shashitabh. Of course, these two people were huge stars and great actors but their on-screen chemistry was just magical. They presented such a fine balance of acting that even bad scripts became watchable.
Of course, the combos need not only consist of stars. In Hollywood, Bud Spencer and Terence Hill come to mind. They started as non-entities and even the peak of their stardom was nothing in the greater context of Hollywood but their films were definitely greater than the sum of their parts.
When I talk about star combos, I think stars have to be equal (or at least, similar) in stature for the chemistry to be effective. For example, Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi can form a great hero-sidekick pair (as did Aamir Khan and Raj Zutshi in a few films) but the star status of the two were just too far away to be perceived as a 'duo'. Basically, Aamir-Salman is a duo in my book but not Govinda-Shakti Kapoor.
In Bollywood, star egos and salaries have effectively put paid to the hopes of having two big stars in the same film, as equals. Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan did a few films in the 1990s, playing disparate characters, showing some good comic timing and an enjoyable chemistry but they never became a franchise or even close to the number of films - say - Shashitabh did.

Anyway, the point is that John Abraham and Varun Dhawan show promise to become an unlikely but effective 'actor duo' in Dishoom. They have similar star statuses and opposing images. John plays the khadoos police officer well (because it fully utilises that one expression he has). And Varun is perfect as the lovable rogue, smiling a little too much and not going out of the slapstick character ever.
Dishoom is one of those crazy-ass plots of Bollywood where every twist is just an excuse to show the actor flex something or the actress to drop something. "Two policemen rescue an Indian cricketer in 36 hours before a final against Pakistan" is all that you need to know and no, nothing is a spoiler in this one. You didn't expect the Virat Kohli equivalent to get killed by terrorists and India bringing Sachin back from retirement, did you?
David Dhawan's two sons - Rohit as director and Varun as actor - prove that the apples haven't fallen far from the tree as they pull out every trick from the Dhawan playbook and give it a modern twist. Cricketers Mohinder Amarnath, Rameez Raja and Atul Wassan make brief appearances. A Sushma Swaraj-lookalike is the political figurehead who give the carte blanche for the mayhem. Item numbers are thrown here and there. Non-sequiturs abound and old favourites (like Satish Kaushik) pop up every now and then.
Varun Dhawan is hilarious as the bumbling cop. Be it uttering inane lines with aplomb ("Arre Bradman, tu toh Byomkesh ban gaya!") or doing extreme physical comedy (standing on two bikes a la Ajay Devgn as his crotch gets whipped repeatedly - don't ask!), he looks good for a string of such outrageous roles. Dishoom itself looks good to become a long-standing franchise. Which is great because it will keep John and Varun away from films like No Smoking and Badlapur.

[Frivolous Footnote: Wonder why it took so long for a Hindi film to be named after its signature audi effect. Maybe, the sequel of Dishoom will be called Tarantara!]

[Frivolous Explanation: Why did I use a picture of Nargis Fakhri after going on and on about John-Varun? To appeal to the 61% of Indian internet users, who are male. #sexist #sorry]

35. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

In one scene of the movie - taking place in an Indian Maharaja's place - a sumptuous banquet is laid out. The first course is a coiled python, with a surprise. As you cut open the snake, smaller snakes (snakelets?) slither out and Indian royals greedily put them in their mouths. This is followed by some sort of caramelised bugs and the dessert is chilled money brains served in what looks like monkey heads. When the American heroine asks for something simple like soup, bloody eyeballs stare back from the pink liquid.
As I understand, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was banned in India at the time of release and even during the shooting, the then government refused permission unless they read the script and/or the right to censor scenes shot in India. After seeing the banquet scene described above, I could see why. Nothing justifies a ban of a book or movie but this scene comes as close to justifying a ban as any.

Even if we discount the blithe stereotyping, Temple of Doom is a rather slow and boring film by Indiana Jones standards.
The opening sequence is chaotic (as it should be) but not thrilling. And it is completely devoid of reason, which is different from all the other films because they lay down a suitably outlandish reason for the archaeologist to get involved into the mayhem in the first place.
The thrills can be seen from a mile away and the usual gross-out-with-creepy-crawlies technique is so badly overdone that it grates after a point. The climax is way too long and, except for a collapsing bridge sequence, seems rather boring.

The one bright spot in the film is Amrish Puri.
Amrish-ji brings the best of Bollywood OTT dramatics into play and reduces Harrison Ford into a sweaty wimp. His Mola Ram is deliciously evil and when he bulges his eyes and utters the cult "Kaali, mujhe shakti de... tere aage bali chadhaoon..." lines, you cannot but cheer him on.
Amrish Puri is tall - but only by Indian standards - but in most scenes, he seems like a hulking presence eminently capable of ripping everyone's hearts out with his bare hands. It just shows how a good actor can lift a mediocre script and get all eyes to be trained on him despite the presence of bigger stars.
After the film, Spielberg said, "Amrish is my favorite villain—the best the world has ever produced and ever will!” I concur wholeheartedly and can only wonder why he didn't manage to get a thriving career as a villain in Hollywood.

Frivolous Footnote: Mola Ram's headgear seems to have been reused by Kabir Bedi in Mohenjo Daro while his red vat of acid/fire was later borrowed by Mogambo! You could say Temple of Doom has contributed a fair bit to Indian cinema.

For more trivia on the film, check this out

34. Gone Baby Gone

A little girl is kidnapped. The police swing into action, led by an officer who lost his own daughter a few years back. The girl's family hires a detective team of two to boost the search efforts. The police grudgingly accept the interloping investigators after they provide some vital clues (thanks to one of them growing up in the neighbourhood and cultivated some shady contacts during his earlier police career).
Sounds like a standard issue kidnapping/mystery thriller, emotional investment increased due to the little girl at the centre of it. Gone Baby Gone starts exactly like hundreds of films of the genre, improved significantly by the crackling dialogues and the fast buildup of events. As it hurtles towards a climax, twists and turns abound.
Still firmly in the same genre.

Where Gone Baby Gone breaks away is the final twist and the decision Casey Affleck takes at that point. Anything more I write here could spoil the ending and I will desist. I would urge everybody to watch the film - especially if you are a parent.
And come back to answer (in a simple yes or no) this question: If faced with a similar situation as Affleck, would you do the same? 

33. O Kadhal Kanmani

We have seen this format so many times... a modern couple don't believe in marriage and just want to live together and be 'friends with benefits' before they go on their separate paths to successful careers. They promise to have no attachments to each other, never to nag like married people do, never to put heart above head. You know this is not going to work... right from the beginning. And it doesn't. It could get damn boring, you know?

O Kadhal Kanmani is living, thriving proof of what a master storyteller brings to the table.
Beyond the brilliant music of AR Rahman, beyond the non-cliched Bombay as setting, beyond the love art direction and even beyond the natural acting of all concerned is the wonderful script of OK Kanmani. The sequence of events and the dialogues are both wonderful, both done by Mani Ratnam.
I am somewhat familiar with Tamil and I could catch the crackle of the banter in Tamil more than a few times and felt the subtitles - though competent and error-free - did not quite match up.
I loved the casual way in which the lead couple talked about sex and living together, how their work (video game design and architecture) smoothly became a part of the flow and how the old-new conflicts played out without filmi cliches.
Even in Mani Ratnam's earlier films - Saathiya and Yuva, for example - these themes have been explored but they seem fresh every time. The train rides of Saathiya and bike rides of Yuva come back here, like playful nods to the earlier avatars.  

Dulqer Salman has a strong screen presence and Nithya Menon out-bubbles Preity Zinta in her prime in the bubbly game. But I'd be shortchanging her if I kept it at that as she is very good in the emotional scenes too. Prakash Raj - as the bank manager turned landlord - is amazing as the devoted husband to a wife (Leela Samson) who is slowly slipping into Alzheimer's. He gets the character - with all its tics - perfectly.

You cannot review OK Kanmani without mentioning the songs. They are brilliant, bursting with energy at one level and slowing down at another. AR Rahman is the only composer who gives me earworms in languages I don't understand. OK Kanmani's Mental manathil is one such. For several days at a stretch, I listened to this song on loop.
Here... you do too!

Frivolous Footnote: Shaad Ali (who made Mani-sir's Alai Payuthey into Saathiya) is remaking this one too. Produced by Karan Johar, the official remake will star Siddharth Roy Kapur and Shraddha Kapoor and seems like a huge hit on the way. Except I am not able to get myself excited over a film called OK Jaanu. Ugh.   

32. Main Aur Charles

Charles Sobhraj was this charming Frenchman whose victims were charmed by him before they got conned or killed. After a killing spree in Southeast Asia (remember Bikini killer?), he came to and was arrested in India. He made himself a cosy nook in Tihar jail (through across the board bribery) and was passing his sentence in peace when he broke into national consciousness with a daring jailbreak. He drugged pretty much the entire jail staff and literally walked out of jail free. Even before the nation could pick up their collective jaw from the floor, he was recaptured and brought back to prison, where he spent an extended sentence for the jailbreak.

I remember reading about his jailbreak and past escapades with breathless excitement when it happened in 1986. I still remember the name of the police officer who arrested him (Madhukar Zende) and an approximation of the caputre (he walked up to Sobhraj and said "Hello, Charles"). This was our generation's first brush with a glamourous criminal, the kind we'd soon encounter in Sidney Sheldon's books. That he killed, a string of innocent tourists for their money in SE Asia and was attempting to do the same in India, seemed inconsequential to the cruel teenage mind.

Main Aur Charles, therefore, sounded like a very interesting premise to me. A smooth operator silently killing through the swinging 1970s and 1980s was mouthwatering, to say the least. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't redeem its promise and plods slowly - or maybe, uneventfully - through the sequence of events.
His escape from Thailand was far from dramatic and his jailbreak even less so. There are sexy women falling all over him and yet, there is no erotic charge in any of the scenes. It's a shame because the period is meticulously created through the clothes, cars, music, locations and so on. Randeep Hooda delivers a great performance both in looks (where his eyes and skin tone are altered) and diction (where he puts on a French accent). Despite all that, I was dropping off every once in a while during the movie.
The only thing that worked was the remix of Jab chhaye mera jadoo (the Lootmaar song) that becomes one of the rare RD Burman compositions that improved on remixing. Here, listen to both the original and the remix.

31. Pancham Unmixed

This documentary has been around for some time and any RD fan worth his salt has seen at least bits and pieces, if not the whole thing. The magic of RD - his near-parental love for his musicians, his friendships, his inspirations, his highs, his lows, his fan base and most important, his genius - is brought out brilliantly.

What I loved most is that the film took a particular song/film/era and went to a wide range of people to explore it. A star talked about their reactions when they performed or first heard the song. His musicians talked about how a lazy guitar strumming became the leitmotif. A producer talked about how the song fit the brief. A lyricist talked about finding the right word or how a long drive led to the final song. A close friend recounted his emotions at the life stage when the song was composed. And then, a fan talked about how the song changed his life.
And the fan base not only comprised of the homesick NRI listening to a CD on his car stereo. It also had people like Vishal Bharadwaj, Shantanu Moitra and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.

I always feel a good documentary works like a fictional film... there is a rise, there is a peak and there is a fall before our protagonist wins in the end.
Pancham Unmixed brings out this story of RD's life where he started off as the half-panted pipsqueak son of SD Burman to a top composer before his music and health both took their toll and brought him down with a thud. RD Burman didn't go out quietly into the night and signed off with a bang. Maybe a bit too early because he wasn't proclaimed a genius in his lifetime. Probably all the new instruments and strange sounds confused that generation.
As a famous song goes, "Duniya mein logon ko, dhokha kabhi ho jaata hai..." 

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.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

20. The Jungle Book

What review can I give for the highest grossing film of the year?

First, watch the film in Hindi.
Priyanka Chopra as Kaa. Nana Patekar as Sher Khan. Irrfan as Baloo. Om Puri as Bagheera. How much cooler can it get?

Second, watch the promotional song. Yes, again. And again. And again. And again.

And then watch the English version of the Hindi version.
"Jungle jungle, word is spreading here and there
A flower has bloomed wearing underwear..."
#epic

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

19. Fan

In short, Fan did not live up to the pre-release hype (at least for me). Shah Rukh Khan (who had cleverly lowered expectations with Dilwale and Happy New Year) and Maneesh Sharma (who has some nice films to his credit in the recent past) were supposed to work magic among masses and classes. In the end, it turned out to be Darr meets Don meets West Delhi.
Sigh. What a waste.
It is very unfair to judge a film on what you want to see rather than what has been made but I couldn't help wondering a superstar's relationship with an obsessed fan could have been so much better than a jazzy chase film.
Sigh...

Over the last few days, I have been discussing - with friends - various scenes of another superstar film, the original superstar film - Nayak. There are many similarities between Nayak and Fan. Both films have the star involved in a nightclub brawl, being insecure after a lacklustre film at the box office, grappling nosy journalists and eventually, retreating into his cocoon after a brush with reality.
The star's ascendance is nicely brought out in both films. In Nayak, the star himself recounts it through a series of flashbacks (during the course of an interview he unwittingly does). In Fan, the fan follows the exact route his hero took while going from Delhi to Bombay (WT on Rajdhani, Room 205 in Hotel Delite).
Uttam Kumar's casual disdain while handling cynical journalists and charming suaveness while handling fans formed a very interesting balance. On the other hand, SRK is strangely uni-dimensional in handling his fans. For someone who thinks nothing of punching an upstart of a colleague, he seems rather unrealistically law-abiding when it comes to an obsessive fan's unlawful activities.
Both films show how the demi-gods of tinseltown are strangely beholden to different kinds of moneybags. SRK is deferential, almost servile to an Indian billionaire who has hired him to dance at his daughter's wedding. While Uttam Kumar is respectful towards a Marwari producer though he doesn't kowtow to him (despite going through a shaky period in his career).

Despite the many similarities, Nayak and Fan remain light years apart. One is a classic exploration of a star's mind while the other is just a jazzy chase film.
Sigh...

[Frivolous Footnote: Autograph (2010) was another delicious exploration of a star and the people around him, made as a tribute to Nayak. The composer of Autograph - Anupam Roy - has written the lyrics and performed the Bengali version of the Jabra Fan song.]

After writing this, I read two brilliant reviews.
One by Greatbong, on how he was a SRK fan once and may consider becoming one once again.
The other by Beth, on how Fan is actually - well - Nayak exploded.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Apur Sansar

I finished the final film of the most brilliant film trilogy to be made or ever will be. Apur Sansar has always been a favourite of mine – especially after I have a Kajal to become friends with, instead of being a father to. This watching just cemented some of those emotions.

Some thoughts that came this time:
Apu, being the younger son of the family (and being doted on), is bit of a spoilt brat! He is the spoilt brat when dealing with his landlord (whose lights he switches on during the day to spite him). But he is the conscientious man when it comes to paying the rent (by selling his books).

The performances of the bit players are amazing.
Apu’s landlord. His surnamesake neighbour. The school principal who advertised for a teacher. The pharma company manager whom Apu asks for a job. Apu’s much-married colleague. Aparna’s parents. All of them just shine like diamonds in the few minutes they are on screen.

Of the lead players, what more can be said?
Soumitra Chatterjee would have done to womenfolk of those times what Fawad Khan is doing now. And when you see, Ray exploits his amazing looks and exemplary elocution skills to the hilt with carefully planned scenes. And he seems to have no qualms in subjecting Soumitra to the female gaze, giving his vests gaping holes and making him exercise in pouring rain!

Sharmila Tagore, who was not even fifteen when she shot for the film, is remarkably assured in her mannerisms and dialogue delivery. In her short screen time, she manages to effortlessly establish why Apu is so much in love with her.
And in a telling scene, the husband also fans the wife after he has finished eating (when the wife was fanning him)… and he does so grudgingly, yawning while fanning and not in the sacrificial style commercial cinema is always showing. In the late 1950s, Ray knew what we are still trying to come to terms with… women’s equality would happen grudgingly, even from the good men!


The transition of emotions seemed even smoother on this viewing.
The way Apu is shown to agree to the marriage – him accepting the archaic concept of a girl becoming unsuitable for marriage if the auspicious hour passes – is very believable and almost natural. He is a modern youth with a scientific bent of mind and yet his natural goodness makes him agree to marry a girl he hasn’t even met. And he does so embarrassedly, without even being able to spell it out. He asks his friend Pulu, “Chakrita pawa jabey toh? Daritao kamano hoeni…” (Will you get me the job you promised? I haven’t even shaved…)
This unplanned marriage leads to the emotion of the helpless father who had to marry off his daughter much below his social standing due to societal pressures. Aparna’s father depicts this frustration heartbreakingly, which translates into a lifetime of resentment against the son-in-law. As a father of a daughter, I thought he ‘got’ it so well.

Much has been said about Apu’s manic grief and whether it suited the normally unemotional character that we saw growing up.
We need to see Apu as a character, who became progressively alone in his life, having lost his beloved family one by one. Finally, he had found a companion – who seemed to be a soulmate – and again lost her. This tragedy is, understandably, devastating for him. In this context, the grief seems almost normal.
The grief of Aparna’s death is built like a tragic movement where the announcement is just the beginning and the subsequent events keep adding to the point of suffocation when Apu sacrifices his novel in a moment of extreme listlessness. This extreme act of abandonment, coupled with the physical transformation of Apu from a handsome young man to an unkempt, haggard tramp, was just too draining a sequence.
The symphonic final closure – with Apu and Kajal reuniting – finally lifts this pall of gloom.

Finally, about the DVD.
The subtitles are very good. They are not literal and manage to capture the essence really well. People who don’t understand Bengali can fearlessly pick up a copy.
Among the supplements, Satyajit Ray’s Oscar acceptance is a much-watched sequence that gets included.
Another segment shows The Restoration process, which is like magic and documents the work done at New York, Bologna, LA where every scratch, every speck dirt and dust on the available negatives were painstakingly removed and the passion of the technicians shines through.
Film critic Mamoun Hassan’s detailed and gushing look at the Trilogy is almost a scene by scene deconstruction of all three films, offering a commentary on the important scenes along with his reactions. This could be a little boring for some viewers but valuable nevertheless.
The stunning piece de resistance are interviews of Soumitra Chatterjee (speaking in Bengali) and Sharmila Tagore (in English). They are still so luminous and animated when talking about their first film roles that it is an absolute delight.


If I haven’t said this already, buy the Criterion DVD set. It is probably the best cinematic investment you’ll ever make. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

18. Har Har Byomkesh

Some time back, I read a piece about a gentleman who is the executor of Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s (creator of Byomkesh Bakshi) estate and is the single-point of contact for anyone wanting to buy rights – cinema, TV, translation – for the author’s works. He explained in great detail how Byomkesh is probably the most popular series in Bengali, with scores of filmmakers wanting to procure rights. He, in turn, had to balance monetary considerations with long term prospects in order to decide whom to give rights to. This was around the time Detective Byomkesh Bakshy had released and just prior to that, Yash Raj Films had bought the Hindi rights for all the Byomkesh stories.
After Satyajit Ray first brought Byomkesh to screen, there was a fair bit of diffidence in attempting another one – probably because the director and the star who played the Satyanweshi (Uttam Kumar) were both legendary. This jinx was broken when Rajit Kapoor played Byomkesh in the now-legendary TV series directed by Basu Chatterjee.
In the last ten years or so, there has been a slew of Byomkesh films in Bengali. Many directors – including Rituparno Ghosh – have tried their hands with varying degrees of (commercial) success. The present generation of Bengalis don’t have that sense of awe about Uttam Kumar as the previous generations did, leading to a fair bit of acceptance of the screen Byomkeshes. Abir Chatterjee – with his intelligent eyes and sharp features – looks a lot like the sleuth of our imagination and seems to be here to stay. (Incidentally, he also plays Feluda thus proving that his kind of looks is eminently suitable for iconic detectives.)

Anyway, the point of this whole random Byomkeshing is – in my humble opinion – the rather pointlessness of these Byomkesh remakes. Having come out of books that have been read hundreds of times by fans, they don’t stand a chance in matching up to our imagination. 
I just watched Har Har Byomkesh (based on the story Bahni Patanga) and it was a film without complaints and without any memorability whatsoever. One of the key characters is a woman for whom ‘dazzling beauty’ is an understatement. The actress cast is just another beauty, who doesn’t seem like the type who would drive people around her crazy with her looks. Even Satyabati and Ajit are competent actors, meet their brief and yet, they are nothing what I (and millions others) had imagined. While the film recreates the period of the story well, it nevertheless gives a feeling of déjà vu that then gives way to boredom. We have seen this character so many times and similar settings… where is the punch? Where is the suspense (since we know the ending anyway)? If the idea is too hook youngsters who haven’t read Byomkesh, they are unlikely to get attracted by a slow-moving period drama with somewhat amateurish action and barely-passes-master art direction.

This is why I am more impressed by a film like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy… a film that throws the languid pace and leisurely mood-building of the original stories to the winds and presents the intellectual ‘seeker of truth’ as an action hero. It also eschews the regular stories, takes the major characters and creates a pastiche that keeps everyone guessing. Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh had the purists fuming but at least, I thought it presented Byomkesh in a never-before avatar and a lavish scale that would bring many new fans to the fold.
Sure, Saradindu never wanted his Byomkesh to be a ‘detective’ (and that offending word is enshrined in the film’s title) but then again, Saradindu never imagined his Byomkesh to be wearing glasses either. (Ever since Uttam Kumar wore a pair in Ray’s film, most actors seems to donning one to play Byomkesh.)

Anyway, to bring this to a closure – Har Har Byomkesh is a mild-mannered film, not unlike one of those side characters in Byomkesh stories who look inconsequential right at the beginning and continue to remain inconsequential throughout.


[Frivolous Footnote: The director is obviously a big fan of Ray. Not satisfied with moving the setting of the film to Varanasi, he has inserted an entire (redundant) sequence that is a replica of a similar scene in Joi Baba Felunath. There are cleverer ways of paying tribute, I’d imagine.]

Sunday, March 20, 2016

17. Kapoor & Sons

SPOILER ALERT: This 'review' of the film hints at certain critical revelations that happen in the film. While the film is not a whodunit, it maybe a better idea to not read this before watching. In any case, I sincerely recommend you watch the film before doing anything - let alone reading this!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"It's all about loving your parents." - Tagline of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham

"A story about two guys... a girl... and one little lie. Believe it!" - Tagline of Dostana 

What Shakun Batra does in Kapoor & Sons is to take these two films from Karan Johar's stable and make such an amazingly heady cocktail out of it that one is never sure if he is consciously slying against his producer or not. He takes the Karan Johar staples - good looking actors, large families, estranged family members, crazy patriarchs, great music, picture-perfect locales, big parties - and does the filmi equivalent of fusion food. It is the KJo ingredients in the hands of an inventive - even subversive - chef.

First up, let's get Rishi Kapoor - hailing from the original Kapoor & Sons enterprise of Bollywood - and his amazing makeup out of the way. Even without the makeup, he exudes a crazy grandfatherliness from every pore and by making his character a tharki, the film just added a whole lot of fun. And by adding Ram Teri Ganga Maili to the jamboree, the self-referencing just made all trivia lovers dreams come true!

Second, let's not get into the acting. Every single actor has acted brilliantly, especially since none of them are playing easy, sweet, happy roles. These are difficult, everyday people who get angry, get into scuffles, have jealousies and insecurities and do cruel things - often not knowing what they are doing.
Siddharth Malhotra and Alia Bhatt leave their student days far behind and play a normal couple, who are not sure if they should be a couple. Ratna Pathak Shah and Rajat Kapoor bring alive the forever bickering couple, who have forgotten why they were in love once and after a lifetime of scars, they are now even wary of good times.
All female viewers have gushed about Fawad Khan's hotness and - indeed - the perfectly featured actor is likely to go far in Bollywood, thanks to his good looks and easy charm. The posters, trailers and all promotional material have exploited this quite mercilessly. I found it quite amazing that he played a role that would make him the darling of many men as well.
Even the bit parts - photographer Wasim, his bodybuilder brother Boobli, Choksey Uncle, including the plumber - are superbly performed.

However, the hero of the film is the writing.
It is certainly not an easy task to take so many actors (some stars, some merely actors), put them in situations that we see happening all around us and still make it interesting. Especially since, the final payoff - the patriarch's dream of a family photo - is not stuff 140-minute blockbusters are usually about. And yet, director Shakun Batra and Ayesha Devitre Dhillon manage to weave a mesmerising screenplay around this dysfunctional family, going about plugging leaks and planning surprise birthday parties.
A word about Ayesha Devitre: She is a hairstylist with some massive blockbusters to her credit. She calls herself a 'hairstylist by profession, scriptwriter by passion' and has only written two films (both co-written with Shakun Batra). Her first film - Ekk Main Aur Ekk Tu - had the confidence of moving away from standard Hindi film tropes, even while seeming to be within a formula. More power and more films to her!

[Frivolous Footnote 1: In a film that has such great writing, it is great that the two heroes are writers of different kinds. For trivia buffs, Fawad Khan's book is called Freedom Fall and Siddharth Malhotra's manuscript is called We Are All Under A Cloud. Thanks Aarti Krishnakumar for that!]

[Frivolous Footnote 2: The film is set in Coonoor, where a cheese maker lives. I was wondering that his best film is also about two brothers - the elder being the favourite and the younger a bit of a dark horse - coming good in their own ways.]

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

16. Bangalore Days

One of the best decisions I have taken in this #100MoviePact is to seek out the best works of regional cinema. Friends have generously recommended old classics ("This is what made Rajini Rajini!") as well as contemporary hits ("The more I see Dulquer, I more I love him!") and all of them are now on my Amazon wishlist.
This one was recommended by Sohini Mitter.

Rock On! meets Dil Chahta Hai meets Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar meets Karnataka Tourism in this delightful film about three cousins who had resolved to live it up in Bangalore as kids and then landed up in the big city by a series of coincidences. The lives society ordains for those who follow rules - and those who don't - are intricately woven.

A girl aspiring for a MBA degree gets married off to an eligible bachelor.
A village boy in love with even the water of the pond gets a job with a software firm.
A rebellious misfit finds a place where his skills can come to use.
But the film doesn't pass any judgement. The girl actually wants to get married to the handsome man she meets. The boy enjoys the money the job offers and the fun that happens in a big city. Nobody seems to be missing what they say they are missing. The characters are refreshingly real as are the settings.
Vivacious RJs. Modern apartments. Tattooed bikers. Burger joints. Friendly neighbourhood uncles. Software parks. Geeks. Freaks. Pricks. Chicks. Scowls. Jowls. All cohabit the world of the three characters and their extended relationships.

One thing I really enjoyed in Bangalore Days is the way filmi cliches are taken and given a very real and contemporary twist. That way, you may know what is about to happen but can never guess how. This exploration of the popular idiom is particularly great where the software engineer cousin describes his idea of a perfect girl found through arranged marriage. The traditional name, the traditional attire, the traditional behaviour of serving tea and snacks... all come true, but in a way you're not likely to expect. Or do they come true?
The climactic bike race. The reconciliation of the couple. The dream girl. The missing father. The disapproving parent. The elopement. The standard tropes suddenly become refreshing and new.

Bangalore Days is quite long - nearly three hours - and there is a short period in the last third when it drags but that it hardly a blip in an otherwise fine film. Writer-director Anjali Menon is clearly a talent to watch out for and so are the actors.
Nithya Menon - known to many of us as the Titan girl - has a short role as well. Wish she had a longer one.  

15. Race

No Abbas Mustan. No Bipasha, Saif, Anil Kapoor or Ameesha. Bollywood junkies, please excuse.

James Cleveland Owens had to sit in designated bus seats, live in segregated parts of town and endure taunts of his fellow countrymen. His success on the track meant nothing to many of them. He was a pariah. Till he became the symbol of anti-racism that his deeply racist country projected on to the world stage.
Race does a great job of presenting the dilemma of a black man in 1930s America. Should he protest against his country's racism and boycott the biggest stage his sport can get? Or should he participate and make a bigger statement?
No prizes for guessing what he chose but his dilemma came out exceedingly well. That and his obsessive desire to run!

I had read somewhere (was it an article by Sandipan Deb?) that many of our cricketing heroes survived almost by accident. Harbhajan Singh could have got slaughtered in 1984 and Irfan Pathan could have caught the wrong end of a sword in 2002. But they didn't and came together to form an invincible* team that is secular, patriotic and our biggest mood-lifter.
While I was watching Race, I felt this story was also somewhat similar and America should be grateful for the accident that - despite everything - Jesse Owens decided to run and not run away.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

14. Aligarh

Suppose - in a middle class colony in any of our major cities - a single middle-aged man is found to be sleeping with his domestic help. 
Every other detail about the situation just ceases to matter in a situation like this. Maybe it was consensual? Maybe they were in love? How did people find out about it? Did they invade his privacy? None of this matters. Personal choices and preferences take a backseat to the societal norms formed over years of sediment emerging out of ancient scriptures of all religions. 

Aligarh takes this basic issue of privacy and sets it in the landscape of gay rights in India (or the lack it). By tracking the story of a Aligarh University professor who was persecuted for sleeping with a rickshaw-puller, he uses gay rights to raise questions about privacy. When a man is killed in India (a place less than 100 kms from Aligarh), we never ask who killed him. Instead, we ask what meat he had in his fridge. Likewise, we don't ask how a camera-toting thug entered a law-abiding professor's private residence without permission. We ask who was in bed with the professor. 

The story of Aligarh is simple but the screenplay asks several questions, leaving us to work them out. Beyond the social commentary, it is also like a thriller where we are never sure of which testimony is dependable and who colluded with whom. By leaving certain strands of the story hanging and moving on to other strands, it creates a deep sense of unease that is possibly reflective of the way we choose to outrage about some victim today and then conveniently move on to another one tomorrow - without bringing any closure to any of those. 

Manoj Bajpayee does a stellar job of playing the disgraced professor - helpless and strong in turns, heartbreakingly real for the entire film. His Marathi-accented Hindi, his halting poetry recitation, his guilty drinking, his anger, his laughter... are just perfect. 
Equally strong is the second lead - Rajkummar Rao - who brings alive the young, idealistic, Malayali journalist out to give the professor a fair hearing. 
In fact, the entire cast does a great job of looking and playing the parts to perfection. 


When I last heard, an alumnus of Aligarh University (or was it a resident of the city of Aligarh?) had petitioned to have the name of the film changed because being associated with a 'gay film' would have a negative impact on the city and its residents. 
Bombay did not run in Bombay without cuts mandated by its most powerful resident. Aligarh, thankfully, did not meet the same fate. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

13. Drishyam

Having missed the Hindi version of Drishyam last year, I was strongly directed by a Mallu friend to watch the original starring Lal-ettan. 'Acting masterclass', 'Devgn hammed' and similar phrases were thrown around in the discussion. Thus impressed, I procured a DVD of Malayalam original and prepared to get impressed.
To put it in short, I was mighty impressed.

Mohanlal brings just the right mix of a confidence and diffidence that a successful common man has in India. That the character (and the actor) is razor sharp gets nicely camouflaged by his geniality. which is a critical requirement of the role. Not only acting and facial expressions, even Mohanlal's body language is absolutely perfect.
The supporting cast - mainly consisting of Meera Durairaj, Asha Sarath and Siddiqui - is great too. I can't claim to be an expert on Kerala but the tea shop owner, the sub-contractor, the cable TV operator, the small-time political activist... all of them seemed very familiar!

However, what really stands out is the writing of the film (by the director himself - Jeethu Joseph).
In a mystery thriller with multiple witnesses of varying ages and backgrounds, set in a very real milieu, the structure and the words both become very important. As witnesses are questioned repeatedly, it is critical that the integrity of the interrogation is maintained and at the same time, the entertainment value is not compromised. As in, similar scenes don't become boring.
Again, since the 'hero' is a regular character, his introduction as a regular but heroic character also needs to be real but not boring. The initial part of the film - before the 'crime' takes place - plays out really well as George Kutty's (Mohanlal) equations with his family, his fellow villagers and the police are established smoothly and interestingly.
Finally, the words. They must convey differences in levels of education, affluence, power, confidence and so on. With the characters balanced on a razor's edge trying to prove (or disprove) the commission of a crime, each of these facets become like a see-saw between the police investigators and the people accused of the crime.

In short, watch it. Preferably, the Malayalam version.

[Frivolous Footnote: Uttam Kumar, in the later part of his career, was doing some excellent non-heroic leading roles before he passed away. I always felt that while Uttam Kumar did not have the high-culture sophistication of, say, Soumitra Chatterjee, he did have an innate intelligence that helped him weave a spell around audiences. That is pretty much the quality the protagonist has in Drishyam and I think Uttam Kumar would have played it brilliantly.]