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.]

Thursday, February 25, 2016

12. Titli

Kanu Behl’s Titli is a relentlessly dark, gut-wrenching view of the NCR underbelly where security guards cannot secure us, the police don’t want to secure us and we ourselves are not beyond making someone else insecure for something extra. The malls, the real estate deals, the swanky cars, the plush colonies and various slippery characters populate the landscape of Titli and all of them are distressingly real.
Behl was Dibakar Banerjee’s assistant on two quintessentially NCR films – Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye and Love, Sex Aur Dhokha – and his sharp perception of modern life in the metropolis is evident throughout. In recent times, several films – NH10 and Aurangzeb immediately come to mind – have gone beyond the romance of Dilli and ventured into the places where malls and democracy both end. Dibakar Banerjee’s two early films – Khosla Ka Ghosla and OLLO – were satirical and therefore, had a lightness of touch. His next – LSD – was quite brutal in its indictment of the mindset of the nation’s capital. 
Titli is also a similar film in that respect. It is not a Delhi film, it is an NCR film. From the unfinished constructions that give hope of a better tomorrow to the crippling financial investment that is required to secure that tomorrow, Titli has it all.

The story of a family of three car-jacking brothers and the efforts of the youngest (Titli, played by Shashank Arora) to escape a life of crime is an exact antithesis of the wholesome family values Bollywood is famous for portraying, institutionalized by the producers, Yash Raj Films. The film’s tagline is “Har family family nahin hoti” and the film manages to pack in pretty much every dysfunctional trait one can think of.
Which brings me to – what I felt – was an issue with the film. As someone (was it @bethlovesbolly?) pointed out on Twitter that after a point, it seemed that one had to guess which unforeseen but completely realistic calamity would befall the family next. Like really, how many skulls must be hammered in before we can seek salvation? In a way, Titli is an anti-KJo film – a minefield of dystopian <can’t think of an alliterative synonym for ‘blasts’>.
Nevertheless, it is a strong debut for Kanu Behl and makes one look forward to his next. Incidentally, it is titled Agra and about a call-centre agent in love with a girl while no one is convinced she really exists. Yeah, expect more from the Republic of Dystopia!

[Frivolous Footnote: The role of the father in Titli was played by Lalit Behl, director Kanu’s father – an interesting case of which the only precedent I could think of was Raj directing Prithviraj Kapoor (Awara) and Randhir directing Raj (Kal Aaj Aur Kal). Anyone else?]  

Monday, February 22, 2016

11. Neerja

It is indeed quite a task to make a film based on real-life incidents since everyone knows what had happened and there is hardly any scope for surprise. Despite that, a well-constructed dramatic retelling of a real event does pack a punch and can be a rich source of interesting films - especially when stuck in the rut of flipping cars and rotating pelvises.

Some random thoughts about Neerja:

The hijackers - owing allegiance to Palestine - were not sentenced to death in trial in Pakistan. All four of them had survived the hijack and despite having killed some twenty passengers (which included Americans), they were sentenced to life imprisonment. Quite amazingly, some of them escaped during a jailbreak in 2008. Yes, four of them are somewhere out there and may have even watched the film.

I was a little puzzled about why Pakistan banned the film. The Pakistan authorities - airport security, Army commandos etc - have been shown in neutral to positive light. It was they who negotiated with the hijackers (stretching it to long hours) and eventually stormed the plane, managing to rescue a fairly large proportion of the passengers.

Thanks to the film, Neerja Bhanot - quite a popular model of her times - is all over the internet once again. She had done ads for quite a few top brands and it is a trip down nostalgia lane to see them once again. A handy compilation is available here.
Interesting to note that she - despite being in her early twenties - routinely played housewives and in one case, the mother of a (what seemed like) ten-year old boy. And ironically, the ad features the boy hoping to be a pilot.

Apart from her ads, a friend reminded me of a story in The Telegraph's Sunday magazine where Neerja's family had revealed that they had managed to establish contact with her 'spirit'. Neerja communicated by writing her messages through her mother holding a pen and scrawling on sheets of paper. I now remember this creating quite a stir because Neerja's messages apparently contained details of the hijack that could have only been known to her while the sceptics questioned her mother's ability to withstand grief of such magnitude.

As @GabbbarSingh said on Twitter, "Neerja is Sonam Kapoor's Guru" alluding to Abhishek Bachchan's landmark film that rose above his usual mediocre performance at the box office and review columns. But Sonam's performance - while very good - certainly doesn't engulf you like Abhishek's did. She is good, aided by having to play an extraordinary character, but I don't see her getting too many awards for it.

Rajesh Khanna has an unseen yet pervasive presence throughout the film as he is supposed to be Neerja Bhanot's favourite film star and she uses his iconic lines at every possible opportunity. I wondered if a girl in her early twenties in the 1980s would be such a huge fan of Kaka, clearly past his prime then. Logically, no but then Hindi cinema fandom hardly operates on logic.

Shabana Azmi - as Neerja's mother, Rama Bhanot - is magnificent. She is in the background for most part of the film but her fine acting qualities are on display everywhere. She is the typical worried Punjabi mother, seemingly confident of and yet scared for her daughter. Her speech in the final scenes is amazing, delivering a message of women's empowerment in very real terms. And it drives you to tears.
(Yogendra Tikku as Neerja's father is good too and he seems to have made his own the niche character of a strong daughter's father. He was very good in Queen as well.)

Overall, a fine mix of edge-of-the-seat thrills and good old-fashioned desi emotions. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

10. Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol

How does Lea Seydoux - with a background in French art cinema - get cast in action franchises like Bond or MI? She doesn't have an ounce of the icy charm or the kickass action capability that are table stakes for roles like these?

How does Anil Kapoor talk about his Hollywood creds when his entire screen time in MI:IV is a little less than what Priyanka Chopra gets in the opening credits of Quantico?

How does... oh, forget it!

Mission Impossible IV follows the set pattern of the MI films: crazy ass opening sequence, outlining of crazier ass mission, failure of mission despite megatons of gizmo-giri, planning of craziest ass mission to undo damage and - finally - execution of that mission. MI:IV does just that going from Kremlin to Burj Khalifa to Mumbai to an multi-storied automated parking lot (ostensibly in Mumbai as well).
The action scenes are pretty good though the dialogues have to be the clunkiest and corniest I have heard in any Hollywood movie, let alone the MI frachise. And tragically, most of these lines are given to Anil Kapoor.
As billionaire playboy Brij Nath, Anil Kapoor has lines like “I found your capricious passion intriguing” and “Like all Indian men, I’m very hot” before being bested by Paula Patton. I am just filing it under #CannotAbleTo and henceforth, vowing to follow the international careers of only Irrfan and Priyanka C from now on.

Also, it is amazing that these franchises - which seem super-researched at the international locations - turn out to be messes of inaccuracies whenever they land up in India. I am guessing it is because they are terribly researched everywhere but I am able to spot the Indian goofs.
So, you have millionaire Brij introducing Mughal-style miniatures as "original art from Chhatarpur district" while a "state-run TV channel" is the Chennai office of Sun TV and shown to be "6.7 miles from a Mumbai mansion not far away from Taj Palace". And I am not even getting into the Kannada signs in what is supposed to be a Mumbai mall.
We loved you so much, Ethan. And you made our jhakaas Bollywood hero do namaste like as if he is sneezing?

Friday, February 12, 2016

9. Sulemani Keeda

Sulemaani Keeda was one of those low-profile films that all your friends love and egg you to watch but the multiplexes conspire to run the shows at odd timings and you miss out. I had forgotten all about it till I read an interview of the director (Amit Masurkar) in HT Brunch about his second film and ended up (legally) streaming Keeda.

Well, the film turned out to be exactly as I expected – made on a shoestring budget, on real locations, with identifiable characters on the fringes of the film industry. And yes, it was laugh out loud funny. It has walk-on parts by Mahesh Bhatt (who overacts as usual) and Anil ‘Gadar’ Sharma (who actually provides a real lead to the film parts), packing the script with nods towards the film industry, especially its writers.
The lead pair – the painfully shy Dulal and the painfully exuberant Mainak – form a quirky duo out to write a ‘badi film kissi bade Khan ke saath’. In their pursuit, they meet some real people picked up from suburban Bombay (or is it Mumbai?) and some not-so-real people (or are they?) picked up from Bollywood. You have a cat named Fellini and a star-son called Gonzo who wants to show ‘angry lustless dark orgies’ in films that are completely ‘out of the box’ (the new-age shorthand for ‘hatke’).
In between open mics for budding poets and shopping expeditions in Colaba, we get glimpses of scriptwriting sessions in farmhouses where fly-swatting neighbours turn out to be more important than they look.
The performances are uniformly real, of which Aditi Vasudev (who was earlier seen as Rishi Kapoor’s daughter in Do Dooni Char) really stood out. Razzak Khan – in a short scene as Bollywood producer Sweety Kapoor – brings in his customary flourish with a neat hanky trick.

Sulemaani Keeda captures beautifully the dilemma of the new-age writers in old-school Bollywood where Last Tango in Paris’ ‘masala scenes’ are used to pacify irate landlords and Dekalog is in conflict with Dabangg
Essentially, it is about writers and their ordinary lives in pursuit of extraordinary stories. The writers’ blocks, the snobbery of ‘film writers’ towards ‘TV writers’, their humble brags and their desperation are brought out really well. 
Quite naturally, there are some subtle tributes to writers. For example, the “life is a handkerchief” scene was done by Salim Khan in an interview and the exhortation to “think like the buyer, not the creator” was said by Javed Akhtar in a speech to budding writers. [Yeah, I love writers. Especially, these two.]  

And finally – having written a book on those two writers – I have to quote that one scene which made the film for me.
Mainak stops his scooter in front a building in Bandra.
Dulal: Arre bhai, yahan kyun rok diya?
Mainak (points to passerby): Isse poochho kyun rok diya.
Passerby: Yeh Sallu bhai ka ghar hai, iss liye roka.
Dulal: Arre, Salman Khan ke ghar kya karna hain?
Mainak: Yahan Salim Khan ji hi rehte hain… Samjhe? Kya samjhe?
Dulal: Yehi ke actor ka baap writer hota hai. 

[Frivolous Footnote: Sulemaani Keeda was made for Rs 8.5 lakhs in 2014. Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were paid a little less than that for Kaala Patthar, a deal they struck in 1976. I don’t know if this is a comment on the low budget of SK or the high fees of SJ but thought of just putting it in.]

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

8. Asterix: Mansion of the Gods

Many years back, my father announced that he wanted to watch the Bengali film to be shown on Doordarshan that Saturday because his (then) boss had a small role in it. He was never an avid movie watcher and I was intrigued enough to join him. (At that age, I preferred to avoid Bengali cinema and preferred the Sunday Hindi movie because that had 'fighting'.)
The film was Aranyer Dinratri and I was gobsmacked to find that the director was a gentleman I was very familiar with. He wrote the Feluda novels... and now it turned out that he had directed a few films in his spare time!
This serendipitous discovery started with me memorising the thirteen names in the Memory Game that evening and ended up being the most rewarding part of my movie-watching life.

A few days back, we went to see an animated film on Asterix and somewhere in between the film, my son realised that there was a stack of books on the top shelf of my bookcase have these strange characters with winged helmets and striped swimsuit-like clothes. "You mean, there is a book on this movie? Like Harry Potter?"
So after watching the film, my son has started reading Asterix comics. And now we have to contend with "Ahahahaha, the ironsmith is called Fulliautomatix... Fully. Automatic. Geddit?" every now and then.
If wasting one Sunday afternoon siesta of mine can end with a lifelong addiction to the crazy Gauls for him, I'd call it a fair trade.

Why did I recount the first story? Just.
Why did I recount these two random things in a 'review' of a film? Just.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

7. Gulaab Gang

When Gulaab Gang had released, I had two reasons to watch it. One, Madhuri Dixit was returning to the big screen after a long hiatus (and that too, in a completely different sort of role). Two, the director of the film (who is the writer and composer as well) is a ‘social media friend’. But as luck would have it, I was caught up in a terribly busy period at work when the film released and could not catch it in the theatres.
Nearly two years after the film released, I finally managed to catch it a couple of days back on TV. Watching a film is never as good as watching it in the theatres – thanks to all the breaks – but I recorded it and watched it in one go.

I liked the film a lot, principally because it was a throwback to that old style of Hindi cinema where the good and evil clash in a series of epic battles before evil is vanquished in a volcano of blood and gore. We have seen Amitabh or Dharmendra play the oppressed villager so many times to Amrish Puri or Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s evil politician and yet, a well-made repeat of those plots still manages to engage.
Gulaab Gang, of course, has that brilliant twist in the cast by having Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla in the traditionally male roles. And that works superbly for most part of the film.  

What happens really well in the film is the flow of whistle-inducing dialogues. Both the actresses – though Madhuri a bit more, for obvious reasons – have the most kickass lines. The "Danda sabka peer hai" (Rod is God!) line was promoted a lot in the trailers and that is just one of the many great lines in the film. I particularly liked Madhuri Dixit’s “Uparwali jab deti hai toh chhappad phaadke deti hai… neechewali jab leti hai toh patloon phaadke leti hai” line. Good enough for me to have remembered it from two days back J  
Apart from the dialogues, the action set-pieces of the film are really well done – more so, because women were doing all the action scenes. So Madhuri Dixit and her gang deliver some butt-clenchingly good action. The power with which the sickles dug into the flesh gave me the cringes many times in the film!
Madhuri’s entrance scene and its buildup is one of the best that I can remember in recent time, heroes included – really setting her up for a great role. Even the scene in which Juhi Chawla leaves the building to greet a waiting crowd only to be upstaged by a regal Madhuri Dixit behind her is masterfully done.

What didn’t work me was the placement of songs. They really hampered the flow of the story and I was impatiently waiting for the film to get on whenever the songs happened. 
At the time of the release, I was a bit disappointed to see the not-so-positive reviews of the film though many of them praised Juhi Chawla’s performance as the one to watch out for. I was rather underwhelmed by her performance as – to me – she did not manage to break completely free of her super-sweet image and become the evil politician on screen. She had some great lines but she just didn’t convey the menace the character was supposed to.  

But nevertheless, Gulaab Gang was a really entertaining watch because it got the essence of old-school Bollywood really well. The dhamaka dialogues, the kaante ka takkar, the swishing sickles, the larger-than-life leads, the eye-candy heroines… oh wait!

[Frivolous Footnote: Wondering how Sridevi would have been in Juhi Chawla’s role. She does over-the-top acts really well. She has a natural sneer. (Or is it a snarl?) And her rivalry with Madhuri has a jagged edge that Juhi’s rivalry probably never had. Hmmm...]