Review: Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots

In Rajkumar Hirani’s latest film, a character steps to a blackboard and chalks up, for the benefit of a befuddled engineering college classroomful of students, the word ‘Farhanitrate,’ daring them to tell him what it means.

The word is a pun on the character’s best friend, Farhan, and while it may be a non-existant gag word in the film, the compound seems to exist in real life — Hirani’s film is doused liberally with Farhanitrate (in an Akhtar sense of the word) and several other directorial scents — including Hirani’s own touch, which is why by the time the end credits eventually roll around, you have a ‘been there, sniffed that’ feeling about it all.

There’s also a tragic, overriding feeling of futility. Why, you ask yourself, does a college film have to be made with middle-aged men playing the lead? Can we not trust younger actors to deliver, or has the insecurity of the star system blinded us to all reality?

Idiots1Why must Aamir Khan, a man who told us of the last day of college 21 years ago, still play a fresh-faced student? He does adequately, and is impressively bereft of age-lines, but we really have seen it all before. For the actor, it’s probably yet another disguise, that of the young man. But it’s a role he can do in his sleep.

Ditto for Hirani and his partner in wordplay, Abhijat Joshi. 3 Idiots is a very average bit of fluffy Bollywood masala that tragically pretends, at times, to be making a profound point, one it loses in repetition. The result is a confused film, one that doesn’t know exactly where it stands, torn between lump-in-the-throat filmmaking and amateurishly written juvenilia. There are a few moments which click, but coming from the duo that created the finest film this decade, this is a massive letdown.

This is a film, as you have gleaned from the inescapably omnipresent publicity material, about three students in an engineering college. Yes, indeed. And while it borrows its principal cast from Rang De Basanti and a vibe from younger-voiced filmmakers like Nagesh Kukunoor and Akhtar, it never quite gets going. It sorely lacks that magic touch, that trademark broadstroke of Hirani sincerity. That lick of good ol’ honest filmmaking is enough to gloss over many an underwritten scene or overwritten soliloquy, but this film remains washed up, without that all-absolving coat of paint.

Anyway, back to the story. Aamir, Sharman Joshi and a portly R Madhavan are students in an engineering college run by Boman Irani, the actor reduced to a caricature so unreal that shaving his cartoon moustache takes away even Irani’s ability to keep a straight face through the farce. And what a stretch this farce is, as Hirani plays out his now-familiar tropes: college ragging with pants dropping down; cheering up a paralysed patient; and a short fellow given a length-deriding nickname. Stats are thrown in about college pressure and suicide rates, and they really don’t fit into the narrative.

Nothing quite does, to be fair. There is ludicrous fun to be had every now and again, but Hirani seems ill at ease, borrowing a Farah Khan-style old school flashback but refusing to go all-out funny — and instead labouring really hard to make a point, the aforementioned one about college and suicide. I repeat it because he does, and he does it over and over again.

The film really tries too hard. A wonderfully endearing character named Millimeter shows off a group of pups, calling the little one Kilobyte and the bigger one Megabyte, and there is a pause before he calls the mother Gigabyte. Sigh. The principal is called Virus. It’s an engineering college, get it? And so the jokes groan on, far more obvious than any of us Hiraniphiles would have liked — even as the dramatic twists and reveals emerge inadvertently funnier than the gags.

The cast is strictly okay, nobody really sparkling except for Millimeter and the girl, who isn’t around much, darn it. Kareena Kapoor dazzles with her brief role, and even though a lot of her spunk seems significantly Jab We Met in tone, she lights up the screen when she’s around. Aamir manages to sell some scenes strongly enough to make you laugh, while Madhavan proves to be a really bad choice for narrator.

This isn’t a bad film, though. By which I mean it conjures up a few moments, it will doubtless make some people cry, and every now and then we glimpse some heart. Yet it hurts to see that this is traditional Bollywood masala schlock, with scenes calculated to tickle and to evoke sympathy. It’s not awful at all, but since when did ‘not bad’ become good? Dr Feelgood doesn’t make the cut this time, and we need to measure him by the high bar his previous excellence has set — by which degree this is a whopper of a disappointment.

Rajkumar Hirani’s one of the directors of the decade, a man with immense talent and a knack for storytelling. On his debut, he hit a hundred. With his second, he hit a triple century. This time, he fishes outside the offstump, tries to play shots borrowed from other batters, and hits and misses to provide a patchy, 32*-type innings. It’s okay, boss, chalta hai. Even Sachin has an off day, and we still have great hope.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, December 24, 2009

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Review: KS Ravikumar’s Lingaa

You can tell just how vintage a film aspires to be by the films it steals from. KS Ravikumar’s Lingaa may be set in today for the most part, but as an opening heist — borrowed moronically yet loyally from Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn’s How To Steal A Million — shows us, here is a new film that would prefer to rip off a 1966 comedy instead of one of these modern English movies. Simply because nothing out there today quite has the understated charm of old Hollywood.

That includes Rajinikanth. Sure, that most iconic of our leading men is anything but understated, but watching him in action shows us not just the most old-school of swaggers but also a self-assured coolth missing from most heroes anywhere today. It is because he has absolutely nothing to prove that Rajini shines brightest, an unmuscular gent who may sing songs about breasts but who touches young ladies in a most avuncular vein. His heroism comes with a grace that makes all the stereotyping bearable, Rajini always smilingly in on the gag — the biggest punchline being that he’s a parody of himself — rather than an actor taking his screen image too seriously.

Lingaa-Rajinikanth-ImagesThat said, Lingaa is a deliriously scripted film about Lingaa, a present-day thief (and engineer of William Wyler saluting heists, as mentioned) who enchants a young, hefty TV news anchor to the point of pirate-fetishising dreams. The song as the girl dreams of him is particularly priceless, with glorious subtitles reading (from him to her) “Mona, my catalyst gasoline darling” and her replying, as she invitingly unbuttons her blouse, “Your Mona is like Fort Knox treasury; shall I open so coins you can carry?” It’s all magnificent, stirring stuff, and Benny Lava ain’t got nothing on these romantics.

But the cops are after Lingaa — whose face is magically devoid of a single crease but whose hands often appear gnarled — and he begins ducking from the cops while his sidekick brilliantly questions him, “Why hide like you saw your father in a wine shop?” Like I said, old-school.

Soon enough, Lingaa and his gang (plus the smitten TV anchor) decide to hotfoot it to a small village where Lingaa’s grandfather, Lingeswaran, was king. Now, in keeping with saluting the vintage, this is the real dude, a highly educated Indian ruler who was so smart he read Joseph Cambell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces ten years before it was written. Now this original Lingaa is the true leading man, even though he falls for the most unteenagerly teenager of all, played by the younger, heftier Sonakshi Sinha, playing up her bovine ways in a desperate attempt to appear doe-like. It’s not a great move, but everything is worth watching Rajinikanth grin slyly as he says “naughty girl.”

Plot-wise, Lingaa has a lot of meat, particularly the 1939 flashback wherein grandpa Rajini gets the better of our British overlords with impressive nonchalance and dignity, even as director KS Ravikumar amps up the film’s giant scale with hundreds of extras and lavish sets. It’s a compelling watch of a man with unquestioned nobility falling from grace but never once doing what is less than ideal — even if Sinha invitingly sings “from basics to base 4, let’s have an encore,” making her intentions rather clear. (I’d say naughty girl but what’s the use when you can’t say it the way Rajini can?) The hero does it all, from obliterating caste barriers to daintily feeding British governors cake to frying up appalams for unannounced guests.

At 175 minutes, Lingaa can get tiresome, especially with the too-long fight scenes, but remains constantly watchable because of the miraculously light way in which Rajinikanth continues to wear his megastardom around him, like a chiffon cloak. In it’s own way the film tries to be progressive and forward-thinking, but this isn’t about that. It’s about a man who brings pleasure to his people. Much like its ridiculous hot-air balloon climax, then, Lingaa is a gas.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, December 12, 2014

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Review: Prabhudeva’s Action Jackson

“AJ,” the girl gasps into her cellphone, breathlessly and furtively while gangsters surround her, “Some people are after me.”

Efficient to the last word, her man wastes no time in getting to the point: “What are they wearing?”

This is but a taste of the relentless absurdity served up by Action Jackson, the peculiar new film from Prabhudeva. It is an uneven, tacky, cheesy actioner, a film that has much going catastrophically wrong (the brunt of it involving Sonakshi Sinha) but it is also — surprise, surprise — at times incredibly zany and, much more importantly, a film that strikes back against the unending misogyny routinely perpetrated by our heroes in these larger-than-life movies. In many ways, Action Jackson can be read as a feminist statement, a film that shows girls proactively leaping onto the top rung while the leading man languishes several footholds short of heroic.

aj1That’s right, Ajay Devgn is anything but a ‘hero’ in this film. Sure, he kills way too many people too easily, but at various points in this film, he’s a coward, he’s a liar, he’s clearly dishonourable, he’s easily tempted to cheat on his girlfriend, he’s a horrible dancer, and at one point, in order to laugh at the villain (with a too-elaborate gag borrowed from Farhan Akhtar’s ghastly Don remake), he lets his wife get walloped around by the bad guy for a while before swooping in to try and save the day.

Meanwhile, as mentioned, the girls are the ones carrying the narrative forward and inciting the story, no matter how ridiculously they do so.

Sonakshi Sinha, playing the jolly dullard she plays in every single movie, is a chronically unlucky girl who walks into a changing room where Devgn is trying on some new orange underwear. Yes sir, the superstar likes to try his briefs before he buys them. Anyway, she is thus scandalised by a look at Devgn Jr, following which her luck changes. This happens again, and she’s convinced that viewings of his schlong are key to her good fortune. Therefore she (naturally) plans to drug him in order to sneak a peek at his junk, which will, in turn, give her the luck required to dazzle potential America-based in-laws. (No, not kidding. Tell me you’ve seen this film before, I double-dare you.)

Also, a gangster’s sister finds herself abducted by a lecherous villain who starts peeling off her shirt buttons. This lady, played by Manasvi Mamgai, the unquestioned highlight of the movie, happens to be unashamedly randy and seems to be enjoying the attention. Devgn, samurai sword in hand, breezes in as an odd, Bond-inspired English song plays, and the film turns to a Wild Stone deodorant commercial as the girl — still tied to the chair — looks increasingly (and cartoonishly) aroused by the bloodshed. She huffs and puffs to show off her brassiere, developing quite the crush on Devgn. A couple of scenes later, she’s rising out of the water in a yellow bikini, reaching out for the fellow’s zipper. But he’s having none of it; leaving ambiguity to the wordsmiths of the world, he cuttingly tells her “I don’t like you” and walks away eating a candybar. (Because, as we all know, chocolate really takes the edge off these poolside situations.)

Mamgai too, like Sinha, decides obstinately to stay aimed at Devgn’s pants. The film, from this point unfolding with all the slick-but-unsubtle schlock of a video game cutscene, bombastically explores both her libido (as she sits on couches with her legs splayed gynaecologically wide) and her obsession, as she decides to hack away at Devgn’s loved ones till he’s forced to be with her.

aj2Therefore both halves of the film — which involve an Ajay apiece, since the film has two of them — are about women wanting Ajay’s, um, piece. Flattering as this may seem, it turns the leading man into a led man, a prop for girls to fight over and build a story around. And considering how rare it is to see a masala blockbuster actually giving girls the reins, for this we must give Prabhudeva props.

Analysts of between-the-lines repression and sexuality, too, will have an absolute field day with this irredeemably and unstoppably metaphoric film, positively throbbing with visual and verbal innuendo: the Mamgai girl vamps it up and shakes her bottom in a song, but the audience-applause moment, the money-shot, bewilderingly enough comes when Devgn strips off his vest, fires a couple of blanks in her direction, and kicks the girl. Much later, just so he’s left nothing to chance (and no imagination un-abused), he penetrates the villain. Yup.

It’s all tremendously weird stuff, weird enough to be worth recommending. Visually, the film goofs around a fair bit — a villain shown in silhouette to look like The Undertaker turns out merely to be a Johnny Lever lookalike on steroids; superhero posters show up all through the film; Devgn talks about his shock and this is underscored by a flashback of, yes, him looking shocked; all the shots in Bangkok involve either samurai swords or dojos or conference rooms festooned by red lanterns — and parts of it pass by in a silly haze. It’s a loony trip.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t painful problems. The first half is a complete assault on the senses, Sonakshi Sinha cannot possibly be allowed to channel 90s Govinda anymore, and it’s cruel to make us watch Devgn try to dance. Or worse still, watch him fight to music, resulting in highly effeminate Dance Fu, where he clutches at floating toothpicks as if threading invisible canapés. And Kunal Roy Kapoor, man, is just… No. No Kunal, no. For not casting you in anything following Delhi Belly, this industry owes you a million beers. But aargh. It’s also at least a half-hour too long, even for a B-movie masochist.

aj3Still, as trashy films go, this is properly nutty garbage. Action Jackson is a drinking game of a film, one well over the so-bad-it’s-good line, its main merit being that in a sea of superstar-massaging vehicles, it holds some genuine surprises — and makes sure its hero looks like a jackass. Skip the first half and smuggle in a quart of something bitter, and you’ll be just fine. Not least because of how valiantly Mamgai shows up in the second half to combat Devgn’s monopoly on cleavage. He still does his GaGa-hands, but she more than steals the show and gives us a new-age vamp with genuine potential.

Prabhudeva, bless him, gives us something too warped to be predictable, and it hurts how thrillingly close he came to getting the name just right. A film this focussed on what lies under the jeans should really have been called Action Johnson.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, December 5, 2014

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Review: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Remember how it felt, as a kid, when cousins visited in the summer?

When an aunt’s children show up for a few vacation weeks and you hang with them and let them into your life and your room, when you’re briefly privy to more than your playground’s share of secrets, when you get to play with their toys and their ideas. And then they leave, only to show up again next year or the summer after that, when they’re different — taller and smarter and with extremely new kinds of problems, like acne, girls, board exams — and you get to catch up and fill each other in and, while doing so, realise how well/weakly you yourself are doing.

boyhood1Richard Linklater’s magnificent Boyhood — filmed across 12 years — gives us characters we see in fragmented scraps of time every year, but, arranged next to each other with linear grace, the experience is a spectacularly intimate one. Like flipping through several photo-albums at once. We see a young boy grow into a young man, and this journey — which is never ever just one person’s journey — is shown to us in minute detail, detail we can both relate to and learn from, documentary-level detail that remains incredibly fascinating.

It is a ridiculously ambitious setup: shooting for a few days a year, making us live with the actors as we see young Ellar Coltrane, 7, who plays the film’s leading lad, Mason Junior, make his way to young Ellar Coltrane, 18. We don’t so much witness his journey as spy on him, and see how he — and his family — changes over the years: his face turning angular, his mother shedding her defiance, his father wisening up. These alterations are far more than skin deep (though watching physical changes play out in a tender, thoughtful film like this feels miraculous in itself) and Linklater makes sure the characters grow as much as the actors.

There has never been a film like this. This is cinema as epic-timelapse, and with it Linklater changes the very idea of time in storytelling.

Life is Boyhood’s plot. We watch Mason Jr and his sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) deal with long car-rides, divorced parents, adolescence, and variously fogged levels of clarity. Their father, Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke) goes from fun to undependable, idealistic to comfortable. Their mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), tragically and heroically, copes, doing whatever she can to make things fall into place. Our job as viewers is so easy we ought to feel blessed, but so poetically and evocatively does Linklater turn his film into a time-capsule that it’s hard not to feel personally thrust into the narrative from time to time, to drift away into our own boyhoods and girlhoods and early neighbourhoods that looked remarkably different just because we were then knee-high.

Boyhood2The writing is, unsurprisingly for a Linklater film, extraordinary. Mason Jr, who collects arrowheads, tries sharpening rocks in his teacher’s pencil sharpener; his sister does an insufferable Britney Spears impression (which probably means it’s spot-on); they line up to buy the new Harry Potter; Mason Sr is swashbucklingly pro-Obama (till he’s older). The performances are magical, but largely because of the format. Coltrane is a lovely boy, who grows serendipitously into a Hawke-ian collegeboy, but it is the parents who really make this film feel more than fiction. Hawke — who is heartbreakingly sincere, especially when trying to pass on his love for each Beatle to his boy — brilliantly conveys the helplessness of a faraway father, and Arquette (who I had thought will forever remain mad, hot Alabama from True Romance) delivers a devastatingly touching performance, one that may well define her cinematic legacy.

As I said, there hasn’t ever been a film like Boyhood. It is a director’s ultimate what-if thought come true, the most monumental way to get past finding lookalike actors and getting periodically authentic detailing right. It is painfully real to be around, watching, as a boy’s voice cracks. As he takes his first steps towards being his own man, a free Mason, as it were, he feels like someone we have known for far longer than Linklater’s long running-time. The closing credits are depressing merely because they exist, and we want to know what happens to Mason next. Unless, as the director jokingly (?) said, he boarded a train in Europe and ran into a nice girl…

Go, get to know Boyhood. Soak it in and let it enrich you, amuse you, hold you close. Let it open your mind a little bit more toward the possibilities great cinema holds. Live it. Let this film be your jam. To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens when you’re busy watching other films.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, November 14, 2014

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Review: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

Christopher Nolan doesn’t like three-dimensional cinema. This is a curious compunction for a maker of blockbusters, a director whose releases have become events in themselves, especially at a time when the most creative minds — Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese to Jean-Luc Godard, masters from across generations — are exploring the depths and possibilities of 3D cinema. Yet Nolan, who shoots on film stock and refuses to go quietly into the digital night, wants more. With Interstellar, he delivers a movie so vast and so universally resonant that it makes the audience question space and time regardless of our preparedness for the subject matter. Why, indeed, worry about three dimensions when you’re working with five?

Dinner plates are laid upside down till they need to be used in a dustbowl future, an arid world with dying crops and an immediate need for students to become farmers. In a corner of this world lives Cooper, a widower and former NASA pilot who now grows corn. Matthew McConaughey, who plays Cooper, does so with his trademark slowed-down drawl, his voice suitably sandpapered as if by decades of dust. He says “skaaai” when he means “sky”, and, were it not for the blessed fact that Indian theatres are seeing Interstellar with subtitles, this could get cumbersome since Nolan makes McConaughey talk a great deal.

interstellar2Every word, however, is riveting. The hazy world is teetering on the edge of extinction, a brutal death by famine. But then one day Cooper’s formidable bookshelf begins to talk, something only his daughter, Murph (a wonderful, wonderful Mackenzie Foy) notices. This leads them to a secret NASA base, one that requires Cooper to pilot a craft into a distant wormhole on the edge of Saturn, one that could lead to new galaxies and potentially habitable planets. Murph, a brilliant kid devoted to her father, doesn’t take this decision well and Cooper says he must mend their relationship before he goes. “Then I’ll keep it broken so you have to stay,” she asserts. He doesn’t stay.

For the first hour or thereabouts, Interstellar feels like an extraordinarily well-crafted Spielberg-by-numbers exercise: McConaughey’s character is close to that of Tom Cruise in War Of The Worlds; Michael Caine, who plays scientist Dr Brand, gives a tour of NASA’s top-secret facilities with the same smug glee Richard Attenborough displayed when showing off Jurassic Park; and there’s a father-child relationship at the heart of the film. But then somewhere in space, as their craft (called Endurance) locks onto a floating base station, Hans Zimmer’s music becomes operatically ominous and the lock clicks on with a near-Kubrick perfection. The film changes gears immaculately. It might pay tribute to visionary directors, and even current tentpole movie gods (the word “Tesseract,” which nowadays appears trademarked by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is used) — but there is distinctly, unmistakably only one man at the helm of Interstellar.

Visually, it is an astonishing, awe-inspiring film, one that may want you to hunt around your IMAX recliners for a seatbelt. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (responsible for Her, my favourite film from last year) captures both earth and space with starkly dry brown-blue palettes and yet manages to throw in frames composed like paintings. Tiny spacecrafts skim past giant planetary rings, waves the size of mountains look down upon ill-equipped humans and beautifully boxy robots, and a bookshelf is worth its weight in immortality. Christopher Nolan, who made Paris fold in on itself so magnificently in Inception, clearly has a feel for galaxy-sized origami.

The performances are uniformly striking. McConaughey doles out exposition and theory with a smart everyman curiosity; Foy makes the first-act riveting following which Jessica Chastain takes over most evocatively; Anne Hathaway, bright of eye and sharp of cheekbone, is efficient and cool and inch-perfect as a no-nonsense pilot; David Gyasi and Wes Bentley, as frequently arguing astronauts, ground the film with credibility; Michael Caine is, well, Michael Caine; and Bill Irwin is terrific as TARS, the robot set to 90% honesty because, quite frankly, we can’t handle the truth.

interstellar1Interstellar is an incredible ride, a film that will scare and stupefy and drop jaws and make us weep, the kind of film that makes our hearts thump against our ribs for forty straight-minutes and makes us believe in the glory of the movies. And that isn’t even the best part.

The best part — not the Pledge or the Turn but, the very best bit, the Prestige — is Christopher Nolan’s absolute mastery of time. Storytelling is a manipulative art form, and by relentlessly plying plot upon plot and event upon event, Nolan slows Interstellar down — even as the narrative itself attains hyperspeed. Its 169 minutes feel unbelievably, achingly long because of how much happens within them, the broadstrokes, like a two-year drive to Saturn, taking place briskly, while more time is dedicated to unzipping a cryogenically frozen sleeping bag, or an astronaut helping out another by giving him earphones full of chirping birds out in space. The balance of narrative heft is spectacular. And this feeling of an immeasurably long film — of thinking back in the third act to an opening scene and feeling like it happened many hours ago, many episodes ago, many seasons ago — is what gives Interstellar its epic breadth. We feel like it’s a film we lived.

By the end of it, Interstellar spins so forcefully and compellingly that it renders wristwatches helpless and makes us collectively travel in time. And, somewhere in the middle of it all, there’s even a girl called Lois. Oh my. All those Batman movies were a mere smokescreen; Christopher Nolan is Superman.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, November 7, 2014

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Review: R Balki’s Cheeni Kum

Tabu has balls.

Cheeni Kum could have been just another romance between an arrogant old perfectionist and a smitten waif, but the woman here has spirit. She rides the patriarch into a corner, constantly putting him on the spot, and her stoically unblinking, deadpan retorts are a perfect match for her cocksure suitor. That character, Nina, lends the pair contrast, gives it chemistry, makes the film work.

R Balki’s debut is, thus, a deftly made May-December love story that ends up being both relatable and romanticised, both honest and hysterical. A mostly delicious repast of repartee and repercussions, the script isn’t over-baked and the characters simmered to perfection. Although, for a film with that title, there are indeed a couple teaspoons sugar too many, by the very end.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Lets start from the beginning:

Amitabh Bachchan plays Buddhadeb Gupta, a London restaurateur who prides himself on the finest Indian food. His is a cellphone-free kitchen, where the master believes a perfect biryani is more monumental an achievement than Da Vinci’s Last Supper — the former impacts several more senses. And while his British waiter struggles over the nuances of mouthwatering frontier food names, Buddha’s bar serves up magnificent desi dishes to London.

One typical evening, while the ponytailed, preachy perfectionist holds forth to his white-hatted troops on the unbearable lightness of hing, or some such, he gasps at the realisation that a customer has actually sent back a dish. Tabu is the strongwilled Nina Verma, a confident woman currently visiting a friend in London. Buddha storms out and laces the lady with unsubtle sarcasm, laying it on thick and making said friend aghast, leading to the ladies storming out of the restaurant.

ck1Buddha, forced to acknowledge his staff committed a cardinal sin, is compelled to offer an apology, an act he is not used to. Meanwhile Nina, conveniently caught up in London’s trademark squall, frequently borrows the chef’s umbrella. Romance is obviously — underscored more than adequately with shots of Tabu walking and turning back (wash, rinse, repeat, repeat) — in the rainy air, and the days get pleasanter as the wit flies freely and the evident is never quite that.

Which brings us to the premise: He’s 64, she’s 34, and all is hunky dory. Except her 58-year-old father, played by Paresh Rawal, who objects to this union in as melodramatic a manner as is possible. Thus, as they say in Bollywood script sessions, ‘Conflict.’ This results in much chaos, a second-half with far less steam than the pre-interval opening, and a contrived, heavy-handed approach the film really didn’t deserve. Add to that a cancer subplot and a nice supporting character turns into an emotionally manipulative angle Cheeni Kum should have done without.

It’s a crisply written film, the dialogue mostly working very well. For all the talk of sarcasm, the lines aren’t likely to bowl you over with superb irony, but occasionally a clever gem shines through. The repartee between the lead pair is tight, as are Bachchan’s conversations with Sexy, his 9-year-old neighbour played by an impressive Swini Khara — the former are earnest, as funny as real life often it; the latter tend towards the pithy, but usually stop short of it. It’s a very unBollywood script, and it takes some stellar actors to pull it off.

A big wow then to Amitabh Bachchan, the film’s marvellous pivot. We shouldn’t be surprised by anymore Bachchanism, but the man — currently, constantly pushing himself onto a limb, decidedly making 2007 his own — is an undisputable rockstar. His Buddha is smooth yet suffers from occasional social awkwardness, and Bachchan manages both the rough brat and the annoyed old man tones with such ease. He’s arrogant and self-assured, yet feels the need to impress her — while never admitting it. This is one of his finest performances to date, because he sticks to the consistent key of the character, and while the film itself changes genres in the end, he stays Buddha. And is irresistible.

ck2Tabu is a great actress, and with a role that calls for far less bravura than her leading man, she is comfortably understated. As mentioned, their banter runs deep through the film, and her Nina, whom you never know when to take seriously, is a perfect foil to Buddha’s don’t-ask-the-obvious derision. There is a fantastic moment where she berates Bachchan for being too forward, for daring, like all men would, to ask a girl out and assume she’s available, just because she’s smiled at him a few times. The tension is palpable as Bachchan falls silent and you wince, suddenly ill-disposed toward her character. ‘I do hope you won’t be late,’ she ends, still deadpan, immediately confirming both date and smirk.

The inimitable Zohra Sehgal plays Bachchan’s wrestling-loving mother, a terrible cook who lectures him on gymming and knows him inside out, and is evidently the source of his scornful tongue. Paresh Rawal unfortunately plays the film’s sole caricature, an over-written character working more for ha-has than realism, and while the actor is inevitably good enough to make us chuckle, his character needed to be leaner. As mentioned, Swini Khara is pretty good, holding her own in demanding conversational scenes.

The crackling first half coasts along wonderfully, relying almost solely on Bachchan’s formidable charm. The second half sees trouble with a hammy third act. Cheeni Kum is a very neat film, but the messy end — the last three lines of dialogue exchanged by Bachchan and Tabu are the film’s very worst — leaves a peculiar aftertaste.

This isn’t a groundbreaking film, but it didn’t set out to be. It’s a maturely written film with great characters, tremendous performances and some fantastic moments. It could have been perfect, but the lesser said about that end the better.

Watch it. A brilliant sequence involving the chef, a chemist, chhatris and chachas is absolute movie magic, and in itself well worth the price of admission. Bravo.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 25, 2007

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Review: David Fincher’s Gone Girl

One of the few things more inscrutable than the mind of a woman — more complex, harder to unspool, if you will — is the collective mind of a couple. Not just the joint decision-making, shaped via pragmatism and compromise and societal positioning, but their decisions re: each other. What makes them fight all the time? Does he really like her? How bizarre for those two to have a spark… No matter what, we the observers remain perpetually outside the fishbowl while they grow to think as one, however perfect or discordant. We can pretend we’re in on the joke, but they’re the only ones who get every layer.

This appears evident in the freshly-forged collaboration between director David Fincher and author Gillian Flynn, who, with Gone Girl, have taken her characters and his characteristic style and run with it, staying loyal to her riveting novel but, well, true to his cunning methods, loyal like a fox. His form and her content play off each other with obvious glee, but this mutual admiration dulls the edge off both text and technique. The two of them might have a blast, but us mortals closed off from the fishbowl might find this adaptation a little less satisfying — and a little too convenient.

gg2It becomes gapingly aware that Gone Girl is not a novel (and that it perhaps wants desperately to be one) when we see the first chapter title next to Ben Affleck’s Nick. “The Morning Of” works in the novel, but on screen the words dangle in the air, as if waiting for some specific: The Murder/The Misunderstanding/The Massacre. They aren’t, and Nick is as unfinished as the phrase. He goes to a bar, greets his sister, starts playing the Life board-game over a morning glug of Bourbon. The dialogue, however, true to the book, jars. In Fincher’s expert hands, it all initially rings too hollow, too expository. Till you get used to it, which takes a little while.

And then we hear her. Amy Elliot Dunne, Nick’s wife, unwilling muse for children’s books that dub her Amazing, and a woman with a voice so cartoonishly fluffy it could launch a million Elizabeth Gilbert audiobooks. Like in the book, she has her own side of the story, and it is a warm, romcom-my one, full of sugardust and cutesy marriage proposals. This is not the story Nick is in right now; it is the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary and Amy is missing. The world mostly suspects Nick, not least because he doesn’t look as worried as they feel he should, and because he has the smuggest grin in the world.

It is this grin that makes Affleck such an ideal choice for the part. Nick is a broad-shouldered Missouri boy, a cornfed Homecoming King type whose mother raised him to be polite to casserole-carrying strangers even when his world is collapsing around him. At a press conference talking about his missing wife, he stands awkwardly next to a large picture of her — a perfect picture, professionally shot and lit, just the way Amy would like — and one of the photographers inappropriately asks him to smile. Slumped shoulders notwithstanding, he obliges wryly for a split-second, more a muscle-reflex than an actual smile, but even this one frame is enough for the press and for us. It is a winner’s smile, a grin so entitled it dazzles the rest of us into inadequacy.

The he-said/she-said narrative style of the book was always going to be a challenge, and Fincher gets it half-right. Amy, played by Rosamund Pike, initially effervescent and later icy as a sucked-on lozenge, is a methodical diarist. A method diarist, even, going by the way she tops her pens and pencils with thematically aproppriate props — a stork, a wedding-cake couple — while writing out entries in voices first besotted then beleaguered. Nick, on the other hand, never quite gets a say: we follow him stumbling ineptly through the proceedings, looking as guilty as someone who forgot to take out the trash but not someone who killed his wife. Is there a difference, though?

gg1Fincher thinks there is, and leaves it to his master composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to underscore things, and this they do with magnificent ease. The background score is equal parts serrated (for Nick) and silken (for Amy) in the first half of the film, the he-said/she-said portion, and were the score less masterful — layering simple groove upon less-simple groove in spirals, creating a repetitive and most meticulous disharmony — one might well ask if there was too much music in this film. As it stands, though, the music is the best thing about Gone Girl.

As an investigative procedural, Fincher (who also made Zodiac and Se7en) has us more than covered. Kim Dickens, looking like a flintier version of Amy Adams, plays detective Rhonda Boney with an easy efficiency that wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen film. Tyler Perry is perfect as the narcissistic lawyer who specialises in defending the indefensible, talking the talk, calling himself Elvis and hurling gummybears with admirable precision. Carrie Coon, as Nick’s wary twin sister Margo, is scenestealingly good.

But for all the players who shine, twice as many get the short end of the stick. Sela Ward doesn’t get to snap her talkshow-host fangs nearly as much, David Clennon and Lisa Banes don’t get their due as Amy’s parents (despite Banes proving great with acid dialogue), Neil Patrick Harris is fine as Desi Collings but is far too inadequate minus the terrific, terrifying mother character the book has but the film doesn’t. Also, casting an actress instead of Emily Ratajkowski might have allowed the Andie character a bit more room. The investigation works but the media circus — and the townsfolk taking selfies outside Nick’s bar — needed to be focussed on more sharply.

The reason, one surmises, that so much was excised has less to do with length and more to do with making Gone Girl about the titular girl. Much of the film is obsessed with Amy, and while Rosamund Pike throws herself gamely into the part — in particular, she snaps a Kit-Kat loud as a pro and says the word “idiot” wonderfully well — this serves to only make us like her less.

It’s topnotch craftsmanship, but to what end? There is a sensational scene with Amy and a hammer, and while it made me jump both times I saw it, and continues to haunt me, it doesn’t entirely make sense. But then Sense, at least the big-picture version of the word, has never been Fincher’s end-game, has it?

Gone Girl is a finely-made frustration, often too polished for its own good. It’s almost as exasperating as trying to write the review for a mystery without giving anything away. For those who have read the book, all you really need to know is that Fincher criminally sucks the life out of the ‘Cool Girl’ monologue. For the rest, this is a solid mystery film that falls short of greatness. In a nutshell, to quote Nick’s magazine-writerly complaint about Amy’s diary, it rests on too convenient an endnote.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, October 31, 2014

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