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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Review: Farah Khan’s Happy New Year

hny1One of the reasons certain tennis players grunt distinctly and even iconically on the court, besides sinus and habit, is to throw off their opponent. The idea is to intimidate via bellow, to try and convey just how much force is behind that particular shot, to quantify the effort and make it seem like an awful lot. Shah Rukh Khan, for instance, grunts every time he’s in a fight scene, his overloud breath punctuating the action and lending greater credence to both his muscle and to the blows he takes.

Were Farah Khan to play tennis, I wager she’d be a grunter as well. There has always been a significant look-what-I-did quality to her movies, movies where she often telegraphs her jokes and lingers on them a tad too long, and yet makes the moment work because her gags are themselves sharp, clever, ruthless. Happy New Year, alas, isn’t the sharpest tool in her shed, and while there is some good ol’ fun to be had in being thwacked on the head by a blunt instrument, it loses its novelty in the third hour. Yessir, ladies and gents, this is a three-hour film, and — for a film that shares more of its DNA with an episode of Scooby Doo than it does with Ocean’s Eleven — that’s way, way too much to bear.

Not to mention Abhishek Bachchan whose superpower is barfing. Um, we’ll get to that.

A film makes its intent, its universe, its treatment clear very early on, and fifteen minutes into Happy New Year it is more than apparent that while this may be a film littered with backstories and motivations and things that could well do with maudlin background music, it happens instead to be a goofball cartoon far more obsessed with the gags. Dead/ailing parents must be avenged/provided for, loyalties rekindled, dance schools opened and the son of a great actor must try and hack into blockbuster-land… Mighty missions all, and Shah Rukh Khan’s Charlie starts off assembling his ragtag team with flair, as, it appears, has Farah. The film plays out like a spoof from the get go, a gigantic lark where nothing is taken seriously and where there are no sacred cows — jokes are made at the expense of the mysterious committee that picks India’s entry to the Oscars as well as a certain Prime Minister obsessed with good days.

hny2The problem, however, might lie in the fact that everyone’s a caricature. Charlie’s a street-fighter who knows everything, Sonu Sood plays a partially-deaf goon, Boman Irani is a childish safecracker, bar-dancer Deepika Padukone melts at the sound of English the way Wanda in A Fish Called Wanda did with Italian (and then Russian) and Abhishek Bachchan — who sportingly plays this movie’s Uday Chopra — has two roles, one who throws up while the other does Zoolander’s Blue Steel. Add to that a swaggering Jackie Shroff as the bad guy, and there’s no straight man in sight to help the jokes land. (The words ‘no straight man in sight,’ may, in fact, also imply to the curious way the men in this film all seem to covet other men, asking for “puppies”, lifting each other up in the air by waist and hip, ending a performance with a man’s head resting lovingly on another man’s bottom, and — in the case of Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Dadlani — doing unspeakable things with boas.)

This is a heist film, sure, but it is also a sports film disguised as a dance film. The diamonds must be boosted (from a safe called Shalimaar, no less) while the World Dance Championships are on, and thus must our nutjobs all learn to put up a show. Naturally, national pride enters the equation, and — bizarrely enough considering Farah’s trademark cheek — the film heads in a direction that Manoj Kumar and JP Dutta would both applaud. It’s all about Indiawaale, and while Sonu Sood stays consistent and Deepika inevitably dazzles, it is Shah Rukh himself who appears the most out of place — in a movie made to rest on his shoulders. Perhaps they piled too much onto him; perhaps the decades of raising those arms into that iconic pose have taken their toll… Either way, Happy New Year never gets to soar.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, October 24, 2014

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My picks for the Mumbai Film Festival

The 16th Mumbai Film Festival starts today, October 14.

The official website gives you everything you need to know, and lets you reserve tickets.

But this here link (RS MAMI Picks), gives you a PDF of the schedule with my must-watch films of the festival — based on things I’ve read, heard and trailers of the films playing — highlighted in unmissably bright yellow. Thus, if you like, follow the yellow brick road. I’ll be there.

(Oh, and I haven’t highlighted Richard Linklater’s Boyhood because it’s a no-brainer. Watch that cinematic marvel as many times as you can.)

Have a great festival, and holler a hello if you see me. (Just not if a movie’s playing.)

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Review: Siddharth Anand’s Bang Bang

Action films aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when a girl would heat a knife on a candle and dig out a bullet while Amitabh Bachchan threw out a trademark grimace. Nowadays all the girl needs to do is shine a torch while the guy puts on a bandaid. Expecting these insipid heroes and heroines then to, well, bang-bang seems like too much of an ask, especially from the man who made Ta Ra Rum Pum. All we end up with is a film full of bad foreplay which cuts to a song just when the characters should go bang.

They aren’t even good looking songs, alas. Every song sequence in Bang Bang, as well as the many uninventive but expensive action set pieces, looks like a television commercial for something: deodorant, talcum powder, lavender scented bath soap… This aside from the fact that the film is positively mired in grotesque product placements for pizza and fizzy drinks. This, of course, is what happens when a film happens to star two celebrities who are completely packaged products in themselves. Unfortunately for director Siddharth Anand, however, his actors have zero chemistry.

On paper, I admit it’s a good idea, to try and give us the Dhoom 3 experience we never had — by bringing back Hrithik Roshan, heists and a hot girl — and to improve it by removing Uday Chopra from the equation. Somewhere in the middle of this restructuring, somebody had the bright idea to call this an official remake of Knight And Day, a Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz romp that had a ridiculous plot but worked because of how gamely the two superstars dealt with the material. Roshan takes the material lightly and goes through the motions charismatically enough, but the formerly svelte Katrina Kaif — trying too hard to recapture Diaz’s sprightly goofiness — comes across as insufferable. Perhaps she’s been drinking too many of those artificially-sweetened mango-flavored drinks she flogs.

Bang Bang is all about Roshan stealing the Kohinoor — which, given the film’s advertorial bent, I’m surprised wasn’t a product placement for basmati rice. The world is thus after him, but he falls for a naive girl dreamily hunting for a “kitna susheel” boy, possibly the only girl in the world who takes one look at the legendary diamond and asks what it is. Brilliant. Besides the consistently cringeworthy dialogue, all Bang Bang holds are stunts.

Oh, if only they were good stunts. Alas, every over-choreographed look-at-me sequence looks like something we’ve seen a dozen times over, never thrilling and fundamentally unexciting — if for the simple reason that Roshan’s unstoppable character, much like the director, never does anything fresh or clever. He gets into big-budget fixes, sure, with cars and buses and seaplanes, but unlike in the original, where Cruise would actually do something ingenuous to get out of a jam, here conveniently timed coincidences do the job for him. As a result, the stakes never seem significant.

This is a stupid, stupid film trying to be slick, a B-grade film made on an A-list budget. The one saving grace is to see Deepti Naval and Kawaljeet, fine and underused veteran actors, playing an old married couple. Except they live in a house named House. Everything else is like bad guy Danny Dengzongpa likes his pizza: mass-manufactured, with a cardboard crust and extra, extra cheese.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, October 2, 2014

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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider

Something is rotten in the state two countries call their own.

Not that we’ve really let that show on screen. Hindi cinema hasn’t looked into Kashmir, preferring to gaze at it instead. Haider changes all that, with filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj probing into the valley nimbly and incisively — we may, at this point, picture the director as a particularly poetic insurgent, wearing Shakespeare for a cloak.

This is not a simple adaptation, this takes not a simplistic stance; Haider is a remarkable achievement and one of the most powerful political films we’ve ever made, a bonafide masterpiece that throbs with intensity and purpose. It is a staggeringly clever take on Hamlet, one whose departures from the Bard’s original are as thrilling as its closely-hewn loyalty. The film is set in 1995, with Kashmir in the murkiest of limbos, at a time when it’s anybody’s guess whether any man wearing a long, all-shrouding phiran is hiding either a pot of hot coals or a hand-grenade. Haider — in case you haven’t guessed — is the kind of film that carries both.

haider1The Hamlet here is Haider, a poetry student returning to Kashmir, summoned by the destruction of the family house and the disappearance of his father. He finds his ‘half-widowed’ mother, Ghazala, laughing dazzlingly by the sunlight and his uncle, Khurram, dancing. He is disgusted, depressed, and desperate for an answer, for a way forward. And, on one not-so farfetched afternoon given the state he’s in, a mysterious man appears to replace his loathing with fury — to arm a clueless, restless young man with murderous intent. The allegories are elegantly drawn and exquisitely sharp, like bejewelled daggers. The film is written by Bhardwaj and acclaimed journalist (and former Rediff writer) Basharrat Peer, and it is bold for many reasons.

The two stunning Shakespeare adaptations Bhardwaj made before this stayed close to the structure of the originals: Maqbool whimsically played fast-and-loose with characterisations but managed to wrap a crime-boss film neatly around the Scottish play; Omkara stayed so ingenuously loyal to Othello that it even translated lines of dialogue and had pacing similar to the play, but left out the monologues. Haider, while leaving in the crucial monologues, makes audacious changes to the film — for example, the play’s plot only kicks in when the ghost (or the man with the ghost IDs, more accurately) appears, around the midway mark — and several key moments deviate dramatically from the original. These are not subtle changes but these shifts are what make Haider a truly ambitious film. It bludgeons away from the original because, just like the world it is set in, harsh changes are called for. A young man finds himself fatherless — de-fathered by the machinery of the state, in fact — and tormented by local demons, terrorists and politicians. In Kashmir, this saga of disappearance and drama, of uncertainty and unrest, cannot be the tale of one prince or one exalted family; in Kashmir, where mothers know the name ‘Kalashnikov’ all too well, there are too many Hamlets.

haider2The detailing is a marvel. Characters speak with, as Robert Plant would say “tongues of lilting grace,” in that delightful, characteristically Kashmiri way of hardboiled consonants and fluid vowels. A doctor’s coat is chequered, just like the local phirans and jackets, chairs and beds are ornately whittled into works of art we can sit on, and the bedsheets are beautiful, chain-stitched wonders. The authenticity is constant, and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar captures detail without lingering gratuitously on it, preferring instead to shoot from the characters’ un-touristy eyes or — better still — to eavesdrop close to them, hovering too-close with brilliant, hand-held unpredictability. We see the distractingly attractive world around them, sure, but the narrative stays grim and, thus hand-in-hand, Kumar’s composition centres on things so close you can touch — the smoke rising from a cup of kahwa in the cold, an accusingly large dot of mehndi on the back of a hand, letters handed out by the postman in plastic packets as if he were delivering cold cuts. This is a film you could watch with the sound muted.

But you shouldn’t. Oh no. The music is gorgeous, underscoring the narrative perfectly. (The gravedigger song is my favourite.) Yet while we’re used to Bhardwaj the director making way for Bhardwaj the composer (and, when we’re luckiest, Bhardwaj the singer), the Haider soundtrack knows its place and is allowed no room to showboat. The grim narrative carries strong political heft, and so assured is Bhardwaj of what he’s saying and the way it needs to be said that he doesn’t seem to feel the temptation to sugarcoat, to entertain with either song or wink. The film stays intense throughout, almost breathlessly so. Like a chokehold from someone you love.

The performances are uniformly stunning. Shahid Kapoor, dealing with one of Shakespeare’s most challenging heroes, does so with impressive sincerity. He manages the many shifts of mood skilfully but always appears like an actor performing a role gamely instead of an actor who has become the character: he’s very good, just not as unaffected as the actors around him. An actor called Narendra Jha who plays a doctor is an absolute find, Lalit Parimoo is excellent, Shraddha Kapoor is very believable in the Ophelia part, two Salman Khan fans (Sumit Kaul and Rajat Bhagat) are a lot of fun, and it’s good to see Kulbhushan Kharbanda get well-forged lines of dialogue.

haider3At the heart of the film stands Tabu. Her Ghazala is a heartbreaking character, all passion and preening and perpetually inappropriate relationships. She looks luminous the first time we see her, but the great actress can amazingly adjust that candle-wick lighting up her face, so not just does she shine and simmer, but she can flicker. The way she looks into the mirror while her son kisses her… It’s haunting. Old Bhardwaj alumnus and former Macbeth Irrfan Khan, meanwhile, is striking in a very clever role that both shows off his screen-presence and kicks the film into a different gear.

The best performance comes from Kay Kay Menon in the Claudius role. His Khurram is a slimeball aching to be accepted as a success, an unctuous man and yet one who likes to strut, who likes to revel in his victories — but who, at the singular point of triumph — can only find a fellow conspirator to embrace. This is a traditionally meaty part, immortalised by Derek Jacobi in the 1996 Hamlet, but Kay Kay gives the character his own terrific edge, twitchy and tentative and surprisingly warm.

One particularly unforgettable moment in the film features Peer himself in a cameo as a man afraid to cross the threshold into his own house. That particular scene, and its subsequent, immediate resolution, comes from a short-story by Kashmiri writer Akhtar Mohiuddin. It is a great story of such frightening clarity that most filmmakers would have milked it into a longer scene, if not a short-film. Bhardwaj, now more than ever, seems assured of the power of his content, and knows when to pull his punches and doesn’t fall for obvious temptations. The result is a knockout, a film that makes you smell corpses, that makes you shudder with melancholia, and a film that points accusing fingers. A film that doesn’t flinch.

Is Haider Vishal Bhardwaj’s best film? That is the question. (The answer, naturally, lies behind the fact that we can even ask.)

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, October 1, 2014

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Is Sajid Khan the worst director in India?

Everyone in Bombay thinks they can direct a movie. Amateurs, screenwriters, film school graduates (both those who want to change the way we make movies, and those who want to make a living), television directors, actors who aren’t getting meaty work, theatre artistes… everyone either believes that direction is the ultimate aspirational goal and that they’re good enough, or that it’s a mug’s game. Even producers who want to cut out the middleman. By the time you read this sentence, Kick, which released yesterday — marking the directorial debut of Sajid Nadiadwala, a longtime producer — will have earned some massively obscene amount.

As a result, we see far too many poorly directed films. We see tackily assembled films, films with weak pacing, films where the director clearly can’t imbue actors with the necessary spirit, where the narrative goes haywire every time a song appears, where it’s depressingly evident the director doesn’t know where to place the camera, where everything appears slapped on together like some messy cinematic stir-fry, films lacking in nuance, consistency and grace. These directors may be handicapped by external factors, they may learn on the job, they may eventually find and capitalise on their own strengths, but — mercy be damned — for now it’s apparent there are too many directors in Hindi cinema who don’t know what they’re doing.

sajid1Sajid Khan should not, by any measure, be counted as one of these directors. As someone intimately bound to cinema, someone who has filmmakers all around him — sister Farah is an ace entertainer, cousins Farhan and Zoya Akhtar have each piped freshness into our films — and as someone who used to wickedly skewer filmmakers for being bad at their job, he simply has no business being this kind of journeyman. He is equipped with that ideal cinephile combination, a massive library of films and a great memory. His knowledge of English-language cinema is staggeringly encyclopaedic. I have had friends call him up out of the blue to settle bets about Ghostbusters 2 and he has replied instantly, off the cuff, clearly the man you want to call if on the hot-seat and phoning a friend, or if the 3Gs too weak and IMDb isn’t loading.

As for Hindi cinema, he knows our worst and weakest films very intimately indeed, and has made a career out of mocking them. The shows he hosted on TV, Kehne Mein Kya Harz Hai and Ikke Pe Ikka, took the mickey out of Bollywood with tremendous élan. He berated films for buffoonery, thoughtlessness, crass overacting. A section of his show, “Ham Scene Of The Week”, remains a very watchable YouTube favourite, wherein Khan would zero in on some horribly overcooked moment and, basically, point and laugh. And we laughed right along.

I haven’t met him in person, but he’s apparently a man with a clever (albeit foulmouthed) sense of humour, a man who is — like most of us film fanatics — easily goaded into fanboy mode, a man who gushes about the films he most adores. My film-snob friend M met him, bonded over film-geekiness and told me he was actually pretty fun. By all accounts, this is a man who loves the movies.

Why, then, is he so obsessed with ruining them?

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Khan’s first film, Heyy Babyy, had too many Ys. Why, for example, was it made in the first place? Why was there not a single smart gag? Why didn’t he write a script before he started shooting? Why instead did he ripoff Three Men And A Baby and, while doing so, why did he strip it of all its tender charms? Why did he throw in bad innuendo instead? And why did Sajid Khan, the man who taught most of India what “hamming” meant, feel the need to have one of his protagonists, a Muslim, fall to his knees and perform namaaz in front of a Christmas tree inside a hospital while the background score rose to a melodramatic crescendo?

housefullThe film was a catastrophic failure except for one minor detail: it was a monstrous hit, a record-breaking behemoth that did better than everyone expected. Since then, his films have gotten successively stupider. Housefull, Housefull 2, Himmatwala, Humshakals. These are not merely bad movies, they are grotesqueries, designed to torture people who can read, people who want more from movies than apes and slaps. Housefull (which ends with footage of its producer’s birthday party) and its sequel clicked — presumably with a crowd that demanded nothing but Akshay Kumar and bronzed girls in swimsuits — but by the time Himmatwala and Humshakals came around, the audience was as revolted as the critics.

(My friend M, who I mentioned earlier, sent me a picture of her armpit hair as revenge for taking her along to Housefull. Fair enough.) Even stars seem to have had enough, with Humshakals hero Saif Ali Khan openly declaring the film a huge mistake and scrapping previously announced plans to work with Sajid again. Akshay, going ahead with Housefull 3, has dropped Sajid from the project and replaced him with director duo the Samji brothers, one of whom, cruelly enough,  happens to be named Sajid. The tide is, naturally, turning.

In my review for the abysmal Humshakals, I wondered what Khan’s motives could be for churning out such awful, awful films. “Is he trying to make the country stupid? Is he suicidally trying to see how far people — producers, audiences, actors — let him go before someone assassinates him? Is this all some subversive meta-joke being perpetrated on us for not having applauded his acting in Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate? Is he turning his whole life into one gigantic ‘ham scene of the week’?”

I wanted, very sincerely, to post these questions to Sajid himself. The reason I’m writing this column instead is because this magazine contacted me to set up a one-on-one interview with Sajid, a slug-fest where I expected the gloves to be off, and him to shut me up with concepts of populism and how, as BJP-bhakts say, all that matters in the end is the public, um, mandate. His publicists confirmed and unconfirmed and eventually said they would be fine with an interview if nothing negative was said about his films. Mission impossible if ever there was one.

It was a debate I was looking forward to, because my questions are more sincere than glib. This is sadism, not incompetence, and I desperately want to know why somebody who — we must all assume, for sanity’s sake — knows better, carries on to keep making movies this sickeningly bad. How pathetic does he consider even the lowest common denominator he shamelessly chases? Does it not hurt the fanboy inside him to abuse the medium so criminally? To make movies that are execrable for the sake of making millions? His argument, I suspect, may just boil down to the millions, and the fact that he has many and I have none.

But directing a film is more than a job. It is an honour, a privilege, an opportunity. After creating toxic films that are invariably hurting every one of us in some way — each of us who works in movies and each of us who loves movies — dare he bring himself to watch his own work? Dare he care?

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First published Mandate magazine, August 2014

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Review: Shashank Ghosh’s Khoobsurat

Some movies are like candy. Wrapped in bright plastic and frequently too sweet for your own good, they act as sunny, unsurprising treats that lead to sticky, syrupy smiles. Disney Pictures is founded on these spoonfuls-of-sugar, on these simplistic stories of larks and laughter (and Happily Ever After). Now, the first Hindi release prefixed by that iconic, firework-veiled castle fittingly stays away from grandiose cinematic ambitions and, instead, wears a delightfully large grin.

Shashank Ghosh’s Khoobsurat is a bright red lollipop. It is a remake of the similarly-titled 1980 Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, which, in turn, was a retread of the director’s own 1972 classic Bawarchi, a far better film. Mukherjee — perhaps the finest of all Hindi movie storytellers — was himself retracing familiar ground, and the result, while earnestly sweet and remembered with nostalgic fondness, isn’t a film that has aged particularly well. The best that can be said for that film’s leading lady, Rekha, never the finest of actresses, is that she’s constantly brimming with enthusiasm, and now — in this role that celebrates well-dressed klutziness — so is Sonam Kapoor, more comfortable in her skin than we’ve recently seen.

khoobsurat1Her Prince is a fellow who makes women melt. Fawad Khan, rightful ruler of Pakistani primetime television, is a shark with stubble, a handsome and suitably haughty fellow with piercing eyes and, as his heroine observes, “itni lambi lashes.” She says this in her head, Ghosh peppering his film with these subtext-subtitles a la Annie Hall, and while the mid-dialogue voice-overs don’t quite work at the start, the director persists and the thought-bubble lines give the film its own simple charm. The film is set in a sternly-run palace where things are thought, not said, and Kapoor’s Mili — visiting as the half-Bengali physiotherapist to the King (who doesn’t try to speak any Bengali, thank heavens)  — is trying hard not to make an ass of herself. (Trying, and failing.)

The dictator in these parts is the queen, played smashingly by the glorious Ratna Pathak Shah, in grand tribute to her mother Dina, who, as the imperious mother in the 1980 film, was the best thing about it. Shah’s Rani-Sa flings daggers with her eyes, keeps her dialogues frosty and, in a moment where she disdainfully kicks off a rubber slipper, shows why she is one of the finest performers we have. Theatre veteran Aamir Raza Hussain, in a delightful role as a wheelchair-bound king — think Captain Haddock in The Castafiore Emerald, were he married to Castafiore —  is a warm and fuzzy character, a perfect foil to his cold queen. And miraculously enough, these actors being what they are, they sneak some chemistry into the few moments they have.

This film, in fact, is doused with chemistry. Many a Disney film focusses too pinkly on the princess and leaves its blond, blue-eyed princes relatively interchangeable; I dare you to name the leading man in Anne Hathaway’s Princess Diaries without looking it up. But the filmmaker is here aware of the relative dishiness of both his actors, and cleverly constructs them as preening characters aware of their own looks. She wears rouge when massaging a cricketer’s foot, he — tightly ravelled in formalwear — even once wears a necktie to bed. Mili and The Prince don’t get off on the right foot, but she thinks he’s hot and he can’t help stare at her legs. As a result, when they do kiss in the film, they keep breaking away, only to gaze at each other more hungrily.

In every way, this film offers up the expected — only it does so with a smirk. The kind of knowing, genial smile an old, elaborately-moustached khidmatgaar might give a guest he particularly likes while serving them surreptitiously spiked coffee. Mili, who thinks dressing up to meet a neighbouring Maharajah means wearing a ballooning pair of stars-and-stripes pants, isn’t made for the palace life, and the palace, stuffed into place by its elegant dictator, isn’t quite ready to be shaken up. But, as the template dictates, she breezes through and all is eventually made better.

Kapoor, also the film’s co-producer, has chosen well, playing a clumsy character and tossing aside vanity to essentially play a clown in a baseball cap. In many ways, this role of a long-limbed girl who doesn’t often know what to do with her hands and feet suits her well. She spends the film making overdone, gif-worthy faces — be it when laughing inappropriately or when she’s bawling uncontrollably sitting between her father and a poster of Cary Grant — and that is just what Disney heroines should do. Khan, as a Prince who doesn’t even bother to say bless-you to a nearby sneezer, is a great find, an actor who doesn’t need to overplay his smugness, one who wears royalty lightly and well. He’s understated, exceptionally good with dialogue, and naturally, as per the brief, Charming.

There are a few bum notes, not least of which is Kirron Kher who, while warm, is too much of a caricature even for a Disney movie. She’s the William Wallace of Punjabi Mothers, an iconically cringeworthy character who doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Neither, it must be said, does Ghosh, the quirky director here wearing mouse-ears and colouring neatly within cliched lines. Yet his Khubsoorat was always meant to be a lozenge — and, when unwrapping candy, it’s always best to know what we’re in for.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, September 19, 2014

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