Hindi cinema’s half-yearly report card, 2015: The bad (and the ugly)

Half of 2015 has flown by, and it’s a good time to take stock of Hindi cinema and its latest shenanigans. Yesterday, I looked at the good stuff, the films and performers that impressed us in these last six months. Today, however, the red pen is out and offenders must be informed of their grotesquery. It’s time for the bad and the ugly.

psepmThe bottom of the barrel:

There are some films that smell bad right from their posters and titles, which invariably sound like either softcore pornography or MTV spoofs: Sharafat Gayi Tel Lene, Hey Bro, Dilliwali Zaalim Girlfriend, Sabki Bajegi Band, Kuch Kuch Locha Hai, I Love Desi, Mere Genie Uncle 3D and Barkhaa — which is not a biopic, alas — and P Se PM Tak. I usually refrain from picking on such soft targets, but P Se PM Tak — about a prostitute becoming the Prime Minister — is notable because it is a feeble, satirical dud made by Kundan Shah, the man who made Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, a film with enough bite to last us a lifetime. To see him reduced to such C-grade juvenilia is truly, truly tragic.

The colossal disappointments:

shamitabh1Shamitabh

You may level many a complaint against R Balki — his climaxes are unforgivably maudlin, his films rely too heavily on casting gimmicks, he has a weird fetish for precocious, dying children — but one thing you must concede is that he pushes Amitabh Bachchan to absurd extremes. In Shamitabh, not just is Dhanush wasted in a stupid movie about an invention that could revolutionise the lives of ventriloquists worldwide, but Bachchan is forced too far over the hammy line, the film’s nadir coming in a confrontation our legend has with a Robert De Niro poster. It’s a devastatingly bad film.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

I firmly believe Dibakar Banerjee is one of the coolest, cleverest directors we have ever had in Hindi cinema. He’s fearless, uncompromising, visionary… and yet he took a well-loved fictional character — a character he gets, a character he digs, even (as evidenced by his foreword to an English-language translation of three Byomkesh Bakshi stories) — and tossed him from intricately plotted next-door drama to a gigantic but ridiculous plot that didn’t add up to anything. It’s a pretty looking, well-acted film but what’s the point of a Byomkesh film where the mystery isn’t smart enough?

The Unnecessaries — movies that have no reason to exist:

There are many Hindi films that shouldn’t have been made, but there are some that are completely flawed right from a conceptual point of view: Mr X is a film about invisibility where the invisible man is mostly visible; Ab Tak Chhapan 2 is a sequel to a masterful film that makes Nana Patekar shoot blanks; Hawaizaada is a long-debunked myth brought to life very tackily; Broken Horses has Vidhu Vinod Chopra remaking his classic Parinda for a straight-to-video level English release; and Hamari Adhuri Kahani director Mohit Suri and writer Mahesh Bhatt try so hard to make audiences weep in every scene that they end up making talented actors look pathetic. (And, understandably, heartbroken.)

Worst performances:

Shruti Haasan: Is Kamal Haasan’s daughter pretty? Sure. Should she act? No, please, for the love of God, no. Shruti grates on the nerves excruciatingly hard in Gabbar Is Back, shrill and screechy and horrid. Akshay Kumar must have shot the film with cotton stuffed in his ears.

Sonakshi Sinha: One ought perhaps to admire Sinha’s apparent commitment to furthering Bollywood’s bimbette stereotype and making Bhojpuri heroines look progressive by comparison. Tevar features yet another painful I’m-so-dumb performance from Sinha, and while I agree we should all be used to it by now, it still hurts every single time.

Aamir Khan: It’s hard to make an audience hate an adorable dog, but, as we all know, the word Impossible doesn’t exist in Aamir Khan’s dictionary, and he ensures we spend Dil Dhadakne Do hoping someone would throw Pluto the dog overboard. Voicing a dog who goes on holiday and complain judgementally about his extended family, Khan delivers childishly written platitudes about humans and their habits, never quite lifting a paw — or, indeed, giving a woof—  to help people he is supposed to love.

bombayvelvet1Special Award For Achieving Universal Loathing:

Once in a blue moon — and usually never around Eid or Diwali — comes a film that makes critics and audiences agree. Last year it was Queen, that saw us all applauding and buying tickets, and this year from the same production house came, well, Bombay Velvet. Anurag Kashyap tried to channel his inner Milan Luthria (who knows why?) but an odd mix of ambition and pretension got in the way of storytelling, and the result is a film with devastating music and fine actors which is amateurishly plotted, never compelling and where we aren’t made to care about a single character. Even Ranbir Kapoor can’t pretend to like this film.
Special Award For Being A Cautionary Tale:

msg1This goes to the one and only Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, a godman whose history you really should look up. Here, we’re only talking about the already-legendary MSG: The Messenger. In my review I stated that MSG wasn’t a movie, yet, since it wanted to be judged as one, we may as well put its hirsute hero in the dock. If only for believing yes-men, and thinking he — a man who does not watch movies — could effectively be a writer, director, cinematographer, editor, music composer, fight choreographer, and leading man. MSG is incredibly, unbelievably weird — enough to make Saint Ji shoot lasers with his eyes and talk to charred Barbie dolls. Sigh. I almost wish it was in 3D.

~

First published Rediff, July 2, 2015

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Hindi cinema’s half-yearly report card, 2015: The good stuff

Half of 2015 has flown by, and it’s a good time to take stock of Hindi cinema and its latest shenanigans. Today, I’ll focus on the good stuff, the films and performers that have impressed us in these last six months — while keeping the red pen ready for tomorrow’s more ominous instalment of the report card.

nh10aThe best films

Piku: Without a doubt, this is the A+. Shoojit Sircar’s finely crafted and emotional film about a constipated father and his irritable daughter is something special, challenging and conceptually very ambitious indeed. The acting is top-notch, the storytelling is warm and relatable, and it is a film worthy of many a viewing.

Badlapur: Sriram Raghavan’s intense slow-burn drama about revenge is a compelling and visceral work of art, with an arresting, unpredictable narrative, heaps of style, and a deeply introspective core that lifts it above the genre.

NH10: We haven’t done many true slasher movies in India, and Navdeep Singh’s gritty tale of a woman on the run is made unforgettable because of how believable the whole nightmare seems.

The interesting attempts

Dil Dhadakne Do: Sure, it’s a bit too long and there’s that insufferable talking-dog voiceover, but Zoya Akhtar’s film does indeed feature some genuine and rather quotable gems.

Hunterr: Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s film about a horny hero never quite takes off, but has some seriously quirky stuff going on and is bolstered by its performances.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha: There is a lot of marvellous flavour to Sharat Katariya’s film which gets a lot of things right but ends up being a paean to arranged marriage and how we must all settle.

*Tanu Weds Manu Returns: I must confess I was travelling when this released and haven’t yet caught the film, but even trailer-length glimpses of the short-haired (and electrifying) Kangna Ranaut ensure it being ‘interesting.’

The best actors piku1

Deepika Padukone: Is Padukone our best leading lady right now? She’s certainly not playing it safe, pushing it with every role. Piku sees her flanked by two legendary actors, but she is, impressively enough, the one who shoulders the film.

Irrfan Khan: What can one say about the marvellous Mr Khan? Piku features him as the most wonderfully nonplussed leading man, and as always, he brings tremendous nuance to a role that would, in less capable hands, be a mere comic foil.

Anushka Sharma: Sharma is exceptionally good in NH10, stripped of makeup and believably panicked as she tries to survive a hellacious night. A powerful performance.

Anil Kapoor: Kapoor, one of our most consistent performers, rises to his belligerent best in Dil Dhadakne Do, steamrolling over the talented ensemble to ensure you go home wowed by him.

Radhika Apte: Does this actress know what a false note is? It sure doesn’t look like it, and Apte — who is superb in both Badlapur and Hunterr — is excelling with a truly eclectic filmography.

The big surprises ranveer1

Varun Dhawan: Dhawan, so spontaneous and buoyant in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya just last year and, heck, bouncing off walls in ABCD2 a few days ago, dialled it all down and went gruff and bearded and mature for Badlapur. The gradual slide of man to monster is slow and challenging, and Dhawan nails it.

Ranveer Singh: Similarly, Singh, known for his far-out frippery and hammy flamboyance, peels off the moustache and swagger and plays it straight (and bemused) in Dil Dhadakne Do, giving us the kind of calm, internalised performance we really aren’t used to anymore. Bravo.

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First published Rediff, July 1, 2015

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Review: Pete Docter’s Inside Out

InsideOut1‘What is your favourite colour?’ I always found that a dashed impossible question. Purple leaps to mind because of how cool and wizardly it is; I’m partial to pretty girls in Yellow; Blue is the colour of ink and jazz and skies; and, like Ferraris, I look best in Scarlet — but then Holly Golightly made us realise how mean Red can be. There truly can be no one favourite colour, merely one best-suited for a moment. It’s as pointless as using one singular feeling to label a moment, a memory, a thought. At every given time, we’re a jumbled up mess, our feelings and emotions questioning and contradicting and second-guessing each other as they jostle for attention — and with Inside Out, Pixar’s latest and arguably finest film, we get a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes.

The film takes place inside the head of a little girl, Riley, an ice-hockey-loving 11-year-old moving with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. But woe is she, for San Francisco puts broccoli on their pizza. Disgust, a green glitter-haired sprite inside Riley’s head is appalled. Alongside her, astride a control bridge, are the red and inflammable Anger, the nerdy purple Fear, the despondent blue Sadness and — leading the pack — the giddily ebullient Joy, bright yellow and impossibly determined to keep Riley happy as can be.

This is a startlingly new landscape, even for the imagineers over at Pixar, and there is tremendous fun in watching these five emotions take turns at making Riley live and feel and react. Joy — voiced by the irrepressibly buoyant Amy Poehler — is an obvious favourite, not least because she looks a bit like Tinkerbell and because her motive is wanting Riley to be happy. So happy, in fact, that Joy chalks out a little circle and asks Sadness to stay within the lines. If you’re astonished by such an elegantly simple metaphor about Repression in an animated film, buckle up: this film goes deep. Significantly, psychologically, educatively deep.

Director Pete Docter has done something absolutely stunning here. Inside Out is certainly a candied Pixar adventure-comedy, wickedly witty and polished till it shines, and yet there is tremendous insight as the film intuitively and evocatingly zigzags through a brain. There are, for example, racks upon racks of bright coloured memories — like a giant gallery of M&Ms — of which some are fading and being forgotten, because of misuse and because they aren’t accessed often enough, but where some peculiar ones — a theme-tune to a gum commercial seen in childhood, say — are frequently tossed into the foreground of the brain, just for the heck of it, where it will persistently rattle around all day. There is Abstract Thought, which dices our characters into Picasso edges, and there is The Subconscious, “where they take all the troublemakers.”

InsideOut2

Inside Riley’s mother’s brain.

Choo-chooing somewhere in the distance is a locomotive, a literal Train Of Thought, and seemingly holding the structure together, formed out of Riley’s core memories, are her Islands Of Personality, themeparks inside her head for the things most important to her: Family, Hockey, Friendship, Honesty and Goofball — the last working well when Riley needs to make monkey-sounds with her parents. Things, naturally, go wrong somewhere near the control panel, and while much can be said about the grand adventure taking place inside Riley’s head — but why give it away? — the most glorious thing about Inside Out is that it meanders away from obvious storytelling and gives us room to think about ourselves. I, for example, caught myself wondering what islands I’d have inside my head. (Despite making a film that necessitates repeat viewings to capture all the multitiered genius of its confections, Docter makes it a point to make us wonder thus, nudging us briefly toward other brains, dog-brains and cat-brains and father-brains and, best of all, a Cool Girl brain, where the emotions eventually confess that “Being cool is so exhausting.”)

Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dias, is a perfectly nice girl, but the fun characters all lie within her. Joy is almost unbearably bouncy, and Poehler — with her Leslie Knope infallibility in place — nails the crucial balance; Mindy Kaling is sneeringly spot-on as Disgust; Richard Kind is wonderful as Bing Bong, an imaginary friend who cries candy and can “blow a mean nose”; and the film’s most nuanced performance comes from Phyllis Smith, making Sadness so darned irresistible. Inside Out’s crowning achievement may be the parity it achieves, the way it illustrates how one emotion isn’t better than another, that each is important and makes a difference. Why, sometimes you need to heat Anger up just to use it as a weapon. Thus it’s unfair to aim exclusively for happiness. (Could it be the yellow M&Ms don’t taste better than the others after all?)

insideout3A staggeringly original film, Inside Out is a cinematic miracle. There has quite frankly never been anything like it before, and it is an essential film for lovers of the movies, children, parents and inner-children everywhere. It is insightful, intoxicating and incredible, and when I was done with it, scrubbed and sobbed and sated, I felt I’d been scribbled on by Pixar crayons. The detailing is exquisite — Joy, using a french fry to do a pole-vault pauses to lick her salty fingers right after — Michael Giacchino’s music is fantastic, and there is something in the film to speak to each of us. I, for one, was particularly captivated by the sound-stage on which dreams were being produced, like a live television show with scripts and actors and directors… And what critic dare rebuke a film he’d pick over a dream?

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 26, 2015

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Review: Avinash Arun’s Killa

It is always hard to stay under the radar as you slip into a classroom, and much as young Chinmay wants to carry on undetected in a new school in a new little world, he’s singled out immediately and identified as the new student from the city who has won a scholarship. The 11-year-old cringes as the teacher forces the class to applaud him and then, immediately after that, tells the other students that all of them must, like Chinmay, win scholarships in the coming year: be so special, in short, that nobody remains special. Being told by the teacher that this city mouse, this ‘outsider’, is smarter than them immediately raises hackles. Chinmay, a fine student and square enough to fit right into his Camlin geometry box, is aghast. He isn’t sure he wants to be friends with these unruly, egg-headed small-town boys — but he desperately needs friends.

killa1As do we all, especially at a time when we seek to discover and find our own voices through them. Avinash Arun’s beautiful directorial debut, Killa, is a poetic and subtly philosophical rumination on childhood and displacement and the very notions of friendship. Chinmay’s father passed away a year ago and his mother is frequently transferred from job to job, with a smart but inevitably restless 11-year-old on her hands. There isn’t much money in the house — Chinmay frequently complains about the food — and yet his mother lays great importance on her son calling his classmates over for dinner; because sometimes making ends meet is less important than making friends eat.

It is a melancholic film, to be sure, but one that breathes thoughtfully, like its quiet protagonist. Arun’s film is anchored by brilliant performances — Archit Davadhar comes across as wonderfully impressionable as Chinmay, Amruta Subhash is heartbreakingly good as his mother, and Parth Bhalerao is a hoot as messy scamp Bandya — but Killa is made truly special by its calm and understated storytelling, the way its narrative displays a fluid ebb and flow. The restraint is stunning; it is a film set in the 90s but barely draws attention to that fact, save for a TV show theme hummed in a classroom and an old phone used in one scene. It isn’t afraid to be choppy — or, indeed, to surprisingly cut away just when we think something momentous is about to happen (a cycle race is promised eagerly but only delivered much later, for example) — and thus it develops its own rhythm that, while always unhurried, remains impressively riveting. The music is old-world but energetic, used sparingly and efficiently. Arun, also the film’s cinematographer, shoots his lush, rained-out greens and soothing beaches with a near-impressionistic eye; it is a moody film that looks ordinary one instant and utterly spectacular the next.

The new wave of Maharashtrian filmmakers are responsible for some of the most extraordinary work in Indian cinema right now, and Arun’s first film exemplifies their storytelling strength and artistic sophistication. Killa is a deep film with lofty ambitions, and there are parts — like the unpredictability of a moment that ends in a bite of fish — where the film soars jawdroppingly high. Yet I suspect the scenes that leave you awestruck aren’t the point of Killa. This is even better. This is a film you should watch for its lovely, lovely lulls.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 26, 2015

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Bobby’s Jindals: The family back in Malerkotla

As Bobby Jindal announces his bid for the US Presidential elections, here’s a story from back in 2007 about how his village in Punjab felt about their oddest export.

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If a town is judged on its stomach, then meat-loving gourmands would have a blast in the tiny hamlet of Malerkotla in North Punjab. The town, one of the only Punjab areas with a Muslim majority – and, historically, one of the only Punjab areas to steer completely clear of communal disharmony during the 1947 partition —  has dhabas scattered tantalizingly all over the landscape, pure vegetarian dal-roti joints rubbing shoulders with hardcore bakra-ya-murgi eateries, which surprisingly happen to be significantly cheaper. Red meat is all well and good, but where is the Governor’s family?

Bobby Jindal, the newly elected Republican to take over gubernatorial duties in Louisiana this January, hails from Malerkotla, and in search of his extended family – none of whom have yet migrated to the US – one hits the small town hoping a mere mention of the name Jindal would be enough. It isn’t. Several eyebrows are raised, the role of a governor in the US is explained, and even grocery stores sharing the last name don’t have a clue.

Thankfully, it is one of the aforementioned dhabas that helps out. A friendly Sikh gentleman picking up tandoori rotis to go scratches his immaculately trimmed beard, whips out a cellphone. He listens to his blessed informant for a couple of seconds, then pauses and asks me, “This is the same guy who’s become a Chief Minister in America, right?” Indeed, and thus the difference in the two nations’ political hierarchy is summarized with extreme, instant clarity. In Punjabi spoken far too fast for the casual grabber-of-gist to understand, directions are given to Subhash Medicals, a chemist’s store owned by Bobby’s cousin.

Rajinder Kumar, 26, sits behind the counter and smiles knowingly at ‘yet another journalist.’ Bobby’s father Amar Jindal is Rajinder’s father’s uncle, “making Bobby my chacha,” he grins, bringing out a stack of newspaper clippings about Bobby and the local extended family. “We knew he’d win a month ago,” he says about Bobby’s governorship, before raving about the convoys of cameras and television vans swooping onto the sleepy town. “And all the politicians and the top Police chiefs, the MPs and MLAs, everyone came to say congratulations.”

Rajinder’s father – and Bobby’s cousin – Subhash Jindal is a genial man, with quite an intimate knowledge of the differences in the voting systems and counting processes between the US and India. “We knew it a while back, and spent the last two days before the results were announced in a great state of anxiety. We had to plan a double celebration, you see, Dussehra along with this great news about our Bobby.” Subhash, who takes great pride in showing visiting cards from journalists as far flung as Associated Press-men from China, is rather close to Bobby’s father, Amar Jindal and says he can’t wait for him to visit Malerkotla.

On the outskirts of Malerkotla, en route to a town named Khanna — yes, this indeed is the single point of origin for the common last name, its citizens boasting that family ties for every Khanna in the world can be traced back to this Punjab settlement – is a grain cellar owned by Narinder Jindal, Subhash’s brother. Narinder, 42, speaks in strict Punjabi and, asked to record a congratulatory video message for his cousin on Rediff, gets most self-conscious. A pair of proud, gushing friends, never missing an opportunity to complete Narinder’s sentences, now hold forth and dictate him an appropriate congratulatory paragraph. “It’s important to get things right,” Narinder explains after before diligently reciting heartfelt yet twice-rehearsed felicitations for the camera, “Bobby’s in politics now and something I say might be taken in the wrong sense. I don’t want to make trouble for him.”

And what of young Piyush Jindal’s heading to Catholicism, of his watching The Brady Bunch on TV and rechristening himself Bobby? “It’s a different atmosphere out there, and he must have felt the need to adjust,” feels Rajinder. Narinder smiles and asks what difference it makes these days, mentioning the fact that his name is still officially Piyush, “which means he is still a Hindu at heart.” It isn’t the kind of sentiment the Republican might endorse himself, but Subhash has the most pragmatic view: ‘Sonia Gandhi also calls herself a Hindu when it comes to vote-collecting, so Piyush has become Bobby because it will help people in a foreign country accept him.”

There is no resentment towards Jindal and his conversion from his traditional elders, they say, but that could be due to their life in the super-secular Malerkotla, a community largely believed to be founded by mystic and seer Baba Sadruddin over 400 years ago. The Sufi leader, also known as Baba Haidar Shaikh, has a shrine in the town and residents living alongside it gush gladly about the complete lack of communal disharmony in the area, where Urdu and Punjabi are taught side by side in local schools.

bobby1Right now, the tranquil Malerkotla is planning a formal celebratory bash for Bobby on the 2nd of November, one where politicians and prominent citizens will honour the Governor, father Amar Jindal emailing in a list of invitees he’d like to see there. “It’s all great right now,” explains Subhash, “but the real madness will begin when Bobby actually comes to Malerkotla. The city will go crazy.”

“Bobby’s had a tremendous rise to the top,” details Subhash. “He became a Senator, and then became Secretary for Health. And at this young age, he’s already a Governor. It’s a very big deal, and while he has already made us all very proud, all we can hope from this ambitious boy is that he continue at this rate and eventually be President.”

The Jindal Family

While settled in Malerkotla for a considerable while now, the Jindal clan actually hails from Khanpur, a small village eight kilometers away. Shamlal, Amar, Bachanlal and Dharampal JiIndal were all sons of a provision store owner who came to the city, driven by ambition. While Malerkotla might not seem a big city to most – the town’s biggest landmark is the nondescript bus station – it was enough to allow these village boys more room to grow. “They used to all live in one very big house, the whole family,” informs Rajinder, who has obviously grown up on the stories. And while eldest brother Shamlal – father to Subhash and Narinder – continued in the provisions business, going on to enter the grain market and start rice cellars, and Bachanlal and Dharampal started up chemist stores, Amar had other plans.

“He did his Matriculation Examinations from the biggest school in Malerkotla,” says Rajinder proudly, adding that Amar topped the examinations, with his record results still remaining unbeated in the city. “He then went to the Guru Nanak Dev College in Ludhiana, and here also he topped college.” It was around then that Amar met bride-to-be Raj, a Vice Chancellor in Chandigarh University. The two got married in 1970, and migrated to the US in 1971, a few months before Bobby’s birth.

Curiously, none of the remaining family chose to follow their cousin to foreign shores. “Well, we have talked about it,” Rajinder admits, “but nothing has happened yet.” Subhash mentions the time difference, and the fact that uncle Amar is very busy, saying, “We all thought about it, but he would call from the US rarely, and keep telling us that life in America is too rushed and he doesn’t have time to settle properly. We thought about it, not for ourselves but for our children, but never got around to doing anything about it.” Narinder, who has never spoken to Bobby on the phone because the latter can’t speak Hindi or Punjabi, smiles and says there is work to be done here, and one would rather take care of the home, family and businesses here instead of venturing out.

There is, however, a new generation possibly more inspired by Jindal. Narinder’s garrulous buddies –– convinced that the Governor of Lousiana will help immigrants get into America more easily — urge him to talk about his aunt’s son Navratan, a life insurance agent who actually went to the US briefly, for a conference. Then there are mentions of Narinder’s brother Krishanlal, who has the brightest kids. “His daughter has done an MSc, and his son is doing an MBA. These are intelligent kids, they want to do more than we have done,” smiles Narinder. “They might follow Bobby.”

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First published IndiaAbroad, October 2007

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Column: Why we must start a culture of spoiler-shaming

got1

Like in Game Of Thrones, nobody’s innocent.

We’ve all casually — or intentionally — let out details about what someone else may not have seen or read. Sometimes it’s purely inadvertent, like when an intern once called me up, found out I was watching Top Gun and asked “ooh, is Goose dead yet?,” understandable given I was watching an all-time blockbuster decades after it had come out — but a memory that stings, to this day. Sometimes it’s vindictive, like the popcorn-seller a friend’s father dismissed while watching Jewel Thief back in the 70s, only to have him snarl “Ashok Kumar villain hai” during the interval and ruin said gent’s evening. Sometimes it’s friendly, the desperate urge to high-five over a shocking twist. Sometimes, in the zeal to describe or recommend a film, we reviewers go too far and tell more than we ought — this is a tricky line, indeed — and I remember a daft film where, since nothing made sense at all, I took matters into my own hands and started the review off by revealing the preposterous climax in the hope that readers could perhaps watch the film with the end in mind and, as I explain here, find their own puzzle-solving entertainment.

The fact is that spoilers happen and that we’ve all been guilty — to varying degree — of spilling what we shouldn’t. Or, at the very least, what we ought to be more careful with.

Our behavorial approach to spoilers is outdated. It’s convenient to endorse a caveat emptor method — Let The One Who Watches Later Beware — to say it’s your fault you didn’t watch the baskeball game live and now you’ve exiled yourself to a day without newspapers and sports channels with your fingers crossed, but the fact is that in these over-communicated times, the Sensory Deprivator 5000 just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It’s time we started being more considerate.

Exactly one week ago, on the Game Of Thrones season finale, shocking things happened and people died. That could well be a summary for every episode of the show based on George RR Martin’s sprawling fantasy series where leading characters routinely get poleaxed, but this time — more than any other television event I remember — the Internet went freakin’ nuts. This whole week, there have been spoilers everywhere. Twitter, Facebook statuses, even bloody newspaper headlines, all going out of their way to give away huge revelations. Everyone appeared out out to punish the viewer who has a day-job and thus didn’t watch the episode at the crack of dawn Monday morning (the first telecast in India happens simultaneous with HBO in the US, at 6:30 AM our time) and all those who thought they could savour a finale on their own time.

No way. Current social networking behaviour seems to be “You didn’t watch it? Boo hoo, now let me rub these GIFs into your face.” But must we all be such Ramsay Boltons? Is that who we’ve become?

There is something deeply obnoxious about the need to crow about being the first person to have watched a show, seen a film, read a bestseller. We all have the Internet, we all watch stuff, and seeing it first does not equip us with any greater understanding; the head-start isn’t a real head-start. This, by itself, isn’t as problematic, despite the hollow bragging: the main issue lies with the sadistic way we flaunt our latest discoveries instead of letting people discover them on their own.

A television drama is not a sports broadcast and the plot of a movie isn’t a news story; there is just no need to fire up our keyboards to report on fiction as if it’s freshly emerging fact. 

There is a lot to be learnt from readers of George RR Martin’s novel, who experienced the death we are now gasping about in the books four years ago, and yet they have been considerate enough to not rain on our parade but instead let us stagger for ourselves, when our time came.

Do I want to write about the finale, throw in my theories, discuss it with my geekdom? Sure. But I need to write it somewhere two-clicks away where you can come choose to read me — after a clickbaity “You Won’t Believe Which Character Didn’t Really Die” headline, if need be — and I cannot, should not, must not thrust a spoiler in your face, without warning, like an unsolicited dick pic.

And yes, that dick pic — the worst kind of online trollery and harassment — is what I compare the thoughtless spoiler to. As a critic who has routinely been threatened and abused and harassed online for eleven years — before Facebook opened its doors and well before Twitter existed — I know what I’m talking about here. Blankly and ignorantly hurled abuse can hurt, can disconcert, can depress — but it can (and must) also be shrugged off. The worst thing about spoilers is that they come from within the little social substreams we’ve curated for ourselves, they come from ‘our people,’ and — really — do we want to believe that even the little corners of the Internet we make our own are just as obnoxious as say, the commentators on YouTube videos?

There are no rules about this sort of thing. I can file a complaint about a nameless troll harassing me on Twitter, but I can’t call the cops on a smartass making a weak pun about a character’s death and ruining the fact that I was saving up a half-dozen episodes to bingewatch over a weekend. It’s not a crime to give away a spoiler, but it is a rotten thing to do, and I feel we need to police ourselves. Let’s not just groan and move on to the next book or show, in the hopes that this time we’ll watch and read faster. We shouldn’t have to.

Why can’t we all realise that while we really want to discuss something really cool/shocking/unbelievable with someone, there are other people in the room? This is the Internet. There are always other people in the room. Share what you want to on a forum, behind spoiler-warnings, with those who choose to read it and react and have awesome conversations with you about it. Don’t screw up someone else’s day just because you can.

This, then, is a clarion call to start a culture of spoiler-shaming.

We can start by identifying the jerks who are flippantly giving things away, calling them out in public, telling them they’re being jerks — honestly, most of them (us) don’t even know. Often it’s just eagerness to share, to make a worthy GIF, to take our thoughts to the world, to be witty about something that matters to many of us.

But this is when the rest of us need to tap a person — or, indeed, a publication — on the shoulder, and tell them they need to take a post down or delete a tweet or change a headline. We need to inform them that they need to, at the very least, word their thoughts differently because it stings to have something you enjoy ruined for you, and social media does so en masse. A headline or a tweet or a status update should not, in a civil world, be allowed to contain a spoiler. It’s plain rude.

Therefore, I apologise for any such indiscretions on my part in the past, and promise to be far more careful in the future. Like I said, this sickening boorishness might not be intentional, but that is no reason to let it continue unchecked. The rulebook is in our hands, and I say we start by calling out the offenders — and letting them know how offensive they are.

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First published Rediff, June 22, 2015

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Review: Mohit Suri’s Hamari Adhuri Kahani

hak1Vidya Balan cries throughout Hamari Adhuri Kahani.

Her character, Vasudha, is a timid and relatively mousy woman, one who has let herself be cowed down by patriarchy even when no patriarch is present in her life, and she frequently flies into panicked hysterics. But the character and her motivations are not why I think Balan — one of our finest actresses — is crying; I think she’s weeping her eyes out because, with every take, she realises how unforgivably atrocious this film is.

Mohit Suri has been an efficient director of plot-heavy cinema (with plots often filched from other places), a man who trades almost exclusively in weatherbeaten movie cliches but has always done so with some speed and slickness. This time, working from a script written by Mahesh Bhatt, his focus appears to be not story but, simply, sadness. Everyone in this film, in virtually every frame, looks pained. The relentless background score swells to a crescendo, and then swells up again, to another crescendo. The characters are all pathetic folk with twisted childhoods. The word ‘mangalsutra’ is made massively heavy (while the word ‘terrorist’ is used with remarkable casualness) and there is much, much bad parenting on display. Merely totting up many a sad element doesn’t create heartbreak, however, and grand tragedy cannot be stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. What we have here is Suri’s monstrosity.

Hari (Rajkumar Rao), an old, limping man, has vanished with his dead wife’s ashes. He has left, in their place, a novel he has apparently written on the fly instead of a letter of explanation, and it is this that his long-neglected son reads and sobs over. It is a novel, that ,peculiarly enough, is not told from the narrator’s point of view and contains too little about himself, preferring instead to dwell on voyeuristic imaginings of what his wife Vasudha and her lover Aarav must have gotten up to. Awkward.

The film is a dreadful drag, with godawful dialogue. “Looks like you love your job,” Aarav says, played by a bored Emraan stating revelatory facts so often here that his name may well be Exposition Hashmi. “How can you tell?”, Vasudha (rather needlessly) gasps, but despite lovin’ it, soon resignedly declares. “Mere ghar ka choola isi kaam se chalta hai.” Okay then.

hak2Aarav, a self-made billionaire with a truly miserable childhood, offers Vasudha a job in Dubai. Vasudha, who has been lying to her young son about the father, Hari, that mysteriously deserted them five years ago, decides with much deliberation to take the job — and promptly deserts said child instead of taking him along. As for Hari, he may or may not be a terrorist, depending on what you want to believe about a story where trees double up as get-out-of-jail-free cards. Also, Hari is the worst kind of misogynist, believing he owns Vasudha forever. Vasudha… It is a name that unfailingly reminds me of Jaya Bhaduri in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s classic Chupke Chupke, where at some point while spelling out her name she is interrupted by her sister and called an ass. Balan’s Vasudha is far more asinine, an apparently independent and well-educated woman who is aware of her husband’s appalling behaviour, is freshly disgusted and surprised by it each time. When told he’s a terrorist, that seems to matter less to her than the fact that he hasn’t called.

Meanwhile Suri ladles on the sad cliches, lifting clumsily from the most iconic tragedies. At one point Hashmi stiltedly caresses Balan’s chin with a flower, presumably thinking of Mughal-E-Azam. The film’s most catastrophically bad scene comes from An Affair To Remember, in which Hashmi takes Balan to see his piano-playing mother (as opposed to Cary Grant’s piano-playing grandmother). The mother plays said piano while Hashmi, standing in the same room, tells Balan about her sad life. He then walks up to the mother and she’s stunned to see him. (Time and again in this film, characters are startled by other characters already being in the same room as them; this, I wager, is because the background score makes sure they can’t hear anyone approach.) They talk for a bit before the mother notices Balan. She turns to her and asks, with a beatific smile: “Arre, yeh banjaaran kaun hai?” Then she, a former cabaret performer and apparent clairvoyant, starts telling her about how she shouldn’t live in the past, should not be a sati or a Sita — even as this mother herself is spending her life playing muzak to her comatose husband. (I’m told this mother is played by the lovely Amala Akkineni; I choose, for her sake, to not believe this.)

It is a film where three fine actors all play idiots. Hashmi’s character keeps going off to literally smell the flowers, Rao’s character is a possessive neanderthal, and Vidya’s character is plain dumb — for one thing, she needs to know that yelling “Hari! Hari!” as she runs behind a police jeep will only make the cops drive faster.

Now let’s talk about what’s good in Hamari Adhuri Kahani. The thing is…

Rating: One Star

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First published Rediff, June 12, 2015

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