Review: Anees Bazmee’s Welcome Back

welcomeback3It’s hard to call Welcome Back a new Anees Bazmee film when it has its foot so firmly entrenched in all things old. A raggedy bunch of ever-cool veteran actors — Nana Patekar, Anil Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Dimple Kapadia and Naseeruddin Shah — all playing dons and liars and people with unpredictable, malicious intent? Even the pop-culture references are straight from the 90s (with Nadeem-Shravan being name-checked instead of Honey Singh) and thanks to the way Patekar and Kapoor have staved off ageing, it’d be easy to mistake this film for one of many unremarkable David Dhawan farces from way back when.

Which, honestly, is not an entirely bad thing. We live in an age where the loudest hits are the stupidest, when scripts of mainstream cinema rise to no greater calling than tom-tomming the name of an overpaid superstar. The hammy films of the 80s and 90s boasted at least of intricate (if formulaic) story-lines, and if there’s one thing Welcome Back is not guilty of, it is a lack of plot. Give a bunch of good actors enough meat and it doesn’t even matter where you point the camera, they’ll conjure up something watchable.

welcomeback1Alas, in the middle of real actors steps John Abraham. We see him first during some horrid song, festooned in viagra-themed blue confetti unable to shake up his flaccid performance. Abraham, grinning lopsidedly and trying to go ‘street’, looks visibly uncomfortable: think Neil Nitin Mukesh trying to do a Ranveer Singh impression. The results are predictably far from pretty. But Bazmee, bless his soul, gives Abraham very little to do and, even better, very few scenes to do it in.

But then there enters the woefully talentless Shruti Hassan, clutching a fistful of rakhees and looking crestfallen, possibly trying to remember her lines, shattering hopes of a good film to smithereens soon as she appears. Hassan is a miraculously bad actress, a blank-faced ingenue mouthing lines with maddening monotony. She might occasionally look a bit like her luminous mother Sarika, but the genes have failed this child rather cruelly.

The story is an absurdly silly one, but told at a thankfully brisk clip. Gangsters Uday Bhai (Patekar) and Majnu Bhai (Kapoor) have now gone straight, and are now Dubai-based hotel-magnates trying to make an earnest living. They also want to find a bride, and some tacky girl calling herself a princess captures their fancy. Meanwhile, they have just been saddled with a sister, played by Haasan, for whom they must find a suitable boy. The boy they seek out happens to be, naturally, Abraham the lout. But there are… complications.

It all sounds quite unwatchable — and some parts certainly are — but thanks to the astoundingly fit elder statesmen in charge, Welcome Back provides its share of ludicrous laughs. Anil Kapoor and Nana Patekar, playing paragons of brotherly love and men of thundering tempers, are superb. Kapoor wears outrageous sunglasses, a winner’s scowl and is infectiously joyful when winning at a graveside game of antakshari. Patekar, daftly giggly during that same scene, is at his best when pensive or exhausted, sitting back wearily on a table at the chaos hits a crescendo. In the last film he played a don with acting aspirations; in this one, after much madness, he asks the man holding the gun what he thought of his acting.

Those two are priceless enough to make this worth a watch, and the other veterans wangle themselves some random moments. Paresh Rawal, in the middle of this atrocious plot, can still come off as a sincerely outraged everyman, Naseeruddin Shah goes full-Mohra as a blind man who likes leaping over steps, and I may forever be haunted by the image of Dimple Kapadia flying through a sandstorm, eyes wild and hair akimbo.

welcomeback2Some of the wordplay holds up surprisingly well, like a bit about how ‘gun’ (virtue) and ‘gun’ share the same spelling, and Kapoor’s riffs about how he let go of his style, his ‘kaayde’, before he could make his gangs, his Al Qaaed-e. But those are rare moments slipped into in a film proud of its puerility. The first film had Akshay Kumar to shoulder all the buffoonery, and while even that only added up to a barely watchable film, here Abraham is an utter trainwreck and the Hassan girl doesn’t help.

Still, Welcome Back is dumb yet entertaining, utterly silly but made with a kind of absurd, warm energy. It’s actually amusing even if it goes on far too long, and while I don’t recommend going to a theatre to watch this mess, you’ll sure get your money’s worth watching it on TV. Plus, there’s something to be said for a film where the climax features a cute peach microlight bringing about a bunch of killer drones. If only this were shorter, crisper, a bit smarter, with just a touch more… um, control, Mr Bazmee, control.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, September 4, 2015

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Review: Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Has there ever been a name as American as Armie Hammer? It is a cartoonish name with inbuilt stars and stripes, the sort of name that insists on a father named Jack and a son called Sledge, a name that behooves a pro-wrestler, a porn-star or a GI Joe action figure. As an actor, the blonde, light-eyed Californian is unsurprisingly remembered from solidly American parts, like that of a cowboy or a moneyed Harvard student.

uncle1Trust recklessly cheeky director Guy Ritchie, therefore, to take this Golden Age superhero and douse him in an Absolut accent, cherry-picking him for the part of a roughnecked Russian. Meanwhile, Henry Cavill, a remarkable specimen of British beefcake, is here made to play an impossibly suave American, as campily as Roger Moore. The Man From UNCLE, based on an old American television show, is thus nothing more than a Cold War themed party, a game of ‘Spy Vs Spy’ the director plays with a quartet of astonishingly attractive actors, taking them swaggering across Europe over a silly, forgettable plot. (This is the film The Tourist should have been.)

Forgettability, as those in the know will attest, is not necessarily a bad thing. As if mesmerised by how spectacular it all is — the cheekbones, the wardrobes, the continent, the cars — Ritchie winds down his usual breakneck pace and gives us a spy movie that looks good in cufflinks — and knows it. It is a pleasant, preposterously frothy bit of summer entertainment with a chilled effervescence that matches the head on a champagne glass. Entirely transient, but ah, such a joy as it flits by. And so damn cool.

The time is 1963, and the American agent Napoleon Solo is being forced to team up with his comrade from across the Iron Curtain, Ilya Kuryakin. The two need to rescue a German girl, Gaby (daughter of “Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist”) and find her father, who might be arming very wrong hands. She’s played by the striking Alicia Vikander and the very wrong hands belong to the very beautiful Elizabeth Debicki, rounding up Ritchie’s exceedingly attractive foursome. Every actor lays on the affectation thickly. Debicki, for example, drapes herself like a carefully discarded mink coat on the top of a light couch where Cavill’s Solo is lying down so that the tranquillisers about to kick in don’t injure his (finely-sculpted) head.

This is a throwback, then, to the Bond films of yore, films where James fussed about his shirt-studs and film looked as colourful as it could: one of Ritchie’s characters even waxes gleefully about the joys of Kodachrome, and “colours so real you can almost taste them.” There is naturally the sexism appropriate to the cinema of that era, though even that is turned nimbly on its head. A delicious scene in a Roman boutique, for example, sees Solo and Kuryakin argue about how to dress Gaby as they go undercover, picking out dress and belt and clutch for her, and she’s the one who is efficiently all business while the two hunks dandily bicker on about whether a Rabanne can — or, indeed, needs to — match a Patou.

The sight gags are perfect — a meeting between two CIA and KGB operatives takes place in a crowded cafe, but at the end of the meeting the entire crowd clears out in pointedly un-neutral fashion — and Ritchie naturally has his fun with wordplay, at one point taking the word Special” from ‘special agent’ and applying it as one would do today, with, say, the ‘special Olympics,’ but one of the things that makes UNCLE such a lark is how finely, funnily tuned the action sequences are, playing out like Tom and Jerry moments shot and assembled via a sophisticated series of close-ups and reflections and comic-booky split-screens. Ritchie’s last few films have lacked spirit, especially the hollow Sherlock Holmes outings, but this is a film that feels drunk with affection.

Naturally a film like this is not everyone’s kind of Bollinger, and there is admittedly much smug indulgence on display. The plot, as warned, is almost entirely superfluous. But ah, there is such pleasure to be found in the small, integral pieces of the flippantly constructed whole: just try saying Debicki’s name Victoria Vinciguerra out loud, like the first two words of a tongue-twister, and not smiling. My jaw hurt from the feature-length grin Ritchie elicited, and it’s good to see him, like Hugh Grant in this film, back at ease. If one must slouch, one best do it hidden by an impressively-cut suit, and The Man From UNCLE is as lovingly tailored as they come. Even if it wears brogues, not Oxfords.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 28, 2015

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Review: Kabir Khan’s Phantom

Old jungle saying: cast a film well.

There is a lot that a film-going audience can forgive in a production – from continuity errors to script flaws, from incoherent cinematography to weak plots – but one of the hardest to overlook is when the filmmakers pick the wrong people for the principal parts. Truly remarkable lead actors are magic – they salvage a bad film or shoulder a good one, and shine even when the film around them is flimsy – but even merely suitably-chosen actors can, at the very least, make a film appear adequate.

What, then, does Kabir Khan do? Who does he – a man who has just given Salman Khan the biggest hit of his career in Bajrangi Bhaijaan – cast in a film about killing terrorists and “vigilante justice”? A tough action hero and a girl who knows her way around a minefield? Actors who appear gritty and credible when squeezing a trigger, looking like morality is a luxury for those who get to sleep at night?

No.

He casts a Nawab and a mannequin.

phantom1Phantom could never have been a great film. Based on a book called Mumbai Avengers, it was always going to be an unsubtle work of jingoistic finger-pointing, a film that suggests that intelligence agencies securing a nation should blindly rush into eye-for-an-eye territory. Yet while it remains a work of immature, even irresponsible wish-fulfillment, that in itself does not keep it from being a passable actioner. In fact, we saw something similar earlier this year with Neeraj Pandey’s Baby, which, while not particularly sharp, was slickly watchable — largely because of how Akshay Kumar took a role with negligible depth and created a protagonist worth watching.

Alas, here we have the Anari to Kumar’s Khiladi. Phantom stars Saif Ali Khan in the John Rambo mould, a loner coaxed out of an invisible, ex-Army life to assassinate evil Pakistanis. Yes, it’s Saif Ali Khan essentially playing Sunny Deol. This is a patently absurd bit of casting, defeated only by the choice of the doll-faced Katrina Kaif as a former RAW agent. Khan, who would much rather charm in a suit, here wears one scowl throughout, while Kaif, who speaks every line of dialogue in the same pre-teen tone, is here made to pick up a machine gun and fire.

Everyone misses the mark. Kaif’s character, the director, and Saif. This is less a motion picture and more a vanity vehicle for two stars who want to try roleplaying as GI Joes. The result is an exasperatingly childish film. When Khan tells Kaif about his deadly classified mission, she rolls her eyes casually, cutely peeved at how he’s always dragging her into things. When she speaks of childhood memories of her father taking her to tea (and cake) at the Taj– the hotel ravaged by the 26/11 attacks – his immediate reaction is to smile and declare that he’ll take her there “once all this is over” for tea (and cake), hence making clear his intent to pounce on her daddy issues.

She isn’t the only one with daddy issues, to be fair. Saif’s character, Daniyal Khan, is a disgraced-Army man who keeps phoning his father who keeps hanging up, because that “disgraced” part doesn’t sit well with him – even though there is absolutely no evidence against Daniyal. Dad has also presumably burnt up all adult pictures of his son, which is why the only photograph of Daniyal his mother finds is one from his youth: Saif as an effeminate 16-year-old, the kind of guy who’d sing about blue dupattas and yellow suits. Perfect. Just the reminder we need to reinforce the idea of a truly macho Saif.

Pointed parallels are drawn to the real-life masterminds behind the 26/11 attacks, and an attack on David Headley is genuinely interesting, if a trifle too convenient. Kabir Khan mounts his action scenes competently, even impressively – I was rather taken aback by the appearance of a submarine at one point – but, in an effort to mislead the audience into tension, there is too much cross-cutting to try and bring us close to the wire. This may be fine in theory, but in practice it means repeated shots of Saif biting his lip, intercut with shots of a paunchy cop running really slowly, and in slow-motion. Sigh.

phantom2Tragically, pretty much everything in Phantom goes according to plan, making for an inert, unchallenging and boring watch. By the time the Titanic-themed climax rolls around, even Katrina’s exhausted by the nonsense; she stops pretending to care and starts shouting “Daniel!” instead of Daniyal.

According to this film, India’s Research and Analysis Wing is a threadbare office, full of old and dusty files yanked from cabinets by character actors who must wish they were in sensible films instead. Over in Pakistan’s ISI, equally fine actors stand around a computer waiting forever for a jpeg to download. Shameful, really. All this talk of intelligence, but no smarts anywhere in sight. Stay away from Phantom. It gives audiences a raw deal.

Rating: 1 star

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First published Rediff, August 28, 2015

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Column: That Sholay coin-toss and the role of chance in storytelling

It is temptingly easy to dismiss the cinematic coin-toss as a bit of chicanery, just another convenient plotting trope. Characters go down one road when they so easily could have strolled down another, and the road they choose is the one picked by the writers, with heads or tails (or neither) doing the rationalising for them.

Yet there is something classically timeless about relying on something so basic, so universal, so instantly echoed around the world — and making it work. The setup is simple, thrown up at will. The trick lies in the consequences; it’s all about sticking the landing. A really good coin-toss is hard to forget.

chigurh1One of the most memorable tossers in all cinema is Anton Chigurh, the villain in No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Played — in an Oscar-winning turn — by Javier Bardem and a jagged-fringed haircut, Chigurh is a nightmarishly calm killer who mows down the innocent, but pauses to flip a coin before it — as if to give them a last glimmer of hope. Or to not take all the credit for their death.

It is hard to imagine McCarthy, that grizzled Pulitzer Prize winner, being inspired by a Batman villain, but Chigurh’s methods do indeed quite mirror those of Two-Face, who has always been more fearsome on the page than the screen, played to cartoonish effect by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever and insipidly by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. Not that these didn’t have precedent; gangsters and mob bosses have tossed coins ever since George Raft started it all in the 1932 Scarface.

The entire act might not be as existential. It could, of course, quite simply be big bad kids toying with their food; a trivial amusement, a flick of thumbnail against coin before the actual ringing of the death knell.

It is also often said that the result of the toss matters less than what one hopes for as the coin is flipping through the air. This is why regardless of heads or tails, some villains end up pulling the trigger anyway.

Less bloodthirsty coin-tossing is par for the course in buddy-movies, often with some nudge-nudge wink-wink sleight of tongue as in Andaz Apna Apna, where Aamir Khan’s Amar hoodwinks Salman Khan’s Prem with a “Heads I win, Tails you lose” toss. By the time the slackjawed Salman figures out he’s actually won, a triumphant Aamir is long gone.

What makes us trust in this random 50:50 toss? The question was most profoundly debated in a 1953 Donald Duck comic where the phenomenon of using a toss to determine all decisions was dubbed ‘Flipism.’ Donald, after meeting the weird Professor Batty who tells him to trust in the coin and follow Flipism, loyally does what the tosses tell him, landing up in a world of trouble and blaming the coin. Yet others are more discreet in their use of the same. It is only at the end of Asimov’s wonderful short story The Machine That Won The War that we learn that the omniscient all-powerful computer wasn’t really being consulted because one of the protagonists had been tossing a coin to make all his final decisions.

Sometimes the coin doesn’t come up heads or tails. In Frank Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes To Washington, for example, the only reason James Stewart’s Mr Smith gets to go to Washington is because a governor is trying to choose a senator between rival candidates Mr Hill and Mr Miller. He tosses a coin which lands on its edge, which leads him to drop both candidates and choose Smith.

sholaycoin2For Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, screenwriters Salim and Javed stole the trick from the underrated 1954 Western, Garden Of Evil, where Gary Cooper and Richard Windmark draw cards to see who will stay back and fight the Apaches pursuing them. Windmark, the ‘winner,’ stays and dies. In Sholay, Jai, played by Amitabh Bachchan — whose coin always comes up heads — stays, saves the day and eventually dies. Jai’s trick coin became the stuff of legend, the kind of thing that films of today would have merchandised like crazy.

What is most notable looking back at Sholay’s screenplay, however, is the fact that because Jai was cheating, it made all the tosses he’d seemingly ‘won’ over the course of the film all choices he had made instead of choices they’d stumbled into out of randomness. Therefore, despite Dharmendra’s Veeru stayin’ alive and getting the girl and the flashier songs, and Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur getting his hard-earned revenge by the final reel, the sequence of coin-based decisions ultimately makes it clear that Jai is the protagonist, the man who chose the way the story winded, and the true hero of Sholay.

And all because of how wisely he used a coin.

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First published Rediff, August 18, 2015

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Review: Karan Malhotra’s Brothers

brothers1If the number of crucifixes in a film signify how pious it is, Brothers must have been shot in the Vatican. The characters — a Fernandes family from Mumbai — are Catholics, it is established early on, but director Karan Malhotra keeps labouring the point home — all the characters wear crucifixes around their necks, walk out of churches in slow-motion, have Jesus tattooed on their biceps, do a Hail Mary before getting their fingers bloody, and so forth. One man is even named Cross. Talk about using the lord’s logo in vain, the entire film sees more dangling-cross action than George Michael’s earlobe from back in the day.

As we know from tic-tac-toe, where there are crosses there must be zeroes. True to symmetry, Malhotra gives us many a moment of absolute worthlessness. The entire first half, in fact, is unwatchable. Right upto the point of intermission, relentless melodrama is thrust our way with operatic zeal, complete with an excruciating, crescendo-driven background score and characters trying to out-wail it. It’s all tears and flashbacks and, funnily enough, it’s entirely unnecessary. The quickest fix for this truly bad film? Watch only the second half.

Actually, I must here apologise. I may here have implied that the post-intermission portion is any good. It isn’t, though the good news is that after such a horrendous first-half, it does at least feature some spiffy camerawork and well-choreographed action sequences. The bad news is that this is all the second half has, as we go through MMA fight scene after MMA fight scene till we get to the MMA fight scene we knew was coming all along: one where two brothers glare and fight and cry ad nauseam.

This is an official remake of Warrior, a Hollywood drama from 2011 featuring a bunch of great actors jumping on the Mixed Martial Arts bandwagon and ending up with a film that is, I’m told, both a solid action drama. Malhotra, a young man who made the too-loud new Agneepath, is a perplexingly old-school director who seems committed to making movies that look like they were assembled from Prakash Mehra outtakes and plot-points too silly for Mukul Anand to use. Warrior may have been melodramatic to begin with, but Malhotra amps up each possible moment, laying it on impossibly thick and spelling every little gesture out for the audience. So a flashback of the mother reading is not just simple and sunny, but features a wannabe-Morricone background score while she reads books on true love by Brian Weiss. And that’s the subtle bit, for this is a movie when characters see large cuts on other character’s cheeks and say things like “ooh, itna bada cut?”

brothers2Jackie Shroff, grey and grizzled and looking like an underfed and grumpy Santa Claus, plays a father who used to be a street fighter. His sons — Akshay Kumar, a physics teacher, and Siddharth Malhotra, a surly guy who shakes his leg a lot —  hate each other and aren’t particularly nice to him. Still, the old fool keeps wishing they’ll all make up. It’s all rather like Rakhee in Karan Arjun going on about her sons prodigally returning. Except Shroff frequently hallucinates about coffins. (With giant crosses on them, of course.)

There is much randomness. Jacqueline Fernandes plays Kumar’s long-sobbing wife who gets so deliriously happy on seeing a text message that it may well have contained news about a Kick sequel. Kiran Kumar plays an evil MMA promoter who smokes so many cheroots his name could have been Disclaimer Braganza — obviously he’s Catholic too. (Also, he builds up hype for months and months only to end up with a two-night tournament. Tsk. Whatever would N Srinivasan say?) Ashutosh Rana, who doesn’t seem to have aged at all in the last two decades, plays a sometimes slimy, sometimes loyal manager. Shefali Shah shows up and makes sure her nostrils flare up more than Kumar’s thigh muscles. And, in a vulgar and ill-choreographed song sequence, an A-lister shakes her caboose so desperately it feels like she wants to be renamed Kareena Kapoor Kardashian Khan.

Akshay Kumar looks believably fit, both during his training montage and his fights — the first of which he wins with a brutal finisher that led my friend to exclaim that Kumar “broke his arm with his balls,” which is symbolism at its most testicular. Bravo.

But that’s all this film has, a ball-busting Kumar and one particular fight that ends with delightful abruptness. Everything else is exhausting.

Most of us in India first heard of MMA in the 90s when Monica from Friends was dating a billionaire who wanted to be a UFC champion. Now, all I’ve seen of the octagonal fighting championships is the superheroic Ronda Rousey, an undefeated megastar who finishes off opponents in something like 16 seconds. Weighing 158 unbearable minutes, Brothers is nearly 600-times as long as the Rousey win —- and not one-millionth as thrilling.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 14, 2015

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Column: Diamonds Are Forever

bellucci1

A column written to celebrate James Bond finally finding himself one helluva woman.

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“I frequently wince at the word ‘cougar’ because of the way it has been appropriated by the media—like a polite, acceptable term for MILF—but it admittedly helps us look at these agile huntresses allowing for more grace than, say, we do when discussing sugar-daddies seeking blondes. On-top may well be the default position for women based on how naturally they hold relationship reins; their ever-indulgent seductions put fumbling male look-at-me flirtations rightfully to shame. And there is something ineffably sexy about a woman who knows better.”

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First published Vogue, August 2015

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Review: Shimit Amin’s Chak De India

Some films age remarkably (and endearingly) well. My review, from exactly eight years ago:

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The prodigal Khan returns.

Chak De! India is the basic, every-single-sports-movie story of a disgraced player, here called Kabir Khan, pulling together a team of misfits to do the impossible — here winning a World Championship.

This is also a return to glory for Shah Rukh Khan, the superstar doing excellently as he tackles a cast with (almost) entirely deplorable acting chops and makes you believe. Director Shimit Amin shoves a hockey stick into the actor’s hand, and — fitter than he’s looked in years — Khan flies across cinematic AstroTurf, and shines.

Stop looking up MiracleA League Of Their Own or The Mighty Ducks DVDs — it’s a straight sports film, and you walk into the theatre knowing how it’s going to turn out.

We start, of course, with the fall. Kabir, India’s most successful Centre Forward of all time, flubs a crucial penalty and is castigated by his nation — an Islamic last name and a meteoric temper make for a media-unfriendly mix — as Pakistan win the cup. Thus surrounded by awful actors, Khan bids farewell to his beloved sport, even as insufferable little kids clamber onto shoulders to get a better look at the traitor. Insert typically strained background music here, and you’re cringing for both Khan and the film.

Seven years later, mercifully cutting out the tiresome Rambo-esque routine of having to persuade the self-pitying hero to return, Khan is raring to go. He hasn’t been on a field since, and is eager to resolve — as evidenced by strategic fidgeting with waiting-room bottle caps — hockey issues.

His plan is simple: to start from the very bottom. The Indian Women’s Hockey Team is an outfit so utterly neglected that its administrators aren’t even actively seeking a coach. Anjan Srivastava dips a Marie biscuit in tea, raises an eyebrow, and not having anything at stake, lets Khan go for it.

chakde1So girls, then. A motley assortment of Reddys, Boses and Sharmas are picked from the length and breadth of the country, each falling into conveniently label-friendly stereotypes, but — and here’s what makes all the difference — the tags are affectionate, the cliches run warm and friendly. And we grow to see a mostly-gangly gang of 16 indisciplined non-actresses, trying to keep up with a coach who actually takes himself seriously. And pushes them hard.

It’s completely par for the genre-specific course — dissent, pressure, defiance, infighting, lack of self-belief, external skepticism, and of course, ego. Again, what matters is the fluidity with which writer Jaideep Sahni has coloured inside the lines. The film’s true star, Jaideep’s ensured that screen-time is divided mostly evenly among the lot, yet separating a few characters for obvious star roles — Experienced, arrogant Bindia (Shilpa Shukla); attractive, ego-driven Preeti (Segarika Ghatge); massive, Punjabi Balbir (Tanya Abrol); and pint-sized, defiant Komal (Chitrashi Rawat). The rest are all warm and likeable enough — Vidya Malvade plays almost-sobbing homemaker Vidya; Anaitha Nair’s Aliya is tremendously pretty — but these are the four players leading the pack by far, taking the story towards the goalposts.

The first half takes its time to buildup, predictably. There’s no surprise as the tale unfolds, and the horrible, overwhelming background score tries too hard — this is, after all a Yash Raj film, and considering that they’ve gone for a no-heroine authentic sports movie, we ought allow them that major concession — and is further undercut by trite, jingoistic dialogue. Granted, these come at occasional moments, but the melodrama truly jars. A stellar Khan holds the film together as Amin and the girls gradually get to grips — with both lines and sticks.

The second half shuts you up, with a McMasterstroke. Here, they play. And, considering you watch several sections of hardcore women’s hockey — my personal viewership of womansport is limited to tennis and the occasional game of beach volleyball — in silence, glued to the screen pretty much throughout, Shimit’s done very well indeed. The film is compelling, constant, and leaves little room for filler. While certain tracks are painfully obvious, the fact that the director neatly cuts through several at the same time ensures a drastic reduction in complaints.

chakde2And by now, the girls actually seem to be acting okay — well, either that or the more impressive achievement, that we’ve warmed up to the characters enough to like them despite their raw edges. Preeti and Komal, warring attackers, keep us nicely hooked as the director tries to keep their angle unpredictable; Bindia does well to get frustratingly under our skin; and Balbir gets us to chuckle, sometimes despite ourselves. Vidya is a bit of a moaner, an essentially unimpressive goalkeeper, adding to the lamentable Indian knack for choosing less competent captains.

Khan, of course, is King. This is a bravura performance, a gritty drive by an actor who clearly has sport in his blood. The fit of Shah Rukh as a hockey coach — inspiring, canny, frustrated, helpless and profoundly hopeful — is so naturally perfect that it’s a wonder he hasn’t done a sports film before. It’s been a while since we’ve seen him visibly relish a role like this, and while he has to mouth some clunky dialogue, Khan is simply super.

Chak De! India isn’t quite a Lagaan or an Iqbal, selecting the sport less trod rather than the one conventionally heralded, and so it isn’t likely to expect applause in the aisles as the team manages to unite together. It is, however, more of a sports film than both those, the story of a team overshadowing the story of an individual. It’s shot nicely, but my wishlist for Amin would be that he had found a better commentator to do the play-by-play and, for heaven’s sake, taken some aerial shots.

Shimit Amin’s film struggles a bit, clearly trying hard to strike a balance between classic melodrama and the sporting genre. There are times when it tries to straddle the fence hastily, even failing badly, and as a result the movie, while a perfectly good sporting film, seems to have lost the edge we might have expected from the Ab Tak Chhappan director. It’s a fine, true-blooded sports movie though, and deserves applause.

Sure, you know what’s going to happen, but it’s a good ride — and especially satisfying to see Swiss flower-fields replaced by Australian stadiums. Not to mention the return of the King.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 10, 2007

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