Review: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: Age Of Ultron

“So if I lift it, I then rule Asgard?” Tony Stark doesn’t even take his jacket off the first time he tries to lift Thor’s hammer, a laughable attempt to prove — in Thor’s baritone — “worthy.” The party scene in all the trailers shows Earth’s Mightiest Heroes ™ throw down over drinks as they play the weirdest party game of all: Who Dare Be God. And while this is classic caped camaraderie, the superhero backslappery that shone through director Joss Whedon’s first awesome Avengers film, the true punch lies in Stark’s second line, delivered solemnly by Robert Downey Jr: “I will be re-instituting Prima Nocta.”

It’s a throwaway gag, like all of Stark’s quip-a-minute lines. He tries, fails, and the line is forgotten. But the very idea of Prima Nocta — a mythic medieval rule about a king or high nobleman having the rights to sleep with a newlywed bride before the groom does — almost defines Tony Stark’s hubris, his absolute sense of entitlement, his testosterone-y bravado, his intensely desperate need to be racing ahead of those around him, to do more, to see more, to control more. It is also, surprise surprise, the last allusion you’d expect in a kid-friendly Disney film featuring a bunch of good-natured superheroes — one of whom even tut-tuts at the others for swearing.

And that, ladies and gents, is classic Whedon, mixing up genre, style and appropriateness to concoct something so delicious it’ll leave you giddy.

avengers3The film opens with a gobsmacking action sequence, one showing us every Avenger in action at the same time — stitched digitally together into a single-shot that instantly justifies the 3D glasses — and it never lets up. Unlike the first film which only really kicks into gear after the Beatles get together and start jamming, this sequel is the Magical Mystery Tour where the gang go from smash to smash, from one beautifully choreographed and clever set-piece to another. The action is constant — but that doesn’t, at all, mean you’re in for two and a half hours of things going CLANG! No sir, this is rock and roll revelry.

Because this is Whedon we’re talking about. Because in the middle of this mad comicbook epic, Iron Man and Captain America have a stare-down that is straight out of a Spaghetti Western, complete with the background score playfully riffing on Ennio Morricone. Because in a nightmarish sequence, a young Black Widow learns ballet and a tyrannical Julie Delpy, of all people, takes her apart. Because we see Banksy-like Iron Man graffiti all over a country that resents the Stark weaponry that tore it to pieces. Because Thor still corners the brilliant women-of-science demographic. And because — perhaps above all else, if you think about it — because it’s clear Tony Stark is getting older and a lot of his lines are now slightly pathetic bits of that’s-what-Stark-said innuendo.

It doesn’t show, mostly. It doesn’t show because of Robert Downey Jr and his majestically timed dry delivery and his ever-arched eyebrows — you can hear them bend even when he isn’t on screen and a couple of syllables hit us from afar, over the colossal noise of cities falling to the ground — and the wonderfully infectious glee with which he plays Tony as if his last name were Snark. But Iron Man knows the good times can’t last, and that he’s falling behind. There’s even a tiny pang of resentment in his voice when he says Captain America is the boss, the team-leader. Maybe that’s what leads him — and fellow scientist Bruce Banner — to create something that could save the world from the aliens, something that could think better than humans can. But you know as well as I do, fellow moviegoer, that stories about artificial intelligence don’t end well.

Thanks to Whedon, this one doesn’t even begin well. Ultron, a sentient intelligence voiced with sinister coolth by James Spader, starts off attacking the Avengers and continues to wreak havoc throughout the film: to save humanity you must first destroy humanity, and all that jazz. The Avengers disagree and there lies our film, a stunningly paced rollercoaster ride with such constant crescendo-ing — guitar solo after guitar solo, those lovely action scenes are — that it flies by quicker than we expect. It almost feels short, this huge hulk of a film. One badass moment shows up to trump another, and another. And so it soars, occasionally held aloft even by characters who are, improbably enough, just a day old.

avengers2Chris Evans — following the excellent Winter Soldier — now wields the Captain America shield with impressive nobility; Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is underused but charming, mildly oafish but in the most awe-inspiring way; Jeremy Renner gets a lot to do as Hawkeye, from self-deprecatory monologues to pep speeches; new kids Elizabeth Olson as Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver are fun enough despite shaky Soviet-type accents, fittingly thunderstruck by the way the Avengers roll; and, finally, we have the film’s best performers, Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson, kicking ass in style, sure, but crucially making their characters work wonderfully together, two terrific actors playing off each other and even turning cliches — like an inappropriately timed bit of affection — into fantastic moments.

And, as in the first Avengers film, this movie lies in those moments. I won’t give much away for there is lots to discover here, big dramatic revelations as well as small nuggets to keep both casual viewers and hardcore fans very happy indeed, but there is one specific bit of casting I feel the need to single out here and applaud: for a certain portion of the film the Avengers spend time with a pregnant woman, and Whedon — oh TV-faithful Firefly-maker Whedon — casts the lovely Linda Cardellini in this role, in the goofiest of nods: who better to be surrounded by all these freaks and geeks?

Is this Avengers sequel, you and I both wonder, better than the first film? It might be and it might not. I like it more, but it doesn’t seem as universally inclusive as the first film miraculously was, but, hey, that doesn’t matter — neither of them is the the best Marvel film anymore. The goalposts have moved in the last three years, and the spaced-out weirdness of Guardians Of The Galaxy and the old-school political intrigue of Captain America: Winter Soldier — not to mention the grown-up grit of the Daredevil TV series — are where the bar now lies. The Avengers may not still be the best, but they are what let Marvel create the best and most ambitious comic movies. Just like Stan “The Man” Lee didn’t create everything amazing at the House Of Ideas, Whedon isn’t spearheading all that is special at the House of Mouse. But it is the house Joss “The Boss” Whedon built.

I called that first Avengers hit a hero-sandwich, and this is certainly dessert. I, for one, still haven’t been able to wipe the pixie-dusted grin off my face. It does what the best summer blockbusters do, the larger-than-life megamovies that drop our jaws in theatres: it indulges our fantasies and makes kids out of us again, kids who want to play with our toys and who have fun watching the director play with his. (If in doubt, just leave a giant hammer outside the theatre exit and see who doesn’t try to pull at it.)

The Avengers: Age Of Ultron may well be a mainstream milkshake of a film, but it is one of those madly indulgent shakes — featuring Snickers bars and dark chocolate sauce and gourmet coffee and spiked with a few swallows of something decidedly adult. Something that’ll keep you giggling and energised and awake far longer than it should.

As Tony Stark would say about thousand-year-old whiskeys, drink up.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, April 23, 2015

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Review: Vikram Bhatt’s Mr X

What is the worst thing a tacky filmmaker can do? Overblown dialogue, corny acting, big conceptual plot-holes, continuity errors, melodrama, weak subplots…. All of those are regrettable but forgivable. For the kind of B-grade movies a director like Vikram Bhatt routinely churns out, these are all par for the course. The most unforgivable sin is to be boring, and Bhatt’s latest, Mr X is an utter drag.

mrx1There is no reason for this film to be in 3D, or, indeed, for it to exist in the first place. Vishesh Films’ mascot Emraan Hashmi — who delivers grand compensation for keeping a straight face through this dreadful film — plays a character who turns invisible. Except, puzzlingly enough, he doesn’t. His character — whose leather jacket fuses with his body in a freak accident, I kid you not — becomes invisible but can be seen in sunlight and under all ultraviolet light. And given that every light in this film appears UV, there’s hardly a frame without Emraan Hashmi’s mug. Everyone in Mr X knows who he is and can see him 70% of the time. So much for plot/mystery/suspense.

What’s the point, again?

Around Hashmi stand many an untalented actor, from the waxen Amyra Dastur who delivers horrid dialogue about “bheeni bheeni khusbhu” with all the passion of a stuttering teleprompter, to that eternally ridiculous Arunoday Singh who here hams it up as an old fool. Oh, and there’s comedian Tanmay Bhat showing up as Popo, and while his character might merely be that of a plump plot-device, he at least embraces the b-grade silliness and says things like “didi, please, didi” with all the earnestness of an early Govinda.

Special effects have never been what define a great invisible-man film. Mr India, our one and only great superhero movie, is nearly three decades old and still captures the imagination. Hollow Man, which Mr X borrows from inconsequentially (and sloppily) was made 15 years ago. Even the tacky 1957 Mr X, starring Ashok Kumar — and for which people were paid with tandoori chicken instead of money — was enjoyable, campy fun. Mr X merely makes Ram Gopal Varma’s tedious Gayab look good in comparison.

Mr X is a stupid, slow, randomly ballad-filled mess that could still have been made entertaining with an interesting protagonist. But there is, as can be expected, zero subtlety. Hashmi pops on and off screen with gimmicky background score flashes, and his invisibility is absolute, without any gradations or gradual dimming, as if the digital effects guys were given ten bucks and shown the eraser tool.  A man who flickers a few times before showing up isn’t invisible; he’s a tubelight.

Rating: Zero stars.

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First published Rediff, April 17, 2015

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Review: Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court

An Indian courtroom is not a place you want to be. The universally slumped shoulders, the increasingly clerical lawyers, the incomprehensible antiquated legalese, all ticking away under a slow moving fan, creaking almost as slowly as the cases being argued. It is in this world that Chaitanya Tamhane’s impressive directorial debut Court is set, and the director takes his time making us watch paint dry.

court1The case we follow in the film is patently absurd: 65-year-old folk singer Narayan Kamble has been tossed into jail because, the State claims, a song he performed about suicide incited a sewage worker to kill himself. Many a question is asked through the unbearably long trial — Has he written a song like that? Does he sing about suicide? Does he have previous police cases against him? Is he an enemy to the state? — but at no point does anyone even wonder aloud how, even if the song had caused a man to kill himself, the singer is culpable for the suicide. Tamhane, who dwells on every detail, makes it clear that the tiny technicalities matter while the big picture is much less important.

Court, similarly, works far better in parts than as a whole. A highly understated film, it features some marvellous vignettes illustrating class divide and changing mindsets — the well-to-do defense lawyer strolls into a store and picks up three kinds of cheese, while the eagle-eyed prosecutor takes the local train home and muses dreamily about olive oil and whether it makes sense to buy the cheap kind advertised on TV — and while there are a lot of these moments that work individually, moments that viewers can carry home, taken together the points they make seem to be constantly, and repeatedly, laboured.

The reason these individual scenes are so captivating have a lot to do with Tamhane’s cinematographer Mrinal Desai, who composes his frames like a confident photographer would: you could frame a bunch of Court stills at random and gape appreciatively at them at the Jahangir Art Gallery. The shots are realistic and, for the most part, stunningly free of contrivance, and Desai masterfully ensures there is often some detail worth marvelling at: the shot of a worker at a printing press paginating a magazine, throwing different sections together with unthinking precision, motoring away at it again and again and again, while a man is arrested, is one of my favourites from this film.

The film’s cast is inspiringly good, especially Geetanjali Kulkarni as the public prosecutor, Pradeep Joshi as the judge and Vira Sathidar as the quietly dignified accused man, Narayan Kamble. Vivek Gomber, also the film’s producer, is impressively understated as the defense attorney, but his performance is marred by the way he self-consciously wears his belly like a costume, drawing attention to it and sticking it out, completely at odds with the rest of his character.

A constant problem with Court, however, lies in just how ghastly the film’s extras are, with almost every person in a non-speaking role doing a jarringly bad job. A woman sitting in the front row a propaganda-filled play nods along as she enthusiastically applauds the show, but the shot runs long and she just keeps agreeing, even though nothing else is said. Tamhane’s predilection for making a shot tick on longer than we expect — or, indeed, than it should — is an interesting way to build up audience discomfort but the extras squirm harder than we do. Four friends walk into a bar, order four beers — the bartender hands them two bottles of one brand, two of another, oddly enough, though nothing is specified — after which they sit down and make smalltalk where they sound so unnatural that the screenplay may well have said “friends make smalltalk” instead of writing lines. This, too, could have worked, but the shot runs longer — which is an overall issue with Court, and which is a primary reason why, as an indictment of our judicial system, it doesn’t prick as deeply as genuinely pointed satire, like, say, Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho.

Court — a singularly strong directorial debut — gives us stunning snapshots which should work sensationally well for a festival audience, but, to the Indian viewer, are not truly new or holding any strikingly original thought. We know this, all of this. But perhaps the point Tamhane is trying to make is that it isn’t important that we know, but that we know better.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, April 17, 2015

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Review: Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

dbb1Byomkesh Bakshi — or, if we go with the spelling picked out by director Dibakar Banerjee, Bakshy — never liked to be called a detective. It is the same in this film too, the man abhorring the stigma and sensationalism a label like “gumshoe” (or, in Bangla, “goenda”) comes with, and instead focussing firmly on seeking the truth, on opening his eyes as wide as he can and drinking it all in.

Thanks to Banerjee, there is a lot for his man — and, indeed, for us — to drink in: this sumptuous period adaptation fondly recreates 1940s Calcutta right down to the tram signs and the posters for Jane Russell movies, and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a gorgeous, gorgeous film. Yet for all its stylishness and period grandeur it is not as intelligent a film as it yearns to be, the plot isn’t cunning enough and the conveniently-unravelled puzzle never quite sucks the viewer in.

It is, in short, a mystery movie that doesn’t mystify.

There is nothing at all wrong with a slowly seared whodunnit, one that simmers long and hard before coming to the boil, one that makes you think. Like, for example, the superb 2011 adaptation of John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But the narrative must intrigue and entice and seduce, taking turns obscuring the viewer’s vision and lifting the blindfold while doing the same (in differing degree) to its protagonists. Even laboriously slow mysteries should make us hunger for the next page, the mere promise of the next clue. Byomkesh stumbles considerably because of its simplistic plotting, with an original story which ups the stakes considerably for Saradindu Bandhyopadhyay’s terrific character without giving him enough to deduce. Ambition is both driver and culprit. There is certainly bigger game afoot here than in the classic television show or one of the new Bangla movies, but saving the world pales in comparison to pocketing a statuette when the latter is told intricately enough. All the intricacy in this new film lies in the exquisite art design, the sexy anachronistic soundtrack, and the period detailing; the plot is basic, largely guessable and tragically, never something to marvel at. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Why?

What one can marvel at, quite constantly, is the cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis, Dibakar’s longtime collaborator here armed with a splendid canvas and much stylistic room. The man is an absolute master of chiaroscuro, using shadows to reveal the mood and to conceal the obvious, and there are several sequences to rave about: my favourite is one stunner of a shot framed through the rolled-down window of one of Calcutta’s ubiquitous Ambassador cars, one that follows a character hurrying through a busy sidewalk and bumping into a stranger, who then, in turn, unerringly bumps into the man chasing the first character up the street. It is Hergé come alive.

dbb2Sushant Singh Rajput is exceptionally good as Byomkesh, a believably brilliant young man who is also — as a consequence of him being so wet behind the ears — believably befuddled. Rajput bestows the actor with a suicidal cockiness as well as a preternatural intelligence, his eyes often gleaming like smug saucers. As Jeeves would say, here is a man who likes his fish. Banerjee’s film focusses on building Byomkesh from the ground up, from his initial oversights to his intrinsic motivations, and Rajput runs with that monumental brief and creates an iconic character, one we believe in and root for, one we will champion and one who we — despite the mediocrity of this first mystery — hope to meet again. This Byomkesh himself is a highly nuanced character study, the kind we’ve seen Dibakar excel at before, and Rajput is smashing.

Most of the cast, in fact, is perfectly picked, though I hesitate to say much about their characters in fear of giving anything away. Anand Tiwari is quite super as Byomkesh’s pugnacious and easily-irked comrade Ajit, Divya Menon’s Satyawati is suitably captivating, Meiyang Chang and Mark Bennington enliven things up while staying consistent to the characters, even as Neeraj Kabi and Swastika Mukherjee, though given an awful lot of scenery to chew, do impressively well, especially Kabi who can — it appears — do anything at all.

Banerjee is a modern master, a man who has taken on drastically different films with each outing, and finally bungled up on this fifth film after a hot streak of four crackerjacks. Part of the reason, as stated above, is the sheer ambition. His clear attempt is to build a world — one where Chinatown has so much soul it looks like Seoul — and to set Byomkesh and his conflicts up before taking us on further adventures. This would work brilliantly as the pilot episode of a television series, but not as a standalone film. There have been many, many Byomkesh adaptations over the years and curiously, it is the auteurs, the most distinctive filmmakers, who have stumbled the most: Satyajit Ray’s funkily shot Chiriakhana might be the legend’s most embarrassing work, Rituparno Ghosh’s last film Satyanweshi was a catastrophically weak Byomkesh, and this is certainly Dibakar’s least impressive script.

Perhaps Saradindu Bandhyopadhay gets in the way. The original stories are so beautifully plotted, so inherently appealing on the most basic level, that even watching those old television episodes on YouTube grabs us immediately by the collar. The multiple Byomkesh adaptations Bengal keeps churning out might not make for great cinema, but, based as they mostly are rather slavishly on Saradindu’s work, enthrall new audiences regardless. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is the best looking and least captivating of the current lot. And, as said earlier, he didn’t like to be called detective. Defective Byomkesh Bakshy, then.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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Also read: The Bakshiphiles: A history of Byomkesh Bakshi, the character, his creator and his screen incarnations

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First published Rediff, April 3, 2015

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Review: Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Hunterr

Is there a word for a male nymphomaniac? (If not, I strongly suggest ‘himphomaniac.’)

The film Hunterr chooses to use the word Vaasu — taken from the sanskrit word vasana, meaning ‘truly stubborn desire’ — and treats it like commonly used slang. “I am a vaasu,” says the man with great revelatory import, trying to tell the woman he loves that he is a sex addict. “Vaasu? As in?” she asks blankly, and here a truly smart film would have tossed in something bewilderingly funny and utterly unrelated. (“Vaasu? As in Sreenivasan Jain?”)

Alas, Hunterr is not a truly smart film. It is however brazen, ambitious and decidedly shameless in its celebration of sleaze. It features a tremendously talented and markedly unconventional ensemble cast, and they conjure up some stirring moments. Above all, there is a sincere attempt at naturalism: Hunterr tries to be the Malgudi Days of Masturbation. (It ends us being Mister Unlovely.)

It tries, flounders and — despite the actors outshining one another — fails rather miserably. Written and directed by debutant Harshvardhan Kulkarni, Hunterr is a deeply problematic film, one where young boys egg each other on to grope a lady at a fish-market, and where a man who coaxes a woman from airport waiting room to hotel room doesn’t consider asking her name or where she’s coming from. Misogyny forms the spine of the film, coming in many shapes: a schoolboy declaring that the best girl isn’t attainable but the second best is; a father describing a boy’s aunt by saying “she looks okay”; a brother telling another that he might as well keep lying to his fiancee and tell the truth once the marriage is done.

It starts off with promise, thanks mostly to Gulshan Devaiah’s wonderful performance in the lead as Mandar Ponkshe, a Marathi version of Alexander Portnoy who has — through indiscriminate standards and aggression — managed to bully his way into a series of conquests. It isn’t that he isn’t likeable; Mandar can be disarmingly warm and friendly, despite being a borderline sociopath. If I timed the film’s awful and sloppy back-and-forth-in-time structure correctly, Mandar should be just about 40. He’s hunting for a bride the arranged marriage way, and gets engaged, but can’t stop eye and zipper from roving.

Devaiah is overwhelmingly believable in the part, seeming to channeling Sai Paranjpye heroes as he slurps noisily from a straw or perpetually, needlessly fiddles with his belt. It’s a creepy role but he plays it very straight indeed. Radhika Apte is reliably excellent as Tripti, his progressive fiancee, though it remains inexplicable why this seemingly sorted woman — despite her sudden demand to know why someone may not have seen Mukul Anand’s Agneepath — would settle for Mandar. Sai Tamhankar brings power to the role of the attractive neighbourhood bhabhi, while a young man called Vaibhav Tavtavadi endows the studly-cousin character, Kshitij, with true charisma. The young boys playing the childhood versions of Mandar and Kshitij — Vedant Muchandi and Shalva Kinjawadekar — are really very good, enough to declare that if this film had stayed in that 1989 flashback instead of hopping messily all over the place, we’d have something special on our hands.

The performance of the film comes from Sagar Deshmukh playing Dilip, Mandar’s relatively reticent elder brother. He’s a bit of a square and a sap — a guy who tucked his knee under his outstretched t-shirt as he wept over a girl in college days, and, more importantly, the kind of guy who follows a drunken friend to the ends of the earth but not without taking the chicken lollipops along to eat in the auto-rickshaw.

There are, thus, nice little touches of detailing all over the place — kids crowning each other “Wing Commander” because of the way they rule over certain wings of the housing society; a portly friend encouraged to dance frenetically at parties and rip his shirt off like Hulk Hogan; young boys taking a bath together and using soaping-the-back as a metaphor — but all this does is make you believe a film like this should exist, certainly, and that you want to like a film like this, yet the flat humour left me mostly unmoved, and I doubt you’ll be quoting fondly from this one unless you find the mere mention of swearwords inherently funny.

At one point in the film Mandar ‘fesses up to Tripti, following which she enticingly proposes that they leave their marriage open and go pick up couples from swinger parties. She does this with eyes blessedly agleam (damn that Radhika Apte is good) and Mandar can’t believe his luck, till, it turns out she was messing with him only to see how depraved he is before she dumped him. It’s a good moment of Mandar being put in his place… except it doesn’t happen. The second half of the film consists of at least a half-dozen moments that are filmed but, we then realise, haven’t actually taken place. An unreliable narrator is one thing but Hunterr, like Mandar, cheats too often.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that, at the scene mentioned at the head of this review, not just does the woman not invoke the bearded journalist, but she refuses even to behave like that other TV anchor and “demand to know.” The hunt was never afoot.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, March 20, 2015

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Review: Navdeep Singh’s NH10

Bad things happen in NH10.

That statement is both warning and promise: because Navdeep Singh’s new film is a tough film to stomach, a frightening and disturbing beast, and because it should be just that brutal, given how loyally it adheres to slasher/thriller genre conventions.

The thing about Singh is the way the director takes a familiar script or setup and makes it very Indian and very much his own — his first film Manorama Six Feet Under is a highly innovative grass-roots take on Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and the new NH10 is many parts Eden Lake mixed with some I Spit In Your Grave, and yet a far scarier and more socially impactful film than anything slasher has a right to be.

nh10The primary reason NH10 works as well as it does — and it works with smashing edge-of-the-seat flair — is the context Singh gives it. The idea of two young urban lovers finding themselves in very harsh rural territory is a basic one, but Navdeep is strikingly credible when it comes to dialect and flavour, and turns the Haryana belt outside Gurgaon into the most believable of badlands: everyone in those parts might not actually be evil incarnate, but from where we’re sitting, comfortably far away and constantly assailed by news of imperilled women and fundamentally messed-up defence lawyers, we’re all too willing to believe the nightmare Navdeep sets us. NH10 is more a pure horror film than any of its companions in the slasher genre simply because we believe what we want to, and it feeds our fears.

Meera and Arjun are a young couple who aren’t quite on top of their game: she looks at him with regret in her eyes, he looks to be constantly seeking some form of escape from the hard parts of a relationship, and when in bed they wield individual laptops and send each other on-screen messages. Things aren’t perfect, clearly, but sometimes a holiday can be potent tonic, and they head out to a small getaway not too far from the Gurgaon border. They run into some honour-killing violence, and end up angering the killers. Things turn ugly… uglier than one might think.

I admit to wincing frequently as fresh, more violent misery was piled onto Meera’s helpless lot, and that is because of Anushka Sharma’s amazingly committed performance. The movie’s masterstroke is to keep the audience squirming and the tension relentless by setting nearly 90% of the film in overwhelmingly linear fashion, pretending that the events are taking place in realtime, but this takes its toll on Sharma who — also brave enough to produce this film — features in virtually every frame of the film and carries it on her athletic shoulders. It is a bold choice as an actress and Anushka is at her absolute best as her eyes widen in disbelief at the growing horror around her. A moment when she realises the preposterousness of goading a policeman into “doing his duty” is particularly stunning, as is a rousing scene later where she yells at her attackers. She’s beaten down, on the run, powerless and defiant, and Anushka changes gears with immense authenticity, creating a character we can’t help but love. And, more importantly, one we can’t help but feel for.

Neil Bhoopalam’s Arjun has a tougher climb, a harebrained character who doesn’t just graze the hornet’s nest — as convention demands — but rather goes and treads on it, deciding rashly to engage in macho oneupmanship, a choice NH10 made that I can’t completely fathom. Bhoopalam is a likeable actor, but here seems a bit out of his depth. Darshan Kumaar is terrific as Satbir, especially when he’s slaughtering a girl as a rite of passage, and Ravi Jhankal is even better as his savage uncle, reproachful about Satbir using a revolver when tradition demanded a rod for the job.

The film isn’t as gory as its English counterparts, but the sadism comes across very strongly and effectively. It is a taut ride, one that scares us by providing a world of well-etched detail: the way a cop dismissively refers to the Gurgaon jungle of glass-and-chrome as a growing child, a “badhta bachcha”; the way the vibe in the badlands is noticeably hostile every time Arjun rolls down his car window, be it at a tollbooth or to ask for directions; a chilling conversation about caste that doesn’t entirely add up in terms of logic — we’re told that rules and structure matter but that the land away from the cities doesn’t need rules —  but sounds more familiar than it should.

nh10bWell shot and featuring mostly minimal background music, NH10 is starkly different from what we are routinely served up at the movies. It is a scary, compelling ride featuring an actress who surpasses herself.

One of my favourite shots in the film is where Anushka Sharma is riding a police jeep hard and fast, impressively adroit with the turns and momentarily getting the better of her pursuers. Then she skids onto the left, gets onto two wheels and, instead of gliding a la James Bond, topples her jeep into an ungainly heap. The frame before the crash shows her fleeting, well-earned smile turn into a wide-eyed and helpless “whoops” — another excellent Sharma moment — and that whoops is the best metaphor for NH10: it lets us know we’re on the edge and that one misstep could flip our lives around in an instant.

Buckle up.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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A toast to Terry Pratchett, who christened me a dragon

tp2

Terry Pratchett once named a dragon after me. But that’s not important. (I mean it is, of course. It’s massively cool and thrilling — THRILLING, even — and something I’ll brag about forever. But that’s not what’s important right this second.)

Right now we have to deal with heartbreak, as Sir Terry Pratchett has left us. It is, all things considered, a fortunate thing, for he wanted very much to pop off before that pesky Alzheimer’s got too devastating, and it’s only fair that he left while still working instead of after, say, pottering into silence. There is also the comforting fact that he rather liked Death — his Discworld novels featured Death as a quietly charismatic cat-loving hero with a capital-letter baritone — and the two are probably getting on famously right now.
Yet to us it hurts. It hurts rather like being hit with a piano flung by a hairy librarian, in fact, just to come to grips with the fact that we will have no new Pratchett books every year. Speaking with the gluttonous selfishness of a reader, this feels like a devastating, soul-crushing blow.

What he has left us with, however, is dizzyingly special: a whole new world, one that makes ours infinitely better.
~

A flat planet held by four elephants perched atop of a giant turtle, his Discworld is fantastical, surely, filled with magic and politics and warriors and witches and policemen, but like the world we live in, there is so much more to it than meets the eye. Pratchett’s universe is deliciously imperfect, with crowded cities and racism and bureaucracy and outdated social hierarchy, his novels led by the unlikeliest heroes and heroines. Pratchett takes turns zooming in on some under-explored corner of his very round (but decidedly unflat) disc, and reveals an entire worldview, shrewdly sprinkling just enough magic to make his satire gleam blindingly bright. There have been many fictional universes of note across fantasy literature but — despite Pratchett being labelled a ‘comic fantasist,’ inexplicably considered a lesser thing — nothing comes close to the richness and real-world relevance of Discworld.

Not JRR Tolkien, not George RR Martin, not Douglas Adams, not CS Lewis, not JK Rowling, not Frank Baum, and not even the great HP Lovecraft. Each achieved mastery over a particular fantasy genre, but Pratchett’s work mocked the very idea of literary limitations, going from police procedural in one book to Christmas adventure in the next, from vampires to football, from the birth of motion pictures to the examining of religion itself. The 40 novels that make up the Discworld — the 41st is scheduled for this September — are books that irresistibly transcend any genre convention, with appeal for all. Pratchett’s work belongs, then, closer to the Wodehouse shelf than to the one creaking beneath the Tolkien tomes; these are cunningly clever books everyone can be enchanted by — which makes him, in many ways, the best fantasy writer of them all.

Pratchett is also a dashed clever novelist, filling his books to the brim with stunning insight. Verbal, philosophical and observational gems are scattered about generously, willy-nilly. Picking up any volume at random (and feel free to take up the challenge and make your day instantly sunnier) allows a reader to metamorphose into a delirious treasure-seeker panning for gold.

I have in my lap Unseen Academicals, for example, his hilarious take on football, and every other line is a work of gorgeousness. “Juliet didn’t exactly wash dishes, she gave them a light baptism.” “She read the way a cat eats; furtively, daring anyone to notice.” “Ponder Stibbons had once got one hundred percent in a Prescience Exam by getting there the previous day.” “She had some sort of …relationship with Vetinari. Everyone knew it, and that was all everyone knew. A dot dot dot relationship. One of those. And nobody had been able to join the dots.” “If you flash spells around like there’s no tomorrow, there’s a good chance that there won’t be.” It’s all magnificence and wizardry, and in a Pratchett book it is everywhere you look. Heck, he even turned the caps-lock key into an overwhelming special effect.

Magic.

~
tp1When I met Terry a dozen years ago at the University of Warwick in 2003, he had just given a terrific talk about creating universes. I hadn’t read any of his work at the time, but he wore a most excellent hat in the picture accompanying his author bio, plus I’d heard many a rave, and, inspired thus by topic and speaker, I went along and proceeded to spend the lecture scribbling and giggling.

Here, from an old blogpost, is what happened next:

Terry Pratchett was a fascinating speaker — warm, funny, self-deprecatory and most insightful — and after the talk, I went up to him, he made a pleasant blue-hair jibe [I had blue hair at the time] (which I won’t repeat, don’t bother asking) and I asked if I could buy him a beer and chat a bit. He was most amiable, so we trotted off to the Graduate bar and talked about writing and fantasy.

It was a fun chat, highlighted, I feel in hindsight, by his recommending Good Omens as a good starting point for his work “because I’m sure at least Neil Gaiman’s bits won’t be completely dreadful.” For the record, he also called the first half-dozen Discworld books absolute rubbish — but that could have been because he was, at the time, telling me to go ahead and write a few bad books to find my stride as a writer.

“Write, write, write,” I remember Pratchett saying. “You can always disown the truly dreadful stuff later.” It was a pleasant and greatly inspiring evening, following which I swallowed down his books by the dozen and kicked myself in the shins for getting to the party that late. That, I assumed, was that.

It was much later that a pretty, raven-eyed Pratchett-fanatic gaspingly pointed me to Thud! — his 2005 volume — which happened to feature several dragons but only one, “a young dragon with floppy ears and an expression of mildly concussed good humour”, to be precise, is referred to by name, and his name is Raja.

See? Magic.

~

There is, as a matter of fact, such a preponderance of magical goodness in Pratchett’s work that perhaps Death — which has, I wager, led to him trading tales with Jerome K Jerome up there, or something similarly spectacular — is merely Terry’s way of telling us to halt. To refrain from serially inhaling the magic without pause, but instead to appreciate the world — both the Disc one and this one — and to stop and smell the sublime. With no more new Terry Pratchett books to catch up with, he’s left us a wonderland we can slowly sift through, learn from and be awed by.

What greater legacy could there be?

Oh, and there’s the moral to the story. The moral in the story about my becoming a dragon — and I’m certain this is the reason I found immortal mention — is that one should always buy a writer a beer.

So long, Terry Pratchett, sultan of the streams of story. Cheers, and do PLEASE keep watching over us.

~

First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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