Review: Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet

Bombay Velvet

There are some filmmakers who scoff at the very notion of historical accuracy — like Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino — and Anurag Kashyap is one of that bunch, a man who prefers to create his own sumptuous version of history. Bombay Velvet looks to be, then, his very own Bob-Fosse-meets-Scarface take on what might have been, instead of bothering with what really was. An indicator of the same lies in the opening credits, as they claim to be “introducing Karan Johar” whereas that particular director first acted in the most successful Hindi film of all time.

Not on Kashyap’s watch, he didn’t. And that’s perfectly fair. We look to big, brassy cinema not to educate but to entertain, and let us not seek verisimilitude in this kind of cinematic explosion. And this Bombay Velvet is an obviously shallow film, an all-out retro masala-movie with homage on the rocks and cocktail-shakers brimming with cliché. It is a take on the nostalgia soaked groovy-gangster movie: Once Upon A Time In Kashyapistan.

On paper, this sounds like dynamite. Kashyap, a gifted visual stylist and a distinctively bold storyteller, taking on the mainstream and riffing on it his way, subverting the system. Except, um, that’s not what happens here. There is surprisingly little subversion, but that’s fine too, provided the result is compelling on its own steam. Alas, Bombay Velvet runs out of breath less than halfway through, and huffs and puffs as it tries to breast the finish line.

The new film clearly wants to be many things — noir, grand romance, a Broadwayesque musical, Prakash Mehra, Brian De Palma — but ends up indecisively skulking around the shadows of giant films, despite editing goddess Thelma Schoonmaker blessing it with her scissors. Several components work strongly, particularly a sensational soundtrack and a few excellent male actors, yet the film disappoints, and, due to the potential on display, severely so. The scale is amped up to grandness, certainly, but despite majestic intent, what we find here is a watered-down forgery, an imitation you can spot from a mile away: this Dahlia is barely Black-ish; the cloth muffling this revolver isn’t the real thing but merely velveteen.

There is much promise of magic, especially as the film begins. A raffish crook watches The Roaring Twenties, and, too weak in English to recite James Cagney’s lopsidedly-delivered lines, settles instead for the film’s famous last words, pointing a kerchief-covered finger at the mirror and saying Gladys George’s line about how her dead flame “was a big shot”, thus recreating a voiceover instead of playing a role — ironically making a wish and jinxing himself all at once.

Johnny Balraj is a character with character, a zoot-suit wearing tomcat with his eye on the prize, and Ranbir Kapoor plays him with slithery elegance. Spry as if eternally scalded, Kapoor glides restlessly through the film – hitching rides from people, situations and passing buses – without a second thought, forever sidling away from the real, the nitty-gritty. Balraj masochistically spends his nights TylerDurden-ing inside a steel cage (a la Amitabh Bachchan in Naseeb) and there are times the preternaturally talented Kapoor absolutely shines: a scene, for example, where he leers wickedly and stubbornly (but far from lasciviously) at his girl, while a tailor measures her bust, is priceless.

bv2Balraj rides the coattails of Kaizad Khambatta, a sinister media baron with his nimble fingers in many oily pies. Karan Johar is a revelation as this character so obsessed with his all-powerful, all-controlling image that — in the film’s brightest moment — he steps out of a room in order to have himself a good giggle. The film ostensibly mirrors some tabloid duel from back in the day (Khambatta is once referred to by the rival tabloid as “a fruitcake!”) but real-life parallels can’t save a boring plot.

The striking production design and nudge-nudge-wink-wink Bombay allusions are merely window-dressing, though. This film suffers from fundamentally flimsy storytelling. Not just is it spelt out how some strips of negative hold the key to Bombay itself, but we’re shown how breezily (and even comically) said negatives were acquired, and they matter only because the film doggedly insists they do. It never feels vital enough. For some reason Bombay Velvet seems firmly opposed to the idea of mystery, showing off a weak McGuffin right at the start and later, after an explosive twist (albeit an obvious one) we are flashed that card too, in the very next scene. Robbing the audience of surprise isn’t the smartest idea for what turns out to be a predictable film.

Neither is it wise to entrust so much of Bombay Velvet to the earnest but woefully miscast Anushka Sharma, a fine actress entirely out of her depth as a stage-conquering crooner. She lacks the presence and vivacity, and it takes just two scenes featuring Raveena Tandon singing on stage — think Bianca Castafiore turned sexy — to show us the difference between prima donna and pretender.

Satyadeep Misra is terrific as Balraj’s best friend, Chimman, a loyal pragmatist who, unlike Johnny, looks before he leaps. Misra delivers a consistently measured performance, and his body language is masterful. A scene where Johnny and Khambatta trade platitudes has Chimman casually but forcefully motioning that the money be fixed on first, and Misra manages to convey, through one flick of the fingers, both the fact that he knows his place and that price matters more than place. The infallible Kay Kay Menon plays a police detective, sharply turned-out in a hat and high-waisted trousers but is given silly clues to smile at and decipher, and a laughably bad final scene. Quizmaster Siddhartha Basu shows up looking suitably authoritative and officious in that way that often accompanies ruthlessness, while Vivaan Shah bumbles around with a moustache, looking for all the world like a young Kader Khan.

There is a lot happening, all the time. Yet, after a while, as the corpses pile up – with increasing meaninglessness — and the Tommy guns appear, it all ceases to matter. Everything, it appears, can be solved by murder. This might sound like heresy, but even that awfully cheesy Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai movie had characters worth caring about despite the moronic dialogue they recited; Bombay Velvet has the skills but makes it awfully hard to feel anything for guy, girl or the world they’re in. With no true stakes, the film plods messily along to a climax that feels emotionally unearned and interminably stretched.

One song, however, makes time stand still. Amit Trivedi’s superb soundtrack comes to us mostly in snippets mimed by stage crooners, but, for one devastating moment, Bombay Velvet gives way entirely to let a song called Dhadaam Dhadaam take the stage. An emotionally overwrought aria — complete with black tears brimming down kohl’d cold eyes — the song transcends the film and strikes operatically at the heart. Both movie and audience hold their collective breath, and despite the tedium that follows this track, this cinematic sucker-punch is enough to remind us of Kashyap’s potent flammability. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t really sing — or singe.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, May 15, 2015

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Review: Shoojit Sircar’s Piku

We are never told Deepika Padukone’s actual name in Piku.

A Bengali nickname is an all-conquering wonder, a sticky and stubborn two-syllable sound that a person is straddled with when too-young-to-object, and one that follows us to our graves. And so Deepika’s character — be it in office or living room or on a relative stranger’s phone-screen — is always simply Piku, and, despite the peculiarity or cuteness of the nickname, its usage has become matter-of-fact. The fact that throughout the film, we never dwell on its etymological origin-story and aren’t concerned with what Piku means (or may perhaps be short for) illustrates honesty and a storytelling confidence rare to our cinema.

Shoojit Sircar’s Piku is a special, special film. It is a film about a cantankerous old man grumbling about constipation, a film about a young girl who knows how to drive but chooses not to, and a film about a young man who just can’t bear his mother. It is a film, then, about families and their foibles, about the small and large obsessions and habits that single us out for who we really are. It is a film with tremendous heart — one that made me guffaw and made me weep and is making sure I’m smiling wide just thinking about it now — but also a sharp film, with nuanced details showing off wit, progressive thought and insightful writing. Take a bow, Juhi Chaturvedi, this is some of the best, most fearless writing I’ve seen in Hindi cinema in a while.

piku1Unlike Piku, her father has outlived most folk older to him — the people who would have called him by a nickname. And yet Bhaskar Banerjee insists on a unique spelling, a Bhaskor to differentiate him from the Bhask-err types he might encounter near his Chittaranjan Park residence. Bhaskor-da, frequent follower of laxative advice and incorrigible salt-stealer, is an imperious old coot fervently obsessed with his bowels. This may or may not be a Bengali preoccupation, for ours is a tribe where mothers and wives glug Isabgol side-by-side before bedtime or, as I grew up witnessing, grand-uncles spend their mornings hopping about in the hope of generating the elusively mentioned “pressure.”

All this, we’ve always been told, is not propah conversation. It is too intimate, too familial a topic to be discussed out loud or far away from the toilet. Chaturvedi and Sircar, however, clearly have a strange love for ‘bodily fluids’, and after making the nation titter about sperm in Vicky Donor, they take shit head on with this fine film. Unlike Mr Banerjee’s motions, the laughs come quick and fast. Yet scatology is merely one affectionate used aspect of Piku. There is a road trip, there are arguments, there is affection, and all of that I leave for you to discover. This review is, besides applause, merely a celebration of detail and of craft.

Bachchan, as Banerjee, is a delight, hamming it up in the way old Bengali men do, posturing for family and servants and wagging his finger reproachfully at those outside the clan — at one point he calls Irrfan “you non-Bengali Chaudhury.” He appears brash and dismissive but this, as he says, is because he is “a critical person”, which translates to him setting higher standards for those he loves. He’d be an old-school patriarch if he wasn’t such a vociferous women’s-libber, one who champions his daughter’s sexual independence. Having said that, he remains so set in his ways that he sits in Delhi and relishes a month-old stack of Calcutta newspapers. It may be old news but it’s the news he loves.

Irrfan Khan is characteristically flawless. Despite a less author-backed role than father and daughter, he imbues his character with enough authenticity to steal many a scene and give the narrative its consistency. It is largely for the benefit of Khan’s Rana Chaudhury that the Bengalis speak in Hindi and English through (most of) this film’s duration, and the character is fascinating. An engineer with a dodgy backstory, he’s morally sound enough to berate a pearl-pilfering sister and feels the need to call out selfishness even in someone he likes. Khan’s performance holds the film together, balancing the diametrically opposed — and fundamentally similar — father and daughter, sometimes by just a truly pointed look. One scene, where he glances at Deepika to necessitate a change of seating arrangements in the car, is an absolute stand-out.

Padukone is at her very best, the actress moving farther from her contemporaries with almost every successive film, and here she stuns with her casual body language and her inch-perfect intonation. She’s impatient and short-tempered, wearing her otherwise-adorable dimples dismissively, like a no-nonsense shield. She knows when to prescribe homeopathic pills, and goes into enough graphic detail on the phone to wreck her dates. This tightly wound Piku is a demanding part, and the film pushes her. She rises to the occasion, and her performance — which believably oscillates between a defiantly uppity woman to a girl half-proposing marriage with a mouthful of egg-roll and a giggle — is spectacular.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, Sircar makes Padukone say ‘pachcha.’ Piku uses this Bangla word for arse — a cute splat of a word, with a tchah-sound built right in — while at a dining table full of eagerly nostalgic relatives and Padukone plays the moment magnificently, her eyes twinkling and grin well in place, dropping her guard to say an ‘uncouth’ word and, simultaneously, thrilled to be saying it. Bravo.

The ensemble cast is spot-on, from the smug self-celebrating aunt played by Moushumi to Raghubir Yadav’s doctor, who thinks nothing of ordering a few dozen boondi laddoos from an utter stranger, and it’s lovely how Sircar uses them all. Just like he does Calcutta, making the city look big and sturdy and historic and, well, epic, without ever picture-postcarding it or resorting to obvious cliches. Except the cliches spouted by old Bengali men, pleased as punch to see their kids remembering old addresses long forsaken. (While on that, here’s a joke Bengali fathers will appreciate: “What are bowels? Things that hold up many conshonants.”)

There is an awful lot to love and appreciate in Piku, and, like the best of films, it sets you thinking but doesn’t rush to point out quickfix answers. “Not satisfactorily,” like Bhaskor-da reveals when asked how well a new bowel-coaxing remedy worked, “phir bhi kuchh naya karne ko mila.” Sometimes the joy indeed lies in trying out something new, and Piku is just the tonic.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 8, 2015

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Review: Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young

Ben Stiller will turn 50 this year. Stiller, the zipper-inefficient walk-off winning man of a thousand comedies, is grey at the edges already and getting older — just like us, every single bloody day. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is about the exhausting inevitability of getting old, sure, but at its profound core, it is also about the potential joy that lies in accepting it. (Charles Grodin, best known for being a VHS-conquering St Bernard lover for the ages, is, in this film, believably all-knowing and wielding tremendous gravitas. Things can indeed turn much better if you allow your prematurely-determined yardsticks to grey right along with you.)

wwy1On the surface, Baumbach’s film is a comedy. It is about a couple in their mid-forties discovering the thrills (and perils) of hanging out with a couple in their twenties, and thus many obvious resulting gags — about the nature of Cool and the evolving meaning of Irony — are promised and delivered, but this film, like some of its protagonists, is superbly deceptive. It is a film where power-giddy young executives eager to embrace Mad Men stylings drink from whiskey tumblers in the daytime — but where the glass is full of apple-juice.

Things begin on an entirely Woody Allenesque note, with fortysomethings Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) struggling with the idea of impulsiveness. We’re still young, Corneila insists, proclaiming that if they were to drop everything and going off to Paris or Rome tomorrow, they could. This “tomorrow” pricks at Josh, who wonders about last-minute flight prices and thinks they’d need at least a month in advance. A month still counts as impulsive, she says undeterred, mostly talking to herself. It is, as you can see, boilerplate Allen with a very Alexander Desplat-y score thrown in, but this may be to soothe us in before pulling the rug out from beneath our ol’ feet.

Josh is a documentary filmmaker, a fiercely committed artiste who has spent the decade milking a grant to create a film he believes in, a film which is, essentially, “about America.” One day, he bumps into a cool young fan. Jamie (Adam Driver) is an effortlessly stylish youngster with gimmicky ideas and that hipster-y fondness that often mistakes what is old for what is good, and Baumbach makes us wonder if his affection for Josh’s work is genuine, or the same as his love for Rocky III. Jamie and his artisanal ice-cream making wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) start hanging out with Josh and Cornelia and invite them to radically bohemian ceremonies — where people wear white, drink sludgy psychotropic drinks, and vomit to Vangelis — but no matter how much fun they’re having, Jamie and Darby never, ever reach for the check.

This film is thus as much about the inappropriate sense of entitlement of the young — the anything-goes culture, the breakdown of the conventions we older folk take for granted — as it is about the ennui exhibited at any age, really. Two couples sit at dinner and start looking up their smartphones; one of them talks about how it’s awful that one person whips a phone out and suddenly everyone has to look at theirs, but that while it was rude earlier, it’s accepted now. “Like showing your ankles in the 1800s,” he nods, to the loud sound of nobody disagreeing.

The film informatively explores the very idea of documentary filmmaking in an age where everyone is recording what’s around them, poking at the changing relevance of the form and the undeniable shift in the documentary ethic. It is at these points in our culture when meanings are changing that it is hardest to stand straight, and Josh flounders horribly: when two younger men talk about “life” and “other plans,” he reflexively throws out the correct John Lennon quote. But nobody, he sees, realises the importance of what was really said and who said it. It’s all out there, it belongs to everyone. And this scares Josh just like it does many of us, even though his hurried parroting of Lennon wasn’t entirely accurate either.

Stiller is stunning in the film, his brow furrowed with consternation, and mouth half-open in incredulous indignation. This is the man unable to swallow the fact that the joke is now on him, that by rigidly sticking to whatever he believes in he is losing relevance amid both the older-and-wiser and the younger-and-crueller. Stiller, exceptional in Baumbach’s Greenberg a few years ago, attacks this part with a sense of naive righteousness, his Josh believing intent and purity are the same things even as he falls for the bait and buys a hat to blend in. At some point he’s asked if he’s success oriented, and he says “no” while his wife says “totally”, at the exact same beat, with her obviously knowing better. For a moment there we can see heartbreak in his eyes before the grin of denial takes over.

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Watts, coming off a marvellous performance in Birdman, is one of those actresses who wears the suit of age with such weary believability that it almost masks her beauty — like Claire in Modern Family. And again, because of the cinematic baggage she carries, we begin to buy into Baumbach’s concept of aging: that after more than a dozen years even one who so gloriously pleasured herself in Mulholland Drive is now relieved to be asked to the party.

Driver is a compelling actor, a distinctively quirky looking chameleon who plays his part in a defiantly unreal way, which makes him great casting for this role where his young auteur doesn’t mind not really being an auteur at all. And Charles Grodin, as mentioned at the head of this review, wears omniscience so, so delightfully, just like he does in TV’s Louie.

It isn’t surprising how funny this film is, or how cleverly it’s written. We’ve come to expect great things from Baumbach who wrote The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and who made the beautiful Frances HaWhile We’re Young is special not for its subversions of mainstream comedic genre — the end features a race against the clock only to realise the whole thing is also just that — but for its almost casual profundity, for the wisdom it carries and, miraculously enough, does so without an air of preachiness. It’s wise enough to know it isn’t wise enough.

This is the first truly great film of 2015. It is a film worth watching and recommending and loving, like a novel you can’t wait to lend to friends you care about. And as the end-credits rolled with Golden Years playing, I realised even David Bowie’s older now. And that doesn’t seem so bad. Just look at Woody Allen.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 1, 2015

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Review: Gabbar Is Back

Villains aren’t what they used to be.

I haven’t seen the original South Indian versions of many of the cruelly loud movies we’re subjected to every few months, but the ones they make in Hindi cinema are so definitively STAR VEHICLES that they deserve the all-caps rebuke. There is clearly no other purpose to these movies than to blatantly make the hero always look good, therefore, despite forever making good-versus-evil stories, they don’t create villains of true menace or charisma or even ones that look momentarily like they could whip the hero’s behind. Nope, these baddies just scowl and take their punishment.

Which is why I was, against all odds, vaguely intrigued by a film called Gabbar Is Back. Not because I believed any random ungainly retelling could possibly do the iconic Gabbar Singh justice, I hasten to clarify, but because I thought it could perhaps create an interesting villain or an anti-hero, someone who could actually seem like a threat and potentially up the stakes, making it look like the hero’s battle will actually be an uphill one.

Nope, what Gabbar Is Back delivers is a bearded Akshay Kumar facing off against some hammy actor I choose only to refer to as Evil Arvind Swamy. A shabaashi is, as you might have gathered, not on the menu here.

gabbar2Akshay, a well-trimmed beard separating his character from most of his recent ones, plays a college professor who happens to also be a vigilante who orchestrates kidnappings and killings of corrupt government officials. He does all this under the guise of Gabbar, a name that becomes increasingly popular among the people while corrupt officers start returning bribes in fear that he’ll come a-whacking. “Varna Gabbar aa jaayega” and all that.

Dumbed down to a ridiculous degree, the film — directed by hotshot Telugu director Krish — tries to be a less-pathetic version of Salman Khan’s Jai Ho and might have succeeded on that count were it not for an absolutely daft script, with scenes featuring selfish doctors slapping each other’s backs and saying things that could be translated to “look how evil we are! Yay!”, and high-flying investigating officers coming in and proudly yelling (here I quote) that “I don’t have any reason to understand this.” (You and us both, bro.)

Akshay himself is customarily not-bad, and there’s something pleasing about a star who, even in these monstrous films, stays off the pedestal. Salman Khan doesn’t even try to act, and Ajay Devgn thrusts himself at us with pornstar brutality. Akshay, who doesn’t belong to the come-see-my-nipples squad, almost slacks off whenever he can, standing sloppily, casually clipping his nails in prison, and only occasionally picking the bad guy up over his head — while making the action look real. With a smile. He’s aging well, this guy, and the persona remains strong.

Nope, the main problem — no small feat in a film where Evil Arvind Swamy constantly boasts about how he is a “Brand!”, like a peculiarly proud cow —  is the girl. Shruti Haasan is hideous in the film, an imbecilic character played by a girl with clearly no charisma and dubbed when nobody cared enough to look. It’s easy to make a cutesy character insufferable and Haasan is so godawful in Gabbar that she makes the second-half of the film automatically stand leagues ahead of the first, simply because Haasan has only one post-interval scene. Meanwhile we’re subjected to the sight of the once promising Chitrangda Singh doing the kind of crass item number Rakhi Sawant might have turned down.

So yeah, not a great movie for women. Then again, Kareena Kapoor shows up for one song and shows off presence, chemistry and star quality, reminding us how good Akshay can be when playing off someone with talent.

gabbar1Back to Gabbar, then. The basic idea of an anti-corruption crusader, a Kejriwal with muscle, could have been shaped into a compelling film, but besides one decent visual — a shot of everyone wearing Evil Arvind Swamy masks except for our hero, because it only takes one good apple to improve things — this is a constantly unimpressive film. At its best, Gabbar Is Back is barely watchable, and at its worst, it’s Shruti Haasan. Why would you even try?

And why on earth would producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali want to name this film Gabbar? Even as an exploitative gimmick, it could have been used more cleverly, but here we have a full-length cinematic equivalent of Bali Brahmbhatt’s Gabbar Mix. Using the very name of the most fearsome villain in our cinema should mean something, but here it just gives the filmmakers an excuse to cast a dark-skinned actor as an executioner just so Akshay can tease him (even though he’s just an innocent fellow doing his job) with the “Tera kya hoga, Kaaliya?” line. Ugh.

Stay away from theatres, I’d say. 50-kos away, even.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 1, 2015

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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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