Category Archives: Review

Review: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

gbh1Pastry is a beautiful thing. Layers of differing consistency, perfectly harnessed flavours inventively brought together to complement each other as well as to throw up the odd surprise, covered with icing and embellishment to make for a seductively attractive treat, one that beckons those within range — and tempts those watching from afar. Nobody does cinematic confectionary quite as painstakingly as the delightful Wes Anderson, a director who unabashedly tosses aside realism in favour of dreamy impressionism. Everything is lovely; everything is in its place; things, and, indeed, people, move with the precision of choreographed puppets… It is all mesmerising, a dollhouse world with oh so much to make jaws drop.

And it is within this immaculate world that Anderson throws in broken marionettes, exquisite but deeply flawed characters, their lives stretched to tether-defying limits by discord or adventure. Each is fascinating but faulty, as if their clockwork is — ever so slightly — off-kilter. Around these creatures of whimsy and the stunning, often-insular worlds they inhabit, there is much genuine magic, taking place so naturally and ineffably that even talking about it feels like precariously grazing a bubble with a tentative fingertip. It is genius, and, in his latest film, Wes Anderson uses his considerable imagination to brighten up what may well have been a dirge.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite its pink-as-icing facade and pop-up book visual style, is a romanticisation of the saddest of times, of a fictionalised Europe before the Nazi invasion, of a world that was never as ideal as in Wes’ vintage-Hollywood loving imagination. It is a carving-up of nostalgia, a satirical embellishment, an evoking of pure wistfulness — a spoonful of (castor) sugar to make the medicine go down.

Anderson explored this craving for what-ought-have-been instead of what-does marvellously in his last outing, Moonrise Kingdom, but this time his story — a story within a story within a story within a story — is nestled between many layers of memory, with perhaps each narrator reflexingly throwing in what they yearned for instead of what merely/banally/really was.

gbh2In the present day, a girl visits a writer’s grave and read’s his book; in 1985, the writer gives an interview about The Grand Budapest Hotel; in 1968, the writer visits the then-decaying hotel and runs into the hotel’s owner, Zero Moustafa, who tells him how he came to own the empty, fading establishment; and in 1932, young Zero walks around gobsmacked by the glory of the hotel even as his mentor, Gustave H, throws him into a swirl of adventure. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman shoots in striking 35mm, and brilliantly endows each narrative timeframe with a different aspect ratio, looking at it through different pairs of eyes, masterfully using the intensely squared 1.33:1 format for the longest sequence, the 1930s, giving it a now-uncommon vitality akin to that of classic comic panels.

In fact — with a plot involving death and secret wills and evil heirs and purloined paintings — it smells distinctly of Hergé. Yet, through the unique blocks of eye-tickling colour and Wes’ singular vision, the Tintinny fragrance is mostly overshadowed, and the new scent is more like that bottled up and dabbed on by the inimitable Gustave H: It is called L’Air D’Panache. And panache fuels this film more than anything.

“The plot thickens, as they say,” mutters Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes in a performance so exuberant and articulate it may well be his best. This he mutters while breaking out of jail, but despite the urgency of the situation — like the film and Wes himself — he immediately and helplessly digresses, wondering about the turn of phrase. “Why, by the way? Is it a soup metaphor?” Fiennes’ Gustave is a charismatic tornado, a concierge so wonderfully equipped to every situation that the almighty Jeeves might have felt threatened, offering his guests every assistance including — for the rich and blonde — more than he absolutely should. Let’s just call it a too-thorough turndown service. Ahem.

gbh3Fiennes is spectacular, but the entire ensemble has a freakishly fun time. And what actors! A withered Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum as an elaborately-whiskered attorney, Willem Dafoe as a menacing enforcer, Adrien Brody as a black-clad scoundrel, Edward Norton as a ZZ officer (this film’s equivalent of an SS officer), Saoirse Ronan as the “always and exceedingly lovely” girl who works in the bakery, F Murray Abraham as the dignified old Zero, and Tony Revolori — a bright and gifted youngster, his eyes widened by naivete and impossible devotion — as young Zero, the film’s hero. And the only actor we don’t already know and love. There is also, in one standout scene featuring concierges across the Continent, a slew of Anderson regulars making fleeting but flawless cameos, even as round irises frame them further inside the tight 30’s square.

So it is an adventure, surely, a gloriosky tale of wonder, but it is also a tale we are told long after it ceases to matter, after the dreamscape has been stomped on with hobnailed boots and after Alexander Desplat’s enchanting, rainbow-coloured background score — as much of a leading man as Fiennes, truly — has faded away into bleak blizzard sounds. Everything is over, then, and yet we’re left enchanted, soothed, nearly hypnotised by the candied loveliness washing over us. Wes rarely sermonises, but what he gifts us with The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite the balm: it is a realisation that if we close our eyes (or, indeed, open them wider), history is just as we choose to remember it. And nobody makes denial look this fabulous.

 

Rating: Five stars

~

First published Rediff, July 25, 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under Review

Review: Sajid Nadiadwala’s Kick

kick1It was bound to happen.

At some point, a canny producer was sure to realise that all that matters in the kind of movies Salman Khan does nowadays is Salman Khan. After looking at, for example, Bodyguard or Ready — hideous, tacky eyesores that nonetheless rule the charts — it was only a matter of time before he’d see little need for an expensive, credit-hogging middleman and chuck this “director” fellow out.

Blasphemous, I know, but with films like this, it’s hard to argue. I remember a Mithun Chakraborty interview many moons ago where the actor — speaking of his heartland-conquering B-movies — described a continuity error, a fight scene where he was wearing a red shirt in one shot and a blue shirt the next. The director asked Chakraborty to reshoot but he laughed off the idea, saying it should be released as it was, and that his audience bothered only about him, not trifles like that. He was right, the film was a hit, and, alarmingly enough, our biggest blockbusters today seem to run on the same principles. Especially those that star Salman.

It is a pleasant surprise, thus, to see producer Sajid Nadiadwala taking his directorial debut seriously, making sure every part of the engine is slickly oiled. The loopy script coasts along breezily, Ayananka Bose’s cinematography is lush (and frequently more artful than you expect from a Salman project), the girls are considerably attractive, and — perhaps most importantly — the film smartly avoids the self-serious drivel that can ruin a shamelessly silly action film. (Case in point, the ponderous Dhoom 3. Kick, in one line, is basically Dhoom done right. But more on that later.)

The plot is threadbare enough to not matter. Shaina, a psychiatrist narcissistic enough to wear her name on a chain and depressive enough to turn ‘sex’ into ‘sorrow’ while playing Scrabble, is lamenting the loss of her lover. She tells her new suitor, a cop, about her ex, a guy called Devi Lal who did anything for kicks. (Including, presumably, always refer to them in the singular.) Devi quirkily won her over, but things soured and he dumped her, and she’s oh so heartbroken. The cop, Himanshu, tells Shaina he can empathise, because he too has someone in his life: a masked master-thief he just can’t get a hold of. (Ahem.)

No points for guessing the man of their dreams is the same. Salman Khan doesn’t often bother to act these days, swaggering through most of his parts without any consistency, yet he seems to be playing this Devi/L properly and in character, perhaps freed by the insouciance of the anything-goes role. Even in weak scenes, his screen presence is extraordinary. He’s clearly having a blast not having to mouth lewd lines or take his shirt off. Every now and again, Kick delivers flashes of that gleeful spontaneity we saw back in Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya when he was hopping around one-legged in a chicken-coop calling himself Murgaman.

Kick perfunctorily skips through most of the emo stuff — inevitable scenes showing character motives and changes of heart — in its quest to find the shiniest Bhai moments. The film is predictable, the script is lazily convenient, and yet there’s a surefootedness in the way Nadiadwala jauntily carries on increasing the tempo, piling on the Khan. His cinematographer shows some masterful framing and composition, capturing the energy of the moment very well most times, and at other times making things look very pretty. Jacqueline Fernandes looks good as a bimbette taken in by Khan and, despite her unfortunate dialogue delivery, isn’t ever around in stretches long enough to be grating. Mithun (yes, he of the red/blue shirts) plays Salman’s father; Nawazuddin Siddiqui makes bottle-popping noises with his mouth and borrows Manoj Bajpai’s Aks laugh to play villain; and Randeep Hooda is the cop who intriguingly enough appears to be quite turned on by the crook he’s after.

kick2If all that sounds trashy, well, it is. But it’s mostly fast enough to feel like a blast. At its worst — and there are more than a few scenes that are too long, too mawkish — Kick is at least entertainingly cheesy in a drinking-game sort of way. It’s never objectionably bad, and that hasn’t been said about a Salman Khan film for around fifteen years. While on the 90s, there seem to be peculiar (but again, amusing) tributes of some sort: a kooky flashback about Salman’s childhood is animated a la Def Leppard’s Let Get Rocked; and an item song starring the ravishing Nargis Fakhri takes place in some freaky netherworld equally fit for both Alisha Chinai and The Undertaker. It’s almost trippy.

The rest of the film is The Salman Khan Show.

The Dhoom movies provide a pretty valid parallel, and I don’t just mean the basic cops-and-robbers template. The first Dhoom was merely a fun action film; the second amped it up with massive stars, more bling, louder stunts, better bikinis. Dhoom 2 didn’t even try to make sense — a man was dressed up as a Grecian statue in one shot and a watchman in the next — but it looked so captivating we were blinded by its gloss. Dhoom 3, unfortunately, tried way too hard; it stole a plot, added in melodrama, slowed down its chases. The result was an utterly unremarkable car-wreck.

Kick, therefore, is the Dhoom 2 of the Salmaniverse. It looks good, moves fast, shows off its superstar. In the world of harebrained Bhai films — Dabanng included — Kick is the best made and the most fun. If you’re a fan, you just hit the jackpot.

Rating: 3 stars

~

First published Rediff, July 25, 2014

3 Comments

Filed under Review

Review: Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya

I was fourteen when more than half the boys in my school suddenly started wearing their shirts half-untucked. Not the slightly tousled careless untucking caused by a hurry or negligence, you understand, this was a very deliberate half-in, half-out approach followed strictly in an attempt to emulate Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj Malhotra. And this took place across barriers of cool and klutzy; the half-tuckers included those dolts who would go on to buy C-O-O-L Kuch Kuch Hota Hai bracelets as well as those wavy-haired guitarists who proclaimed Hindi films passé. It was inevitable. 

On those of us of a certain vintage, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge made a tremendous impact. One of my oldest friends still measures her swoons by how good Khan looked when brushing his convertible-swept hair in Ho Gaya Hai Tujhko Toh Pyaar Sajna, and I have myself approached strangers in bars and used “Robbie ki party” as, um, as an icebreaker. (For the record, it works.) Whatever you may ironically say about that 20-year-old film now, the fact remains that — to us — it was one of those pop-culture waves that changed everything.

humpty1Which is why I’m wary of dismissing Shashank Khaitan’s Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania as a DDLJ-ripoff or parody or spoof, and instead commending it as a romance that just happens to feature a star-crossed pair of DDLJ-obsessives. Humpty, a grown fanboy who still weeps when watching that other movie’s climax, is more like romcom-obsessive Mindy Lahiri from The Mindy Project than any of our regular leading men. His prospective Dulhania is a girl who, having drunk her fill of Kareena juice, pouts her way through life in a way that suggests consequences don’t matter — until, naturally, they do. 

It all begins, as most of us who have had to deal with a big family wedding these days can attest, with a lehnga. The girl demands one of those designer garments costing as much as a hatchback, and decides she’s going to hustle up the money for it herself. The boy — whose name comes from childhood chubbiness but who has taken the first four letters of said nickname to heart — finds himself charmed by this self-proclaimed firecracker, and decides he will help on this sartorial mission. Plans are hatched, jewellery is pawned, aunties are blackmailed…. And all this takes place in a whirl, the director slathering on eventful scenes with a narrative economy that feels almost too brisk. 

It must here be mentioned that this frequently-farcical opening stretch takes more than some getting used to. We’ve been seeing this a fair bit these days — insouciant Punjabi kids with ‘attitude’ and a strut, flinging Facebooky terms at each other — and unlike, say, Mere Dad Ki Maruti, which nailed this zing (and the zingers) quite effortlessly, things constantly seem staged and unreal in this film. Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt are likeable enough right from the start, but it all feels like make-believe, like two kids playing it smart instead of playing it real. He’s always Varun, she’s always Alia, and such is their eagerness to appear natural that they almost yell the (mostly-clever) lines at each other. Things get positively deafening inside a coffee shop. But they are, as mentioned, easy performers and — like watching a school-play starring cousins you’re fond of — it’s easy enough to sit through this because the supporting cast is sparkling, and because Khaitan keeps the story purring. It feels like harmless, forgettable fun.

Then everything changes. This is confoundingly enough a film which follows a tremendously predictable graph — one channeling not just that Raj-Simran movie but also Maine Pyar Kiya, Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya and several of those charming Genelia D’Souza films from the South, like Bommarillu — and yet a film that manages to stay captivating and current. The strength of Khaitan’s film lies in how it’s not trying too hard, it’s not trying at reinventing the wheel, and instead being honest to two characters who, it becomes gradually apparent, aren’t who they said they were — or, more importantly, they aren’t who they thought they were.

So after Humpty pulls away from his girl Kaavya — quoting a Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge line verbatim and turning it into a plotpoint — Khaitan’s film begins to slow down and come into its own. The girl loses her invincible swagger once she’s home; the boy who surrounded himself by silly (but great) friends feels inadequate when facing genuine competition. This vulnerability gives Khaitan’s protagonists a certain depth, and makes up for that over-flippant first half where, it is now clear, they felt fake because they were being fake, and now that all the posturing is over, their story can begin in earnest. And it does.

If I’m making this sound like a serious film, I apologise. This is a lark, a goofy film where you know what’s going to happen but where you enjoy watching it unfold. The supporting cast is very solid indeed — special praise to Ashutosh Rana as Kavya’s Amrish-esque dad, plus Sahil Vaid and Gaurav Pande as Poplu and Shonty, Humpty’s irresistibly loyal buddies — and television stud Siddharth Shukla is well cast as an ideal man, one we first see getting off a car smiling so wide it looks like his cheekbones have been doing weights.

Alia Bhatt starts off cutesy and a tad too affected (her yoga inhalations are pure plastic, but then aren’t they supposed to be?) yet is charming enough to keep things bubbling over till the actors drop their guard, after which she shows off some serious talent — especially rocking the Arms Outstretched pose (©SRK). It is Varun Dhawan, however, who really takes this movie home. His Humpty is sweeter than he is roguish, and when this film calls for sincerity, he doles it out impressively. He creates a character worth caring about, and his chemistry with Bhatt is quite endearing.

When done well, there is no such thing as “too filmi.” Filmi people end up living filmi lives — and sometimes we get to watch. Good on you, Shashank Khaitan. Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania is the kinda film Simran would have loved.

 

Rating: 3.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, July 11, 2014

1 Comment

Filed under Review

Review: Mohit Suri’s Ek Villain

ev1Let’s start with what we know.

We know, by now, that Mohit Suri can direct. He knows how to block a scene, he knows how to use actors competently, he knows the importance of a strong moment, and the songs in his movies (more often than not) actually aid the narrative instead of weakening it.

We know that Siddharth Malhotra is an impressive looking lad, manlier than most of Bollywood’s current brigade, and that when left free of dialogue — as he was in Hansee Toh Phansee earlier this year — he can muster up both likability and a smoulder.

And, ever since 2004’s Naach, we’ve known Ritesh Deshmukh can act.

What else do we know? We know that Ek Villain is a shameless ripoff of the madly thrilling Korean film I Saw The Devil, a crackling 2010 horror-thriller full of elegantly executed ultraviolence, a gore-fest so deftly handled it remains impossible to look away from.

Yet, there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with the way we remake films. You know those often-hilarious South Asian DVD covers for pirated Hollywood films? Where they misspell the actor names and write a bizarre, ungrammatical and illogical version of the summary? With peculiar posters where content from two movies is often melded freakishly into one, as if all Tom Cruise movies were the same? Well, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that our filmmakers might not be remaking the films themselves but these odd DVD covers. (No, dear producers, that is not what you call a cover version.)

Hence we have Ek Villain, where we take a hardboiled Korean film — full of brutal gore and sexual abuse but enough panache to stay constantly gripping — and inexplicably scramble it into a sex-less, gore-less slasher film with a wide-eyed love story running through it all. Gone are the thrills from the original and in come the cliched background score, watered-down murder scenes, and much, much silliness.

Shradha Kapoor, for example, who has Pharrell Williams’ Happy as her mobile ringtone, chirpily sits around filling up her journal with polaroids, when she turns to see a menacing figure. Clad in all black, with gloved hands, he advances upon her, basically the Scream killer minus the ghostface mask. Her reaction, however, is one of plucky indignation. “Why didn’t you knock?”, she demands from this shadowy figure. “Don’t you know it’s not polite to enter someone’s room without knocking?”

And the idiocy rolls on, scene after scene strung together and not even attempting to make sense. There’s a mental-asylum ‘kidnapping’ that makes no sense (but is still in the film to show off Mohit’s/Siddharth’s love for the iconic Amitabh cheesefest, Shahenshah); a man who robs his victims but doesn’t have money to pay an autowallah; and a pinwheel that helps the ‘good’ guy find the bad one. Yes, a pinwheel. Like you get on Juhu beach. In the original film it was an engagement ring, and here it is a pinwheel, those flimsy paper things you can buy six of for a tenner. Because that’s enough to convict a man. Why this change? (Beats me, but the cover must have been a masterpiece.)

Why, again, is this a remake? Why would these filmmakers steal from a film and yet leave out the good parts, the bits that made those films great? And why do we do it over and over again? Suri can shoot a chase, certainly, but do let’s give him a meatier script.

Malhotra isn’t bad, except for his propensity to grunt all the time, as if snarling like a beast were the only way to show toughness. (It isn’t. It shows brain damage.) Ritesh Deshmukh is good, despite being straddled with awful dialogue. “Everyone makes fun of me,” he complains woefully, a possibly true-life sentiment that could be blamed on his Hindi film choices. Shraddha Kapoor, alas, has evidently been told that talking too fast will make her appear spontaneous (and thus give her an edge into the Parineeti Chopra market), but while the girl has a nice smile, it takes more than coke-sped-up dialogue-delivery to create a fresh, natural character.

If I were to review it in one word, I’d say Ek Villain is…. Unneccessary. It features some genuinely awful writing, it is sillier than the examples thus far have illustrated, and the one good thing you can say about the film is that it ends briskly enough. Oh, and that it has Remo Fernandes with a most amusing accent. But that’s more consolation than recommendation. Given free tickets, sure, you could escape Humshakals in theatres this weekend with this mediocre effort, but I say do yourself a favour and seek out the Korean DVD. (Uncover it, even.) Now that’s bloody special.

 

Rating: 1.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, June 27, 2014

5 Comments

Filed under Review

Review: Sajid Khan’s Humshakals

Two nights ago, I had a dream. I dreamt (I kid you not) that I watched and didn’t actually loathe Sajid Khan’s Humshakals, which led to me waking up disturbed and profoundly confused. Is it possible that the most puerile filmmaker (in an industry not known for very mature films) did something half-decent? Could it be…

No.

No, it couldn’t. Humshakals, a film I watched the following night, turned out reassuringly enough to be bilge of the lowest order, the kind of thing we expect from Sajid Khan and yet even more harebrained. I sat in the theatre cringing and sighing, actually feeling the stultification: by nightfall I’d lost so many brain-cells I (almost) rooted for England in a football game. Shudder.

In a particularly painful hat-trick, the last three Fridays have seen me review the silly Holiday, the absurdly amateurish Fugly, and now this pathetic ‘film’. But there is one vital difference between those two turkeys and the one Sajid Khan has just dished out. Those are mediocre films basking in their own incompetence; Humshakals is a work of cruelty.

I’m not buying it, Sajid Khan. No director, I believe, can be senseless enough to think this is fine or remotely funny. Monkeys could direct a better film, and, going by what I’ve watched over the years, some have. But Humshakals couples its crude farce with a certain aggression, as if daring the audience to stay in their seats while it repeatedly spits at them.

This is not filmmaking, this is sadism.

Khan hints at it himself in a scene where an asylum warden tortures inmates by showing them Khan’s own flop, Himmatwala. We all relate, strapped into our seats, luduvico luddites assaulted by that which must not be watched. Every minute — and there are a hundred and fifty seven bleeding minutes — is so brutal it will make you want to give up your deepest secrets in exchange for escape.

The idea of having three actors in three roles apiece sounds like an ambitious one, but ambition is a concept foreign to Sajidland, where every time there is the slightest scope of a misunderstanding between the doppelgangers, the background score spells it out. Just how dumb do you think our audiences are, Sajid? Or were you trying to make Judwaa appear nuanced? This is a racist, sexist, equal-opportunity offender of a film, which wouldn’t have been awful in itself were it not also patently unfunny. Seriously, if you run into anyone who claims to have enjoyed this film, step away slowly.

For this is a film where Ritesh Deshmukh humps Suresh Menon’s leg; a film where parathas are made of cocaine; a film where Saif Ali Khan gets rapey with Deshmukh in drag; a film where two black men appear just so Saif can mouth a line about kaali daal; a film where virtually everyone looks identical and has the same name; a film where people who have hair wear wigs anyway; a film where Ram Kapoor romances himself; a film where characters who have the mental age of children nevertheless start talking like Ranjeet when aroused; a film where Saif Ali Khan, Nawab of Pataudi, drools and barks; a film where a mention of North Korean fascist Kim Jong Un is prefixed by the word “chinese chowmein”….

And so on.

hums1The biggest casualty from this monstrous effort is, in my eyes, Saif Ali Khan, who may well be disowned by friends and family. Khan gamely tries to embrace Sajid’s hammy script, but the results are grotesque: he overplays it, out on a limb far from the acting tree, and it doesn’t make for a pretty picture. Especially since he spends a significant chunk of the film dressed as a waitress, looking not half as effeminate as he did during his early, dupatta-chasing years — he’s now more like the wicked witch of the west. Ritesh Deshmukh, normally the better part of a Sajid film, spends this one making faces while peeing from the roof. Ram Kapoor, an otherwise fine actor, looks more like Shrek than ever, and is let down by a film that has cast him cause he’s fat. Even the great Satish Shah — who has aged remarkably well, casting directors across the nation — shows up as an ill-conceived neo-Nazi warden who is, unforgivably, slapped around by these morons. Ugh.

What other Sajid Khan staples? There are three trampily dressed women — of whom Esha Gupta stands out, for it takes a special kind of talent to be that glaringly awful as an actress — and, of course, the inevitable Chunky Pandey with a silly accent.

It’s all bad. All of it, every last instant, every single word. (The lyricist even rhymes “junoon” with “caller-tune.”) Which makes me wonder exactly what Sajid Khan’s motives are for savaging our audience thus. Is he the real neo-Nazi here? Is he trying to make the country stupid? Is he suicidally trying to see how far people — producers, audiences, actors — let him go before someone assassinates him? Is this all some subversive meta-joke being perpetrated on us for not having applauded his acting in Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate? Is he turning his whole life into one gigantic “ham scene of the week”?

Your guesses are as good as mine. Because a filmmaker he ain’t.

Rating: No stars

~

First published Rediff, June 20, 2014

15 Comments

Filed under Review

Review: Kabir Sadanand’s Fugly

Take a dash of Dil Chahta Hai. Throw in liberal doses of Shaitan, add several tablespoonfuls of Fukrey, with a climactic heap of Rang De Basanti on top. Meticulously take out all the actors, all the finesse, every smart and clever bone. Throw it in a blender and then water it down till it’s not just an offensively bad film but a defiantly tacky one, a truly, truly cheap concoction that exists only to make you sick. Fugly can’t, in all good conscience, be called an actual movie — but it is the most appropriately titled mess of all time.

fugly1The kids in Fugly talk like… Nobody in the history of tongues. Young people don’t talk like that. Students don’t talk like that. Morons don’t talk like that. Coming to think of it, perhaps it takes a special talent to create four protagonists so constantly imbecilic that you want to whack the (Haryanvi) bejeezus out of them. Jimmy Shergill, playing a politically minded cop with an absurdly fake moustache, possibly signed on for this film simply because his character gets to slap these fools around a lot and bring them to their knees. Hurrah! The director might not have intended it,  but Shergill is without question the hero we root for.

Or we would — if we actually cared. This is a pathetic excuse for a film, with iPad-carrying sheikhs sitting on open-air toilets in the freezing cold; with vandals breaking into (conveniently open) shops wearing wigs that make them look like skunks, with desperate TV journalists noiselessly pawing the air as they stand in the background of an ICU; with farmhouse parties that net do-nothing organisers a lot of cash, with street-corner gigolos on Delhi streets who take a shine to commode-minded fools.. Yes, it’s all one big stinking mess that needs to be flushed away, double quick. Not least for making one of our country’s rare few sport champions look like crap.

As the recipe I began with might have illustrated, the devastatingly unoriginal Fugly tries to bite off far too much, and, without knowing how to chew, chokes on its own stupidity. There are a couple of good scenes — a Haryanvi politician accidentally resigns, Shergill has one good line about charging VAT for a bribe, the casual warmth with which a wizened old uncle shoos his nephew out the room (so he can get it on with an unconscious girl) — but everything else is embarrassingly amateurish roadkill. Four friends go on drives, jump while they dance, flout the rules because one of ‘em has a powerful dad, and then get screwed. But director Kabir Sadanand, who comes to us after having cut his teeth as an actor in the fantastically subtle world of the Hindi soap opera, persistently adds morality and preachy themes to this hacky mix. It’s enough to make you want to barf — or watch a Jaccky Bhagnani movie instead.

Had there been actual actors playing the leads in Fugly I’d have spoken about them (and surely actors like Shergill and Anshuman Jha, who appears briefly as a boa-clad baddie, don’t want to be spoken much of in relation to this monstrosity) but evaluating or even discussing the four new leads in this production would be tantamount to blaming four clueless kids — sorry, three kids and a boxer — for being misled by the man showing them candy. Thus the blame for this trainwreck lies in Sadanand’s incapable hands, and were he a minister we’d be clamouring for his resignation. Tragically our filmmakers remain even less accountable.

Contrary to popular belief, I posit this film’s producer Akshay Kumar hasn’t lost his mind. Fugly has a couple of tracks catchy enough to ensure airplay and, much more crucially, has clearly been made on a budget so tiny it couldn’t buy Salman Khan’s nosehair-clipper. Merely calling Fugly cheap is an unforgivable understatement: it looks like its been sloppily cut together from footage left over from bad cable TV shows. As a friend said, the Homeshop 18 infomercials have better production values — and better scripts. So Kumar, making this movie for next to nothing, won’t lose a thing and might even make some money (in a world where Gunday is a hit), but if you fork over your dough and actually spend time on this, well, you’ve Fuglied up bigtime.

Rating: No stars

~

 

First published Rediff, June 13, 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under Review

Review: Holiday is too slow to thrill

Offensively bland movies often throw up unrelated food for thought. While enduring the painfully boring Holiday, for example, I wistfully wondered how much fun things could be had the filmmaker chosen to change his vantage point: to go from the clichéd hero to the much more interesting character, his hapless (but reasonable) policeman buddy. Played as he was by Sumeet Raghavan, I kept willing the film to cut away from its insipid proceedings to this perfectly likeable cop’s home life, to his miserly wife and his poetry-spouting brother. What a lark that would be.

Alas, this film is made by AR Murugadoss, the man who made Ghajini — and the man who can thus be blamed for our blockbusters having turned dafter than ever. And clearly he and I have very different definitions of the word “lark.”

Holiday calls itself a thriller. And indeed there is a thumping background score and much, much malarkey about sleeper cells and terrorists. In the middle stands Akshay Kumar, with unfortunately flat hair, holding a Rubik’s Cube, and making what appear to be very random assumptions. He’s ridding Mumbai of the scourge of terrorism, and good for him. Because these are simple action movie setups that, despite their harebrained processes, can lead to slick enough thrillers.

holiday1Except Holiday ticks in slow-motion. Imagine, if you will, that legendary scene from the first Mission Impossible film with Tom Cruise suspended from the roof. Pure upside-down adrenaline. Now, if Murugadoss were to direct that scene, we’d spend forty minutes watching Cruise finding a shop to buy ropes, figuring which sneakers are least likely to squeak, and then detailing his plan at great length — before eventually executing it in slow-motion with half the shots replayed from different angles. Holiday, obsessed as it is with detailing Akshay’s efficiency, takes obscene amounts of time getting to the point. Remember the endless shots of people walking in Akshay’s Special 26? This is far worse.

Kumar plays army man Virat, a vacationing busybody hunting for a bride. Shortsighted enough to describe Sonakshi Sinha as “naazuk,” Kumar is bowled over watching her box. He proceeds to tap her thigh when she’s in the middle of a judo match, a move that results in her angrily hurling a javelin at him. Unfazed, Kumar pulls a big red heart out his jacket and gladly lets her javelin puncture it. Sure, it’s a throwaway moment from a silly song, but it well captures the spirit of this ridiculously childish romance. Sinha plays a pigheaded and alarmingly superficial sports-nut who, after slapping her father and berating a friend’s husband for being bald, decides mousily to settle for Kumar because, um, good men are hard to find nowadays, y’know?

Kumar, meanwhile, chases bearded men with the kind of parkour enthusiasm one would imagine he saves for those smuggling bottles of Thums Up. Jumping from balcony to balcony — and, as mentioned, from half-formed conclusion to conclusion — Akshay gamely and recklessly heads to the climax. At one point, the actor seems to have forgotten what he’s shooting for. He rounds up his squad, gives them a pep talk about turning sleeper cells into “coma cells,” and then — like a veejay trying out for an IPL-hosting gig — he bounces up, grinning, with a “boom!” (I’m astonished a plug for the next season of Fear Factor didn’t immediately take over the screen.)

It may as well have. Cut down to less than half its running time, Holiday could perhaps have been bearable. As it stands, three hours long and incredibly yawnworthy, it’s the kind of mess that makes you miss scenery-chewing villains like Prakash Raj and long for item songs. Anything for a respite. The audience nearly applauded when the intermission began, I kid you not.

Think you can handle the truth? Holiday is about the brave men and women fearlessly serving the nation and making sure you rest easy. The men and women who take on unthinkable odds, waking up and rushing to theatres first thing in the morning to catch a movie starring the hero and heroine from Joker and made by the guy who made Ghajini. We watch, and we warn, so you may not have to. Because a critic is never off duty.

Rating: 1.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, June 6, 2014

1 Comment

Filed under Review

Review: Rajni’s Kochadaiyaan is a bad puppet show

koch1Holy subtext, Batman. Rajinikanth stands amid a collection of statues, pretending to be his own effigy. Deepika Padukone, the patroness who has commissioned said sculpture, looks appraisingly over Rajni’s body, halting at his bottom. This should really be a little ampler, she complains to the carver, following which Rajinikanth — who had, for some inexplicable reason, kept butt-cheeks clenched in an attempt to look more lifeless — now sticks out his Superstar bum, on cue. “Arre waah!”, exclaims Deepika, who clearly has unholy designs on her latest purchase.

God help us all.

Speaking of unholy designs, this film is one. Kochadaiyaan, which apparently means “long-maned warrior king” might as well now stand for “an unending round of Sims played by someone drunk on toddy.” This is a loud, unforgivably tacky production, handicapped not merely by substandard animation but a complete lack of imagination. Directed by the star’s daughter, Soundarya Rajinikanth Ashwin, Kochadaiyaan has the primary problem most Indian animation faces — that of scripts written for regular films shoehorned into an animated format instead of writing specifically for animation — but this time the motive is a unique one: a fountain of youth.

Thalaivar is getting older, and a significant part of the country is in denial. Now clearly too old to play ass-kicking, punchline-hurling twirler of cigarettes, this is an attempt at keeping Rajinikanth eternally young. It is an ambitious idea, one that in theory could eventually force today’s stars to move over and let the old guard reign forever (like one of the voice actors on The Simpsons, a television show that will outlive us all.) It isn’t an altogether bad — or altogether new — idea, and, personally, I often envision the day a digitally crafted Sean Connery can play James Bond again, but as the first genuine megastar anywhere to gamble on the idea, it must be said Rajinikanth stumbles quite woefully.

koch2Kochadaiyaan‘s severest sin is vanity. In its desperation to make Rajni more awesome than he ever was, the animators don’t seem to have concentrated anywhere besides his face. The film itself begins with thousands of people depicted in gold, as if a novice 3DStudio Max operator in the 90s had just stumbled upon metallic textures and excitedly let loose, a reckless Midas. Even though colours eventually appear, the many extras aren’t paid any attention, coming across purely as puppets. The true cruelty, however, is reserved for Superstar’s hapless co-stars.

Jackie Shroff, for example, would be well within his rights to ask that the animated version of himself be made less jowly, and even, since this is indeed animation, restore the General Alcazar-like jaw from his own glory days. And as for the striking Deepika Padukone, she is here cursed with a seriously creepy grin —  a la the new Anushka Sharma — and a Barbie-body that moves sometimes like a mermaid and sometimes like a skittish salamander. She looks fine enough in profile with her mouth closed, but the rest of the time she — she of the abnormally wide mouth — looks like she wants to crack open her hero’s head and slurp down boiled Rajni brain.

The film’s plot isn’t a particularly bad one — though it is a tad tiring to see Rajni do a Khaleesi and play slave-warrior politics — but this is one historical drama that creaks under its own weight. There are lots of wars and alliances and so forth, but even more songs, songs I wager AR Rahman composed while napping. The result is a painfully simple revenge drama made unbearable by bad animation and constant, constant fanfare — when it is this loud, it cannot justly be called background score.

Credit where it’s due, however, the chariots and elephants look pretty decent. (Up close, that is. When in a long-shot, marching together, all those cloned sprites look like the kind of screensaver BR Chopra would have used.)

Walking into this film, however, I had braced myself for the bad animation — and for Rajni towering over Deepika — because weak animation can never truly get in the way of good storytelling. Kochadaiyaan, alas, is a fundamentally flawed dud, one without anything to applaud besides grand (if self-glorifying) ambition. And little is as heartbreaking to witness as utterly failed ambition.

Rating: One star

~

First published Rediff, May 23, 2014

86 Comments

Filed under Review

Review: John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo

fg1John Turturro is not a beautiful man.

Which isn’t to say that he’s unsightly. Elegantly dressed and greying at the edges, he looks a bit like Al Pacino from Godfather 3 had he been walloped as a kid, and in Fading Gigolo — a film where beautiful women can’t help but fall for him hook, line and wallet — you kinda see what they see. You don’t see Barton Fink or Herb Stempel or Bernie Bernbaum, you see a graceful man wearing Vincent Cassel jumpers and smiling a lopsided, vaguely confident smile.

That, and he loves them tender enough to make Elvis proud.

It is this tenderness that sneaks up on the viewer in this wonderfully understated little delight, written and directed by Turturro, that gluttonously scene-stealing actor. Fading Gigolo starts off almost ludicrously whimsical and yet ends up bittersweet, a flaky tiramisu with a melancholic aftertaste. Lovely.

The laughs come — almost wholly — from Woody Allen, performing for a director other than himself after decades. Woody’s a treat. He inhabits his well-worn nebbish role, but this film subtly coaxes him out of his neurotic shell: he’s still all tics and half-phrased sentences and constant consternation, but his lines here, stripped of their persistent self-doubt, enjoy some of the delightful omniscience of his short stories. Physically, too, he’s in less familiar space, living with a dominant black woman, teaching hassidic kids baseball in a park and, more than anything, playing a newly-minted pimp eager to call himself Dan Bongo.

fg2Turturro, his whore, is a sensitive florist called Fioravante, a man coerced into the world’s oldest profession by Allen’s Murray, who, in turn, feels there is a remarkable profit to be had in these things. There is a terrific bit between the two — the agent and the goods — about percentages. How much seems apropos, wonders Murray, in a world where art-dealers get half the money from a painting? 60-40, he thus offers, assuring his friend that the split is “favouring you.”

Fioravante doesn’t mind. He seems above the banalities of tip-sharing, more intrigued by the thought of fulfilling fantasies by stepping into the role of a lifetime. Prone to drop a devastating line or two in Italian, he comes up with ‘Virgil Howard’ as his, well, nom-de-bedroom, if you will, and treats his clients with sensitivity and silence. He seems to know the answers they want, and whispers the right nothings to sweeten them up. The results are dynamite, and his Midafternoon Cowboy is clearly a hit.

But the women, actresses familiar to us, are none of them what we expect. Sharon Stone, still striking, wears a haunted look that makes her more compelling than she’s been in ages; Sofia Vergara is fascinating as a basketball aficionado with her preferences set in stone; and the beautiful Vanessa Paradis, above all, is a rabbi’s widow who is irresistibly touching and impossible to touch. There is much to delve into with these ladies and their lives, and all of it is worth discovering without me playing spoilsport and writing out the lyrics to their songs.

An ode to Brooklyn, Turturro’s film is filled with a jaunty jazz soundtrack — putting the jig in gigolo, as it were — and is evocatively shot by Marco Pontecorvo, atypical New York views framed with dramatic flair and used as traditional backdrops. It stays away from pretension, and cleverly nudges insight our way without pushing it down our throats. There are well-measured silences, narrative hiccups and lulls, and while the film itself changes gears unpredictably enough, the filmmaker’s craft remains assuredly classical. It is a film with simple ambition and one that gives lovers of smaller movies hope: At a time when indie movies are increasingly taking pride in their verbal and grammatical incoherence, Fading Gigolo is evidence that a movie doesn’t have to mumble to be modest.


Rating: 4 stars


(First published Rediff, May 16, 2014)


Leave a comment

Filed under Review

Review: Amole Gupte’s Hawaa Hawaai

hh1It is a rare and wondrous thing when students genuinely admire a teacher.

I remember sniggering cruelly many years ago when my kid brother, extolling the virtues of one of those self-aggrandising heads of tuition institutes, resolutely referred to him as “Sir Vipin” instead of “Vipin Sir,” convinced of his greatness and boardexam-beating power. Growing up, we’re naturally disposed unfavourably toward teachers, but the few who shine through and make us believe also win us over completely. Merely being their student becomes a point of young pride, and we begin thus to look to them for perfection, unreasonably expecting flawlessness and answers to everything.

It’s stunning, faith. And this is the wide-eyed keenness Amole Gupte captures so well in Hawaa Hawaai, where a skating-instructor is merrily deified by his adoring children, hoisted by them onto a rockstar-high pedestal. “Lucky Sir, Lucky Sir”, they chime in unison (younger but wiser than my knighthood-conferring sibling, clearly) as their sharp-eyed teacher shows up to an empty parking lot — and encourages them to fly.

Lucky Sir happens to be sitting in a wheelchair while cheering the kids on, but this doesn’t stop eager tea-boy Arjun from instinctively recognising a superhero. He sees the swish kids swoosh around on their rollerblades and dreams of wheels on his own feet, and the film is about following those dreams, come what may.

It’s a smart angle for the film, too. Rollerblades, by their very nature — that of something normal stuck onto something normal to make something relatively extraordinary — lend themselves perfectly to the Do-It-Yourself concept, and armed with an ensemble of talented (and adorable) youngsters, Gupte affectionately crafts a truly sweet underdog story. Modelled on those American movies where fathers and sons build flimsy soapbox-racers that go on to beat karts many times as expensive, Hawaa Hawaai is simple but wonderful. It’s a well-textured and etched film, one refreshingly lacking in villains — even the richest, chubbiest kid isn’t a meanie — and one that heartbreakingly but smilingly illustrates the disparity between the kids shown in the film and the kids who can afford to buy theatre tickets to watch this film. Which is exactly why you should drag every kid you care about to this movie.

It is also the kind of film that may well have been dismissed as cloying, predictable or manipulative, but so stridently does Gupte’s sincerity shine through that cynicism is left at the door very early on. The film opens with a father singing an ode to the daily bread while a mother makes chapatis, and this, naturally, is a massive gamble, a move that could make the film seem dated, stagey and too much of a morality tale, but Gupte (who literally sings this song) endows this basic moment with such heart and warmth that it serves only to make the audience feel cosier about the idea of a moral lesson.

hh2Played by Gupte’s son Partho, Arjun is an indefatigable youngster, a well-raised boy who wears a constant smile to fend off hard times. Partho is a fine actor and an irresistibly cute kid — with superb Hindi elocution —  and Gupte surrounds him with a quartet of kids who are every bit his equal. These four — Gochi (Ashfaque Khan), Bhura (Salman Khan), Abdul (Maaman Menon) and Murugan (Tirupati Krishnapelli) — play homeless kids working several rungs below minimum wage, and they make for an amazing entourage, the real wheels pushing Arjun ahead. It’s hard not to smile (and sob) at them

Saqib Saleem, one of those naturally talented actors lacking in false notes, plays Lucky, and he’s a great fit for Gupte’s cinema considering how his performances hinge on believability instead of bluster. His is a more demanding character than initially apparent, and Saleem handles it well. He takes one look at Arjun’s homemade skates and incredulously dubs him his Eklavya, his ‘unworthy’ student and true champion, and thus do the kids begin calling him “Eklaava.” Most of the cast is on the money: Makarand Deshpande is beatific and blissed out as Arjun’s father, Neha Joshi is terrific as the boy’s mother, and it’s always good to see Razzak Khan grin. But the kids are the champs.

This is a brisk, enjoyable film, and while the climactic race is somewhat marred by an overdose of melodrama — Gupte’s far better at subtler strokes than the few broad ones he tries — it is rare to find a Hindi film hero more deserving of our cheers than Arjun. That unfortunate hint of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in the final race doesn’t alter the fact that this is an earnest, important and evocative film.

Important? Yes. Gupte’s first film, the marvellous Stanley Ka Dabba was better-realised cinematically and held more to cherish, but Hawaa Hawaai tries to bite off more. And while its larger point about farmer suicides certainly ought have been handled more subtly, at least this film — like its characters — goes for broke. And that’s what makes it special. Or, as Arjun would say, “peshal.”

Rating: 3.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, May 8, 2014

1 Comment

Filed under Review