Category Archives: Review

Review: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Remember how it felt, as a kid, when cousins visited in the summer?

When an aunt’s children show up for a few vacation weeks and you hang with them and let them into your life and your room, when you’re briefly privy to more than your playground’s share of secrets, when you get to play with their toys and their ideas. And then they leave, only to show up again next year or the summer after that, when they’re different — taller and smarter and with extremely new kinds of problems, like acne, girls, board exams — and you get to catch up and fill each other in and, while doing so, realise how well/weakly you yourself are doing.

boyhood1Richard Linklater’s magnificent Boyhood — filmed across 12 years — gives us characters we see in fragmented scraps of time every year, but, arranged next to each other with linear grace, the experience is a spectacularly intimate one. Like flipping through several photo-albums at once. We see a young boy grow into a young man, and this journey — which is never ever just one person’s journey — is shown to us in minute detail, detail we can both relate to and learn from, documentary-level detail that remains incredibly fascinating.

It is a ridiculously ambitious setup: shooting for a few days a year, making us live with the actors as we see young Ellar Coltrane, 7, who plays the film’s leading lad, Mason Junior, make his way to young Ellar Coltrane, 18. We don’t so much witness his journey as spy on him, and see how he — and his family — changes over the years: his face turning angular, his mother shedding her defiance, his father wisening up. These alterations are far more than skin deep (though watching physical changes play out in a tender, thoughtful film like this feels miraculous in itself) and Linklater makes sure the characters grow as much as the actors.

There has never been a film like this. This is cinema as epic-timelapse, and with it Linklater changes the very idea of time in storytelling.

Life is Boyhood’s plot. We watch Mason Jr and his sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) deal with long car-rides, divorced parents, adolescence, and variously fogged levels of clarity. Their father, Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke) goes from fun to undependable, idealistic to comfortable. Their mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), tragically and heroically, copes, doing whatever she can to make things fall into place. Our job as viewers is so easy we ought to feel blessed, but so poetically and evocatively does Linklater turn his film into a time-capsule that it’s hard not to feel personally thrust into the narrative from time to time, to drift away into our own boyhoods and girlhoods and early neighbourhoods that looked remarkably different just because we were then knee-high.

Boyhood2The writing is, unsurprisingly for a Linklater film, extraordinary. Mason Jr, who collects arrowheads, tries sharpening rocks in his teacher’s pencil sharpener; his sister does an insufferable Britney Spears impression (which probably means it’s spot-on); they line up to buy the new Harry Potter; Mason Sr is swashbucklingly pro-Obama (till he’s older). The performances are magical, but largely because of the format. Coltrane is a lovely boy, who grows serendipitously into a Hawke-ian collegeboy, but it is the parents who really make this film feel more than fiction. Hawke — who is heartbreakingly sincere, especially when trying to pass on his love for each Beatle to his boy — brilliantly conveys the helplessness of a faraway father, and Arquette (who I had thought will forever remain mad, hot Alabama from True Romance) delivers a devastatingly touching performance, one that may well define her cinematic legacy.

As I said, there hasn’t ever been a film like Boyhood. It is a director’s ultimate what-if thought come true, the most monumental way to get past finding lookalike actors and getting periodically authentic detailing right. It is painfully real to be around, watching, as a boy’s voice cracks. As he takes his first steps towards being his own man, a free Mason, as it were, he feels like someone we have known for far longer than Linklater’s long running-time. The closing credits are depressing merely because they exist, and we want to know what happens to Mason next. Unless, as the director jokingly (?) said, he boarded a train in Europe and ran into a nice girl…

Go, get to know Boyhood. Soak it in and let it enrich you, amuse you, hold you close. Let it open your mind a little bit more toward the possibilities great cinema holds. Live it. Let this film be your jam. To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens when you’re busy watching other films.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, November 14, 2014

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Review: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

Christopher Nolan doesn’t like three-dimensional cinema. This is a curious compunction for a maker of blockbusters, a director whose releases have become events in themselves, especially at a time when the most creative minds — Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese to Jean-Luc Godard, masters from across generations — are exploring the depths and possibilities of 3D cinema. Yet Nolan, who shoots on film stock and refuses to go quietly into the digital night, wants more. With Interstellar, he delivers a movie so vast and so universally resonant that it makes the audience question space and time regardless of our preparedness for the subject matter. Why, indeed, worry about three dimensions when you’re working with five?

Dinner plates are laid upside down till they need to be used in a dustbowl future, an arid world with dying crops and an immediate need for students to become farmers. In a corner of this world lives Cooper, a widower and former NASA pilot who now grows corn. Matthew McConaughey, who plays Cooper, does so with his trademark slowed-down drawl, his voice suitably sandpapered as if by decades of dust. He says “skaaai” when he means “sky”, and, were it not for the blessed fact that Indian theatres are seeing Interstellar with subtitles, this could get cumbersome since Nolan makes McConaughey talk a great deal.

interstellar2Every word, however, is riveting. The hazy world is teetering on the edge of extinction, a brutal death by famine. But then one day Cooper’s formidable bookshelf begins to talk, something only his daughter, Murph (a wonderful, wonderful Mackenzie Foy) notices. This leads them to a secret NASA base, one that requires Cooper to pilot a craft into a distant wormhole on the edge of Saturn, one that could lead to new galaxies and potentially habitable planets. Murph, a brilliant kid devoted to her father, doesn’t take this decision well and Cooper says he must mend their relationship before he goes. “Then I’ll keep it broken so you have to stay,” she asserts. He doesn’t stay.

For the first hour or thereabouts, Interstellar feels like an extraordinarily well-crafted Spielberg-by-numbers exercise: McConaughey’s character is close to that of Tom Cruise in War Of The Worlds; Michael Caine, who plays scientist Dr Brand, gives a tour of NASA’s top-secret facilities with the same smug glee Richard Attenborough displayed when showing off Jurassic Park; and there’s a father-child relationship at the heart of the film. But then somewhere in space, as their craft (called Endurance) locks onto a floating base station, Hans Zimmer’s music becomes operatically ominous and the lock clicks on with a near-Kubrick perfection. The film changes gears immaculately. It might pay tribute to visionary directors, and even current tentpole movie gods (the word “Tesseract,” which nowadays appears trademarked by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is used) — but there is distinctly, unmistakably only one man at the helm of Interstellar.

Visually, it is an astonishing, awe-inspiring film, one that may want you to hunt around your IMAX recliners for a seatbelt. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (responsible for Her, my favourite film from last year) captures both earth and space with starkly dry brown-blue palettes and yet manages to throw in frames composed like paintings. Tiny spacecrafts skim past giant planetary rings, waves the size of mountains look down upon ill-equipped humans and beautifully boxy robots, and a bookshelf is worth its weight in immortality. Christopher Nolan, who made Paris fold in on itself so magnificently in Inception, clearly has a feel for galaxy-sized origami.

The performances are uniformly striking. McConaughey doles out exposition and theory with a smart everyman curiosity; Foy makes the first-act riveting following which Jessica Chastain takes over most evocatively; Anne Hathaway, bright of eye and sharp of cheekbone, is efficient and cool and inch-perfect as a no-nonsense pilot; David Gyasi and Wes Bentley, as frequently arguing astronauts, ground the film with credibility; Michael Caine is, well, Michael Caine; and Bill Irwin is terrific as TARS, the robot set to 90% honesty because, quite frankly, we can’t handle the truth.

interstellar1Interstellar is an incredible ride, a film that will scare and stupefy and drop jaws and make us weep, the kind of film that makes our hearts thump against our ribs for forty straight-minutes and makes us believe in the glory of the movies. And that isn’t even the best part.

The best part — not the Pledge or the Turn but, the very best bit, the Prestige — is Christopher Nolan’s absolute mastery of time. Storytelling is a manipulative art form, and by relentlessly plying plot upon plot and event upon event, Nolan slows Interstellar down — even as the narrative itself attains hyperspeed. Its 169 minutes feel unbelievably, achingly long because of how much happens within them, the broadstrokes, like a two-year drive to Saturn, taking place briskly, while more time is dedicated to unzipping a cryogenically frozen sleeping bag, or an astronaut helping out another by giving him earphones full of chirping birds out in space. The balance of narrative heft is spectacular. And this feeling of an immeasurably long film — of thinking back in the third act to an opening scene and feeling like it happened many hours ago, many episodes ago, many seasons ago — is what gives Interstellar its epic breadth. We feel like it’s a film we lived.

By the end of it, Interstellar spins so forcefully and compellingly that it renders wristwatches helpless and makes us collectively travel in time. And, somewhere in the middle of it all, there’s even a girl called Lois. Oh my. All those Batman movies were a mere smokescreen; Christopher Nolan is Superman.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, November 7, 2014

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Review: R Balki’s Cheeni Kum

Tabu has balls.

Cheeni Kum could have been just another romance between an arrogant old perfectionist and a smitten waif, but the woman here has spirit. She rides the patriarch into a corner, constantly putting him on the spot, and her stoically unblinking, deadpan retorts are a perfect match for her cocksure suitor. That character, Nina, lends the pair contrast, gives it chemistry, makes the film work.

R Balki’s debut is, thus, a deftly made May-December love story that ends up being both relatable and romanticised, both honest and hysterical. A mostly delicious repast of repartee and repercussions, the script isn’t over-baked and the characters simmered to perfection. Although, for a film with that title, there are indeed a couple teaspoons sugar too many, by the very end.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Lets start from the beginning:

Amitabh Bachchan plays Buddhadeb Gupta, a London restaurateur who prides himself on the finest Indian food. His is a cellphone-free kitchen, where the master believes a perfect biryani is more monumental an achievement than Da Vinci’s Last Supper — the former impacts several more senses. And while his British waiter struggles over the nuances of mouthwatering frontier food names, Buddha’s bar serves up magnificent desi dishes to London.

One typical evening, while the ponytailed, preachy perfectionist holds forth to his white-hatted troops on the unbearable lightness of hing, or some such, he gasps at the realisation that a customer has actually sent back a dish. Tabu is the strongwilled Nina Verma, a confident woman currently visiting a friend in London. Buddha storms out and laces the lady with unsubtle sarcasm, laying it on thick and making said friend aghast, leading to the ladies storming out of the restaurant.

ck1Buddha, forced to acknowledge his staff committed a cardinal sin, is compelled to offer an apology, an act he is not used to. Meanwhile Nina, conveniently caught up in London’s trademark squall, frequently borrows the chef’s umbrella. Romance is obviously – underscored more than adequately with shots of Tabu walking and turning back (wash, rinse, repeat, repeat) — in the rainy air, and the days get pleasanter as the wit flies freely and the evident is never quite that.

Which brings us to the premise: He’s 64, she’s 34, and all is hunky dory. Except her 58-year-old father, played by Paresh Rawal, who objects to this union in as melodramatic a manner as is possible. Thus, as they say in Bollywood script sessions, ‘Conflict.’ This results in much chaos, a second-half with far less steam than the pre-interval opening, and a contrived, heavy-handed approach the film really didn’t deserve. Add to that a cancer subplot and a nice supporting character turns into an emotionally manipulative angle Cheeni Kum should have done without.

It’s a crisply written film, the dialogue mostly working very well. For all the talk of sarcasm, the lines aren’t likely to bowl you over with superb irony, but occasionally a clever gem shines through. The repartee between the lead pair is tight, as are Bachchan’s conversations with Sexy, his 9-year-old neighbour played by an impressive Swini Khara – the former are earnest, as funny as real life often it; the latter tend towards the pithy, but usually stop short of it. It’s a very unBollywood script, and it takes some stellar actors to pull it off.

A big wow then to Amitabh Bachchan, the film’s marvellous pivot. We shouldn’t be surprised by anymore Bachchanism, but the man — currently, constantly pushing himself onto a limb, decidedly making 2007 his own — is an undisputable rockstar. His Buddha is smooth yet suffers from occasional social awkwardness, and Bachchan manages both the rough brat and the annoyed old man tones with such ease. He’s arrogant and self-assured, yet feels the need to impress her — while never admitting it. This is one of his finest performances to date, because he sticks to the consistent key of the character, and while the film itself changes genres in the end, he stays Buddha. And is irresistible.

ck2Tabu is a great actress, and with a role that calls for far less bravura than her leading man, she is comfortably understated. As mentioned, their banter runs deep through the film, and her Nina, whom you never know when to take seriously, is a perfect foil to Buddha’s don’t-ask-the-obvious derision. There is a fantastic moment where she berates Bachchan for being too forward, for daring, like all men would, to ask a girl out and assume she’s available, just because she’s smiled at him a few times. The tension is palpable as Bachchan falls silent and you wince, suddenly ill-disposed toward her character. ‘I do hope you won’t be late,’ she ends, still deadpan, immediately confirming both date and smirk.

The inimitable Zohra Sehgal plays Bachchan’s wrestling-loving mother, a terrible cook who lectures him on gymming and knows him inside out, and is evidently the source of his scornful tongue. Paresh Rawal unfortunately plays the film’s sole caricature, an over-written character working more for ha-has than realism, and while the actor is inevitably good enough to make us chuckle, his character needed to be leaner. As mentioned, Swini Khara is pretty good, holding her own in demanding conversational scenes.

The crackling first half coasts along wonderfully, relying almost solely on Bachchan’s formidable charm. The second half sees trouble with a hammy third act. Cheeni Kum is a very neat film, but the messy end – the last three lines of dialogue exchanged by Bachchan and Tabu are the film’s very worst — leaves a peculiar aftertaste.

This isn’t a groundbreaking film, but it didn’t set out to be. It’s a maturely written film with great characters, tremendous performances and some fantastic moments. It could have been perfect, but the lesser said about that end the better.

Watch it. A brilliant sequence involving the chef, a chemist, chhatris and chachas is absolute movie magic, and in itself well worth the price of admission. Bravo.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 25, 2007

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Review: David Fincher’s Gone Girl

One of the few things more inscrutable than the mind of a woman — more complex, harder to unspool, if you will — is the collective mind of a couple. Not just the joint decision-making, shaped via pragmatism and compromise and societal positioning, but their decisions re: each other. What makes them fight all the time? Does he really like her? How bizarre for those two to have a spark… No matter what, we the observers remain perpetually outside the fishbowl while they grow to think as one, however perfect or discordant. We can pretend we’re in on the joke, but they’re the only ones who get every layer.

This appears evident in the freshly-forged collaboration between director David Fincher and author Gillian Flynn, who, with Gone Girl, have taken her characters and his characteristic style and run with it, staying loyal to her riveting novel but, well, true to his cunning methods, loyal like a fox. His form and her content play off each other with obvious glee, but this mutual admiration dulls the edge off both text and technique. The two of them might have a blast, but us mortals closed off from the fishbowl might find this adaptation a little less satisfying — and a little too convenient.

gg2It becomes gapingly aware that Gone Girl is not a novel (and that it perhaps wants desperately to be one) when we see the first chapter title next to Ben Affleck’s Nick. “The Morning Of” works in the novel, but on screen the words dangle in the air, as if waiting for some specific: The Murder/The Misunderstanding/The Massacre. They aren’t, and Nick is as unfinished as the phrase. He goes to a bar, greets his sister, starts playing the Life board-game over a morning glug of Bourbon. The dialogue, however, true to the book, jars. In Fincher’s expert hands, it all initially rings too hollow, too expository. Till you get used to it, which takes a little while.

And then we hear her. Amy Elliot Dunne, Nick’s wife, unwilling muse for children’s books that dub her Amazing, and a woman with a voice so cartoonishly fluffy it could launch a million Elizabeth Gilbert audiobooks. Like in the book, she has her own side of the story, and it is a warm, romcom-my one, full of sugardust and cutesy marriage proposals. This is not the story Nick is in right now; it is the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary and Amy is missing. The world mostly suspects Nick, not least because he doesn’t look as worried as they feel he should, and because he has the smuggest grin in the world.

It is this grin that makes Affleck such an ideal choice for the part. Nick is a broad-shouldered Missouri boy, a cornfed Homecoming King type whose mother raised him to be polite to casserole-carrying strangers even when his world is collapsing around him. At a press conference talking about his missing wife, he stands awkwardly next to a large picture of her — a perfect picture, professionally shot and lit, just the way Amy would like — and one of the photographers inappropriately asks him to smile. Slumped shoulders notwithstanding, he obliges wryly for a split-second, more a muscle-reflex than an actual smile, but even this one frame is enough for the press and for us. It is a winner’s smile, a grin so entitled it dazzles the rest of us into inadequacy.

The he-said/she-said narrative style of the book was always going to be a challenge, and Fincher gets it half-right. Amy, played by Rosamund Pike, initially effervescent and later icy as a sucked-on lozenge, is a methodical diarist. A method diarist, even, going by the way she tops her pens and pencils with thematically aproppriate props — a stork, a wedding-cake couple — while writing out entries in voices first besotted then beleaguered. Nick, on the other hand, never quite gets a say: we follow him stumbling ineptly through the proceedings, looking as guilty as someone who forgot to take out the trash but not someone who killed his wife. Is there a difference, though?

gg1Fincher thinks there is, and leaves it to his master composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to underscore things, and this they do with magnificent ease. The background score is equal parts serrated (for Nick) and silken (for Amy) in the first half of the film, the he-said/she-said portion, and were the score less masterful — layering simple groove upon less-simple groove in spirals, creating a repetitive and most meticulous disharmony — one might well ask if there was too much music in this film. As it stands, though, the music is the best thing about Gone Girl.

As an investigative procedural, Fincher (who also made Zodiac and Se7en) has us more than covered. Kim Dickens, looking like a flintier version of Amy Adams, plays detective Rhonda Boney with an easy efficiency that wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen film. Tyler Perry is perfect as the narcissistic lawyer who specialises in defending the indefensible, talking the talk, calling himself Elvis and hurling gummybears with admirable precision. Carrie Coon, as Nick’s wary twin sister Margo, is scenestealingly good.

But for all the players who shine, twice as many get the short end of the stick. Sela Ward doesn’t get to snap her talkshow-host fangs nearly as much, David Clennon and Lisa Banes don’t get their due as Amy’s parents (despite Banes proving great with acid dialogue), Neil Patrick Harris is fine as Desi Collings but is far too inadequate minus the terrific, terrifying mother character the book has but the film doesn’t. Also, casting an actress instead of Emily Ratajkowski might have allowed the Andie character a bit more room. The investigation works but the media circus — and the townsfolk taking selfies outside Nick’s bar — needed to be focussed on more sharply.

The reason, one surmises, that so much was excised has less to do with length and more to do with making Gone Girl about the titular girl. Much of the film is obsessed with Amy, and while Rosamund Pike throws herself gamely into the part — in particular, she snaps a Kit-Kat loud as a pro and says the word “idiot” wonderfully well — this serves to only make us like her less.

It’s topnotch craftsmanship, but to what end? There is a sensational scene with Amy and a hammer, and while it made me jump both times I saw it, and continues to haunt me, it doesn’t entirely make sense. But then Sense, at least the big-picture version of the word, has never been Fincher’s end-game, has it?

Gone Girl is a finely-made frustration, often too polished for its own good. It’s almost as exasperating as trying to write the review for a mystery without giving anything away. For those who have read the book, all you really need to know is that Fincher criminally sucks the life out of the ‘Cool Girl’ monologue. For the rest, this is a solid mystery film that falls short of greatness. In a nutshell, to quote Nick’s magazine-writerly complaint about Amy’s diary, it rests on too convenient an endnote.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, October 31, 2014

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Review: Farah Khan’s Happy New Year

hny1One of the reasons certain tennis players grunt distinctly and even iconically on the court, besides sinus and habit, is to throw off their opponent. The idea is to intimidate via bellow, to try and convey just how much force is behind that particular shot, to quantify the effort and make it seem like an awful lot. Shah Rukh Khan, for instance, grunts every time he’s in a fight scene, his overloud breath punctuating the action and lending greater credence to both his muscle and to the blows he takes.

Were Farah Khan to play tennis, I wager she’d be a grunter as well. There has always been a significant look-what-I-did quality to her movies, movies where she often telegraphs her jokes and lingers on them a tad too long, and yet makes the moment work because her gags are themselves sharp, clever, ruthless. Happy New Year, alas, isn’t the sharpest tool in her shed, and while there is some good ol’ fun to be had in being thwacked on the head by a blunt instrument, it loses its novelty in the third hour. Yessir, ladies and gents, this is a three-hour film, and — for a film that shares more of its DNA with an episode of Scooby Doo than it does with Ocean’s Eleven — that’s way, way too much to bear.

Not to mention Abhishek Bachchan whose superpower is barfing. Um, we’ll get to that.

A film makes its intent, its universe, its treatment clear very early on, and fifteen minutes into Happy New Year it is more than apparent that while this may be a film littered with backstories and motivations and things that could well do with maudlin background music, it happens instead to be a goofball cartoon far more obsessed with the gags. Dead/ailing parents must be avenged/provided for, loyalties rekindled, dance schools opened and the son of a great actor must try and hack into blockbuster-land… Mighty missions all, and Shah Rukh Khan’s Charlie starts off assembling his ragtag team with flair, as, it appears, has Farah. The film plays out like a spoof from the get go, a gigantic lark where nothing is taken seriously and where there are no sacred cows — jokes are made at the expense of the mysterious committee that picks India’s entry to the Oscars as well as a certain Prime Minister obsessed with good days.

hny2The problem, however, might lie in the fact that everyone’s a caricature. Charlie’s a street-fighter who knows everything, Sonu Sood plays a partially-deaf goon, Boman Irani is a childish safecracker, bar-dancer Deepika Padukone melts at the sound of English the way Wanda in A Fish Called Wanda did with Italian (and then Russian) and Abhishek Bachchan — who sportingly plays this movie’s Uday Chopra — has two roles, one who throws up while the other does Zoolander’s Blue Steel. Add to that a swaggering Jackie Shroff as the bad guy, and there’s no straight man in sight to help the jokes land. (The words ‘no straight man in sight,’ may, in fact, also imply to the curious way the men in this film all seem to covet other men, asking for “puppies”, lifting each other up in the air by waist and hip, ending a performance with a man’s head resting lovingly on another man’s bottom, and — in the case of Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Dadlani — doing unspeakable things with boas.)

This is a heist film, sure, but it is also a sports film disguised as a dance film. The diamonds must be boosted (from a safe called Shalimaar, no less) while the World Dance Championships are on, and thus must our nutjobs all learn to put up a show. Naturally, national pride enters the equation, and — bizarrely enough considering Farah’s trademark cheek — the film heads in a direction that Manoj Kumar and JP Dutta would both applaud. It’s all about Indiawaale, and while Sonu Sood stays consistent and Deepika inevitably dazzles, it is Shah Rukh himself who appears the most out of place — in a movie made to rest on his shoulders. Perhaps they piled too much onto him; perhaps the decades of raising those arms into that iconic pose have taken their toll… Either way, Happy New Year never gets to soar.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, October 24, 2014

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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider

Something is rotten in the state two countries call their own.

Not that we’ve really let that show on screen. Hindi cinema hasn’t looked into Kashmir, preferring to gaze at it instead. Haider changes all that, with filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj probing into the valley nimbly and incisively — we may, at this point, picture the director as a particularly poetic insurgent, wearing Shakespeare for a cloak.

This is not a simple adaptation, this takes not a simplistic stance; Haider is a remarkable achievement and one of the most powerful political films we’ve ever made, a bonafide masterpiece that throbs with intensity and purpose. It is a staggeringly clever take on Hamlet, one whose departures from the Bard’s original are as thrilling as its closely-hewn loyalty. The film is set in 1995, with Kashmir in the murkiest of limbos, at a time when it’s anybody’s guess whether any man wearing a long, all-shrouding phiran is hiding either a pot of hot coals or a hand-grenade. Haider — in case you haven’t guessed — is the kind of film that carries both.

haider1The Hamlet here is Haider, a poetry student returning to Kashmir, summoned by the destruction of the family house and the disappearance of his father. He finds his ‘half-widowed’ mother, Ghazala, laughing dazzlingly by the sunlight and his uncle, Khurram, dancing. He is disgusted, depressed, and desperate for an answer, for a way forward. And, on one not-so farfetched afternoon given the state he’s in, a mysterious man appears to replace his loathing with fury — to arm a clueless, restless young man with murderous intent. The allegories are elegantly drawn and exquisitely sharp, like bejewelled daggers. The film is written by Bhardwaj and acclaimed journalist (and former Rediff writer) Basharrat Peer, and it is bold for many reasons.

The two stunning Shakespeare adaptations Bhardwaj made before this stayed close to the structure of the originals: Maqbool whimsically played fast-and-loose with characterisations but managed to wrap a crime-boss film neatly around the Scottish play; Omkara stayed so ingenuously loyal to Othello that it even translated lines of dialogue and had pacing similar to the play, but left out the monologues. Haider, while leaving in the crucial monologues, makes audacious changes to the film — for example, the play’s plot only kicks in when the ghost (or the man with the ghost IDs, more accurately) appears, around the midway mark — and several key moments deviate dramatically from the original. These are not subtle changes but these shifts are what make Haider a truly ambitious film. It bludgeons away from the original because, just like the world it is set in, harsh changes are called for. A young man finds himself fatherless — de-fathered by the machinery of the state, in fact — and tormented by local demons, terrorists and politicians. In Kashmir, this saga of disappearance and drama, of uncertainty and unrest, cannot be the tale of one prince or one exalted family; in Kashmir, where mothers know the name ‘Kalashnikov’ all too well, there are too many Hamlets.

haider2The detailing is a marvel. Characters speak with, as Robert Plant would say “tongues of lilting grace,” in that delightful, characteristically Kashmiri way of hardboiled consonants and fluid vowels. A doctor’s coat is chequered, just like the local phirans and jackets, chairs and beds are ornately whittled into works of art we can sit on, and the bedsheets are beautiful, chain-stitched wonders. The authenticity is constant, and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar captures detail without lingering gratuitously on it, preferring instead to shoot from the characters’ un-touristy eyes or — better still — to eavesdrop close to them, hovering too-close with brilliant, hand-held unpredictability. We see the distractingly attractive world around them, sure, but the narrative stays grim and, thus hand-in-hand, Kumar’s composition centres on things so close you can touch — the smoke rising from a cup of kahwa in the cold, an accusingly large dot of mehndi on the back of a hand, letters handed out by the postman in plastic packets as if he were delivering cold cuts. This is a film you could watch with the sound muted.

But you shouldn’t. Oh no. The music is gorgeous, underscoring the narrative perfectly. (The gravedigger song is my favourite.) Yet while we’re used to Bhardwaj the director making way for Bhardwaj the composer (and, when we’re luckiest, Bhardwaj the singer), the Haider soundtrack knows its place and is allowed no room to showboat. The grim narrative carries strong political heft, and so assured is Bhardwaj of what he’s saying and the way it needs to be said that he doesn’t seem to feel the temptation to sugarcoat, to entertain with either song or wink. The film stays intense throughout, almost breathlessly so. Like a chokehold from someone you love.

The performances are uniformly stunning. Shahid Kapoor, dealing with one of Shakespeare’s most challenging heroes, does so with impressive sincerity. He manages the many shifts of mood skilfully but always appears like an actor performing a role gamely instead of an actor who has become the character: he’s very good, just not as unaffected as the actors around him. An actor called Narendra Jha who plays a doctor is an absolute find, Lalit Parimoo is excellent, Shraddha Kapoor is very believable in the Ophelia part, two Salman Khan fans (Sumit Kaul and Rajat Bhagat) are a lot of fun, and it’s good to see Kulbhushan Kharbanda get well-forged lines of dialogue.

haider3At the heart of the film stands Tabu. Her Ghazala is a heartbreaking character, all passion and preening and perpetually inappropriate relationships. She looks luminous the first time we see her, but the great actress can amazingly adjust that candle-wick lighting up her face, so not just does she shine and simmer, but she can flicker. The way she looks into the mirror while her son kisses her… It’s haunting. Old Bhardwaj alumnus and former Macbeth Irrfan Khan, meanwhile, is striking in a very clever role that both shows off his screen-presence and kicks the film into a different gear.

The best performance comes from Kay Kay Menon in the Claudius role. His Khurram is a slimeball aching to be accepted as a success, an unctuous man and yet one who likes to strut, who likes to revel in his victories — but who, at the singular point of triumph — can only find a fellow conspirator to embrace. This is a traditionally meaty part, immortalised by Derek Jacobi in the 1996 Hamlet, but Kay Kay gives the character his own terrific edge, twitchy and tentative and surprisingly warm.

One particularly unforgettable moment in the film features Peer himself in a cameo as a man afraid to cross the threshold into his own house. That particular scene, and its subsequent, immediate resolution, comes from a short-story by Kashmiri writer Akhtar Mohiuddin. It is a great story of such frightening clarity that most filmmakers would have milked it into a longer scene, if not a short-film. Bhardwaj, now more than ever, seems assured of the power of his content, and knows when to pull his punches and doesn’t fall for obvious temptations. The result is a knockout, a film that makes you smell corpses, that makes you shudder with melancholia, and a film that points accusing fingers. A film that doesn’t flinch.

Is Haider Vishal Bhardwaj’s best film? That is the question. (The answer, naturally, lies behind the fact that we can even ask.)

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, October 1, 2014

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Review: Shashank Ghosh’s Khoobsurat

Some movies are like candy. Wrapped in bright plastic and frequently too sweet for your own good, they act as sunny, unsurprising treats that lead to sticky, syrupy smiles. Disney Pictures is founded on these spoonfuls-of-sugar, on these simplistic stories of larks and laughter (and Happily Ever After). Now, the first Hindi release prefixed by that iconic, firework-veiled castle fittingly stays away from grandiose cinematic ambitions and, instead, wears a delightfully large grin.

Shashank Ghosh’s Khoobsurat is a bright red lollipop. It is a remake of the similarly-titled 1980 Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, which, in turn, was a retread of the director’s own 1972 classic Bawarchi, a far better film. Mukherjee — perhaps the finest of all Hindi movie storytellers — was himself retracing familiar ground, and the result, while earnestly sweet and remembered with nostalgic fondness, isn’t a film that has aged particularly well. The best that can be said for that film’s leading lady, Rekha, never the finest of actresses, is that she’s constantly brimming with enthusiasm, and now — in this role that celebrates well-dressed klutziness — so is Sonam Kapoor, more comfortable in her skin than we’ve recently seen.

khoobsurat1Her Prince is a fellow who makes women melt. Fawad Khan, rightful ruler of Pakistani primetime television, is a shark with stubble, a handsome and suitably haughty fellow with piercing eyes and, as his heroine observes, “itni lambi lashes.” She says this in her head, Ghosh peppering his film with these subtext-subtitles a la Annie Hall, and while the mid-dialogue voice-overs don’t quite work at the start, the director persists and the thought-bubble lines give the film its own simple charm. The film is set in a sternly-run palace where things are thought, not said, and Kapoor’s Mili — visiting as the half-Bengali physiotherapist to the King (who doesn’t try to speak any Bengali, thank heavens)  — is trying hard not to make an ass of herself. (Trying, and failing.)

The dictator in these parts is the queen, played smashingly by the glorious Ratna Pathak Shah, in grand tribute to her mother Dina, who, as the imperious mother in the 1980 film, was the best thing about it. Shah’s Rani-Sa flings daggers with her eyes, keeps her dialogues frosty and, in a moment where she disdainfully kicks off a rubber slipper, shows why she is one of the finest performers we have. Theatre veteran Aamir Raza Hussain, in a delightful role as a wheelchair-bound king — think Captain Haddock in The Castafiore Emerald, were he married to Castafiore —  is a warm and fuzzy character, a perfect foil to his cold queen. And miraculously enough, these actors being what they are, they sneak some chemistry into the few moments they have.

This film, in fact, is doused with chemistry. Many a Disney film focusses too pinkly on the princess and leaves its blond, blue-eyed princes relatively interchangeable; I dare you to name the leading man in Anne Hathaway’s Princess Diaries without looking it up. But the filmmaker is here aware of the relative dishiness of both his actors, and cleverly constructs them as preening characters aware of their own looks. She wears rouge when massaging a cricketer’s foot, he — tightly ravelled in formalwear — even once wears a necktie to bed. Mili and The Prince don’t get off on the right foot, but she thinks he’s hot and he can’t help stare at her legs. As a result, when they do kiss in the film, they keep breaking away, only to gaze at each other more hungrily.

In every way, this film offers up the expected — only it does so with a smirk. The kind of knowing, genial smile an old, elaborately-moustached khidmatgaar might give a guest he particularly likes while serving them surreptitiously spiked coffee. Mili, who thinks dressing up to meet a neighbouring Maharajah means wearing a ballooning pair of stars-and-stripes pants, isn’t made for the palace life, and the palace, stuffed into place by its elegant dictator, isn’t quite ready to be shaken up. But, as the template dictates, she breezes through and all is eventually made better.

Kapoor, also the film’s co-producer, has chosen well, playing a clumsy character and tossing aside vanity to essentially play a clown in a baseball cap. In many ways, this role of a long-limbed girl who doesn’t often know what to do with her hands and feet suits her well. She spends the film making overdone, gif-worthy faces — be it when laughing inappropriately or when she’s bawling uncontrollably sitting between her father and a poster of Cary Grant — and that is just what Disney heroines should do. Khan, as a Prince who doesn’t even bother to say bless-you to a nearby sneezer, is a great find, an actor who doesn’t need to overplay his smugness, one who wears royalty lightly and well. He’s understated, exceptionally good with dialogue, and naturally, as per the brief, Charming.

There are a few bum notes, not least of which is Kirron Kher who, while warm, is too much of a caricature even for a Disney movie. She’s the William Wallace of Punjabi Mothers, an iconically cringeworthy character who doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Neither, it must be said, does Ghosh, the quirky director here wearing mouse-ears and colouring neatly within cliched lines. Yet his Khubsoorat was always meant to be a lozenge — and, when unwrapping candy, it’s always best to know what we’re in for.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, September 19, 2014

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