Category Archives: Review

Review: Prabhudeva’s Singh Is Bliing

sib1It’s as if Akshay Kumar is daring us to like him.

The man has genuine acting chops, drips with screen presence, is significantly fitter than his contemporaries, and has the kind of reassuringly goofy grin that makes him appear likeable even in truly mediocre movies. Why must he then subject us to such ghastly movies? He’s a gifted comic actor, but his current comedy template is so harebrained that, well, it would embarrass Adam Sandler.

This particular misadventure begins with Kumar as Raftaar Singh, the kind of lassi-chugging wastrel who is good at everything but has serious attention deficit order. He can do everything except pay attention. Because of this, his brutal father cruelly sentences him to a job in…. Goa? On a floating casino? What a tyrant. But then arrives an ass-kicking white girl who bashes up many a buffoon and steals Raftaar’s beturbanned heart.

That setup could still potentially make for a few laughs, but then there’s a missing mother, a hat-twirling villain and an old man who looks like Ajit — not to mention an interpreter who sleepwalks and hits boys in the groin with coconuts. It’s all happening, and it’s all horrid.

Why, Mr Kumar, why? Spend maybe a tenth of your pagri budget on a decent screenplay? Is it that you — and director Prabhudeva — are completely opposed to the idea of a watchable film? Must a comedy be this… pathetic? Considering that the director gave himself a cameo where he pees on people (I wish I were kidding), the question seems tragically rhetorical.

The girl in the film is Amy Jackson — a girl so generic she might as well be called Any Jackson — but thankfully we don’t have to suffer the sound of her Hindi. She doesn’t understand the language and mercifully only speaks English — when she isn’t talking with her fists and feet, that is. Her character is a fierce fighter who, refreshingly, saves the leading man’s skin a fair few times in the film. Which is why it’s all the more disappointing when she abruptly turns into a damsel-in-distress at the climax.

Kay Kay Menon, meanwhile, hams it up as the baddie and flips around a hat — an act which reminded me of his climactic hat-flinging in Bombay Velvet — and constantly calls himself “too good”, in a clumsy echo, perhaps, of Gulshan Grover labelling himself “bad man” all those years ago in Ram Lakhan. Everything in this film is a clumsy echo, in fact, and even the product placements seem too underbudget to be real: Rasna, Rapidex, BestDeal? Please tell me this was all in jest.

Lara Dutta, playing the sleep-challenged interpreter, tries hard to full-bloodedly embrace the lunacy, and there is a moment where she offers a glimmer of hope as the Sardar takes his girl into a song sequence and they take Dutta along to interpret his thoughts to her. If only all of it were even slightly tolerably written — as it stands, Dutta comes off looking like an impressively sportsmanlike buffoon.

Despite all this, Kumar, bless his soul, still makes us laugh. From the way he nonchalantly tosses car keys into a swimming pool to the way he pillow-fights with his mother — and frequently crouches down in front of his father, as if giving a pitch report — Kumar shows off the spontaneity that makes him hard to resist. Unlike Singh Is King, however, Singh Is Bliing is far too moronic to be saved.

In a stupid early scene featuring a dog dressed as a lion — with the scenes distractingly labelled “Shot in a zoo” and “Shot in South Africa” as if locations were cigarettes — I thought I spotted one of the old Flop Show actors on stage. I might be mistaken, but not as much as this film. Those spoofy “misdirected by” credits would suit Prabhudeva just fine.

Rating: 1.5 stars

First published Rediff, October 2, 2015

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Review: Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar

The scariest part of Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar is when it makes us laugh.

A tightly-coiled procedural made with such dryness that it seems, in parts, documentarian — resembling a reenactment more than a feature film — Talvar is one of those rare films that remains constantly aware of what it is doing and what buttons it is pushing. It is an unflinching film, hard to swallow, and when — somewhere near the end — it breaks down into round-table absurdity, with opposing investigators laughing off each other’s theories, the scene is brutally, irresistibly hilarious. Investigators and senior intelligence officials poke holes, guffaw at the language used, and one team even literally calls the other a joke. It is scythe-sharp writing, and, after being horrified by a narrative this terse, it feels good to finally kick back and snigger as things get funny.

That hilarious scene, and our relieved reaction to it, is symptomatic of who we are and how we now consume even the most nightmarish of facts. It betrays our desperate need to move on, our hunger to be quickly amused, our desire to skip past the facts and find the Kafkaesque vein so we can tut-tut and shake our heads bemusedly.

talvar1After news of the real-life Talwar murder case broke seven years ago, we as a nation constantly switched sides, easily aroused by the mainstream media first flinging mud at the victim’s parents, sensationalist news-channel tickers ablaze, and then lulled by the liberal media with their longform think-pieces showing the lack of evidence against these parents. There is a new book out — Aarushi, by Avirook Sen — in support of the parents who remain incarcerated despite inadequate evidence, and Ms Gulzar’s film, while attempting to prismatically show many sides of the unknown, clearly also takes their side. The fact that it takes sides so staunchly is great, both because it works as a war cry against an unjust system, but also, more importantly, because it doesn’t pretend to be impartial. Because you, the viewer, know where the film stands, you can make up your mind in agreement or dissent.

What you cannot doubt is doubt itself.

The maid comes by in the morning. There is some fumbling for keys because the servant is missing. Then the girl, fourteen, is found in her bed, slain and bloodied. The cops arrive, agree that the servant has done it, and declare it an open-and-shut case. Except another door opens: the suspected servant is found dead on the roof, cut up in the same way as the girl. What the hell happened?

Ms Gulzar’s film, with a script by Vishal Bhardwaj, tries to answer that very question by following several discordant theories to their rightful conclusions — and so we see what-might-have-been several times over, with parents Ramesh and Nutan Tandon taking turns slaughtering their own child or discovering her dead. We see the servant and his friends, the investigative officer and his attempts at hunting down the truth, the policemen and their lunkheaded laziness. And through it all we watch and we doubt — and we doubt and we doubt — and therein lies the sharpness of Talvar.

It is a cleanly-crafted film. Pankaj Kumar, one of the most fascinating cinematographers on the scene today, here keeps things unshowy and murky, his compositions frequently voyeuristic — enhancing the suggestion that we may suddenly be privy to what is usually outside our jurisdiction, be looking at something we aren’t normally meant to. The background score by Ketan Sodha is effective, even if a touch inspired by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the snatches of song we hear are excellent, especially the haunting final track sung by Rekha Bhardwaj that floats over the end-titles. The art-direction is immaculate; a lot of Talvar’s triumph lies in how little it looks like a film.

talvar2Yet a film it certainly is, and for all its dry treatment, it is a sufficiently dramatic one as it goes about hitting the right evocative beats. Things are held in place by a devastatingly good ensemble cast, each of the players bringing something to the table: Konkona Sensharma and Neeraj Kabi play the girl’s parents, doing so with heartbreaking normality, Sensharma particularly lovely as she remains, believably, too stunned to react (despite what a certain columnist once screamed); Gajraj Rao is terrific as a pan-chewing cop eager to hurry things along; Sohum Shah is superb as the investigator’s assistant, so eager to please that he bangs a spoon on a pot to give his boss a beat; Atul Kumar, throwing around hardcore Hindi, is spot-on as a cold and canny intelligence man; and Prakash Belawadi, as the outgoing chief of the Department of Investigation, is fantastic as he articulates increasingly nuanced Hindi verses in his AR Rahman accent.

The table itself belongs, however, to one man. Irrfan Khan plays the investigative officer who gets sucked into the case, and the film singles him out as the protagonist, taking us along for the ride as he messily but determinedly unravels his version of the truth. Khan, arguably the finest working actor in Hindi cinema today, is in flawless form as he keeps things consistently wry — be it while interrogating or making a Gulzar reference to his wife. It’s a stunning, stunning performance, and there are these little touches Khan conjures up — like the way he grimaces for a split-second while trying to remember the name of his wife’s pills, as if he were flexing a memory muscle — that are an absolute marvel.

Khan exonerates the parents and the film takes his side, clearly casting him as the righteous hero. And yet, by the time the credits roll, even this man has given up and, really, fallen on his own talvar. The truth tires. Doubt alone triumphs.

Rating: 4.5 stars


First published Rediff, October 2, 2015

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Review: Ridley Scott’s The Martian

How long can a modern-day space romp go without breaking out the Bowie?

In keeping with pop-scored movies like Guardians Of The Galaxy, it has now become merely a matter of time before movies that have any connection to space start flaunting their Ziggy Stardust credentials, and give us a taste of the sardonic Englishman with the sneery vocals. In Ridley Scott’s new film, the song that plays is Starman, though — given the fact that the film is called The Martian — I’d say Scott missed a trick and should indeed have played Life On Mars.

martian1Because it — Scott’s film, not Bowie’s song, heaven forbid — is, indeed, “a godawful small affair.” And this is surprising. Based on a novel by Andy Weir, The Martian tells the story of an astronaut marooned on the red planet, a man who fights all the odds to stave off madness, to grow food and to stay alive while stuck on a planet unlikely to host visitors for another four years. With Matt Damon in the lead, it all sounds dashed exciting and quite a thrill, and the trailer indeed held much breathless promise, but with no conflict or surprise whatsoever, this remarkably light film plays more like The Swiss Family Robinson with a webcam.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. Damon is a genuinely charming actor who often finds himself stuck in films that arm characters around him with better lines and more smoothness, and it is a pleasure to see him almost single-handedly man this film, with an unlikely botanist braggadocio and his hatred for disco music. He refuses to turn the beat around, and for good reason. Aforementioned groovy tunes come from his Mission Commander, the flawless Jessica Chastain, in place of actually giving her a character. Scott’s film occasionally details out quirks, but the entire well-picked cast is entirely shrouded in soul-sucking vanilla: Kate Mara has nothing to say, Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA as he would an 80s President, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover are around to lend some geek TV cred, Kirsten Wiig has never been more flavourless, and Sean Bean stays — shocker of shockers — alive. What’s the point of that?

Add to this Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the half-Baptist half-Hindu engineer Vincent Kapoor. (I’m assuming Irrfan Khan’s phone was switched off.) Ejiofor, always thoughtful, is nevertheless impressive even in a part that requires him to sigh very awkwardly while texting a man many moons away.

The Martian, as you may have gathered, doesn’t therefore possess much in the way of personality, as movies go. The soundtrack tries its best to be Zimmer-y and bronnng-ing in that Interstellar fashion every so often, a film that furnishes a large part of Scott’s cast. Even the pop-culture figures referenced by Damon are caricatures of machismo: Iron Man and The Fonz.

martian2Yet The Martian proves to be a light, pleasant watch. Scott’s last few films have been ambitious but daft and it’s refreshing to see him efficiently on autopilot here. No new ground (or sonic barrier) is broken conceptually, and while debris looks sexier with each passing 3D film, this one looks muddy and far from spectacular. There is, however, something peaceful about watching Damon indulge himself this hard, and while he stays mostly bland — save for growing fuzz for a few scenes and dubbing himself Captain Blondbeard — he shows how you can go a helluva long way with defiance and duct-tape.

Maybe it is high time Mars-movies became more modest affairs. Anyway the red planet seems less scary now that we know it’s wet.

Rating: 3 stars


First published Rediff, October 2, 2015

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Review: Chimbudeven’s Puli

puli1By the time Sridevi shows up in the massive-budget fantasy epic Puli, its few charms have worn off and the iconic actress appears like an empress who’s shown up at an unimaginative costume party. Chimbudeven’s film is a sluggish and boring affair, despite much going on: babies are Moses’d into baskets (alongside with breakfast), red birds talk in a human tongue but nobody considers this a big deal, and all-powerful vampire creatures wear lots of armour and chainmail to protect themselves from the puny humans. It is also a film where the protagonists, in order to further the narrative, are made to lick a toad — which is blatantly an endorsement for dropping acid but Puli, believe you me, makes for a truly bad trip.

What, however, does Sridevi do? When we finally see her — the striking veteran luring us into theatres with her badass maleficence in the trailers — the film has tortured us past intermission point and there may be no turning back. There isn’t. Regal and out of place as she is, Sridevi gamely embraces the lunacy and starts walking up the side of a pillar — despite visual effects specialists from several countries working on this ‘epic,’ the laughable result is closer to Batman walking up walls in the 60s TV show.

The effects, to be fair, aren’t all hideous. The animatronic creatures are well rendered, with frogs pointing out directions and birds laughing at poor jokes, and the horses in this film wear suitably intimidating gear, but that’s about all we can say in terms of positives. Oh, and the second half, full of long one-on-one duels, is significantly better than the first — but that’s largely because Sridevi’s around and because the eternally insufferable Shruti Haasan is bound and (invisibly) gagged through most of it.

puli2A big part of the problem with this fantasy is the hero, Vijay, a childish looking fellow we are supposed to believe is a hardcore warrior and a highly strategic thinker. None of this comes across as we first see him walking out on screen bored and pouting, as if already wary of all this tacky cosplaying. Vijay plays a villager called Magadheera, a well-liked fellow whose dad had his arm sliced off and sister had her neck sliced off, but he seems content to sit back and pretend he’s brave in order to flirt with Shruti Haasan, the chief’s daughter.

The well-armoured vampires kidnap said girl, which leads our hero and his friends — which include a talking bird, three pocket-sized people called Alpha, Beta and Gamma and a toad for them all to lick — into the fearsome fortress to fight evil queen Sridevi, menacingly glaring at them as if English Vinglish had flopped. It’s all quite pathetic, to be honest, what with Magadheera painting his eyeballs blue with poster colour and — in flashback — an older, long-haired Vijay with his mane fanned furiously, grimacing as if he were Sonu Nigam attempting to sing metal.

And somewhere in the middle of all this inanity are tiny dancing women wearing peanut-shells for bustiers. Oh yes.

As a film for children, it may have worked if it had a sharper plot or if it at least hurried along this one. As it stands, Puli is merely exhausting, and — speaking as someone who has never watched a Vijay film before — exposes him as a tremendously limited leading man, utterly lacking in the charisma a role like this requires.

There isn’t much a good hero could have done here either, though. I was reminded mostly of the inane but compellingly watchable Haatim Tai from 25 years ago featuring Jeetendra and Satish Shah. That was a trashy film with hairy-armed women, cheesy fangs and a disturbing amount of giantess-ing, but at least the riddle-filled narrative held our interest. Puli, made on a far bigger scale, is much grander and stupider, with Tinu Anand playing a saint with Marge Simpson hair and a nameless bloodthirsty demon introducing himself as “a bloodthirsty demon” as if he’s run out of business cards.

We must look to Sridevi for the answers, and these she provides whimsically, teleporting several times mid-sentence as she speaks to the heroes. Clearly Puli needs you to make (or carry) your own entertainment.

Rating: 1.5 stars


First published Rediff, October 2, 2015

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Review: Madhur Bhandarkar’s Calendar Girls

Halfway through Calendar Girls, the new film by Madhur Bhandarkar, a young actress is shooting a film when she’s sidetracked by the revelation that some superstar is shooting nearby. She bolts, thrilled, toward the celebrity, and while one might imagine a Khan cameo, the star in question is Bhandarkar, playing himself. There are a couple of scenes where the ingenue OMGingly gushes over his work as the filmmaker puts on a consciously grave baritone, while dressed in bright red and yellow fleece jerseys Shah Rukh Khan may have discarded during Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

This is all unbelievably meta. Bhandarkar, a maker of tacky cliché masquerading as so-called ‘realistic’ cinema, sitting opposite an actress played by — of all people — Ruhi Singh, who we last saw in Nisha Pahuja’s terrific documentary The World Before Her, which showed Singh’s frightening focus on the Miss India title. Now, as an ambitious actress clambering up the Bollywood rungs, Ruhi seems almost to be playing Part 2 of that true story while Bhandarkar smiles and plays mentor — Which, I suppose, he is doing in real-life by giving the girl her first break. The conversation is singularly bizarre as Bhandarkar says he wants to cast her in a film, but complains she’s already signed another film with some random producer. “Oh sir,” says the girl, chirpy and unperturbed, “I only did that because I wanted to buy a flat in Oberoi Springs.” To this Bhandarkar nods and hmmms with (grave) empathy, as if he condones the act, for that is how things ought to be done.

Look, either Madhur Bhandarkar is messing with all of us and is genuinely waging war on the way the industry works by sacrificing his own brand at the altar of truth, or he is blessed with a complete and utter lack of self-awareness.

calendargirls1The latter is more likely, considering the way this film has been made. It’s a preposterously sloppy production, a film where the casting brief apparently insisted on excluding all those with any talent. A few new girls are wrung through an excruciatingly bad script and the film is inconsistent on every level: visually, tonally, and in terms of narrative. Take the name off the poster and it’s hard to believe this film has been made by someone who makes films. Sadly, Bhandarkar might not even get the difference, and thus the scene plays out — entirely without irony — as he poses smilingly for selfies with Singh.

The film is about five young ladies who make it big as Calendar Girls, following which they are all expected to have a career in the world of glamour. One of them becomes the aforementioned actress and charges money to attend funerals, one (in a cruel moment of unintentional hilarity) becomes the brand ambassador of a spastic society and then marries a millionaire, one ends up seducing cricketers to fix matches, one is Pakistani and because Indians can’t stand the sight of Pakistani actors (but don’t tell Fawad Khan that) she ends up turning into an exclusive escort — in this she’s schooled by Mita Vashisht, wearing bottle-openers for rings and breathily saying “power-broker” as if it were the opposite of a safe-word. (Yes, it’s like several rejected Vishesh Films story-ideas all moved in together.)

Girl 5, meanwhile, goes to a party and hears that the head of her talent management agency is spreading scurrilous rumours about her. In a strange scene she confronts the man who nudges her about the gossip and so, mid-party, he calls up the owner of the agency and puts the phone on speaker — all while one token white guy looks alarmed by the goings on. “What’s going on?” he wonders, like the rest of us, but is quickly shushed as the owner, sitting in a club, boasts graphically on the phone about his conquest of Girl 5. The next scene has Girl 5 walking into an office and slapping the boss, but while he and the time of day seem to have changed, her dress hasn’t. It just goes to show how little has been thought through before making this movie. But at least Kyra Dutt, who plays Girl 5, does something that resembles acting.

calendargirls2The rest are a trainwreck. There are spin bowlers who introduce themselves hopefully at a party, saying “Hi, hope you know me?”; there are women saying “Setterday” and, delightful as it would be to have a day celebrating Irish Setters, they just mean Saturday; wine-glasses are used as accessories; and then there’s Kiran Kumar talking about philandering as grand tradition, while Suhel Seth plays Vijay Mallya.

My sensibilities need a shower.

Back during that unforgettable director cameo, Bhandarkar complains about an actress making him wait on the sets, declaring that“I make heroine-oriented films because heroes have too many hang-ups, and now look at the heroines.” Indeed, Mr Bhandarkar. How dare heroines act like heroes? How dare female characters in your movies dream of a slightly better life? Ah, but do remember we all live in — as one of your Calendar Girls calls it — “a free choice world,” and we can thus choose not to watch your sexist, racist, stereotyped films.

After a while, I often try and tune out horrible narratives and focus on the extras. The people who try and put their best foot forward come what may, in the hope that maybe they’ll get noticed. By someone, anyone. The waiters, the nameless models, the random Rajasthani turban’d footmen, the young man leading a chant outside the Pakistani model’s house in Bandra… They’re all trying to get noticed by standing out, and Bhandarkar never seems to care that each of these aspirants — in their desperate urge to be different — renders the entire scene incoherent.

Either Bhandarkar magnanimously chooses to allow all of them a platform, or he doesn’t know better. Or wait, have I just given him the idea for his next, Extras? Sorry, world.

Rating: Zero Stars

First published Rediff, September 25, 2015

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Review: MSG 2 Messenger Of God

What is civilisation? Who are the truly civilised? Bear with me, for I agree no review of MSG2 Messenger Of God — coming to us from auteur godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan — should begin with any remotely deep conversation, but this production is an unlikely beast, a laughable product that nevertheless forces us to introspect a bit and ask ourselves who we are.

The first MSG was an outlandish work of gargantuan buffoonery wherein Mr Insan single-handedly waged war on drugs. In this sequel, he goes deep into weird jungles and tries, in his own smiling and uniquely violent way, to rehabilitate the savages. This, I feel after having sat through MSG2, might be more presumptuous even than most missionaries. Because who’s to say aboriginal “Junglee” savages are any less civilised than a hirsute man who leaps off jeeps — and onto elephants — while dressed as Lady Gaga on a particularly technicolor day. (And, for that matter, how civilised is a world where movies like these are made and watched, by several, without irony?)

Still, this is a genuinely staggering bit of flamboyance, with Mr Insan — taking on the role of actor, director, cinematographer, composer, choreographer, rap artist and (naturally) costumier — drowning with an absolute lack of self-awareness in a self-made sea of cinematic sewage. It’s enough self-aggrandisement to make Salman Khan and Arnab Goswami appear subtly self-effacing, and just scaling those heights of ego is… Well, something else.

MSG 2 is a bizarre experience, and while definitely one that would make me want to ask Rediff for a raise, it’s mercifully an hour shorter than the unending first release and may also prove to be a daftly enjoyable release for those partaking in the substances Mr Insan is so vehemently opposed to. (Or is he?)

Rating: No stars

First published Rediff, September 18, 2015


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Review: Nikhil Advani’s Katti Batti

Movies, like lovers, have their own personalities. There are some that you fall for instantly, some you keep gazing at despite yourself, some that grow on you, and some who are never quite right. There are some that have issues, some that look a little underwhelming, some that seem too glossy and superficial, and some that end up too forgettable to talk about. Nikhil Advani’s Katti Batti is none of these things. It is an imbecilic cliche-ridden embarrassment that made me want to punch it in the mouth.

Because it is that bad, yes, but also because a spurt of blood may just enliven it with something approximating realism — for this is a romantic drama that, not knowing its place, happens to be executed like horrid, tasteless slapstick. There are times when this movie is as loud and unbearable as, say, a Grand Masti. Lead actors Imran Khan and Kangana Ranaut try their darnedest, but let’s face it, Advani and the script never come close to giving them a chance.

kattibatti1She is a wealthy jet-setter who capriciously travels across Europe and moves in with her man on a whim, after which she spends an awful lot of time texting her ex. He is a morose architect who looks at an old rival, glares and then abruptly breaks down weeping — after which he sits in a loo and, um, strokes his turtle.

They happen also to be living together. Advani and his writers seem so bewildered by the idea of co-habitation that they appear constantly shocked by it. The very first shot of the film has Imran lying in bed, neck-deep in aforementioned housing situation, presumably having gotten time to wrap his brain around what is evidently a quantum concept, and yet he starts the film by questioning it. “Don’t you find all this weird? This ‘live-in relationship…” he trails off, helplessly, as Kangana laughs it off.

This is literally just the beginning, as Katti Batti goes on to verbalise the obvious over and over again. A scene with two people beating each other up has to be underlined by a third guy pointing to them and saying “Fight! Hey, fight!”, and later one buddy looks another in the eye and reminds him “Main tera best friend hoon.” Ah, with friends like these…

Khan, playing the hapless and pathetic protagonist Maddy, gamely embraces the inanity mostly wearing an ironic what-in-the-world-is-this-film expression, which makes him likeable even though the film makes it dashed hard to root for him. He’s a lovesick phenyl-drinking fool who walks around with a heart-shaped box, incessantly reminiscing about the girl who left him. Ranaut’s Payal, meanwhile, in a film that uses her more as clotheshorse than performer, switches from look to look with élan, Katti Batti working as a fine showreel for her stylists. Her big expression, for nine-tenths of the film, is Blue Steel. The film doesn’t give her anything to do, in fact, until the shamelessly manipulative climax where she does knock it out of the park — too late for anyone to care, however — and Khan, to put it politely, struggles with the hardcore histrionics at the very end.

kattibatti2Also, dear filmmakers, we must here interject a plea: do not give Ranaut English words to say unless you direct her into saying them right. We know she’s a terrific actress and have gotten used to the accent, but here, in a film where she’s supposed to be a bohemian highly-travelled rockstar-pixie, it really, really jars when she pronounces ‘dramatise’ as drummatyze.

Advani’s last film, Hero, released just a week ago, and I decried it for being an unnecessary, mediocre remake. But that was a lunkheaded actioner and we’re kinda used to those films being daft. Heartbreak, on the other hand, is rarely this synthetic, this thoughtless, this obvious. Katti Batti just smells wrong — and that may well be the most universal dealbreaker of all.

Rating: 1 star


First published Rediff, September 18, 2015


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