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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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Review: Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny

ff1Some beholders like it big. Colombian artist Fernando Botero, a fine fetishist of the fleshy, spent decades drawing and sculpting the ornately obese, men and women chubbily camouflaged by an abundance of curves — and by unexpected softness. Botero’s influence in Homi Adajania’s wickedly titled Finding Fanny appears an obvious one — I thought I saw a print hanging from a balcony early in the film — but also one that directly inspires a character. Don Pedro is a painter and poser, a worshipper of womanhood, who, with orotund declaration, reveals his love for the large.

A genuine vulgarian who peppers his conversation with cliched phrases and fills majestic brandy bottles with cheap whiskey, Don Pedro — bestowed with unlikely elegance by the fabulous Pankaj Kapoor — is just one of this film’s oddball cast, a cast made up exclusively of cartoonish characters who each, like a certain narcoleptic pussycat, have failed to land on their feet. These are more caricatures than people, true, but they are fondly sketched, best compared to those immediately evocative Goan screwballs made up by the late great Mario Miranda with his trademark wiggly lines: a postman with no letters to deliver; a gloomy mechanic with a penchant for sunglasses; an overbearing lady with a sharp tongue; and, well, a girl so pretty nobody dare touch her. Instead of the fictional village of Pocolim, they could all live on the unchanging walls of Bombay’s Cafe Mondegar.

There is a story, of course, and it is naturally that of a goose-chase: for isn’t all fanny-finding, any hunt for skirt, ultimately a great big shot in the dark? But this 93-minute gem isn’t about plot. It is about these wonderfully whimsical characters and about the mood they inhabit. It is about novelistic narration and cinematography that appears tinted by Instagram. And, perhaps more than anything else, it is about English that is as broken as the characters.

India, you see, is entirely occupied by the Bollywoodites. Well, not entirely… One small corner of indomitable Goans holds out… against, at least, the incessant thumkas emanating from cinema both Hindi and Southern. Goa, like so many of us, speaks English, but Goan English — by way of the Portuguese and the Konkani, by way of pork vindaloo and feni — is a unique beast, a frisky lizard that often darts off in unexpected directions mid-sentence. Finding Fanny plunges boldly and determinedly into this port-wine patois, and strikes gold.

Yet making an absurdly loopy film isn’t just about kooky characters and madcap milieu (though they are a tremendous help). It is about consistency, for it must stay true to the flavour it promises in order to ground the lunacy into something we can appreciate over a feature-length period, rather than a string of gags forced onto the same backdrop, and Adajania’s film impressively holds steadfast. Every minute is silly, unexpected, cheeky. Apropos to the film’s title, cinematographer Anil Mehta’s camera pointedly (but casually) lingers on the women’s derrieres and the men’s crotches, and there is a gloriously puerile preoccupation with, as the Generals in Dr Strangelove would say, “bodily fluids” throughout the film, as we witness bedwetting and spitting and sneezing and dreams that are more than moist.

Most of this dreaming comes from the postman, Ferdie, played by Naseeruddin Shah sounding considerably shriller than usual. It is he who seeks the girl named Fanny, and angelic Angie, a local widow, comes naturally to his aid. Deepika Padukone’s Angie initially looks to be the film’s straight-man, the one normal cog in a sea of nuts, but it is soon apparent her quirks are as strong, albeit less obvious. Her officious mother-in-law (Dimple Kapadia, with a posterior that would have pleased the lads from Spinal Tap) can’t help but tag along for the ride, the ride in turn chauffeured by the reluctant Savio, (Arjun Kapoor) a tattooed scowler with designs on Angie. And of course, Don Pedro.

ff2Padukone is luminous, a sly girl with a loose-slippered gait, a casual floppiness that nearly camouflages her look-at-me narcissism, and the heroine gets the body language astonishingly right. She is a very good narrator and — as evidenced by her eyes during the instances of vulnerability the script allows her — a captivating actress. Her Goan accent slips a bit (everytime she says “yaar,” for instance, it is with a city twang) but that happens to the finest actresses. This is a role Padukone should be justly proud of. Not least because it balances the film.

For, on one hand, we have Dimple Kapadia and Arjun Kapoor, acting sparsely and naturalistically, letting tush and tattoo respectively do the exaggeratedly heavy lifting for them while they mostly just react. Kapadia is excellent in her part, and Kapoor is a revelation, one who should seek out clever films that allow him to shine with his lackadaisical lustre. On the other end is Pankaj Kapoor, grandstanding with hammy theatricality, a perfect foil to the equally overplayed Naseeruddin. The first time the two shake hands there is a distinct echo of Beckett, specifically Waiting For Godot, to the proceedings, and I see Kapoor as the pretentious Pozzo to Naseer’s Estragon, a forgetful, perpetually put-upon dreamer lacking in conversational skills. (Why, he even runs into a character named Vladimir who looks like a soviet version of himself, even crying just like him.)

It is this equilibrium Adajania must be applauded for loudest: when things get all shouty near the film’s climax, one character balances it all out with a big, pleased-as-punch grin even as he is surrounded by outrage. Admittedly, the climax is a muddied one, with Adajania straining to tie up loose ends when his very storytelling style — in both this film and his promising debut, Being Cyrus — seems best suited to leaving knots ambiguously open. The epilogue is particularly unnecessary. But, made in a land of Hindi genre movies and starring one of Bollywood’s glitziest girls, Finding Fanny is bold enough already. It gives us much, much to smile pleasantly at, to guffaw at, and one moment that will make the theatre gasp — before it brings the house down.

Drink in, then, the grainy blue skies and the utter timelessness, for this film  could be set in 1984, 1965 or tomorrow. Drink in the characters we (and the actors, clearly having a blast) could use more of. Drink in the originality and the swiftly economical storytelling. Drink it all in, and order seconds just as you would at Mondegar, without worrying about the cheque. Because — as Don Pedro teaches us — sometimes we just need a new drink in a marvellous old bottle.

Rating: Four stars

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First published Rediff, September 9, 2014

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Review: Rohit Shetty’s Singham Returns

Singham-Returns-Action-Car-Blast-SceneYo, Rohit Shetty, what’s with the volume, bro?

It’s clear what a director like Shetty — one with a box-office track-record even more invincible than his superheroic leading men — is trying to do with each successive film: up the ante. More action, more explosions, more bang for the buck. For some reason, alas, in his latest, Singham Returns, he’s literally amped things up. This is a truly deafening film, made this loud perhaps to knock out the skeptics among the audience. Is this how brains are washed into submission?

Ear-cruelty aside, Singham Returns is a full-blown tribute to the kind of pulpy 90s action film which would star Sunny Deol and have the word Saugandh or Badla in its title. Or, at least, it could have been. Things start off with Ajay Devgn’s cop meting out some firm-but-liberal justice to a bunch of kids, before the plot kicks in, and it is here, during the first half hour of the movie — with an exaggeratedly “bad man” godman and various shady politicians — that we are led to believe we’re in for some good ol’ masala fun.

But, in the sort of scripting downfall that would break Subhash Ghai’s heart, the film turns into a mess and leaves the plot behind. Even now, the hackiest of 80s and 90s films rerunning endlessly on movie channels on television remain somewhat watchable simply because they had big meaty storylines. They might have been bad movies, but there was enough meat in the narrative — there were real stakes and genuine threats and points of conflict and misunderstanding and some manner of authentic twists — to render them at least potent. The problem with Singham (and, for that matter, any of these uninteresting modern day star-vehicles) is that the hero roams about unchallenged, unopposed, enexciting.

Singham-Returns-Ajay-Devgn-ChutkiThe hero himself ain’t bad — for whatever that’s worth. Ajay Devgan wears his scowl like a wrestler would wear a championship belt, proud and unsmiling. He’s got a fine, old-school swagger and his asskicking looks relatively authentic. But what a bore his character, this Bajirao Singham, is, as he takes on all comers without once looking in danger of defeat.

The primary villain is Amole Gupte, playing a godman with a nearly GulshanGroveresque subtlety. He’s amusing enough — especially when in his civvies, wearing red shorts and a tee-shirt that says “Dope Chef” while he chills with a beer — but he soon becomes too much of a caricature, mouthing absurd lines like one where he boasts of having built his career on a pile of corpses. A couple of truisms about superstitious folks and mangoes notwithstanding, he isn’t allowed be to be half as menacing — or as fun — as he should be.

Technically, these are childishly crafted films. When two characters talk, there is a bewildering use of soft-focus to underline the character speaking, even if both are in the foreground. There are face-offs — between Devgn and Gupte, for example — where a third person enters the background of the frame merely so he can get slapped. And when Devgn gets truly angry, there are motion-trails near his fist as he roars and leaps up to strike baddies with his Lady Gaga claw.

Shetty’s having a fair bit of fun — a fact evident in the way the film snickers at Devgn’s advancing years, borrows a character and a line from the TV show CID, and objectifies its banian-wearing hero instead of the heroine (just like in the original Singham, a film I’d called “Devgn-porn”) — but one wishes he’d saved some for the rest of us. Singham Returns is a ridiculously loud drag.

The action is daft-but-enjoyable in the beginning but soon gets repetitive, no thanks to the audience forced to plug up ears with their fingers. Shootout after shootout takes place and people get killed but in the end its all down to Singham getting into Hulk mode and mowing down everyone single-handedly. How terrific it’d be if he just, like The Hulk said in The Avengers, stayed eternally angry? Or is that just our role as critics who have to spend their mornings at these movies?

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 15, 2014

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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey

kaminey3

Once in a particularly blue moon, comes a film that makes you wolf-whistle. One that then ties you to the edge of your seat, forcibly pins you there and pounces on you, eventually leaving you sitting in the dark, drained and grinning and more satisfied than a film has any business leaving you. This, ladies and gentlemen, is that kind of ride.

And way more.

Vishal Bhardwaj reinvents the filmi rollercoaster with feverish glee as he takes a wonderfully twisty plot and paces it flawlessly around a bunch of madcap, irresistible characters. It takes nearly twenty minutes to get used to things, the characters, the words they speak, they way they speak them, and the tone of the film — heck, to get used to this film’s world. Then on, the film just freakin’ flies.

Yet before getting into the breakneck chaos, it is this unapologetic figure-it-out stance that we must initially applaud. Too often are our caper films and thrillers compromised by oversimplification and spoonfeeding, by filmmakers believing audiences need things spelt out and giving them bite-sized flashbacks to easily digest each twist. No more, says Bhardwaj, throwing us a delicious jigsaw and letting things fall into place in their own sweet time. The result is startlingly clever, an innovative film with genuine surprises. Kaminey is the kind of film whose success we ought all pray for, because it’ll prove smart cinema works.

kaminey1So delicious is the movie’s gradual unravelling that I refuse outright to let you in on the plot itself — an enthralling tale of drugs, deceit, dingbats and dead-ringers — because you need to discover this on your own. Go in as fresh as you can, you deserve to taste this one by yourself. Letting on what actually happens would make me one of the film’s titular knaves.

Suffice it to say that Tassaduq Hussain, who also shot Vishal’s brilliant Omkara, does it more than adequate visual justice, and the largely-handheld film emerges very stylistic indeed. It’s fast, funny and constantly rollicking, and the characters are spectacularly entertaining.

As is the cast. Shahid Kapoor plays Guddu the stutterer and Charlie with a lisp, saying f for every s, and does strongly enough to credibly seem like two different people; Priyanka Chopra’s delightfully high-strung Sweety pulls off hysterical Marathi with impressive fluency. Yet it is the ensemble of fantastic oddballs who truly make this film special: from Amole Gupte’s demented Santa Claus routine as Maharashtra-lovin’ gangster Bhope Bhau to Chandan Roy Sanyal’s lethally capricious coke-lover Mikhail, from Shiv Subrahmanyam’s helpless corrupt cop Lobo to Tenzing Nima’s ludicrously likable drug-smuggler Tashi — the film is full to the brim with splendidly unfamiliar faces, each of whom deserve a hand, not just the ones singled out here.

And Vishal generously gives each character their time in the spotlight. Guddu heartwrenchingly recounts his middle-school love, while Sweety captures beer-driven arousal with charming realism. Bhope bribes a big-eared nephew with chocolate, while Lobo coaxes the stutterer to give a police statement through song. The Bengali gangsters shoot bullets near each other for laughs, while the Marathi ones are transfixed by Guddu-Sweety screensavers on a laptop. Charlie unwraps a cellphone from plastic as he tries to placate gangsters, while — in an extraordinary moment — Mikhail sets the screen ablaze as he staggers in on the same gangsters, high on coke and unpredictable as a broken roulette wheel. There’s so much to marvel at in these characters that it isn’t funny. Oh wait, it is. Very.

What raises this rambunctious gangster movie head and shoulders above its genre is the writing. The wordplay is constant, subtle and absolutely exquisite — a tough ask when one hero trips over words and the other narrates — yes, narrates — with a lisp. And there’s a witty duality running through the film’s twin tales: a character barks into a phone, and this sound echoes later when someone pleads in front of Bhope, daring not to take his name but just calling him repeatedly big brother, “bhau-bhau”; Mikhail introduces himself to Bhope by calling himself Tope Bhau, and nearing the climax Bhope is told by another that they have ‘topein‘ (cannons) too; when Mikhail wins a race, arriving just in time, he breaks into the Spiderman theme — and Charlie responds with Fpiderman-Fpiderman. When a character wants to steal a king’s ransom in drugs to help a pregnant woman, another snarls back: ‘Toh kya meri coke ujaadega?’ Ha. It’s nuanced, lovely writing, the sort we never get to see in films nowadays.

Bhardwaj has never been secretive about his Quentin Tarantino adoration, referencing the director memorably in Blue Umbrella, and doing it here again with high heels and an injection. While Tarantino exclusively uses music he already loves because he doesn’t trust anyone to create anything as good, Bhardwaj has always done it all himself, writing, directing and composing — not to mention singing, and its worth noting the slight s/f lisp he gives the film’s magnificent title track when it plays on screen. Yet here he takes a leaf from QT’s book and brings back the saucy RD Burman track ‘Duniya mein logon ko‘ (from 1972’s Apna Desh) and makes it his own, giving it sassy new context out of its dated backdrop — no more Rajesh Khanna in a red suit, this song is now all Shahid.

kaminey2So the film leaps through implied ultraviolence and dark humour and you hold on, exhilarated — just as you have through, say, Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. And while that itself would be no mean feat, Bhardwaj ups the ante with an audacious climax, suddenly bringing emotions right to the fore.

And while films of this ilk are full of disposable-bodies and corpses-in-waiting, one discovers that Vishal has — sneakily, stealthily, surreptitiously — kept the sentiments so darned real that by the time the climax rolls around, you do actually give a damn about these characters.

Wow. Now if that isn’t kameenapan, I don’t know what is. Awefome.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 12, 2009

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Review: James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy

guardians1It all begins with the most, most ideal song. 

Not just is I’m Not In Love a smashing mid-70s anti-ballad dripped in cynical coolth, a suitably atmospheric song as crammed with irony as Marvel’s latest (and weirdest) blockbuster aims to be, but it happens also to be the work of a brilliantly daft British band who called themselves 10cc because they claimed to literally have more, um, spunk than anyone else. And if there is one thing James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy is positively brimming with, it is spunk. 

Because, contrary to what the “From the makers of The Avengers” tag might tell you, this is the riskiest of comic-book movies, a delirious outer-space romp featuring an obscure, unknown band of misfits. It has no major stars — fine, there are two well-known leading men, but neither appears on screen. It is an action-adventure that realises the need for wit in adventure and the need for charm in action. It doesn’t feature cameos from Iron Man or Hulk or any of the regular Marvel Comics heroes whose t-shirts we own already. And yet here it is, this massive-budget whimsical 3D-jellyfish of a movie, one hard to stop staring at.

We meet Star-Lord on a deserted planet. Walking into a cavern, he hits a button on his Walkman™, breaks out more 70s awesomeness, and begins to boogey. Small purplish dinosaur-iguana hybrids show up and this man — our ludicrously self-assured hero — kicks one aside without missing a step, picking up another to use as a makeshift microphone while lip-syncing his way through lethal territory. Like Indiana Jones, were he a karaoke fiend. He’s not alone. Everyone in this film is bizarre and atypical, and all these freaks make for a thoroughly unpredictable melange. Like Star Wars, then, had Star Wars been confident enough to laugh at its own looniness. 

The thing about Star-Lord… oh hang on, nobody really calls him that. The thing about Peter Quill, intergalactic lothario and space scavenger, is that he’s a ball of fleet-footed fun. Things invariably go belly-up, but — armed with his songs — he coasts along with pluck and smarts, despite frequently appearing clueless. On his way, he befriends Gamora, a fantastic, fatal woman with green skin; Rocket, a canny opportunist who hates to be reminded of his resemblance to a raccoon; Drax, a guileless brute built like a mountain; and Groot, a walking tree who likes to introduce himself rather often.

The plot is simplicity itself, involving jailbreaks and chase scenes and a stolen orb and seemingly impossible missions, all of which sounds like (and, admittedly, is) regular superhero movie hokum. Except Gunn throws it together with a lighthearted, Pixarry swiftness, giving us a refreshingly frothy ride with genuinely memorable characters. The cast is exceedingly well-chosen, with the highly affable Chris Pratt proving quite the swashbuckling fool, bestowing his character with both recklessness and vulnerability — most visible when he’s plaintively (and, for once, honestly) trying to convince a girl that he’s just done something exceedingly heroic. Zoe Saldana is a striking Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista is pleasant as the oafish Drax, and Bradley Cooper is most entertaining as the voice of Rocket. But it is Groot — voiced by Vin Diesel, who, it must be remembered, shone in Iron Giant long before The Fast And The Unending — who makes for a powerful yet truly melancholic figure.

Gunn’s is an emotionally straightforward yet effectively evocative tale, one that works better because of how nimbly it leaps ahead. And so much, indeed, is so quotably funny — Drax’s simple-minded Obelixian drollery; Rocket’s wiseguy sarcasm; Groot’s last line; Gamora’s insinuation that Quill’s attempt to dance with her is “pelvic sorcery;” Quill’s confession of being so prolific that a black-light on his ship would make it look as spattery as a Pollock painting — that it’s easy to overlook how this is unquestionably the best looking Marvel movie of all time.

When we first read comics, heck, when we first saw them — before we could applaud character growth and motivations and morality — we breathed in their mad art. The legendary artists gave us heroes, sure, but more than that they gave us worlds, vivid eye-popping universes chock-full of wondrous surrealism, big splash pages loaded with so much spectacular detail that we’d pore over each panel for hours, looking at it from different angles to try and fully grasp its amazingness. More than any other comic-book movie, Guardians Of The Galaxy, with its psychedelic palette and its ridiculous attention to detail, recaptures that sense of awe, that loud pop of wow that made the funny pages magical. Bravo, cinematographer Ben Davis and production designer Charles Wood.

guardians2The action scenes are both coherent and dazzling, but I want to see Gunn’s film again just to gape at what isn’t front and centre. A trafficker of stolen goods laying down thin slices of gold and graphite to play a game of solitaire; Gamora sucking at a fruit that could be both mango and oyster; Groot forming an intricate shield-of-branches with one hand; a lethal arrow obeying its master’s whistle; the villain looking like an HR Giger version of The Undertaker; an evil ship looming above a city like a filleted backbone; the severed head of a god serving as an outpost planet; and those who ravage this crazy space — god bless Joss Whedon — wearing red coats. 

Guardians Of The Galaxy takes place in a remarkable world drawn lovingly and beautifully by imaginative folks low on skin-coloured crayons. A world that holds not merely quirks but nuances. These are worth beholding, worth gawking at. These are… marvels.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 8, 2014

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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

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First published Rediff, July 25, 2014

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