Category Archives: Review

Review: Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Hunterr

Is there a word for a male nymphomaniac? (If not, I strongly suggest ‘himphomaniac.’)

The film Hunterr chooses to use the word Vaasu — taken from the sanskrit word vasana, meaning ‘truly stubborn desire’ — and treats it like commonly used slang. “I am a vaasu,” says the man with great revelatory import, trying to tell the woman he loves that he is a sex addict. “Vaasu? As in?” she asks blankly, and here a truly smart film would have tossed in something bewilderingly funny and utterly unrelated. (“Vaasu? As in Sreenivasan Jain?”)

Alas, Hunterr is not a truly smart film. It is however brazen, ambitious and decidedly shameless in its celebration of sleaze. It features a tremendously talented and markedly unconventional ensemble cast, and they conjure up some stirring moments. Above all, there is a sincere attempt at naturalism: Hunterr tries to be the Malgudi Days of Masturbation. (It ends us being Mister Unlovely.)

It tries, flounders and — despite the actors outshining one another — fails rather miserably. Written and directed by debutant Harshvardhan Kulkarni, Hunterr is a deeply problematic film, one where young boys egg each other on to grope a lady at a fish-market, and where a man who coaxes a woman from airport waiting room to hotel room doesn’t consider asking her name or where she’s coming from. Misogyny forms the spine of the film, coming in many shapes: a schoolboy declaring that the best girl isn’t attainable but the second best is; a father describing a boy’s aunt by saying “she looks okay”; a brother telling another that he might as well keep lying to his fiancee and tell the truth once the marriage is done.

It starts off with promise, thanks mostly to Gulshan Devaiah’s wonderful performance in the lead as Mandar Ponkshe, a Marathi version of Alexander Portnoy who has — through indiscriminate standards and aggression — managed to bully his way into a series of conquests. It isn’t that he isn’t likeable; Mandar can be disarmingly warm and friendly, despite being a borderline sociopath. If I timed the film’s awful and sloppy back-and-forth-in-time structure correctly, Mandar should be just about 40. He’s hunting for a bride the arranged marriage way, and gets engaged, but can’t stop eye and zipper from roving.

Devaiah is overwhelmingly believable in the part, seeming to channeling Sai Paranjpye heroes as he slurps noisily from a straw or perpetually, needlessly fiddles with his belt. It’s a creepy role but he plays it very straight indeed. Radhika Apte is reliably excellent as Tripti, his progressive fiancee, though it remains inexplicable why this seemingly sorted woman — despite her sudden demand to know why someone may not have seen Mukul Anand’s Agneepath — would settle for Mandar. Sai Tamhankar brings power to the role of the attractive neighbourhood bhabhi, while a young man called Vaibhav Tavtavadi endows the studly-cousin character, Kshitij, with true charisma. The young boys playing the childhood versions of Mandar and Kshitij — Vedant Muchandi and Shalva Kinjawadekar — are really very good, enough to declare that if this film had stayed in that 1989 flashback instead of hopping messily all over the place, we’d have something special on our hands.

The performance of the film comes from Sagar Deshmukh playing Dilip, Mandar’s relatively reticent elder brother. He’s a bit of a square and a sap — a guy who tucked his knee under his outstretched t-shirt as he wept over a girl in college days, and, more importantly, the kind of guy who follows a drunken friend to the ends of the earth but not without taking the chicken lollipops along to eat in the auto-rickshaw.

There are, thus, nice little touches of detailing all over the place — kids crowning each other “Wing Commander” because of the way they rule over certain wings of the housing society; a portly friend encouraged to dance frenetically at parties and rip his shirt off like Hulk Hogan; young boys taking a bath together and using soaping-the-back as a metaphor — but all this does is make you believe a film like this should exist, certainly, and that you want to like a film like this, yet the flat humour left me mostly unmoved, and I doubt you’ll be quoting fondly from this one unless you find the mere mention of swearwords inherently funny.

At one point in the film Mandar ‘fesses up to Tripti, following which she enticingly proposes that they leave their marriage open and go pick up couples from swinger parties. She does this with eyes blessedly agleam (damn that Radhika Apte is good) and Mandar can’t believe his luck, till, it turns out she was messing with him only to see how depraved he is before she dumped him. It’s a good moment of Mandar being put in his place… except it doesn’t happen. The second half of the film consists of at least a half-dozen moments that are filmed but, we then realise, haven’t actually taken place. An unreliable narrator is one thing but Hunterr, like Mandar, cheats too often.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that, at the scene mentioned at the head of this review, not just does the woman not invoke the bearded journalist, but she refuses even to behave like that other TV anchor and “demand to know.” The hunt was never afoot.

Rating: 2 stars

~

First published Rediff, March 20, 2015

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Review: Navdeep Singh’s NH10

Bad things happen in NH10.

That statement is both warning and promise: because Navdeep Singh’s new film is a tough film to stomach, a frightening and disturbing beast, and because it should be just that brutal, given how loyally it adheres to slasher/thriller genre conventions.

The thing about Singh is the way the director takes a familiar script or setup and makes it very Indian and very much his own — his first film Manorama Six Feet Under is a highly innovative grass-roots take on Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and the new NH10 is many parts Eden Lake mixed with some I Spit In Your Grave, and yet a far scarier and more socially impactful film than anything slasher has a right to be.

nh10The primary reason NH10 works as well as it does — and it works with smashing edge-of-the-seat flair — is the context Singh gives it. The idea of two young urban lovers finding themselves in very harsh rural territory is a basic one, but Navdeep is strikingly credible when it comes to dialect and flavour, and turns the Haryana belt outside Gurgaon into the most believable of badlands: everyone in those parts might not actually be evil incarnate, but from where we’re sitting, comfortably far away and constantly assailed by news of imperilled women and fundamentally messed-up defence lawyers, we’re all too willing to believe the nightmare Navdeep sets us. NH10 is more a pure horror film than any of its companions in the slasher genre simply because we believe what we want to, and it feeds our fears.

Meera and Arjun are a young couple who aren’t quite on top of their game: she looks at him with regret in her eyes, he looks to be constantly seeking some form of escape from the hard parts of a relationship, and when in bed they wield individual laptops and send each other on-screen messages. Things aren’t perfect, clearly, but sometimes a holiday can be potent tonic, and they head out to a small getaway not too far from the Gurgaon border. They run into some honour-killing violence, and end up angering the killers. Things turn ugly… uglier than one might think.

I admit to wincing frequently as fresh, more violent misery was piled onto Meera’s helpless lot, and that is because of Anushka Sharma’s amazingly committed performance. The movie’s masterstroke is to keep the audience squirming and the tension relentless by setting nearly 90% of the film in overwhelmingly linear fashion, pretending that the events are taking place in realtime, but this takes its toll on Sharma who — also brave enough to produce this film — features in virtually every frame of the film and carries it on her athletic shoulders. It is a bold choice as an actress and Anushka is at her absolute best as her eyes widen in disbelief at the growing horror around her. A moment when she realises the preposterousness of goading a policeman into “doing his duty” is particularly stunning, as is a rousing scene later where she yells at her attackers. She’s beaten down, on the run, powerless and defiant, and Anushka changes gears with immense authenticity, creating a character we can’t help but love. And, more importantly, one we can’t help but feel for.

Neil Bhoopalam’s Arjun has a tougher climb, a harebrained character who doesn’t just graze the hornet’s nest — as convention demands — but rather goes and treads on it, deciding rashly to engage in macho oneupmanship, a choice NH10 made that I can’t completely fathom. Bhoopalam is a likeable actor, but here seems a bit out of his depth. Darshan Kumaar is terrific as Satbir, especially when he’s slaughtering a girl as a rite of passage, and Ravi Jhankal is even better as his savage uncle, reproachful about Satbir using a revolver when tradition demanded a rod for the job.

The film isn’t as gory as its English counterparts, but the sadism comes across very strongly and effectively. It is a taut ride, one that scares us by providing a world of well-etched detail: the way a cop dismissively refers to the Gurgaon jungle of glass-and-chrome as a growing child, a “badhta bachcha”; the way the vibe in the badlands is noticeably hostile every time Arjun rolls down his car window, be it at a tollbooth or to ask for directions; a chilling conversation about caste that doesn’t entirely add up in terms of logic — we’re told that rules and structure matter but that the land away from the cities doesn’t need rules —  but sounds more familiar than it should.

nh10bWell shot and featuring mostly minimal background music, NH10 is starkly different from what we are routinely served up at the movies. It is a scary, compelling ride featuring an actress who surpasses herself.

One of my favourite shots in the film is where Anushka Sharma is riding a police jeep hard and fast, impressively adroit with the turns and momentarily getting the better of her pursuers. Then she skids onto the left, gets onto two wheels and, instead of gliding a la James Bond, topples her jeep into an ungainly heap. The frame before the crash shows her fleeting, well-earned smile turn into a wide-eyed and helpless “whoops” — another excellent Sharma moment — and that whoops is the best metaphor for NH10: it lets us know we’re on the edge and that one misstep could flip our lives around in an instant.

Buckle up.

Rating: 4 stars

~

First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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Review: Sharat Katariya’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha

There’s a lot to be said for the nineties, and Kumar Sanu doesn’t make the list.

Not only is it hard to look past the impossibly nasal voice, he’s also a singer who flourished at a time when Hindi film music was actively choking the Hindi film, forcing formulaic ditties into movies made for the sake of holding them. Looking back from here, he had a few good ballads, but that’s it.

And yet, twenty years ago, the very idea of  a young man — in this case an an audio-cassette retailer — falling in love with a singer’s voice automatically meant it could only possibly be for Sanu, who unquestionably ruled many a male heart.

Our Haridwari audio-cassette shopkeeper is named Prem, a fact that must indubitably have thrilled him to bits when Hum Aapke Hain Koun? released. We meet Prem a year after that in 1995, a barely-educated good-for-nothing who is being shovelled into a financially convenient marriage. His bride, Sandhya, is a sharp and well-educated girl with ambitions of being a teacher. She’s fat, he’s foul-tempered, and they have nothing at all in common…

And so it goes, a truly simple story. So simple, in fact, that Dum Laga Ke Haisha never gives you a single moment of unpredictability. It’s a two-hour film, and yet drags its feet enough to feel long and stretched. There are superb actors performing a sweet script, but after a while all you have is flavour. And we’ve tasted it before.

Or something like it, anyway. The fascinating Haridwar — its tongues, its street-side sass, its love for the metaphor, its intricate signboard-painting — might not itself have been the sight of many a recent rom-com, but several approximations have. From Bombay to Banaras, we know flavour.

Sharat Katariya’s film, however, is beautifully seasoned, with utterly fabulous detailing: a community wedding featuring rows and rows of scarlet brides dressed like thalis at a Jagran; a morse-code like frugal missed-call based moneysaver (two-rings-for-this, one-ring-for-this); pastries handed out instead of birthday cake, and — most critically — the shakha Prem attends.

The Shakha, the local branch of the right-wing nuts, is a fascist group, the type of thing Roderick Spode ran in Wodehouse’s  The Code Of The Woosters: Spode’s boys were called The Black Shorts, and included the measurement of male knees in their manifesto. Prem is the member of that very kind of wooly-headed organisation where grown men walk around in half-pants, and that’s what, we assume, shall define him somewhat.

Yet the potentially groundbreaking role of the Shakha starts with light humour, and is eventually completely ignored. It’s the same problem throughout the film: Katariya assembles a fascinating ensemble of quirky characters but worries more about the 90s feel and their lovely turn of phrase — “in a hurry to get your name on the in-law’s ration card?”, laughs a teasing aunt — as opposed to where the character is going.

The actors make it work, though. Ayushmann Khurana is great, giving his mostly pathetic character a sort of sullen, defiant dignity, and biting into the role rather sportingly. The new girl Bhumi Pednekar has a delightful smile, and is — part sassy, in part pitiful, part heroic —  mostly impressively real, creating a genuine character. Sanjay Mishra and Seema Pahwa from Ankhon Dekhi show up and shine here too, as does the excellent Sheeba Chaddha as the boy’s tyrannical aunt.

A word for the music: Anu Malik’s soundtrack is hugely enjoyable, retro in an affectionately genuine way — with Moh Moh, a tender, aching song written by Varun Grover, being the highlight — but there is one massive problem: Kumar Sanu’s truly distinctive voice doesn’t sound the same anymore. Too many digital bells and whistles are protooling it to sound better and better; but the nose is gone. Sadhana Sargam may as well be Shreya Ghoshal. Wherein the heart?

It’s not easy, making a Dum Laga Ke Haisha. A film with an overweight heroine that is, to a large extent, about that heroine’s weight, requires a finely sensitive balance. And while the film is perched loyally and well-intentionedly on Sandhya’s side, it still uses words about weight as insults — moti (fatty), saand (buffalo) — and also, sadly, leans on them for laughs.

For a second at the very end, I felt the film was about to flip predictability literally upside down and do something highly eventful, but the filmmakers backed out of it, happy with how far they’ve gone.That’s the regrettable bit, even though applause must go Yash Raj’s way as far as breaking the mould — I just wish they wouldn’t smugly keep pointing at it.

My other issue is with romance itself. The film dawdles so frequently on neighbourhood chatter and well-etched details that both leading man and leading lady get no chance to conjure up chemistry, they just get tired of fighting instead. Instead of making them connect, the film applauds the arranged-marriage theory of how being nice and resigned is the key to love. Settle, settle, settle.

And so may you, for this sweet, underachieving little film.

Rating: 3 stars

~

First published Rediff, February 27, 2015

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Review: Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” says Terrence Fletcher, the black-clad perfectionist conductor driving his orchestra insane with his demands. Fletcher wants more, always. Emotion, excuses, bloodied hands, commitment: none of it impresses him unless accompanied by actual greatness. And it never is. “Good job,” words many an American parent uses to condition a child, a verbal pat on the back for tying shoelaces or finishing a plate of spaghetti, thus, is naturally something that isn’t quite Fletcher’s tempo.

But then what does measure up? Fletcher demands the best, and his students bend over backwards trying earnestly, dutifully, vainly, suicidally to give it to him while he bites their heads off like an easily irked dragon. JK Simmons plays Fletcher with firebreathing abandon, using awful verbal guillotines every bit as lethal as the cymbal that almost decapitated Charlie Parker and spurred him to become the legend known simply as Bird. Near-death, Fletcher seems to feel, gave Parker his wings.

IMG_5430An unforgiving silhouette teaching at New York’s famed Shaffer Conservatory of Music, Fletcher’s longstanding dream of finding a Bird and letting him loose seems all but impossible till he runs into Andrew (Miles Teller), a young man craving to be pushed to perfection, one who fanatically sees himself as one of the greats, one who deserts romance because it may possibly distract him from the drums some day. After all, as the Buddy Rich quote on his wall screams at him, “If you don’t have ability, you wind up playing in a rock band.”

Director Damien Chazelle’s stunning and absorbing Whiplash takes these two freaks – this old man with a tongue made of daggers and this youngster with alarming amounts of focus – and pits them against each other in a delicious, deadly battle of jazz. They glide toward unscaleable peaks forsaking their lives, their careers, their families, their sanity… and all for what?

Whiplash is a sexy, sexy film, strikingly shot and beautifully paced, a film that captivates right from the start and reels in the viewer in that seductive way only the finest jazz can. The music is jawdropping and works its magic regardless of how unschooled the viewer may be, perhaps because of how Fletcher makes them play the same sections over and over again, especially the Hank Levy piece, ‘Whiplash,’ that lends its name to the film’s title.

Teller, playing the surly, self-absorbed Andrew, does spectacularly well as a character impossible to like, not to mention a phenomenal banger of the drums, a man savaging drumheads as if he were doing kung fu with chopsticks. Simmons, playing the maniac, is even better, all quips and one-handed quietening and the single-minded focus of a fascist who truly believes in himself. Scary good.

Chazelle’s film starts brilliantly and soon turns brutal, and it can be construed by some as a romanticisation of tyranny, a film that gives far too much importance to unrealistic standards and puts striving for them on a pedestal, but my reading is that Whiplash doesn’t idealize either of its two leads – though it is at times a tad sympathetic toward them – but rather shines a glaring, (mostly) unforgiving spotlight on both sets of unreasonable expectations, a spotlight that is best witnessed flashing across Simmons’ eyes at the very end of Whiplash.

We dream different dreams, and if two men tear their own lives apart in pursuit of something they treasure above all else, then who are we to dictate the price they ought pay? As a certain Mr Inarritu will attest, there’s something to be said about embarking on an impossible hunt for a Bird.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, February 20, 2015

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Review: Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur

Let the right one sin.

Right, of course, depends entirely on where we’re standing. Is this character in the right, or is he merely stage-right? Or should we be standing here instead, where we can see what he’s holding behind his back, an anniversary present or a bloodied knife? In the world of noir, Right is less a fact and more a perspective — a shifting perspective, even — and one that must ideally be questioned.

badlapur1No Hindi film director treats noir as finely and uncompromisingly as Sriram Raghavan, making the most of each shadow and each secret, feeding us lies and making us read between them, his films unfolding with the stark alacrity of well-thumbed graphic novels. Badlapur is all fury and fog, a revenge saga that plays out with such eyebrow-singeing intensity that I could imagine a gravel-voiced narrator filling us in on dames and dreams and dark, stormy nights.

The absence of this all-knowing narrator — or one, at least, made wiser by hindsight — cleverly obscures Raghavan’s own position in the whole affair: Is he showing us a simple good-versus-bad tale? Is he taking a side at all? Is he shifting allegiances from performer to performer nimbly, like a tightrope-walker with a roving eye? Raghavan, like the film’s leading man Raghu, plays his cards close to the chest and lets the audience simmer in anticipation as he slow-cooks the meaty, meaty plot and lets the story unravel.

As a premise, Badlapur appears simple enough. A young man shockingly loses his wife and child, and is hellbent on revenge — revenge that is hard to come by because he isn’t sure exactly where to look — and helplessly wrings his hands in despair as his world falls to shreds. It is a fascinating, frightening origin story, in a way an antithesis of the Batman origin, where a child sees his parents shot dead; here Raghu, who fancied himself Batman, has his son, named Robin, snatched away. The superhero threads run strong as the father emotionally tinkers with his son’s Thor figurine. By the time the film winds down, Raghu, who was struggling to grow a moustache when he became a father, has gone full-Thor: he wears a heavy beard and wields a heavy hammer.

On the other end stands Liak, a slimy criminal imprisoned for twenty years, the only man who knows who killed Raghu’s wife and child. He’s a bristly one, making his way into many a jailyard scrap, but he holds his ground and continues to dream ambitiously — often absurdly — of escape. What he lacks in terms of hope or future, he makes up for with swagger. Razor-tongued, brusque, packed to the gills with suicidal bravado: say what you want of him, Liak is a character. So much so that while this film might well be Raghu’s story, the first half has a lot more Liak — he gets more narrative heft, if not more screen-time.

Raghavan hides both their endgames very effectively, weaving a murky tapestry of femme fatales and false leads and fat policemen, the ever-intriguing narrative taking turns being sharp, funny and brutal. There are ruthless scenes in Badlapur, moments where the background score is as hushed as the disbelieving, squirming audience in the theatre, and there are scenes dripping drily with the tense humour the director played with so wickedly in his Johnny Gaddar. That film, in fact, is a fine companion piece to this one; that was sexy and relentlessly stylish while this is a moody, less aesthetically overt tale, and three Johnny actors shine bright amid the brilliant Badlapur ensemble. Like in the new film, Johnny unravelled tightly, its protagonist almost always ahead of the audience, but only the last few frames of Johnny are about vengeance; Badlapur, as the superbly chosen name suggests, is a roaring rampage.

The acting is exceptional. Varun Dhawan, playing Raghu, sheds his easy-breezy charm — but, crucially, not his slightly hapless natural likeability — and bubbles up volcanically, his eyes frequently doing the talking. There are moments in which he single-handedly commands the film, scenes where we have no idea how far his character is willing to go, and Dhawan handles these with just the right amount of inflammability. This is the kind of performance that opens up a career, and given what he did in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya last year, Dhawan looks to have the kind of range his contemporaries should fear. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, meanwhile, coats his Liak in oil and desperation, creating a powerful yet slippery character — one hard to get a handle on — with a reckless, go-for-broke energy. He might be a villain, but in his eyes he’s the wronged hero making the most of it, and the balance Siddiqui strikes between loathsome and irresistible is striking. You can’t take your eyes off him.

badlapur2There are some terrific women in Badlapur. Yami Gautam looks lovely but doesn’t quite get enough material to shine. Huma Qureshi (who also played Siddiqui’s love-interest in the second Gangs Of Wasseypur) is hauntingly good as a call-girl, especially when she distances herself while dancing for a customer she doesn’t like, gyrating freely but disconcertingly enough avoiding all eye-contact. Ashwini Kalsekar is super in a small role as a female private-eye — the kind of character that demonstrates how everyone in a Raghavan script could well deserve their own spin-off movie — and Divya Dutta is characteristically perfect as a woman who looks tired of knowing better than the men she talks to. Radhika Apte is sensational as a wife willing not just to go out on a limb, but to kill herself doing it. One particular scene where her character is forced into a corner shows her dig deep and give us an uncomfortably stark and superb moment, possibly the film’s finest.

Alongside Apte, a major part of the scene-stealing is done by Kumud Mishra, playing a portly policeman who sums up the last decade and a half as 3 promotions and 2 bypass-surgeries. He’s clever, canny and almost alarmingly credible, and there are moments he quivers with apoplectic rage, fit to burst, where he’s fiercely good.

Raghavan — who kicks off this movie with a thank-you note to Dirty Harry director Don Siegel, and has a character reading Daphne DuMaurier’s Don’t Look Now on a train — makes it clear Badlapur is less of a thriller (his earlier characters read James Hadley Chase on screen) and more introspectively chilling. It is a film where a husband and wife, each innocent of their crimes, weep vainly to convince the other that nothing happened. It is a film where an alert policeman spots something through an eye-hole but, a few inches below it, is another opening that could well be a glory-hole. It is a film that broods, and one that refuses to put a fun spin on things, Raghavan preferring instead to put the ‘dead’ in ‘deadpan.’ The last one-third of the film drags a bit — the final lines of dialogue are jarringly laboured, especially compared to the rest of the film’s flawlessness — but overall this is a stunning, beautifully crafted film. Like an expensive, gorgeously made revolver you just want to run your hands over even if you don’t dare shoot it.

As the curtain falls on Badlapur, any argument on rightness feels both moot and muddy. This is a noir world, its aftertaste like chocolate with 85% cocoa, and the answer is deceptively simple: Who gets right of way? The one in a greater hurry.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, February 20, 2015

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Review: MSG The Messenger

This is not a movie.

MSG, formerly known as Messenger Of God and now retitled as The Messenger (one of the options for the title indeed was “MSG The Son Of God”), might be a theatrical release but this can, by no means, be called a piece of cinema. A whopping 197 minutes long, this is a poorly assembled, terrifically tacky and tremendously ill-conceived showcase for a self-styled spiritual leader — self-styled because no costume designer in the world could match up to this man. Never ever.

The film opens with Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan — the MSG leading man credited for everything from script to cinematography to direction — sitting in a black Mercedes, wearing a neon-green boa and diamond-topped sunglasses, singing a vaguely hiphoppy song called Never-Ever. It is like the intro video made for some particularly bizarre pro-wrestler in an over-bhangrafied version of the World Wrestling Federation.

Nobody’s seen anything quite like this: a godman casting himself as quickfix superhero in a film that claims he is the answer to some of our most pressing social and medical evils: farmer suicide, female infanticide, AIDS, thalassemia, rehabilitation of prostitutes, and the increasingly rampant drug problem in Punjab and Haryana. It is the latter that make up an unbelievably dead-eyed bunch of villains in this film, angered drug cartels who put a hit out on Saint Ji, sending incompetent assassins to try their best. (There is, as one can barely imagine, very little subtlety involved; the politician in charge of the cartel is unambiguously named Chillum Singh. I assume rejected names include Hashish Kapoor and Ganja Grover.)

msg1The very idea of taking this propaganda piece and making it a feature film with an actual plot is a horrid one, and I can’t help but picture — in an ironic twist on the status quo — a godman misled by his yes-men and followers, going along with this preposterous idea because enough people said “Wow, Guruji, you look awesome” and “Guruji, fly through the air on a motorcycle one more time while playing a (muted) guitar-solo because that’s what people want.”

Saint Ji himself, in my book, comes across as harmless enough, his excessive swagger more than tempered by a beatific smile. He might use the lyricless interlude of a song to drop to the ground and give the crowd a few sudden push-ups, but — in complete contrast to his loud purple outfits — he speaks with a sweet, childlike shrillness. His character is always tender and never aggressive except perhaps during choreographed song performances, when Rock Papa — as his younger fans call him — breaks into hardcore, aerobic-style jigs, shaking his stuff in full-on Bollywood fashion.

He isn’t an actor — and he barely attempts to act — but the release of MSG is the story of how Saint Ji is surrounded by genuinely incompetent folks, from technicians to filmmakers to advisors, who have clearly feasted on his bucks and given him an shamefully sloppy product. The whole film looks like those Pakistani VFX videos we laugh at on YouTube and — while there is definitely, definitely something to be said for a film where a talking Barbie doll tells the hero how a little girl in a bride costume is in danger, and where a villain uses a Quidditch ball to drug people — at 197 minutes it is sheer torture.

There are, as said, distractions, not least of which is Saint Ji’s wardrobe, a searingly eye-scorching assortment of technicolour bling — think Ramleela costumes designed by Ed Hardy. It’s bewilderingly loud and often hilarious, but then looking at the astoundingly unselfconscious way Saint Ji wears them and the way his (self-composed) music clearly has an impact on real crowds, we might be looking at a new kind of excessively fashion-forward spiritual leader, one who wears this stuff because only he can (and believe you me, only he can) and it is truly, completely clutterbreaking. Remember when PK said he wanted to wear a bright yellow helmet so god can see him from afar? Well, say what you like about Saint Ji, but you sure can’t miss seeing him.

This feature-length advertisement, on the other hand, you’d be best advised to forego. Unless, that is, you’re an Insan already, which means this review doesn’t mean a thing. Go embrace the Insan-ity.

Rating: NO RATING. THIS IS NOT A MOVIE.

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First published Rediff, February 13, 2015

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Review: R Balki’s Shamitabh

This just in: Amitabh Bachchan, an actor some of you might have heard of, has a pretty good voice.

What? Not exactly breaking news? Yet director R Balki seems newly aware of that revelation, and, it appears, believes that mere worship of the Big B-aritone is enough to make for a fine film. An ode to that voice might have made sense in the 70s, before the Bachchan voice was absolutely everywhere, mimicked by anyone, used to sell us anything. The radio stations who rejected Amitabh Bachchan have become as legendary in their infamy as the record producers who first passed on The Beatles; that voice has literally launched careers; and, even today, over 40 years since we first heard it, it overwhelms — in fact, as evidenced by the televised reaction of unsuspecting citizens across the country when they receive a gameshow phone-call that starts with that silken-yet-growled Hello, it strikes like lightning.

To dedicate a whole film to applauding that voice, then, seems like a stretch… but then Balki, despite ingenuity and quirks, always ends up tugging at initially inventive ideas out till they feel like week-old bubblegum. Shamitabh, a film where a mute actor is voiced by an older actor, sets up the premise so completely and obviously with the opening scene that it’s hard not to wonder where the film will go over the remaining 150 minutes. The answer: it meanders on and on, like an old man lost in a car park. Bachchan is excellent, Dhanush does well, but both are straitjacketed by a flimsy, uneven story that is eventually just exhausting.

It starts off with promise. Dhanush plays Danish, a village boy fathered by the movies, a mute boy who believes he can act better than the biggest superstar, who turns his head at 48-frames-per-second, and is passionate enough to believe his voicelessness won’t get in the way of his impending stardom. Starting off as a bus conductor (just like another superstar you may have heard of) he makes his way to big bad Bombay, impresses an assistant director, and is then whisked off to Finland.

It is at this point that I decided Balki was giving us not a film aiming at truth but a preposterous fable, because his Finland is a ventriloquist-worshipping country dedicated to making state-of-the-art human puppets, fitting voice-boxes inside human throats and letting the mute person lip-sync someone else’s time-delayed conversation. It’s awful writing, immediately removing the “How?” struggle from the equation; in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending, when a blind director tries to direct a film without anyone knowing he’s blind, the results are hilarious because he’s trying to find on-set help, memorising floor-plans, and so on. Here we see Dhanush speaking in the Bachchan baritone and when we wonder how it’s come about, we’re told simply that the filmmaker wanted to make it happen.

Add to that a drunken mentor — Bachchan, as an old drunkard hired to voice Danish — and the first half of Shamitabh is basically Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal with a lot less heart and a lot more indulgence. It’s tiresome, poorly shot, suffering from an atrociously patchy sound-design and inconsistent dubbing, and — despite an an energetic Dhanush, and Bachchan revelling in his self-aggrandizing role, painfully armed with ‘look-how-great-my-voice-is’ lines designed to elicit taalis  — the film never quite gets going. And that’s the good bit. Following intermission, it careens off the rails so catastrophically it feels an uncredited Bhandarkar/Bhansali lent the writing team a hand.

shamitabh1Dhanush is a highly effective actor (and when miming actors, his shorthand from Hrithik to Ranbir is particularly brilliant), but Balki, keen to keep the focus on The Baritone, doesn’t show us any of Danish’s skills; his audition is ordinary, his histrionics mediocre, with the point underscored by Bachchan repeatedly telling him that he doesn’t look good, and (in a particularly distasteful line) that The Baritone is enough to make even a dog shine on screen. Danish’s part is a thankless one, that of an ambitious, opportunistic jerk who never cares for those around him, while Bachchan is given everything from the idiosyncratic life to longwinded Scotch-and-water soliloquys to a horrible face-off with a Robert De Niro poster. All that and, like Captain Haddock, he can curse in every letter of the alphabet. It’s a depressingly one-sided match. (Somewhere in the middle is a frustrated, interesting yet occasionally too-loud Akshara Haasan, perhaps thinking wistfully about the time her dad Kamal did a silent film…)

What Balki subverts truly cleverly, though, as an ad-man, are his advertisers: there’s a whole lot of product placement here — Lifebuoy, Amazon, Seven Hills — but each brand is mocked: the soap’s tagline is ridiculed, the online-retailer doesn’t have the books they need, and the hospital only holds bad news. In a way, also, this film can be considered a commentary on the unfair, unbelievable omnipotence of the superstar in Hindi cinema: he chooses the project, the story, the director, the co-star, and even decides how to shoot the song.

Or maybe Balki’s okay with all that. Just like he’s okay with taking a clever Rekha cameo that should have been a sly moment and stretching it into a long, wordy, needlessly dramatic scene. That, in essence, is the problem with Shamitabh: it spends all its time explaining its own jokes. And that never sounds right, no matter the voice.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 6, 2015

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