Category Archives: Review

Review: David Fincher’s Gone Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, October 31, 2014

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Review: Farah Khan’s Happy New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, October 24, 2014

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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, October 1, 2014

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Review: Shashank Ghosh’s Khoobsurat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, September 19, 2014

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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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