Queen: What Madhuri Dixit did next

“What did you choose? The coffee?”

There is such a thing as a very Andheri office. One building away from Mainland China, one alley away from a horrid little advertising agency I worked in for a few weeks when I first moved to Bombay, stands a functionally grey monolith. It houses, among many others, an office so utterly nondescript it could belong to anyone from a realtor to a stockist of ballpoint-pen refills. It would, however, have to be a stockist obsessed with privacy. Ringing the doorbell that sultry afternoon led to a voice through a speaker – with the firmly curt tone of automated gates in California-based TV shows – and I identified myself, promising the voice that I did indeed have an appointment “with Madam,” and waited interminably while my claim was checked and double-checked.

The reception area is tiny — barely a couple of chairs plonked across a man on a desk, surrounded by phones — and clearly not too many are allowed to come in and wait, at least at one time. “Two minutes,” said a voice too busy to sound reassuring, and I sat back amid the exaggerated normalcy. Until I looked to my left and saw – within that small, caricaturedly unspectacular bastion of the humdrum – a massive painting, vibrant and striking and carrying a stylish signature (and, indeed, a signature style) that even a philistine like I could recognise.

This is certainly a freebie, a present from the artist — the nation’s most iconic painter and the only one who is truly a household name — a man who famously watched a movie several dozen times before publicly declaring just how besotted he was with, well, “Madam”.

It was a movie, in fact, most of the nation appeared to have watched far too many times.

Video piracy in India began with Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and I was there. It was the autumn of 1994, with Delhi at its most affectionately crisp. The Sooraj Barjatya behemoth, released that August, monopolized every theatre in town. Video rental libraries were booming, with VHS cassettes regularly hitting shelves a few weeks or, at most, a couple of months after a film’s release. Despite the demand, Barjatya had stubbornly held out, leaving his film exclusively in theatres, near-bankrupting families compelled to ritually watch it.  I was thirteen when a very close friend sidled up to me after class and asked if I knew anyone who might want to buy a copy, on VHS. My mother’s ecstatic yelp convinced me a goldmine was upon us, and thus – with enterprising chum producing copy after copy and me pasting magazine pictures onto cardboard boxes in an approximation of cassette covers – did we please many an auntie of our acquaintance.

It is, therefore, with more than a smidgeon of disbelieving gratitude that – two decades after squeezing that unbelievably-long movie onto VHS by cutting down the songs — I am ushered into a conference room where Madhuri Dixit walks in and wonders if my cup has coffee in it.

~

MD3From scene-stealing ingénue to pinup goddess, from magnificence to misstep, Madhuri Dixit has always been worth watching. She sobbed and snickered and shimmied through movies of varying quality – taking on both clichés and surprises with equal brio – and the mesmerized masses lapped it all up. By the numbers, she’s the most successful heroine of all time, the highest paid actress and the only one to ever get paid as much as her leading men. She has bested any so-called rivals, been billed above the biggest actors, and, in an industry defined by songs, she owns the most unforgettable dances of all.

The last three decades have seen her celebrated, deified, dreamed of and craved. In 2001, Pakistan’s then President Pervez Musharraf sounded almost wistful when, at the Agra Summit, he remembered Pakistani fans at a Sharjah cricket match singing “Madhuri De Do, Kashmir Le Lo” (to the tune of “Joote De Do, Paise Le Lo.”).  That was a song from the bootleg-inspiring Hum Aapke Hain Koun which, despite all the obsequious saccharine pandering so evident now, was a considerable gamble at the time: an inanely-long film with over a dozen songs and one of the first 90s hits without a villain.

For a woman topping the A-list, Madhuri has frequently taken chances — with scripts, directors, co-stars – and bucked the predictable. The gangland drama Parinda came in 1989, alongside her first blockbuster Ram Lakhan; 1991 saw her in both Lawrence D’Souza’s weepie love-triangle Saajan and Nana Patekar’s introspective Prahaar; 1992 had Dixit dhak-dhaking away in Beta, and playing a blind danseuse in the understated Sangeet. In 1997, while basking in the spotlight of Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai, she gambled on Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand – a woman-oriented character drama and one of the director’s earliest films, with the (still) unknown Ayub Khan as her leading man.

Dixit’s acting chops have proven as impressive as her stellar screen-presence, the star often gleaming despite films duller than the tired old tins their reels are packed in. Even in failed films, her eyes sparkle with eagerness, and a seemingly effortless spontaneity colours her performances, infectious energy carrying her through moments of tremendous farce as well as painful melodrama. Looking back at, say, the moronic Deewana Mujhsa Nahin — where Dixit has to contend with an annoying character, the worst wardrobe imaginable, and an obsessive stalker in the form of Aamir Khan at his most cutesy — the actress still shows off innate charisma. Like with all actors the camera has a crush on, even her lowest points are worth smiling at, and often show remarkable, untapped potential.

This might not remain untapped for long. While Madhuri Dixit may seem to have proverbially done it all, she is now picking radical parts and sharp filmmakers. Our cinema, staunch in its dated ways, isn’t prepared for this refusal to go quietly into the twilight of supporting roles. She may not command the numbers she once did, she may not be the starlet setting boys afire, but she is unquestionably, defiantly — almost inexplicably — still a superstar. What she does makes a difference, and she could alter how our cinema treats heroines. The reason Dixit’s experimental films haven’t show up as vividly, in the light of her considerable filmography, is because her hits have always dwarfed them to the sidelines. But thirty years after she first showed up on screen, Madhuri Dixit appears keener than ever to shake up the status quo — if only to make room for herself, one more time.

~

MD1A Madhuri Dixit movie isn’t what it used to be. In one of her two 2014 releases, she plays a parkour-ready outlaw quick with mid-air kicks; in the other, a poetry-fetishizing empress in love with her handmaiden. Both, as one can imagine, are suicidally huge risks for a megastar in an industry not used to rewarding bold choices. Playing a gay aesthete in January before playing Rajinikanth in March – there’s never been anything quite like it.

In that Andheri boardroom, Dixit, 46, sounded content about the new films. “I’m trying to think of any movie in the past,” she said of Gulaab Gang, “that, in that setting of a Bollywood potboiler, has women in the key roles. A movie with all the masala, all the dialoguebaazi, and yet with a female protagonist and antagonist.” Based (very) loosely on crusading outlaw Sampat Pal and her all-woman brigade of pink-saree clad vigilantes, Soumik Sen’s film is hardline commercial cinema, a film unsubtle enough to have starred, say, Akshay Kumar. “That a woman was playing that kind of a role was fascinating, I thought, because it changes the rules in one go. It’s like throwing down a bowling ball and watching the pins go flying.”

Gulaab Gang isn’t a great film, though there is a definite thrill in watching Dixit swagger about with exaggerated machismo, kneeing rogues in the chest. She essays her role with marked dignity, but the best part of her performance might be signing a film that unlikely: an old-school movie by a rookie director, with less of a budget than she, or that genre, is used to. The actress was attracted to it for multiple reasons. “The film also spoke about women’s rights and education, and society in general. It was a statement on what’s happening around us: laws need to be stronger; we have this whole infrastructure and yet nothing really happens. And I think, in its own way, Gulaab Gang addressed that too. There were a lot of things that made me do Gulaab Gang.” One of which, clearly, was getting trussed up in harnesses and swung around trucks to beat up goons. If only because her boys, Arin, 10, and Raayan, 8, would enjoy watching mummy wreak some havoc.

Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya wreaks very different havoc, a decidedly child-unfriendly film about con-men hoodwinked by an imperious lesbian with a literary bent of mind. It is a highly nuanced film, and Dixit – playing the once-wealthy Begum who plays up to men to pay her bills – does so with delicacy and a self-aware grace that eludes any of our current heroines. “The old culture is fast fading,” she says, “the nawabiyat is crumbling to pieces. As things become more ‘new-age,’ there’s no place for characters with old-world charm, and they try desperately to fit into the new generation.”

It is also a film where our most mainstream actress plays a woman who prefers the company of women, a twist that, while subtle enough, is certainly a shocker. Dixit assures me she wasn’t worried. “I knew exactly what we were doing. And there was a lot of ambiguity to it; we were not stating anything. We left it to the viewer to interpret it themselves: it could be two women who were fed up of men in their lives and they want to be by themselves, or it could be something else you notice. And I love that little ambiguity.”

Chaubey, whose first “lesbian draft” was wickedly explicit, confessed it gave his heroine cold feet. But then he realised, while honing his script, that overt sexuality would kill the loveliness of the story’s eventual reveal, an angle pegged on Lihaaf, Ismat Chughtai’s scandalous short story from 1942. “She told me about her fears, and I addressed it: This is exactly how I’m going to treat it. If you’re observant, you’ll get it fairly easily, however, if you aren’t watching carefully, you don’t get it, and that’s it. It doesn’t harm your enjoyment of the movie,” said the director, who co-wrote the script with Vishal Bhardwaj. “And then she was fully on, you know. Unlike Huma [Qureshi, who plays the object of Madhuri’s affections in the film] who was very excited and who was constantly talking to me about it — ‘how do I touch her? how do I look at her?’ — Madhuri didn’t fuss, she didn’t discuss it too much. However, when shooting, there were absolutely no inhibitions. She was all systems go.”

~

It is a career that took off with an advertisement.

Screen India was the most powerful industry-to-industry publication through the 70s and 80s, and their third-page advertisement was, for a considerable while, the hottest real estate in Hindi film publicity, limited largely to paid announcements for films celebrating a grand theatrical run, or first posters for films with whopping budgets. It was, therefore, rather startling to see a dramatic six-page ad ‘launching’ a heroine who wasn’t merely unknown, but unknown because her first five films had flopped.

At 17, Madhuri Dixit did a tiny film called Abodh opposite Bengali actor Tapas Pal, which sank without a trace. As did her next four films. During the shoot of Awara Baap, the second of these flops, however, she met Subhash Ghai. Ghai, a hugely successful director who was bulletproof at the box office for two decades straight — from 1980’s Karz to 1999’s Taal — glimpsed something special. “When I first met her in Kashmir,” said Ghai, who was there to scout locations for his 1986 multistarrer Karma, “she was playing some very small role as Rajesh Khanna’s daughter. A hairstylist, Khatoon, who had worked with me in Karz, came to greet me and said ‘ek chhoti ladki hai, side-role kar rahi hai’ (‘There’s this little girl, doing side-roles’) and she introduced me. Patli si ladki thi. (She was a slim sort of girl.)”

Ghai was impressed by the slim girl’s face, one he recalls as “absolutely photogenic,” and, he said, by her impressively “well-mannered, cultured and innocent” persona. “She was an unpolluted actor. I had the confidence that I could shape her into a star. So I took her on as a project.” Ghai spoke of this phase as “re-erecting” Dixit’s career because he discarded her flops outright and refused to even watch them. “I told her that ‘I am making this film called Karma, and after finishing this film, in one year, I will make a film properly to launch you.’ I wanted to sign her to a 5-year contract so I could groom her properly, and all I wanted was her loyalty.”

Ghai shot a quick Madhuri showreel, sending it to eight producers and directors. “Ramesh Sippy, Inder Kumar, Shashi Kapoor Productions… Everyone I knew well. I said to them that ‘If you think this face, this video is okay, then contact me. I am signing this girl and if you want to sign her, send me a cheque for Rs 5,000.” By the end of the week, Ghai had eight cheques, following which he took out the historically eventful advertisement.

MD8“This girl who was a flop yesterday is blooming today and will be a superstar tomorrow,” is how Ghai summarized the 1985 ad I was unable to locate from the Screen archives. “She had become a flop heroine,” said trade analyst Amod Mehra, “but what a launch that was! Six pages continuous in Screen? When nobody had even heard of her? It made her career.” Ghai’s coup de grâce was the final page, emblazoned with the names of the eight producers who had already signed the relatively untested actress. Thus was Dixit a sensation before stepping forth as Ghai’s heroine.

Then, like a much-shaken fizzy drink finally uncorked, came the stream of hits. Dayavan, Tezaab (1988); Tridev, Parinda and Ghai’s own Ram Lakhan (1989). From this point, there was no stopping Dixit, basking in blockbuster bubbles and getting stronger with each successive triumph. The film industry reacted the only way they knew how: as a herd. Dixit had nine releases in 1989 and ten in 1990. Everyone wanted her.

“If you wanted histrionics,” said Mehra, trying to sum up what producers felt at the time, “Madhuri Dixit was your number one choice. Very quickly in the 90s everyone started comparing her with Madhubala, as a beauty who could charm anybody. But Madhuri grew as an actress besides just being a star.” Mehra dismissed any serious competition. “Sridevi was a great comic actress, but that was it. She was a very commercial heroine. For big masala-movies people wanted Sridevi, but when they had a role that needed acting, they had to have Madhuri. She had an edge; everyone felt she was the complete Indian woman.”

~

“Madhuri Dixit is the most solid man I’ve met in the industry,” Shah Rukh Khan told Filmfare magazine in 2006. “Yeah, you heard right. She’s truly like a man. She’s the most solid thinker, the most solid emotionally, a solid believer. And of course, her talent is unquestionable. From her I’ve learnt the most.” Evidently one of those overachievers who believe a man is the ultimate compliment, Khan spoke about how he merely follows her lead. From a famously cocky superstar who knowingly exudes the persona of a charming narcissist, his compliment was very telling: “She is the only one I feel I am not as good as.”

MD7Dixit has always marched to the beat of a different benchmark. Her first “hit pairing”, in tabloid parlance, came with Anil Kapoor. Already a star with films like Mr India behind him, Kapoor recommended Dixit to director N Chandra, who cast Dixit in Tezaab, her breakthrough movie. The duo enjoyed colossal success and became a golden ticket for producers, the most recent of their sixteen collaborations being the 2000 release, Pukar. But all was not peaches and moustaches. One of their biggest films, Beta, in 1992, cast Kapoor unflatteringly as a bullied simpleton and Dixit as a firebrand defiantly challenging her husband’s mother. Dixit, all eyes-blazing, was the most striking thing about the film, especially while melting the screen with the ludicrously suggestive Dhak Dhak Karne Laga song. “Beta should have been called Beti, people tell me,” Dixit smiled nonchalantly at me, but according to Amod Mehra, Kapoor wasn’t enjoying the fact that Dixit was walking away with the lion’s share of the applause.

If so, he wasn’t her only leading man wary of, well, being led. “She only started Dil [in 1990] because Anil didn’t have dates at the time, and Aamir [Khan, with a string of unsuccessful films following his 1988 debut hit, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak] was a nobody,” explained Mehra. “So another hit pair was born. But once she became a superstar, the biggest heroine… Anil pushed for actresses like Urmila [Matondkar] and Sridevi in films like [1997’s] Judaai, while Aamir was picking actresses like Manisha Koirala [in 1995’s Akele Hum Akele Tum]. Nobody wanted to take on Madhuri any more.”

Assuming these actors didn’t feel threatened by Dixit, they might have had something to say regarding the characters she played. Most were canny, independent girls, bright students or feisty professionals who suffered little foolishness, especially from leading men who (not so long ago) played their saviours. Mainstream directors like Ghai – even in the loud, testosterone-filled Khalnayak, ostensibly a Sanjay Dutt vehicle – made sure they wrote a meaty part for Madhuri.

By the mid-nineties, she was queen. She had the films, the roles, the audiences. Once it became clear to producers that her name on the marquee resulted in that all-important box office opening, she began to render her heroes redundant. In Hum Aapke Hain Koun, for example, not just does she enjoy above-the-line billing higher than the film’s hero, Salman Khan, but – according to a recent article in The Indian Express – she was paid a then-astronomical Rs 2.7 crores for the film, more than almost anybody at the time. (Amitabh Bachchan, according to rumours, was paid Rs 2 crores for Khuda Gawah a year before.)

“This is what happens when the heroine becomes bigger than the hero,” Mehra said. “Stories and films have to be built around her stature. So they become heroine-oriented films — which then don’t work at the box office.” This doesn’t mean that independent, intelligent female characters weren’t accepted – on the contrary, 90s actresses like Kajol and Manisha Koirala brought much sass to their roles – but these characters belonged (according to conventional industry punditry) alongside even stronger male leads. This is an industry where sexism runs deep and male stars, to this day, cherry-pick the ladies they work with.

Getting too big to tread on her heroes’ toes would signal an imminent downfall, but Dixit avoided the precipice in defiantly heroic fashion. She roared like a cougar and began to do what only the heroes do – namely, working with young boys while taking charge of those films’ commercial reigns.

Madhuri was breaking ground, boogeying with young Akshaye Khanna in 1997’s Mohabbat, nine years after being pinned down by his father Vinod Khanna in Dayavan. Consider how notoriously unfair Hindi cinema has been to the ageing actress. Even as wrinkly heroes routinely don wigs to woo starlets a third of their age, leading ladies are put out to pasture cruelly early, age first relegating them to the dreaded sister/mother roles before forgetting them entirely. Rakhi Gulzar, for instance, played Amitabh Bachchan’s lover in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat before playing his mother in Shakti just a year later.

MD10Yet Madhuri played by her own rules and was rewarded for it, producers caving in and forking over the astronomical fees she demanded. “I’m proud I did it because it paved the path for others to follow,” Madhuri said. “And when you do something groundbreaking, there’s always a risk. But I think I was always clear what I wanted to be, where I wanted to be, and where I wanted women in cinema to be. So that always dictated my choices, whether it was the pricing or the choice of films, I wanted it to be the best and I thought I deserved the best.”

Yet Dixit’s ceiling-shattering didn’t pave that path after all. Measure that triumph, if you will, in the context of today, where the most feted heroines –Deepika Padukone/Kareena Kapoor – get paid less than half of what even a second-rung hero – Shahid Kapoor/Imran Khan – makes per film. That Dixit managed to achieve – and, on occasion, exceed – parity in an industry so irredeemably sexist is a testament to her singular star-power.

~

One of the ways Dixit managed to avoid slipping from the top rungs at a time when younger actresses were pilfering the spotlight was by retreating unexpectedly into the shadows. In 1999, she found herself a soft-spoken cardiovascular surgeon living in Denver, Colorado, one who shared her Marathi Brahmin roots. Her marriage to Sriram Nene was a largely un-filmi affair, following which she didn’t immediately pull the plug on her career. A few significant films followed, including Pukar and Lajja, but after Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s massively publicised Devdas — where, for the first time since her fledgling days, she got the supporting role instead of the lead, which went to Aishwarya Rai — she decided to relocate to America.

Her “comeback,” after five years off the greasepaint, was a 2007 production called Aaja Nachle, about an NRI dancer returning to India to save a theatre in her village. Produced as it was by Yash Raj Studios, it was mounted on a scale so lavish the earnestness was buried by bling. Madhuri dismissed any question of ring-rust. “It’s like bicycling. Or swimming, for that matter. Or,” and here she paused for a hint of drama, “actually even walking. You can’t forget. Once you’re in front of the camera, it comes very naturally.” It was the concept that clearly touched a nerve. “I loved the fact that there’s this woman who leaves her country and goes somewhere else, makes a life for herself, and then finds out that whatever she was passionate about is crumbling and she has to come back, and she has to fight for that culture and…”

So Madhuri Dixit has come back to save us all? “No!” She burst out laughing, those devastating peals of laughter. “You can’t save anyone, it’s not possible! But at least you can contribute to making people aware, at least talking about it, at least educating people about what is [fading], what we’re losing. Even today, the masters who are experts in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, in classical dancing, they all say people don’t want to learn it because they all want to be dancers overnight. Which isn’t possible when you don’t know classical dancing, but once you know classical, you can master any kind of dancing in the world.”

And then, to drive her cultural metaphor home, she talks about cyborgs. Naturally.

“Do you watch Star Trek at all?” she asked, a raised eyebrow topping that smile, acutely aware her half-man half-machine metaphor may be lost on a non-Trekkie. “So cyborgs just come and assimilate people into their own culture, turn them into half-men half-robots and that’s it. So they’re one, they think as one. But if you really want to live in a world as one and yet have your identity, then your culture is something that you uphold because that will give you identity.”

Yes, that Choli-Ke-Peechhe lady digs sci-fi. (“Trek and Wars,”she insisted, even after she nails a William Shatner impression.) Dixit loves the high-concept hoo-ha, and over the last decade, like any parent, has watched a whole lot of animated cinema. She raved about Pixar’s Up, lamented the lack of quality animation in India, and is fascinated by how emotive superhero movies can be, “with the dead parents and the villain going hahaha or the uncle being killed.” Would she do a superhero movie? “Oh yeah,” she purred. “Absolutely. It would be fun. It has its own fascination, from Spider-Man to Catwoman; there’s something exciting about these characters. And they’re all made from comic books. Which is just… amazing.”

Dixit is currently intrigued by the Hollywood model, getting writers and directors to develop material specifically for her, instead of merely wading through scripts thrust her way. If Dixit can facilitate the kind of movies she likes to watch, we may be in for an interesting time. But can she command a Krrish-sized budget today? And, if not, — given the fickleness of producers and distributors and the ever-changing list of eight or so actors considered “safe bets” — is the smallness of the film necessarily a bad thing?

~

A clue to her future may lie to her past: one of her best and most-offbeat performances.

Maqbool Fida Hussain’s Gaja Gamini is a peculiar beast. Hussain, India’s most emblematic modern artist (and a painter of movie-posters in his earliest days) watched Hum Aapke Hain Koun 67 times in theatres, got obsessed with Madhuri and made a series of paintings featuring her, a series he signed simply, and dramatically, as “Fida.” When HAHK released, he was 79, she was 26, but a friendship was struck. Six years later, Hussain directed his ode to Madhuri.

An evocative but indulgently absurd work, Gaja Gamini – which means one with the gait of an elephant — remains an unforgivably theatrical bit of navel-gazing that is, without question, stunning to look at. “There was a bound script,” she revealed. “You’d be surprised. There was a whole storyboard. But his thing was not about the dialogues, not about what we were saying to each other. He used to say he wanted to make ‘moving pictures’ where if you just snip any of the frames out from the reel, it should look like a painting. And that’s exactly what he did.”

In the film, Dixit plays three (or perhaps more) overlapping muses, the women inspiring Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Kalidasa’s Abhigyan Shakuntalam and a young photographer’s finest work. This photographer was played by her Dil Toh Pagal Hai co-star Shah Rukh, who didn’t quite understand what was going on. Dixit, on her part, couldn’t make out Yash Chopra’s trademark mumbles during the DTPH shoot – though her unintelligible mimicking is spot-on – and Shah Rukh would translate it for her. “So when we did Gaja Gamini together, I remember Hussain Ji would come and say ‘Abhi aese bolna hai, abhi aese bolna hai,’ (Now you say it like this, now like this) and Shah Rukh,” she laughed before throwing on a completely vacant voice, “was ‘What does this mean?’ And I explained that we shouldn’t ask what it means but follow what it says.” Thus did the biggest stars of their time provide subtitles of cinematic understanding, helping each other through entirely different, but equally choppy, waters.

It had to have been a daunting brief for an actress. “It was! What Hussain Ji was trying to do with the film was to say how mysterious a woman is. Poets are trying to describe her with their poetry, painters are trying to capture that magical moment, that smile or whatever, and yet she’s so mysterious that nobody can really describe or, say, define her because she just plays so many roles.”

“It was eccentric,” she agreed, smiling, “but very cutely eccentric. And it was, in a way, liberating, because I could give it my own interpretation. It wasn’t like he knew the nuances of what acting is or stuff like that, so I had a lot of freedom. And we created something that was very different. The dances, also, were very innovative.”

She spoke fondly of the “fabulous, fabulous” Hussain and his spirit, of how he’d come to visit her in Denver and frantically look around for a canvas, assuring her he was carrying his own paints. “And I said ‘why don’t you… just relax? Sit back, I’ll give you a cup of tea, put your feet up and don’t paint.’ And he says ‘you’re punishing me!’ And that was an eye-opener to me, the way nothing else mattered and he just wanted to paint, and go on painting.”

Masala movies of the 70s and 80s traditionally made a big deal of something called the hero’s “entry shot,” the first time the camera shows us the leading man, often a dramatic pan up from his boots to his face (at which point the camera, like an overconfident stand-up comic, freezes for a second, anticipating applause and whistles). Hussain, in his two-hour film, obscures Madhuri’s face for the first half-hour, showing us her dancing but covering her face with strategically raised mudras. Finally, we see her sitting by herself and are told she’s blind. Dixit smiles beatifically while men try to woo her with music, following which she breaks suddenly into a musical aalaap and, with a dramatic spurt of energy (and a change in setting) begins to dance next to gigantic musical instruments painted as white as her saree.

And it is here — as she sensually straddles a cello while a black, trademark MF Horse watches her – that Dixit scorches, unashamedly turning on the oomph around these fortunate over-sized instruments. It is a preposterous set-up but Dixit’s electric vitality makes it come alive; she gasps and thrusts and touches the instruments with a devastatingly fluid grace. A minute later, Dixit can be seen sitting and talking, softly and realistically. She’s surrounded by actors grandstanding theatrically, projecting their lines in an infuriating way, yet Dixit keeps things crisply, cleanly cinematic. There is a mastery here, an unwavering self-assurance through her every step, be it a tricky dance move or a demanding turn of phrase – perhaps because the film was tailored to fit her. It is a muddled but ambitious experiment, this film, and Dixit dazzles, turning in a unique performance, one without any cinematic reference point. The markedly abstract nature of the project aside, a reason the actress may have been so uninhibitedly luminous could be that Gaja Gamini was a pure artistic experiment, produced without making eyes at the box-office.

Which may just be her ticket right now.

~

Much of the go-for-broke ambition might have to do with having already exited stage-left whilst on top . Plus, she genuinely enjoyed being away. Strolling through a supermarket in Denver – “which is a very Caucasian kind of place, and the Indians there are mostly the transient kind, who come there for 3-4 years for their tech companies and move on” — occasionally spotted by an Indian or two and waving a quick hey before carrying on with her day, in gym clothes and bereft of makeup. Without minders to warn her from stepping out because crowds and the press were around. “For me having a family, a husband, a home, kids, was always a big part of my dream. Despite being so used to working, I was living the dream I’d made for myself. I was playing it to the hilt, really,” she laughed, then quickly clarified. “It wasn’t like a role, it wasn’t just play-acting. I come from a family of four kids and for me it’s very important, family is one of the important things.”

dedh-ishqiya-5vOn-set stories about Dixit revolve around an extraordinary work-ethic. “We were doing one of the songs,” recalled Soumik Sen, “and at around 12pm, lunchtime, she called me into her van and the first thing she asked me was ‘Do you have this location day after?’ and I was surprised but said yes. ‘Do you have the other artists day after?’ Yes. Then she broke the news that she’d been having a migraine attack since morning, and had been dancing with that. Now she said it’s getting too much, she’s had two pills, and it’s not gotten any better. If she feels okay, she’ll resume shooting, otherwise if I could please excuse her? It’s unbelievable for someone to ask you these questions first.”

Abhishek Chaubey was as thunderstruck, on the first day of shooting for Dedh Ishqiya, when she asked him, “in a very childlike way, ‘Was I good?’ It was a very innocent and very vulnerable moment, one where she was admitting ‘I could have fucked up, did I do it badly?’ It could have been an 18-year-old actor trying out a scene for the first time; that nervousness was there.”

It’s a good sign, the appetite remaining as desperate. Or is that the only way forward? Like Amitabh Bachchan over the last decade, is she forced to embrace the outlandish, the unexpected, in order to stay relevant? Is she choosing not to do a commercial vehicle opposite Salman Khan, or will that not be offered to her at all? Or has she found enough calm in order to do what she likes? She appreciates the edgier new filmmakers, and rattles off praise for virtually every young actress, from Kangna Ranaut to Priyanka Chopra, singling out the latter as a personal favourite. But don’t expect her to play mommy to them just yet. “I don’t feel like that yet, you know? I mean,” she burst out laughing, those irresistible ding-a-ling chimes, “my kids are just 8 and 10! I mean, what the hell? Let them be 25, and then I’ll play mother.” The laughter rings out genuine, secure, unafraid.

The Bachchan analogy draws itself. The late 90s saw Amitabh age gracelessly into self-parody unfortunate films like Laal Baadshah and Sooryavansham. Then came a television gameshow. So big became the actor in the role of the Kaun Banega Crorepati anchor that he sprung back into relevance, taking on a mixed bagful of roles. While not the leading man, he built up a new niche filmmakers were forced to respond to: despite him playing the hero’s father, the role had to be a textured one. This led to other senior actors – Rishi Kapoor being a prime example  – finding fresher and more challenging roles now than in their prime.

Several older actresses are doing interesting stuff. Shabana Azmi, for example, continues to shine despite her age with roles as varied as witch, don, affectionate mother and manipulative politician. But as an arthouse actress, she doesn’t have the commercial cache required to make producers and filmmakers change the way they write roles. When Madhuri Dixit does a small film, it doesn’t remain a small film.

By playing dyke and dacoit in the same breath, then, Dixit has blown the bloody doors off, in terms of perception and possibility. Thanks to her – and Sridevi, whose English Vinglish was a runaway smash – Hindi cinema is poised to create a space that didn’t really exist, at least for the commercial movie heroine. Suddenly it appears possible for actresses to stay pertinent despite conventional diktats of age or marital status or a certain kind of look. And she might not even have to dance.

~

MD2During her all-conquering 90s, it was easy to draw parallels between Madhuri and Julia Roberts – an amazingly successful star with an iconic smile, and paychecks as big as the boys – but things have changed. In Dedh Ishqiya, she delivers a finely etched, wonderfully-balanced effort, a breezy but brilliant performance that shows just how far she has travelled, from heroine to actress. Somewhere in the mid-90s – between Beta and Anjaam, I’d estimate – she grew aware of the breadth of her narrative range and started steering clear of false-notes since. This clarity, of precisely how taut one’s own tightrope is, is what makes an actor find her zone and begin to excel, and Dixit seems perfectly equipped to take on genuinely mature roles. Now, with an increased willingness for bowling-ball-sized risks, there is an emerging possibility for sculpting complicated characters and mature performances. Like, say, Meryl Streep. Of all the veterans revered for their acting, she’s the only one who consistently remains a leading lady, by any measure —  a red-carpet favourite, an industry icon, an influential actress, monopoliser of awards… A star. A Meryl Streep film, no matter its budget, can’t quite remain a small film.

Madhuri yelped at the mention of Streep. “That’s a big shoe to fill though! I just want to be different. I want to surprise with each film I do next.” Speaking of Hollywood influences, Streep “obviously” is the first name she took, but the choice of the second was rather tell-tale. “The new girl, Jennifer Lawrence. She just gets into whatever role she’s playing and she’s so young and it’s crazy.” She went on to mention actresses as varied as Angelina Jolie and Helen Mirren, and positively gushed over Cate Blanchett’s astonishing turn in Blue Jasmine, but the very fact that she’s citing a 23-year-old wunderkind as an influence shows how serious she is about not playing ma just yet.

She might not have to, honestly. The “heroine-oriented film” might have been box office blasphemy back in the 90s, but things are evolving. Vidya Balan was the hero in The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, as was Kangna Ranaut in Queen, and the audience showered those films with grateful applause. Dixit feels we are giving women more textured parts. “She plays a character now. It’s not just a revenge drama, and she’s not either avenger or victim, which is what heroine-oriented films used to mean.” She’s also gratified that female characters can now be unapologetic, without needing to justify whatever ambitions they might have. “Earlier you had to think that abhi aesa dikhaaenge toh audience might not like it; there’s a sick brother and uske liye kucch karna hai and that’s why she’s a cabaret dancer.”

A pivotal development in aid of extraordinary performers and performances in current cinema is the fact that hits and flops don’t matter like they used to. Not to actors, anyway. Now an actress can feature in a warmly-applauded flop and use the momentary acclaim to springboard toward her next project, ideally one with more visibility. It isn’t foolproof — and kismet can’t be cheated — but there are more chances and better odds for the talented, with even the looniest Hindi blockbusters now aiming at casting a richer ensemble. It is a highly promising time to be a strong actor, with newspapers and magazines looking beyond the usual, starry suspects to cast their applause. In Irrfan Khan, Rajkumarr Rao and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, we are beginning to see the rise of the unconventional leading man. The women aren’t far behind, and while there aren’t Streep-shaped roles quite yet, if this lady has her way, we might find the superheroine we’ve longed for.

The game is on. It’s been 26 years since Ek Do Teen, and Madhuri Dixit still counts.

~

An edited version of this piece appeared in Caravan Magazine, June 2014

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20 reasons Pulp Fiction is better than your favourite film

On 23 May 1994, a film called Pulp Fiction won the Palme D’or at the Cannes film festival. Twenty years on, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece is hailed as an absolute classic, and is arguably the single most influential film made in the last fifty years. It defied screenwriting rules, courses with wit and originality and is the very opposite of square, daddy-o.

To commemorate twenty years of worship, here are twenty things about Pulp Fiction that make it better than your favourite film, no matter what it may be. The Godfather didn’t have a katana; 400 Blows didn’t discuss a Royale With Cheese; Breathless didn’t have Mrs Mia Wallace; Vertigo didn’t have The Wolf; and Casablanca is sorely lacking in shots of adrenaline.

In appropriately non-chronological order, then, here goes:

1. The scripture-quoting

Preachers do it, bad guys do it, zealots do it, teachers do it, even educated fleas do it — But nobody ever quoth The Bible like Jules Winnfield. Played by Samuel L Jackson, Winnfield chews the angry words with great deliberation before spitting them out with, as he says, furious anger. So memorably impassioned is Jackson’s Biblical spiel that his misquoted version of Ezekiel 25:17 has become bigger than the real thing.

2. The five-dollar milkshake

Five dollars was a lot to pay for a milkshake back in 1994, something even a well-tailored hitman like Vincent Vega (John Travolta) understood  while entertaining his boss’ wife, Mrs Mia Wallace, at her favourite 50s-themed restaurant, Jack Rabbit Slims. Vega acknowledges the milkshake is pretty good “though I don’t know if its worth five dollars” but when we see Mia, played by Uma Thurman, sip it while looking over at Vincent, we realise Tarantino could have chosen no better beverage to underscore comfortable silences.

3. The Wolf

Like a criminal concierge, The Wolf comes in and takes care of the situation, whatever (and however bloody) the situation may be. He’s in charge, curtand always fast because time, for him, is the most vital factor. Played by Harvey Keitel, he’s an invaluable character with one of the sharpest lines in all of Pulp: “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”

4. Personality

The two enforcers are at a diner. Vincent offers Jules some bacon. Jules passes on it, saying he doesn’t dig swine, because pigs are filthy animals. Vincent (justifiably) argues in favour of the merits of bacon and pork chops, but Jules isn’t dissuaded.

Jules: Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.

Vincent: How about a dog? Dog eats its own feces.

Jules: I don’t eat dog either.

Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they’re definitely dirty. But… a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.

5. Misirlou

Pulp Fiction kicks off with an innocuous conversation that suddenly but assuredly leads to a hold-up. Just when the victims are screamed at, Tarantino cuts to his opening credits, kicking off an inspired musical choice, Dick Dale’s rendition of Misirlou, the ferevishly-plucked surf rock guitar-track setting the stage for the riot of colour and character and carnage Quentin would lay upon us. It was a choice of music so iconic that it resurrected Dale’s career, introducing the veteran to a new, hungrily appreciative audience.

6. The gold watch

Many a film involves a protagonist’s quest for a family heirloom, but things are wholly different with Butch Coolidge’s gold watch, passed on through the men in the family ever since World War I. The line from Coolidge man to Coolidge man is mostly unbroken save for the time Captain Koons, a friend of Butch’s father, stashed the watch up his rectum while the two were prisoners of war. The one and only Christopher Walken plays Koons and delivers the monologue so expertly that — for all its scatological hilarity — it remains touching.

7. The adrenaline

Mrs Mia Wallace, the white-shirted fox eager to powder her nose, mistakes a baggie of heroin she finds in Vincent Vega’s pocket for poorly ground cocaine and gives it a quick snort. Soon, she’s convulsing and Vega’s panicking. He takes her to his dealer, Lance, who — frightened and clueless — reads from a little medical book, following which, in a harrowing (and perfectly shot) moment, Vince and Lance stab her in the chest with an adrenaline shot — a scene filmed in reverse so as not to break Uma Thurman’s breastplate — and she sits up.

8. The Urge Overkill

As audiences, however, the very act of meeting Mrs Mia Wallace might be the most thrilling of all, thanks to the way the foot-fetishising filmmaker shoots her in pieces — back of head, feet, tiptoeing feet, waltzing feet — after her slender hand hits play on a hi-fi and Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” comes through the speakers, ours and hers. Except it’s not Diamond’s version but a cover by Urge Overkill, a cover that arguably betters the original.

9. Gourmet coffee and corpses

Our two favourite hitmen are being hosted by the director himself playing Jules’s buddy, Jimmie, who is giving them some gourmet coffee while they figure out what to do with a corpse in a car they’ve driven to Jimmie’s place. Quentin, ever-comfortable mouthing angry profanity, is at his best, furious at the men for bringing a dead man to his house — largely because he needs it up and cleaned before his wife, a nurse called Bonnie, comes back home.

10. The twist and the trophy

On his date with Mrs Mia Wallace, Vincent isn’t keen to dance. As he’d told Jules earlier, he planned to “sit across from her, chew my mouth with my mouth closed, laugh at her f***ing jokes, and that’s it.” Except the boss’s wife isn’t used to hearing a no, and thus do Uma Thurman and John Travolta memorably burn up the dance-floor. And memorable as their twisting to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell is, it’s not enough to win “the world famous Jack Rabbit Slims Twist Contest,” so while we see them giggling and running into the house, trophy in hand, it’s actually a trophy they’ve stolen from the place — as the radio informs us.

11. Mongoloid

Played by Bruce Willis, Butch Coolidge is a fading boxer who — after having taken money from mob boss Marsellus Wallace to throw a fight — accidentally kills his opponent in the ring. He comes home, shaken, to his lovely girlfriend Fabienne, played by Maria de Medeiros. Their pillow-talk is wonderfully disjointed, during which she says she’d love to have a pot-belly and he casually calls her mongoloid, then compensating by calling her a beautiful tulip. “Ah, I like that,” says Fabienne softly. “I like tulip. Tulip is much better than mongoloid.”

12. Marvin

In the funniest — and most horrifying — scene of the film, Jules and Vincent are driving along with a hostage, a young boy called Marvin, in the back seat. Vincent’s waving his gun around as he talks, and very suddenly his gun goes off and Marvin’s head splatters all over the car. It’s the most bizarre of accidents, one that leads to a side-splitting conversation between the hitmen arguing about the mess. It’s a singularly disturbing scene, one where Tarantino shows us a truly gruesome moment but masterfully makes sure we laugh instead of care. Scarily good manipulation, that.

13. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny

Sitting in the same diner Pulp Fiction starts and ends with, “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) are a couple conversing casually about how liquor stores shouldn’t be robbed anymore. They’re weaselly, fascinating from the minute we first see them, and more than a bit stupid — Pumpkin even calls the waitress “Garçon,” meaning boy in French. And boy, do they pick the wrong day for a robbery.

14. Amsterdam

Vincent has just gotten back from Amsterdam, a country of hash-bars and legal marijuana, and Jules is utterly fascinated by this odd legality and by Europe as a whole — especially when he hears about being served beer in a McDonalds, a quarter-pounder with cheese called a “royale with cheese” in France, and the fact that in Holland they drown french fries in mayonnaise instead of ketchup.

15. “Ketchup.”

Ketchup, in turn, happens to be the one-word punchline for the kindergarden-sized joke Mrs Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega at the end of their eventful night together. It’s a joke from a failed TV pilot she acted in called Fox Force Five. She’s embarrassed to tell it, and they both know it isn’t funny, but in the telling — and coming right after her almost having died — it is a remarkably tender moment, almost achingly romantic.

16. The foot-massage debate.

Just how inappropriate is it to give your boss’s wife a foot massage? A conversation as long and intricate as the unbroken tracking shot following the two men having it, this is a Pulp Fiction centrepiece. Jules and Vincent, on their way to a potentially lethal shootout, discuss the magnitude of the sin, disproportionately violent reactions, technique, foot-massage mastery, until — finally — Vincent says he’s getting tired and could use a massage himself, much to Jules’ ire.

17. The katana

Chased by Marsellus Wallace, Butch lands in a pawnshop where the owner and his friend — a chopper-motorcycle owner named Zed — capture them at gunpoint and decide to make their own, well, entertainment in the basement. A leather-covered ‘gimp’ is released, and Marsellus (played by Ving Rhames) is debased and sodomised. Butch, having freed himself by knocking out the gimp, goes up to the shop and — weighing the considerable options available — picks out a big katana to go save Wallace.

18. The Big Kahuna Burger

All that talk about quarter-pounders is clearly weighing on Jules’ mind when he walks into a room and towers over three young boys, one of whom is eating a burger. It’s from a new Hawaiian burger joint Jules hasn’t tried yet, and — gun in intimidating hand — he asks the “kid,” Brett, if he can try his burger. Jules thoroughly endorses this Big Kahuna burger, lamenting his girlfriend’s vegetarianism — “which pretty much makes me a vegetarian” — with his every casual word scarier and scarier, especially the noisy slurp as he tries Brett’s Sprite, while Samuel L Jackson builds to an unpredictable, brutal crescendo.

19. The briefcase

What is in Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, the case Jules and Vincent went to pick up from Brett? The case that made Vincent whistle, casting a glow on his face?  The combination is 666, the number of the beast. Add that to the fact that Marsellus has a band-aid at the back of his skull, leading many obsessive viewers to think Wallace’s soul is in the case. Tarantino’s answer was always that the case was a mere Macguffin, a box with an orange light-bulb in it during filming — but then he’s always been one for hidden meanings.

pulp-quote20. The definition.

The movie opens with a dictionary definition of the word Pulp, printed in white text on a black background, with Tarantino offering a self-referential hint of the events to follow.

~

First published Rediff, May 23, 2014

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Review: Rajni’s Kochadaiyaan is a bad puppet show

koch1Holy subtext, Batman. Rajinikanth stands amid a collection of statues, pretending to be his own effigy. Deepika Padukone, the patroness who has commissioned said sculpture, looks appraisingly over Rajni’s body, halting at his bottom. This should really be a little ampler, she complains to the carver, following which Rajinikanth — who had, for some inexplicable reason, kept butt-cheeks clenched in an attempt to look more lifeless — now sticks out his Superstar bum, on cue. “Arre waah!”, exclaims Deepika, who clearly has unholy designs on her latest purchase.

God help us all.

Speaking of unholy designs, this film is one. Kochadaiyaan, which apparently means “long-maned warrior king” might as well now stand for “an unending round of Sims played by someone drunk on toddy.” This is a loud, unforgivably tacky production, handicapped not merely by substandard animation but a complete lack of imagination. Directed by the star’s daughter, Soundarya Rajinikanth Ashwin, Kochadaiyaan has the primary problem most Indian animation faces — that of scripts written for regular films shoehorned into an animated format instead of writing specifically for animation — but this time the motive is a unique one: a fountain of youth.

Thalaivar is getting older, and a significant part of the country is in denial. Now clearly too old to play ass-kicking, punchline-hurling twirler of cigarettes, this is an attempt at keeping Rajinikanth eternally young. It is an ambitious idea, one that in theory could eventually force today’s stars to move over and let the old guard reign forever (like one of the voice actors on The Simpsons, a television show that will outlive us all.) It isn’t an altogether bad — or altogether new — idea, and, personally, I often envision the day a digitally crafted Sean Connery can play James Bond again, but as the first genuine megastar anywhere to gamble on the idea, it must be said Rajinikanth stumbles quite woefully.

koch2Kochadaiyaan‘s severest sin is vanity. In its desperation to make Rajni more awesome than he ever was, the animators don’t seem to have concentrated anywhere besides his face. The film itself begins with thousands of people depicted in gold, as if a novice 3DStudio Max operator in the 90s had just stumbled upon metallic textures and excitedly let loose, a reckless Midas. Even though colours eventually appear, the many extras aren’t paid any attention, coming across purely as puppets. The true cruelty, however, is reserved for Superstar’s hapless co-stars.

Jackie Shroff, for example, would be well within his rights to ask that the animated version of himself be made less jowly, and even, since this is indeed animation, restore the General Alcazar-like jaw from his own glory days. And as for the striking Deepika Padukone, she is here cursed with a seriously creepy grin —  a la the new Anushka Sharma — and a Barbie-body that moves sometimes like a mermaid and sometimes like a skittish salamander. She looks fine enough in profile with her mouth closed, but the rest of the time she — she of the abnormally wide mouth — looks like she wants to crack open her hero’s head and slurp down boiled Rajni brain.

The film’s plot isn’t a particularly bad one — though it is a tad tiring to see Rajni do a Khaleesi and play slave-warrior politics — but this is one historical drama that creaks under its own weight. There are lots of wars and alliances and so forth, but even more songs, songs I wager AR Rahman composed while napping. The result is a painfully simple revenge drama made unbearable by bad animation and constant, constant fanfare — when it is this loud, it cannot justly be called background score.

Credit where it’s due, however, the chariots and elephants look pretty decent. (Up close, that is. When in a long-shot, marching together, all those cloned sprites look like the kind of screensaver BR Chopra would have used.)

Walking into this film, however, I had braced myself for the bad animation — and for Rajni towering over Deepika — because weak animation can never truly get in the way of good storytelling. Kochadaiyaan, alas, is a fundamentally flawed dud, one without anything to applaud besides grand (if self-glorifying) ambition. And little is as heartbreaking to witness as utterly failed ambition.

Rating: One star

~

First published Rediff, May 23, 2014

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Review: John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo

fg1John Turturro is not a beautiful man.

Which isn’t to say that he’s unsightly. Elegantly dressed and greying at the edges, he looks a bit like Al Pacino from Godfather 3 had he been walloped as a kid, and in Fading Gigolo — a film where beautiful women can’t help but fall for him hook, line and wallet — you kinda see what they see. You don’t see Barton Fink or Herb Stempel or Bernie Bernbaum, you see a graceful man wearing Vincent Cassel jumpers and smiling a lopsided, vaguely confident smile.

That, and he loves them tender enough to make Elvis proud.

It is this tenderness that sneaks up on the viewer in this wonderfully understated little delight, written and directed by Turturro, that gluttonously scene-stealing actor. Fading Gigolo starts off almost ludicrously whimsical and yet ends up bittersweet, a flaky tiramisu with a melancholic aftertaste. Lovely.

The laughs come — almost wholly — from Woody Allen, performing for a director other than himself after decades. Woody’s a treat. He inhabits his well-worn nebbish role, but this film subtly coaxes him out of his neurotic shell: he’s still all tics and half-phrased sentences and constant consternation, but his lines here, stripped of their persistent self-doubt, enjoy some of the delightful omniscience of his short stories. Physically, too, he’s in less familiar space, living with a dominant black woman, teaching hassidic kids baseball in a park and, more than anything, playing a newly-minted pimp eager to call himself Dan Bongo.

fg2Turturro, his whore, is a sensitive florist called Fioravante, a man coerced into the world’s oldest profession by Allen’s Murray, who, in turn, feels there is a remarkable profit to be had in these things. There is a terrific bit between the two — the agent and the goods — about percentages. How much seems apropos, wonders Murray, in a world where art-dealers get half the money from a painting? 60-40, he thus offers, assuring his friend that the split is “favouring you.”

Fioravante doesn’t mind. He seems above the banalities of tip-sharing, more intrigued by the thought of fulfilling fantasies by stepping into the role of a lifetime. Prone to drop a devastating line or two in Italian, he comes up with ‘Virgil Howard’ as his, well, nom-de-bedroom, if you will, and treats his clients with sensitivity and silence. He seems to know the answers they want, and whispers the right nothings to sweeten them up. The results are dynamite, and his Midafternoon Cowboy is clearly a hit.

But the women, actresses familiar to us, are none of them what we expect. Sharon Stone, still striking, wears a haunted look that makes her more compelling than she’s been in ages; Sofia Vergara is fascinating as a basketball aficionado with her preferences set in stone; and the beautiful Vanessa Paradis, above all, is a rabbi’s widow who is irresistibly touching and impossible to touch. There is much to delve into with these ladies and their lives, and all of it is worth discovering without me playing spoilsport and writing out the lyrics to their songs.

An ode to Brooklyn, Turturro’s film is filled with a jaunty jazz soundtrack — putting the jig in gigolo, as it were — and is evocatively shot by Marco Pontecorvo, atypical New York views framed with dramatic flair and used as traditional backdrops. It stays away from pretension, and cleverly nudges insight our way without pushing it down our throats. There are well-measured silences, narrative hiccups and lulls, and while the film itself changes gears unpredictably enough, the filmmaker’s craft remains assuredly classical. It is a film with simple ambition and one that gives lovers of smaller movies hope: At a time when indie movies are increasingly taking pride in their verbal and grammatical incoherence, Fading Gigolo is evidence that a movie doesn’t have to mumble to be modest.


Rating: 4 stars


(First published Rediff, May 16, 2014)


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Review: Amole Gupte’s Hawaa Hawaai

hh1It is a rare and wondrous thing when students genuinely admire a teacher.

I remember sniggering cruelly many years ago when my kid brother, extolling the virtues of one of those self-aggrandising heads of tuition institutes, resolutely referred to him as “Sir Vipin” instead of “Vipin Sir,” convinced of his greatness and boardexam-beating power. Growing up, we’re naturally disposed unfavourably toward teachers, but the few who shine through and make us believe also win us over completely. Merely being their student becomes a point of young pride, and we begin thus to look to them for perfection, unreasonably expecting flawlessness and answers to everything.

It’s stunning, faith. And this is the wide-eyed keenness Amole Gupte captures so well in Hawaa Hawaai, where a skating-instructor is merrily deified by his adoring children, hoisted by them onto a rockstar-high pedestal. “Lucky Sir, Lucky Sir”, they chime in unison (younger but wiser than my knighthood-conferring sibling, clearly) as their sharp-eyed teacher shows up to an empty parking lot — and encourages them to fly.

Lucky Sir happens to be sitting in a wheelchair while cheering the kids on, but this doesn’t stop eager tea-boy Arjun from instinctively recognising a superhero. He sees the swish kids swoosh around on their rollerblades and dreams of wheels on his own feet, and the film is about following those dreams, come what may.

It’s a smart angle for the film, too. Rollerblades, by their very nature — that of something normal stuck onto something normal to make something relatively extraordinary — lend themselves perfectly to the Do-It-Yourself concept, and armed with an ensemble of talented (and adorable) youngsters, Gupte affectionately crafts a truly sweet underdog story. Modelled on those American movies where fathers and sons build flimsy soapbox-racers that go on to beat karts many times as expensive, Hawaa Hawaai is simple but wonderful. It’s a well-textured and etched film, one refreshingly lacking in villains — even the richest, chubbiest kid isn’t a meanie — and one that heartbreakingly but smilingly illustrates the disparity between the kids shown in the film and the kids who can afford to buy theatre tickets to watch this film. Which is exactly why you should drag every kid you care about to this movie.

It is also the kind of film that may well have been dismissed as cloying, predictable or manipulative, but so stridently does Gupte’s sincerity shine through that cynicism is left at the door very early on. The film opens with a father singing an ode to the daily bread while a mother makes chapatis, and this, naturally, is a massive gamble, a move that could make the film seem dated, stagey and too much of a morality tale, but Gupte (who literally sings this song) endows this basic moment with such heart and warmth that it serves only to make the audience feel cosier about the idea of a moral lesson.

hh2Played by Gupte’s son Partho, Arjun is an indefatigable youngster, a well-raised boy who wears a constant smile to fend off hard times. Partho is a fine actor and an irresistibly cute kid — with superb Hindi elocution —  and Gupte surrounds him with a quartet of kids who are every bit his equal. These four — Gochi (Ashfaque Khan), Bhura (Salman Khan), Abdul (Maaman Menon) and Murugan (Tirupati Krishnapelli) — play homeless kids working several rungs below minimum wage, and they make for an amazing entourage, the real wheels pushing Arjun ahead. It’s hard not to smile (and sob) at them

Saqib Saleem, one of those naturally talented actors lacking in false notes, plays Lucky, and he’s a great fit for Gupte’s cinema considering how his performances hinge on believability instead of bluster. His is a more demanding character than initially apparent, and Saleem handles it well. He takes one look at Arjun’s homemade skates and incredulously dubs him his Eklavya, his ‘unworthy’ student and true champion, and thus do the kids begin calling him “Eklaava.” Most of the cast is on the money: Makarand Deshpande is beatific and blissed out as Arjun’s father, Neha Joshi is terrific as the boy’s mother, and it’s always good to see Razzak Khan grin. But the kids are the champs.

This is a brisk, enjoyable film, and while the climactic race is somewhat marred by an overdose of melodrama — Gupte’s far better at subtler strokes than the few broad ones he tries — it is rare to find a Hindi film hero more deserving of our cheers than Arjun. That unfortunate hint of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in the final race doesn’t alter the fact that this is an earnest, important and evocative film.

Important? Yes. Gupte’s first film, the marvellous Stanley Ka Dabba was better-realised cinematically and held more to cherish, but Hawaa Hawaai tries to bite off more. And while its larger point about farmer suicides certainly ought have been handled more subtly, at least this film — like its characters — goes for broke. And that’s what makes it special. Or, as Arjun would say, “peshal.”

Rating: 3.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, May 8, 2014

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My first review ever: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2

The thing about spiders is: We don’t like them. Either creepily hairy or disconcertingly spindly, they refuse us even the common decency of being stealthy, commonly wallowing in out discomfort as they slothfully crawl in and out of sight. Their web spinning abilities, while nothing short of awesomely miraculous, strike us, at best, as icky. A testament to their unpopularity can be seen even the popularist Disney universe — where unsavory creatures are given the chance to blossom into heroes, arachnids are singled out as mustachioed villains. The magnificent, unparalleled symmetry of the web is unfairly, undeniably, shadowed by the perception of the spider as icky.

Herein lies Peter Parker’s essential dilemma. Straddling dual lives, each of which is a full, hectic battle in itself: the conflicting, constant, workaday life of the average superhero; and the more demanding, exhausting life of a young student working to put himself through college while trying to deal with love. The latter is a life we’ve all been familiar with, and the former is essentially what we go through in terms of mental battles, nightmares and trauma poured into lycra and sporting ridiculous monikers. As he swings from the Empire State Building and scoops up almost-alight kiddies to safety, the public still isn’t sure whether to actually like him: he’s a spider, darn it.

spidey2Spiderman Two opens with possibly the most brilliant recap of events in recent popcorn history: Danni Elfman’s striking score, cobwebs set against blood red, framing stunning Alex Ross illustrations of events gone by in the first film. By the time the credits end, we are reacquainted with a story we have not forgotten, and thirsty to see more. And Sam Raimi delivers. From the first shot, the film lays on Peter’s life being an actual embodiment of Murphy’s Law: Everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

After a breathtaking opening with Spiderman flying across madly to deliver Pizza in time, swinging in surreal CGI arcs with fabulous élan, there is a shot of Peter Parker struggling to exit the broom closet — brooms falling sequentially like persistent dominoes as he merely, clutzily attempts to just push them together long enough to squeeze himself out of there. This shot, of a superhero fast enough to dodge bullets and fists with unreal panache, being just a geeky little nervous kid, is worthy of standing applause and sets the tone for the film. Despite genetically arachnid superpowers and a rocking costume, Spiderman is well and truly human.

Cinematically, this is truly a commendable effort. New York is highly stylized, very affectionately — a visual ode to a beautiful city, loyal enough to evoke memories of the great Allen himself. Often, celluloid hats are tipped to masters of cinema obviously inspirational to Raimi, an eclectic selection of influences from the aforementioned Woody (I swear I could see a couple of Manhattan-style framings in there) to Martin Scorsese (as Spidey swings over the Goodfellas boroughs). The screenplay, contributed to by novelist and comic-book lover Michael Chabon, with dialogues crafted superbly by the award-winning Alvin Sargent, is outstanding, and forms a terrific core for Raimi to work around, but that shouldn’t take anything at all away from the director — this is totally Sam’s film.

When Peter Parker manages to get to the theatre on time, despite all odds, he is foiled by a snooty usher, played to utter, frustrating perfection by Bruce Campbell, reprising his cameo status in the franchise [he played the cocky wrestling announcer in the first part, plucking ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ name out of thin air and throwing it around Pete’s neck] — a time when Raimi fans will nudge each other excitedly and yelp, ‘The Chin! The Chin!,’ referring to the nickname for the actor from the cult Evil Dead series. Sam Raimi, one of those Tarantinoesque movie geeks with a love for self-indulgent referencing, gives movie buffs enough to obsess about for months: a particularly obvious place to start would be to be the operating room scene with the dismembered arm and the chainsaw, a direct doff to Evil Dead II.

Tobey Maguire has done for superheroes what Tom Cruise did for fighter airplanes a couple of decades ago: given them life. A wonderfully talented young actor, Tobey breathes – awkwardness, humour, charisma – lovingly into Peter Parker, making him as real a protagonist as any. A couple of years ago, there were doubts as to whether his shoulders were strong enough to carry the Spiderman legacy — now he has made the role his own. There was injury-led speculation that he might not have done the sequel, but he did, and we are blessed. Kudos, Mr. Maguire, thanks for coming back.

The cast is deliciously accurate: JK Simmons brings J Jonah Jameson right out of the pages of the comic, and steals the show whenever he appears with consummate ease and great one-liners; the fantastic Alfred Molina makes a splendid Doc Ock, balancing unerringly the diverse requirements of focused professor, warm mentor, and mad scientist; James Franco, while not in a stellar role as Harry Osborne, does what is needed for his character to come away more positively this time around; and Rosemary Harris tackles the role of Aunt May so well that the only trite bits of speech in the script, destined to otherwise appear jaded, take on the mantle of sincerity, and she wields a feisty umbrella.

Spiderman Two is a really good movie. Not just a good superhero movie, for it is the best by far in the genre, but simply a wonderful bit of Hollywood summer cinema, a classically entertaining film setting Raimi on par with the Messiahs of Mainstream, Spielberg and Lucas — storytellers pouring forth action/emotion on the screen, using CGI demons as metaphor and giving us glorious moments of celluloid joy. The synthesis between the animated Spiderman and Tobey is indeed excellent, but the highlights are Doc Ock’s arms, which slither into a menacing life of their own.

Comic-book lovers will freak over this movie, for it is the parting of the red sea and the dawn of hope —  A delectable smorgasbord of references, allusions, and the finest written dialogue ever in the genre, hosting hundreds of tiny in-jokes fans will spend ages dissecting gleefully. But even for one who has never read a comic book, this is a truly enjoyable experience, a tremendous popcorn flick with heaps of humour, action, romance, SFX and eye-candy, and the one thing that sets a good film apart, leotards or not: a story that is really good. I simply feel sorry for those who do not like this film, for they have become too cynical to appreciate a story with heart.

There are parts in this film where Sam Raimi outdoes himself so completely we are awed into disbelief. There is a sublime, delightfully mature shot where Peter is offered romance, cloaked in chocolate cake and milk, and a moment where he almost says yes to the pretty, nervous landlord’s daughter, Ursula Ditkovich [a not-so subtle salute to Spidey co-creator Steve Ditko]. There is a touching, excellent montage where ‘Raindrops are falling on my head’ is re-contextualised with unbelievable panache, appropriately on the freshest-faced young talent since Butch Cassidy himself. There is more, but one could go on forever. Watch it.

But the true applause — one would say standing ovation but Mr. Raimi has ensured knees buckling — must be saved for the surprises. Weaned on massive hype, teasers, trailers, and reports of varying accuracy, I was confident this film had nothing that would shock me. I have never been so wrong, and fell conveniently for Raimi’s ingenious red herrings. After momentarily reeling with massive plot twist after other, I began to glimpse into the larger picture. Like the Wilde play Mary Jane acts in, The Importance Of Being Earnest, Raimi too is scripting a story in three acts — the groundbreaking revelations and the shattering veneer at the end of Act Two [while bringing up questions galore for Three], therefore, integral to the scheme of things. Can’t believe we have to wait three years.

spidey2bThe best part about having a director with a sense of humour is letting his audience get sucked into traps. During a fight between Spidey and Doc Ock, Aunt May is tossed up the side of a building, and she sticks her brolly out and hooks a ledge. This is such a painful cliché that we groan and are almost annoyed at how obvious this is, and just when we begin to get jaded with the predictability of the movie, Aunt May slips off.

And lands on a ledge, one foot below her, safe as ever. The umbrella tenterhook turns out to be suspense that never was, the theatre of the anticlimactic. Brilliant.

The build-up of the film, like the thundering claw-beats of Doctor Octopus, thuds into the heart harder and incessantly faster throughout the two hours. I have never been entirely supportive of Kirsten Dunst as Ms Watson, always advocating a vivacious, drop-dead gorgeous, Heather Graham-type instead, but she carries off her glorified damsel-in-distress role well in this film, and screams magnificently, justifying Raimi’s love for her. And, when at the end of the movie, she says the words — and these are words my Spidey-worshipping heart is mouthing incredulously, lines before she actually says them — “Go get ‘em, Tiger!”, my brain has an orgasm, the theatre explodes with ecstasy, and Spiderman Two climaxes into greatness.

~

 

First published Rediff, July 27, 2004

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Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Marvel Comics is known as The House Of Ideas. Many a memorable character lives at Marvel, and scores of writers and artists — of unquestioned eagerness but varying degrees of talent — are given cracks at bat with the company’s caped mascots, taking their stories further and carving new thrills while not ruffling the status quo too much. Naturally, this results in a wonderful unpredictability, with sub-par superheroes often lucking out and finding truly ingenious writers, and massively iconic heroes skulking around in poorly written and drawn panels. (For example, while there isn’t a single solid current comic featuring fan-favourite Wolverine, the adventures of the least interesting Avenger Hawkeye are top drawer right now.)

asm2And thus, for over 50 years of issues, we true Spider-Man believers have ridden the roulette wheel, knowing that for every fine writer and great story arc we’re also going to get some hacks who throw up clones and Faustian deals and the occasional illegitimate lovechild. We’re used to it, and like Peter Parker, that greatest of comic-book heroes, we take the rough with the smooth. And right this minute, while the Spidey comics are enjoying a significantly smashing streak, it is clear the Spider-Man movies have fallen into the wrong hands.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a drag. It pains me to say this, but Marc Webb’s film is a total downer, a film lacking in smarts, ambition or spirit. I began my career as a film critic ten years ago with this review of Spider-Man 2 — Sam Raimi’s excellent film that remains the gold standard for the superhero genre — and it hurts to cap a decade with a complaint about a sub-par reboot instead of a celebration of the spider.

This is an unforgivably boring film, and while it may not seem as instantly objectionable as Sam Raimi’s monstrous Spider-Man 3, it must be marked that at least the older film failed because of ambition, because of trying to do too much. Webb’s new film, on the other hand, is inexplicably slow and torpid, a haphazard and amateurish affair where the seams show all too glaringly. Save for a couple of relatively funny lines — and the devastating climax — there is nothing worth remembering in this painfully generic film.

I didn’t expect to be saying this, but a big part of the problem is Andrew Garfield. He’s a bright, gifted actor who certainly possesses a distinctive edgy charm, but for some reason he continues to play Peter Parker as elusive and sullen. There’s an angsty cockiness to him better suited to a tween vampire film, and while Garfield is disarmingly natural, he falls a far way from actually being likeable. It’s hard to relate to — not to mention root for — a Peter Parker so brusque, so easily irked by those he loves, and harder still not to yearn for his predecessor Tobey Maguire, who made Peter’s all-important earnestness come alive. Spidey’s a quip-flinging whippersnapper, sure, but that’s because Peter’s a good kid who pulls on an overcompensatory flamboyant persona along with that mask. In the (much better) first Garfield film, a lot could be chalked to the character’s confusion, but here Peter seems like a jerk all his own.

Things are worsened by the filmmaker’s constant indecision. Aided by a bombastic soundtrack — 80s TV cop-show style blare for the opening chase with Rhino, synth-heavy chanting for Electro later on — the film looks to be put together by a committee, eager to throw in something for every focus group. This means lots of heavy-handed flashbacks, constantly unclear motivations for the characters, action sequences that refuse to do anything cool, ghosts from the old films (literal spectres appearing now to confuse Parker, as well as feeble echoes of action setpieces from Raimi’s Spider-films) and an awful lot of melodramatic hokum.

Much time is spent, for example, on the villain’s origins, but they are handled so unimaginatively that we’d be (much) better off with a voiceover saying “Oh, that guy’s Electro. He can control electricity.” What we’re given are backstories from the mid-90s, say Batman Forever style… and if we’re invoking Joel Schumacher to describe a Spider-Man film — at a time when even Captain America can have a seriously good movie — then it’s clear that both power and responsibility have begun to grate.

asm2gWhat does work is the girl. Emma Stone is sensational as Gwen Stacy, seemingly as baffled as we are re: the ill-humoured Mr Parker. She’s smart, snappy,  knocks every line straight out of the park, and conjures up quite the chemistry, enough even to make up for her too-slack hero. In a deft touch, she invariably seems to sense Peter’s presence nearby — her own SpiderSense, if you will — and we can’t blame Parker for asking her to keep that irresistible laugh “off the table.”

Readers of the comic are well aware that this film features a crucial scene with Gwen, and while Stone makes it pop, Webb and gang stretch it out way too much, and then proceeding to chicken out and completely reduce the stakes. Sheesh. (Not to spoil anything here, but if you’d really like to get a feel of Gwen and Peter, I suggest hunting up Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s lovely “Spider-Man: Blue” and imagining what Stone could have done with that as a script.) Aargh. The scene itself might be half-decent in isolation, and its chilling to see Stone mirror precisely what Stacy wore in the books, but a film this mediocre simply doesn’t earn such a landmark moment from the Spidey mythos. (It seems to know it, too, which is why it tries to move past it very clumsily.)

This is malarkey, malarkey that bores for eighty minutes before coming to life somewhat during the last hour. There’s some very conveniently resolved nuttiness regarding Parker’s parents, Dane DeHaan — a dead ringer for a slimy Gilbert Grape — showboats hammily as Harry Osborn, and there are more than a few unsubtle teases regarding upcoming villains. (Meeting a woman called Felicia or seeing schematics of The Vulture’s wings leading up to the next installment would normally be a mouthwatering prospect, but right now they seem threats filled with more exhausting backstory.)

One kid holds out hope, though.

One adorable little runt with thin-framed glasses and a science project looks at Spider-Man as his hero and doesn’t care what people say about him; he knows he’ll be back and he knows he’ll be better than ever. And therein lies the lesson for us as summer cinegoers: it’s okay to prefer Tony Stark or Black Widow right now — till Spidey falls into the right hands, that is. For now we can go home, turn up the real Spider-Man 2 and watch Peter Parker try to deliver pizza.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, May 1, 2014

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