Review: Pete Docter’s Inside Out

InsideOut1‘What is your favourite colour?’ I always found that a dashed impossible question. Purple leaps to mind because of how cool and wizardly it is; I’m partial to pretty girls in Yellow; Blue is the colour of ink and jazz and skies; and, like Ferraris, I look best in Scarlet — but then Holly Golightly made us realise how mean Red can be. There truly can be no one favourite colour, merely one best-suited for a moment. It’s as pointless as using one singular feeling to label a moment, a memory, a thought. At every given time, we’re a jumbled up mess, our feelings and emotions questioning and contradicting and second-guessing each other as they jostle for attention — and with Inside Out, Pixar’s latest and arguably finest film, we get a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes.

The film takes place inside the head of a little girl, Riley, an ice-hockey-loving 11-year-old moving with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. But woe is she, for San Francisco puts broccoli on their pizza. Disgust, a green glitter-haired sprite inside Riley’s head is appalled. Alongside her, astride a control bridge, are the red and inflammable Anger, the nerdy purple Fear, the despondent blue Sadness and — leading the pack — the giddily ebullient Joy, bright yellow and impossibly determined to keep Riley happy as can be.

This is a startlingly new landscape, even for the imagineers over at Pixar, and there is tremendous fun in watching these five emotions take turns at making Riley live and feel and react. Joy — voiced by the irrepressibly buoyant Amy Poehler — is an obvious favourite, not least because she looks a bit like Tinkerbell and because her motive is wanting Riley to be happy. So happy, in fact, that Joy chalks out a little circle and asks Sadness to stay within the lines. If you’re astonished by such an elegantly simple metaphor about Repression in an animated film, buckle up: this film goes deep. Significantly, psychologically, educatively deep.

Director Pete Docter has done something absolutely stunning here. Inside Out is certainly a candied Pixar adventure-comedy, wickedly witty and polished till it shines, and yet there is tremendous insight as the film intuitively and evocatingly zigzags through a brain. There are, for example, racks upon racks of bright coloured memories — like a giant gallery of M&Ms — of which some are fading and being forgotten, because of misuse and because they aren’t accessed often enough, but where some peculiar ones — a theme-tune to a gum commercial seen in childhood, say — are frequently tossed into the foreground of the brain, just for the heck of it, where it will persistently rattle around all day. There is Abstract Thought, which dices our characters into Picasso edges, and there is The Subconscious, “where they take all the troublemakers.”

InsideOut2

Inside Riley’s mother’s brain.

Choo-chooing somewhere in the distance is a locomotive, a literal Train Of Thought, and seemingly holding the structure together, formed out of Riley’s core memories, are her Islands Of Personality, themeparks inside her head for the things most important to her: Family, Hockey, Friendship, Honesty and Goofball — the last working well when Riley needs to make monkey-sounds with her parents. Things, naturally, go wrong somewhere near the control panel, and while much can be said about the grand adventure taking place inside Riley’s head — but why give it away? — the most glorious thing about Inside Out is that it meanders away from obvious storytelling and gives us room to think about ourselves. I, for example, caught myself wondering what islands I’d have inside my head. (Despite making a film that necessitates repeat viewings to capture all the multitiered genius of its confections, Docter makes it a point to make us wonder thus, nudging us briefly toward other brains, dog-brains and cat-brains and father-brains and, best of all, a Cool Girl brain, where the emotions eventually confess that “Being cool is so exhausting.”)

Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dias, is a perfectly nice girl, but the fun characters all lie within her. Joy is almost unbearably bouncy, and Poehler — with her Leslie Knope infallibility in place — nails the crucial balance; Mindy Kaling is sneeringly spot-on as Disgust; Richard Kind is wonderful as Bing Bong, an imaginary friend who cries candy and can “blow a mean nose”; and the film’s most nuanced performance comes from Phyllis Smith, making Sadness so darned irresistible. Inside Out’s crowning achievement may be the parity it achieves, the way it illustrates how one emotion isn’t better than another, that each is important and makes a difference. Why, sometimes you need to heat Anger up just to use it as a weapon. Thus it’s unfair to aim exclusively for happiness. (Could it be the yellow M&Ms don’t taste better than the others after all?)

insideout3A staggeringly original film, Inside Out is a cinematic miracle. There has quite frankly never been anything like it before, and it is an essential film for lovers of the movies, children, parents and inner-children everywhere. It is insightful, intoxicating and incredible, and when I was done with it, scrubbed and sobbed and sated, I felt I’d been scribbled on by Pixar crayons. The detailing is exquisite — Joy, using a french fry to do a pole-vault pauses to lick her salty fingers right after — Michael Giacchino’s music is fantastic, and there is something in the film to speak to each of us. I, for one, was particularly captivated by the sound-stage on which dreams were being produced, like a live television show with scripts and actors and directors… And what critic dare rebuke a film he’d pick over a dream?

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 26, 2015

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Review: Avinash Arun’s Killa

It is always hard to stay under the radar as you slip into a classroom, and much as young Chinmay wants to carry on undetected in a new school in a new little world, he’s singled out immediately and identified as the new student from the city who has won a scholarship. The 11-year-old cringes as the teacher forces the class to applaud him and then, immediately after that, tells the other students that all of them must, like Chinmay, win scholarships in the coming year: be so special, in short, that nobody remains special. Being told by the teacher that this city mouse, this ‘outsider’, is smarter than them immediately raises hackles. Chinmay, a fine student and square enough to fit right into his Camlin geometry box, is aghast. He isn’t sure he wants to be friends with these unruly, egg-headed small-town boys — but he desperately needs friends.

killa1As do we all, especially at a time when we seek to discover and find our own voices through them. Avinash Arun’s beautiful directorial debut, Killa, is a poetic and subtly philosophical rumination on childhood and displacement and the very notions of friendship. Chinmay’s father passed away a year ago and his mother is frequently transferred from job to job, with a smart but inevitably restless 11-year-old on her hands. There isn’t much money in the house — Chinmay frequently complains about the food — and yet his mother lays great importance on her son calling his classmates over for dinner; because sometimes making ends meet is less important than making friends eat.

It is a melancholic film, to be sure, but one that breathes thoughtfully, like its quiet protagonist. Arun’s film is anchored by brilliant performances — Archit Davadhar comes across as wonderfully impressionable as Chinmay, Amruta Subhash is heartbreakingly good as his mother, and Parth Bhalerao is a hoot as messy scamp Bandya — but Killa is made truly special by its calm and understated storytelling, the way its narrative displays a fluid ebb and flow. The restraint is stunning; it is a film set in the 90s but barely draws attention to that fact, save for a TV show theme hummed in a classroom and an old phone used in one scene. It isn’t afraid to be choppy — or, indeed, to surprisingly cut away just when we think something momentous is about to happen (a cycle race is promised eagerly but only delivered much later, for example) — and thus it develops its own rhythm that, while always unhurried, remains impressively riveting. The music is old-world but energetic, used sparingly and efficiently. Arun, also the film’s cinematographer, shoots his lush, rained-out greens and soothing beaches with a near-impressionistic eye; it is a moody film that looks ordinary one instant and utterly spectacular the next.

The new wave of Maharashtrian filmmakers are responsible for some of the most extraordinary work in Indian cinema right now, and Arun’s first film exemplifies their storytelling strength and artistic sophistication. Killa is a deep film with lofty ambitions, and there are parts — like the unpredictability of a moment that ends in a bite of fish — where the film soars jawdroppingly high. Yet I suspect the scenes that leave you awestruck aren’t the point of Killa. This is even better. This is a film you should watch for its lovely, lovely lulls.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 26, 2015

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Bobby’s Jindals: The family back in Malerkotla

As Bobby Jindal announces his bid for the US Presidential elections, here’s a story from back in 2007 about how his village in Punjab felt about their oddest export.

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If a town is judged on its stomach, then meat-loving gourmands would have a blast in the tiny hamlet of Malerkotla in North Punjab. The town, one of the only Punjab areas with a Muslim majority – and, historically, one of the only Punjab areas to steer completely clear of communal disharmony during the 1947 partition —  has dhabas scattered tantalizingly all over the landscape, pure vegetarian dal-roti joints rubbing shoulders with hardcore bakra-ya-murgi eateries, which surprisingly happen to be significantly cheaper. Red meat is all well and good, but where is the Governor’s family?

Bobby Jindal, the newly elected Republican to take over gubernatorial duties in Louisiana this January, hails from Malerkotla, and in search of his extended family – none of whom have yet migrated to the US – one hits the small town hoping a mere mention of the name Jindal would be enough. It isn’t. Several eyebrows are raised, the role of a governor in the US is explained, and even grocery stores sharing the last name don’t have a clue.

Thankfully, it is one of the aforementioned dhabas that helps out. A friendly Sikh gentleman picking up tandoori rotis to go scratches his immaculately trimmed beard, whips out a cellphone. He listens to his blessed informant for a couple of seconds, then pauses and asks me, “This is the same guy who’s become a Chief Minister in America, right?” Indeed, and thus the difference in the two nations’ political hierarchy is summarized with extreme, instant clarity. In Punjabi spoken far too fast for the casual grabber-of-gist to understand, directions are given to Subhash Medicals, a chemist’s store owned by Bobby’s cousin.

Rajinder Kumar, 26, sits behind the counter and smiles knowingly at ‘yet another journalist.’ Bobby’s father Amar Jindal is Rajinder’s father’s uncle, “making Bobby my chacha,” he grins, bringing out a stack of newspaper clippings about Bobby and the local extended family. “We knew he’d win a month ago,” he says about Bobby’s governorship, before raving about the convoys of cameras and television vans swooping onto the sleepy town. “And all the politicians and the top Police chiefs, the MPs and MLAs, everyone came to say congratulations.”

Rajinder’s father – and Bobby’s cousin – Subhash Jindal is a genial man, with quite an intimate knowledge of the differences in the voting systems and counting processes between the US and India. “We knew it a while back, and spent the last two days before the results were announced in a great state of anxiety. We had to plan a double celebration, you see, Dussehra along with this great news about our Bobby.” Subhash, who takes great pride in showing visiting cards from journalists as far flung as Associated Press-men from China, is rather close to Bobby’s father, Amar Jindal and says he can’t wait for him to visit Malerkotla.

On the outskirts of Malerkotla, en route to a town named Khanna — yes, this indeed is the single point of origin for the common last name, its citizens boasting that family ties for every Khanna in the world can be traced back to this Punjab settlement – is a grain cellar owned by Narinder Jindal, Subhash’s brother. Narinder, 42, speaks in strict Punjabi and, asked to record a congratulatory video message for his cousin on Rediff, gets most self-conscious. A pair of proud, gushing friends, never missing an opportunity to complete Narinder’s sentences, now hold forth and dictate him an appropriate congratulatory paragraph. “It’s important to get things right,” Narinder explains after before diligently reciting heartfelt yet twice-rehearsed felicitations for the camera, “Bobby’s in politics now and something I say might be taken in the wrong sense. I don’t want to make trouble for him.”

And what of young Piyush Jindal’s heading to Catholicism, of his watching The Brady Bunch on TV and rechristening himself Bobby? “It’s a different atmosphere out there, and he must have felt the need to adjust,” feels Rajinder. Narinder smiles and asks what difference it makes these days, mentioning the fact that his name is still officially Piyush, “which means he is still a Hindu at heart.” It isn’t the kind of sentiment the Republican might endorse himself, but Subhash has the most pragmatic view: ‘Sonia Gandhi also calls herself a Hindu when it comes to vote-collecting, so Piyush has become Bobby because it will help people in a foreign country accept him.”

There is no resentment towards Jindal and his conversion from his traditional elders, they say, but that could be due to their life in the super-secular Malerkotla, a community largely believed to be founded by mystic and seer Baba Sadruddin over 400 years ago. The Sufi leader, also known as Baba Haidar Shaikh, has a shrine in the town and residents living alongside it gush gladly about the complete lack of communal disharmony in the area, where Urdu and Punjabi are taught side by side in local schools.

bobby1Right now, the tranquil Malerkotla is planning a formal celebratory bash for Bobby on the 2nd of November, one where politicians and prominent citizens will honour the Governor, father Amar Jindal emailing in a list of invitees he’d like to see there. “It’s all great right now,” explains Subhash, “but the real madness will begin when Bobby actually comes to Malerkotla. The city will go crazy.”

“Bobby’s had a tremendous rise to the top,” details Subhash. “He became a Senator, and then became Secretary for Health. And at this young age, he’s already a Governor. It’s a very big deal, and while he has already made us all very proud, all we can hope from this ambitious boy is that he continue at this rate and eventually be President.”

The Jindal Family

While settled in Malerkotla for a considerable while now, the Jindal clan actually hails from Khanpur, a small village eight kilometers away. Shamlal, Amar, Bachanlal and Dharampal JiIndal were all sons of a provision store owner who came to the city, driven by ambition. While Malerkotla might not seem a big city to most – the town’s biggest landmark is the nondescript bus station – it was enough to allow these village boys more room to grow. “They used to all live in one very big house, the whole family,” informs Rajinder, who has obviously grown up on the stories. And while eldest brother Shamlal – father to Subhash and Narinder – continued in the provisions business, going on to enter the grain market and start rice cellars, and Bachanlal and Dharampal started up chemist stores, Amar had other plans.

“He did his Matriculation Examinations from the biggest school in Malerkotla,” says Rajinder proudly, adding that Amar topped the examinations, with his record results still remaining unbeated in the city. “He then went to the Guru Nanak Dev College in Ludhiana, and here also he topped college.” It was around then that Amar met bride-to-be Raj, a Vice Chancellor in Chandigarh University. The two got married in 1970, and migrated to the US in 1971, a few months before Bobby’s birth.

Curiously, none of the remaining family chose to follow their cousin to foreign shores. “Well, we have talked about it,” Rajinder admits, “but nothing has happened yet.” Subhash mentions the time difference, and the fact that uncle Amar is very busy, saying, “We all thought about it, but he would call from the US rarely, and keep telling us that life in America is too rushed and he doesn’t have time to settle properly. We thought about it, not for ourselves but for our children, but never got around to doing anything about it.” Narinder, who has never spoken to Bobby on the phone because the latter can’t speak Hindi or Punjabi, smiles and says there is work to be done here, and one would rather take care of the home, family and businesses here instead of venturing out.

There is, however, a new generation possibly more inspired by Jindal. Narinder’s garrulous buddies –– convinced that the Governor of Lousiana will help immigrants get into America more easily — urge him to talk about his aunt’s son Navratan, a life insurance agent who actually went to the US briefly, for a conference. Then there are mentions of Narinder’s brother Krishanlal, who has the brightest kids. “His daughter has done an MSc, and his son is doing an MBA. These are intelligent kids, they want to do more than we have done,” smiles Narinder. “They might follow Bobby.”

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First published IndiaAbroad, October 2007

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Column: Why we must start a culture of spoiler-shaming

got1

Like in Game Of Thrones, nobody’s innocent.

We’ve all casually — or intentionally — let out details about what someone else may not have seen or read. Sometimes it’s purely inadvertent, like when an intern once called me up, found out I was watching Top Gun and asked “ooh, is Goose dead yet?,” understandable given I was watching an all-time blockbuster decades after it had come out — but a memory that stings, to this day. Sometimes it’s vindictive, like the popcorn-seller a friend’s father dismissed while watching Jewel Thief back in the 70s, only to have him snarl “Ashok Kumar villain hai” during the interval and ruin said gent’s evening. Sometimes it’s friendly, the desperate urge to high-five over a shocking twist. Sometimes, in the zeal to describe or recommend a film, we reviewers go too far and tell more than we ought — this is a tricky line, indeed — and I remember a daft film where, since nothing made sense at all, I took matters into my own hands and started the review off by revealing the preposterous climax in the hope that readers could perhaps watch the film with the end in mind and, as I explain here, find their own puzzle-solving entertainment.

The fact is that spoilers happen and that we’ve all been guilty — to varying degree — of spilling what we shouldn’t. Or, at the very least, what we ought to be more careful with.

Our behavorial approach to spoilers is outdated. It’s convenient to endorse a caveat emptor method — Let The One Who Watches Later Beware — to say it’s your fault you didn’t watch the baskeball game live and now you’ve exiled yourself to a day without newspapers and sports channels with your fingers crossed, but the fact is that in these over-communicated times, the Sensory Deprivator 5000 just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It’s time we started being more considerate.

Exactly one week ago, on the Game Of Thrones season finale, shocking things happened and people died. That could well be a summary for every episode of the show based on George RR Martin’s sprawling fantasy series where leading characters routinely get poleaxed, but this time — more than any other television event I remember — the Internet went freakin’ nuts. This whole week, there have been spoilers everywhere. Twitter, Facebook statuses, even bloody newspaper headlines, all going out of their way to give away huge revelations. Everyone appeared out out to punish the viewer who has a day-job and thus didn’t watch the episode at the crack of dawn Monday morning (the first telecast in India happens simultaneous with HBO in the US, at 6:30 AM our time) and all those who thought they could savour a finale on their own time.

No way. Current social networking behaviour seems to be “You didn’t watch it? Boo hoo, now let me rub these GIFs into your face.” But must we all be such Ramsay Boltons? Is that who we’ve become?

There is something deeply obnoxious about the need to crow about being the first person to have watched a show, seen a film, read a bestseller. We all have the Internet, we all watch stuff, and seeing it first does not equip us with any greater understanding; the head-start isn’t a real head-start. This, by itself, isn’t as problematic, despite the hollow bragging: the main issue lies with the sadistic way we flaunt our latest discoveries instead of letting people discover them on their own.

A television drama is not a sports broadcast and the plot of a movie isn’t a news story; there is just no need to fire up our keyboards to report on fiction as if it’s freshly emerging fact. 

There is a lot to be learnt from readers of George RR Martin’s novel, who experienced the death we are now gasping about in the books four years ago, and yet they have been considerate enough to not rain on our parade but instead let us stagger for ourselves, when our time came.

Do I want to write about the finale, throw in my theories, discuss it with my geekdom? Sure. But I need to write it somewhere two-clicks away where you can come choose to read me — after a clickbaity “You Won’t Believe Which Character Didn’t Really Die” headline, if need be — and I cannot, should not, must not thrust a spoiler in your face, without warning, like an unsolicited dick pic.

And yes, that dick pic — the worst kind of online trollery and harassment — is what I compare the thoughtless spoiler to. As a critic who has routinely been threatened and abused and harassed online for eleven years — before Facebook opened its doors and well before Twitter existed — I know what I’m talking about here. Blankly and ignorantly hurled abuse can hurt, can disconcert, can depress — but it can (and must) also be shrugged off. The worst thing about spoilers is that they come from within the little social substreams we’ve curated for ourselves, they come from ‘our people,’ and — really — do we want to believe that even the little corners of the Internet we make our own are just as obnoxious as say, the commentators on YouTube videos?

There are no rules about this sort of thing. I can file a complaint about a nameless troll harassing me on Twitter, but I can’t call the cops on a smartass making a weak pun about a character’s death and ruining the fact that I was saving up a half-dozen episodes to bingewatch over a weekend. It’s not a crime to give away a spoiler, but it is a rotten thing to do, and I feel we need to police ourselves. Let’s not just groan and move on to the next book or show, in the hopes that this time we’ll watch and read faster. We shouldn’t have to.

Why can’t we all realise that while we really want to discuss something really cool/shocking/unbelievable with someone, there are other people in the room? This is the Internet. There are always other people in the room. Share what you want to on a forum, behind spoiler-warnings, with those who choose to read it and react and have awesome conversations with you about it. Don’t screw up someone else’s day just because you can.

This, then, is a clarion call to start a culture of spoiler-shaming.

We can start by identifying the jerks who are flippantly giving things away, calling them out in public, telling them they’re being jerks — honestly, most of them (us) don’t even know. Often it’s just eagerness to share, to make a worthy GIF, to take our thoughts to the world, to be witty about something that matters to many of us.

But this is when the rest of us need to tap a person — or, indeed, a publication — on the shoulder, and tell them they need to take a post down or delete a tweet or change a headline. We need to inform them that they need to, at the very least, word their thoughts differently because it stings to have something you enjoy ruined for you, and social media does so en masse. A headline or a tweet or a status update should not, in a civil world, be allowed to contain a spoiler. It’s plain rude.

Therefore, I apologise for any such indiscretions on my part in the past, and promise to be far more careful in the future. Like I said, this sickening boorishness might not be intentional, but that is no reason to let it continue unchecked. The rulebook is in our hands, and I say we start by calling out the offenders — and letting them know how offensive they are.

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First published Rediff, June 22, 2015

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Review: Mohit Suri’s Hamari Adhuri Kahani

hak1Vidya Balan cries throughout Hamari Adhuri Kahani.

Her character, Vasudha, is a timid and relatively mousy woman, one who has let herself be cowed down by patriarchy even when no patriarch is present in her life, and she frequently flies into panicked hysterics. But the character and her motivations are not why I think Balan — one of our finest actresses — is crying; I think she’s weeping her eyes out because, with every take, she realises how unforgivably atrocious this film is.

Mohit Suri has been an efficient director of plot-heavy cinema (with plots often filched from other places), a man who trades almost exclusively in weatherbeaten movie cliches but has always done so with some speed and slickness. This time, working from a script written by Mahesh Bhatt, his focus appears to be not story but, simply, sadness. Everyone in this film, in virtually every frame, looks pained. The relentless background score swells to a crescendo, and then swells up again, to another crescendo. The characters are all pathetic folk with twisted childhoods. The word ‘mangalsutra’ is made massively heavy (while the word ‘terrorist’ is used with remarkable casualness) and there is much, much bad parenting on display. Merely totting up many a sad element doesn’t create heartbreak, however, and grand tragedy cannot be stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. What we have here is Suri’s monstrosity.

Hari (Rajkumar Rao), an old, limping man, has vanished with his dead wife’s ashes. He has left, in their place, a novel he has apparently written on the fly instead of a letter of explanation, and it is this that his long-neglected son reads and sobs over. It is a novel, that ,peculiarly enough, is not told from the narrator’s point of view and contains too little about himself, preferring instead to dwell on voyeuristic imaginings of what his wife Vasudha and her lover Aarav must have gotten up to. Awkward.

The film is a dreadful drag, with godawful dialogue. “Looks like you love your job,” Aarav says, played by a bored Emraan stating revelatory facts so often here that his name may well be Exposition Hashmi. “How can you tell?”, Vasudha (rather needlessly) gasps, but despite lovin’ it, soon resignedly declares. “Mere ghar ka choola isi kaam se chalta hai.” Okay then.

hak2Aarav, a self-made billionaire with a truly miserable childhood, offers Vasudha a job in Dubai. Vasudha, who has been lying to her young son about the father, Hari, that mysteriously deserted them five years ago, decides with much deliberation to take the job — and promptly deserts said child instead of taking him along. As for Hari, he may or may not be a terrorist, depending on what you want to believe about a story where trees double up as get-out-of-jail-free cards. Also, Hari is the worst kind of misogynist, believing he owns Vasudha forever. Vasudha… It is a name that unfailingly reminds me of Jaya Bhaduri in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s classic Chupke Chupke, where at some point while spelling out her name she is interrupted by her sister and called an ass. Balan’s Vasudha is far more asinine, an apparently independent and well-educated woman who is aware of her husband’s appalling behaviour, is freshly disgusted and surprised by it each time. When told he’s a terrorist, that seems to matter less to her than the fact that he hasn’t called.

Meanwhile Suri ladles on the sad cliches, lifting clumsily from the most iconic tragedies. At one point Hashmi stiltedly caresses Balan’s chin with a flower, presumably thinking of Mughal-E-Azam. The film’s most catastrophically bad scene comes from An Affair To Remember, in which Hashmi takes Balan to see his piano-playing mother (as opposed to Cary Grant’s piano-playing grandmother). The mother plays said piano while Hashmi, standing in the same room, tells Balan about her sad life. He then walks up to the mother and she’s stunned to see him. (Time and again in this film, characters are startled by other characters already being in the same room as them; this, I wager, is because the background score makes sure they can’t hear anyone approach.) They talk for a bit before the mother notices Balan. She turns to her and asks, with a beatific smile: “Arre, yeh banjaaran kaun hai?” Then she, a former cabaret performer and apparent clairvoyant, starts telling her about how she shouldn’t live in the past, should not be a sati or a Sita — even as this mother herself is spending her life playing muzak to her comatose husband. (I’m told this mother is played by the lovely Amala Akkineni; I choose, for her sake, to not believe this.)

It is a film where three fine actors all play idiots. Hashmi’s character keeps going off to literally smell the flowers, Rao’s character is a possessive neanderthal, and Vidya’s character is plain dumb — for one thing, she needs to know that yelling “Hari! Hari!” as she runs behind a police jeep will only make the cops drive faster.

Now let’s talk about what’s good in Hamari Adhuri Kahani. The thing is…

Rating: One Star

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First published Rediff, June 12, 2015

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Review: Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do

A round-trip luxury cruise is a perfect metaphor for Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do: it’s glossy, it’s picturesque, everything on board costs far more than it ought, there are some pretty people, a few of whom make a scene, a family shakes a leg quite memorably, there is some motion sickness and — for something that ends up precisely and predictably where it started — it takes a helluva long time going nowhere.

ddd2None of this is necessarily a bad thing. We need great movies and trashy movies and insightful movies and clever movies, sure, but sometimes we duck into a darkened theatre looking for comfort food, and that’s when we need movies that do just what they promise on the label.

Modest ambitions notwithstanding, Dil Dhadakne Do takes a while to hit its stride, starting off choppy and feeling — at least for the first ninety of its indulgent 170 minutes — like a weak sitcom. Society types sniping at one another while the background score functions like a laugh track? Ouch. It’s like a really long episode of Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai where Satish Shah doesn’t show up. And it doesn’t help that in DDD, the narrator is a dog. The Mehra family, the frustrated foursome at the heart of this film, have a fifth member, an adorable bullmastiff who happens to be narrating the film. (Not kidding). And he’s voiced by Aamir Khan. (I wish I were kidding.)

Thus does Aamir’s Pluto Mehra pontificate on about people and their peculiar ways, but this too-literal voiceover — full of homilies about how strange humans are — is shockingly reminiscent of Khan’s last film, PK, where he played an alien, full of homilies about how strange humans are. The gimmick could conceivably have been cute, but the film embraces it as an afterthought: it’s fundamentally messed up that Pluto has nothing to do in the entire movie except talk reproachfully about people; and secondly that Khan, delivering platitudes written by Javed Akhtar, does so with a disturbingly pompous all-knowing voice. Snapdeal-Dhadakne-Do, the dog appears to be saying.

The project is lifted by a couple of actors, Anil Kapoor and Ranveer Singh playing the Mehra father and son and injecting Dil Dhadakne Do with energy and repose respectively. The film is about a family on a cruise with their friends, a nearly-bankrupt family taking a last-gasp holiday because saving face is too important, and it is Kapoor’s undying ebullience and Singh’s perplexed inwardness that defines the film and sets it on course. Zoya Akhtar’s film doesn’t provide much insight and leans too heavily on repetitive, sitcom-like reaction shots to underline its own obvious points over and over again — this is a film that generalises too much, one where all the parents are regressive, all the women are marriage-bait — but in the cacophony of these belaboured caricatures, Singh provides tremendous calm and brings nuance to the table. He’s excellent. It’s as if an understated actor from a Pakistani TV show walked out into a deafening Balaji crowd.

To be fair, however, the crowd is mostly on point. Farhan Akhtar, who has done a spiffy job with the film’s often sardonic dialogue, is rather charming in the film. Shefali Shah is reliably strong as an unhappy, delusional wife, though she does appear to be channeling Shabana Azmi too much, and intriguing new actress Ridhima Sud is memorably cool as a young girl who knows when her shotglass needs another splash. The striking Priyanka Chopra can carry of a yellow sun hat with immense flair, but her Beyoncé-level swagger (and her auditioning-for-America accent that randomly makes some English lines jar) is at odds with her character’s innate mousiness in front of her parents. Anushka Sharma, playing a dancer but assuredly more comfortable on stage here than during her last debacle, is pretty great here as she concocts heady chemistry with Singh, the two infectiously grinning at each other as they fool around.

ddd3Sharma and Singh are smashing together, starting off their courtship hurriedly, with the kind of conversation people used to have on the Internet back in the day — throwing factual stats about their life out onto the table as if playing verbal Uno — but rather than seeming unnatural, it works because they make it seem believable that these two characters urgently want to get really close really fast. Sharma, more world-weary, is at times hesitant, and Singh — playing a leading man, who, refreshingly enough, has achieved nothing and knows nothing about where he’s headed — approaches the romance bullishly, in that reckless way we do when we finally know what we want. There’s a fine, fine moment where he pins her down and declares his love to her theatrically, in blustery, Bollywood-y dialogue, and she yanks him down for a kiss — tenderly, yes, but also simply to shut the fool up.

There is much, thus, that is wrong with Dil Dhadakne Do — the way it treats chauvinism as an absolute aspect of personality, the awful Priyanka Chopra plotline, the total lack of progressive parental figures on board the ship (where is that Daadi from Queen when you really need her?) — but it has a few sharp character-driven moments and, unlike most Hindi films, it ends stronger than it started, an impressive feat considering it always intended to finish things off in obviously feel-good fashion.

Dil Dhadakne Do

Despite its flaws, I find myself looking back at Dil Dhadakne Do and smiling. Because of Kapoor, a man who is unerringly good when given enough elbow room, and here he’s silvermaned and smooth and selfish and playing his part with superb gusto. His character is so self-obsessed that in his head he’s frequently confounded by just how obvious things seem to him and not the rest of the world, and Kapoor is superb as he restlessly swells up while waiting for everyone else to catch up to him. And because of Singh, who owns his moments of frustration, of resignation, of outrage, of wry comebacks. There is a scene where he loses all his calm and throws out the facts threateningly, like a grenade bobbed at his family, that he’s in love with a girl. “She’s a dancer and a muslim,” he says, daring them to react, and Singh is scarily good. But he’s even better when wordlessly standing on the deck, helplessly looking at his own shoes instead of daring to embrace his sobbing sister.

Dil Dhadakne Do translates to let the heart beat. The heart, it wants what it wants, and that’s all very well, especially if it wants the kind of watery climaxes where hugs solve everything. But ah, how I wish this film hadn’t gone doggystyle.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, June 5, 2015

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Review: Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet

Bombay Velvet

There are some filmmakers who scoff at the very notion of historical accuracy — like Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino — and Anurag Kashyap is one of that bunch, a man who prefers to create his own sumptuous version of history. Bombay Velvet looks to be, then, his very own Bob-Fosse-meets-Scarface take on what might have been, instead of bothering with what really was. An indicator of the same lies in the opening credits, as they claim to be “introducing Karan Johar” whereas that particular director first acted in the most successful Hindi film of all time.

Not on Kashyap’s watch, he didn’t. And that’s perfectly fair. We look to big, brassy cinema not to educate but to entertain, and let us not seek verisimilitude in this kind of cinematic explosion. And this Bombay Velvet is an obviously shallow film, an all-out retro masala-movie with homage on the rocks and cocktail-shakers brimming with cliché. It is a take on the nostalgia soaked groovy-gangster movie: Once Upon A Time In Kashyapistan.

On paper, this sounds like dynamite. Kashyap, a gifted visual stylist and a distinctively bold storyteller, taking on the mainstream and riffing on it his way, subverting the system. Except, um, that’s not what happens here. There is surprisingly little subversion, but that’s fine too, provided the result is compelling on its own steam. Alas, Bombay Velvet runs out of breath less than halfway through, and huffs and puffs as it tries to breast the finish line.

The new film clearly wants to be many things — noir, grand romance, a Broadwayesque musical, Prakash Mehra, Brian De Palma — but ends up indecisively skulking around the shadows of giant films, despite editing goddess Thelma Schoonmaker blessing it with her scissors. Several components work strongly, particularly a sensational soundtrack and a few excellent male actors, yet the film disappoints, and, due to the potential on display, severely so. The scale is amped up to grandness, certainly, but despite majestic intent, what we find here is a watered-down forgery, an imitation you can spot from a mile away: this Dahlia is barely Black-ish; the cloth muffling this revolver isn’t the real thing but merely velveteen.

There is much promise of magic, especially as the film begins. A raffish crook watches The Roaring Twenties, and, too weak in English to recite James Cagney’s lopsidedly-delivered lines, settles instead for the film’s famous last words, pointing a kerchief-covered finger at the mirror and saying Gladys George’s line about how her dead flame “was a big shot”, thus recreating a voiceover instead of playing a role — ironically making a wish and jinxing himself all at once.

Johnny Balraj is a character with character, a zoot-suit wearing tomcat with his eye on the prize, and Ranbir Kapoor plays him with slithery elegance. Spry as if eternally scalded, Kapoor glides restlessly through the film – hitching rides from people, situations and passing buses – without a second thought, forever sidling away from the real, the nitty-gritty. Balraj masochistically spends his nights TylerDurden-ing inside a steel cage (a la Amitabh Bachchan in Naseeb) and there are times the preternaturally talented Kapoor absolutely shines: a scene, for example, where he leers wickedly and stubbornly (but far from lasciviously) at his girl, while a tailor measures her bust, is priceless.

bv2Balraj rides the coattails of Kaizad Khambatta, a sinister media baron with his nimble fingers in many oily pies. Karan Johar is a revelation as this character so obsessed with his all-powerful, all-controlling image that — in the film’s brightest moment — he steps out of a room in order to have himself a good giggle. The film ostensibly mirrors some tabloid duel from back in the day (Khambatta is once referred to by the rival tabloid as “a fruitcake!”) but real-life parallels can’t save a boring plot.

The striking production design and nudge-nudge-wink-wink Bombay allusions are merely window-dressing, though. This film suffers from fundamentally flimsy storytelling. Not just is it spelt out how some strips of negative hold the key to Bombay itself, but we’re shown how breezily (and even comically) said negatives were acquired, and they matter only because the film doggedly insists they do. It never feels vital enough. For some reason Bombay Velvet seems firmly opposed to the idea of mystery, showing off a weak McGuffin right at the start and later, after an explosive twist (albeit an obvious one) we are flashed that card too, in the very next scene. Robbing the audience of surprise isn’t the smartest idea for what turns out to be a predictable film.

Neither is it wise to entrust so much of Bombay Velvet to the earnest but woefully miscast Anushka Sharma, a fine actress entirely out of her depth as a stage-conquering crooner. She lacks the presence and vivacity, and it takes just two scenes featuring Raveena Tandon singing on stage — think Bianca Castafiore turned sexy — to show us the difference between prima donna and pretender.

Satyadeep Misra is terrific as Balraj’s best friend, Chimman, a loyal pragmatist who, unlike Johnny, looks before he leaps. Misra delivers a consistently measured performance, and his body language is masterful. A scene where Johnny and Khambatta trade platitudes has Chimman casually but forcefully motioning that the money be fixed on first, and Misra manages to convey, through one flick of the fingers, both the fact that he knows his place and that price matters more than place. The infallible Kay Kay Menon plays a police detective, sharply turned-out in a hat and high-waisted trousers but is given silly clues to smile at and decipher, and a laughably bad final scene. Quizmaster Siddhartha Basu shows up looking suitably authoritative and officious in that way that often accompanies ruthlessness, while Vivaan Shah bumbles around with a moustache, looking for all the world like a young Kader Khan.

There is a lot happening, all the time. Yet, after a while, as the corpses pile up – with increasing meaninglessness — and the Tommy guns appear, it all ceases to matter. Everything, it appears, can be solved by murder. This might sound like heresy, but even that awfully cheesy Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai movie had characters worth caring about despite the moronic dialogue they recited; Bombay Velvet has the skills but makes it awfully hard to feel anything for guy, girl or the world they’re in. With no true stakes, the film plods messily along to a climax that feels emotionally unearned and interminably stretched.

One song, however, makes time stand still. Amit Trivedi’s superb soundtrack comes to us mostly in snippets mimed by stage crooners, but, for one devastating moment, Bombay Velvet gives way entirely to let a song called Dhadaam Dhadaam take the stage. An emotionally overwrought aria — complete with black tears brimming down kohl’d cold eyes — the song transcends the film and strikes operatically at the heart. Both movie and audience hold their collective breath, and despite the tedium that follows this track, this cinematic sucker-punch is enough to remind us of Kashyap’s potent flammability. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t really sing — or singe.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, May 15, 2015

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