Review: Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

dbb1Byomkesh Bakshi — or, if we go with the spelling picked out by director Dibakar Banerjee, Bakshy — never liked to be called a detective. It is the same in this film too, the man abhorring the stigma and sensationalism a label like “gumshoe” (or, in Bangla, “goenda”) comes with, and instead focussing firmly on seeking the truth, on opening his eyes as wide as he can and drinking it all in.

Thanks to Banerjee, there is a lot for his man — and, indeed, for us — to drink in: this sumptuous period adaptation fondly recreates 1940s Calcutta right down to the tram signs and the posters for Jane Russell movies, and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a gorgeous, gorgeous film. Yet for all its stylishness and period grandeur it is not as intelligent a film as it yearns to be, the plot isn’t cunning enough and the conveniently-unravelled puzzle never quite sucks the viewer in.

It is, in short, a mystery movie that doesn’t mystify.

There is nothing at all wrong with a slowly seared whodunnit, one that simmers long and hard before coming to the boil, one that makes you think. Like, for example, the superb 2011 adaptation of John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But the narrative must intrigue and entice and seduce, taking turns obscuring the viewer’s vision and lifting the blindfold while doing the same (in differing degree) to its protagonists. Even laboriously slow mysteries should make us hunger for the next page, the mere promise of the next clue. Byomkesh stumbles considerably because of its simplistic plotting, with an original story which ups the stakes considerably for Saradindu Bandhyopadhyay’s terrific character without giving him enough to deduce. Ambition is both driver and culprit. There is certainly bigger game afoot here than in the classic television show or one of the new Bangla movies, but saving the world pales in comparison to pocketing a statuette when the latter is told intricately enough. All the intricacy in this new film lies in the exquisite art design, the sexy anachronistic soundtrack, and the period detailing; the plot is basic, largely guessable and tragically, never something to marvel at. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Why?

What one can marvel at, quite constantly, is the cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis, Dibakar’s longtime collaborator here armed with a splendid canvas and much stylistic room. The man is an absolute master of chiaroscuro, using shadows to reveal the mood and to conceal the obvious, and there are several sequences to rave about: my favourite is one stunner of a shot framed through the rolled-down window of one of Calcutta’s ubiquitous Ambassador cars, one that follows a character hurrying through a busy sidewalk and bumping into a stranger, who then, in turn, unerringly bumps into the man chasing the first character up the street. It is Hergé come alive.

dbb2Sushant Singh Rajput is exceptionally good as Byomkesh, a believably brilliant young man who is also — as a consequence of him being so wet behind the ears — believably befuddled. Rajput bestows the actor with a suicidal cockiness as well as a preternatural intelligence, his eyes often gleaming like smug saucers. As Jeeves would say, here is a man who likes his fish. Banerjee’s film focusses on building Byomkesh from the ground up, from his initial oversights to his intrinsic motivations, and Rajput runs with that monumental brief and creates an iconic character, one we believe in and root for, one we will champion and one who we — despite the mediocrity of this first mystery — hope to meet again. This Byomkesh himself is a highly nuanced character study, the kind we’ve seen Dibakar excel at before, and Rajput is smashing.

Most of the cast, in fact, is perfectly picked, though I hesitate to say much about their characters in fear of giving anything away. Anand Tiwari is quite super as Byomkesh’s pugnacious and easily-irked comrade Ajit, Divya Menon’s Satyawati is suitably captivating, Meiyang Chang and Mark Bennington enliven things up while staying consistent to the characters, even as Neeraj Kabi and Swastika Mukherjee, though given an awful lot of scenery to chew, do impressively well, especially Kabi who can — it appears — do anything at all.

Banerjee is a modern master, a man who has taken on drastically different films with each outing, and finally bungled up on this fifth film after a hot streak of four crackerjacks. Part of the reason, as stated above, is the sheer ambition. His clear attempt is to build a world — one where Chinatown has so much soul it looks like Seoul — and to set Byomkesh and his conflicts up before taking us on further adventures. This would work brilliantly as the pilot episode of a television series, but not as a standalone film. There have been many, many Byomkesh adaptations over the years and curiously, it is the auteurs, the most distinctive filmmakers, who have stumbled the most: Satyajit Ray’s funkily shot Chiriakhana might be the legend’s most embarrassing work, Rituparno Ghosh’s last film Satyanweshi was a catastrophically weak Byomkesh, and this is certainly Dibakar’s least impressive script.

Perhaps Saradindu Bandhyopadhay gets in the way. The original stories are so beautifully plotted, so inherently appealing on the most basic level, that even watching those old television episodes on YouTube grabs us immediately by the collar. The multiple Byomkesh adaptations Bengal keeps churning out might not make for great cinema, but, based as they mostly are rather slavishly on Saradindu’s work, enthrall new audiences regardless. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is the best looking and least captivating of the current lot. And, as said earlier, he didn’t like to be called detective. Defective Byomkesh Bakshy, then.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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Also read: The Bakshiphiles: A history of Byomkesh Bakshi, the character, his creator and his screen incarnations

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First published Rediff, April 3, 2015

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Review: Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Hunterr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, March 20, 2015

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Review: Navdeep Singh’s NH10

Bad things happen in NH10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buckle up.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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A toast to Terry Pratchett, who christened me a dragon

tp2

Terry Pratchett once named a dragon after me. But that’s not important. (I mean it is, of course. It’s massively cool and thrilling — THRILLING, even — and something I’ll brag about forever. But that’s not what’s important right this second.)

Right now we have to deal with heartbreak, as Sir Terry Pratchett has left us. It is, all things considered, a fortunate thing, for he wanted very much to pop off before that pesky Alzheimer’s got too devastating, and it’s only fair that he left while still working instead of after, say, pottering into silence. There is also the comforting fact that he rather liked Death — his Discworld novels featured Death as a quietly charismatic cat-loving hero with a capital-letter baritone — and the two are probably getting on famously right now.
Yet to us it hurts. It hurts rather like being hit with a piano flung by a hairy librarian, in fact, just to come to grips with the fact that we will have no new Pratchett books every year. Speaking with the gluttonous selfishness of a reader, this feels like a devastating, soul-crushing blow.

What he has left us with, however, is dizzyingly special: a whole new world, one that makes ours infinitely better.
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A flat planet held by four elephants perched atop of a giant turtle, his Discworld is fantastical, surely, filled with magic and politics and warriors and witches and policemen, but like the world we live in, there is so much more to it than meets the eye. Pratchett’s universe is deliciously imperfect, with crowded cities and racism and bureaucracy and outdated social hierarchy, his novels led by the unlikeliest heroes and heroines. Pratchett takes turns zooming in on some under-explored corner of his very round (but decidedly unflat) disc, and reveals an entire worldview, shrewdly sprinkling just enough magic to make his satire gleam blindingly bright. There have been many fictional universes of note across fantasy literature but — despite Pratchett being labelled a ‘comic fantasist,’ inexplicably considered a lesser thing — nothing comes close to the richness and real-world relevance of Discworld.

Not JRR Tolkien, not George RR Martin, not Douglas Adams, not CS Lewis, not JK Rowling, not Frank Baum, and not even the great HP Lovecraft. Each achieved mastery over a particular fantasy genre, but Pratchett’s work mocked the very idea of literary limitations, going from police procedural in one book to Christmas adventure in the next, from vampires to football, from the birth of motion pictures to the examining of religion itself. The 40 novels that make up the Discworld — the 41st is scheduled for this September — are books that irresistibly transcend any genre convention, with appeal for all. Pratchett’s work belongs, then, closer to the Wodehouse shelf than to the one creaking beneath the Tolkien tomes; these are cunningly clever books everyone can be enchanted by — which makes him, in many ways, the best fantasy writer of them all.

Pratchett is also a dashed clever novelist, filling his books to the brim with stunning insight. Verbal, philosophical and observational gems are scattered about generously, willy-nilly. Picking up any volume at random (and feel free to take up the challenge and make your day instantly sunnier) allows a reader to metamorphose into a delirious treasure-seeker panning for gold.

I have in my lap Unseen Academicals, for example, his hilarious take on football, and every other line is a work of gorgeousness. “Juliet didn’t exactly wash dishes, she gave them a light baptism.” “She read the way a cat eats; furtively, daring anyone to notice.” “Ponder Stibbons had once got one hundred percent in a Prescience Exam by getting there the previous day.” “She had some sort of …relationship with Vetinari. Everyone knew it, and that was all everyone knew. A dot dot dot relationship. One of those. And nobody had been able to join the dots.” “If you flash spells around like there’s no tomorrow, there’s a good chance that there won’t be.” It’s all magnificence and wizardry, and in a Pratchett book it is everywhere you look. Heck, he even turned the caps-lock key into an overwhelming special effect.

Magic.

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tp1When I met Terry a dozen years ago at the University of Warwick in 2003, he had just given a terrific talk about creating universes. I hadn’t read any of his work at the time, but he wore a most excellent hat in the picture accompanying his author bio, plus I’d heard many a rave, and, inspired thus by topic and speaker, I went along and proceeded to spend the lecture scribbling and giggling.

Here, from an old blogpost, is what happened next:

Terry Pratchett was a fascinating speaker — warm, funny, self-deprecatory and most insightful — and after the talk, I went up to him, he made a pleasant blue-hair jibe [I had blue hair at the time] (which I won’t repeat, don’t bother asking) and I asked if I could buy him a beer and chat a bit. He was most amiable, so we trotted off to the Graduate bar and talked about writing and fantasy.

It was a fun chat, highlighted, I feel in hindsight, by his recommending Good Omens as a good starting point for his work “because I’m sure at least Neil Gaiman’s bits won’t be completely dreadful.” For the record, he also called the first half-dozen Discworld books absolute rubbish — but that could have been because he was, at the time, telling me to go ahead and write a few bad books to find my stride as a writer.

“Write, write, write,” I remember Pratchett saying. “You can always disown the truly dreadful stuff later.” It was a pleasant and greatly inspiring evening, following which I swallowed down his books by the dozen and kicked myself in the shins for getting to the party that late. That, I assumed, was that.

It was much later that a pretty, raven-eyed Pratchett-fanatic gaspingly pointed me to Thud! — his 2005 volume — which happened to feature several dragons but only one, “a young dragon with floppy ears and an expression of mildly concussed good humour”, to be precise, is referred to by name, and his name is Raja.

See? Magic.

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There is, as a matter of fact, such a preponderance of magical goodness in Pratchett’s work that perhaps Death — which has, I wager, led to him trading tales with Jerome K Jerome up there, or something similarly spectacular — is merely Terry’s way of telling us to halt. To refrain from serially inhaling the magic without pause, but instead to appreciate the world — both the Disc one and this one — and to stop and smell the sublime. With no more new Terry Pratchett books to catch up with, he’s left us a wonderland we can slowly sift through, learn from and be awed by.

What greater legacy could there be?

Oh, and there’s the moral to the story. The moral in the story about my becoming a dragon — and I’m certain this is the reason I found immortal mention — is that one should always buy a writer a beer.

So long, Terry Pratchett, sultan of the streams of story. Cheers, and do PLEASE keep watching over us.

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First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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Review: Sharat Katariya’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, February 27, 2015

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Why the 2015 Oscars are worth celebrating

The good guys won.

Actually, it was bigger than that. I’ve annually whinged about and berated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shortsightedness and predictability in columns like these for far too many years now, and this is the first time I sat back through the Oscars — occasionally tense with fingers crossed as often as befits the occasion, naturally — but with a smile on my face. It was very clear that despite the eight nominated films, there were only three frontrunners this year, and each was majestic.

I loved ‘em, I loved ‘em to bits, these brave and visionary and beautiful films: Birdman, which I reviewed breathlessly, Boyhood, which I reviewed with moist eyes and lumpen throat, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I reviewed with jaunty fingers and a candied grin.

And this was their year.

inarritu1Just let that sink in for a moment. That the three films tipped to win, the three films that held the most nominations and got the most awards, the three directors singled out for career-revolutionising triumph… were all masterworks. They were all brilliant and incredible, films any cinephile around the world should be proud of. The fact that it was these three films who led the pack and battled for the spotlight — instead of some dastardly Academy-friendly choice that upset a great yacht —  made this year’s Oscars a spotlight worth sailing through.

There was no King’s Speech to mug The Social Network, no English Patient to shoot Fargo in the foot, no Crash to rob Brokeback Mountain, no Forrest Gump to hold up, unforgivably, both Shawshank Redemption and the revolutionary Pulp Fiction. No, this year, instead of the big, the gun-toting, the maudlin, the British — and, most criminally, the obvious — films, the cool kids this year, the ones tipped to win were a Boy, a Bird and Budapest. How can you not love this year?

Sure, signs pointed to a Birdman/Boyhood split, with Alejandro González Iñárritu possibly taking Best Director for Birdman and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood taking Best Picture, or vice versa, a peace treaty that would leave the filmloving world in peace, but that wasn’t, alas, to be. As Iñárritu said while picking up the Best Director trophy, moments before he picked up Best Picture, “We’re talking about that little prick called ego. Ego loves competition, right, because for someone to win, someone has to lose.”

And that’s possibly why it hurts us, the film fans. Because we don’t want to see Linklater win over Iñárritu, or Budapest director Wes Anderson leave the other directors in the dust, or even young Damien Chazelle, helmer of the electrifying Whiplash, be left behind or spoil anyone’s party. We aren’t used to seeing these underdogs competing at the top of the heap; we just want ‘em all to enjoy playing together and all go home happy.

To a large extent, they did: Boyhood won for Patricia Arquette, Whiplash for JK Simmons, The Grand Budapest Hotel for everything to do with how beautiful films look. All while grumpy veteran Clint Eastwood sat grouchily, his American Sniper not showing up to ruin our film-lovin’ fun, while Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris wagered he’d do a Kanye West and disrupt the proceedings.

As for Neil Patrick Harris, alas, he didn’t sparkle. He started with a terrific musical number about the love we have for ‘Moving Pictures’ — as I’ve written elsewhere, rhyming “Brando” with Sharon Stone going “commando” is a moment of genius that will linger forever — but the rest of the evening he was flat and unfunny and just not very good.

But — and here’s the thing — are we expecting the wrong thing from an Oscar host? Earlier the Oscars were the only show we’d all watch, and we’d eat it up because it was the only choice. So we’d love Steve Martin and tolerate David Letterman. Now, not only do we have far more wicked and irreverent, alcohol-aided shows to watch, from the Globes to the Independent Spirit Awards (which, seriously, is must-see), but we’re all tweeting and pronouncing judgement immediately, rating a joke on a sliding scale before we even get through with the show.

Last week I assembled a list of the best ever Oscar hosts, an amusing (albeit cumbersome) process that made me realise something. In this age of sharp, biting jabs — started by Globe host Ricky Gervais and surpassed by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey — we’re too quick to dismiss anyone who doesn’t immediately match up. That Frank Sinatra opening monologue from 1963, for example, one of my very favourites, would be ripped apart mercilessly on Twitter.

The Oscars are in a quandary: they’re classy, they’re big, they’re universal and they need to be family-friendly — otherwise morons like Seth MacFarlane sing about breasts. It’s clear they can’t be like other wilder award shows. Perhaps they just need to concentrate on the class and the charm and leave out the comedy, except in little unscripted bits and occasional dance numbers. No matter what people say about too many dances, this year’s top moments had to include the touching Glory performance and Lady Gaga’s Sound Of Music tribute. Pomp, done well, shines bright at the Oscars. Leave the jokes to the other shows who can perch out farther on the limb. Let the grandeur do the talking instead of the gags.

wes1Overall, as I said, it was a show to celebrate. Because with every gunfighter on our side, we’re all winners.

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First published Rediff, February 24, 2015

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Review: Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, February 20, 2015

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