Review: MSG The Messenger

This is not a movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: NO RATING. THIS IS NOT A MOVIE.

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First published Rediff, February 13, 2015

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Review: R Balki’s Shamitabh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 6, 2015

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AIB knockout: Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bitch!

Bloody hell, they pulled it off.

And, to be quite honest, we didn’t see it coming. I’ve faced my share of growls from a humourless Hindi film industry for over a decade now, which include threats and lawsuits, and thus it was most heartening to see not just two actors sporting enough to proffer their chins for some thumping but to see other stars in the audience egging them on, and one of the country’s most prominent (and influential) filmmakers play Roastmaster.

And then they released the whole gloriously foulmouthed thing on YouTube, with nary a bleep in sight. Wow. Take a bow, All India Bakchod.

As roasts go, it was pretty solid. The gang followed the tack of picking one particular thing about each person on the panel, and went after them with politically incorrect gusto. Karan Johar got gay jokes, Ranveer Singh was ragged on for womanising, Arjun Kapoor was spanked with the nepotism stick, Rajeev Masand was criticised for being a critic, Raghu Ram was sworn at for swearing, Gursimran Khamba was called ugly, Tanmay Bhat was called fat, Ashish Shakya was called dark, Rohan Joshi was teased for dating a Bhatt, while Abish Mathew and Aditi Mittal were singled out for being unknown. In the audience, Alia got dumb-gags, Sonakshi got fat-gags and Deepika Padukone got how-can-a-girl-like-you-date-Ranveer-gags.

I watched the show surrounded by friends and shotglasses last night, and it resulted in many a high-five and neighbour-waking peals of laughter. It is, without doubt, a show you need to watch in its entirety online instead of reading 18-gag compilations. I remember a similar night a few years ago, watching Comedy Central’s Roast of William Shatner and the one of Pamela Anderson back to back, laughing and complaining wistfully that we’d never see anything quite like this in India, well, we have and these AIB lads have really pushed the envelope right from their very first go. Bravo.

The concern, however, is how even a subversive off-centre activity like a roast has to be mainstreamed and Bollywooded in order to really take off. Out there in Comedy Central land, the roasted are (usually) old and fading, celebrities who haven’t been relevant in a while, people on the fringe… The roasters are usually all stand-up comics plus a mix of handpicked funny friends of the roasted. Plus insult comics known only for being on roasts, like the late Greg Giraldo. There are the usual jabs, sure, but there is also some genuinely vicious invective — the one thing I found missing in the AIB show, but hey, I’m sure they’ll get there.

Khamba, Rohan, Aditi and Tanmay were particularly good, but everyone did well — even though the tone was so consistent that it made it too-visible that the whole thing had been scripted together, by committee. No matter. The thing to remember is that Bollywood, which has way too many sacred cows — like nepotism, relationships and sex — that aren’t spoken of outside of gossip columns and the most interesting corners of parties, got itself turned into hamburger meat by these kids. Go ahead, lick your lips at the thought of what comes next; I’m sure they have something edgier around the corner.

Some of the reactions to the roast, however, have been rather befuddling. Not just the articles taking gags seriously and being outraged that Ranveer Singh took Deepika Padukone’s now-infamous Times Of India “a cleavage” photograph (he didn’t) but the slew of thinkpieces commending Karan Johar for sitting through an evening of gay-themed leg-pulling, and treating it almost like an unofficial coming-out party. Many salutations to Johar for taking it all on the nose and being a sport, but the truth is that laughing at gags about being gay does not, in any way, indicate that you are gay. All it says is that you have a sense of humour about the way you’re perceived in public. James Franco, for example, grinningly takes gay-jokes in his stride so frequently that it’s turned into cliche; similarly with Johar, many of we believe this is one big coming-out party because we already think we know his sexual orientation and have been waiting for confirmation forever. It’s not. Just because Rajeev Masand laughed when it was said that he charges money for his star-ratings, doesn’t make it true at all. Like Karan, he’s just a man who can laugh at himself.

But when did Bollywood suddenly develop a sense of humour? How is this industry, normally apoplectic with self-importance, laughing out loud? I’m not sure it is laughing, honestly, but it’s seeing the importance of laughing. And, more importantly, the importance of being seen laughing. In this era of oversharing, retweeting and everything-instagramming, the star is not any kind of enigmatic figure of mystery; s/he is one of us (except their selfies have better lighting). And Alia Bhatt knocked it out of the park with her AIB video making fun of her own meme-fied ignorance, and now everyone wants a piece of the chilled-out pie. By now, it’s considered uncool to not laugh about oneself. Just ask Parineeti Chopra, who chickened out of the roast.

Anyway, much applause and many cheers, All India Bakchod. (Especially for making Bakchod a word we all use in print now.)

First published Rediff, January 30, 2015

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Review: Birdman, by Alejandro G Iñárritu

What do we talk about when we talk about Birdman?

It’s hard to know where to begin, for this is a film that makes us gasp, a breathless, rapturous, stream-of-consciousness fever dream, a film which unfolds dizzyingly and dramatically and takes us on a journey that, while a deeply personal journey for a character, holds so much for each of us to take back and so much to seduce us, to suck us in, the narrative visuals tugging us along as if we’re reading a novel that doesn’t allow pause – a novel disgusted by the idea of pause, even, a book that makes sure we can’t look away – and yet a book that makes us wonder about ego and life and self-importance, and perhaps fixating on the film’s novel-ty is just what director Alejandro González Iñárritu intended, with this singular comedic masterpiece surpassing all his previous, occasionally overwrought works, in fact surpassing most modern movies with a freaky flourish and with such gorgeous, gorgeous audacity… Allow me here to suggest that you think of these ellipses here in this piece not as breaks in flow but as drum solos, as wondrous bursts of force like the ones punctuating the film courtesy of stunning drummer Antonio Sanchez and his terrific score which lets us glory in all the magnificent detail Birdman offers, for example, Riggan Thomson is told he has a baby on the way, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him as much, which is somewhat understandable considering the fact that he, an actor best known for a superhero franchise he left behind two decades ago but can never quite shake off, not in any coherent way at least, is sticking his wrinkly neck out and putting it on the line by creating a Broadway showcase for himself, adapting a Raymond Carver short story, no less, in a bid to earn himself legitimacy as an actor and finally exorcise his superhero demons, but then is his spandexed alter-ego a hindrance or something he needs, a ridiculous but essential raison d’etre, one that defines him and holds him together even as he aims to spread his wings into the unfamiliar in order to more keenly etch out his own celebrity status, trying to make sure he leaves behind a legacy – a quest, it seems, that matters more to him than his pregnant girlfriend or his surly ex-junkie daughter, a bright girl burying her exceptional eyes under gothic layers of kohl and one who seems catastrophically attracted to Mike Shiner, a Broadway superstar who is literally potent only when on stage, stage, his arena of invincibility, but despite being a quotable, sharp, spectacularly talented actor who always thinks he knows best, Shiner is actually perhaps even more oblivious about his sense of self, but he is Iñárritu’s entertainer, his jack-in-the-box, the man we enjoy following around the most, at least when Birdman begins and we’re gathering up our fallen jaws at the way the director and master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make the whole film look like one shot, with clever, canny editing making long takes merge into one-another with magically few seams showing, a modern day take on Hitchcock’s Rope but on digital steroids, the kind of miraculous gimmick that could have been tiresome in the wrong hands but here the flight is a marvelous one, the film going from night to day without looking away – one shot with Shiner and Thomson’s daughter Sam on the roof of a theatre, the theatre most of the film takes place in, has the two talking and then the camera cants upward to the sky, following a swirl of cigarette smoke and then, after staying there for just a moment, the night melts into day and the camera swooshes down onto the bustling midday street, and this shot, with its poetry and its radical beauty, melted my mind and just typing about it is making my keyboard-drumming fingers tremble – and this is what Birdman does painstakingly but seemingly casually, using the tools at hand today to craft something previously impossible and present us with a film worth watching twice because the first time viewer is liable to just ogle this work of staggering genius; I, for one, watched it thrice in a week the first time I got the chance to watch it, and remain bowled over, besotted, enchanted, and who wouldn’t be, with the kind of actors on display here, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton and Emma Stone – who each come with superhero-movie baggage of their own, sure, but happen also to be people who have been replaced or killed off in superhero movies, movies notorious for nobody really dying or staying dead – and they each dole out virtuoso acts, with Norton showing off obvious mastery (while playing an obvious master), Stone gliding on the edge of ineffability with a crucial role and perhaps the film’s most important lines, and Keaton himself playing it close to the bone, playing his near-mythological hero with vulnerability and style while also putting on the bird-suit and rocking it good, but then, but then, everyone is so good in this film, from each of the screenwriters to Andrea Riseborough to the man playing a disgruntled Indian cabbie, everyone is at the very top of their game, everyone is poised to strike and to surprise, and by the time the film ends with a moment of heartbreaking perfection, the eyes have it – as do the ayes, for what good is a critic who remains closed off from the unobvious conjuror, a critic who can’t delight in this magical a wingspan, this film neatly putting us all in our place – and I don’t just mean us professional nitpickers and recommenders of movies – but each and every one of us with opinions that could be wiped out in an instant, for, as a sign in Thomson’s dressing room says so astutely, ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.’

What do we talk about when we talk about Birdman? Everything.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, January 30, 2015

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Oscar Review: The Imitation Game

Remember the first time you heard the last Pink Floyd album? No, not that recent bit of noodley-guitar nonsense, but The Division Bell, twenty years ago? I was thirteen and instantly heartbroken, because, despite most of the same band placing most of the same old sounds in the same old places, they didn’t have anything to sing about. No soul. There was craft, certainly, and David Gilmour can wring poetry out of a fretboard like the best of ‘em, but this was not the Floyd of Barrett or even the Floyd of Waters, this was just a talented set of architects trying very hard to sound like Pink Floyd — without ever feeling like them. In other words, an imitation game.

THE IMITATION GAMEIt’s much the same in Morten Tyldum’s new film about British genius Alan Turing. There is wonderful biopic-meat to be found in the story of a mathematician who succeeded at war against the Nazis, pioneered computers and was eventually — and tragically — done in for happening to be a homosexual. There are some fine actors preening under their respective spotlights, most of all Benedict Cumberbatch who wields that lead guitar like an acoustic boss. And yet this is a bland, flavourless film, a film that runs smoothly but too predictably, a film that cries its heart out (with much sincerity) but one that never, ever sings.

Which means, naturally, that some people will love The Imitation Game. It is an unsubtle film that delivers exactly what you expect in the most predictable way, and one which repeats its mantras over and over; one line,  “it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine” is repeated at least four times, clearly marking it as this movie’s great power and great responsibility. For the undemanding viewer who doesn’t mind spoonfeeding — in a stiff English accent, no less, with two actors from Downton Abbey just for good measure — this is a perfectly watchable film, even though every scene predictably ends with Cumberbatch’s Turing getting the last word or having the last laugh. Fans of The Division Bell, those blokes who sit in bars with frozen playlists and raise their whiskey-sodas to Pinkish Floyd and celebrate a lyric like “the grass is greener” only because they remember the words, may just have a field day.

Despite the wasted potential, The Imitation Game is a competently made film, telling the story of a British hero who envisioned computers many years before anyone else, a man who developed codebreaking machines to interpret Nazi codes during the second World War, and a man convicted of being gay. Cumberbatch is excellent in the part, though his part is ridiculously straitjacketed by antisocial stereotypes: he comes off like a fey, attractive-version of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, a dreamy blue-eyed man who can break the enigma machine but who can’t decipher an invitation to lunch.

imitation2It is also exasperating, in a film that pivots around the persecution of a man for his sexuality, to watch Cumberbatch play Turing with such utter asexuality. We know, from Sherlock, that Benedict can do aloof better than most loofs, and he brings a poetic vulnerability to the role, but the film doesn’t explore his heart, his instincts, his cravings — it just lets him use the word “logic” a lot, to the point where we start examining his ears for Vulcan sharpness.

Kiera Knightley does a fine job as Joan Clarke, his female foil — and the woman who can solve cryptic crosswords even faster than Turing — and it’s always good to see Mark Strong in anything, but this is a structurally spineless endeavour, with actors like Charles Dance made to play Charles Dance without really letting them get into nuance.

Historical experts are up in arms about many inaccuracies in the film’s narrative, but there is one particular inconsistency that is quite befuddling: for drama’s sake, the screenwriters let Turing cross paths with a Soviet spy (one he never met, according to history) and the spy, in order to keep Turing from exposing him, threatens to reveal Turing’s homosexual secret to the army. Turing capitulates, and in that moment is bewilderingly enough shown as a traitor to the English cause.

If you do end up watching The Imitation Game and rightfully applauding its performances, do so with gusto but do also look up the facts of Turing’s life. As for this critic who expected more from yet another obvious biopic-shaped piece of Oscar-bait, well, as that feeble Floyd album sang, High Hopes.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, January 16, 2015

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Review: Amit Sharma’s Tevar

Yawn.

Tevar — yet another of those mindless South remakes we’ve been indulging in so faithfully ever since Aamir Khan showed us the way in Ghajini — is a tiring slog, devoid of personality, riding unfairly on the shoulders of a young lad.

tevar1Arjun Kapoor, owner of said shoulders, isn’t bad at all. He’s likeable as the local hoodlum, gnashes his teeth with suitable enthusiasm during a fight scene, and the first time he runs into Manoj Bajpai, he chooses to smash Bajpai’s head into the hood of a jeep with a loud and rather pleasing ‘clang.’ Later, when Sonakshi yells shrilly at him, he looks understandably dumbstruck: “Man, did I pick the wrong girl to nab.” Also, to his eternal credit, he calls her a watermelon.

That aside, however, Kapoor can’t quite manage the buffoonish heavy-lifting the most imbecilic of our blockbusters demand: the kind routinely carried off by Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan or Ajay Devgn’s nipples. Here, Kapoor sings about being a Salman fan, which poses the box-office critical question: we know people go to see Bhai, but will they go to see, um, Bhanja?

Because there is no other reason to sit through Amit Ravindernath Sharma’s directorial debut. This simply-plotted film sloppily carries on and on, and while some action sequences have an intriguingly gritty texture — at one point a goon slams Kapoor in the chest with a giant old-school istri — Tevar emerges an overdone, underwhelming film with zero charm. A murder you can see coming a mile away is drawn out long and stretched interminably, made literally into a bloody procession celebrated by the town as folks sing and dance and pray around the gradually slaughtered victim. There is clearly no room for efficiency in this crappy narrative.

And crappy it certainly is. A young Agra ruffian, quick to wallop local lotharios, accidentally saves a Mathura girl from a bigtime Mathura baddie, and much chaos ensues — predictably bloodily, predictably loudly. It’s a chore to sit through this thing, a hundred and sixty inane, hammy minutes. It is so unendingly filmi, in fact, that by the time the hero gets to his feet in the climactic fight, even the villain can’t help rolling his eyes.

tevar2Manoj Bajpai, chewing on scenery as if Prakash Jha hasn’t made a movie in months, does however make for an entertaining villain, at least at the start. For example, he proposes marriage with brutal honesty, confessing to the girl that he is a badmaash, sure, but even badmaashes are slaves in front of the missus, and so would miss like a slave? It’s as sincere as slime can be, and if only there was an actual actress in front of him — someone with a spark, capable of stinging with their eyes, like vintage Hema Malini or even current Priyanka/Kareena — it would have made for quite a scene. Unfortunately, all we have is Sonakshi Sinha, reacting to things with a stunning, all-encompassing blankness.

Other decent actors are short-shifted. Raj Babbar isn’t bad as the gruff cop, but the legendary Deepti Naval gets no role, just like the reliably excellent Rajesh Sharma. Shruti Haasan swings by for an item song and looks scorching hot, but is tragically made to lip-sync to a song sung so crudely she soon becomes reminiscent of those hot girls in college you wish you never heard speak.

Things could have been improved with even a smidgeon of character development. If Kapoor’s character Pintoo wasn’t shown just as a friendly fighter but a guy opposed to all exploitation of women, for example. Like the feminist Sonakshi’s dad Shatrughan Sinha played back in Naram Garam. With just two-lines of hero-describing dialogue, Pintoo’s character and motivations could have been established. What we have here is a highly generic ‘Sunny Deol type’ hero, and — in possibly a spoof of the Anurag Kashyap magnum opus — a villain who vows not to put his pants on till he finds the girl. Um, okay then. And since one can’t, in all good conscience, let anyone stray into Gangs Of Jockeypur, consider yourselves warned. Stay away.

Rating: 1 star

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First published Rediff, January 9, 2015

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The 10 best actresses in Hindi cinema, 2014

Take a bow, ladies.

It is truly a thrilling and liberating time to be an (established) actress in Hindi cinema, a time when risks are smiled upon and when roles are pushing various envelopes. The ten women singled out for applause this year have played characters that include a cop, a lesbian, a hostage, a tourist and a boxer — what an amazing range, and those are just the labels. The true magic lay in richly textured and well-etched characters they created.

Here, then, are the ten terrific ladies leading the class of 2014:

BApriyanka1010. Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom

Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom is an abysmal excuse for a film, one of the worst biopics I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through, but leading lady Priyanka Chopra worked her derriere off for the part, and it shows. Prosthetic debates aside, Chopra puts in a plucky, emphatic performance as the already-legendary boxer, playing her with a committed bravado.

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BAseema99. Seema Pahwa in Ankhon Dekhi

Rajat Kapoor’s slice-of-life fable about a lower-middle-class Delhi family centres around the patriarch caught in introspection and whimsy, but the glue holding the family together is the beleaguered wife and mother, played by Pahwa. Nagging, miserable and often exasperatedly talking to herself, Pahwa nevertheless conjures up a mother character we recognise — and one who, when asked point blank by her increasingly eccentric husband if she thinks he’s going mad, is loving enough (and resigned enough?) to assure him he isn’t.

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BAsonam88. Sonam Kapoor in Khubsoorat

Remaking a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film was always going to be an uphill task, but director Shashank Ghosh avoided all comparison by turning his update into a glossily Disneyfied confection, with Kapoor as its ideal candified centre. Channelling her inner Emma Stone, Sonam delivers a breezy and energetic performance that is klutzy, refreshingly free of vanity, and full of gif-worthy faces.

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BArani77. Rani Mukherji in Mardaani

Rani is scary in Pradeep Sarkar’s Mardaani — and I don’t mean her hefty, unflattering look. Cops are often called tough as nails, but Mukherji exemplifies it with a hardline, no-nonsense performance that provides a spine to an otherwise feeble film. Sure, the film is a showcase for the actress, but when she is this effective — closer to the intensity of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s cop in Kahaani than to the cartoonish bravado of Salman Khan’s cop in Dabanng — that’s not a bad thing at all.

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BAdeepika66. Deepika Padukone in Finding Fanny

We’ve always had a problem with actors trying to emote in English, mostly coming off as overdone or badly accented or merely, tragically unnatural. Padukone, however, is stunningly candid in Homi Adajania’s film, serving as narrator and muse and resident stunner but doing it all with a merrily light touch. It’s a strongly believable performance — she’s restrained even when hornily jumping a guy — and this kind of easy candour is rare in our cinema.

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BAalia55. Alia Bhatt in Highway

A sheltered girl kidnapped the night before her wedding, Veera Tripathi has no business pluckily falling in love with her dour abductor. And yet she does. She confides in him, sings to him, provokes him, and — atypical even to Stockholm Syndrome — begins to mother him while envisioning a future together. It is all beautiful to look at but decidedly deranged, and Bhatt shines effervescently and credibly in the demandingly odd part.

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BAtejaswini44. Tejaswini Kolhapure in Ugly

Shalini Bose doesn’t care. About her ex-husband. About her current husband. About what whiskey is filling her glass. About what the domestic help might think of her outbursts. About how she looks. About how she’ll get through tomorrow. About her daughter. Everything is a burden to this miserable character, and Tejaswini Kolhapure, shrouded in fatigue, ekes out a performance through silences, small but telling gestures and sad, sad eyes. Once upon a time when trying on a red dress for a stranger, those eyes could manage a sporadic sparkle but by now they’ve glazed over. Apathy this absolute has to be this haunting — or so we may only imagine.

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BAmadhuri33. Madhuri Dixit in Dedh Ishqiya

It’s all about the words with Begum Para, be they the words of besotted poets vying to win her beautiful hand, or the strategically-plucked words from handmaidens who know better. Dixit, as the imperious Begum with a mischievous smile, impressively enunciates her finely chosen words with appropriately italic lilts, but — even better — reacts with glorious grace to the words surrounding her, no matter what is said. This is an elegant, un-showy performance made up of precise, subtle tonal shifts, and it is a treat to watch Dixit dazzle like only she can.

Also read: The Madhuri Dixit Interview

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BAkangna22. Kangna Ranaut in Queen

In any other year, Ranaut would be champion.

Carrying off Queen, directed by Vikas Bahl, is no small feat, for the entire film rests definitively on the shoulders of one actress. Ranaut, playing the simple Delhi lass Rani Mehra, excellently — and seemingly effortlessly — captivates us from the start as she hungers for the right selfies and sangeet steps. She comes so close to the audience that we can almost hear her heart break, and we’re curiously perched on her shoulder as she decides to fly solo for her honeymoon.

And then someone tries to pinch her bag. This is the moment that Rani and Ranaut dig their heels in and hold on tight, throwing out hysterics in hyper-real fashion and making sure she’s won us all over, this gritty girl who refuses to fade. Ranaut, who has written her own dialogue in the film, fashions a character with undying spirit and verve — who also, as it happens, is most unlikely to be able to spell verve. Or even say it right.

The way she says “hawwwww,” the thrill she finds in a lassi drinking competition, the infectious twinkle in her widened eyes when telling a “non-veg” joke, her brilliant unselfconsciousness… Nobody enchanted us like Rani, and there’s never been a character like her. As said, in any other year… But sometimes a character we know — or think we know — can be even better.

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BAtabu11. Tabu in Haider

She’s all about family. Her husband, a noble doctor, constantly imperils their very existence, and we come across her teaching a classroomful of children to parrot the definition of a perfect home, in perfect unison. Ghazala Meer is Shakespeare’s Gertrude but armed with Indian-mother possessiveness, a woman who rushes onto a cricket field and points a gun at her own head to banish her boy, to keep him from mixing with militants.

Many years later, walking through a field, mother and son discuss that memory strung violently high. He accuses her of bluffing, and it is at this point that Tabu — so far luminous, emotional, inscrutable, all arrows we know well from the formidable quiver of her filmography — smiles a heartbreakingly wry smile, the smile of a mother who knows so much more. And, equally, of a woman who wistfully, earnestly, longingly wishes she didn’t know better.

As lover and as liar, Tabu is sensational in Haider. She screeches, she sobs, she succumbs — all with a miraculous consistency, elaborately crafting one of Hindi cinema’s most memorable characters. It is the kind of performance that reveals more magic with each viewing, one that embeds itself in audience memory and one that, standing as it is boldly left of centre, becomes the heart of the film. And throbs so damn strongly it changes the beats set by the Bard.

In other words, the mother of all performances.

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Also read: The life and scenes of Tabu The Fearless

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First published Rediff, December 31, 2014

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