The Best Actors in Hindi cinema, 2015

This has been the year several of our leading men appear to have grown into actors, and several actors moved deservedly into slots normally reserved for leading men. It’s been a year of diverse, thrilling performances and memorable characters, and these gentlemen have proved truly excellent.

Honourable Mentions:

The debut of the year came from Vicky Kaushal, bright eyed and optimistic in Masaan. Nawazuddin Siddiqui was the best part of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, adding texture to an entertaining film. And Shamitabh might have been a disastrous film, but there’s something to be said for Dhanush’s exuberant performance, one where despite a mute character he played the part vociferously.

10. Varun Dhawan, Badlapur

varun1.jpgDhawan has been displaying a full-blooded commitment to every genre he touches, and this is most impressively visible in Sriram Raghavan’s dark noir. He plays Raghu, a young man who wants revenge but doesn’t know how. He’s willing to push himself, too willing at times, and yet all he has is time to wring his hands. He plays off the experienced Nawazuddin Siddiqui very well, more than holding his own, and delivers a nuanced performance of a man pushed to a frightening brink. A few scenes where he imposes himself — as if practising the act of vengeance on others before unleashing himself upon his intended victim — are rightfully disturbing.

Link to review

9. Amitabh Bachchan, Piku

In Shoojit Sircar’s heartwarming film, Bhaskor Banerjee is an opinionated old man obsessed with his bowels — an over-the-top caricature if ever there was one. Yet Bachchan imbues the role with sharp humour, tenderness and even an unlikely frailty, making the character real, relatable and — because it is Amitabh Bachchan, doing what he has never done — rather delightful. It’s a hammy performance, certainly, but only in the way that aged Bengali relatives are, posturing pretentiously and omnisciently about all and sundry. The character’s possessive, churlish behaviour toward his “sexually liberated” daughter is always believably affectionate and filled with pride, and the actor works the silent moments, like when he’s adjusting his hearing aid or when he breaks into a drunken jig, like a charm.

Link to review

8. Sanjay Mishra, Masaan

Vidyadhar Pathak is a character drowning in regret. His every step a lament, his every word bristled, his wariness the only way to cope with a world that insists on making his lot worse. Mishra plays this chewed-up character with heartbreaking believability, his morose persona looking all the sadder for the rare moments when he, experimenting with chance and change, is briefly exuberant before he invariably finds himself at even more of a loss.

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7. Randeep Hooda, Main Aur Charles

It’s always wonderful to watch an actor excel in a role without ever trying too hard, and Randeep Hooda — despite a challenging role that requires, among other things, mastering a French accent and mimicking a known serial killer — tackles his part in Prawaal Raman’s film with a mercifully loosened collar. This is a film about vibe, and Hooda’s Charles Sobhraj rides the 70s grooviness expertly, and, like the Sobhraj we have mythologised, charms everyone in sight. It’s a performance that could have easily turned tiresome, but Randeep tapdances through it with grace.

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6. Sushant Singh Rajput, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

sushantThe characterising aspect of Rajput’s portrayal of the great Bengali middle-class detective, besides the way he carries off a dhoti with élan, is the visible intelligence he brings to the part. His eyes frequently gleam in Dibakar Banerjee’s film, be it with mischief or in anticipation. The actor plays the part with arrogance — a man so intoxicated by his own brightness that he can’t help being full of himself — and yet is visibly not quite ready to deal with the murky challenges thrown his way. It’s a sharply poised performance, and one wishes the Byomkesh sequels come through if only to give us — and Rajput — more time with the dashing character.

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5. Ranveer Singh, Bajirao Mastani

The role of a warrior in a swords-and-sandals epic takes more than merely the right chainmail, and Singh flexes every muscle of his screen presence to shoulder Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s gigantic film. Ever-likeable on screen, here the actor steps up to the larger-than-life demands of the film with panache, conjuring up a screen-conquering swagger. He pulls off the bravado — even when it is ludicrous, like when he takes on a storm of arrows armed with swords and fury, like a cross between Neo and Rajinikanth — which is smashing in itself, but also adds delicacy to the part with lithe movements and meticulously over-stressed enunciation.

Link to review

4. Ranvir Shorey, Titli

It is goddamned hard to look away from Ranvir Shorey in Kanu Behl’s disturbing film. Shorey is Vikram, the leading man’s elder brother — eternally, exasperatingly off-centre from the events taking place — but he seizes the screen every time he shows up, creating a character grounded in frustration and fury. He is the never-was, a frustrated carjacker who takes his pressure-cooked angst and hurls it around himself in violent tantrums, and Shorey slaps people’s heads off in Titli. Achingly enough, however, it is the relatively softer moments that define just how broken Vikram is, from the way he looks forlornly at the wife he used to beat up when told to sign divorce papers, to the way he is repulsed by the thought of using up money saved up for his sister-in-law’s education. A stunning performance.

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3. Ranveer Singh, Dil Dhadakne Do

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While he’s great in Bajirao, I posit that this less showy Singh performance is the finer piece of craft, a subtle and inward-looking characterisation of a quiet, introverted boy who occasionally overcompensates. Zoya Akhtar’s film is populated by loud and cartoonishly boisterous folk, but halting the tide is Singh, silent and reflective and sullen in that way some poor little rich boys often appear. He opens us every now and again and startles us with bursts of energy — like with filmi declarations of love, or coming up with puns with his sister, or that electric when he pulls up a chair to really, finally tell his parents what he thinks of them, drumming his fingers restlessly when he’s done talking — but the true joy of this performance is in the way he shies away from eye-contact. In the way he drags his feet. And in the way he giggles.

Link to review

2. Irrfan Khan, Piku

There is a moment in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku where Irrfan — an engineer who now reluctantly runs the family car-rental business — has made so many allowances for the pretty, prickly Piku that he demotes himself to the driver’s seat for a trip with her family. As Piku and her father climb into the car, the family servant sits in the front with Khan and he simply refuses to drive. It’s a telling moment, one showing ugly but inevitable class consciousness, but Khan plays it without even raising an eyebrow. He is aghast — and we know it — but damned if he’s going to show it. His Rana Chaudhary is a terrific character, an agreeable enough fellow who is nonetheless highly opinionated and frequently contrarian, and Khan is flawless in the part, nuanced and understated — and yet he carves out a persona so cool that a woman like Piku would believably flip for him.

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1. Irrfan Khan, Talvar

irrfanEverything in Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar is sordid — from facts to clues to backstories — but in the middle of the film, seemingly spotless as the white shirt he wears, is investigative officer Ashwin Kumar. Khan’s big weapon in this film is inscrutability, and while interrogating subjects or going over analysis, he chooses to burrow into some arcade arcana on his phone instead of making eye contact. It’s unnerving and unexpected, and Khan plays the part like a man walking a tightrope while himself marvelling at how high it is. His is a character bewildered by the absurdity of the situation, a character who reasonably finds himself stunned by the daftness of it all, and one who speaks in a wry voice because no other kind will be heard.

irrfanAll this while his personal life unravels, his beautiful wife leaves him — “without reason?”, wonders the divorce court — and he starts to realise that truth is often too much to hope for, even when it seems the most obvious. The performance shines because of how gradually and realistically Khan changes gears — aloof and distanced at first, then bemused, then stunned — as he’s drawn into the increasingly murky case, which leads finally to a point where he indeed loses his shirt and flips out, in a way even costing his team the case. The build-up to Kumar’s rage is so realistic that the actor creates, scarily enough, the sort of explosion we can all relate to — and yet, shamefully, often shy away from. He’s as real as we’d like to be.

Link to review

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First published Rediff, December 29, 2015

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Review: JJ Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

If you placed a lightsaber in the hands of director JJ Abrams, it would glow blue.

His new Star Wars film is a fine spacecraft, a blockbuster that knows its place. The hunt in this Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens might ostensibly be for the vanished Luke Skywalker, but — be not fooled —  the flight plans for this gigantic motion picture only ever point to one destination: nostalgia. This is the grandest and most unashamed throwback of them all, a Star Wars film that triggers love for the original Star Wars trilogy by, well, belting out a cover version of the George Lucas classic. The band fronted by Abrams is, thankfully, a talented cover band and they do an entertaining enough job hitting familiar notes in order to take the song to new generations — but the song remains the same.

So much the same, in fact that one of this film’s most unlikely — if questionable — assets is its utter predictability. I’m not a Star Wars person, and saw the original 1977 film four days ago after at least two decades, and it was fun, certainly, but because Star Wars is itself such a pastiche of influences and, more importantly, has itself been so influential, the plot machinations constantly appeared obvious and cliched. Watching the new film which essentially recycles the trilogy’s greatest hits, I was alarmed by how accurately I could tell each twist coming, even the big whoa moment we mustn’t talk about. This is disappointing because, while a rollicking ride, I’m not thunderstruck by Episode VII as much as I am comforted. It is blatantly transparent filmmaking, and can be likened, in essence, to a new Salman Khan actioner where the core audience goes in with a checklist knowing they’ll get some cheeky dialogue, some trite punchlines, an item song and one eventually shirtless fight scene. This is a film made to pleasure the fans and give them everything they wanted from the franchise. And it works. There is such universal love for the new Star Wars because it is, in too many ways, the old Star Wars.

sw2Thus we have again a little android with a map everyone wants, a villain in a menacing mask and a baritone, a young protagonist (of curious parentage) who will be this generation’s greatest Jedi, people squashed in a trash compactor, ships stolen, gigantic father-son issues and, of course, people having “a bad feeling” about what is to come. Even the headquarters of all evil is, simply, a super-sized DeathStar.

This constant celebration and regurgitation would wear itself thin were Abrams not also a highly efficient filmmaker who put together a great cast: there’s something rather special about watching this, the biggest of movies, kick off with a slugfest between Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, two smashing talents last seen together singing a song (funnily enough, about “Outer… Space”) in the best of movies, Inside Llewyn Davis. And, it must be confessed, it’s even cooler to watch 73-year-old Harrison Ford, silver-haired but with smirk intact, playing the roguish Han Solo as swashbucklingly as ever. Abrams, in putting together characters new and old, gets the balance of his remix just right — and that’s harder than it sounds. (Just ask Bryan Singer, who tried to do a Richard Donner with his Superman Returns.)

sw1He also very successfully folds in some diversity. We have Finn, a young black stormtrooper who doesn’t like stormtrooping, played by the very likeable John Boyega, but — most notably — this generation’s Luke Skywalker is a girl. Daisy Ridley, a striking English actress who looks like Keira Knightley and speaks like Pierce Brosnan used to back when he was a television detective, is refreshingly unfamiliar and the film is poised on solid shoulders, even though this chosen-one character, Rey, appears a bit one-dimensional and depressingly free of flaws. Still, this is the first blockbuster series to give a female character the reins, and for that — in this lopsided world full of cinematic universes — we should be glad. (The bestselling action figure, however, will undoubtedly be that of the doubly spherical new droid, the insanely cute BB8, and my favourite visual from this film will always be BB8 tentatively but determinedly negotiating a flight of stairs.)

Even to a non Star Wars devotee, however, I must confess the film hits hard. Those scrolling opening credits, set to that John Williams score, does strike right between the ribcage of all us once-children, and it’s great to see Williams still masterfully making the film soar. Even if all we’re watching is A New New Hope, the franchise indeed awakens. Even if it weighs in a half hour too long.

One only hopes that now, with old tropes having been applauded and new characters coming into play, the unending Star Wars films of the future will do their own thing instead of trying to sound like Uncle George, who has — thanks to Disney — no say in any of it. It’s a bunch of brave new whippersnappers at the helm now who need to subvert convention, defy expectation and, like Han Solo, may cockiness be with them. For while Episode VII is definitely a step toward the right side, it sure does feel… forced.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, December 25, 2015

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The Best Hindi film songs of 2015

It’s been quite a year for music in Hindi cinema. Wherever you turn, there is earthy flavour, there are clever young wordsmiths, there are audacious beats, there are vibrant new voices. I reached out across social media and asked friends and readers to chime in with suggestions, and the results were far-ranging, eclectic and showed off immense range. This might be a contentious list, dear reader, but it is mine and you will have yours, and we should celebrate how rare a feeling it is to be this spoilt for choice.

Honourable Mentions:

Here are ten great, inventive, cool songs that could well have made the cut — in fact, one may even argue that these ten are more fun than the ones that made it to the points. Gulaabo from Shandaar, Insaaf from Talvar, Behroopia and Naak Pe Gussa from Bombay Velvet, Jeena Jeena from Badlapur, Mata Ka Email from Guddu Rangeela, Bezubaan from Piku, Maati Ka Palang from NH10, Bandeyaa from Jazbaa, Sooraj Dooba Hai from Roy. Solid stuff.

10. BannoTanu Weds Manu Returns

Some believe it’s about a particularly attractive sweater, and this song — by new composers Tanishk and Vayu, and written by Vayu — has a groove that just won’t take no for an answer, no matter what you might think the lyrics are. ’Swagger’ might not be a common word, especially in a Punjabi-laced shaadi song context, but both the song (and heroine Kangna Ranaut) pull it off with flair.

9. Byomkesh In Love – Detective Byomkesh Bakshy

Dibakar Banerjee’s film was all about anachronism, which is why this unlikely alt-rock song about late night laments fit in quite beautifully atop his vision of Calcutta from the 40s. Originally composed in 2012 by Mumbai-based band Blek, the song was spiked with thumri vocals by Usri Banerjee to really give listeners a kick in the head.

8. Ka Kha Ga – Bombay Velvet

Every song from Amit Trivedi’s exceptional Bombay Velvet soundtrack is worthy of reflection and applause, but some of them get deeper under the skin and linger longer than others. Neeti Mohan sings it like a weary jazz pro, and Amitabh Bhattacharya’s words, about the language of love and how it reduces each of us to amateurs, are gorgeous.

7. Moh Moh Ke Dhaage – Dum Laga Ke Haisha

It’s been a while since we heard something truly magical from composer Anu Malik, but there are few others who could capture the 90s aesthetic better for Sharat Katariya’s evocatively crafted film. The heavy-lifting, however, is done by lyricist Varun Grover, who finds much common ground in this song about two opposites. “You are day, I am night, come let us meet like dusk.”

6. Judaai – Badlapur

Rekha Bhardwaj and Arijit Singh take turns making the heart ache with this mournful song about regrets and time gone by. Written by Priya Saraiya and Dinesh Vijan, the Sachin-Jigar track is built on old-school instruments but is structurally innovative, particularly in the way both vocalists are made to contrast against each other instead of find a joint rhythm. Until the end, when the voices dance their own sad tango.

5. Mann Kasturi Re – Masaan

Magic. Indian Ocean take Varun Grover’s fine, fine words — “Ageing is a mystery, and old people have told us this” — and spin them into gold, making for a glittering song that is both earthy and sophisticated, a poetic song unafraid of its lofty ambitions. The sound is classically Indian Ocean, certainly, and distinctive as the band always is, but the fragility of the verses lends them new wings.

4. Zinda – Talvar

The screen fades to black at the end of Meghna Gulzar’s fantastic film and Rekha Bhardwaj’s voice washes over the audience, making sure we’ll walk out of theatres haunted. Gulzarsaab’s words about reaching out and finding life are perfectly crafted, and composer Vishal Bhardwaj — slowly, assuredly escalating the guitar-plucked rhythm — creates a song that wouldn’t feel out of place in a nightmare. Or a dream.

3. Journey Song – Piku

Anupam Roy’s soundtrack for Shoojit Sircar’s film was wonderfully unspectacular, underscoring the film and its moments while never clamouring for attention. This (unambigiously titled) song, composed, written and sung by Roy is the kind of easy-breezy song where you wouldn’t change a thing, from the simply elegant words to the perfectly poised, yet stray, Bengali lines. The lines Roy sings — about thrilled hearts and being out on the road — apply to both Irrfan Khan, driving the car, and Amitabh Bachchan, heading home, while the Shreya Ghoshal bits — ostensibly mentioning green eyes, but, really, city-wary eyes refreshed by the green outside the car window — immediately situate Deepika Padukone’s character and define her context.

2. Tu Kisi Rail Si – Masaan

Standing on the shoulders of giants is never an easy task, which is why it’s astounding how well Varun Grover has managed to build a song around one magnificent couplet from a Dushyant Kumar ghazal. Indian Ocean haven’t sounded this great in a while, but the words are the leading man here. The idea of a lover shivering like a bridge is almost less incredible than that of a bridge shivering like a lover, and it is this striking imagery that carries the spirit of Masaan, this idea of a girl passing by, unstoppably, like a locomotive and of the helpless man waiting to feel the thrill of the shiver.

1. Dhadaam Dhadaam – Bombay Velvet

The heart wants how the heart wants.

In an essay about this song, one of the most remarkable songs our cinema has seen in a while, I wrote about how many songs speak of the heart as a percussive organ but this one strikes harder: “This is not a still or enchanted heart but an enraptured one, beating with ribcage-rattling vehemence, using a sound usually reserved for cartoon violence: dhadaam-dhadaam.”

Lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya builds the elaborately written song around the word Malal, a feeling of despondence, defeat and overwhelming melancholy. Neeti Mohan cries as she gamely, impressively conquers the trilling high-notes. And composer Amit Trivedi hits his jazz beats forcefully, making sure that while we listen to the song, all else is forgotten.

All except that goddamned, hard-dhadaaming heart.

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First published Rediff, December 23, 2015

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Review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani

There is much to marvel at in Bajirao Mastani.

There are the sets, lavish and excessive and opulent. There are the performances, lavish and excessive and opulent. There are the principal characters, lavish and excessive and opulent. There is the film’s running time, lavish and excessive and opulent. So packed with sheer scale is this film that director Sanjay Leela Bhansali scrimps — only — on the nuance, deciding that detailing is best left to the art directors and to the crafters of hula-hoops for Deepika Padukone’s nose. This is a film painted with the broadest strokes, with characters taking turns speaking in exposition, and in couplets.

bajirao1Which is fine. This is a giant film, a magnum opus drunk on its own magnum-ity, and it is perfectly clear early on, as the narrative races out the gate and gauntlets are flung up in the air and shot through with arrows, that a film like this can only work as opera.

Tragic, then, that it ends up a soap.

In many ways, watching Bajirao Mastani is like binge-watching those unending mythologicals all over our television channels, and while this might seem like a dig, one should note that mythological serials, even those stumbled upon accidentally on a Sunday morning, do make for compelling viewing at least for a couple of minutes. (Would you like to mainline ten back to back episodes of Devo Ke Dev Mahadev, though? If yes, you’re in luck.) So a television mythological that actually has excellent production values? What’s not to like?

Plenty.

Bajirao Mastani opens with a disclaimer that says it doesn’t claim to be an accurate representation of Peshwa Bajirao of the Maratha Empire, but while it acquits itself from giving us history, we could certainly have done with a story. The film starts off at breakneck speed, as narrator Irrfan Khan sets up the characters as fast as if he were doing “last week on” recaps, but the narrative soon runs out of steam. Sadly, this is when the characters have just about found their feet and are longing for drama, but Bhansali — favouring obsessively choreographed dance sequences over a plotline — denies them this, making sure actors and audience are mired in limbo.

It is pretty enough as limbos go, but you can only get that far looking at latticework. Also, for all the talk of painstaking period detailing over a 400-day shoot, all that shows through is beauty. Everything is pristine, everything is polished, everything is newly minted. The film is set over many years, but neither heroines nor palace floors age even a day. Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee captures this magnificence well, but the visuals only look compelling when the camera is high above all the elaborate symmetry, like when we see rows and rows of green leafs plated flat for Brahmins to feast on.  There is, alas, too little of this and too many battle sequences that are either visually incoherent or rationally so — there is one Rajnikanthian assault that is particularly laughable. As is a badly animated tiger.

What is good, however, is very good. Ranveer Singh brings his character to life and does so with both machismo and grace, his Peshwa Bajirao slicing down soldiers like a lehnga-clad golfer wielding a too-sharp niblick. Singh gets both gait and tongue right, and while he luxuriantly enunciates every syllable in sight — kudrat becomes coudrut, kismat becomes keeismat — he stays impressively consistent. The performance is solid, be it when planting his hand imperiously on his wife’s head so she can untie his gauntlet, or when, forced to christen a child, he pauses his bravado just so, while coming up with Shamsher. Visually, too, the character is poetically captured, with a pendulum of pearls hanging from his turban or rain bouncing off his hardly-hairy pate. There are times, when in all his finery, that he jangles as he walks, like a belled cat. What better metaphor to suit a man caught between two women?

Padukone — as Mastani, the fiery warrior princess — looks dazzling but her performance is wishy-washy. She starts off smiling oddly through grim dialogue and then appears to be making sword-noises with her mouth when in battle. We can’t hear her over the thundering score, but she has the exact same expression boys with lightsabers sport while making their own sound effects. Her Mastani is obsessed with Bajirao, and while it was perhaps the film’s requirement that Padukone look giddily entranced, there are times when she appears completely lost.

bajirao2It doesn’t help that she’s entirely eaten up by Priyanka Chopra, who, while not in the title, owns Bajirao Mastani. Her role as his wife is that of the moral right, but Bhansali goes out of his way to imbue her character with selflessness and dignity. Chopra’s terrific in the part, her intelligently expressive eyes speaking volumes and her no-nonsense Marathi rhythm bang-on, but having the film side so obviously with her — placing her on a pedestal over the two lovers, even — is a narrative misstep.

The most awful oversight, however, is how this film has been promoted with the most massive of spoilers. The whole second half of Bajirao Mastani could have been kept alive with the germ of intrigue about a confrontation between Chopra’s Kashi Bai and Padukone’s Mastani: how will they collide, will they ever see eye to eye, will one kill the other, and so forth. But the entire film turns flaccid because it has been sold to the audience on the back of a song that features them merrily dancing together in matching sarees, telling us that none of the stakes are high enough to matter. Or sharp enough to draw blood.

Bhansali, for what it’s worth, has gone all out with this one. He’s made warrior girls play the banjo; he’s made Old Spice salesmen look old; he’s created outrageous, mostly fountain-based subtext about husbands and wives getting each other wet; and he’s even saluted world cinema and raised a few red lanterns. If only he had more to say than the fact that he loves Mughal-E-Azam.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, December 18, 2015

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Review: Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale

You can tell a lot about a filmmaker from the way they use a stolen scene.

Somewhere in the middle of the once-great sitcom How I Met Your Mother, narrator Ted Mosby meets a doctor called Stella who is too busy for a date. She eventually grants him two minutes and, within those fleeting seconds, he heroically packs several samples of a date-night, from cab-ride to movie to dessert. Romance, if you will, by way of tasting menu.

Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale has Kajol — a street-side artist who seems to have nothing better to do than buy high-contrast metallic nailpaint — give Shah Rukh Khan a similar five minutes, following which Khan throws out his take on the full Mosby. Except that this is only possible because Khan, a mafia don, has henchmen working for him, and because Khan, the mafia don, has a ton of money to spend on her. The shameless lifting of the scene is eclipsed by the tragic fact that the original prized the character’s ingenuity, while the knockoff is all about budget and access.

dilwale1Budget and access. These have long been Shetty’s favoured lego blocks, and they have never been more visible than in Dilwale, where the greatest on-screen pair in modern Hindi cinema are reduced to insignificance. Sure, there is a sparkle here and a gleam there of what could have been — and Kajol looks beguilingly beautiful, better here than ever — but Dilwale is an absolute dud. We expect insignificant froth from the director but this particular can of Rohit Shetty has been lying open too long. The contents are not merely un-fizzy but, unforgivably, flat.

Nothing, for example, happens in the first hour or so of the film. A lot of grown men share hugs and talk about how they love each other, all moist-eyed and overwhelmed, but this is too generic to care about and, disturbingly, too straight-faced to laugh at. As the plot unravels, involving rival gangster families, a bullet-ridden past and a Dilip Chhabria present, the film goes dimly through the motions, not even bothering — as Shetty normally insists, inanely — to tickle laughs out of us. Set mostly in a Goa so oversaturated it feels like an Aqua video, there is nothing here to be seen despite Varun Dhawan trying gamely to appear spontaneous and Shah Rukh Khan hamming it up like only he can.

Hamming, of course, is the sensible option in a film this badly written. No actor in the world could have lifted this material, and Khan cleverly chooses to play his part — lips q-q-q-quivering, eyes ‘intense’ — with such showiness that it looks like he’s in on the joke. Thank God. Kajol is more earnest, and both actors occasionally conjure up some fire when their eyes lock or when their grins match, but there is too little of this amid the increasingly loud tomfoolery. It is this tomfoolery, to be fair, that somewhat makes the second half bearable — in relative terms, I must stress, but there is only so much Sanjay Mishra is allowed to do in a film of this sort.

Even the car stunts — something Shetty is known for — are unoriginal, coming to us from Goldeneye and The Fast And The Furious movies, and so Dilwale, which, in its convoluted, sloppy fashion, tries to pay homage to Mukul Anand’s Hum — a highly compelling action melodrama — was always going to be an uphill climb. What we end up with barely gets off the ground. Ho-Hum.

Rating: 1 star

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First published Rediff, December 18, 2015

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Review: Sam Mendes’ Spectre

spectre1The Aston Martin DB10 is a profoundly poetic machine, a sonnet on wheels and — because this is a James Bond motion picture — a sonnet that has several switches added on to it. One of these levers is labelled, minimally and with delicious promise, ‘Atmosphere,’ and the mind boggles at the possibilities. Is it a button that emits enough nerve-gas to choke a Nordic village? Is it a quick-change camouflage button? A button that rockets Bond and his wheels up, up and away? Or is it even more fantastically surreal? Is it something that plunges Bond himself into a better, more fun film, one of those classic Connery escapades where wit and muscle flowed frothily?

Director Sam Mendes needed one of those. He needed something to take his Bond film, Spectre, a grandly mounted and earnestly over-stuffed film, and give it some zip, some flair. He needed heady, champagne-flavoured magic. Instead, all the ‘Atmosphere’ button does here is turn on the stereo.

Thing is, well-dressed spies can’t quite cut it anymore. 2015 alone has given us two immaculately-clad secret agent comedies — Kingsman and The Man From UNCLE — both armed with the right accents and jawlines and cheekbones and gadgets, and both of which commit to gags with more loony glee than is possible for a Bond film. This is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as 007, and while Sam Mendes tries to give him old-school punchlines laced with a few grams of innuendo, it jars coming from Craig’s hitherto tortured, brooding Bond. Rog Moore he (thankfully) ain’t, but it feels creepy to watch Craig pour a smile onto a feeble pun.

Spectre starts off almost too beautifully. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema — who shot the sublime Her and the gigantic Interstellar — kicks things off with a long, muscular tracking shot that takes us through Mexico’s dance of the dead, the dia de muertos. It’s mesmerising how well Hoytema manages to keep the main characters in focus by manipulating them seamlessly toward the middle of the frame, forcing us to look at them even as they wear masks just like the distracting crowd around them. Somewhere in the middle of this beautiful instrumental sequence, Bond shimmies up a staircase shaking his bottom with Beyonciffic grace, and later, even more gracefully, Sam Mendes lets him fall from perilously high onto a… couch. It’s a glorious sight gag and a gorgeous start (even though the background score is a tad on-the-nose) and the rest of the film, post sofa, can’t quite measure up.

This is more of a problem because there is a lot of film to go. At 148 minutes, I’m not certain Spectre is the longest Bond film of all time, but — and here’s the rub — it certainly feels like it, and it doesn’t help that Mendes exhausts his bag of tricks very early on. The pre-credits scene, the banter with M, the Aston sequence, the villain’s reveal, the Monica Bellucci cameo… all those marvellous switches are flicked on in rapid succession, leaving barely anything for the tedious last hour of the film.

spectre2“Cameo?”, you might here ask, outraged, and I must sadly confirm that there is hardly any Bellucci in this picture. She looks sensational, as always, but why cast Le Grande Bellezza and not spend more time on her? Why give Bond — and us — such a fleeting taste of the goddess, a taste made even more fleeting by Indian censors? Mr Mendes is the real monocled villain of this piece, perhaps, making sure both Bellucci and this picture’s other fine actress, Lea Seydoux, get silly, stereotypical lines — about where Papa kept his Beretta 9 millimeter, for instance — while Bond gets the zingers. Craig appears game for anything, ridiculous lines and all, but they don’t fit him or this dark and gritty Bond world. Ralph Fiennes is a fine, very likeable M, Naomie Harris is a sterling Moneypenny (sorry) but the great Christoph Waltz is wasted in the big villainous part. He acts well but is, again, given too little to do — a peculiar problem for a seemingly unending film.

What fills up Spectre, then? References to old Bond movies, mostly, checked-off as if this was Mendes’ version of Die Another Day, a joyless, doggedly determined hat-tip to vintage pleasures. Mendes cannot ever be as artless as that clunker, of course, and there is both sophistication and elegance to be found in Spectre — whenever Hoytema gets to shoot exotic, tangerine-tinged top-shots of exotic cities like Tangiers, for example, or one great hand-to-hand fight on a train — but these moments are few, far between and not fanciful enough. Even the Sam Smith song, Writing’s On The Wall, is a caterwauling falsetto more suited to this adorably geeky new Q than to 007 himself.

If only that car-switch worked. (“How was it, M?” “Long, James. Long.”)

Rating: 2.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, November 20, 2015

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Tribute: Raising a bowler hat to Saeed Jaffrey

saeed3The first time I saw Saeed Jaffrey I refused to believe he was an actor.

Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom released when I was two years old, and soon became one of the few Hindi film VHS tapes in our house, one often played to placate children because of the Lakdi Ki Kaathi song. In the film Jaffrey played Suri Saab — a gregarious gent, a proud Punjabi papa — with such complete credibility that I always felt someone had sucked one of my father’s easily-sloshed friends into the TV set. Growing up in Delhi, I was sure this man was obviously someone just like one of those many men who patted me on the head and found my retelling of the same joke hilarious every single time.

It was a classic film and his performance endured, but many years later I saw him again in — of all places — Subhash Ghai’s Ram Lakhan, tweaking Anil Kapoor’s ear and patting Jackie Shroff on the back. Here he was again, a distinguished foreign-type with well-sandpapered Rs and twinkling eyes, in a place of paternal authority. But then, as more movies were allowed into my life, the Britishness of Jaffrey began to wear off: first with his turn as Sardar Patel in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, and then all preconceptions about his image — from accent to upper-crust — were spat out after watching his magnificent local paanwallah Lallan Mia in Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor.

saeed1

All that remained across those superbly varied performances were those eyes, ever sharp and ever twinkling. Cunning. As cunning as a fox who has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University, in the words of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder.

Which reminds me… One of Atkinson’s early bits of comic gold was a routine called Indian Waiter, where he played the long-suffering waiter in an Indian restaurant, forced to patiently stand by while lager-laden hooligans made jokes about pappadum and “Paperback Raita.” While the great comedian and satirist made the point about increasingly dignified Indians in the UK, Jaffrey was the one who indeed ran with it and broke ground, creating an on-screen Indian of refinement and extreme sophistication. His characters rattled off the Queen’s English with Wodehousean aplomb while he dashed about looking, well, dashing. This was the achieving Indian, the prosperous Indian, the entrepreneur and the upstart who ran restaurants and laundrettes and was as easily at home in England as the aforementioned Queen.

The range was superlative. He did films with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant before making his Hindi film debut with Satyajit Ray’s masterful Shatranj Ke Khiladi. He appeared in movies as diverse as Hero Hiralal, Ram Teri Ganga Maili and My Beautiful Laundrette. Hindi cinema, attracted to his obvious strengths, often cast him as an officer of some sort —some uniformed man with a clipped accent — or a posh father-figure. And, more often than not, Jaffrey played all his roles with a characteristic elan and amiability: he looked like a clever, all-knowing, winking Super Mario, gloriously grey around the edges. Irresistible, really.

Rarely did he get the opportunity to completely disappear into his characters, though when he did — like in the Ray film or Chashme Buddoor or in Masoom, as the unforgettable Suri Sa’ab who bought his crockery from Harrods’ — he was sensational. His character in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, in fact, provides a good parallel for Jaffrey’s onscreen persona: Mir Roshan Ali was a man so obsessed with a game of chess that he cared little for the ongoing British invasion of his country. Jaffrey, as we knew him on screen, always seemed to know better, always seemed to know what mattered more than the obvious. And those twinkling eyes invited us along for the ride.

So long, Suri Saab. We raise our bowler hats to you.

~

First published Rediff, November 17, 2015

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