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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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Review: Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur

Let the right one sin.

Right, of course, depends entirely on where we’re standing. Is this character in the right, or is he merely stage-right? Or should we be standing here instead, where we can see what he’s holding behind his back, an anniversary present or a bloodied knife? In the world of noir, Right is less a fact and more a perspective — a shifting perspective, even — and one that must ideally be questioned.

badlapur1No Hindi film director treats noir as finely and uncompromisingly as Sriram Raghavan, making the most of each shadow and each secret, feeding us lies and making us read between them, his films unfolding with the stark alacrity of well-thumbed graphic novels. Badlapur is all fury and fog, a revenge saga that plays out with such eyebrow-singeing intensity that I could imagine a gravel-voiced narrator filling us in on dames and dreams and dark, stormy nights.

The absence of this all-knowing narrator — or one, at least, made wiser by hindsight — cleverly obscures Raghavan’s own position in the whole affair: Is he showing us a simple good-versus-bad tale? Is he taking a side at all? Is he shifting allegiances from performer to performer nimbly, like a tightrope-walker with a roving eye? Raghavan, like the film’s leading man Raghu, plays his cards close to the chest and lets the audience simmer in anticipation as he slow-cooks the meaty, meaty plot and lets the story unravel.

As a premise, Badlapur appears simple enough. A young man shockingly loses his wife and child, and is hellbent on revenge — revenge that is hard to come by because he isn’t sure exactly where to look — and helplessly wrings his hands in despair as his world falls to shreds. It is a fascinating, frightening origin story, in a way an antithesis of the Batman origin, where a child sees his parents shot dead; here Raghu, who fancied himself Batman, has his son, named Robin, snatched away. The superhero threads run strong as the father emotionally tinkers with his son’s Thor figurine. By the time the film winds down, Raghu, who was struggling to grow a moustache when he became a father, has gone full-Thor: he wears a heavy beard and wields a heavy hammer.

On the other end stands Liak, a slimy criminal imprisoned for twenty years, the only man who knows who killed Raghu’s wife and child. He’s a bristly one, making his way into many a jailyard scrap, but he holds his ground and continues to dream ambitiously — often absurdly — of escape. What he lacks in terms of hope or future, he makes up for with swagger. Razor-tongued, brusque, packed to the gills with suicidal bravado: say what you want of him, Liak is a character. So much so that while this film might well be Raghu’s story, the first half has a lot more Liak — he gets more narrative heft, if not more screen-time.

Raghavan hides both their endgames very effectively, weaving a murky tapestry of femme fatales and false leads and fat policemen, the ever-intriguing narrative taking turns being sharp, funny and brutal. There are ruthless scenes in Badlapur, moments where the background score is as hushed as the disbelieving, squirming audience in the theatre, and there are scenes dripping drily with the tense humour the director played with so wickedly in his Johnny Gaddar. That film, in fact, is a fine companion piece to this one; that was sexy and relentlessly stylish while this is a moody, less aesthetically overt tale, and three Johnny actors shine bright amid the brilliant Badlapur ensemble. Like in the new film, Johnny unravelled tightly, its protagonist almost always ahead of the audience, but only the last few frames of Johnny are about vengeance; Badlapur, as the superbly chosen name suggests, is a roaring rampage.

The acting is exceptional. Varun Dhawan, playing Raghu, sheds his easy-breezy charm — but, crucially, not his slightly hapless natural likeability — and bubbles up volcanically, his eyes frequently doing the talking. There are moments in which he single-handedly commands the film, scenes where we have no idea how far his character is willing to go, and Dhawan handles these with just the right amount of inflammability. This is the kind of performance that opens up a career, and given what he did in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya last year, Dhawan looks to have the kind of range his contemporaries should fear. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, meanwhile, coats his Liak in oil and desperation, creating a powerful yet slippery character — one hard to get a handle on — with a reckless, go-for-broke energy. He might be a villain, but in his eyes he’s the wronged hero making the most of it, and the balance Siddiqui strikes between loathsome and irresistible is striking. You can’t take your eyes off him.

badlapur2There are some terrific women in Badlapur. Yami Gautam looks lovely but doesn’t quite get enough material to shine. Huma Qureshi (who also played Siddiqui’s love-interest in the second Gangs Of Wasseypur) is hauntingly good as a call-girl, especially when she distances herself while dancing for a customer she doesn’t like, gyrating freely but disconcertingly enough avoiding all eye-contact. Ashwini Kalsekar is super in a small role as a female private-eye — the kind of character that demonstrates how everyone in a Raghavan script could well deserve their own spin-off movie — and Divya Dutta is characteristically perfect as a woman who looks tired of knowing better than the men she talks to. Radhika Apte is sensational as a wife willing not just to go out on a limb, but to kill herself doing it. One particular scene where her character is forced into a corner shows her dig deep and give us an uncomfortably stark and superb moment, possibly the film’s finest.

Alongside Apte, a major part of the scene-stealing is done by Kumud Mishra, playing a portly policeman who sums up the last decade and a half as 3 promotions and 2 bypass-surgeries. He’s clever, canny and almost alarmingly credible, and there are moments he quivers with apoplectic rage, fit to burst, where he’s fiercely good.

Raghavan — who kicks off this movie with a thank-you note to Dirty Harry director Don Siegel, and has a character reading Daphne DuMaurier’s Don’t Look Now on a train — makes it clear Badlapur is less of a thriller (his earlier characters read James Hadley Chase on screen) and more introspectively chilling. It is a film where a husband and wife, each innocent of their crimes, weep vainly to convince the other that nothing happened. It is a film where an alert policeman spots something through an eye-hole but, a few inches below it, is another opening that could well be a glory-hole. It is a film that broods, and one that refuses to put a fun spin on things, Raghavan preferring instead to put the ‘dead’ in ‘deadpan.’ The last one-third of the film drags a bit — the final lines of dialogue are jarringly laboured, especially compared to the rest of the film’s flawlessness — but overall this is a stunning, beautifully crafted film. Like an expensive, gorgeously made revolver you just want to run your hands over even if you don’t dare shoot it.

As the curtain falls on Badlapur, any argument on rightness feels both moot and muddy. This is a noir world, its aftertaste like chocolate with 85% cocoa, and the answer is deceptively simple: Who gets right of way? The one in a greater hurry.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, February 20, 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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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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The 10 best actors in Hindi cinema, 2014

2014 was a great year for our actors, and a lot of them did exceptionally well. Restricting this annual fixture to a list of ten was harder than it is in most years, and the credit for that goes to filmmakers who celebrated underrated actors by giving them meatier roles, those who armed them with sharp lines and characters, and those who pushed established artists out of their comfort zones.

Here, for my money, are the actors who led the class of 2014. Bravo, gentlemen.

BAmanavk1010. Manav Kaul in Citylights

Hansal Mehta’s turgid remake of the exciting Filipino film Metro Manila was a limp, disappointing affair, but Manav Kaul took a supporting role and ran with it, creating a character far more intriguing than in the original film. His Vishnu, a street-smart security guard, is one for the books, and Kaul plays him with a sly, easy believability and significant magnetism.

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BApankaj99. Pankaj Kapur in Finding Fanny

The first time we meet Kapur in Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny, we see his bare, hairy chest with a drop of sweat running down it. This is a grimy, sultry, lecherous performance, one that borders close to being a caricature — that of an overbearing, pompous artist — and while it certainly appears that he’s pretending his way into a certain lady’s pants, Kapur’s genius lies in the way he is later repulsed by the muse he’s been chasing. It is a moment of hardcore disgust, unfiltered hatred. It might not be obvious throughout the film, but this Don Pedro is indeed all about high art.

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BArajkumar88. Rajkumar Rao in Queen

Queen, directed by Vikas Bahl, is by no means a film that has room for a leading man, but Rajkumar Rao does the next best thing (or is it an even better thing?) by playing the perfect foil. He’s excellent as an indefatigable Delhi suitor, carrying more balloons than should be legal, he’s terrific when replying to his fiancee’s Hindi questions evasively and coldly in English, and, later in the film when he realises that the girl is out of his league, his helplessness is quite perfect.

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BAnjha77. Narendra Jha in Haider

Most of us walked out of Haider in a state of wonderment, and one of the key questions had nothing to do with crossborder politics or Shakespeare. We had to know who was the tremendous actor playing Haider’s father, a man of such unwavering calm, such striking sobriety. Jha, hitherto seen mostly on television, lays down the firmly real tone for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation, and is the kind of doctor we would all like to know. An inherently thoughtful man, he brings an air of gravitas and grace to everything he says — even to the platitudes. How perfect for the Bard’s words.

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BAgirishk66. Girish Kulkarni in Ugly

There are a lot of fine actors in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, but the film reaches a true boil only when — minutes after a man is killed and a girl kidnapped —  Kulkarni’s Inspector Jadhav infuriatingly yet meticulously takes his own time at a police station. It’s a shining performance, that of a cop who can be both commanding as well as sycophantic, and in a film full of characters arguably too dark to be real, it is Kulkarni’s Jadhav who brings in the believability.

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BAsanjay55. Sanjay Mishra in Ankhon Dekhi

It’s always heartening when a powerful yet underutilised actor finally blooms into his own as soon as enough elbow room is made available, and the greatest triumph for director Rajat Kapoor was to let Sanjay Mishra reign over Aankhon Dekhi. His character — who literally believes only in what he can see — is one that could well have been farcical, but Mishra succeeds in creating a poignant, emotionally stirring (and utterly unconventional) hero.

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BAaamir44. Aamir Khan in PK

It takes some serious commitment for an actor to go through a long film with his eyes stretched perpetually to lid-ripping point, but that is by no means the only impressive facet to Khan’s fresh-faced performance as an alien giddily eager to explore the Earth. Straitjacketed by that ridiculously wide-eyed expression, he nevertheless manages to convey wonderment, helplessness, epiphanies and loss very effectively indeed. Rajkumar Hirani’s film might have its detractors, but few will contest that Khan is at his best.

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BAirrfan33. Irrfan Khan in Haider

The greatest ‘hero’ entry of 2014 belonged to Irrfan as — with the snowy white screen diffused into a long blur — he gradually came into focus, wearing snow-goggles, a limp and armed with the baddest, awesomest bass-line. A fiendishly clever update on Shakespeare, Hamlet’s father’s ghost was transformed into a man with ghost identities, a slithering merchant of motive. He may or may not be worth trusting, but, thanks to Irrfan and his compelling screen presence, is definitely worth following. His character, Roohdar, may well have been called Rockstar.

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BAvijayr22. Vijay Raaz in Dedh Ishqiya

Once in a very blue moon, an actor takes a part originally grounded in pantomime — that of the moustachioed villain, in this case — but turns in a performance so disarmingly nuanced that he rises above the label of what he does to the why of it, fascinating us with a character so richly textured that we care about him more than any hero-type.

In Abhishek Chaubey’s delicately crafted and beautifully tongued film, Raaz plays a politician and goon, but with such heart that we may spend the film guessing at his motives. Is his bullying merely bluster because he is expected to be rough? Would he carry on Mexican standoffs forever if his opponents were armed with the right rhymes? Instead of forcibly abducting the begum of his dreams, he kidnaps a portly poet so he can pretend to craft verse, wanting desperately to impress instead of to intimidate.

It all sounds comical (and most of it is splendidly droll) but Raaz brings such wary wistfulness to the part that it becomes impossible to ignore his grand pathos. As I’d mentioned in my review, this is the kind of role that, in an American production, would have been played by great chameleons like Javier Bardem or Christian Bale. And Raaz owns it.

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BAkk11. Kay Kay Menon in Haider

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius is a villain. He is a schemer, a cunning uncle, a plotter to the throne and a pretender defiling his brother’s bedchamber with grand designs on his wife. It is a part that has traditionally required powerful theatrical credentials as well as a certain dynamism of character.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider requires even more, demanding that Kay Kay Menon embody all of these vile things — and yet none of them. The adaptation is carefully balanced on a tripwire of deceit, with a lie at its centre, and depending on where you stand, Kay Kay’s Khurram is either dastardly or dashed. As a result, the actor plays everything double-edged, and thus, when, for example, he pleads to his nephew’s better sense and speaks about the need to avenge his missing brother, he could be either sincere or a scoundrel. Or even a mix of both.

It is remarkable how much of this dualist balance Kay Kay brings to the part, leaving everything crucially open to interpretation. He makes the character appear shifty and sly, though — thanks to his ever-evident discomfort — he could as well just be ashamed of himself for coveting his brother’s wife. But that doesn’t mean he engineered his demise. Or does it?

In one of that great film’s most striking departures from the original text, Menon’s Khurram sits as this Hamlet performs his Mousetrap play with the Bismil song, watching with a smile on his face while everyone around him is repelled by Hamlet’s naked audacity. In the play, he’d stormed out of the performance, propelled off-stage by his fury. In the film, he watches, applauds and — even with mud on his face — smiles an indulgent smile. Does he know better than we initially believe? Thanks to the sheer mastery of Kay Kay’s performance, we can only guess.

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First published Rediff, December 30, 2014

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Review: Rajkumar Hirani’s PK

How must it feel to look at life through really wide eyes?

Cynicism is always easier than sincerity, and few filmmakers can nail the latter quite as consummately as Rajkumar Hirani, an old-school teller of fables who specialises in giving his audiences lumps in their throats. His are comforting films, ones with their edges sanded off and their seams showing, films unashamedly lacking in subtlety because he chooses to paint only in broadstrokes. We can all stand around and point fingers at the indulgently laboured way he makes a point, but the fact remains that PK is a ridiculously effective film, a triumph you are likely to walk away from with a gladder, lighter heart — and, perhaps, a moister handkerchief.

pk1Aamir Khan plays a visiting alien, a head-nodding explorer out for a recce of our planet. He’s buff and eager and comes from a planet where they don’t need clothes, and seconds after landing here, one of us steals his intergalactic transmitter, the remote to signal his ship from home. Thus is the naked feller stranded and stumped, hunting for his amulet with merely a boombox for cover and company. God help you, say the folks he confounds with his bug-eyed questions, sending him for answers toward temples, mosques and churches. Madness, as you rightly imagine, ensues.

His tale is being told to us by a girl called Jagat Janani, who, for sanity’s sake — and possible Jackie Shroff fanhood growing up — calls herself Jaggu. Jaggu’s a plucky girl who has just joined a Delhi-based television news channel. Still a rookie (and thus still armed with the kind of eager-beaver enthusiasm not yet decapitated by actual time in a newsroom) Jaggu chances upon the alien and, reasonably enough, considers his story more newsworthy than one about a manic depressive dog.

The alien, PK, looks at life as laterally as an aborigine given a copy of the New Yorker, and his uniquely coherent perspective enchants Jaggu. This is all run-of-the-mill stuff, really, an old trope that could easily be taken from, say, Ron Howard’s classic Splash (right down to the nakedness), that of a disarmingly naive outsider taking us at face value. But the telling is in the details, with Hirani and co-writer Abhijat Joshi giving PK enough genuine insight to keep us hooked. They do hammer their points home in overlong fashion, however, perpetually taking several scenes to illustrate what a clever setup and punchline could do in two shots.

This foolproofing, it appears, is very much a part of Hirani’s process. The background score is used in the style of a seventies melodrama, all orchestras set to swell; characters hear things which then echo around in their heads; and there is a fond reliance on age-old cinematic cliches like characters going to a performance only to imagine themselves singing and dancing on stage. It’s all cinematic saccharine, but then, given that Hirani takes the opportunity to aim some potshots at organised religion and its gatekeepers, is the familiar a worthy method to sneak in a message? A spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down?

Either way, religion — not God — is the enemy here, and while PK doesn’t load up the cannons quite as potently as Umesh Shukla’s OMG Oh My God did a couple of years ago, it musters up the drama in much more stirring fashion. And its protagonist is quite extraordinary.

pk2Aamir Khan is exceptional in PK, creating an irresistibly goofy character and playing him with absolute conviction. He laughs at his goblin-ears and walks around with his eyes on high-beam throughout the film, but his transformation isn’t restricted to the physical — though I must single out and applaud the skittish way he runs, his arms straight by his side with his palms stuck out, reminiscent of Steve Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine when his character was running toward automatic doors, willing them to open fast. That, there, is the impressive thing about Khan in this film, taking a few one-shot gags and stretching them feature-length so strongly and gamely that he wins us over with sheer heart.

It is this heart that really counts in a Hirani movie. There is a passage where we see Khan’s PK going desperately from god to god, mosque to church to temple, seeking the way to his precious remote, festooned with more talismans than Saurabh Ganguly’s arm. In lesser hands this would smell like an empty exercise in audience manipulation, a cheap and easy means to unearned applause. But it’s striking how Hirani and Khan layer it on with visible earnestness, giving us something unexpectedly remarkable in the sight of that megastar immersing himself hungrily in our diverse, demanding rituals.

The rest of the cast is in fine nick. Anushka Sharma is suitably spirited and full of beans, Boman Irani makes for a fine boss who has felt the ire of a trident before, Sanjay Dutt is wonderfully droll, Sushant Singh Rajput is very likeable indeed and Saurabh Shukla, playing the antagonistic godman, is great at being a pompous god-invoking gasbag. But this is an out-and-out Aamir film, and he soars.

PK is no satire — it’s a bit too toothless for that — but it is a rollicking mainstream entertainer with ambition to evoke some introspection, one with compelling moments and some genuine surprises. Including a humdinger of a last scene. Make one more, Mr Hirani, make a sequel and take us to the planet of the naked. (We promise not to stare that hard.)

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, December 19, 2014

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