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Review: Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya

I was fourteen when more than half the boys in my school suddenly started wearing their shirts half-untucked. Not the slightly tousled careless untucking caused by a hurry or negligence, you understand, this was a very deliberate half-in, half-out approach followed strictly in an attempt to emulate Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj Malhotra. And this took place across barriers of cool and klutzy; the half-tuckers included those dolts who would go on to buy C-O-O-L Kuch Kuch Hota Hai bracelets as well as those wavy-haired guitarists who proclaimed Hindi films passé. It was inevitable. 

On those of us of a certain vintage, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge made a tremendous impact. One of my oldest friends still measures her swoons by how good Khan looked when brushing his convertible-swept hair in Ho Gaya Hai Tujhko Toh Pyaar Sajna, and I have myself approached strangers in bars and used “Robbie ki party” as, um, as an icebreaker. (For the record, it works.) Whatever you may ironically say about that 20-year-old film now, the fact remains that — to us — it was one of those pop-culture waves that changed everything.

humpty1Which is why I’m wary of dismissing Shashank Khaitan’s Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania as a DDLJ-ripoff or parody or spoof, and instead commending it as a romance that just happens to feature a star-crossed pair of DDLJ-obsessives. Humpty, a grown fanboy who still weeps when watching that other movie’s climax, is more like romcom-obsessive Mindy Lahiri from The Mindy Project than any of our regular leading men. His prospective Dulhania is a girl who, having drunk her fill of Kareena juice, pouts her way through life in a way that suggests consequences don’t matter — until, naturally, they do. 

It all begins, as most of us who have had to deal with a big family wedding these days can attest, with a lehnga. The girl demands one of those designer garments costing as much as a hatchback, and decides she’s going to hustle up the money for it herself. The boy — whose name comes from childhood chubbiness but who has taken the first four letters of said nickname to heart — finds himself charmed by this self-proclaimed firecracker, and decides he will help on this sartorial mission. Plans are hatched, jewellery is pawned, aunties are blackmailed…. And all this takes place in a whirl, the director slathering on eventful scenes with a narrative economy that feels almost too brisk. 

It must here be mentioned that this frequently-farcical opening stretch takes more than some getting used to. We’ve been seeing this a fair bit these days — insouciant Punjabi kids with ‘attitude’ and a strut, flinging Facebooky terms at each other — and unlike, say, Mere Dad Ki Maruti, which nailed this zing (and the zingers) quite effortlessly, things constantly seem staged and unreal in this film. Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt are likeable enough right from the start, but it all feels like make-believe, like two kids playing it smart instead of playing it real. He’s always Varun, she’s always Alia, and such is their eagerness to appear natural that they almost yell the (mostly-clever) lines at each other. Things get positively deafening inside a coffee shop. But they are, as mentioned, easy performers and — like watching a school-play starring cousins you’re fond of — it’s easy enough to sit through this because the supporting cast is sparkling, and because Khaitan keeps the story purring. It feels like harmless, forgettable fun.

Then everything changes. This is confoundingly enough a film which follows a tremendously predictable graph — one channeling not just that Raj-Simran movie but also Maine Pyar Kiya, Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya and several of those charming Genelia D’Souza films from the South, like Bommarillu — and yet a film that manages to stay captivating and current. The strength of Khaitan’s film lies in how it’s not trying too hard, it’s not trying at reinventing the wheel, and instead being honest to two characters who, it becomes gradually apparent, aren’t who they said they were — or, more importantly, they aren’t who they thought they were.

So after Humpty pulls away from his girl Kaavya — quoting a Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge line verbatim and turning it into a plotpoint — Khaitan’s film begins to slow down and come into its own. The girl loses her invincible swagger once she’s home; the boy who surrounded himself by silly (but great) friends feels inadequate when facing genuine competition. This vulnerability gives Khaitan’s protagonists a certain depth, and makes up for that over-flippant first half where, it is now clear, they felt fake because they were being fake, and now that all the posturing is over, their story can begin in earnest. And it does.

If I’m making this sound like a serious film, I apologise. This is a lark, a goofy film where you know what’s going to happen but where you enjoy watching it unfold. The supporting cast is very solid indeed — special praise to Ashutosh Rana as Kavya’s Amrish-esque dad, plus Sahil Vaid and Gaurav Pande as Poplu and Shonty, Humpty’s irresistibly loyal buddies — and television stud Siddharth Shukla is well cast as an ideal man, one we first see getting off a car smiling so wide it looks like his cheekbones have been doing weights.

Alia Bhatt starts off cutesy and a tad too affected (her yoga inhalations are pure plastic, but then aren’t they supposed to be?) yet is charming enough to keep things bubbling over till the actors drop their guard, after which she shows off some serious talent — especially rocking the Arms Outstretched pose (©SRK). It is Varun Dhawan, however, who really takes this movie home. His Humpty is sweeter than he is roguish, and when this film calls for sincerity, he doles it out impressively. He creates a character worth caring about, and his chemistry with Bhatt is quite endearing.

When done well, there is no such thing as “too filmi.” Filmi people end up living filmi lives — and sometimes we get to watch. Good on you, Shashank Khaitan. Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania is the kinda film Simran would have loved.

 

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 11, 2014

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Review: Mohit Suri’s Ek Villain

ev1Let’s start with what we know.

We know, by now, that Mohit Suri can direct. He knows how to block a scene, he knows how to use actors competently, he knows the importance of a strong moment, and the songs in his movies (more often than not) actually aid the narrative instead of weakening it.

We know that Siddharth Malhotra is an impressive looking lad, manlier than most of Bollywood’s current brigade, and that when left free of dialogue — as he was in Hansee Toh Phansee earlier this year — he can muster up both likability and a smoulder.

And, ever since 2004’s Naach, we’ve known Ritesh Deshmukh can act.

What else do we know? We know that Ek Villain is a shameless ripoff of the madly thrilling Korean film I Saw The Devil, a crackling 2010 horror-thriller full of elegantly executed ultraviolence, a gore-fest so deftly handled it remains impossible to look away from.

Yet, there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with the way we remake films. You know those often-hilarious South Asian DVD covers for pirated Hollywood films? Where they misspell the actor names and write a bizarre, ungrammatical and illogical version of the summary? With peculiar posters where content from two movies is often melded freakishly into one, as if all Tom Cruise movies were the same? Well, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that our filmmakers might not be remaking the films themselves but these odd DVD covers. (No, dear producers, that is not what you call a cover version.)

Hence we have Ek Villain, where we take a hardboiled Korean film — full of brutal gore and sexual abuse but enough panache to stay constantly gripping — and inexplicably scramble it into a sex-less, gore-less slasher film with a wide-eyed love story running through it all. Gone are the thrills from the original and in come the cliched background score, watered-down murder scenes, and much, much silliness.

Shradha Kapoor, for example, who has Pharrell Williams’ Happy as her mobile ringtone, chirpily sits around filling up her journal with polaroids, when she turns to see a menacing figure. Clad in all black, with gloved hands, he advances upon her, basically the Scream killer minus the ghostface mask. Her reaction, however, is one of plucky indignation. “Why didn’t you knock?”, she demands from this shadowy figure. “Don’t you know it’s not polite to enter someone’s room without knocking?”

And the idiocy rolls on, scene after scene strung together and not even attempting to make sense. There’s a mental-asylum ‘kidnapping’ that makes no sense (but is still in the film to show off Mohit’s/Siddharth’s love for the iconic Amitabh cheesefest, Shahenshah); a man who robs his victims but doesn’t have money to pay an autowallah; and a pinwheel that helps the ‘good’ guy find the bad one. Yes, a pinwheel. Like you get on Juhu beach. In the original film it was an engagement ring, and here it is a pinwheel, those flimsy paper things you can buy six of for a tenner. Because that’s enough to convict a man. Why this change? (Beats me, but the cover must have been a masterpiece.)

Why, again, is this a remake? Why would these filmmakers steal from a film and yet leave out the good parts, the bits that made those films great? And why do we do it over and over again? Suri can shoot a chase, certainly, but do let’s give him a meatier script.

Malhotra isn’t bad, except for his propensity to grunt all the time, as if snarling like a beast were the only way to show toughness. (It isn’t. It shows brain damage.) Ritesh Deshmukh is good, despite being straddled with awful dialogue. “Everyone makes fun of me,” he complains woefully, a possibly true-life sentiment that could be blamed on his Hindi film choices. Shraddha Kapoor, alas, has evidently been told that talking too fast will make her appear spontaneous (and thus give her an edge into the Parineeti Chopra market), but while the girl has a nice smile, it takes more than coke-sped-up dialogue-delivery to create a fresh, natural character.

If I were to review it in one word, I’d say Ek Villain is…. Unneccessary. It features some genuinely awful writing, it is sillier than the examples thus far have illustrated, and the one good thing you can say about the film is that it ends briskly enough. Oh, and that it has Remo Fernandes with a most amusing accent. But that’s more consolation than recommendation. Given free tickets, sure, you could escape Humshakals in theatres this weekend with this mediocre effort, but I say do yourself a favour and seek out the Korean DVD. (Uncover it, even.) Now that’s bloody special.

 

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 27, 2014

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Review: Sajid Khan’s Humshakals

Two nights ago, I had a dream. I dreamt (I kid you not) that I watched and didn’t actually loathe Sajid Khan’s Humshakals, which led to me waking up disturbed and profoundly confused. Is it possible that the most puerile filmmaker (in an industry not known for very mature films) did something half-decent? Could it be…

No.

No, it couldn’t. Humshakals, a film I watched the following night, turned out reassuringly enough to be bilge of the lowest order, the kind of thing we expect from Sajid Khan and yet even more harebrained. I sat in the theatre cringing and sighing, actually feeling the stultification: by nightfall I’d lost so many brain-cells I (almost) rooted for England in a football game. Shudder.

In a particularly painful hat-trick, the last three Fridays have seen me review the silly Holiday, the absurdly amateurish Fugly, and now this pathetic ‘film’. But there is one vital difference between those two turkeys and the one Sajid Khan has just dished out. Those are mediocre films basking in their own incompetence; Humshakals is a work of cruelty.

I’m not buying it, Sajid Khan. No director, I believe, can be senseless enough to think this is fine or remotely funny. Monkeys could direct a better film, and, going by what I’ve watched over the years, some have. But Humshakals couples its crude farce with a certain aggression, as if daring the audience to stay in their seats while it repeatedly spits at them.

This is not filmmaking, this is sadism.

Khan hints at it himself in a scene where an asylum warden tortures inmates by showing them Khan’s own flop, Himmatwala. We all relate, strapped into our seats, luduvico luddites assaulted by that which must not be watched. Every minute — and there are a hundred and fifty seven bleeding minutes — is so brutal it will make you want to give up your deepest secrets in exchange for escape.

The idea of having three actors in three roles apiece sounds like an ambitious one, but ambition is a concept foreign to Sajidland, where every time there is the slightest scope of a misunderstanding between the doppelgangers, the background score spells it out. Just how dumb do you think our audiences are, Sajid? Or were you trying to make Judwaa appear nuanced? This is a racist, sexist, equal-opportunity offender of a film, which wouldn’t have been awful in itself were it not also patently unfunny. Seriously, if you run into anyone who claims to have enjoyed this film, step away slowly.

For this is a film where Ritesh Deshmukh humps Suresh Menon’s leg; a film where parathas are made of cocaine; a film where Saif Ali Khan gets rapey with Deshmukh in drag; a film where two black men appear just so Saif can mouth a line about kaali daal; a film where virtually everyone looks identical and has the same name; a film where people who have hair wear wigs anyway; a film where Ram Kapoor romances himself; a film where characters who have the mental age of children nevertheless start talking like Ranjeet when aroused; a film where Saif Ali Khan, Nawab of Pataudi, drools and barks; a film where a mention of North Korean fascist Kim Jong Un is prefixed by the word “chinese chowmein”….

And so on.

hums1The biggest casualty from this monstrous effort is, in my eyes, Saif Ali Khan, who may well be disowned by friends and family. Khan gamely tries to embrace Sajid’s hammy script, but the results are grotesque: he overplays it, out on a limb far from the acting tree, and it doesn’t make for a pretty picture. Especially since he spends a significant chunk of the film dressed as a waitress, looking not half as effeminate as he did during his early, dupatta-chasing years — he’s now more like the wicked witch of the west. Ritesh Deshmukh, normally the better part of a Sajid film, spends this one making faces while peeing from the roof. Ram Kapoor, an otherwise fine actor, looks more like Shrek than ever, and is let down by a film that has cast him cause he’s fat. Even the great Satish Shah — who has aged remarkably well, casting directors across the nation — shows up as an ill-conceived neo-Nazi warden who is, unforgivably, slapped around by these morons. Ugh.

What other Sajid Khan staples? There are three trampily dressed women — of whom Esha Gupta stands out, for it takes a special kind of talent to be that glaringly awful as an actress — and, of course, the inevitable Chunky Pandey with a silly accent.

It’s all bad. All of it, every last instant, every single word. (The lyricist even rhymes “junoon” with “caller-tune.”) Which makes me wonder exactly what Sajid Khan’s motives are for savaging our audience thus. Is he the real neo-Nazi here? Is he trying to make the country stupid? Is he suicidally trying to see how far people — producers, audiences, actors — let him go before someone assassinates him? Is this all some subversive meta-joke being perpetrated on us for not having applauded his acting in Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate? Is he turning his whole life into one gigantic “ham scene of the week”?

Your guesses are as good as mine. Because a filmmaker he ain’t.

Rating: No stars

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First published Rediff, June 20, 2014

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Review: Kabir Sadanand’s Fugly

Take a dash of Dil Chahta Hai. Throw in liberal doses of Shaitan, add several tablespoonfuls of Fukrey, with a climactic heap of Rang De Basanti on top. Meticulously take out all the actors, all the finesse, every smart and clever bone. Throw it in a blender and then water it down till it’s not just an offensively bad film but a defiantly tacky one, a truly, truly cheap concoction that exists only to make you sick. Fugly can’t, in all good conscience, be called an actual movie — but it is the most appropriately titled mess of all time.

fugly1The kids in Fugly talk like… Nobody in the history of tongues. Young people don’t talk like that. Students don’t talk like that. Morons don’t talk like that. Coming to think of it, perhaps it takes a special talent to create four protagonists so constantly imbecilic that you want to whack the (Haryanvi) bejeezus out of them. Jimmy Shergill, playing a politically minded cop with an absurdly fake moustache, possibly signed on for this film simply because his character gets to slap these fools around a lot and bring them to their knees. Hurrah! The director might not have intended it,  but Shergill is without question the hero we root for.

Or we would — if we actually cared. This is a pathetic excuse for a film, with iPad-carrying sheikhs sitting on open-air toilets in the freezing cold; with vandals breaking into (conveniently open) shops wearing wigs that make them look like skunks, with desperate TV journalists noiselessly pawing the air as they stand in the background of an ICU; with farmhouse parties that net do-nothing organisers a lot of cash, with street-corner gigolos on Delhi streets who take a shine to commode-minded fools.. Yes, it’s all one big stinking mess that needs to be flushed away, double quick. Not least for making one of our country’s rare few sport champions look like crap.

As the recipe I began with might have illustrated, the devastatingly unoriginal Fugly tries to bite off far too much, and, without knowing how to chew, chokes on its own stupidity. There are a couple of good scenes — a Haryanvi politician accidentally resigns, Shergill has one good line about charging VAT for a bribe, the casual warmth with which a wizened old uncle shoos his nephew out the room (so he can get it on with an unconscious girl) — but everything else is embarrassingly amateurish roadkill. Four friends go on drives, jump while they dance, flout the rules because one of ‘em has a powerful dad, and then get screwed. But director Kabir Sadanand, who comes to us after having cut his teeth as an actor in the fantastically subtle world of the Hindi soap opera, persistently adds morality and preachy themes to this hacky mix. It’s enough to make you want to barf — or watch a Jaccky Bhagnani movie instead.

Had there been actual actors playing the leads in Fugly I’d have spoken about them (and surely actors like Shergill and Anshuman Jha, who appears briefly as a boa-clad baddie, don’t want to be spoken much of in relation to this monstrosity) but evaluating or even discussing the four new leads in this production would be tantamount to blaming four clueless kids — sorry, three kids and a boxer — for being misled by the man showing them candy. Thus the blame for this trainwreck lies in Sadanand’s incapable hands, and were he a minister we’d be clamouring for his resignation. Tragically our filmmakers remain even less accountable.

Contrary to popular belief, I posit this film’s producer Akshay Kumar hasn’t lost his mind. Fugly has a couple of tracks catchy enough to ensure airplay and, much more crucially, has clearly been made on a budget so tiny it couldn’t buy Salman Khan’s nosehair-clipper. Merely calling Fugly cheap is an unforgivable understatement: it looks like its been sloppily cut together from footage left over from bad cable TV shows. As a friend said, the Homeshop 18 infomercials have better production values — and better scripts. So Kumar, making this movie for next to nothing, won’t lose a thing and might even make some money (in a world where Gunday is a hit), but if you fork over your dough and actually spend time on this, well, you’ve Fuglied up bigtime.

Rating: No stars

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First published Rediff, June 13, 2014

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Review: Holiday is too slow to thrill

Offensively bland movies often throw up unrelated food for thought. While enduring the painfully boring Holiday, for example, I wistfully wondered how much fun things could be had the filmmaker chosen to change his vantage point: to go from the clichéd hero to the much more interesting character, his hapless (but reasonable) policeman buddy. Played as he was by Sumeet Raghavan, I kept willing the film to cut away from its insipid proceedings to this perfectly likeable cop’s home life, to his miserly wife and his poetry-spouting brother. What a lark that would be.

Alas, this film is made by AR Murugadoss, the man who made Ghajini — and the man who can thus be blamed for our blockbusters having turned dafter than ever. And clearly he and I have very different definitions of the word “lark.”

Holiday calls itself a thriller. And indeed there is a thumping background score and much, much malarkey about sleeper cells and terrorists. In the middle stands Akshay Kumar, with unfortunately flat hair, holding a Rubik’s Cube, and making what appear to be very random assumptions. He’s ridding Mumbai of the scourge of terrorism, and good for him. Because these are simple action movie setups that, despite their harebrained processes, can lead to slick enough thrillers.

holiday1Except Holiday ticks in slow-motion. Imagine, if you will, that legendary scene from the first Mission Impossible film with Tom Cruise suspended from the roof. Pure upside-down adrenaline. Now, if Murugadoss were to direct that scene, we’d spend forty minutes watching Cruise finding a shop to buy ropes, figuring which sneakers are least likely to squeak, and then detailing his plan at great length — before eventually executing it in slow-motion with half the shots replayed from different angles. Holiday, obsessed as it is with detailing Akshay’s efficiency, takes obscene amounts of time getting to the point. Remember the endless shots of people walking in Akshay’s Special 26? This is far worse.

Kumar plays army man Virat, a vacationing busybody hunting for a bride. Shortsighted enough to describe Sonakshi Sinha as “naazuk,” Kumar is bowled over watching her box. He proceeds to tap her thigh when she’s in the middle of a judo match, a move that results in her angrily hurling a javelin at him. Unfazed, Kumar pulls a big red heart out his jacket and gladly lets her javelin puncture it. Sure, it’s a throwaway moment from a silly song, but it well captures the spirit of this ridiculously childish romance. Sinha plays a pigheaded and alarmingly superficial sports-nut who, after slapping her father and berating a friend’s husband for being bald, decides mousily to settle for Kumar because, um, good men are hard to find nowadays, y’know?

Kumar, meanwhile, chases bearded men with the kind of parkour enthusiasm one would imagine he saves for those smuggling bottles of Thums Up. Jumping from balcony to balcony — and, as mentioned, from half-formed conclusion to conclusion — Akshay gamely and recklessly heads to the climax. At one point, the actor seems to have forgotten what he’s shooting for. He rounds up his squad, gives them a pep talk about turning sleeper cells into “coma cells,” and then — like a veejay trying out for an IPL-hosting gig — he bounces up, grinning, with a “boom!” (I’m astonished a plug for the next season of Fear Factor didn’t immediately take over the screen.)

It may as well have. Cut down to less than half its running time, Holiday could perhaps have been bearable. As it stands, three hours long and incredibly yawnworthy, it’s the kind of mess that makes you miss scenery-chewing villains like Prakash Raj and long for item songs. Anything for a respite. The audience nearly applauded when the intermission began, I kid you not.

Think you can handle the truth? Holiday is about the brave men and women fearlessly serving the nation and making sure you rest easy. The men and women who take on unthinkable odds, waking up and rushing to theatres first thing in the morning to catch a movie starring the hero and heroine from Joker and made by the guy who made Ghajini. We watch, and we warn, so you may not have to. Because a critic is never off duty.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 6, 2014

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Queen: What Madhuri Dixit did next

“What did you choose? The coffee?”

There is such a thing as a very Andheri office. One building away from Mainland China, one alley away from a horrid little advertising agency I worked in for a few weeks when I first moved to Bombay, stands a functionally grey monolith. It houses, among many others, an office so utterly nondescript it could belong to anyone from a realtor to a stockist of ballpoint-pen refills. It would, however, have to be a stockist obsessed with privacy. Ringing the doorbell that sultry afternoon led to a voice through a speaker – with the firmly curt tone of automated gates in California-based TV shows – and I identified myself, promising the voice that I did indeed have an appointment “with Madam,” and waited interminably while my claim was checked and double-checked.

The reception area is tiny — barely a couple of chairs plonked across a man on a desk, surrounded by phones — and clearly not too many are allowed to come in and wait, at least at one time. “Two minutes,” said a voice too busy to sound reassuring, and I sat back amid the exaggerated normalcy. Until I looked to my left and saw – within that small, caricaturedly unspectacular bastion of the humdrum – a massive painting, vibrant and striking and carrying a stylish signature (and, indeed, a signature style) that even a philistine like I could recognise.

This is certainly a freebie, a present from the artist — the nation’s most iconic painter and the only one who is truly a household name — a man who famously watched a movie several dozen times before publicly declaring just how besotted he was with, well, “Madam”.

It was a movie, in fact, most of the nation appeared to have watched far too many times.

Video piracy in India began with Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and I was there. It was the autumn of 1994, with Delhi at its most affectionately crisp. The Sooraj Barjatya behemoth, released that August, monopolized every theatre in town. Video rental libraries were booming, with VHS cassettes regularly hitting shelves a few weeks or, at most, a couple of months after a film’s release. Despite the demand, Barjatya had stubbornly held out, leaving his film exclusively in theatres, near-bankrupting families compelled to ritually watch it.  I was thirteen when a very close friend sidled up to me after class and asked if I knew anyone who might want to buy a copy, on VHS. My mother’s ecstatic yelp convinced me a goldmine was upon us, and thus – with enterprising chum producing copy after copy and me pasting magazine pictures onto cardboard boxes in an approximation of cassette covers – did we please many an auntie of our acquaintance.

It is, therefore, with more than a smidgeon of disbelieving gratitude that – two decades after squeezing that unbelievably-long movie onto VHS by cutting down the songs — I am ushered into a conference room where Madhuri Dixit walks in and wonders if my cup has coffee in it.

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MD3From scene-stealing ingénue to pinup goddess, from magnificence to misstep, Madhuri Dixit has always been worth watching. She sobbed and snickered and shimmied through movies of varying quality – taking on both clichés and surprises with equal brio – and the mesmerized masses lapped it all up. By the numbers, she’s the most successful heroine of all time, the highest paid actress and the only one to ever get paid as much as her leading men. She has bested any so-called rivals, been billed above the biggest actors, and, in an industry defined by songs, she owns the most unforgettable dances of all.

The last three decades have seen her celebrated, deified, dreamed of and craved. In 2001, Pakistan’s then President Pervez Musharraf sounded almost wistful when, at the Agra Summit, he remembered Pakistani fans at a Sharjah cricket match singing “Madhuri De Do, Kashmir Le Lo” (to the tune of “Joote De Do, Paise Le Lo.”).  That was a song from the bootleg-inspiring Hum Aapke Hain Koun which, despite all the obsequious saccharine pandering so evident now, was a considerable gamble at the time: an inanely-long film with over a dozen songs and one of the first 90s hits without a villain.

For a woman topping the A-list, Madhuri has frequently taken chances — with scripts, directors, co-stars – and bucked the predictable. The gangland drama Parinda came in 1989, alongside her first blockbuster Ram Lakhan; 1991 saw her in both Lawrence D’Souza’s weepie love-triangle Saajan and Nana Patekar’s introspective Prahaar; 1992 had Dixit dhak-dhaking away in Beta, and playing a blind danseuse in the understated Sangeet. In 1997, while basking in the spotlight of Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai, she gambled on Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand – a woman-oriented character drama and one of the director’s earliest films, with the (still) unknown Ayub Khan as her leading man.

Dixit’s acting chops have proven as impressive as her stellar screen-presence, the star often gleaming despite films duller than the tired old tins their reels are packed in. Even in failed films, her eyes sparkle with eagerness, and a seemingly effortless spontaneity colours her performances, infectious energy carrying her through moments of tremendous farce as well as painful melodrama. Looking back at, say, the moronic Deewana Mujhsa Nahin — where Dixit has to contend with an annoying character, the worst wardrobe imaginable, and an obsessive stalker in the form of Aamir Khan at his most cutesy — the actress still shows off innate charisma. Like with all actors the camera has a crush on, even her lowest points are worth smiling at, and often show remarkable, untapped potential.

This might not remain untapped for long. While Madhuri Dixit may seem to have proverbially done it all, she is now picking radical parts and sharp filmmakers. Our cinema, staunch in its dated ways, isn’t prepared for this refusal to go quietly into the twilight of supporting roles. She may not command the numbers she once did, she may not be the starlet setting boys afire, but she is unquestionably, defiantly — almost inexplicably — still a superstar. What she does makes a difference, and she could alter how our cinema treats heroines. The reason Dixit’s experimental films haven’t show up as vividly, in the light of her considerable filmography, is because her hits have always dwarfed them to the sidelines. But thirty years after she first showed up on screen, Madhuri Dixit appears keener than ever to shake up the status quo — if only to make room for herself, one more time.

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MD1A Madhuri Dixit movie isn’t what it used to be. In one of her two 2014 releases, she plays a parkour-ready outlaw quick with mid-air kicks; in the other, a poetry-fetishizing empress in love with her handmaiden. Both, as one can imagine, are suicidally huge risks for a megastar in an industry not used to rewarding bold choices. Playing a gay aesthete in January before playing Rajinikanth in March – there’s never been anything quite like it.

In that Andheri boardroom, Dixit, 46, sounded content about the new films. “I’m trying to think of any movie in the past,” she said of Gulaab Gang, “that, in that setting of a Bollywood potboiler, has women in the key roles. A movie with all the masala, all the dialoguebaazi, and yet with a female protagonist and antagonist.” Based (very) loosely on crusading outlaw Sampat Pal and her all-woman brigade of pink-saree clad vigilantes, Soumik Sen’s film is hardline commercial cinema, a film unsubtle enough to have starred, say, Akshay Kumar. “That a woman was playing that kind of a role was fascinating, I thought, because it changes the rules in one go. It’s like throwing down a bowling ball and watching the pins go flying.”

Gulaab Gang isn’t a great film, though there is a definite thrill in watching Dixit swagger about with exaggerated machismo, kneeing rogues in the chest. She essays her role with marked dignity, but the best part of her performance might be signing a film that unlikely: an old-school movie by a rookie director, with less of a budget than she, or that genre, is used to. The actress was attracted to it for multiple reasons. “The film also spoke about women’s rights and education, and society in general. It was a statement on what’s happening around us: laws need to be stronger; we have this whole infrastructure and yet nothing really happens. And I think, in its own way, Gulaab Gang addressed that too. There were a lot of things that made me do Gulaab Gang.” One of which, clearly, was getting trussed up in harnesses and swung around trucks to beat up goons. If only because her boys, Arin, 10, and Raayan, 8, would enjoy watching mummy wreak some havoc.

Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya wreaks very different havoc, a decidedly child-unfriendly film about con-men hoodwinked by an imperious lesbian with a literary bent of mind. It is a highly nuanced film, and Dixit – playing the once-wealthy Begum who plays up to men to pay her bills – does so with delicacy and a self-aware grace that eludes any of our current heroines. “The old culture is fast fading,” she says, “the nawabiyat is crumbling to pieces. As things become more ‘new-age,’ there’s no place for characters with old-world charm, and they try desperately to fit into the new generation.”

It is also a film where our most mainstream actress plays a woman who prefers the company of women, a twist that, while subtle enough, is certainly a shocker. Dixit assures me she wasn’t worried. “I knew exactly what we were doing. And there was a lot of ambiguity to it; we were not stating anything. We left it to the viewer to interpret it themselves: it could be two women who were fed up of men in their lives and they want to be by themselves, or it could be something else you notice. And I love that little ambiguity.”

Chaubey, whose first “lesbian draft” was wickedly explicit, confessed it gave his heroine cold feet. But then he realised, while honing his script, that overt sexuality would kill the loveliness of the story’s eventual reveal, an angle pegged on Lihaaf, Ismat Chughtai’s scandalous short story from 1942. “She told me about her fears, and I addressed it: This is exactly how I’m going to treat it. If you’re observant, you’ll get it fairly easily, however, if you aren’t watching carefully, you don’t get it, and that’s it. It doesn’t harm your enjoyment of the movie,” said the director, who co-wrote the script with Vishal Bhardwaj. “And then she was fully on, you know. Unlike Huma [Qureshi, who plays the object of Madhuri’s affections in the film] who was very excited and who was constantly talking to me about it — ‘how do I touch her? how do I look at her?’ — Madhuri didn’t fuss, she didn’t discuss it too much. However, when shooting, there were absolutely no inhibitions. She was all systems go.”

~

It is a career that took off with an advertisement.

Screen India was the most powerful industry-to-industry publication through the 70s and 80s, and their third-page advertisement was, for a considerable while, the hottest real estate in Hindi film publicity, limited largely to paid announcements for films celebrating a grand theatrical run, or first posters for films with whopping budgets. It was, therefore, rather startling to see a dramatic six-page ad ‘launching’ a heroine who wasn’t merely unknown, but unknown because her first five films had flopped.

At 17, Madhuri Dixit did a tiny film called Abodh opposite Bengali actor Tapas Pal, which sank without a trace. As did her next four films. During the shoot of Awara Baap, the second of these flops, however, she met Subhash Ghai. Ghai, a hugely successful director who was bulletproof at the box office for two decades straight — from 1980’s Karz to 1999’s Taal — glimpsed something special. “When I first met her in Kashmir,” said Ghai, who was there to scout locations for his 1986 multistarrer Karma, “she was playing some very small role as Rajesh Khanna’s daughter. A hairstylist, Khatoon, who had worked with me in Karz, came to greet me and said ‘ek chhoti ladki hai, side-role kar rahi hai’ (‘There’s this little girl, doing side-roles’) and she introduced me. Patli si ladki thi. (She was a slim sort of girl.)”

Ghai was impressed by the slim girl’s face, one he recalls as “absolutely photogenic,” and, he said, by her impressively “well-mannered, cultured and innocent” persona. “She was an unpolluted actor. I had the confidence that I could shape her into a star. So I took her on as a project.” Ghai spoke of this phase as “re-erecting” Dixit’s career because he discarded her flops outright and refused to even watch them. “I told her that ‘I am making this film called Karma, and after finishing this film, in one year, I will make a film properly to launch you.’ I wanted to sign her to a 5-year contract so I could groom her properly, and all I wanted was her loyalty.”

Ghai shot a quick Madhuri showreel, sending it to eight producers and directors. “Ramesh Sippy, Inder Kumar, Shashi Kapoor Productions… Everyone I knew well. I said to them that ‘If you think this face, this video is okay, then contact me. I am signing this girl and if you want to sign her, send me a cheque for Rs 5,000.” By the end of the week, Ghai had eight cheques, following which he took out the historically eventful advertisement.

MD8“This girl who was a flop yesterday is blooming today and will be a superstar tomorrow,” is how Ghai summarized the 1985 ad I was unable to locate from the Screen archives. “She had become a flop heroine,” said trade analyst Amod Mehra, “but what a launch that was! Six pages continuous in Screen? When nobody had even heard of her? It made her career.” Ghai’s coup de grâce was the final page, emblazoned with the names of the eight producers who had already signed the relatively untested actress. Thus was Dixit a sensation before stepping forth as Ghai’s heroine.

Then, like a much-shaken fizzy drink finally uncorked, came the stream of hits. Dayavan, Tezaab (1988); Tridev, Parinda and Ghai’s own Ram Lakhan (1989). From this point, there was no stopping Dixit, basking in blockbuster bubbles and getting stronger with each successive triumph. The film industry reacted the only way they knew how: as a herd. Dixit had nine releases in 1989 and ten in 1990. Everyone wanted her.

“If you wanted histrionics,” said Mehra, trying to sum up what producers felt at the time, “Madhuri Dixit was your number one choice. Very quickly in the 90s everyone started comparing her with Madhubala, as a beauty who could charm anybody. But Madhuri grew as an actress besides just being a star.” Mehra dismissed any serious competition. “Sridevi was a great comic actress, but that was it. She was a very commercial heroine. For big masala-movies people wanted Sridevi, but when they had a role that needed acting, they had to have Madhuri. She had an edge; everyone felt she was the complete Indian woman.”

~

“Madhuri Dixit is the most solid man I’ve met in the industry,” Shah Rukh Khan told Filmfare magazine in 2006. “Yeah, you heard right. She’s truly like a man. She’s the most solid thinker, the most solid emotionally, a solid believer. And of course, her talent is unquestionable. From her I’ve learnt the most.” Evidently one of those overachievers who believe a man is the ultimate compliment, Khan spoke about how he merely follows her lead. From a famously cocky superstar who knowingly exudes the persona of a charming narcissist, his compliment was very telling: “She is the only one I feel I am not as good as.”

MD7Dixit has always marched to the beat of a different benchmark. Her first “hit pairing”, in tabloid parlance, came with Anil Kapoor. Already a star with films like Mr India behind him, Kapoor recommended Dixit to director N Chandra, who cast Dixit in Tezaab, her breakthrough movie. The duo enjoyed colossal success and became a golden ticket for producers, the most recent of their sixteen collaborations being the 2000 release, Pukar. But all was not peaches and moustaches. One of their biggest films, Beta, in 1992, cast Kapoor unflatteringly as a bullied simpleton and Dixit as a firebrand defiantly challenging her husband’s mother. Dixit, all eyes-blazing, was the most striking thing about the film, especially while melting the screen with the ludicrously suggestive Dhak Dhak Karne Laga song. “Beta should have been called Beti, people tell me,” Dixit smiled nonchalantly at me, but according to Amod Mehra, Kapoor wasn’t enjoying the fact that Dixit was walking away with the lion’s share of the applause.

If so, he wasn’t her only leading man wary of, well, being led. “She only started Dil [in 1990] because Anil didn’t have dates at the time, and Aamir [Khan, with a string of unsuccessful films following his 1988 debut hit, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak] was a nobody,” explained Mehra. “So another hit pair was born. But once she became a superstar, the biggest heroine… Anil pushed for actresses like Urmila [Matondkar] and Sridevi in films like [1997’s] Judaai, while Aamir was picking actresses like Manisha Koirala [in 1995’s Akele Hum Akele Tum]. Nobody wanted to take on Madhuri any more.”

Assuming these actors didn’t feel threatened by Dixit, they might have had something to say regarding the characters she played. Most were canny, independent girls, bright students or feisty professionals who suffered little foolishness, especially from leading men who (not so long ago) played their saviours. Mainstream directors like Ghai – even in the loud, testosterone-filled Khalnayak, ostensibly a Sanjay Dutt vehicle – made sure they wrote a meaty part for Madhuri.

By the mid-nineties, she was queen. She had the films, the roles, the audiences. Once it became clear to producers that her name on the marquee resulted in that all-important box office opening, she began to render her heroes redundant. In Hum Aapke Hain Koun, for example, not just does she enjoy above-the-line billing higher than the film’s hero, Salman Khan, but – according to a recent article in The Indian Express – she was paid a then-astronomical Rs 2.7 crores for the film, more than almost anybody at the time. (Amitabh Bachchan, according to rumours, was paid Rs 2 crores for Khuda Gawah a year before.)

“This is what happens when the heroine becomes bigger than the hero,” Mehra said. “Stories and films have to be built around her stature. So they become heroine-oriented films — which then don’t work at the box office.” This doesn’t mean that independent, intelligent female characters weren’t accepted – on the contrary, 90s actresses like Kajol and Manisha Koirala brought much sass to their roles – but these characters belonged (according to conventional industry punditry) alongside even stronger male leads. This is an industry where sexism runs deep and male stars, to this day, cherry-pick the ladies they work with.

Getting too big to tread on her heroes’ toes would signal an imminent downfall, but Dixit avoided the precipice in defiantly heroic fashion. She roared like a cougar and began to do what only the heroes do – namely, working with young boys while taking charge of those films’ commercial reigns.

Madhuri was breaking ground, boogeying with young Akshaye Khanna in 1997’s Mohabbat, nine years after being pinned down by his father Vinod Khanna in Dayavan. Consider how notoriously unfair Hindi cinema has been to the ageing actress. Even as wrinkly heroes routinely don wigs to woo starlets a third of their age, leading ladies are put out to pasture cruelly early, age first relegating them to the dreaded sister/mother roles before forgetting them entirely. Rakhi Gulzar, for instance, played Amitabh Bachchan’s lover in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat before playing his mother in Shakti just a year later.

MD10Yet Madhuri played by her own rules and was rewarded for it, producers caving in and forking over the astronomical fees she demanded. “I’m proud I did it because it paved the path for others to follow,” Madhuri said. “And when you do something groundbreaking, there’s always a risk. But I think I was always clear what I wanted to be, where I wanted to be, and where I wanted women in cinema to be. So that always dictated my choices, whether it was the pricing or the choice of films, I wanted it to be the best and I thought I deserved the best.”

Yet Dixit’s ceiling-shattering didn’t pave that path after all. Measure that triumph, if you will, in the context of today, where the most feted heroines –Deepika Padukone/Kareena Kapoor – get paid less than half of what even a second-rung hero – Shahid Kapoor/Imran Khan – makes per film. That Dixit managed to achieve – and, on occasion, exceed – parity in an industry so irredeemably sexist is a testament to her singular star-power.

~

One of the ways Dixit managed to avoid slipping from the top rungs at a time when younger actresses were pilfering the spotlight was by retreating unexpectedly into the shadows. In 1999, she found herself a soft-spoken cardiovascular surgeon living in Denver, Colorado, one who shared her Marathi Brahmin roots. Her marriage to Sriram Nene was a largely un-filmi affair, following which she didn’t immediately pull the plug on her career. A few significant films followed, including Pukar and Lajja, but after Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s massively publicised Devdas — where, for the first time since her fledgling days, she got the supporting role instead of the lead, which went to Aishwarya Rai — she decided to relocate to America.

Her “comeback,” after five years off the greasepaint, was a 2007 production called Aaja Nachle, about an NRI dancer returning to India to save a theatre in her village. Produced as it was by Yash Raj Studios, it was mounted on a scale so lavish the earnestness was buried by bling. Madhuri dismissed any question of ring-rust. “It’s like bicycling. Or swimming, for that matter. Or,” and here she paused for a hint of drama, “actually even walking. You can’t forget. Once you’re in front of the camera, it comes very naturally.” It was the concept that clearly touched a nerve. “I loved the fact that there’s this woman who leaves her country and goes somewhere else, makes a life for herself, and then finds out that whatever she was passionate about is crumbling and she has to come back, and she has to fight for that culture and…”

So Madhuri Dixit has come back to save us all? “No!” She burst out laughing, those devastating peals of laughter. “You can’t save anyone, it’s not possible! But at least you can contribute to making people aware, at least talking about it, at least educating people about what is [fading], what we’re losing. Even today, the masters who are experts in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, in classical dancing, they all say people don’t want to learn it because they all want to be dancers overnight. Which isn’t possible when you don’t know classical dancing, but once you know classical, you can master any kind of dancing in the world.”

And then, to drive her cultural metaphor home, she talks about cyborgs. Naturally.

“Do you watch Star Trek at all?” she asked, a raised eyebrow topping that smile, acutely aware her half-man half-machine metaphor may be lost on a non-Trekkie. “So cyborgs just come and assimilate people into their own culture, turn them into half-men half-robots and that’s it. So they’re one, they think as one. But if you really want to live in a world as one and yet have your identity, then your culture is something that you uphold because that will give you identity.”

Yes, that Choli-Ke-Peechhe lady digs sci-fi. (“Trek and Wars,”she insisted, even after she nails a William Shatner impression.) Dixit loves the high-concept hoo-ha, and over the last decade, like any parent, has watched a whole lot of animated cinema. She raved about Pixar’s Up, lamented the lack of quality animation in India, and is fascinated by how emotive superhero movies can be, “with the dead parents and the villain going hahaha or the uncle being killed.” Would she do a superhero movie? “Oh yeah,” she purred. “Absolutely. It would be fun. It has its own fascination, from Spider-Man to Catwoman; there’s something exciting about these characters. And they’re all made from comic books. Which is just… amazing.”

Dixit is currently intrigued by the Hollywood model, getting writers and directors to develop material specifically for her, instead of merely wading through scripts thrust her way. If Dixit can facilitate the kind of movies she likes to watch, we may be in for an interesting time. But can she command a Krrish-sized budget today? And, if not, — given the fickleness of producers and distributors and the ever-changing list of eight or so actors considered “safe bets” — is the smallness of the film necessarily a bad thing?

~

A clue to her future may lie to her past: one of her best and most-offbeat performances.

Maqbool Fida Hussain’s Gaja Gamini is a peculiar beast. Hussain, India’s most emblematic modern artist (and a painter of movie-posters in his earliest days) watched Hum Aapke Hain Koun 67 times in theatres, got obsessed with Madhuri and made a series of paintings featuring her, a series he signed simply, and dramatically, as “Fida.” When HAHK released, he was 79, she was 26, but a friendship was struck. Six years later, Hussain directed his ode to Madhuri.

An evocative but indulgently absurd work, Gaja Gamini – which means one with the gait of an elephant — remains an unforgivably theatrical bit of navel-gazing that is, without question, stunning to look at. “There was a bound script,” she revealed. “You’d be surprised. There was a whole storyboard. But his thing was not about the dialogues, not about what we were saying to each other. He used to say he wanted to make ‘moving pictures’ where if you just snip any of the frames out from the reel, it should look like a painting. And that’s exactly what he did.”

In the film, Dixit plays three (or perhaps more) overlapping muses, the women inspiring Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Kalidasa’s Abhigyan Shakuntalam and a young photographer’s finest work. This photographer was played by her Dil Toh Pagal Hai co-star Shah Rukh, who didn’t quite understand what was going on. Dixit, on her part, couldn’t make out Yash Chopra’s trademark mumbles during the DTPH shoot – though her unintelligible mimicking is spot-on – and Shah Rukh would translate it for her. “So when we did Gaja Gamini together, I remember Hussain Ji would come and say ‘Abhi aese bolna hai, abhi aese bolna hai,’ (Now you say it like this, now like this) and Shah Rukh,” she laughed before throwing on a completely vacant voice, “was ‘What does this mean?’ And I explained that we shouldn’t ask what it means but follow what it says.” Thus did the biggest stars of their time provide subtitles of cinematic understanding, helping each other through entirely different, but equally choppy, waters.

It had to have been a daunting brief for an actress. “It was! What Hussain Ji was trying to do with the film was to say how mysterious a woman is. Poets are trying to describe her with their poetry, painters are trying to capture that magical moment, that smile or whatever, and yet she’s so mysterious that nobody can really describe or, say, define her because she just plays so many roles.”

“It was eccentric,” she agreed, smiling, “but very cutely eccentric. And it was, in a way, liberating, because I could give it my own interpretation. It wasn’t like he knew the nuances of what acting is or stuff like that, so I had a lot of freedom. And we created something that was very different. The dances, also, were very innovative.”

She spoke fondly of the “fabulous, fabulous” Hussain and his spirit, of how he’d come to visit her in Denver and frantically look around for a canvas, assuring her he was carrying his own paints. “And I said ‘why don’t you… just relax? Sit back, I’ll give you a cup of tea, put your feet up and don’t paint.’ And he says ‘you’re punishing me!’ And that was an eye-opener to me, the way nothing else mattered and he just wanted to paint, and go on painting.”

Masala movies of the 70s and 80s traditionally made a big deal of something called the hero’s “entry shot,” the first time the camera shows us the leading man, often a dramatic pan up from his boots to his face (at which point the camera, like an overconfident stand-up comic, freezes for a second, anticipating applause and whistles). Hussain, in his two-hour film, obscures Madhuri’s face for the first half-hour, showing us her dancing but covering her face with strategically raised mudras. Finally, we see her sitting by herself and are told she’s blind. Dixit smiles beatifically while men try to woo her with music, following which she breaks suddenly into a musical aalaap and, with a dramatic spurt of energy (and a change in setting) begins to dance next to gigantic musical instruments painted as white as her saree.

And it is here — as she sensually straddles a cello while a black, trademark MF Horse watches her – that Dixit scorches, unashamedly turning on the oomph around these fortunate over-sized instruments. It is a preposterous set-up but Dixit’s electric vitality makes it come alive; she gasps and thrusts and touches the instruments with a devastatingly fluid grace. A minute later, Dixit can be seen sitting and talking, softly and realistically. She’s surrounded by actors grandstanding theatrically, projecting their lines in an infuriating way, yet Dixit keeps things crisply, cleanly cinematic. There is a mastery here, an unwavering self-assurance through her every step, be it a tricky dance move or a demanding turn of phrase – perhaps because the film was tailored to fit her. It is a muddled but ambitious experiment, this film, and Dixit dazzles, turning in a unique performance, one without any cinematic reference point. The markedly abstract nature of the project aside, a reason the actress may have been so uninhibitedly luminous could be that Gaja Gamini was a pure artistic experiment, produced without making eyes at the box-office.

Which may just be her ticket right now.

~

Much of the go-for-broke ambition might have to do with having already exited stage-left whilst on top . Plus, she genuinely enjoyed being away. Strolling through a supermarket in Denver – “which is a very Caucasian kind of place, and the Indians there are mostly the transient kind, who come there for 3-4 years for their tech companies and move on” — occasionally spotted by an Indian or two and waving a quick hey before carrying on with her day, in gym clothes and bereft of makeup. Without minders to warn her from stepping out because crowds and the press were around. “For me having a family, a husband, a home, kids, was always a big part of my dream. Despite being so used to working, I was living the dream I’d made for myself. I was playing it to the hilt, really,” she laughed, then quickly clarified. “It wasn’t like a role, it wasn’t just play-acting. I come from a family of four kids and for me it’s very important, family is one of the important things.”

dedh-ishqiya-5vOn-set stories about Dixit revolve around an extraordinary work-ethic. “We were doing one of the songs,” recalled Soumik Sen, “and at around 12pm, lunchtime, she called me into her van and the first thing she asked me was ‘Do you have this location day after?’ and I was surprised but said yes. ‘Do you have the other artists day after?’ Yes. Then she broke the news that she’d been having a migraine attack since morning, and had been dancing with that. Now she said it’s getting too much, she’s had two pills, and it’s not gotten any better. If she feels okay, she’ll resume shooting, otherwise if I could please excuse her? It’s unbelievable for someone to ask you these questions first.”

Abhishek Chaubey was as thunderstruck, on the first day of shooting for Dedh Ishqiya, when she asked him, “in a very childlike way, ‘Was I good?’ It was a very innocent and very vulnerable moment, one where she was admitting ‘I could have fucked up, did I do it badly?’ It could have been an 18-year-old actor trying out a scene for the first time; that nervousness was there.”

It’s a good sign, the appetite remaining as desperate. Or is that the only way forward? Like Amitabh Bachchan over the last decade, is she forced to embrace the outlandish, the unexpected, in order to stay relevant? Is she choosing not to do a commercial vehicle opposite Salman Khan, or will that not be offered to her at all? Or has she found enough calm in order to do what she likes? She appreciates the edgier new filmmakers, and rattles off praise for virtually every young actress, from Kangna Ranaut to Priyanka Chopra, singling out the latter as a personal favourite. But don’t expect her to play mommy to them just yet. “I don’t feel like that yet, you know? I mean,” she burst out laughing, those irresistible ding-a-ling chimes, “my kids are just 8 and 10! I mean, what the hell? Let them be 25, and then I’ll play mother.” The laughter rings out genuine, secure, unafraid.

The Bachchan analogy draws itself. The late 90s saw Amitabh age gracelessly into self-parody unfortunate films like Laal Baadshah and Sooryavansham. Then came a television gameshow. So big became the actor in the role of the Kaun Banega Crorepati anchor that he sprung back into relevance, taking on a mixed bagful of roles. While not the leading man, he built up a new niche filmmakers were forced to respond to: despite him playing the hero’s father, the role had to be a textured one. This led to other senior actors – Rishi Kapoor being a prime example  – finding fresher and more challenging roles now than in their prime.

Several older actresses are doing interesting stuff. Shabana Azmi, for example, continues to shine despite her age with roles as varied as witch, don, affectionate mother and manipulative politician. But as an arthouse actress, she doesn’t have the commercial cache required to make producers and filmmakers change the way they write roles. When Madhuri Dixit does a small film, it doesn’t remain a small film.

By playing dyke and dacoit in the same breath, then, Dixit has blown the bloody doors off, in terms of perception and possibility. Thanks to her – and Sridevi, whose English Vinglish was a runaway smash – Hindi cinema is poised to create a space that didn’t really exist, at least for the commercial movie heroine. Suddenly it appears possible for actresses to stay pertinent despite conventional diktats of age or marital status or a certain kind of look. And she might not even have to dance.

~

MD2During her all-conquering 90s, it was easy to draw parallels between Madhuri and Julia Roberts – an amazingly successful star with an iconic smile, and paychecks as big as the boys – but things have changed. In Dedh Ishqiya, she delivers a finely etched, wonderfully-balanced effort, a breezy but brilliant performance that shows just how far she has travelled, from heroine to actress. Somewhere in the mid-90s – between Beta and Anjaam, I’d estimate – she grew aware of the breadth of her narrative range and started steering clear of false-notes since. This clarity, of precisely how taut one’s own tightrope is, is what makes an actor find her zone and begin to excel, and Dixit seems perfectly equipped to take on genuinely mature roles. Now, with an increased willingness for bowling-ball-sized risks, there is an emerging possibility for sculpting complicated characters and mature performances. Like, say, Meryl Streep. Of all the veterans revered for their acting, she’s the only one who consistently remains a leading lady, by any measure –  a red-carpet favourite, an industry icon, an influential actress, monopoliser of awards… A star. A Meryl Streep film, no matter its budget, can’t quite remain a small film.

Madhuri yelped at the mention of Streep. “That’s a big shoe to fill though! I just want to be different. I want to surprise with each film I do next.” Speaking of Hollywood influences, Streep “obviously” is the first name she took, but the choice of the second was rather tell-tale. “The new girl, Jennifer Lawrence. She just gets into whatever role she’s playing and she’s so young and it’s crazy.” She went on to mention actresses as varied as Angelina Jolie and Helen Mirren, and positively gushed over Cate Blanchett’s astonishing turn in Blue Jasmine, but the very fact that she’s citing a 23-year-old wunderkind as an influence shows how serious she is about not playing ma just yet.

She might not have to, honestly. The “heroine-oriented film” might have been box office blasphemy back in the 90s, but things are evolving. Vidya Balan was the hero in The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, as was Kangna Ranaut in Queen, and the audience showered those films with grateful applause. Dixit feels we are giving women more textured parts. “She plays a character now. It’s not just a revenge drama, and she’s not either avenger or victim, which is what heroine-oriented films used to mean.” She’s also gratified that female characters can now be unapologetic, without needing to justify whatever ambitions they might have. “Earlier you had to think that abhi aesa dikhaaenge toh audience might not like it; there’s a sick brother and uske liye kucch karna hai and that’s why she’s a cabaret dancer.”

A pivotal development in aid of extraordinary performers and performances in current cinema is the fact that hits and flops don’t matter like they used to. Not to actors, anyway. Now an actress can feature in a warmly-applauded flop and use the momentary acclaim to springboard toward her next project, ideally one with more visibility. It isn’t foolproof — and kismet can’t be cheated — but there are more chances and better odds for the talented, with even the looniest Hindi blockbusters now aiming at casting a richer ensemble. It is a highly promising time to be a strong actor, with newspapers and magazines looking beyond the usual, starry suspects to cast their applause. In Irrfan Khan, Rajkumarr Rao and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, we are beginning to see the rise of the unconventional leading man. The women aren’t far behind, and while there aren’t Streep-shaped roles quite yet, if this lady has her way, we might find the superheroine we’ve longed for.

The game is on. It’s been 26 years since Ek Do Teen, and Madhuri Dixit still counts.

~

An edited version of this piece appeared in Caravan Magazine, June 2014

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Review: Amole Gupte’s Hawaa Hawaai

hh1It is a rare and wondrous thing when students genuinely admire a teacher.

I remember sniggering cruelly many years ago when my kid brother, extolling the virtues of one of those self-aggrandising heads of tuition institutes, resolutely referred to him as “Sir Vipin” instead of “Vipin Sir,” convinced of his greatness and boardexam-beating power. Growing up, we’re naturally disposed unfavourably toward teachers, but the few who shine through and make us believe also win us over completely. Merely being their student becomes a point of young pride, and we begin thus to look to them for perfection, unreasonably expecting flawlessness and answers to everything.

It’s stunning, faith. And this is the wide-eyed keenness Amole Gupte captures so well in Hawaa Hawaai, where a skating-instructor is merrily deified by his adoring children, hoisted by them onto a rockstar-high pedestal. “Lucky Sir, Lucky Sir”, they chime in unison (younger but wiser than my knighthood-conferring sibling, clearly) as their sharp-eyed teacher shows up to an empty parking lot — and encourages them to fly.

Lucky Sir happens to be sitting in a wheelchair while cheering the kids on, but this doesn’t stop eager tea-boy Arjun from instinctively recognising a superhero. He sees the swish kids swoosh around on their rollerblades and dreams of wheels on his own feet, and the film is about following those dreams, come what may.

It’s a smart angle for the film, too. Rollerblades, by their very nature — that of something normal stuck onto something normal to make something relatively extraordinary — lend themselves perfectly to the Do-It-Yourself concept, and armed with an ensemble of talented (and adorable) youngsters, Gupte affectionately crafts a truly sweet underdog story. Modelled on those American movies where fathers and sons build flimsy soapbox-racers that go on to beat karts many times as expensive, Hawaa Hawaai is simple but wonderful. It’s a well-textured and etched film, one refreshingly lacking in villains — even the richest, chubbiest kid isn’t a meanie — and one that heartbreakingly but smilingly illustrates the disparity between the kids shown in the film and the kids who can afford to buy theatre tickets to watch this film. Which is exactly why you should drag every kid you care about to this movie.

It is also the kind of film that may well have been dismissed as cloying, predictable or manipulative, but so stridently does Gupte’s sincerity shine through that cynicism is left at the door very early on. The film opens with a father singing an ode to the daily bread while a mother makes chapatis, and this, naturally, is a massive gamble, a move that could make the film seem dated, stagey and too much of a morality tale, but Gupte (who literally sings this song) endows this basic moment with such heart and warmth that it serves only to make the audience feel cosier about the idea of a moral lesson.

hh2Played by Gupte’s son Partho, Arjun is an indefatigable youngster, a well-raised boy who wears a constant smile to fend off hard times. Partho is a fine actor and an irresistibly cute kid — with superb Hindi elocution —  and Gupte surrounds him with a quartet of kids who are every bit his equal. These four — Gochi (Ashfaque Khan), Bhura (Salman Khan), Abdul (Maaman Menon) and Murugan (Tirupati Krishnapelli) — play homeless kids working several rungs below minimum wage, and they make for an amazing entourage, the real wheels pushing Arjun ahead. It’s hard not to smile (and sob) at them

Saqib Saleem, one of those naturally talented actors lacking in false notes, plays Lucky, and he’s a great fit for Gupte’s cinema considering how his performances hinge on believability instead of bluster. His is a more demanding character than initially apparent, and Saleem handles it well. He takes one look at Arjun’s homemade skates and incredulously dubs him his Eklavya, his ‘unworthy’ student and true champion, and thus do the kids begin calling him “Eklaava.” Most of the cast is on the money: Makarand Deshpande is beatific and blissed out as Arjun’s father, Neha Joshi is terrific as the boy’s mother, and it’s always good to see Razzak Khan grin. But the kids are the champs.

This is a brisk, enjoyable film, and while the climactic race is somewhat marred by an overdose of melodrama — Gupte’s far better at subtler strokes than the few broad ones he tries — it is rare to find a Hindi film hero more deserving of our cheers than Arjun. That unfortunate hint of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in the final race doesn’t alter the fact that this is an earnest, important and evocative film.

Important? Yes. Gupte’s first film, the marvellous Stanley Ka Dabba was better-realised cinematically and held more to cherish, but Hawaa Hawaai tries to bite off more. And while its larger point about farmer suicides certainly ought have been handled more subtly, at least this film — like its characters — goes for broke. And that’s what makes it special. Or, as Arjun would say, “peshal.”

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 8, 2014

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Review: Vikas Bahl’s Queen

queen1

This is a story of girl meets girl.

The girl, a pink-sweatered doll showered with sticky compliments by her mithaiwallah parents, is all set to be married. She wishes she could learn the dance steps from Cocktail her grandmothers are practicing, and that her best friend showed up in time for the best sangeet-selfies. She doesn’t get married. Instead, after a lifetime of making the most of what is dealt to her, she goes away and finds a version of herself she never knew existed.

This is a story of girl meets girl, and you should know upfront that this is not a love story.

Unless, of course, we refer to the relationship between the audience and the protagonist. Because I dare you to watch Queen and not fall in love with the character.

Vikas Bahl’s film starts off  looking like yet another entry to the increasingly cluttered Delhi-Shaadi subgenre, but it is clear soon enough that this is a film etched more acutely than most. A crying girl grabs a laddoo because it’s nearby, college girls wolf down golgappas on credit, and, after a fiancée gets dumped in a coffee shop, her former man dusts the table free of the mehndi flakes that fell there when her desperate hands chafed helplessly around her cellphone. Relationship detritus comes in the oddest of shapes.

What happens in this film isn’t as important as the way it does. The plot is a mishmash of Meg Ryan’s French Kiss and Sridevi’s English Vinglish, but Bahl’s treatment is fresher and more vibrant, and — incredible as this may sound — his leading lady is better.

Kangana Ranaut is gobstoppingly spectacular. The actress has always flirted with the unfamiliar but here — at her most real, at her most gorgeously guileless — she absolutely shines and the film stands back and lets her rule. There are many natural actresses in Hindi cinema today, but what Ranaut does here, the way she captures both the squeals and the silences of the character, is very special indeed. Her character is built to be endearing and Ranaut, while playing her Rani with wide-eyed candour, is ever sweet but never cloying. It’s a bold but immaculately measured performance, internalised and powerful while simultaneously as overt as it needs to be to moisten every eye in the house.

Having a name that literally means royalty, a name that feels more like a monarchist suffix than a name, can make for awkward conversation when one is forced to explain it to those from farflung shores, and Rani does better than I ever did, enchanting Frenchmen and Italians and Japanese with an irresistibly proud “Queen!” chirrup. The girl goes to Paris and Amsterdam and has many an adventure, and even as Rani steps out to discover her own character, Ranaut stays firmly and impressively in character. In a bar with a waitress ready to pour a spigot of booze down her throat, for example, Rani opens her mouth more out of an obedient instinct than a willingness to drink.

And so this girl from Delhi’s Rajouri Garden traipses around the world, Skyping with her family upto ten times a day, and yet finding liberation around every corner. The cast is mostly excellent — most notably Rani’s family, particularly her grandmother and kid brother/chaperone, and her best friend from college who laments her own shitty life — and Rajkummar Rao is perfectly cringeworthy as a wannabe who believes a London trip makes him better than those around him.

queen2This is a massively entertaining film, even though it does run too long, and Rani’s fun travails are bogged down by a sense of tokenism, by her friends being White, Black and Asian (and the Asian being one of the most annoying Japanese caricatures since Mr Yunioshi from Breakfast At Tiffany’s). The unbelievably hot Lisa Haydon — with Mick Jagger’s tongue tattooed on her thigh — drapes her legs around everything in a seemingly relentless quest for stripper-poles, and her accent is atrociously inconsistent, but ah well. This isn’t about her. Everyone in this film is playing a supporting role, even the director. When nothing else works in the shot, you can turn unfailingly to Rani, besotted, and smile at her with an affection you saved for your teenage crushes. She’s a wonder.

Kudos, then, to screenwriters Parveez Shaikh, Chaitally Parmar and Bahl, but those applauding the great writing shouldn’t forget Ranaut herself, credited for Additional Dialogue. She made Rani as much as Rani’s making her, and to that we must tip our hats.

Ranaut always seemed like a misfit in mainstream Hindi cinema, a stunning but strange creature who belonged to a different jigsaw, but now our movies are beginning to catch up with her. Queen is a good entertainer, sure, but, more critically, it is a showcase for an actress poised to reign. This is one of those monumental moments when you feel the movies shift, and nothing remains the same. I’ve seen the future, baby, and it’s Kangana.

Rating: Four stars

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First published Rediff, March 7, 2014

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Review: Ali Abbas Zafar’s Gunday

gunday1Gunday is the sort of film some people may mistakenly call a bromance. There is, however, nothing bro-tastic at all about this loud and slow-motion actioner, a film that tries hard to be old-school but proves only that its makers need to be schooled. This is, as a matter of fact, a more blatantly homoerotic film than any in our history. If you’ve played a little nudgenudgewinkwink at Sholay subtexts, your mind will explode when the Gunday leads — with coaldust blown into their faces by a guy about to kill them — look at each other and… well, pucker.

That’s right, these two are always on the verge of jumping each other’s bones. Chests shaven, oiled and heaving — in sickeningly slow-motion — Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor consistently look at each other with maddeningly lusty eyes. Theirs is a physically demonstrative friendship, to the extent that whenever Ranveer hugs Arjun he sinks his face into the nape of Arjun’s neck, and when they are both aroused by the sight of Priyanka Chopra inserting herself into a classic song, the sexiest in Hindi film history, they feel the need to immediately hold each other’s hands. It coulda been a progressive film if it wasn’t constantly trying to call itself macho.

They could have called it Gun-Gay but that’d mislead us into believing this could be a quieter film.

Not so, ladies and gents, not so. Director Ali Abbas Zafar has directed a monstrous film, one with a repellent 70s-set storyline that makes no sense whatsoever, and a cast who should all hang their heads and offer up a minute’s silence for assaulting their respective filmographies. This is garbage.

Now, some of the films of the 70s and 80s — those loud and over-the-top actioners with wicked zamindars and wronged fathers and disabled mothers and avenging heroes — were trashy as hell, but they added up. They had solid, meaty plots and, more importantly, they had really good actors as villains being defeated by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Sunny Deol and Sunny Deol’s dad. These were men with great presence facing off against solid actors who made careers out of being evil, and the meaty plot — the twists and turns of which would always take more than a few lines to summarise — only made them more fun.

This has none of that, with a plot thinner than sliced cheese, hacky characters and actors who don’t know what to do with themselves. Ranveer and Arjun essentially play a couple of gangsters — and very repressed men in love with each other who get off seeing each other do Baywatch runs — who find everything going for a toss when a heroine walks in on them with their dhutis up. Neither is in love with the girl, but both overcompensate, playing a game of chicken as they clinch each other tighter. That, in a nutshell, is all there is to it.

Meanwhile Irrfan Khan, who apparently gets paid pretty good money for films these days, does his bit and says a few lines and makes them count. He isn’t around much, but if bilge like this helps actors like him make a buck, long may he spend counting out his money.

gunday2Naturally, the two idiots fight over the girl. And it is in the film’s asinine second half, where they stop embracing and start yelling at each other, that it becomes clear these aren’t heroes at all. They might be the best looters of coal this side of Dhanbad, and may have amassed a fortune — wealthy enough to buy anything but shirt-buttons, clearly — but these are two villains in the lead roles, two villains lacking the charisma to be the main baddies. Basically, we’re seeing a three hour film featuring the kinda guys who’d take orders from Sadashiv Amrapurkar or Amrish Puri to go get biffed by Sunny paaji.

Somewhere in this mess is Priyanka Chopra, looking like a bobble-head and making about as much sense. Her commitment to the part is in the way she sashays, and while she delivers most dialogues better than the boys, she’s given a maddeningly inconsistent character. At one point when pushed onto a pile of coal, she falls down straight but in the next shot is lying on her side with her butt stuck out, possibly in the hope that she can Rihanna her way out of a graceless film. (Spoiler: She can’t.)

The film starts off weak, with accidentally fun moments every now and then — the only one that stayed with me involves Pankaj Tripathi stretching out his arms in a Shah Rukh Khan pose after being shot — and we begin with a couple of annoying kids who refuse to grow up. That Bachchan-defining shot, of a child running and kid-legs turning into Amitabh-legs as the camera pulls out, finds many echoes here, but despite many slow-motion opportunities, the running kids exasperatingly enough stay running kids. That’s about the only suspense in this film until the two leads finally appear, Ranveer’s nipple bouncing alarmingly, as if it’s been paid extra.

Everything goes further downhill from there. These are protagonists who wear white pants with red hearts on the bottom, and yet this film doesn’t pick up on opportunities for irony or kitsch. Calling it a throwback seems insulting enough; imagine the Once Upon A Time In Mumbai films without Ajay Devgan, Emraan Hashmi and Akshay Kumar. That’s what Gunday is. And Ali Abbas Zafar should have his directorial license revoked for daring to end this godawful film with a Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid finish.

Rating: Half a star

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First published Rediff, February 14 , 2014

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Review: Sohail Khan’s Jai Ho

jaiho2Like with Alok Nath jokes, it all began with Maine Pyar Kiya. That Sooraj Barjatya hit had characters (with “friend” written on their baseball caps) moronically state that friends don’t thank each other or apologise, a preposterous declaration which must have led the next generations into an era of boorish dickishness in the name of dosti.

Not much has changed 25 years later as Salman Khan, in his latest film — an uncredited and inexplicably violent take on Pay It Forward — starts telling people not to say thanks, but instead help three people in need, and tell them to help three other people, and so on. (In the film this leads to Salman passionately drawing stick figures while people stand around him, cheering as they help him multiply numbers by 3. Um, yeah.)

Sohail Khan, Bhai’s bhai and the director of Jai Ho, obviously likes the idea and extends this welfare policy charitably towards familiar but out-of-work actors, thus negating the need for extra. Everyone from the rickshaw-wallah (Mahesh Manjrekar) to Nameless Corrupt Cop No 2 (Sharad Kapoor) is a recognizable face; even the neighbourhood drunk is “Khopdi” from Nukkad.

In the middle of this world stands Salman Khan, playing himself. Khan, Bollywood’s real-life answer to Derek Zoolander, does his thing like only he can. And the crowd responds. Sitting in a single-screen theatre, the air was filled with shrill, thrilled whistles as soon as the censor certificate hit the screen. The first glimpse of Khan — via braceleted wrist — had the crowd in paroxysms. Imagine a movie theatre full of 14-year-old girls getting their first glimpse of Michael Jackson (Or McCartney. Or Bieber. Pick a generation) except with grown men shrieking instead of preteen girls. (During the climactic fight sequence, these men raucously yelled “kapda utaar”, breathlessly exhorting their bhai to peel off his shirt and make their day. It’s more blatantly than any of our leading ladies get objectified, that’s for sure.)

jaiho1People get attacked; Salman helps. People need stenographers; Salman helps. A little girl needs to go to the restroom; Salman helps. Someone grabs his sister’s collar, Salman snarls. You get where this film is going, yes? In his own lunkheaded manner, perhaps this very choice of film is Salman being sensitive. Perhaps he feels that people watching his film will go out and help other people… But to what end? Despite the hamfisted direction (at one point Suniel Shetty shows up on a highway and starts shooting people with a goddamned tank) the film’s main problem is that Jai Ho isn’t about being a samaritan or paying it forward; it’s about a man who can smash the system all by himself. Not entirely relatable, nope.

Meanwhile, amid the sea of familiar faces peeks the new girl, Daisy Shah. She makes her way onto the screen doing pseudo-Indian classical dance steps while wearing cowboy boots. She’s trying really hard to be MTV but is only applauded, rather disturbingly, by middle-aged folks while the kids watching don’t seem to care. After some silly bickering — and a ghastly recurring joke about her innerwear — Salman falls for her, but it isn’t as if she matters. There are too many characters, you see, to create and set-up and conveniently resolve, and mercifully a lot more screentime is given to the lady who plays Salman’s sister. Tabu’s still got it, and as evidenced by the seetis from my neighbours when she did a brief jig, she can still rock it hard.

The one thing that left me truly touched, however? The fact that Sohail Khan took forward that lament from Austin Powers, that “people never think how things affect the family of a henchman” and showed a goon who had been beaten up watching TV with his family and lamenting his actions. Its… It’s hard to make up, really.

As for Khan, there’s nothing new to see here. But that’s probably the point. For a man who’s pushing 50, he’s looking spry and seems to be having fun playing to type, though the absurd amounts of money his movies rake in obviously help. Having said that, my one and only laugh in Jai Ho came when Khan punched a car window and — in a film where he throws people through all manner of doors and walls and vehicles — explained himself saying he didn’t know it had been rolled up. Does he really want to be in on the joke now? Or maybe he already is.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, January 24, 2014 

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