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Column: That Sholay coin-toss and the role of chance in storytelling

It is temptingly easy to dismiss the cinematic coin-toss as a bit of chicanery, just another convenient plotting trope. Characters go down one road when they so easily could have strolled down another, and the road they choose is the one picked by the writers, with heads or tails (or neither) doing the rationalising for them.

Yet there is something classically timeless about relying on something so basic, so universal, so instantly echoed around the world — and making it work. The setup is simple, thrown up at will. The trick lies in the consequences; it’s all about sticking the landing. A really good coin-toss is hard to forget.

chigurh1One of the most memorable tossers in all cinema is Anton Chigurh, the villain in No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Played — in an Oscar-winning turn — by Javier Bardem and a jagged-fringed haircut, Chigurh is a nightmarishly calm killer who mows down the innocent, but pauses to flip a coin before it — as if to give them a last glimmer of hope. Or to not take all the credit for their death.

It is hard to imagine McCarthy, that grizzled Pulitzer Prize winner, being inspired by a Batman villain, but Chigurh’s methods do indeed quite mirror those of Two-Face, who has always been more fearsome on the page than the screen, played to cartoonish effect by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever and insipidly by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. Not that these didn’t have precedent; gangsters and mob bosses have tossed coins ever since George Raft started it all in the 1932 Scarface.

The entire act might not be as existential. It could, of course, quite simply be big bad kids toying with their food; a trivial amusement, a flick of thumbnail against coin before the actual ringing of the death knell.

It is also often said that the result of the toss matters less than what one hopes for as the coin is flipping through the air. This is why regardless of heads or tails, some villains end up pulling the trigger anyway.

Less bloodthirsty coin-tossing is par for the course in buddy-movies, often with some nudge-nudge wink-wink sleight of tongue as in Andaz Apna Apna, where Aamir Khan’s Amar hoodwinks Salman Khan’s Prem with a “Heads I win, Tails you lose” toss. By the time the slackjawed Salman figures out he’s actually won, a triumphant Aamir is long gone.

What makes us trust in this random 50:50 toss? The question was most profoundly debated in a 1953 Donald Duck comic where the phenomenon of using a toss to determine all decisions was dubbed ‘Flipism.’ Donald, after meeting the weird Professor Batty who tells him to trust in the coin and follow Flipism, loyally does what the tosses tell him, landing up in a world of trouble and blaming the coin. Yet others are more discreet in their use of the same. It is only at the end of Asimov’s wonderful short story The Machine That Won The War that we learn that the omniscient all-powerful computer wasn’t really being consulted because one of the protagonists had been tossing a coin to make all his final decisions.

Sometimes the coin doesn’t come up heads or tails. In Frank Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes To Washington, for example, the only reason James Stewart’s Mr Smith gets to go to Washington is because a governor is trying to choose a senator between rival candidates Mr Hill and Mr Miller. He tosses a coin which lands on its edge, which leads him to drop both candidates and choose Smith.

sholaycoin2For Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, screenwriters Salim and Javed stole the trick from the underrated 1954 Western, Garden Of Evil, where Gary Cooper and Richard Windmark draw cards to see who will stay back and fight the Apaches pursuing them. Windmark, the ‘winner,’ stays and dies. In Sholay, Jai, played by Amitabh Bachchan — whose coin always comes up heads — stays, saves the day and eventually dies. Jai’s trick coin became the stuff of legend, the kind of thing that films of today would have merchandised like crazy.

What is most notable looking back at Sholay’s screenplay, however, is the fact that because Jai was cheating, it made all the tosses he’d seemingly ‘won’ over the course of the film all choices he had made instead of choices they’d stumbled into out of randomness. Therefore, despite Dharmendra’s Veeru stayin’ alive and getting the girl and the flashier songs, and Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur getting his hard-earned revenge by the final reel, the sequence of coin-based decisions ultimately makes it clear that Jai is the protagonist, the man who chose the way the story winded, and the true hero of Sholay.

And all because of how wisely he used a coin.

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First published Rediff, August 18, 2015

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Review: Karan Malhotra’s Brothers

brothers1If the number of crucifixes in a film signify how pious it is, Brothers must have been shot in the Vatican. The characters — a Fernandes family from Mumbai — are Catholics, it is established early on, but director Karan Malhotra keeps labouring the point home — all the characters wear crucifixes around their necks, walk out of churches in slow-motion, have Jesus tattooed on their biceps, do a Hail Mary before getting their fingers bloody, and so forth. One man is even named Cross. Talk about using the lord’s logo in vain, the entire film sees more dangling-cross action than George Michael’s earlobe from back in the day.

As we know from tic-tac-toe, where there are crosses there must be zeroes. True to symmetry, Malhotra gives us many a moment of absolute worthlessness. The entire first half, in fact, is unwatchable. Right upto the point of intermission, relentless melodrama is thrust our way with operatic zeal, complete with an excruciating, crescendo-driven background score and characters trying to out-wail it. It’s all tears and flashbacks and, funnily enough, it’s entirely unnecessary. The quickest fix for this truly bad film? Watch only the second half.

Actually, I must here apologise. I may here have implied that the post-intermission portion is any good. It isn’t, though the good news is that after such a horrendous first-half, it does at least feature some spiffy camerawork and well-choreographed action sequences. The bad news is that this is all the second half has, as we go through MMA fight scene after MMA fight scene till we get to the MMA fight scene we knew was coming all along: one where two brothers glare and fight and cry ad nauseam.

This is an official remake of Warrior, a Hollywood drama from 2011 featuring a bunch of great actors jumping on the Mixed Martial Arts bandwagon and ending up with a film that is, I’m told, both a solid action drama. Malhotra, a young man who made the too-loud new Agneepath, is a perplexingly old-school director who seems committed to making movies that look like they were assembled from Prakash Mehra outtakes and plot-points too silly for Mukul Anand to use. Warrior may have been melodramatic to begin with, but Malhotra amps up each possible moment, laying it on impossibly thick and spelling every little gesture out for the audience. So a flashback of the mother reading is not just simple and sunny, but features a wannabe-Morricone background score while she reads books on true love by Brian Weiss. And that’s the subtle bit, for this is a movie when characters see large cuts on other character’s cheeks and say things like “ooh, itna bada cut?”

brothers2Jackie Shroff, grey and grizzled and looking like an underfed and grumpy Santa Claus, plays a father who used to be a street fighter. His sons — Akshay Kumar, a physics teacher, and Siddharth Malhotra, a surly guy who shakes his leg a lot —  hate each other and aren’t particularly nice to him. Still, the old fool keeps wishing they’ll all make up. It’s all rather like Rakhee in Karan Arjun going on about her sons prodigally returning. Except Shroff frequently hallucinates about coffins. (With giant crosses on them, of course.)

There is much randomness. Jacqueline Fernandes plays Kumar’s long-sobbing wife who gets so deliriously happy on seeing a text message that it may well have contained news about a Kick sequel. Kiran Kumar plays an evil MMA promoter who smokes so many cheroots his name could have been Disclaimer Braganza — obviously he’s Catholic too. (Also, he builds up hype for months and months only to end up with a two-night tournament. Tsk. Whatever would N Srinivasan say?) Ashutosh Rana, who doesn’t seem to have aged at all in the last two decades, plays a sometimes slimy, sometimes loyal manager. Shefali Shah shows up and makes sure her nostrils flare up more than Kumar’s thigh muscles. And, in a vulgar and ill-choreographed song sequence, an A-lister shakes her caboose so desperately it feels like she wants to be renamed Kareena Kapoor Kardashian Khan.

Akshay Kumar looks believably fit, both during his training montage and his fights — the first of which he wins with a brutal finisher that led my friend to exclaim that Kumar “broke his arm with his balls,” which is symbolism at its most testicular. Bravo.

But that’s all this film has, a ball-busting Kumar and one particular fight that ends with delightful abruptness. Everything else is exhausting.

Most of us in India first heard of MMA in the 90s when Monica from Friends was dating a billionaire who wanted to be a UFC champion. Now, all I’ve seen of the octagonal fighting championships is the superheroic Ronda Rousey, an undefeated megastar who finishes off opponents in something like 16 seconds. Weighing 158 unbearable minutes, Brothers is nearly 600-times as long as the Rousey win —- and not one-millionth as thrilling.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 14, 2015

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Review: Shimit Amin’s Chak De India

Some films age remarkably (and endearingly) well. My review, from exactly eight years ago:

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The prodigal Khan returns.

Chak De! India is the basic, every-single-sports-movie story of a disgraced player, here called Kabir Khan, pulling together a team of misfits to do the impossible — here winning a World Championship.

This is also a return to glory for Shah Rukh Khan, the superstar doing excellently as he tackles a cast with (almost) entirely deplorable acting chops and makes you believe. Director Shimit Amin shoves a hockey stick into the actor’s hand, and — fitter than he’s looked in years — Khan flies across cinematic AstroTurf, and shines.

Stop looking up MiracleA League Of Their Own or The Mighty Ducks DVDs — it’s a straight sports film, and you walk into the theatre knowing how it’s going to turn out.

We start, of course, with the fall. Kabir, India’s most successful Centre Forward of all time, flubs a crucial penalty and is castigated by his nation — an Islamic last name and a meteoric temper make for a media-unfriendly mix — as Pakistan win the cup. Thus surrounded by awful actors, Khan bids farewell to his beloved sport, even as insufferable little kids clamber onto shoulders to get a better look at the traitor. Insert typically strained background music here, and you’re cringing for both Khan and the film.

Seven years later, mercifully cutting out the tiresome Rambo-esque routine of having to persuade the self-pitying hero to return, Khan is raring to go. He hasn’t been on a field since, and is eager to resolve — as evidenced by strategic fidgeting with waiting-room bottle caps — hockey issues.

His plan is simple: to start from the very bottom. The Indian Women’s Hockey Team is an outfit so utterly neglected that its administrators aren’t even actively seeking a coach. Anjan Srivastava dips a Marie biscuit in tea, raises an eyebrow, and not having anything at stake, lets Khan go for it.

chakde1So girls, then. A motley assortment of Reddys, Boses and Sharmas are picked from the length and breadth of the country, each falling into conveniently label-friendly stereotypes, but — and here’s what makes all the difference — the tags are affectionate, the cliches run warm and friendly. And we grow to see a mostly-gangly gang of 16 indisciplined non-actresses, trying to keep up with a coach who actually takes himself seriously. And pushes them hard.

It’s completely par for the genre-specific course — dissent, pressure, defiance, infighting, lack of self-belief, external skepticism, and of course, ego. Again, what matters is the fluidity with which writer Jaideep Sahni has coloured inside the lines. The film’s true star, Jaideep’s ensured that screen-time is divided mostly evenly among the lot, yet separating a few characters for obvious star roles — Experienced, arrogant Bindia (Shilpa Shukla); attractive, ego-driven Preeti (Segarika Ghatge); massive, Punjabi Balbir (Tanya Abrol); and pint-sized, defiant Komal (Chitrashi Rawat). The rest are all warm and likeable enough — Vidya Malvade plays almost-sobbing homemaker Vidya; Anaitha Nair’s Aliya is tremendously pretty — but these are the four players leading the pack by far, taking the story towards the goalposts.

The first half takes its time to buildup, predictably. There’s no surprise as the tale unfolds, and the horrible, overwhelming background score tries too hard — this is, after all a Yash Raj film, and considering that they’ve gone for a no-heroine authentic sports movie, we ought allow them that major concession — and is further undercut by trite, jingoistic dialogue. Granted, these come at occasional moments, but the melodrama truly jars. A stellar Khan holds the film together as Amin and the girls gradually get to grips — with both lines and sticks.

The second half shuts you up, with a McMasterstroke. Here, they play. And, considering you watch several sections of hardcore women’s hockey — my personal viewership of womansport is limited to tennis and the occasional game of beach volleyball — in silence, glued to the screen pretty much throughout, Shimit’s done very well indeed. The film is compelling, constant, and leaves little room for filler. While certain tracks are painfully obvious, the fact that the director neatly cuts through several at the same time ensures a drastic reduction in complaints.

chakde2And by now, the girls actually seem to be acting okay — well, either that or the more impressive achievement, that we’ve warmed up to the characters enough to like them despite their raw edges. Preeti and Komal, warring attackers, keep us nicely hooked as the director tries to keep their angle unpredictable; Bindia does well to get frustratingly under our skin; and Balbir gets us to chuckle, sometimes despite ourselves. Vidya is a bit of a moaner, an essentially unimpressive goalkeeper, adding to the lamentable Indian knack for choosing less competent captains.

Khan, of course, is King. This is a bravura performance, a gritty drive by an actor who clearly has sport in his blood. The fit of Shah Rukh as a hockey coach — inspiring, canny, frustrated, helpless and profoundly hopeful — is so naturally perfect that it’s a wonder he hasn’t done a sports film before. It’s been a while since we’ve seen him visibly relish a role like this, and while he has to mouth some clunky dialogue, Khan is simply super.

Chak De! India isn’t quite a Lagaan or an Iqbal, selecting the sport less trod rather than the one conventionally heralded, and so it isn’t likely to expect applause in the aisles as the team manages to unite together. It is, however, more of a sports film than both those, the story of a team overshadowing the story of an individual. It’s shot nicely, but my wishlist for Amin would be that he had found a better commentator to do the play-by-play and, for heaven’s sake, taken some aerial shots.

Shimit Amin’s film struggles a bit, clearly trying hard to strike a balance between classic melodrama and the sporting genre. There are times when it tries to straddle the fence hastily, even failing badly, and as a result the movie, while a perfectly good sporting film, seems to have lost the edge we might have expected from the Ab Tak Chhappan director. It’s a fine, true-blooded sports movie though, and deserves applause.

Sure, you know what’s going to happen, but it’s a good ride — and especially satisfying to see Swiss flower-fields replaced by Australian stadiums. Not to mention the return of the King.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 10, 2007

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Review: Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam

drishyam1Some movies appear on our viewing doorstep carrying far too much baggage. Drishyam, for instance, is a Hindi remake of a Malayalam film of the same name made into several languages with leading men of exceptional pedigree, and which has also, I believe, stolen its set-up from a Japanese mystery thriller, The Devotion Of Suspect X. That’s an awful lot of suitcases all right. As with too-eager houseguests, there are ways for filmgoers (and critics) to deal with such visitors, and in this particular case I decided against homework, invited the film in and asked it to leave its luggage out by the door.

I’m glad I did, because while I haven’t watched any of the other Drishyams or read Suspect X, this Hindi version is an utterly unremarkable thriller, one that could have been potentially cool and wily, but one that falls well short of being memorable. It’s a depressingly ordinary film, and the allegedly stolen plot — about a crime being covered-up — is something we’ve seen many, many times before.

Heck, if you want to see a genuinely great thriller about a movie-inspired protagonist buying tickets and meeting people to construct a watertight alibi, go watch Sriram Raghavan’s fantastic Johnny Gaddaar instead of reading the rest of this review.

Ordinariness aside, Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam is watchable and even builds tension effectively from time to time, but ends up an overlong, overbaked drudge, largely because of Ajay Devgn in the lead, trying to look cerebral and calm while assuming solid-coloured shirts will absolve him of the artlessness he has flaunted in recent movies. It would be unfair to compare most leading men to masters Mohanlal and Kamal Haasan, but Devgn — who used to be a striking brooder, a man who appeared to know how to simmer on the inside — is now just talking softly while essentially swaggering along regardless. Vulnerability? Perish the thought. The idea of subtle internalisation has led this man to sheer cardboard.

The way the film sees him doesn’t help. Even while playing an everyman who loves his family, a song montage in Drishyam has Devgn standing away from his wife and daughters, wearing sunglasses and striking a hero pose till the family comes and coos over him. (Later in the same sequence his wife tries on heels and slips; Devgn sits back and laughs, making no effort to help her.)

Devgn’s Vijay is a cable-operator who lives in a giant villa with a fawning family, and one day things go quite bizarrely awry. Something must be done to save his world, and Vijay — a film-lovin’ orphan who prefers spending most nights with a tiny TV in his office instead of his moronically indulgent wife — takes inspiration from the movies. Except, and here is one fundamental problem with this meta film-within-film setup, he doesn’t really do or learn anything of actual brilliance, with films having apparently taught him the mere value of being stubborn. There are times he gets a lump in his throat watching Bachchan ham it up hard (or one in his trousers watching Sunny Leone do the same), but it all appears too forced. Save for a couple of scenes, the cinema-beats-life trope doesn’t really pay off.

drishyam2What does pay off, as always, is casting Tabu in a meaty role. Despite first showing up in a bewilderingly tight police shirt — which then leads to her striding through a corridor in slow-motion, almost a la Baywatch — the actress is characteristically impressive in her role of a no-nonsense cop. There’s a case, she has a stake in it, and she knows what she’s doing — something Tabu expresses with brilliant weariness as she rolls her eyes at her husband who objects to her brutal methods. She’s a badass superstar who looks like she means it when she munches over dialogue about ‘visual memory’ et al, but her epiphanies are too conveniently arrived at, while her methods are too thickheaded.

Drishyam starts far too snoozily. The narrative intent is clear — to normalise the world (and Devgn) before shifting into thriller-mode — but the film is clumsily written, with dialogue that sounds wooden; the first hour of the film sounds like an amateurishly dubbed film instead of one we’re watching natively. There are a few smart flourishes, but the filmmakers linger on the one or two good twists for so long that they render them tedious. (There is even a cheeky reference to Suspect X, I believe, in the throwaway mention of a “retired professor” who lives nearby.) But mostly there is more tackiness than craft, demonstrated best by the ill-produced recreations of the movies Vijay watches and in the way fake newspapers are visibly made up of computer printouts with Times New Roman taken too literally.

Don’t get me wrong, several parts of the film work and, for the most part, Drishyam motors along far more efficiently than most Hindi films — but isn’t that too low a bar? Is it too much to ask for a ingenious, tight thriller?

At one point in the film Tabu makes the link about Vijay and the movies, and this is where I rubbed my hands together and thought we were (finally) in for some intriguing traps that subvert or mock cinematic cliché, a truly brilliant cat and mouse game. Alas, nothing comes of it and we never get a battle between equals. Perhaps because she’d have eaten him alive: lug, luggage and all.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 31, 2015

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Column: Scandal Point-less

It’s bloody hard to create controversy, you know? Yes, I know it’s all done for release-dates and ratings and eyeballs, and you’re right, naturally, but the very act of it — of summoning up scandal or sparking off a storm — is damn near impossible in this day and age. Just think, if you will, of the last time something genuinely shocked you. A piece of news that made you sit up and take notice, made you call up a friend to discuss it, got you gobsmacked enough to keep you from tweeting sarcastically about it for five dumbfounded minutes. It doesn’t happen anymore, it just doesn’t.

We’ve all heard the weirdest rumours — about everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan to men named Modi — and read about the saddest exposés — involving everyone from Cary Grant to Bill Cosby — and I don’t think anything can significantly raise our eyebrows anymore. In a world where everyone is constantly out to “break the Internet,” all we have left are a few cracks.

Can controversy sell a film? No. The public today is too cynical to really care if x slept with y — unless they like how x and y look on screen together, in which case, of course, they’ll queue up for their movies anyway. According to the old-school publicity pundits, what controversy does is keep a film’s name in the headlines, but my point is that when a blockbuster is coming up, we’re bombarded with its name regardless of gossip. It doesn’t matter how little we may care, we know when the next Rohit Shetty film will release. And smaller independent films have budgets too measly — and are too star-less — to manufacture any effective buzz through the grapevine. Who would care if two actors the public doesn’t know about are brawling? (The few hundred people who already revere these actors too good to be super-famous could care less about a blind-item column.)

The truth of the matter is that visibility does not equal success. We go to the movies for all kinds of reasons — we like the actors/filmmakers/posters, we’ve heard good things about what’s playing, or, in some cases involving certain superstars, we go because we are comforted by the fact that we know exactly what we’re going to get — but I don’t think any of us think someone else’s scandal is worth spending our own money on. People tallying up ‘trending topics’ should remember that retweets don’t cost a rupee. The loudest of the noise comes from preaching to the choirs. If success could be determined by the amount of newsprint one can swallow, Bombay Velvet would be a historic hit. And Gajendra Chauhan would be our megastar.

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First published The Hindustan Times, July 25, 2015

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Review: Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan

It was merely a matter of time before someone cracked the Rajkumar Hirani code.

The most memorable tent-pole filmmakers — the big mainstream showmen and pleasers of crowds — often create their own self-celebrating genre. They strike upon and cautiously hone a formula (something Manmohan Desai, for example, managed to do with near-mathematical precision) and then they reap. Till, that is, someone new figures out this formula and replicates it to great effect. It is an invariable and unsurprising cycle, and it happens even though some masala filmmakers take longer to milk than others.

bajrangi1Bajrangi Bhaijaan is an overearnest, oversimplified, preposterously sweet and frequently schlocky film, which shouldn’t work because of how predictable and soppy it is. Yet, because of a finely picked supporting cast, some sharp lines of dialogue and, most crucially, because of its overall heart, it works, and works well. This may well be a Kabir Khan film, but for all those who wished to see Salman Khan in a Raju Hirani project, consider that mission accomplished.

Over in the part of Kashmir that lies with our neighbours, a mother-to-be watches a cricket game on television, all but blowing kisses to a handsome green-clad batsman. The match is conquered and the kicking infant is to be named after the swaggering strokemaker, but it happens to be a girl. We meet Shahida at age six, and she’s pretty as a picture but has never spoken a word. The mother decides she’ll take this daughter to the grand wish-fulfilling dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin over in Delhi, but things go wrong and, mostly because the poor child is unable to cry out for help, she’s left behind in India.

It is in Kurukshetra that this lost little girl runs into local good-for-nothing Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi, a Hanuman-worshipper who believes she’s a brahmin — “who else could be that fair?”, he reasons — and tries to find her parents. Eventually, after naming every city he can think of, he figures out that she’s “a Mohammedan” from Pakistan, is shocked, but decides to go drop her back across the line, all while chanting Hanuman’s name and bowing to every monkey he sees. A mace-shaped pendant hangs from his thick neck, and it must be said that the well-meaning Pavan has an equally thick head.

bajrangi2Kabir Khan cleverly cast his usually invincible hero as a smiling dullard, a man who took ten years to reach the tenth grade and eleven more years to graduate college (a nice parallel, then, to the much-mocked eternal youth enjoyed by Afridi). The thought of another film with Salman Khan flexing his biceps and ripping his shirt off to beat up a dozen men with one pelvic punch is nauseating, and thus seeing him as an emotional fool (who is too ticklish to wrestle) is automatically refreshing. The little girl is played quite wonderfully by Harshaali Malhotra, a seraphic child with gleaming eyes and it is she who smoothens over the film’s roughest edges — like, for instance, an unnecessary fight scene in a brothel — just by looking at Salman with such sheer awe.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui leads the supporting cast, playing a Pakistani news-scavenger based, oddly enough, on Chand Nawab, a real-life reporter who went viral following a clip where passers-by (and his own concentration) couldn’t make room for his modest intentions. Siddiqui nails that particular scene and brings much credibility to the proceedings, excelling with his body language here while laughing uncontrollably lying on a bed of corn or when grabbing an old man’s hand to get himself forcibly slapped. Siddiqui sinks his teeth into a good part and runs with it; at one point, when putting up a story he has shot himself on YouTube, his character — so used to desperately slapping his credit on the videos he sells to news channels — signs off, out of habit, “cameraman Chand Nawaz ke saath, Chand Nawaz…” Perfect.

Kareena Kapoor Khan looks dazzling but has far too little to do, Sharat Saxena and Rajesh Sharma are routinely excellent in their gruff roles, and Om Puri has a warm little cameo, but the film is set up by the overwhelming earnestness of Meher Vij in the role of Shahida’s mother, who wears her heartbreak very believably indeed. The filmmakers even throw in one of the old men from that great Kashmir film, Haider in a bid for credibility, and having all these fine actors even in tiny parts helps things considerably.

Also helping things along are a few deft writing touches about bigotry, religion and neighbourly love. A lot of this is hamhanded, but a fair bit is rather interesting, like Pavan being the son of an RSS-man and being revulsed by the smell of meat in the morning, and him threatening to throw out a Pakistani Embassy official from India who turns out to be “just another Indian.” Or like the fact that Kashmir and Switzerland look pretty darned alike.

At two hours and forty minutes, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is seriously long and the climax feels it might never end, but hey, haven’t classic Bollywood weepies always gone on forever? At least Kabir Khan has done his tearjerking properly, added in some burkha tomfoolery and, at one point when the young girl wants chicken and her guardian can’t deal with it, even thrown some Benny Hill madness into it. I tell you, that Hirani code stands cracked good.

In one scene a Pakistani cop, suspicious of his quarry, brusquely interrogates them and Nawaz foxily conjures up a tale of star-crossed lovers and elopement. The policeman breaks into a grin, his ears perk up, and he immediately wants to know more. India, Pakistan, whatever: we’re all just suckers for story. Jai Shri Drama.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 17, 2015

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Review: Mohit Suri’s Hamari Adhuri Kahani

hak1Vidya Balan cries throughout Hamari Adhuri Kahani.

Her character, Vasudha, is a timid and relatively mousy woman, one who has let herself be cowed down by patriarchy even when no patriarch is present in her life, and she frequently flies into panicked hysterics. But the character and her motivations are not why I think Balan — one of our finest actresses — is crying; I think she’s weeping her eyes out because, with every take, she realises how unforgivably atrocious this film is.

Mohit Suri has been an efficient director of plot-heavy cinema (with plots often filched from other places), a man who trades almost exclusively in weatherbeaten movie cliches but has always done so with some speed and slickness. This time, working from a script written by Mahesh Bhatt, his focus appears to be not story but, simply, sadness. Everyone in this film, in virtually every frame, looks pained. The relentless background score swells to a crescendo, and then swells up again, to another crescendo. The characters are all pathetic folk with twisted childhoods. The word ‘mangalsutra’ is made massively heavy (while the word ‘terrorist’ is used with remarkable casualness) and there is much, much bad parenting on display. Merely totting up many a sad element doesn’t create heartbreak, however, and grand tragedy cannot be stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. What we have here is Suri’s monstrosity.

Hari (Rajkumar Rao), an old, limping man, has vanished with his dead wife’s ashes. He has left, in their place, a novel he has apparently written on the fly instead of a letter of explanation, and it is this that his long-neglected son reads and sobs over. It is a novel, that ,peculiarly enough, is not told from the narrator’s point of view and contains too little about himself, preferring instead to dwell on voyeuristic imaginings of what his wife Vasudha and her lover Aarav must have gotten up to. Awkward.

The film is a dreadful drag, with godawful dialogue. “Looks like you love your job,” Aarav says, played by a bored Emraan stating revelatory facts so often here that his name may well be Exposition Hashmi. “How can you tell?”, Vasudha (rather needlessly) gasps, but despite lovin’ it, soon resignedly declares. “Mere ghar ka choola isi kaam se chalta hai.” Okay then.

hak2Aarav, a self-made billionaire with a truly miserable childhood, offers Vasudha a job in Dubai. Vasudha, who has been lying to her young son about the father, Hari, that mysteriously deserted them five years ago, decides with much deliberation to take the job — and promptly deserts said child instead of taking him along. As for Hari, he may or may not be a terrorist, depending on what you want to believe about a story where trees double up as get-out-of-jail-free cards. Also, Hari is the worst kind of misogynist, believing he owns Vasudha forever. Vasudha… It is a name that unfailingly reminds me of Jaya Bhaduri in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s classic Chupke Chupke, where at some point while spelling out her name she is interrupted by her sister and called an ass. Balan’s Vasudha is far more asinine, an apparently independent and well-educated woman who is aware of her husband’s appalling behaviour, is freshly disgusted and surprised by it each time. When told he’s a terrorist, that seems to matter less to her than the fact that he hasn’t called.

Meanwhile Suri ladles on the sad cliches, lifting clumsily from the most iconic tragedies. At one point Hashmi stiltedly caresses Balan’s chin with a flower, presumably thinking of Mughal-E-Azam. The film’s most catastrophically bad scene comes from An Affair To Remember, in which Hashmi takes Balan to see his piano-playing mother (as opposed to Cary Grant’s piano-playing grandmother). The mother plays said piano while Hashmi, standing in the same room, tells Balan about her sad life. He then walks up to the mother and she’s stunned to see him. (Time and again in this film, characters are startled by other characters already being in the same room as them; this, I wager, is because the background score makes sure they can’t hear anyone approach.) They talk for a bit before the mother notices Balan. She turns to her and asks, with a beatific smile: “Arre, yeh banjaaran kaun hai?” Then she, a former cabaret performer and apparent clairvoyant, starts telling her about how she shouldn’t live in the past, should not be a sati or a Sita — even as this mother herself is spending her life playing muzak to her comatose husband. (I’m told this mother is played by the lovely Amala Akkineni; I choose, for her sake, to not believe this.)

It is a film where three fine actors all play idiots. Hashmi’s character keeps going off to literally smell the flowers, Rao’s character is a possessive neanderthal, and Vidya’s character is plain dumb — for one thing, she needs to know that yelling “Hari! Hari!” as she runs behind a police jeep will only make the cops drive faster.

Now let’s talk about what’s good in Hamari Adhuri Kahani. The thing is…

Rating: One Star

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First published Rediff, June 12, 2015

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