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Review: Prabhudeva’s Singh Is Bliing

sib1It’s as if Akshay Kumar is daring us to like him.

The man has genuine acting chops, drips with screen presence, is significantly fitter than his contemporaries, and has the kind of reassuringly goofy grin that makes him appear likeable even in truly mediocre movies. Why must he then subject us to such ghastly movies? He’s a gifted comic actor, but his current comedy template is so harebrained that, well, it would embarrass Adam Sandler.

This particular misadventure begins with Kumar as Raftaar Singh, the kind of lassi-chugging wastrel who is good at everything but has serious attention deficit order. He can do everything except pay attention. Because of this, his brutal father cruelly sentences him to a job in…. Goa? On a floating casino? What a tyrant. But then arrives an ass-kicking white girl who bashes up many a buffoon and steals Raftaar’s beturbanned heart.

That setup could still potentially make for a few laughs, but then there’s a missing mother, a hat-twirling villain and an old man who looks like Ajit — not to mention an interpreter who sleepwalks and hits boys in the groin with coconuts. It’s all happening, and it’s all horrid.

Why, Mr Kumar, why? Spend maybe a tenth of your pagri budget on a decent screenplay? Is it that you — and director Prabhudeva — are completely opposed to the idea of a watchable film? Must a comedy be this… pathetic? Considering that the director gave himself a cameo where he pees on people (I wish I were kidding), the question seems tragically rhetorical.

The girl in the film is Amy Jackson — a girl so generic she might as well be called Any Jackson — but thankfully we don’t have to suffer the sound of her Hindi. She doesn’t understand the language and mercifully only speaks English — when she isn’t talking with her fists and feet, that is. Her character is a fierce fighter who, refreshingly, saves the leading man’s skin a fair few times in the film. Which is why it’s all the more disappointing when she abruptly turns into a damsel-in-distress at the climax.

Kay Kay Menon, meanwhile, hams it up as the baddie and flips around a hat — an act which reminded me of his climactic hat-flinging in Bombay Velvet — and constantly calls himself “too good”, in a clumsy echo, perhaps, of Gulshan Grover labelling himself “bad man” all those years ago in Ram Lakhan. Everything in this film is a clumsy echo, in fact, and even the product placements seem too underbudget to be real: Rasna, Rapidex, BestDeal? Please tell me this was all in jest.

Lara Dutta, playing the sleep-challenged interpreter, tries hard to full-bloodedly embrace the lunacy, and there is a moment where she offers a glimmer of hope as the Sardar takes his girl into a song sequence and they take Dutta along to interpret his thoughts to her. If only all of it were even slightly tolerably written — as it stands, Dutta comes off looking like an impressively sportsmanlike buffoon.

Despite all this, Kumar, bless his soul, still makes us laugh. From the way he nonchalantly tosses car keys into a swimming pool to the way he pillow-fights with his mother — and frequently crouches down in front of his father, as if giving a pitch report — Kumar shows off the spontaneity that makes him hard to resist. Unlike Singh Is King, however, Singh Is Bliing is far too moronic to be saved.

In a stupid early scene featuring a dog dressed as a lion — with the scenes distractingly labelled “Shot in a zoo” and “Shot in South Africa” as if locations were cigarettes — I thought I spotted one of the old Flop Show actors on stage. I might be mistaken, but not as much as this film. Those spoofy “misdirected by” credits would suit Prabhudeva just fine.

Rating: 1.5 stars

First published Rediff, October 2, 2015

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Review: Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar

The scariest part of Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar is when it makes us laugh.

A tightly-coiled procedural made with such dryness that it seems, in parts, documentarian — resembling a reenactment more than a feature film — Talvar is one of those rare films that remains constantly aware of what it is doing and what buttons it is pushing. It is an unflinching film, hard to swallow, and when — somewhere near the end — it breaks down into round-table absurdity, with opposing investigators laughing off each other’s theories, the scene is brutally, irresistibly hilarious. Investigators and senior intelligence officials poke holes, guffaw at the language used, and one team even literally calls the other a joke. It is scythe-sharp writing, and, after being horrified by a narrative this terse, it feels good to finally kick back and snigger as things get funny.

That hilarious scene, and our relieved reaction to it, is symptomatic of who we are and how we now consume even the most nightmarish of facts. It betrays our desperate need to move on, our hunger to be quickly amused, our desire to skip past the facts and find the Kafkaesque vein so we can tut-tut and shake our heads bemusedly.

talvar1After news of the real-life Talwar murder case broke seven years ago, we as a nation constantly switched sides, easily aroused by the mainstream media first flinging mud at the victim’s parents, sensationalist news-channel tickers ablaze, and then lulled by the liberal media with their longform think-pieces showing the lack of evidence against these parents. There is a new book out — Aarushi, by Avirook Sen — in support of the parents who remain incarcerated despite inadequate evidence, and Ms Gulzar’s film, while attempting to prismatically show many sides of the unknown, clearly also takes their side. The fact that it takes sides so staunchly is great, both because it works as a war cry against an unjust system, but also, more importantly, because it doesn’t pretend to be impartial. Because you, the viewer, know where the film stands, you can make up your mind in agreement or dissent.

What you cannot doubt is doubt itself.

The maid comes by in the morning. There is some fumbling for keys because the servant is missing. Then the girl, fourteen, is found in her bed, slain and bloodied. The cops arrive, agree that the servant has done it, and declare it an open-and-shut case. Except another door opens: the suspected servant is found dead on the roof, cut up in the same way as the girl. What the hell happened?

Ms Gulzar’s film, with a script by Vishal Bhardwaj, tries to answer that very question by following several discordant theories to their rightful conclusions — and so we see what-might-have-been several times over, with parents Ramesh and Nutan Tandon taking turns slaughtering their own child or discovering her dead. We see the servant and his friends, the investigative officer and his attempts at hunting down the truth, the policemen and their lunkheaded laziness. And through it all we watch and we doubt — and we doubt and we doubt — and therein lies the sharpness of Talvar.

It is a cleanly-crafted film. Pankaj Kumar, one of the most fascinating cinematographers on the scene today, here keeps things unshowy and murky, his compositions frequently voyeuristic — enhancing the suggestion that we may suddenly be privy to what is usually outside our jurisdiction, be looking at something we aren’t normally meant to. The background score by Ketan Sodha is effective, even if a touch inspired by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the snatches of song we hear are excellent, especially the haunting final track sung by Rekha Bhardwaj that floats over the end-titles. The art-direction is immaculate; a lot of Talvar’s triumph lies in how little it looks like a film.

talvar2Yet a film it certainly is, and for all its dry treatment, it is a sufficiently dramatic one as it goes about hitting the right evocative beats. Things are held in place by a devastatingly good ensemble cast, each of the players bringing something to the table: Konkona Sensharma and Neeraj Kabi play the girl’s parents, doing so with heartbreaking normality, Sensharma particularly lovely as she remains, believably, too stunned to react (despite what a certain columnist once screamed); Gajraj Rao is terrific as a pan-chewing cop eager to hurry things along; Sohum Shah is superb as the investigator’s assistant, so eager to please that he bangs a spoon on a pot to give his boss a beat; Atul Kumar, throwing around hardcore Hindi, is spot-on as a cold and canny intelligence man; and Prakash Belawadi, as the outgoing chief of the Department of Investigation, is fantastic as he articulates increasingly nuanced Hindi verses in his AR Rahman accent.

The table itself belongs, however, to one man. Irrfan Khan plays the investigative officer who gets sucked into the case, and the film singles him out as the protagonist, taking us along for the ride as he messily but determinedly unravels his version of the truth. Khan, arguably the finest working actor in Hindi cinema today, is in flawless form as he keeps things consistently wry — be it while interrogating or making a Gulzar reference to his wife. It’s a stunning, stunning performance, and there are these little touches Khan conjures up — like the way he grimaces for a split-second while trying to remember the name of his wife’s pills, as if he were flexing a memory muscle — that are an absolute marvel.

Khan exonerates the parents and the film takes his side, clearly casting him as the righteous hero. And yet, by the time the credits roll, even this man has given up and, really, fallen on his own talvar. The truth tires. Doubt alone triumphs.

Rating: 4.5 stars


First published Rediff, October 2, 2015

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Review: Madhur Bhandarkar’s Calendar Girls

Halfway through Calendar Girls, the new film by Madhur Bhandarkar, a young actress is shooting a film when she’s sidetracked by the revelation that some superstar is shooting nearby. She bolts, thrilled, toward the celebrity, and while one might imagine a Khan cameo, the star in question is Bhandarkar, playing himself. There are a couple of scenes where the ingenue OMGingly gushes over his work as the filmmaker puts on a consciously grave baritone, while dressed in bright red and yellow fleece jerseys Shah Rukh Khan may have discarded during Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

This is all unbelievably meta. Bhandarkar, a maker of tacky cliché masquerading as so-called ‘realistic’ cinema, sitting opposite an actress played by — of all people — Ruhi Singh, who we last saw in Nisha Pahuja’s terrific documentary The World Before Her, which showed Singh’s frightening focus on the Miss India title. Now, as an ambitious actress clambering up the Bollywood rungs, Ruhi seems almost to be playing Part 2 of that true story while Bhandarkar smiles and plays mentor — Which, I suppose, he is doing in real-life by giving the girl her first break. The conversation is singularly bizarre as Bhandarkar says he wants to cast her in a film, but complains she’s already signed another film with some random producer. “Oh sir,” says the girl, chirpy and unperturbed, “I only did that because I wanted to buy a flat in Oberoi Springs.” To this Bhandarkar nods and hmmms with (grave) empathy, as if he condones the act, for that is how things ought to be done.

Look, either Madhur Bhandarkar is messing with all of us and is genuinely waging war on the way the industry works by sacrificing his own brand at the altar of truth, or he is blessed with a complete and utter lack of self-awareness.

calendargirls1The latter is more likely, considering the way this film has been made. It’s a preposterously sloppy production, a film where the casting brief apparently insisted on excluding all those with any talent. A few new girls are wrung through an excruciatingly bad script and the film is inconsistent on every level: visually, tonally, and in terms of narrative. Take the name off the poster and it’s hard to believe this film has been made by someone who makes films. Sadly, Bhandarkar might not even get the difference, and thus the scene plays out — entirely without irony — as he poses smilingly for selfies with Singh.

The film is about five young ladies who make it big as Calendar Girls, following which they are all expected to have a career in the world of glamour. One of them becomes the aforementioned actress and charges money to attend funerals, one (in a cruel moment of unintentional hilarity) becomes the brand ambassador of a spastic society and then marries a millionaire, one ends up seducing cricketers to fix matches, one is Pakistani and because Indians can’t stand the sight of Pakistani actors (but don’t tell Fawad Khan that) she ends up turning into an exclusive escort — in this she’s schooled by Mita Vashisht, wearing bottle-openers for rings and breathily saying “power-broker” as if it were the opposite of a safe-word. (Yes, it’s like several rejected Vishesh Films story-ideas all moved in together.)

Girl 5, meanwhile, goes to a party and hears that the head of her talent management agency is spreading scurrilous rumours about her. In a strange scene she confronts the man who nudges her about the gossip and so, mid-party, he calls up the owner of the agency and puts the phone on speaker — all while one token white guy looks alarmed by the goings on. “What’s going on?” he wonders, like the rest of us, but is quickly shushed as the owner, sitting in a club, boasts graphically on the phone about his conquest of Girl 5. The next scene has Girl 5 walking into an office and slapping the boss, but while he and the time of day seem to have changed, her dress hasn’t. It just goes to show how little has been thought through before making this movie. But at least Kyra Dutt, who plays Girl 5, does something that resembles acting.

calendargirls2The rest are a trainwreck. There are spin bowlers who introduce themselves hopefully at a party, saying “Hi, hope you know me?”; there are women saying “Setterday” and, delightful as it would be to have a day celebrating Irish Setters, they just mean Saturday; wine-glasses are used as accessories; and then there’s Kiran Kumar talking about philandering as grand tradition, while Suhel Seth plays Vijay Mallya.

My sensibilities need a shower.

Back during that unforgettable director cameo, Bhandarkar complains about an actress making him wait on the sets, declaring that“I make heroine-oriented films because heroes have too many hang-ups, and now look at the heroines.” Indeed, Mr Bhandarkar. How dare heroines act like heroes? How dare female characters in your movies dream of a slightly better life? Ah, but do remember we all live in — as one of your Calendar Girls calls it — “a free choice world,” and we can thus choose not to watch your sexist, racist, stereotyped films.

After a while, I often try and tune out horrible narratives and focus on the extras. The people who try and put their best foot forward come what may, in the hope that maybe they’ll get noticed. By someone, anyone. The waiters, the nameless models, the random Rajasthani turban’d footmen, the young man leading a chant outside the Pakistani model’s house in Bandra… They’re all trying to get noticed by standing out, and Bhandarkar never seems to care that each of these aspirants — in their desperate urge to be different — renders the entire scene incoherent.

Either Bhandarkar magnanimously chooses to allow all of them a platform, or he doesn’t know better. Or wait, have I just given him the idea for his next, Extras? Sorry, world.

Rating: Zero Stars

First published Rediff, September 25, 2015

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Review: Nikhil Advani’s Katti Batti

Movies, like lovers, have their own personalities. There are some that you fall for instantly, some you keep gazing at despite yourself, some that grow on you, and some who are never quite right. There are some that have issues, some that look a little underwhelming, some that seem too glossy and superficial, and some that end up too forgettable to talk about. Nikhil Advani’s Katti Batti is none of these things. It is an imbecilic cliche-ridden embarrassment that made me want to punch it in the mouth.

Because it is that bad, yes, but also because a spurt of blood may just enliven it with something approximating realism — for this is a romantic drama that, not knowing its place, happens to be executed like horrid, tasteless slapstick. There are times when this movie is as loud and unbearable as, say, a Grand Masti. Lead actors Imran Khan and Kangana Ranaut try their darnedest, but let’s face it, Advani and the script never come close to giving them a chance.

kattibatti1She is a wealthy jet-setter who capriciously travels across Europe and moves in with her man on a whim, after which she spends an awful lot of time texting her ex. He is a morose architect who looks at an old rival, glares and then abruptly breaks down weeping — after which he sits in a loo and, um, strokes his turtle.

They happen also to be living together. Advani and his writers seem so bewildered by the idea of co-habitation that they appear constantly shocked by it. The very first shot of the film has Imran lying in bed, neck-deep in aforementioned housing situation, presumably having gotten time to wrap his brain around what is evidently a quantum concept, and yet he starts the film by questioning it. “Don’t you find all this weird? This ‘live-in relationship…” he trails off, helplessly, as Kangana laughs it off.

This is literally just the beginning, as Katti Batti goes on to verbalise the obvious over and over again. A scene with two people beating each other up has to be underlined by a third guy pointing to them and saying “Fight! Hey, fight!”, and later one buddy looks another in the eye and reminds him “Main tera best friend hoon.” Ah, with friends like these…

Khan, playing the hapless and pathetic protagonist Maddy, gamely embraces the inanity mostly wearing an ironic what-in-the-world-is-this-film expression, which makes him likeable even though the film makes it dashed hard to root for him. He’s a lovesick phenyl-drinking fool who walks around with a heart-shaped box, incessantly reminiscing about the girl who left him. Ranaut’s Payal, meanwhile, in a film that uses her more as clotheshorse than performer, switches from look to look with élan, Katti Batti working as a fine showreel for her stylists. Her big expression, for nine-tenths of the film, is Blue Steel. The film doesn’t give her anything to do, in fact, until the shamelessly manipulative climax where she does knock it out of the park — too late for anyone to care, however — and Khan, to put it politely, struggles with the hardcore histrionics at the very end.

kattibatti2Also, dear filmmakers, we must here interject a plea: do not give Ranaut English words to say unless you direct her into saying them right. We know she’s a terrific actress and have gotten used to the accent, but here, in a film where she’s supposed to be a bohemian highly-travelled rockstar-pixie, it really, really jars when she pronounces ‘dramatise’ as drummatyze.

Advani’s last film, Hero, released just a week ago, and I decried it for being an unnecessary, mediocre remake. But that was a lunkheaded actioner and we’re kinda used to those films being daft. Heartbreak, on the other hand, is rarely this synthetic, this thoughtless, this obvious. Katti Batti just smells wrong — and that may well be the most universal dealbreaker of all.

Rating: 1 star


First published Rediff, September 18, 2015


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Review: Nikhil Advani’s Hero

Kids today know what a gym is. They know how to flex their biceps so their tattoos ripple just right, and how to stand on sunny dockyards and forcefully throw lengths or rope up and down, as if playing tug of war with themselves (Also see: Brothers). This, evidently, is what passes for ‘learning the ropes’ in Hindi cinema — it’s a shame these starlings don’t work as hard on, say, their dialogue delivery.

There is, of course, a lot to be said in favour of the unschooled leading man. Subhash Ghai, who directed Hero back in 1983, never held the most brilliant scripts, but was certainly a canny filmmaker with enough foresight to train his spotlight on actors in whom he saw much promise. The reason for the enduring popularity of Hero remains, indeed, its leading pair: the affable and assured Meenakshi Sheshadri, and Jackie Shroff, a gangly goonda made to grab a flute and play kidnapper. Shroff, in particular, was like nothing we’d seen before, a reedy young fellow who looked convincing in a fight, wore a winning smile and could carry off a Tom Selleck moustache. His entire rough-around-the-edges persona was completely alien to the clean-scrubbed leading men of the time.

hero1Sooraj Pancholi, on the other hand, is Gold’s Gym come to life. Where Shroff had broken the mould, young Pancholi is all-mould: all muscles and stubble and eyes struggling to appear moody. The kind of ‘look’ every Lokhandwala struggler wants, and many have. He walks around this film with an insufferable layer of smugness — even in the fight scene announcing his entry, he makes his way into the frame looking not at the villain but with his head cocked down, just so he can look up dramatically to make eye-contact with the camera. Tsk. He isn’t entirely awful when silent, but struggles in particular when saying anything more than four-words long, his modulation rife with awkward pauses as if waiting for the teleprompter to refresh.

Nikhil Advani’s Hero remake follows the template of the original, which may not have been the wisest course of action. Sooraj plays a local tough (called Sooraj) who beats up on people and is the Robin of the Hood, giving away scholarships to boys in need. One day he is called upon by Pasha — father Aditya Pancholi, who, in a Mukherjea-an twist, plays his uncle — to do him a favour and kidnap the daughter of a tough cop sniffing out his trail. Sooraj does so unquestioningly, and the “bathroom-selfie” clicking daughter Radha (Athiya Shetty) is thus whisked away into the woods, too distracted by his abs to notice she’s been kidnapped. Meanwhile, her dad Shrikant Mathur (an eternally-exhausted Tigmanshu Dhulia) fumes and tries to get his daughter back.

hero2Perhaps there is a clue to be had in Mathur’s first reaction to his daughter’s kidnapping: he goes home with slumped shoulder and looks at a crayon-drawing headlined ‘My Daddy Strongest.’ Maybe we are all just misled by Athiya Shetty’s impressive height and pout but Radha happens to just be a really tall seven-year-old. This would indeed explain a whole lot, even as we watch the film’s first half roll out like Highway For Dummies. Sunil Shetty’s daughter Athiya plays her part with the infuriatingly wide-eyed naïveté of an early 90s heroine, plus a voice as screechily high-pitched as a dog whistle: Maybe we should just call her Bhagyashrill.

It isn’t entirely her fault, of course. This is a poorly-written film where the kids don’t seem to have any true allegiance to the parental figures or any consistent morality or conflict, even. This is a film where the girl prays to a statue and calls it “Buddha Ji”, and a film where a grown man is upset at a youngster (a youngster who kidnapped a girl to save him) just because he didn’t choose to hold the old man’s hand. This is a film where the villain is a young man who looks like he’s walked out of a Manyavar commercial and even he has more presence than the insipid leads. This is a film where a man and a woman hold hands and talk about the importance of a kiss on the lips and then kiss, instead, on the cheek. This is a film where Dhulia — a talented director and one of the best dialogue-writers we have — looks drained out playing the girl’s father, and appears warily to accuse Advani when he wonders out loud how much he must be insulted, how much he must be put through.

How much, indeed, should we all be put through?

Rating: 1.5 stars


First published Rediff, September 11, 2015


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Review: Anees Bazmee’s Welcome Back

welcomeback3It’s hard to call Welcome Back a new Anees Bazmee film when it has its foot so firmly entrenched in all things old. A raggedy bunch of ever-cool veteran actors — Nana Patekar, Anil Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Dimple Kapadia and Naseeruddin Shah — all playing dons and liars and people with unpredictable, malicious intent? Even the pop-culture references are straight from the 90s (with Nadeem-Shravan being name-checked instead of Honey Singh) and thanks to the way Patekar and Kapoor have staved off ageing, it’d be easy to mistake this film for one of many unremarkable David Dhawan farces from way back when.

Which, honestly, is not an entirely bad thing. We live in an age where the loudest hits are the stupidest, when scripts of mainstream cinema rise to no greater calling than tom-tomming the name of an overpaid superstar. The hammy films of the 80s and 90s boasted at least of intricate (if formulaic) story-lines, and if there’s one thing Welcome Back is not guilty of, it is a lack of plot. Give a bunch of good actors enough meat and it doesn’t even matter where you point the camera, they’ll conjure up something watchable.

welcomeback1Alas, in the middle of real actors steps John Abraham. We see him first during some horrid song, festooned in viagra-themed blue confetti unable to shake up his flaccid performance. Abraham, grinning lopsidedly and trying to go ‘street’, looks visibly uncomfortable: think Neil Nitin Mukesh trying to do a Ranveer Singh impression. The results are predictably far from pretty. But Bazmee, bless his soul, gives Abraham very little to do and, even better, very few scenes to do it in.

But then there enters the woefully talentless Shruti Hassan, clutching a fistful of rakhees and looking crestfallen, possibly trying to remember her lines, shattering hopes of a good film to smithereens soon as she appears. Hassan is a miraculously bad actress, a blank-faced ingenue mouthing lines with maddening monotony. She might occasionally look a bit like her luminous mother Sarika, but the genes have failed this child rather cruelly.

The story is an absurdly silly one, but told at a thankfully brisk clip. Gangsters Uday Bhai (Patekar) and Majnu Bhai (Kapoor) have now gone straight, and are now Dubai-based hotel-magnates trying to make an earnest living. They also want to find a bride, and some tacky girl calling herself a princess captures their fancy. Meanwhile, they have just been saddled with a sister, played by Haasan, for whom they must find a suitable boy. The boy they seek out happens to be, naturally, Abraham the lout. But there are… complications.

It all sounds quite unwatchable — and some parts certainly are — but thanks to the astoundingly fit elder statesmen in charge, Welcome Back provides its share of ludicrous laughs. Anil Kapoor and Nana Patekar, playing paragons of brotherly love and men of thundering tempers, are superb. Kapoor wears outrageous sunglasses, a winner’s scowl and is infectiously joyful when winning at a graveside game of antakshari. Patekar, daftly giggly during that same scene, is at his best when pensive or exhausted, sitting back wearily on a table at the chaos hits a crescendo. In the last film he played a don with acting aspirations; in this one, after much madness, he asks the man holding the gun what he thought of his acting.

Those two are priceless enough to make this worth a watch, and the other veterans wangle themselves some random moments. Paresh Rawal, in the middle of this atrocious plot, can still come off as a sincerely outraged everyman, Naseeruddin Shah goes full-Mohra as a blind man who likes leaping over steps, and I may forever be haunted by the image of Dimple Kapadia flying through a sandstorm, eyes wild and hair akimbo.

welcomeback2Some of the wordplay holds up surprisingly well, like a bit about how ‘gun’ (virtue) and ‘gun’ share the same spelling, and Kapoor’s riffs about how he let go of his style, his ‘kaayde’, before he could make his gangs, his Al Qaaed-e. But those are rare moments slipped into in a film proud of its puerility. The first film had Akshay Kumar to shoulder all the buffoonery, and while even that only added up to a barely watchable film, here Abraham is an utter trainwreck and the Hassan girl doesn’t help.

Still, Welcome Back is dumb yet entertaining, utterly silly but made with a kind of absurd, warm energy. It’s actually amusing even if it goes on far too long, and while I don’t recommend going to a theatre to watch this mess, you’ll sure get your money’s worth watching it on TV. Plus, there’s something to be said for a film where the climax features a cute peach microlight bringing about a bunch of killer drones. If only this were shorter, crisper, a bit smarter, with just a touch more… um, control, Mr Bazmee, control.

Rating: 2 stars


First published Rediff, September 4, 2015

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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.


First published Rediff, August 18, 2015


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