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The best actresses in Hindi cinema, 2015

2015 may just be the year we started writing good roles for women. There are always a few great characters, certainly, but this could be the year when mainstream cinema allowed for experimentation on a larger scale, for a whole slew of female characters who were liberated, self-assured, opinionated and unapologetic. The roles came and the actresses rose to meet the challenge, which is why the class of 2015 includes grumpy girls, lesbians, mothers, huntresses, victims, villains and athletes. Super.

Take a bow, ladies. Here are my top ten performances of the year:

10. Deepti Naval, NH10

Has Deepti Naval ever played bad before? I can’t remember if she has, but in Navdeep Singh’s film she is the one who holds the reins and the one who barks the orders. As the chieftain of a small village, she’s in charge but, as we find out, patriarchy doesn’t end just because a woman is wearing the pants. It’s a brief but chilling appearance that lends the film much credibility.

9. Radhika Apte, Badlapur

Badlapur is a two man film and it is left to them to do the heavy lifting, but Apte makes her presence felt regardless of limited screen-time. Married to a restauranteur, she befriends a hitchhiker only to find herself on the wrong end of a vendetta, and she nails just the right combination of disbelief and dread. In a standout scene, Varun Dhawan forces her to strip and Apte, despite being torn apart, maintains eye contact more than one would expect. It’s haunting.

8. Shivani Raghuvanshi, Titli

shivani1Kanu Behl’s first film was peopled by many new faces, but none was as impactful as Raghuvanshi, who plays the seemingly coy but staunchly determined bride, Neelu. Here is a girl who knows what she wants and is willing to break her own bones to get it. Raghuvanshi is note-perfect in a genuinely demanding role. Her Neelu is quiet but never submissive, stands up to authority figures, asks tough questions and — in case all else fails — she has a prince tucked away.

7. Kalki Koechlin and Sayani Gupta, Margarita With A Straw

It’s weird to put co-stars together on a best actress list, but Koechlin and Gupta are at their absolute finest in Margarita With A Straw when they’re playing off each other. Two atypical girls caught in a tender relationship, one has cerebral palsy and one is blind, but that doesn’t get in the way of fondness — or friskiness. These are performances brimming with candour, plus Hindi film actresses looking to play blind ought to take notes from Gupta’s no-nonsense work.

6. Priyanka Chopra, Bajirao Mastani

It’s never pleasant to be the isosceles in a love triangle, farther away from the action than the other two with their names in the title. And while Chopra is — as the long suffering and ignored wife, Kashibai — unquestionably the third-wheel in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic romance, she is also the film’s moral right and, in dignified fashion, manages to emphatically convey both vulnerability and pride. So much so, in fact, that she upstages leading lady Deepika Padukone — and it’s masterful how effortless Chopra makes that look.

5. Shweta Tripathi, Masaan

Neeraj Ghaywan’s grave directorial debut would have been a film of gloom were it not for the utterly effervescent Tripathi. As Shaalu, a bright young girl who loves poetry, Tripathi creates a raw, seemingly unrehearsed, genuinely spontaneous character. As the bearer of words, Shaalu is the one who literally brings lyricism to the film but Tripathi is the one who gives it light.

4. Konkona Sensharma, Talvar

The role of Nutan Tandon must have sounded like an impossibly difficult brief. Not just does Sensharma have to play the role of a mother who has lost her child, but Meghna Gulzar’s Rashomon-esque film of multiple perspectives requires that she also play a mother who has killed her child and a mother who is lying about it all. Sensharma is heartbreaking as the devastated mother, but the true genius of her performance is how subtly, how wonderfully she switches gears for the alternate perspectives and makes them, while still believable, appear nearly laughable.

3. Kangna Ranaut, Tanu Weds Manu Returns

kangana1A bucktoothed Haryanvi student who proudly refers to herself as an “athletes”, Kusum aka Datto is a sensationally fine performance that digs deep into Ranaut’s increasingly stunning bag of tricks. Datto is an irresistible character, and Ranaut plays her with brilliant consistency, the accent never faltering and the character never wavering. This would, in fact, have been the performance of the year, except Ranaut was disappointingly one dimensional as Datto’s doppelganger, the utterly unlikeable titular character, Tanu. There are moments — like when she drunkenly tries on wigs in the dead of night — that are interesting but Tanu, as a performance, is merely shrill. Team Datto forever.

2. Anushka Sharma, NH10

It is always special when a thriller makes you root for a character instead of just being there for the ride, and I was riveted by Sharma’s exceptional work in Navdeep Singh’s slasher film. Shorn of makeup, frills and places to hide, hers is a committed performance that shoulders NH10 — and, for long stretches, does so singlehandedly. Sharma’s Meera is a city mouse like most of us, and she takes us right there with her into the not-so-distant badlands where the harassment builds and she finds herself trapped yet unwilling to submit. It is a bold, stark display of range and bravado.

1. Deepika Padukone, Piku

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It’s thrilling to watch Padukone push herself, and Shoojit Sircar’s film doesn’t at all make things easy for her. Piku — whose real name we don’t know, or need to know — is an irritable character, a grump who uses her scowl as a shield to defend her sanity. It is a character so relatable she seems familiar, one of those people who choose to live at the very end of their tether, and Padukone appears to relish playing someone so completely unreasonable. Yet Sircar and Padukone warmly, in small measures, bring out Piku’s softer side, the way she wistfully tries on jewellery, the way she sings with her father, the way she (while gobbling down a mouthful of Calcutta egg roll) casually proposes marriage.

And, as I’d said in my review, the way she says ‘pachcha:’  Piku uses this Bangla word for arse — a cute splat of a word, with a tchah-sound built right in — while at a dining table full of eagerly nostalgic relatives, and Padukone plays the moment magnificently, her eyes twinkling and grin well in place, dropping her guard to say an ‘uncouth’ word and, simultaneously, thrilled to be saying it. Bravo.”

Bravo indeed. Shine on, Ms Padukone.

~

First published Rediff, January 11, 2016

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Review: Bejoy Nambiar’s Wazir

Watching truly skilled chess players going at each other is an experience both lyrical and violent, as they bleed and behead across the sixty-four squares like duelling ninjas in slow-motion. Watching a game between people who only believe they’re good at chess, however, is plain infuriating.

Bejoy Nambiar’s Wazir — based on a script by producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra — stacks the pieces interestingly, to begin with. There is a brooding rook, flawed but furious. There is a desperate pawn with nothing to lose. There are dead princesses to make up for the lack of a queen, and there is, finally, a bishop, a wazir, lethal enough to have the film named after him. It appears to be the ideal mix for a taut thriller and, weighing in commendably enough at just over a hundred minutes, this is certainly crisp.

wazir1Wazir’s problem, then, lies not in the fact that it does what is expected from a thriller; the problem is that it does everything expected — which makes it a film that surprises little and adds up to nothing of consequence. The film is about a tough, reckless cop and a grizzled chess instructor bound together by tragedy, and as they become friends, they resolve to brave the storm clouds together. This world of the film is intriguing enough as it stands and Nambiar, to his credit, plays things efficiently enough at the start — till the plot-twists kick in and the pieces fall off the board. The twists are entirely transparent, the film so committed to idiotproofing the narrative that we see everything coming, particularly the one big twist.

Yet, even when visible well in advance, a cleverly executed twist-and-reveal is a thing of beauty. Wazir’s twist, alas, doesn’t make any sense — or feel, in any way, monumental, thanks to how matter of factly it is revealed and consumed — and neither does much else in this moody revenge drama. I can’t go into detail for fear of spoiling an elaborate (if contrived) plot, but suffice it to say that none of the character motives in this film actually add up. Plus there’s some unnecessary hokum about Kashmir that just muddies things further.

Farhan Akhtar, crossing his arms and glaring at children who beat him at chess, is pretty good as Daanish early on in the film, but his performance starts to unravel once the film hits hysterical gear and he is required to do more than frown. To be fair, this is less the actor’s fault and more that of the imbecilic character, a very dim policeman indeed. Amitabh Bachchan is Panditji, the maestro teaching Daanish about life and love and, rather reprehensibly, how you can hit ‘undo’ and cancel a chess move after having moved the pieces. Bachchan, of course, is great at spouting simple homilies and make them appear spontaneous. Some of these dialogues are well thought-out and add to the sense of mood, while cinematographer Sanu Verghese keeps the lighting shadowy, hiding character’s eyes and keeping things raccoon-y — pausing only to let Aditi Rao Hydari glow, sad but striking.

And then Neil Nitin Mukesh shows up as a maniac, hamming it up as if squeezing six seasons of Game Of Thrones into one mad moment, eyes gleaming and dagger afire. The film can’t survive this onslaught, and the third act — clearly not strong enough to begin with — collapses into itself as things struggle to wrap up. This is a film where a dancer’s daughter dances and a chess-teacher’s daughter teaches chess, a film where a suspended cop wields great power without presumably being able to spell ‘responsibility,’ and a film where an actor in a cameo gets to basically play Rambo.

Somewhere in the shadows lurks Manav Kaul, cool and inscrutable and making this film look good. He, it appears, is more committed to this end than Nambiar himself who, dispiritingly enough, forgoes his usual distinctive visual gimmickry almost completely in this film. I would never recommend that all films feature some KhoyaKhoyaChand-ugiri, but this one cries out for visual zip, for some seriously slick style. Thus this thriller isn’t merely predictable but depressingly drab. It has competent moments, but is too generic to be memorable, and that’s a shame for it could so easily have been a winner. As it stands, Wazir is the one thing a chess player can never afford to be: obvious.

Rating: 2 stars

~

First published Rediff, January 8, 2015

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The Worst Hindi films of 2015

When our filmmakers go bad, they go full-on unwatchable. But before bringing out the claws, a quick disclaimer: I try to keep this list sane by not counting b-movies and sticking to films that have some potential to be decent (though I do agree that in some cases that potential is buried rather deep). Also, one specific inductee is missing from the list because, like I’d mentioned at the time, it is not a movie.

Anyway, on to the bad. Often this year have I felt like clawing my eyes out in a movie theatre, and these are the very worst offenders:

10. Jazbaa

Dear Sanjay Gupta, there is a lesson to be learnt from Instagram: when you place the most beautiful woman in front of a camera, try going #nofilter instead of shooting it through an aquarium. Here’s what I’d written about this green mess:

Jazbaa begins with Aishwarya Rai jogging across Bombay in a black catsuit. (In case Gupta decides to switch genres midstream, I assume.) She drops her daughter off to school, goes and kicks ass in court, and then tells her childhood friend, Yohaan (Irrfan) — a “highly decorated” cop in the middle of some extortionate cops-only blackmail racket — that she is a lawyer who defends the guilty because “bekasoor hamaare fees afford nahin kar sakte”, the innocent can’t afford her.

All this after Khan, who wears dark shades indoors — probably to shield himself from Gupta’s relentlessly radioactive green lighting — is accused by fellow cops of an Amitabh Bachchan swagger, which, it must be said, is the weirdest way to reference the heroine’s father in law.”

Link to full review

9. Dilwale

Armed with the greatest on-screen couple in modern Indian cinema, Rohit Shetty uncharacteristically chose to rein in his usual lunacy, resulting in his limpest film. At least the bad films had bad jokes. For the majority of its running time, Dilwale doesn’t even try. In my review I’d said:

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

Link to full review

8. Tamasha

tamasha-4aAs a film, Tamasha has a lot going for it — a handful of good scenes, fine acting, the frequently flawless Deepika Padukone and some eventually good music — but the reason Imtiaz Ali’s film makes this list is because it is, by far, the most pretentious Hindi film this year.

This is a singularly insubstantial film that pretends to be profound: despite having nothing to say, it constantly alludes to its own depth. The writing is absurd, where the characters start off behaving like 11-year-olds and end up destroying their own lives. One of the protagonists is clearly unstable, yet any mental issues are, alarmingly enough, pooh-poohed away in the name of whimsy, for he is a storyteller. The stories he tells are unimaginative and far from striking, though Ranbir Kapoor does pull off a thickly accented narration of a fictional film with grace. But even these actors can’t lift this material.

There are touching moments, certainly, but Ali can craft those in his sleep, and don’t let them fool you: this is a resoundingly hollow film. Tamasha is a work of indulgence and inconsistency, a film besotted by itself. A film where a filmmaker casts a young actor as his alter ego as a director, standing on stage as the audience applauds — and the standing ovation continues while the storyteller and his girlfriend monkey around on the left of the stage. Clap on, the film insistently tells us, clap on.

7. Brothers

Karan Malhotra, making a film about the modern sport of mixed martial arts, a sport unfamiliar to most mainstream Indian audiences, decided, confoundingly enough, to make it in the style of a cheesy 80s throwback, complete with crying bastards and a drunk Jackie Shroff. Here’s what I wrote in my review:

If 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.”

Link to full review

6. Shamitabh

Satire and melodrama don’t make for an easy mix. Add to that the idea of a fantastical invention meant for those good at Dubsmash, and you might have some vague estimation of how preposterous R Balki’s disastrous new film is. Here’s what I’d said in my review:

It starts off with promise. Dhanush plays Danish, a village boy fathered by the movies, a mute boy who believes he can act better than the biggest superstar, who turns his head at 48-frames-per-second, and is passionate enough to believe his voicelessness won’t get in the way of his impending stardom. Starting off as a bus conductor (just like another superstar you may have heard of) he makes his way to big bad Bombay, impresses an assistant director, and is then whisked off to Finland.

It is at this point that I decided Balki was giving us not a film aiming at truth but a preposterous fable, because his Finland is a ventriloquist-worshipping country dedicated to making state-of-the-art human puppets, fitting voice-boxes inside human throats and letting the mute person lip-sync someone else’s time-delayed conversation. It’s awful writing.”

Link to full review

5. Hamari Adhuri Kahani

hak1Poor, poor Vidya Balan. Poor, poor Rajkumar Rao. Poor, poor Emraan Hashmi. Poor us critics, who sat through this weepy film that really tried to pour on more misery. Here’s what I wrote in my review:

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.

Link to full review

4. All Is Well

In every sense of the word, this Umesh Shukla ‘comedy’ is a nothing film. Here’s what I, exhausted, had written in my review:

At one point in All Is Well, Bachchan picks up Rishi Kapoor and carries him on his shoulders. This is the big ‘moment’ of the film, clearly, the Shravan Kumar moment which shows the prodigal son lifting the father. It is, however, a slow-motion mess, which is made further farcical by Rishi Kapoor, while hanging from Bachchan’s left shoulder, trying to pat the younger actor’s back a few times.

It’s a tell-tale gesture; This isn’t encouragement, it’s a fine actor giving up on a bad film. Rishi Kapoor is tapping out.”

Link to full review

3. Katti Batti
kattibatti2This Nikhil Advani film is about people who want to spare a guy his feelings by lying to him about his ex — even if those lies lead to him committing suicide. It is a painful, dated film trying to be hip and young, and that just makes it more unbearable. Here’s what I’d said in my review:

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.”

Link to full review

2. Mr X

This, ladies and gents, is a film about an invisible man. Who you can see. It truly doesn’t get more pointless than this. From my review:

There is no reason for this film to be in 3D, or, indeed, for it to exist in the first place. Vishesh Films’ mascot Emraan Hashmi — who deserves grand compensation for keeping a straight face through this dreadful film — plays a character who turns invisible. Except, puzzlingly enough, he doesn’t. His character — whose leather jacket fuses with his body in a freak accident, I kid you not — becomes invisible but can be seen in sunlight and under all ultraviolet light. And given that every light in this film appears UV, there’s hardly a frame without Emraan Hashmi’s mug. Everyone in Mr X knows who he is and can see him 70% of the time. So much for plot/mystery/suspense.”

Link to full review

calendargirls1

1. Calendar Girls

Look, I can’t make this stuff up. You can’t make this stuff up. Only one man can, and here’s what I wrote about him:

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.

Link to full review

~

First published Rediff, January 5, 2016

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The Best Hindi films of 2015

It has been a fascinating year for our movies. A year with storytelling bravado and great localised nuance. A year with topical subjects and progressive writing. A year of maturity, which, rare as it is, automatically makes it worthy of celebration. Here, then, are this year’s finest Hindi films:

Honourable mention: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

Dibakar Banerjee’s film is 10/10 in terms of craft and finesse, but is tragically bereft of a plot. Still, it gave us smashing performances and lots to gaze at. In my review I’d said:

What one can marvel at, quite constantly, is the cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis, Dibakar’s longtime collaborator here armed with a splendid canvas and much stylistic room. The man is an absolute master of chiaroscuro, using shadows to reveal the mood and to conceal the obvious, and there are several sequences to rave about: my favourite is one stunner of a shot framed through the rolled-down window of one of Calcutta’s ubiquitous Ambassador cars, one that follows a character hurrying through a busy sidewalk and bumping into a stranger, who then, in turn, unerringly bumps into the man chasing the first character up the street. It is Hergé come alive.”

Link to full review

9. Baby

There’s something rather special about a predictable film ticking off its boxes in clean and efficient motion, and Neeraj Pandey’s film — while not very ambitious — is that rare Hindi cinema creature: a tight, engrossing action movie. It’s as if someone made the awful Phantom but did it for grown-ups. Like a well-stitched and sharply tailored military uniform, the film looks good and, thanks to Akshay Kumar, fits well.

8. Titli

titli1Kanu Behl’s visually dry film was brimming with characters and moments, and there’s something about the texture of the film that makes it impossible to forget. In my review I’d said:

Siddharth Dewan’s cinematography is voyeuristically intrusive, with some strikingly poignant compositions highlighting the film’s authentic art-direction. There is a moment, for example, when Titli is on a horse, being led to his marriage. The horse looks as unwilling as Titli, as the green frame shows us the horse, Titli and the disinterested child made to sit in front of him on the saddle, passing in front of a storefront sign for Seth Medicos. In this world even a baaraat is not allowed the grandeur of escape.”

Link to full review

7. Main Aur Charles

Prawaal Raman’s criminally underviewed criminal biopic didn’t just manage to give us a great version of Charles Sobhraj, captured by Randeep Hooda. It also, trippily, nailed the cat’s groove. In my review I’d said:

The film begins with bikini-clad corpses being fished out of a Thailand beach, a pair of brown oxfords relaxedly tapping against themselves as a man floats casually down a waterway. It is 1968 and Raman’s film is all about the vibe, which he lathers on with Soderbergh-like style, intentionally keeping things loosely disjointed and flowy: this is a film that wears its shirt collars gigantic and leaves a couple of buttons open. The pacing, in fact, is a marvel, as the script — very atypically by Hindi mainstream standards — cuts its characters slack and moves with organic, unhurried rhythm.”

Link to full review

6. Bajrangi Bhaijaan

bajrangi1It’s been a while since we’ve seen such a sterling example of effective mainstream filmmaking, and Kabir Khan really cracked the Raju Hirani code with this film. Salman’s well cast, certainly, but what makes the film whirr along so pleasurably is the great supporting cast. In my review I’d said:

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.”

Link to full review

5. Masaan

Few experienced directors have as reassured a hand as debutant Neeraj Ghaywan who, with a gem of a film, gives us many a moment of magic. In my review I’d said:

This is a fine little film about morality and loss and loneliness and Banaras and… well, and a balloon. At the heart of this film, buoyant like that freshly released scarlet balloon, is a young romance between a girl who likes poetry and a guy who fancies her madly enough to admit he hasn’t heard of any of the poets she mentions. She knows this, of course, she knows only too well that he wouldn’t have heard, say, of Nida Fazli, but she’s playing him because she likes hearing him confess inadequacy. He is smitten by her uproarious ways — screenwriter Varun Grover uses the nearly too-quaint word utpaat — and tells her, conjuring up every bit of male bravado, that he’s there for her and that she should come to him were anyone to make her cry. “But what if you make me cry?,” she asks, smiling, and he can’t help but smile back and, gratefully, drop his ‘macho’ guard. “Well, even in that case, you better tell me.”

Link to full review

4. NH10

nh10Navdeep Singh’s take on the slasher movie is a thrilling, highly effective take that, while loyal to the genre standards, is new to India. It is realistic, grounded and bloody sharp. In my review I’d said:

The primary reason NH10 works as well as it does — and it works with smashing edge-of-the-seat flair — is the context Singh gives it. The idea of two young urban lovers finding themselves in very harsh rural territory is a basic one, but Navdeep is strikingly credible when it comes to dialect and flavour, and turns the Haryana belt outside Gurgaon into the most believable of badlands: everyone in those parts might not actually be evil incarnate, but from where we’re sitting, comfortably far away and constantly assailed by news of imperilled women and fundamentally messed-up defence lawyers, we’re all too willing to believe the nightmare Navdeep sets us. NH10 is more a pure horror film than any of its companions in the slasher genre simply because we believe what we want to, and it feeds our fears.”

Link to full review

3. Badlapur

This is a noir film that sneaks up on its audience. Ace director Sriram Raghavan sets up a dark tale of revenge and, brilliantly, serves his dish so cold that all expectations are subverted. In my review I’d said:

Let the right one sin.

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

No Hindi film director treats noir as finely and uncompromisingly as Sriram Raghavan, making the most of each shadow and each secret, feeding us lies and making us read between them, his films unfolding with the stark alacrity of well-thumbed graphic novels. Badlapur is all fury and fog, a revenge saga that plays out with such eyebrow-singeing intensity that I could imagine a gravel-voiced narrator filling us in on dames and dreams and dark, stormy nights.”

Link to full review

2. Talvar

talvar2Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar is a tough, demanding watch. It is a beautifully crafted and wonderfully written film, but the braveness of its stand almost eclipses its quality. Masterful. In my review I’d said:

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.”

Link to full review

piku1

1. Piku

This delightful Shoojit Sircar film belongs on the top because of its sheer originality. It is a clever, progressive, relatable film with stellar performances and beautiful writing. And, as I forgot to mention in my review, the most intelligent use of the intermission in modern cinema. What I did write in my review was:

We are never told Deepika Padukone’s actual name in Piku.

A Bengali nickname is an all-conquering wonder, a sticky and stubborn two-syllable sound that a person is straddled with when too-young-to-object, and one that follows us to our graves. And so Deepika’s character — be it in office or living room or on a relative stranger’s phone-screen — is always simply Piku, and, despite the peculiarity or cuteness of the nickname, its usage has become matter-of-fact. The fact that throughout the film, we never dwell on its etymological origin-story and aren’t concerned with what Piku means (or may perhaps be short for) illustrates honesty and a storytelling confidence rare to our cinema.”

Link to full review

~

First published Rediff, January 4, 2016

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The Best Actors in Hindi cinema, 2015

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

Honourable Mentions:

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

10. Varun Dhawan, Badlapur

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

Link to review

9. Amitabh Bachchan, Piku

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

Link to review

8. Sanjay Mishra, Masaan

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

Link to review

7. Randeep Hooda, Main Aur Charles

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

Link to review

6. Sushant Singh Rajput, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

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

Link to review

5. Ranveer Singh, Bajirao Mastani

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

Link to review

4. Ranvir Shorey, Titli

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

Link to review

3. Ranveer Singh, Dil Dhadakne Do

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

Link to review

2. Irrfan Khan, Piku

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

Link to review

1. Irrfan Khan, Talvar

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

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

Link to review

~

First published Rediff, December 29, 2015

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The Best Hindi film songs of 2015

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

Honourable Mentions:

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

10. BannoTanu Weds Manu Returns

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

9. Byomkesh In Love – Detective Byomkesh Bakshy

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

8. Ka Kha Ga – Bombay Velvet

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

7. Moh Moh Ke Dhaage – Dum Laga Ke Haisha

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

6. Judaai – Badlapur

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

5. Mann Kasturi Re – Masaan

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

4. Zinda – Talvar

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

3. Journey Song – Piku

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

2. Tu Kisi Rail Si – Masaan

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

1. Dhadaam Dhadaam – Bombay Velvet

The heart wants how the heart wants.

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

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

All except that goddamned, hard-dhadaaming heart.

~

First published Rediff, December 23, 2015

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Review: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani

There is much to marvel at in Bajirao Mastani.

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

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

Tragic, then, that it ends up a soap.

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

Plenty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, December 18, 2015

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