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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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Review: Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do

A round-trip luxury cruise is a perfect metaphor for Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do: it’s glossy, it’s picturesque, everything on board costs far more than it ought, there are some pretty people, a few of whom make a scene, a family shakes a leg quite memorably, there is some motion sickness and — for something that ends up precisely and predictably where it started — it takes a helluva long time going nowhere.

ddd2None of this is necessarily a bad thing. We need great movies and trashy movies and insightful movies and clever movies, sure, but sometimes we duck into a darkened theatre looking for comfort food, and that’s when we need movies that do just what they promise on the label.

Modest ambitions notwithstanding, Dil Dhadakne Do takes a while to hit its stride, starting off choppy and feeling — at least for the first ninety of its indulgent 170 minutes — like a weak sitcom. Society types sniping at one another while the background score functions like a laugh track? Ouch. It’s like a really long episode of Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai where Satish Shah doesn’t show up. And it doesn’t help that in DDD, the narrator is a dog. The Mehra family, the frustrated foursome at the heart of this film, have a fifth member, an adorable bullmastiff who happens to be narrating the film. (Not kidding). And he’s voiced by Aamir Khan. (I wish I were kidding.)

Thus does Aamir’s Pluto Mehra pontificate on about people and their peculiar ways, but this too-literal voiceover — full of homilies about how strange humans are — is shockingly reminiscent of Khan’s last film, PK, where he played an alien, full of homilies about how strange humans are. The gimmick could conceivably have been cute, but the film embraces it as an afterthought: it’s fundamentally messed up that Pluto has nothing to do in the entire movie except talk reproachfully about people; and secondly that Khan, delivering platitudes written by Javed Akhtar, does so with a disturbingly pompous all-knowing voice. Snapdeal-Dhadakne-Do, the dog appears to be saying.

The project is lifted by a couple of actors, Anil Kapoor and Ranveer Singh playing the Mehra father and son and injecting Dil Dhadakne Do with energy and repose respectively. The film is about a family on a cruise with their friends, a nearly-bankrupt family taking a last-gasp holiday because saving face is too important, and it is Kapoor’s undying ebullience and Singh’s perplexed inwardness that defines the film and sets it on course. Zoya Akhtar’s film doesn’t provide much insight and leans too heavily on repetitive, sitcom-like reaction shots to underline its own obvious points over and over again — this is a film that generalises too much, one where all the parents are regressive, all the women are marriage-bait — but in the cacophony of these belaboured caricatures, Singh provides tremendous calm and brings nuance to the table. He’s excellent. It’s as if an understated actor from a Pakistani TV show walked out into a deafening Balaji crowd.

To be fair, however, the crowd is mostly on point. Farhan Akhtar, who has done a spiffy job with the film’s often sardonic dialogue, is rather charming in the film. Shefali Shah is reliably strong as an unhappy, delusional wife, though she does appear to be channeling Shabana Azmi too much, and intriguing new actress Ridhima Sud is memorably cool as a young girl who knows when her shotglass needs another splash. The striking Priyanka Chopra can carry of a yellow sun hat with immense flair, but her Beyoncé-level swagger (and her auditioning-for-America accent that randomly makes some English lines jar) is at odds with her character’s innate mousiness in front of her parents. Anushka Sharma, playing a dancer but assuredly more comfortable on stage here than during her last debacle, is pretty great here as she concocts heady chemistry with Singh, the two infectiously grinning at each other as they fool around.

ddd3Sharma and Singh are smashing together, starting off their courtship hurriedly, with the kind of conversation people used to have on the Internet back in the day — throwing factual stats about their life out onto the table as if playing verbal Uno — but rather than seeming unnatural, it works because they make it seem believable that these two characters urgently want to get really close really fast. Sharma, more world-weary, is at times hesitant, and Singh — playing a leading man, who, refreshingly enough, has achieved nothing and knows nothing about where he’s headed — approaches the romance bullishly, in that reckless way we do when we finally know what we want. There’s a fine, fine moment where he pins her down and declares his love to her theatrically, in blustery, Bollywood-y dialogue, and she yanks him down for a kiss — tenderly, yes, but also simply to shut the fool up.

There is much, thus, that is wrong with Dil Dhadakne Do — the way it treats chauvinism as an absolute aspect of personality, the awful Priyanka Chopra plotline, the total lack of progressive parental figures on board the ship (where is that Daadi from Queen when you really need her?) — but it has a few sharp character-driven moments and, unlike most Hindi films, it ends stronger than it started, an impressive feat considering it always intended to finish things off in obviously feel-good fashion.

Dil Dhadakne Do

Despite its flaws, I find myself looking back at Dil Dhadakne Do and smiling. Because of Kapoor, a man who is unerringly good when given enough elbow room, and here he’s silvermaned and smooth and selfish and playing his part with superb gusto. His character is so self-obsessed that in his head he’s frequently confounded by just how obvious things seem to him and not the rest of the world, and Kapoor is superb as he restlessly swells up while waiting for everyone else to catch up to him. And because of Singh, who owns his moments of frustration, of resignation, of outrage, of wry comebacks. There is a scene where he loses all his calm and throws out the facts threateningly, like a grenade bobbed at his family, that he’s in love with a girl. “She’s a dancer and a muslim,” he says, daring them to react, and Singh is scarily good. But he’s even better when wordlessly standing on the deck, helplessly looking at his own shoes instead of daring to embrace his sobbing sister.

Dil Dhadakne Do translates to let the heart beat. The heart, it wants what it wants, and that’s all very well, especially if it wants the kind of watery climaxes where hugs solve everything. But ah, how I wish this film hadn’t gone doggystyle.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, June 5, 2015

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Review: Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet

Bombay Velvet

There are some filmmakers who scoff at the very notion of historical accuracy — like Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino — and Anurag Kashyap is one of that bunch, a man who prefers to create his own sumptuous version of history. Bombay Velvet looks to be, then, his very own Bob-Fosse-meets-Scarface take on what might have been, instead of bothering with what really was. An indicator of the same lies in the opening credits, as they claim to be “introducing Karan Johar” whereas that particular director first acted in the most successful Hindi film of all time.

Not on Kashyap’s watch, he didn’t. And that’s perfectly fair. We look to big, brassy cinema not to educate but to entertain, and let us not seek verisimilitude in this kind of cinematic explosion. And this Bombay Velvet is an obviously shallow film, an all-out retro masala-movie with homage on the rocks and cocktail-shakers brimming with cliché. It is a take on the nostalgia soaked groovy-gangster movie: Once Upon A Time In Kashyapistan.

On paper, this sounds like dynamite. Kashyap, a gifted visual stylist and a distinctively bold storyteller, taking on the mainstream and riffing on it his way, subverting the system. Except, um, that’s not what happens here. There is surprisingly little subversion, but that’s fine too, provided the result is compelling on its own steam. Alas, Bombay Velvet runs out of breath less than halfway through, and huffs and puffs as it tries to breast the finish line.

The new film clearly wants to be many things — noir, grand romance, a Broadwayesque musical, Prakash Mehra, Brian De Palma — but ends up indecisively skulking around the shadows of giant films, despite editing goddess Thelma Schoonmaker blessing it with her scissors. Several components work strongly, particularly a sensational soundtrack and a few excellent male actors, yet the film disappoints, and, due to the potential on display, severely so. The scale is amped up to grandness, certainly, but despite majestic intent, what we find here is a watered-down forgery, an imitation you can spot from a mile away: this Dahlia is barely Black-ish; the cloth muffling this revolver isn’t the real thing but merely velveteen.

There is much promise of magic, especially as the film begins. A raffish crook watches The Roaring Twenties, and, too weak in English to recite James Cagney’s lopsidedly-delivered lines, settles instead for the film’s famous last words, pointing a kerchief-covered finger at the mirror and saying Gladys George’s line about how her dead flame “was a big shot”, thus recreating a voiceover instead of playing a role — ironically making a wish and jinxing himself all at once.

Johnny Balraj is a character with character, a zoot-suit wearing tomcat with his eye on the prize, and Ranbir Kapoor plays him with slithery elegance. Spry as if eternally scalded, Kapoor glides restlessly through the film – hitching rides from people, situations and passing buses – without a second thought, forever sidling away from the real, the nitty-gritty. Balraj masochistically spends his nights TylerDurden-ing inside a steel cage (a la Amitabh Bachchan in Naseeb) and there are times the preternaturally talented Kapoor absolutely shines: a scene, for example, where he leers wickedly and stubbornly (but far from lasciviously) at his girl, while a tailor measures her bust, is priceless.

bv2Balraj rides the coattails of Kaizad Khambatta, a sinister media baron with his nimble fingers in many oily pies. Karan Johar is a revelation as this character so obsessed with his all-powerful, all-controlling image that — in the film’s brightest moment — he steps out of a room in order to have himself a good giggle. The film ostensibly mirrors some tabloid duel from back in the day (Khambatta is once referred to by the rival tabloid as “a fruitcake!”) but real-life parallels can’t save a boring plot.

The striking production design and nudge-nudge-wink-wink Bombay allusions are merely window-dressing, though. This film suffers from fundamentally flimsy storytelling. Not just is it spelt out how some strips of negative hold the key to Bombay itself, but we’re shown how breezily (and even comically) said negatives were acquired, and they matter only because the film doggedly insists they do. It never feels vital enough. For some reason Bombay Velvet seems firmly opposed to the idea of mystery, showing off a weak McGuffin right at the start and later, after an explosive twist (albeit an obvious one) we are flashed that card too, in the very next scene. Robbing the audience of surprise isn’t the smartest idea for what turns out to be a predictable film.

Neither is it wise to entrust so much of Bombay Velvet to the earnest but woefully miscast Anushka Sharma, a fine actress entirely out of her depth as a stage-conquering crooner. She lacks the presence and vivacity, and it takes just two scenes featuring Raveena Tandon singing on stage — think Bianca Castafiore turned sexy — to show us the difference between prima donna and pretender.

Satyadeep Misra is terrific as Balraj’s best friend, Chimman, a loyal pragmatist who, unlike Johnny, looks before he leaps. Misra delivers a consistently measured performance, and his body language is masterful. A scene where Johnny and Khambatta trade platitudes has Chimman casually but forcefully motioning that the money be fixed on first, and Misra manages to convey, through one flick of the fingers, both the fact that he knows his place and that price matters more than place. The infallible Kay Kay Menon plays a police detective, sharply turned-out in a hat and high-waisted trousers but is given silly clues to smile at and decipher, and a laughably bad final scene. Quizmaster Siddhartha Basu shows up looking suitably authoritative and officious in that way that often accompanies ruthlessness, while Vivaan Shah bumbles around with a moustache, looking for all the world like a young Kader Khan.

There is a lot happening, all the time. Yet, after a while, as the corpses pile up – with increasing meaninglessness — and the Tommy guns appear, it all ceases to matter. Everything, it appears, can be solved by murder. This might sound like heresy, but even that awfully cheesy Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai movie had characters worth caring about despite the moronic dialogue they recited; Bombay Velvet has the skills but makes it awfully hard to feel anything for guy, girl or the world they’re in. With no true stakes, the film plods messily along to a climax that feels emotionally unearned and interminably stretched.

One song, however, makes time stand still. Amit Trivedi’s superb soundtrack comes to us mostly in snippets mimed by stage crooners, but, for one devastating moment, Bombay Velvet gives way entirely to let a song called Dhadaam Dhadaam take the stage. An emotionally overwrought aria — complete with black tears brimming down kohl’d cold eyes — the song transcends the film and strikes operatically at the heart. Both movie and audience hold their collective breath, and despite the tedium that follows this track, this cinematic sucker-punch is enough to remind us of Kashyap’s potent flammability. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t really sing — or singe.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, May 15, 2015

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Review: Shoojit Sircar’s Piku

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.

Shoojit Sircar’s Piku is a special, special film. It is a film about a cantankerous old man grumbling about constipation, a film about a young girl who knows how to drive but chooses not to, and a film about a young man who just can’t bear his mother. It is a film, then, about families and their foibles, about the small and large obsessions and habits that single us out for who we really are. It is a film with tremendous heart — one that made me guffaw and made me weep and is making sure I’m smiling wide just thinking about it now — but also a sharp film, with nuanced details showing off wit, progressive thought and insightful writing. Take a bow, Juhi Chaturvedi, this is some of the best, most fearless writing I’ve seen in Hindi cinema in a while.

piku1Unlike Piku, her father has outlived most folk older to him — the people who would have called him by a nickname. And yet Bhaskar Banerjee insists on a unique spelling, a Bhaskor to differentiate him from the Bhask-err types he might encounter near his Chittaranjan Park residence. Bhaskor-da, frequent follower of laxative advice and incorrigible salt-stealer, is an imperious old coot fervently obsessed with his bowels. This may or may not be a Bengali preoccupation, for ours is a tribe where mothers and wives glug Isabgol side-by-side before bedtime or, as I grew up witnessing, grand-uncles spend their mornings hopping about in the hope of generating the elusively mentioned “pressure.”

All this, we’ve always been told, is not propah conversation. It is too intimate, too familial a topic to be discussed out loud or far away from the toilet. Chaturvedi and Sircar, however, clearly have a strange love for ‘bodily fluids’, and after making the nation titter about sperm in Vicky Donor, they take shit head on with this fine film. Unlike Mr Banerjee’s motions, the laughs come quick and fast. Yet scatology is merely one affectionate used aspect of Piku. There is a road trip, there are arguments, there is affection, and all of that I leave for you to discover. This review is, besides applause, merely a celebration of detail and of craft.

Bachchan, as Banerjee, is a delight, hamming it up in the way old Bengali men do, posturing for family and servants and wagging his finger reproachfully at those outside the clan — at one point he calls Irrfan “you non-Bengali Chaudhury.” He appears brash and dismissive but this, as he says, is because he is “a critical person”, which translates to him setting higher standards for those he loves. He’d be an old-school patriarch if he wasn’t such a vociferous women’s-libber, one who champions his daughter’s sexual independence. Having said that, he remains so set in his ways that he sits in Delhi and relishes a month-old stack of Calcutta newspapers. It may be old news but it’s the news he loves.

Irrfan Khan is characteristically flawless. Despite a less author-backed role than father and daughter, he imbues his character with enough authenticity to steal many a scene and give the narrative its consistency. It is largely for the benefit of Khan’s Rana Chaudhury that the Bengalis speak in Hindi and English through (most of) this film’s duration, and the character is fascinating. An engineer with a dodgy backstory, he’s morally sound enough to berate a pearl-pilfering sister and feels the need to call out selfishness even in someone he likes. Khan’s performance holds the film together, balancing the diametrically opposed — and fundamentally similar — father and daughter, sometimes by just a truly pointed look. One scene, where he glances at Deepika to necessitate a change of seating arrangements in the car, is an absolute stand-out.

Padukone is at her very best, the actress moving farther from her contemporaries with almost every successive film, and here she stuns with her casual body language and her inch-perfect intonation. She’s impatient and short-tempered, wearing her otherwise-adorable dimples dismissively, like a no-nonsense shield. She knows when to prescribe homeopathic pills, and goes into enough graphic detail on the phone to wreck her dates. This tightly wound Piku is a demanding part, and the film pushes her. She rises to the occasion, and her performance — which believably oscillates between a defiantly uppity woman to a girl half-proposing marriage with a mouthful of egg-roll and a giggle — is spectacular.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, Sircar makes Padukone say ‘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.

The ensemble cast is spot-on, from the smug self-celebrating aunt played by Moushumi to Raghubir Yadav’s doctor, who thinks nothing of ordering a few dozen boondi laddoos from an utter stranger, and it’s lovely how Sircar uses them all. Just like he does Calcutta, making the city look big and sturdy and historic and, well, epic, without ever picture-postcarding it or resorting to obvious cliches. Except the cliches spouted by old Bengali men, pleased as punch to see their kids remembering old addresses long forsaken. (While on that, here’s a joke Bengali fathers will appreciate: “What are bowels? Things that hold up many conshonants.”)

There is an awful lot to love and appreciate in Piku, and, like the best of films, it sets you thinking but doesn’t rush to point out quickfix answers. “Not satisfactorily,” like Bhaskor-da reveals when asked how well a new bowel-coaxing remedy worked, “phir bhi kuchh naya karne ko mila.” Sometimes the joy indeed lies in trying out something new, and Piku is just the tonic.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 8, 2015

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Review: Gabbar Is Back

Villains aren’t what they used to be.

I haven’t seen the original South Indian versions of many of the cruelly loud movies we’re subjected to every few months, but the ones they make in Hindi cinema are so definitively STAR VEHICLES that they deserve the all-caps rebuke. There is clearly no other purpose to these movies than to blatantly make the hero always look good, therefore, despite forever making good-versus-evil stories, they don’t create villains of true menace or charisma or even ones that look momentarily like they could whip the hero’s behind. Nope, these baddies just scowl and take their punishment.

Which is why I was, against all odds, vaguely intrigued by a film called Gabbar Is Back. Not because I believed any random ungainly retelling could possibly do the iconic Gabbar Singh justice, I hasten to clarify, but because I thought it could perhaps create an interesting villain or an anti-hero, someone who could actually seem like a threat and potentially up the stakes, making it look like the hero’s battle will actually be an uphill one.

Nope, what Gabbar Is Back delivers is a bearded Akshay Kumar facing off against some hammy actor I choose only to refer to as Evil Arvind Swamy. A shabaashi is, as you might have gathered, not on the menu here.

gabbar2Akshay, a well-trimmed beard separating his character from most of his recent ones, plays a college professor who happens to also be a vigilante who orchestrates kidnappings and killings of corrupt government officials. He does all this under the guise of Gabbar, a name that becomes increasingly popular among the people while corrupt officers start returning bribes in fear that he’ll come a-whacking. “Varna Gabbar aa jaayega” and all that.

Dumbed down to a ridiculous degree, the film — directed by hotshot Telugu director Krish — tries to be a less-pathetic version of Salman Khan’s Jai Ho and might have succeeded on that count were it not for an absolutely daft script, with scenes featuring selfish doctors slapping each other’s backs and saying things that could be translated to “look how evil we are! Yay!”, and high-flying investigating officers coming in and proudly yelling (here I quote) that “I don’t have any reason to understand this.” (You and us both, bro.)

Akshay himself is customarily not-bad, and there’s something pleasing about a star who, even in these monstrous films, stays off the pedestal. Salman Khan doesn’t even try to act, and Ajay Devgn thrusts himself at us with pornstar brutality. Akshay, who doesn’t belong to the come-see-my-nipples squad, almost slacks off whenever he can, standing sloppily, casually clipping his nails in prison, and only occasionally picking the bad guy up over his head — while making the action look real. With a smile. He’s aging well, this guy, and the persona remains strong.

Nope, the main problem — no small feat in a film where Evil Arvind Swamy constantly boasts about how he is a “Brand!”, like a peculiarly proud cow —  is the girl. Shruti Haasan is hideous in the film, an imbecilic character played by a girl with clearly no charisma and dubbed when nobody cared enough to look. It’s easy to make a cutesy character insufferable and Haasan is so godawful in Gabbar that she makes the second-half of the film automatically stand leagues ahead of the first, simply because Haasan has only one post-interval scene. Meanwhile we’re subjected to the sight of the once promising Chitrangda Singh doing the kind of crass item number Rakhi Sawant might have turned down.

So yeah, not a great movie for women. Then again, Kareena Kapoor shows up for one song and shows off presence, chemistry and star quality, reminding us how good Akshay can be when playing off someone with talent.

gabbar1Back to Gabbar, then. The basic idea of an anti-corruption crusader, a Kejriwal with muscle, could have been shaped into a compelling film, but besides one decent visual — a shot of everyone wearing Evil Arvind Swamy masks except for our hero, because it only takes one good apple to improve things — this is a constantly unimpressive film. At its best, Gabbar Is Back is barely watchable, and at its worst, it’s Shruti Haasan. Why would you even try?

And why on earth would producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali want to name this film Gabbar? Even as an exploitative gimmick, it could have been used more cleverly, but here we have a full-length cinematic equivalent of Bali Brahmbhatt’s Gabbar Mix. Using the very name of the most fearsome villain in our cinema should mean something, but here it just gives the filmmakers an excuse to cast a dark-skinned actor as an executioner just so Akshay can tease him (even though he’s just an innocent fellow doing his job) with the “Tera kya hoga, Kaaliya?” line. Ugh.

Stay away from theatres, I’d say. 50-kos away, even.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 1, 2015

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Review: Vikram Bhatt’s Mr X

What is the worst thing a tacky filmmaker can do? Overblown dialogue, corny acting, big conceptual plot-holes, continuity errors, melodrama, weak subplots…. All of those are regrettable but forgivable. For the kind of B-grade movies a director like Vikram Bhatt routinely churns out, these are all par for the course. The most unforgivable sin is to be boring, and Bhatt’s latest, Mr X is an utter drag.

mrx1There 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 delivers 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.

What’s the point, again?

Around Hashmi stand many an untalented actor, from the waxen Amyra Dastur who delivers horrid dialogue about “bheeni bheeni khusbhu” with all the passion of a stuttering teleprompter, to that eternally ridiculous Arunoday Singh who here hams it up as an old fool. Oh, and there’s comedian Tanmay Bhat showing up as Popo, and while his character might merely be that of a plump plot-device, he at least embraces the b-grade silliness and says things like “didi, please, didi” with all the earnestness of an early Govinda.

Special effects have never been what define a great invisible-man film. Mr India, our one and only great superhero movie, is nearly three decades old and still captures the imagination. Hollow Man, which Mr X borrows from inconsequentially (and sloppily) was made 15 years ago. Even the tacky 1957 Mr X, starring Ashok Kumar — and for which people were paid with tandoori chicken instead of money — was enjoyable, campy fun. Mr X merely makes Ram Gopal Varma’s tedious Gayab look good in comparison.

Mr X is a stupid, slow, randomly ballad-filled mess that could still have been made entertaining with an interesting protagonist. But there is, as can be expected, zero subtlety. Hashmi pops on and off screen with gimmicky background score flashes, and his invisibility is absolute, without any gradations or gradual dimming, as if the digital effects guys were given ten bucks and shown the eraser tool.  A man who flickers a few times before showing up isn’t invisible; he’s a tubelight.

Rating: Zero stars.

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First published Rediff, April 17, 2015

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Review: Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

dbb1Byomkesh Bakshi — or, if we go with the spelling picked out by director Dibakar Banerjee, Bakshy — never liked to be called a detective. It is the same in this film too, the man abhorring the stigma and sensationalism a label like “gumshoe” (or, in Bangla, “goenda”) comes with, and instead focussing firmly on seeking the truth, on opening his eyes as wide as he can and drinking it all in.

Thanks to Banerjee, there is a lot for his man — and, indeed, for us — to drink in: this sumptuous period adaptation fondly recreates 1940s Calcutta right down to the tram signs and the posters for Jane Russell movies, and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a gorgeous, gorgeous film. Yet for all its stylishness and period grandeur it is not as intelligent a film as it yearns to be, the plot isn’t cunning enough and the conveniently-unravelled puzzle never quite sucks the viewer in.

It is, in short, a mystery movie that doesn’t mystify.

There is nothing at all wrong with a slowly seared whodunnit, one that simmers long and hard before coming to the boil, one that makes you think. Like, for example, the superb 2011 adaptation of John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But the narrative must intrigue and entice and seduce, taking turns obscuring the viewer’s vision and lifting the blindfold while doing the same (in differing degree) to its protagonists. Even laboriously slow mysteries should make us hunger for the next page, the mere promise of the next clue. Byomkesh stumbles considerably because of its simplistic plotting, with an original story which ups the stakes considerably for Saradindu Bandhyopadhyay’s terrific character without giving him enough to deduce. Ambition is both driver and culprit. There is certainly bigger game afoot here than in the classic television show or one of the new Bangla movies, but saving the world pales in comparison to pocketing a statuette when the latter is told intricately enough. All the intricacy in this new film lies in the exquisite art design, the sexy anachronistic soundtrack, and the period detailing; the plot is basic, largely guessable and tragically, never something to marvel at. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Why?

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.

dbb2Sushant Singh Rajput is exceptionally good as Byomkesh, a believably brilliant young man who is also — as a consequence of him being so wet behind the ears — believably befuddled. Rajput bestows the actor with a suicidal cockiness as well as a preternatural intelligence, his eyes often gleaming like smug saucers. As Jeeves would say, here is a man who likes his fish. Banerjee’s film focusses on building Byomkesh from the ground up, from his initial oversights to his intrinsic motivations, and Rajput runs with that monumental brief and creates an iconic character, one we believe in and root for, one we will champion and one who we — despite the mediocrity of this first mystery — hope to meet again. This Byomkesh himself is a highly nuanced character study, the kind we’ve seen Dibakar excel at before, and Rajput is smashing.

Most of the cast, in fact, is perfectly picked, though I hesitate to say much about their characters in fear of giving anything away. Anand Tiwari is quite super as Byomkesh’s pugnacious and easily-irked comrade Ajit, Divya Menon’s Satyawati is suitably captivating, Meiyang Chang and Mark Bennington enliven things up while staying consistent to the characters, even as Neeraj Kabi and Swastika Mukherjee, though given an awful lot of scenery to chew, do impressively well, especially Kabi who can — it appears — do anything at all.

Banerjee is a modern master, a man who has taken on drastically different films with each outing, and finally bungled up on this fifth film after a hot streak of four crackerjacks. Part of the reason, as stated above, is the sheer ambition. His clear attempt is to build a world — one where Chinatown has so much soul it looks like Seoul — and to set Byomkesh and his conflicts up before taking us on further adventures. This would work brilliantly as the pilot episode of a television series, but not as a standalone film. There have been many, many Byomkesh adaptations over the years and curiously, it is the auteurs, the most distinctive filmmakers, who have stumbled the most: Satyajit Ray’s funkily shot Chiriakhana might be the legend’s most embarrassing work, Rituparno Ghosh’s last film Satyanweshi was a catastrophically weak Byomkesh, and this is certainly Dibakar’s least impressive script.

Perhaps Saradindu Bandhyopadhay gets in the way. The original stories are so beautifully plotted, so inherently appealing on the most basic level, that even watching those old television episodes on YouTube grabs us immediately by the collar. The multiple Byomkesh adaptations Bengal keeps churning out might not make for great cinema, but, based as they mostly are rather slavishly on Saradindu’s work, enthrall new audiences regardless. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is the best looking and least captivating of the current lot. And, as said earlier, he didn’t like to be called detective. Defective Byomkesh Bakshy, then.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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Also read: The Bakshiphiles: A history of Byomkesh Bakshi, the character, his creator and his screen incarnations

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First published Rediff, April 3, 2015

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