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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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Review: Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Hunterr

Is there a word for a male nymphomaniac? (If not, I strongly suggest ‘himphomaniac.’)

The film Hunterr chooses to use the word Vaasu — taken from the sanskrit word vasana, meaning ‘truly stubborn desire’ — and treats it like commonly used slang. “I am a vaasu,” says the man with great revelatory import, trying to tell the woman he loves that he is a sex addict. “Vaasu? As in?” she asks blankly, and here a truly smart film would have tossed in something bewilderingly funny and utterly unrelated. (“Vaasu? As in Sreenivasan Jain?”)

Alas, Hunterr is not a truly smart film. It is however brazen, ambitious and decidedly shameless in its celebration of sleaze. It features a tremendously talented and markedly unconventional ensemble cast, and they conjure up some stirring moments. Above all, there is a sincere attempt at naturalism: Hunterr tries to be the Malgudi Days of Masturbation. (It ends us being Mister Unlovely.)

It tries, flounders and — despite the actors outshining one another — fails rather miserably. Written and directed by debutant Harshvardhan Kulkarni, Hunterr is a deeply problematic film, one where young boys egg each other on to grope a lady at a fish-market, and where a man who coaxes a woman from airport waiting room to hotel room doesn’t consider asking her name or where she’s coming from. Misogyny forms the spine of the film, coming in many shapes: a schoolboy declaring that the best girl isn’t attainable but the second best is; a father describing a boy’s aunt by saying “she looks okay”; a brother telling another that he might as well keep lying to his fiancee and tell the truth once the marriage is done.

It starts off with promise, thanks mostly to Gulshan Devaiah’s wonderful performance in the lead as Mandar Ponkshe, a Marathi version of Alexander Portnoy who has — through indiscriminate standards and aggression — managed to bully his way into a series of conquests. It isn’t that he isn’t likeable; Mandar can be disarmingly warm and friendly, despite being a borderline sociopath. If I timed the film’s awful and sloppy back-and-forth-in-time structure correctly, Mandar should be just about 40. He’s hunting for a bride the arranged marriage way, and gets engaged, but can’t stop eye and zipper from roving.

Devaiah is overwhelmingly believable in the part, seeming to channeling Sai Paranjpye heroes as he slurps noisily from a straw or perpetually, needlessly fiddles with his belt. It’s a creepy role but he plays it very straight indeed. Radhika Apte is reliably excellent as Tripti, his progressive fiancee, though it remains inexplicable why this seemingly sorted woman — despite her sudden demand to know why someone may not have seen Mukul Anand’s Agneepath — would settle for Mandar. Sai Tamhankar brings power to the role of the attractive neighbourhood bhabhi, while a young man called Vaibhav Tavtavadi endows the studly-cousin character, Kshitij, with true charisma. The young boys playing the childhood versions of Mandar and Kshitij — Vedant Muchandi and Shalva Kinjawadekar — are really very good, enough to declare that if this film had stayed in that 1989 flashback instead of hopping messily all over the place, we’d have something special on our hands.

The performance of the film comes from Sagar Deshmukh playing Dilip, Mandar’s relatively reticent elder brother. He’s a bit of a square and a sap — a guy who tucked his knee under his outstretched t-shirt as he wept over a girl in college days, and, more importantly, the kind of guy who follows a drunken friend to the ends of the earth but not without taking the chicken lollipops along to eat in the auto-rickshaw.

There are, thus, nice little touches of detailing all over the place — kids crowning each other “Wing Commander” because of the way they rule over certain wings of the housing society; a portly friend encouraged to dance frenetically at parties and rip his shirt off like Hulk Hogan; young boys taking a bath together and using soaping-the-back as a metaphor — but all this does is make you believe a film like this should exist, certainly, and that you want to like a film like this, yet the flat humour left me mostly unmoved, and I doubt you’ll be quoting fondly from this one unless you find the mere mention of swearwords inherently funny.

At one point in the film Mandar ‘fesses up to Tripti, following which she enticingly proposes that they leave their marriage open and go pick up couples from swinger parties. She does this with eyes blessedly agleam (damn that Radhika Apte is good) and Mandar can’t believe his luck, till, it turns out she was messing with him only to see how depraved he is before she dumped him. It’s a good moment of Mandar being put in his place… except it doesn’t happen. The second half of the film consists of at least a half-dozen moments that are filmed but, we then realise, haven’t actually taken place. An unreliable narrator is one thing but Hunterr, like Mandar, cheats too often.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that, at the scene mentioned at the head of this review, not just does the woman not invoke the bearded journalist, but she refuses even to behave like that other TV anchor and “demand to know.” The hunt was never afoot.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, March 20, 2015

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Review: Navdeep Singh’s NH10

Bad things happen in NH10.

That statement is both warning and promise: because Navdeep Singh’s new film is a tough film to stomach, a frightening and disturbing beast, and because it should be just that brutal, given how loyally it adheres to slasher/thriller genre conventions.

The thing about Singh is the way the director takes a familiar script or setup and makes it very Indian and very much his own — his first film Manorama Six Feet Under is a highly innovative grass-roots take on Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and the new NH10 is many parts Eden Lake mixed with some I Spit In Your Grave, and yet a far scarier and more socially impactful film than anything slasher has a right to be.

nh10The 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.

Meera and Arjun are a young couple who aren’t quite on top of their game: she looks at him with regret in her eyes, he looks to be constantly seeking some form of escape from the hard parts of a relationship, and when in bed they wield individual laptops and send each other on-screen messages. Things aren’t perfect, clearly, but sometimes a holiday can be potent tonic, and they head out to a small getaway not too far from the Gurgaon border. They run into some honour-killing violence, and end up angering the killers. Things turn ugly… uglier than one might think.

I admit to wincing frequently as fresh, more violent misery was piled onto Meera’s helpless lot, and that is because of Anushka Sharma’s amazingly committed performance. The movie’s masterstroke is to keep the audience squirming and the tension relentless by setting nearly 90% of the film in overwhelmingly linear fashion, pretending that the events are taking place in realtime, but this takes its toll on Sharma who — also brave enough to produce this film — features in virtually every frame of the film and carries it on her athletic shoulders. It is a bold choice as an actress and Anushka is at her absolute best as her eyes widen in disbelief at the growing horror around her. A moment when she realises the preposterousness of goading a policeman into “doing his duty” is particularly stunning, as is a rousing scene later where she yells at her attackers. She’s beaten down, on the run, powerless and defiant, and Anushka changes gears with immense authenticity, creating a character we can’t help but love. And, more importantly, one we can’t help but feel for.

Neil Bhoopalam’s Arjun has a tougher climb, a harebrained character who doesn’t just graze the hornet’s nest — as convention demands — but rather goes and treads on it, deciding rashly to engage in macho oneupmanship, a choice NH10 made that I can’t completely fathom. Bhoopalam is a likeable actor, but here seems a bit out of his depth. Darshan Kumaar is terrific as Satbir, especially when he’s slaughtering a girl as a rite of passage, and Ravi Jhankal is even better as his savage uncle, reproachful about Satbir using a revolver when tradition demanded a rod for the job.

The film isn’t as gory as its English counterparts, but the sadism comes across very strongly and effectively. It is a taut ride, one that scares us by providing a world of well-etched detail: the way a cop dismissively refers to the Gurgaon jungle of glass-and-chrome as a growing child, a “badhta bachcha”; the way the vibe in the badlands is noticeably hostile every time Arjun rolls down his car window, be it at a tollbooth or to ask for directions; a chilling conversation about caste that doesn’t entirely add up in terms of logic — we’re told that rules and structure matter but that the land away from the cities doesn’t need rules —  but sounds more familiar than it should.

nh10bWell shot and featuring mostly minimal background music, NH10 is starkly different from what we are routinely served up at the movies. It is a scary, compelling ride featuring an actress who surpasses herself.

One of my favourite shots in the film is where Anushka Sharma is riding a police jeep hard and fast, impressively adroit with the turns and momentarily getting the better of her pursuers. Then she skids onto the left, gets onto two wheels and, instead of gliding a la James Bond, topples her jeep into an ungainly heap. The frame before the crash shows her fleeting, well-earned smile turn into a wide-eyed and helpless “whoops” — another excellent Sharma moment — and that whoops is the best metaphor for NH10: it lets us know we’re on the edge and that one misstep could flip our lives around in an instant.

Buckle up.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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