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Review: Rajkumar Hirani’s PK

How must it feel to look at life through really wide eyes?

Cynicism is always easier than sincerity, and few filmmakers can nail the latter quite as consummately as Rajkumar Hirani, an old-school teller of fables who specialises in giving his audiences lumps in their throats. His are comforting films, ones with their edges sanded off and their seams showing, films unashamedly lacking in subtlety because he chooses to paint only in broadstrokes. We can all stand around and point fingers at the indulgently laboured way he makes a point, but the fact remains that PK is a ridiculously effective film, a triumph you are likely to walk away from with a gladder, lighter heart — and, perhaps, a moister handkerchief.

pk1Aamir Khan plays a visiting alien, a head-nodding explorer out for a recce of our planet. He’s buff and eager and comes from a planet where they don’t need clothes, and seconds after landing here, one of us steals his intergalactic transmitter, the remote to signal his ship from home. Thus is the naked feller stranded and stumped, hunting for his amulet with merely a boombox for cover and company. God help you, say the folks he confounds with his bug-eyed questions, sending him for answers toward temples, mosques and churches. Madness, as you rightly imagine, ensues.

His tale is being told to us by a girl called Jagat Janani, who, for sanity’s sake — and possible Jackie Shroff fanhood growing up — calls herself Jaggu. Jaggu’s a plucky girl who has just joined a Delhi-based television news channel. Still a rookie (and thus still armed with the kind of eager-beaver enthusiasm not yet decapitated by actual time in a newsroom) Jaggu chances upon the alien and, reasonably enough, considers his story more newsworthy than one about a manic depressive dog.

The alien, PK, looks at life as laterally as an aborigine given a copy of the New Yorker, and his uniquely coherent perspective enchants Jaggu. This is all run-of-the-mill stuff, really, an old trope that could easily be taken from, say, Ron Howard’s classic Splash (right down to the nakedness), that of a disarmingly naive outsider taking us at face value. But the telling is in the details, with Hirani and co-writer Abhijat Joshi giving PK enough genuine insight to keep us hooked. They do hammer their points home in overlong fashion, however, perpetually taking several scenes to illustrate what a clever setup and punchline could do in two shots.

This foolproofing, it appears, is very much a part of Hirani’s process. The background score is used in the style of a seventies melodrama, all orchestras set to swell; characters hear things which then echo around in their heads; and there is a fond reliance on age-old cinematic cliches like characters going to a performance only to imagine themselves singing and dancing on stage. It’s all cinematic saccharine, but then, given that Hirani takes the opportunity to aim some potshots at organised religion and its gatekeepers, is the familiar a worthy method to sneak in a message? A spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down?

Either way, religion — not God — is the enemy here, and while PK doesn’t load up the cannons quite as potently as Umesh Shukla’s OMG Oh My God did a couple of years ago, it musters up the drama in much more stirring fashion. And its protagonist is quite extraordinary.

pk2Aamir Khan is exceptional in PK, creating an irresistibly goofy character and playing him with absolute conviction. He laughs at his goblin-ears and walks around with his eyes on high-beam throughout the film, but his transformation isn’t restricted to the physical — though I must single out and applaud the skittish way he runs, his arms straight by his side with his palms stuck out, reminiscent of Steve Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine when his character was running toward automatic doors, willing them to open fast. That, there, is the impressive thing about Khan in this film, taking a few one-shot gags and stretching them feature-length so strongly and gamely that he wins us over with sheer heart.

It is this heart that really counts in a Hirani movie. There is a passage where we see Khan’s PK going desperately from god to god, mosque to church to temple, seeking the way to his precious remote, festooned with more talismans than Saurabh Ganguly’s arm. In lesser hands this would smell like an empty exercise in audience manipulation, a cheap and easy means to unearned applause. But it’s striking how Hirani and Khan layer it on with visible earnestness, giving us something unexpectedly remarkable in the sight of that megastar immersing himself hungrily in our diverse, demanding rituals.

The rest of the cast is in fine nick. Anushka Sharma is suitably spirited and full of beans, Boman Irani makes for a fine boss who has felt the ire of a trident before, Sanjay Dutt is wonderfully droll, Sushant Singh Rajput is very likeable indeed and Saurabh Shukla, playing the antagonistic godman, is great at being a pompous god-invoking gasbag. But this is an out-and-out Aamir film, and he soars.

PK is no satire — it’s a bit too toothless for that — but it is a rollicking mainstream entertainer with ambition to evoke some introspection, one with compelling moments and some genuine surprises. Including a humdinger of a last scene. Make one more, Mr Hirani, make a sequel and take us to the planet of the naked. (We promise not to stare that hard.)

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, December 19, 2014

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Review: Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots

In Rajkumar Hirani’s latest film, a character steps to a blackboard and chalks up, for the benefit of a befuddled engineering college classroomful of students, the word ‘Farhanitrate,’ daring them to tell him what it means.

The word is a pun on the character’s best friend, Farhan, and while it may be a non-existant gag word in the film, the compound seems to exist in real life — Hirani’s film is doused liberally with Farhanitrate (in an Akhtar sense of the word) and several other directorial scents — including Hirani’s own touch, which is why by the time the end credits eventually roll around, you have a ‘been there, sniffed that’ feeling about it all.

There’s also a tragic, overriding feeling of futility. Why, you ask yourself, does a college film have to be made with middle-aged men playing the lead? Can we not trust younger actors to deliver, or has the insecurity of the star system blinded us to all reality?

Idiots1Why must Aamir Khan, a man who told us of the last day of college 21 years ago, still play a fresh-faced student? He does adequately, and is impressively bereft of age-lines, but we really have seen it all before. For the actor, it’s probably yet another disguise, that of the young man. But it’s a role he can do in his sleep.

Ditto for Hirani and his partner in wordplay, Abhijat Joshi. 3 Idiots is a very average bit of fluffy Bollywood masala that tragically pretends, at times, to be making a profound point, one it loses in repetition. The result is a confused film, one that doesn’t know exactly where it stands, torn between lump-in-the-throat filmmaking and amateurishly written juvenilia. There are a few moments which click, but coming from the duo that created the finest film this decade, this is a massive letdown.

This is a film, as you have gleaned from the inescapably omnipresent publicity material, about three students in an engineering college. Yes, indeed. And while it borrows its principal cast from Rang De Basanti and a vibe from younger-voiced filmmakers like Nagesh Kukunoor and Akhtar, it never quite gets going. It sorely lacks that magic touch, that trademark broadstroke of Hirani sincerity. That lick of good ol’ honest filmmaking is enough to gloss over many an underwritten scene or overwritten soliloquy, but this film remains washed up, without that all-absolving coat of paint.

Anyway, back to the story. Aamir, Sharman Joshi and a portly R Madhavan are students in an engineering college run by Boman Irani, the actor reduced to a caricature so unreal that shaving his cartoon moustache takes away even Irani’s ability to keep a straight face through the farce. And what a stretch this farce is, as Hirani plays out his now-familiar tropes: college ragging with pants dropping down; cheering up a paralysed patient; and a short fellow given a length-deriding nickname. Stats are thrown in about college pressure and suicide rates, and they really don’t fit into the narrative.

Nothing quite does, to be fair. There is ludicrous fun to be had every now and again, but Hirani seems ill at ease, borrowing a Farah Khan-style old school flashback but refusing to go all-out funny — and instead labouring really hard to make a point, the aforementioned one about college and suicide. I repeat it because he does, and he does it over and over again.

The film really tries too hard. A wonderfully endearing character named Millimeter shows off a group of pups, calling the little one Kilobyte and the bigger one Megabyte, and there is a pause before he calls the mother Gigabyte. Sigh. The principal is called Virus. It’s an engineering college, get it? And so the jokes groan on, far more obvious than any of us Hiraniphiles would have liked — even as the dramatic twists and reveals emerge inadvertently funnier than the gags.

The cast is strictly okay, nobody really sparkling except for Millimeter and the girl, who isn’t around much, darn it. Kareena Kapoor dazzles with her brief role, and even though a lot of her spunk seems significantly Jab We Met in tone, she lights up the screen when she’s around. Aamir manages to sell some scenes strongly enough to make you laugh, while Madhavan proves to be a really bad choice for narrator.

This isn’t a bad film, though. By which I mean it conjures up a few moments, it will doubtless make some people cry, and every now and then we glimpse some heart. Yet it hurts to see that this is traditional Bollywood masala schlock, with scenes calculated to tickle and to evoke sympathy. It’s not awful at all, but since when did ‘not bad’ become good? Dr Feelgood doesn’t make the cut this time, and we need to measure him by the high bar his previous excellence has set — by which degree this is a whopper of a disappointment.

Rajkumar Hirani’s one of the directors of the decade, a man with immense talent and a knack for storytelling. On his debut, he hit a hundred. With his second, he hit a triple century. This time, he fishes outside the offstump, tries to play shots borrowed from other batters, and hits and misses to provide a patchy, 32*-type innings. It’s okay, boss, chalta hai. Even Sachin has an off day, and we still have great hope.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, December 24, 2009

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Review: Prabhudeva’s Action Jackson

“AJ,” the girl gasps into her cellphone, breathlessly and furtively while gangsters surround her, “Some people are after me.”

Efficient to the last word, her man wastes no time in getting to the point: “What are they wearing?”

This is but a taste of the relentless absurdity served up by Action Jackson, the peculiar new film from Prabhudeva. It is an uneven, tacky, cheesy actioner, a film that has much going catastrophically wrong (the brunt of it involving Sonakshi Sinha) but it is also — surprise, surprise — at times incredibly zany and, much more importantly, a film that strikes back against the unending misogyny routinely perpetrated by our heroes in these larger-than-life movies. In many ways, Action Jackson can be read as a feminist statement, a film that shows girls proactively leaping onto the top rung while the leading man languishes several footholds short of heroic.

aj1That’s right, Ajay Devgn is anything but a ‘hero’ in this film. Sure, he kills way too many people too easily, but at various points in this film, he’s a coward, he’s a liar, he’s clearly dishonourable, he’s easily tempted to cheat on his girlfriend, he’s a horrible dancer, and at one point, in order to laugh at the villain (with a too-elaborate gag borrowed from Farhan Akhtar’s ghastly Don remake), he lets his wife get walloped around by the bad guy for a while before swooping in to try and save the day.

Meanwhile, as mentioned, the girls are the ones carrying the narrative forward and inciting the story, no matter how ridiculously they do so.

Sonakshi Sinha, playing the jolly dullard she plays in every single movie, is a chronically unlucky girl who walks into a changing room where Devgn is trying on some new orange underwear. Yes sir, the superstar likes to try his briefs before he buys them. Anyway, she is thus scandalised by a look at Devgn Jr, following which her luck changes. This happens again, and she’s convinced that viewings of his schlong are key to her good fortune. Therefore she (naturally) plans to drug him in order to sneak a peek at his junk, which will, in turn, give her the luck required to dazzle potential America-based in-laws. (No, not kidding. Tell me you’ve seen this film before, I double-dare you.)

Also, a gangster’s sister finds herself abducted by a lecherous villain who starts peeling off her shirt buttons. This lady, played by Manasvi Mamgai, the unquestioned highlight of the movie, happens to be unashamedly randy and seems to be enjoying the attention. Devgn, samurai sword in hand, breezes in as an odd, Bond-inspired English song plays, and the film turns to a Wild Stone deodorant commercial as the girl — still tied to the chair — looks increasingly (and cartoonishly) aroused by the bloodshed. She huffs and puffs to show off her brassiere, developing quite the crush on Devgn. A couple of scenes later, she’s rising out of the water in a yellow bikini, reaching out for the fellow’s zipper. But he’s having none of it; leaving ambiguity to the wordsmiths of the world, he cuttingly tells her “I don’t like you” and walks away eating a candybar. (Because, as we all know, chocolate really takes the edge off these poolside situations.)

Mamgai too, like Sinha, decides obstinately to stay aimed at Devgn’s pants. The film, from this point unfolding with all the slick-but-unsubtle schlock of a video game cutscene, bombastically explores both her libido (as she sits on couches with her legs splayed gynaecologically wide) and her obsession, as she decides to hack away at Devgn’s loved ones till he’s forced to be with her.

aj2Therefore both halves of the film — which involve an Ajay apiece, since the film has two of them — are about women wanting Ajay’s, um, piece. Flattering as this may seem, it turns the leading man into a led man, a prop for girls to fight over and build a story around. And considering how rare it is to see a masala blockbuster actually giving girls the reins, for this we must give Prabhudeva props.

Analysts of between-the-lines repression and sexuality, too, will have an absolute field day with this irredeemably and unstoppably metaphoric film, positively throbbing with visual and verbal innuendo: the Mamgai girl vamps it up and shakes her bottom in a song, but the audience-applause moment, the money-shot, bewilderingly enough comes when Devgn strips off his vest, fires a couple of blanks in her direction, and kicks the girl. Much later, just so he’s left nothing to chance (and no imagination un-abused), he penetrates the villain. Yup.

It’s all tremendously weird stuff, weird enough to be worth recommending. Visually, the film goofs around a fair bit — a villain shown in silhouette to look like The Undertaker turns out merely to be a Johnny Lever lookalike on steroids; superhero posters show up all through the film; Devgn talks about his shock and this is underscored by a flashback of, yes, him looking shocked; all the shots in Bangkok involve either samurai swords or dojos or conference rooms festooned by red lanterns — and parts of it pass by in a silly haze. It’s a loony trip.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t painful problems. The first half is a complete assault on the senses, Sonakshi Sinha cannot possibly be allowed to channel 90s Govinda anymore, and it’s cruel to make us watch Devgn try to dance. Or worse still, watch him fight to music, resulting in highly effeminate Dance Fu, where he clutches at floating toothpicks as if threading invisible canapés. And Kunal Roy Kapoor, man, is just… No. No Kunal, no. For not casting you in anything following Delhi Belly, this industry owes you a million beers. But aargh. It’s also at least a half-hour too long, even for a B-movie masochist.

aj3Still, as trashy films go, this is properly nutty garbage. Action Jackson is a drinking game of a film, one well over the so-bad-it’s-good line, its main merit being that in a sea of superstar-massaging vehicles, it holds some genuine surprises — and makes sure its hero looks like a jackass. Skip the first half and smuggle in a quart of something bitter, and you’ll be just fine. Not least because of how valiantly Mamgai shows up in the second half to combat Devgn’s monopoly on cleavage. He still does his GaGa-hands, but she more than steals the show and gives us a new-age vamp with genuine potential.

Prabhudeva, bless him, gives us something too warped to be predictable, and it hurts how thrillingly close he came to getting the name just right. A film this focussed on what lies under the jeans should really have been called Action Johnson.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, December 5, 2014

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Review: R Balki’s Cheeni Kum

Tabu has balls.

Cheeni Kum could have been just another romance between an arrogant old perfectionist and a smitten waif, but the woman here has spirit. She rides the patriarch into a corner, constantly putting him on the spot, and her stoically unblinking, deadpan retorts are a perfect match for her cocksure suitor. That character, Nina, lends the pair contrast, gives it chemistry, makes the film work.

R Balki’s debut is, thus, a deftly made May-December love story that ends up being both relatable and romanticised, both honest and hysterical. A mostly delicious repast of repartee and repercussions, the script isn’t over-baked and the characters simmered to perfection. Although, for a film with that title, there are indeed a couple teaspoons sugar too many, by the very end.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Lets start from the beginning:

Amitabh Bachchan plays Buddhadeb Gupta, a London restaurateur who prides himself on the finest Indian food. His is a cellphone-free kitchen, where the master believes a perfect biryani is more monumental an achievement than Da Vinci’s Last Supper — the former impacts several more senses. And while his British waiter struggles over the nuances of mouthwatering frontier food names, Buddha’s bar serves up magnificent desi dishes to London.

One typical evening, while the ponytailed, preachy perfectionist holds forth to his white-hatted troops on the unbearable lightness of hing, or some such, he gasps at the realisation that a customer has actually sent back a dish. Tabu is the strongwilled Nina Verma, a confident woman currently visiting a friend in London. Buddha storms out and laces the lady with unsubtle sarcasm, laying it on thick and making said friend aghast, leading to the ladies storming out of the restaurant.

ck1Buddha, forced to acknowledge his staff committed a cardinal sin, is compelled to offer an apology, an act he is not used to. Meanwhile Nina, conveniently caught up in London’s trademark squall, frequently borrows the chef’s umbrella. Romance is obviously — underscored more than adequately with shots of Tabu walking and turning back (wash, rinse, repeat, repeat) — in the rainy air, and the days get pleasanter as the wit flies freely and the evident is never quite that.

Which brings us to the premise: He’s 64, she’s 34, and all is hunky dory. Except her 58-year-old father, played by Paresh Rawal, who objects to this union in as melodramatic a manner as is possible. Thus, as they say in Bollywood script sessions, ‘Conflict.’ This results in much chaos, a second-half with far less steam than the pre-interval opening, and a contrived, heavy-handed approach the film really didn’t deserve. Add to that a cancer subplot and a nice supporting character turns into an emotionally manipulative angle Cheeni Kum should have done without.

It’s a crisply written film, the dialogue mostly working very well. For all the talk of sarcasm, the lines aren’t likely to bowl you over with superb irony, but occasionally a clever gem shines through. The repartee between the lead pair is tight, as are Bachchan’s conversations with Sexy, his 9-year-old neighbour played by an impressive Swini Khara — the former are earnest, as funny as real life often it; the latter tend towards the pithy, but usually stop short of it. It’s a very unBollywood script, and it takes some stellar actors to pull it off.

A big wow then to Amitabh Bachchan, the film’s marvellous pivot. We shouldn’t be surprised by anymore Bachchanism, but the man — currently, constantly pushing himself onto a limb, decidedly making 2007 his own — is an undisputable rockstar. His Buddha is smooth yet suffers from occasional social awkwardness, and Bachchan manages both the rough brat and the annoyed old man tones with such ease. He’s arrogant and self-assured, yet feels the need to impress her — while never admitting it. This is one of his finest performances to date, because he sticks to the consistent key of the character, and while the film itself changes genres in the end, he stays Buddha. And is irresistible.

ck2Tabu is a great actress, and with a role that calls for far less bravura than her leading man, she is comfortably understated. As mentioned, their banter runs deep through the film, and her Nina, whom you never know when to take seriously, is a perfect foil to Buddha’s don’t-ask-the-obvious derision. There is a fantastic moment where she berates Bachchan for being too forward, for daring, like all men would, to ask a girl out and assume she’s available, just because she’s smiled at him a few times. The tension is palpable as Bachchan falls silent and you wince, suddenly ill-disposed toward her character. ‘I do hope you won’t be late,’ she ends, still deadpan, immediately confirming both date and smirk.

The inimitable Zohra Sehgal plays Bachchan’s wrestling-loving mother, a terrible cook who lectures him on gymming and knows him inside out, and is evidently the source of his scornful tongue. Paresh Rawal unfortunately plays the film’s sole caricature, an over-written character working more for ha-has than realism, and while the actor is inevitably good enough to make us chuckle, his character needed to be leaner. As mentioned, Swini Khara is pretty good, holding her own in demanding conversational scenes.

The crackling first half coasts along wonderfully, relying almost solely on Bachchan’s formidable charm. The second half sees trouble with a hammy third act. Cheeni Kum is a very neat film, but the messy end — the last three lines of dialogue exchanged by Bachchan and Tabu are the film’s very worst — leaves a peculiar aftertaste.

This isn’t a groundbreaking film, but it didn’t set out to be. It’s a maturely written film with great characters, tremendous performances and some fantastic moments. It could have been perfect, but the lesser said about that end the better.

Watch it. A brilliant sequence involving the chef, a chemist, chhatris and chachas is absolute movie magic, and in itself well worth the price of admission. Bravo.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 25, 2007

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Review: Farah Khan’s Happy New Year

hny1One of the reasons certain tennis players grunt distinctly and even iconically on the court, besides sinus and habit, is to throw off their opponent. The idea is to intimidate via bellow, to try and convey just how much force is behind that particular shot, to quantify the effort and make it seem like an awful lot. Shah Rukh Khan, for instance, grunts every time he’s in a fight scene, his overloud breath punctuating the action and lending greater credence to both his muscle and to the blows he takes.

Were Farah Khan to play tennis, I wager she’d be a grunter as well. There has always been a significant look-what-I-did quality to her movies, movies where she often telegraphs her jokes and lingers on them a tad too long, and yet makes the moment work because her gags are themselves sharp, clever, ruthless. Happy New Year, alas, isn’t the sharpest tool in her shed, and while there is some good ol’ fun to be had in being thwacked on the head by a blunt instrument, it loses its novelty in the third hour. Yessir, ladies and gents, this is a three-hour film, and — for a film that shares more of its DNA with an episode of Scooby Doo than it does with Ocean’s Eleven — that’s way, way too much to bear.

Not to mention Abhishek Bachchan whose superpower is barfing. Um, we’ll get to that.

A film makes its intent, its universe, its treatment clear very early on, and fifteen minutes into Happy New Year it is more than apparent that while this may be a film littered with backstories and motivations and things that could well do with maudlin background music, it happens instead to be a goofball cartoon far more obsessed with the gags. Dead/ailing parents must be avenged/provided for, loyalties rekindled, dance schools opened and the son of a great actor must try and hack into blockbuster-land… Mighty missions all, and Shah Rukh Khan’s Charlie starts off assembling his ragtag team with flair, as, it appears, has Farah. The film plays out like a spoof from the get go, a gigantic lark where nothing is taken seriously and where there are no sacred cows — jokes are made at the expense of the mysterious committee that picks India’s entry to the Oscars as well as a certain Prime Minister obsessed with good days.

hny2The problem, however, might lie in the fact that everyone’s a caricature. Charlie’s a street-fighter who knows everything, Sonu Sood plays a partially-deaf goon, Boman Irani is a childish safecracker, bar-dancer Deepika Padukone melts at the sound of English the way Wanda in A Fish Called Wanda did with Italian (and then Russian) and Abhishek Bachchan — who sportingly plays this movie’s Uday Chopra — has two roles, one who throws up while the other does Zoolander’s Blue Steel. Add to that a swaggering Jackie Shroff as the bad guy, and there’s no straight man in sight to help the jokes land. (The words ‘no straight man in sight,’ may, in fact, also imply to the curious way the men in this film all seem to covet other men, asking for “puppies”, lifting each other up in the air by waist and hip, ending a performance with a man’s head resting lovingly on another man’s bottom, and — in the case of Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Dadlani — doing unspeakable things with boas.)

This is a heist film, sure, but it is also a sports film disguised as a dance film. The diamonds must be boosted (from a safe called Shalimaar, no less) while the World Dance Championships are on, and thus must our nutjobs all learn to put up a show. Naturally, national pride enters the equation, and — bizarrely enough considering Farah’s trademark cheek — the film heads in a direction that Manoj Kumar and JP Dutta would both applaud. It’s all about Indiawaale, and while Sonu Sood stays consistent and Deepika inevitably dazzles, it is Shah Rukh himself who appears the most out of place — in a movie made to rest on his shoulders. Perhaps they piled too much onto him; perhaps the decades of raising those arms into that iconic pose have taken their toll… Either way, Happy New Year never gets to soar.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, October 24, 2014

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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider

Something is rotten in the state two countries call their own.

Not that we’ve really let that show on screen. Hindi cinema hasn’t looked into Kashmir, preferring to gaze at it instead. Haider changes all that, with filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj probing into the valley nimbly and incisively — we may, at this point, picture the director as a particularly poetic insurgent, wearing Shakespeare for a cloak.

This is not a simple adaptation, this takes not a simplistic stance; Haider is a remarkable achievement and one of the most powerful political films we’ve ever made, a bonafide masterpiece that throbs with intensity and purpose. It is a staggeringly clever take on Hamlet, one whose departures from the Bard’s original are as thrilling as its closely-hewn loyalty. The film is set in 1995, with Kashmir in the murkiest of limbos, at a time when it’s anybody’s guess whether any man wearing a long, all-shrouding phiran is hiding either a pot of hot coals or a hand-grenade. Haider — in case you haven’t guessed — is the kind of film that carries both.

haider1The Hamlet here is Haider, a poetry student returning to Kashmir, summoned by the destruction of the family house and the disappearance of his father. He finds his ‘half-widowed’ mother, Ghazala, laughing dazzlingly by the sunlight and his uncle, Khurram, dancing. He is disgusted, depressed, and desperate for an answer, for a way forward. And, on one not-so farfetched afternoon given the state he’s in, a mysterious man appears to replace his loathing with fury — to arm a clueless, restless young man with murderous intent. The allegories are elegantly drawn and exquisitely sharp, like bejewelled daggers. The film is written by Bhardwaj and acclaimed journalist (and former Rediff writer) Basharrat Peer, and it is bold for many reasons.

The two stunning Shakespeare adaptations Bhardwaj made before this stayed close to the structure of the originals: Maqbool whimsically played fast-and-loose with characterisations but managed to wrap a crime-boss film neatly around the Scottish play; Omkara stayed so ingenuously loyal to Othello that it even translated lines of dialogue and had pacing similar to the play, but left out the monologues. Haider, while leaving in the crucial monologues, makes audacious changes to the film — for example, the play’s plot only kicks in when the ghost (or the man with the ghost IDs, more accurately) appears, around the midway mark — and several key moments deviate dramatically from the original. These are not subtle changes but these shifts are what make Haider a truly ambitious film. It bludgeons away from the original because, just like the world it is set in, harsh changes are called for. A young man finds himself fatherless — de-fathered by the machinery of the state, in fact — and tormented by local demons, terrorists and politicians. In Kashmir, this saga of disappearance and drama, of uncertainty and unrest, cannot be the tale of one prince or one exalted family; in Kashmir, where mothers know the name ‘Kalashnikov’ all too well, there are too many Hamlets.

haider2The detailing is a marvel. Characters speak with, as Robert Plant would say “tongues of lilting grace,” in that delightful, characteristically Kashmiri way of hardboiled consonants and fluid vowels. A doctor’s coat is chequered, just like the local phirans and jackets, chairs and beds are ornately whittled into works of art we can sit on, and the bedsheets are beautiful, chain-stitched wonders. The authenticity is constant, and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar captures detail without lingering gratuitously on it, preferring instead to shoot from the characters’ un-touristy eyes or — better still — to eavesdrop close to them, hovering too-close with brilliant, hand-held unpredictability. We see the distractingly attractive world around them, sure, but the narrative stays grim and, thus hand-in-hand, Kumar’s composition centres on things so close you can touch — the smoke rising from a cup of kahwa in the cold, an accusingly large dot of mehndi on the back of a hand, letters handed out by the postman in plastic packets as if he were delivering cold cuts. This is a film you could watch with the sound muted.

But you shouldn’t. Oh no. The music is gorgeous, underscoring the narrative perfectly. (The gravedigger song is my favourite.) Yet while we’re used to Bhardwaj the director making way for Bhardwaj the composer (and, when we’re luckiest, Bhardwaj the singer), the Haider soundtrack knows its place and is allowed no room to showboat. The grim narrative carries strong political heft, and so assured is Bhardwaj of what he’s saying and the way it needs to be said that he doesn’t seem to feel the temptation to sugarcoat, to entertain with either song or wink. The film stays intense throughout, almost breathlessly so. Like a chokehold from someone you love.

The performances are uniformly stunning. Shahid Kapoor, dealing with one of Shakespeare’s most challenging heroes, does so with impressive sincerity. He manages the many shifts of mood skilfully but always appears like an actor performing a role gamely instead of an actor who has become the character: he’s very good, just not as unaffected as the actors around him. An actor called Narendra Jha who plays a doctor is an absolute find, Lalit Parimoo is excellent, Shraddha Kapoor is very believable in the Ophelia part, two Salman Khan fans (Sumit Kaul and Rajat Bhagat) are a lot of fun, and it’s good to see Kulbhushan Kharbanda get well-forged lines of dialogue.

haider3At the heart of the film stands Tabu. Her Ghazala is a heartbreaking character, all passion and preening and perpetually inappropriate relationships. She looks luminous the first time we see her, but the great actress can amazingly adjust that candle-wick lighting up her face, so not just does she shine and simmer, but she can flicker. The way she looks into the mirror while her son kisses her… It’s haunting. Old Bhardwaj alumnus and former Macbeth Irrfan Khan, meanwhile, is striking in a very clever role that both shows off his screen-presence and kicks the film into a different gear.

The best performance comes from Kay Kay Menon in the Claudius role. His Khurram is a slimeball aching to be accepted as a success, an unctuous man and yet one who likes to strut, who likes to revel in his victories — but who, at the singular point of triumph — can only find a fellow conspirator to embrace. This is a traditionally meaty part, immortalised by Derek Jacobi in the 1996 Hamlet, but Kay Kay gives the character his own terrific edge, twitchy and tentative and surprisingly warm.

One particularly unforgettable moment in the film features Peer himself in a cameo as a man afraid to cross the threshold into his own house. That particular scene, and its subsequent, immediate resolution, comes from a short-story by Kashmiri writer Akhtar Mohiuddin. It is a great story of such frightening clarity that most filmmakers would have milked it into a longer scene, if not a short-film. Bhardwaj, now more than ever, seems assured of the power of his content, and knows when to pull his punches and doesn’t fall for obvious temptations. The result is a knockout, a film that makes you smell corpses, that makes you shudder with melancholia, and a film that points accusing fingers. A film that doesn’t flinch.

Is Haider Vishal Bhardwaj’s best film? That is the question. (The answer, naturally, lies behind the fact that we can even ask.)

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, October 1, 2014

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Is Sajid Khan the worst director in India?

Everyone in Bombay thinks they can direct a movie. Amateurs, screenwriters, film school graduates (both those who want to change the way we make movies, and those who want to make a living), television directors, actors who aren’t getting meaty work, theatre artistes… everyone either believes that direction is the ultimate aspirational goal and that they’re good enough, or that it’s a mug’s game. Even producers who want to cut out the middleman. By the time you read this sentence, Kick, which released yesterday — marking the directorial debut of Sajid Nadiadwala, a longtime producer — will have earned some massively obscene amount.

As a result, we see far too many poorly directed films. We see tackily assembled films, films with weak pacing, films where the director clearly can’t imbue actors with the necessary spirit, where the narrative goes haywire every time a song appears, where it’s depressingly evident the director doesn’t know where to place the camera, where everything appears slapped on together like some messy cinematic stir-fry, films lacking in nuance, consistency and grace. These directors may be handicapped by external factors, they may learn on the job, they may eventually find and capitalise on their own strengths, but — mercy be damned — for now it’s apparent there are too many directors in Hindi cinema who don’t know what they’re doing.

sajid1Sajid Khan should not, by any measure, be counted as one of these directors. As someone intimately bound to cinema, someone who has filmmakers all around him — sister Farah is an ace entertainer, cousins Farhan and Zoya Akhtar have each piped freshness into our films — and as someone who used to wickedly skewer filmmakers for being bad at their job, he simply has no business being this kind of journeyman. He is equipped with that ideal cinephile combination, a massive library of films and a great memory. His knowledge of English-language cinema is staggeringly encyclopaedic. I have had friends call him up out of the blue to settle bets about Ghostbusters 2 and he has replied instantly, off the cuff, clearly the man you want to call if on the hot-seat and phoning a friend, or if the 3Gs too weak and IMDb isn’t loading.

As for Hindi cinema, he knows our worst and weakest films very intimately indeed, and has made a career out of mocking them. The shows he hosted on TV, Kehne Mein Kya Harz Hai and Ikke Pe Ikka, took the mickey out of Bollywood with tremendous élan. He berated films for buffoonery, thoughtlessness, crass overacting. A section of his show, “Ham Scene Of The Week”, remains a very watchable YouTube favourite, wherein Khan would zero in on some horribly overcooked moment and, basically, point and laugh. And we laughed right along.

I haven’t met him in person, but he’s apparently a man with a clever (albeit foulmouthed) sense of humour, a man who is — like most of us film fanatics — easily goaded into fanboy mode, a man who gushes about the films he most adores. My film-snob friend M met him, bonded over film-geekiness and told me he was actually pretty fun. By all accounts, this is a man who loves the movies.

Why, then, is he so obsessed with ruining them?

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Khan’s first film, Heyy Babyy, had too many Ys. Why, for example, was it made in the first place? Why was there not a single smart gag? Why didn’t he write a script before he started shooting? Why instead did he ripoff Three Men And A Baby and, while doing so, why did he strip it of all its tender charms? Why did he throw in bad innuendo instead? And why did Sajid Khan, the man who taught most of India what “hamming” meant, feel the need to have one of his protagonists, a Muslim, fall to his knees and perform namaaz in front of a Christmas tree inside a hospital while the background score rose to a melodramatic crescendo?

housefullThe film was a catastrophic failure except for one minor detail: it was a monstrous hit, a record-breaking behemoth that did better than everyone expected. Since then, his films have gotten successively stupider. Housefull, Housefull 2, Himmatwala, Humshakals. These are not merely bad movies, they are grotesqueries, designed to torture people who can read, people who want more from movies than apes and slaps. Housefull (which ends with footage of its producer’s birthday party) and its sequel clicked — presumably with a crowd that demanded nothing but Akshay Kumar and bronzed girls in swimsuits — but by the time Himmatwala and Humshakals came around, the audience was as revolted as the critics.

(My friend M, who I mentioned earlier, sent me a picture of her armpit hair as revenge for taking her along to Housefull. Fair enough.) Even stars seem to have had enough, with Humshakals hero Saif Ali Khan openly declaring the film a huge mistake and scrapping previously announced plans to work with Sajid again. Akshay, going ahead with Housefull 3, has dropped Sajid from the project and replaced him with director duo the Samji brothers, one of whom, cruelly enough,  happens to be named Sajid. The tide is, naturally, turning.

In my review for the abysmal Humshakals, I wondered what Khan’s motives could be for churning out such awful, awful films. “Is he trying to make the country stupid? Is he suicidally trying to see how far people — producers, audiences, actors — let him go before someone assassinates him? Is this all some subversive meta-joke being perpetrated on us for not having applauded his acting in Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate? Is he turning his whole life into one gigantic ‘ham scene of the week’?”

I wanted, very sincerely, to post these questions to Sajid himself. The reason I’m writing this column instead is because this magazine contacted me to set up a one-on-one interview with Sajid, a slug-fest where I expected the gloves to be off, and him to shut me up with concepts of populism and how, as BJP-bhakts say, all that matters in the end is the public, um, mandate. His publicists confirmed and unconfirmed and eventually said they would be fine with an interview if nothing negative was said about his films. Mission impossible if ever there was one.

It was a debate I was looking forward to, because my questions are more sincere than glib. This is sadism, not incompetence, and I desperately want to know why somebody who — we must all assume, for sanity’s sake — knows better, carries on to keep making movies this sickeningly bad. How pathetic does he consider even the lowest common denominator he shamelessly chases? Does it not hurt the fanboy inside him to abuse the medium so criminally? To make movies that are execrable for the sake of making millions? His argument, I suspect, may just boil down to the millions, and the fact that he has many and I have none.

But directing a film is more than a job. It is an honour, a privilege, an opportunity. After creating toxic films that are invariably hurting every one of us in some way — each of us who works in movies and each of us who loves movies — dare he bring himself to watch his own work? Dare he care?

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First published Mandate magazine, August 2014

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