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Tribute: Raising a bowler hat to Saeed Jaffrey

saeed3The first time I saw Saeed Jaffrey I refused to believe he was an actor.

Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom released when I was two years old, and soon became one of the few Hindi film VHS tapes in our house, one often played to placate children because of the Lakdi Ki Kaathi song. In the film Jaffrey played Suri Saab — a gregarious gent, a proud Punjabi papa — with such complete credibility that I always felt someone had sucked one of my father’s easily-sloshed friends into the TV set. Growing up in Delhi, I was sure this man was obviously someone just like one of those many men who patted me on the head and found my retelling of the same joke hilarious every single time.

It was a classic film and his performance endured, but many years later I saw him again in — of all places — Subhash Ghai’s Ram Lakhan, tweaking Anil Kapoor’s ear and patting Jackie Shroff on the back. Here he was again, a distinguished foreign-type with well-sandpapered Rs and twinkling eyes, in a place of paternal authority. But then, as more movies were allowed into my life, the Britishness of Jaffrey began to wear off: first with his turn as Sardar Patel in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, and then all preconceptions about his image — from accent to upper-crust — were spat out after watching his magnificent local paanwallah Lallan Mia in Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor.


All that remained across those superbly varied performances were those eyes, ever sharp and ever twinkling. Cunning. As cunning as a fox who has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University, in the words of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder.

Which reminds me… One of Atkinson’s early bits of comic gold was a routine called Indian Waiter, where he played the long-suffering waiter in an Indian restaurant, forced to patiently stand by while lager-laden hooligans made jokes about pappadum and “Paperback Raita.” While the great comedian and satirist made the point about increasingly dignified Indians in the UK, Jaffrey was the one who indeed ran with it and broke ground, creating an on-screen Indian of refinement and extreme sophistication. His characters rattled off the Queen’s English with Wodehousean aplomb while he dashed about looking, well, dashing. This was the achieving Indian, the prosperous Indian, the entrepreneur and the upstart who ran restaurants and laundrettes and was as easily at home in England as the aforementioned Queen.

The range was superlative. He did films with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant before making his Hindi film debut with Satyajit Ray’s masterful Shatranj Ke Khiladi. He appeared in movies as diverse as Hero Hiralal, Ram Teri Ganga Maili and My Beautiful Laundrette. Hindi cinema, attracted to his obvious strengths, often cast him as an officer of some sort —some uniformed man with a clipped accent — or a posh father-figure. And, more often than not, Jaffrey played all his roles with a characteristic elan and amiability: he looked like a clever, all-knowing, winking Super Mario, gloriously grey around the edges. Irresistible, really.

Rarely did he get the opportunity to completely disappear into his characters, though when he did — like in the Ray film or Chashme Buddoor or in Masoom, as the unforgettable Suri Sa’ab who bought his crockery from Harrods’ — he was sensational. His character in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, in fact, provides a good parallel for Jaffrey’s onscreen persona: Mir Roshan Ali was a man so obsessed with a game of chess that he cared little for the ongoing British invasion of his country. Jaffrey, as we knew him on screen, always seemed to know better, always seemed to know what mattered more than the obvious. And those twinkling eyes invited us along for the ride.

So long, Suri Saab. We raise our bowler hats to you.


First published Rediff, November 17, 2015

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Review: Kanu Behl’s Titli

There’s a world of difference between red and maroon.

You might not expect him to know that distinction, but Vikram does. A security guard at a mall who moonlights as a carjacker, Vikram is furious at that very fact: that you think he doesn’t know better. In one of the finest performances I’ve seen this year, Ranvir Shorey is spectacular as the elder brother in Kanu Behl’s Titli, the story of a dysfunctional family of bottom-dwellers. It is a performance of rage and nuance, of unexpected tenderness and misplaced nobility, and bloodthirsty cynicism. Shorey nails it, and it’s hard to take your eyes off Vikram.

Behl’s film, however, is not about Vikram. It is about the youngest of three brothers, Titli, a kid scrounging up to buy a parking-space in a shopping mall, looking to some kind of future away from the hellhole where he lives. As setups go, it’s super, and Behl — shooting on 16mm film — gives us a sparsely coloured, visually impoverished movie.

titli1Behl has the look right and his ensemble is impressive, but the film itself suffers from too much navel-gazing. Too much time is devoted to purposely phlegmatic meditations and too little on fleshing out actual characters, showing us how they tick. We are pointed to characters and their contradictions but — save for Shorey’s Vikram and Shivani Raghuvanshi’s fabulously acted Neelu — they are not explored beyond their helplessness. There is no acuteness; all we really know about them is that they are all miserable. And the narrative, almost sadistically, impels us to suffer along with them.

For a film that takes pains to looks realistic, it hinges on too feeble a plot, a raise-money-in-limited-time wheeze that could have been done in many ways, like in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels fashion or, given producer Dibakar Banerjee’s work, like in his resoundingly magical Khosla Ka Ghosla. Titli does very boldly to eschew both comedy and style for a more arid approach, but the narrative rationale is flimsy: What, for instance, is happening to the money from all the carjacked cars?

Shashank Arora, who plays Titli, does so with the right kind of world-weariness and has enough hunger and desperation in his eyes — and, it must be said, on his frame — but his Titliness isn’t given enough rein. He goes through the film wearing the same expression of bewildered blankness, and while that inert nothingness is becoming fashionably confused with top-notch acting in Hindi cinema these days, it doesn’t help flesh out the character. He does erupt for one moment of white-hot rage later in the film but it, appearing so abruptly, serves more to derail the film than anything else.

Arora isn’t a bad actor and wears his inscrutability consistently, but a film like this needs a preternatural talent tugging it along, someone meteoric and jawdropping, like a Gael Garcia Bernal maybe. Or, in the absence of that, Shorey in the lead role. Now that would have been a helluva movie.

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

Yet despite these deft visual nuances — the dotted bandaid-knockoff on Vikram’s hand, the bypass-surgery scar on Titli’s father’s chest, the way said father (Lalit Behl, the director’s own father) scoops his sabzi into the roti — the film begins to feel indulgent as it keeps showing them off. Pauses between conversation seem reasonable in isolation, and are well-written, but when stacked one atop another as they are in this film, they begin to feel tediously long.

Nihilism and bleakness lend themselves well to cinema, but there needs to be something compelling for the audience: Titli errs on the side of the comatose. In its admirable refusal to steer clear of style — or, indeed, obvious entertainment tropes — it is often too bland and, by the end, too long. Fleabitten characters aren’t the problem at all; just last year, Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly was made up of even more unsavoury characters, but it was impossible to look away from the screen. Titli offers up dry nakedness as if that is enough to impress. In many a scene it is — and, don’t get me wrong, this is a stirringly solid directorial debut — but in many a scene it feels too intentionally underdone.

There is a scene, for example, where an arm is broken. It is a strongly scripted moment but, while intending to shock us, the film looks away too easily. It starts off with searing intensity, hits peak when there is an alarmingly casual plea to stop the breaking, and then peters off into not merely a tame hammer-wound but, alas, a scene that loses its momentum. The actors work the scene sincerely but it could have been so much more. Instead, Behl chooses not to look away when a character throws up in a sickeningly long scene, so long it feels gratuitous.

Because there’s a difference between showing the retching and the wretched.

Rating: 3 stars


First published Rediff, October 30, 2015


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Review: Prawaal Raman’s Main Aur Charles

main-aur-charles1The first word used to describe Charles Sobhraj in Prawaal Raman’s Main Aur Charles is ‘hypnotic.’

This would be fine — even obvious — were Raman to kick things off with a pair of bikini-clad girls gushing about him, victims-to-be for the famed serial killer, but that is the keyword used at a police briefing targeting Charles. The aim is not to flatter but to concede: few remained unsusceptible to Sobhraj’s mesmeric charm.

Raman certainly isn’t, and his film fawns unashamedly over the notorious murderer, revelling in the glorification of a self-glorifying conman. This approach ushers in unpredictability right from the start. The obvious approach would have been a film about the cat-and-mouse game between Sobhraj and policeman Amod Kant who brought him to justice; unencumbered by any need for balance, however, Raman’s film focusses instead on the cat licking leftover cream from his whiskers. We end up with a film that tells its tale with calculated intent — coolly, cleverly, taking its time — mirroring the dry panache of its self-assured protagonist.

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

Randeep Hooda, in the performance of his career, plays Charles with immense flair, hoovering up women and stunning men with his French-ish accent and overwhelming self-belief. He waxes on about predeterminism in the courtroom and Paris in the bedroom, and Hooda hits the mark with unshowy, applause-worthy ease. The film reveres him a la James Bond but the performance shines because Hooda never appears to be trying too hard. Even when the accent slips occasionally into Clouseau territory, say, it looks as if Charles is turning the wick up too hard for his Indian audiences, not Hooda. The magnetism of the character allows the actor to breathe.

Adil Hassan is reliably excellent in the part of Amod Kant, the cop relentlessly tailing Charles. It is a thoughtful, measured role, but even here Raman equips him with plenty of coolth: in his walk, in the cut of his three-piece suits, in the pipe he smokes as he concentrates. (And, to some extent, in giving us a lecture on morality and reason by a cop named Kant.) Richa Chaddha is a fine actress on solid ground here as a feisty lawyer in love with Charles, and while she’s occasionally handicapped by too-smitten dialogue, she carries it off and is great when giggling at policemen as they reveal her man’s exploits.

Main-Aur-Charles2Let us not delve into what happens in the film — because Raman springs many a pleasurable surprise — but concentrate instead on the devilishly fine details. The way Charles, unable to just “make sex” without falling for his prey, christens himself a monk. The way a warden automatically, and helplessly, refers to Charles as Sir. The way police constables break into irrepressible smiles when they see videos of Charles and his women. The way Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s camera tries to peer through a crowd outside a courtroom. Applause, also, for the film’s immaculate sound design: sharp, sharp stuff.

In a film like this, plot itself comes second to events and epiphanies, most of which may be based in fact. Fact itself is a slippery beast in a life like that of Sobhraj, with blanks mostly filled by the man himself, based on how he wanted his notoriety to spread. Most of what we know about him is apocryphal, but the choice of legend says a lot; you can tell volumes about a man by the way he tailors his myth. Now 71 and in jail, Sobhraj — who once charged journalists for interviews, by the hour — is still litigious enough to make sure Raman’s film doesn’t use his last-name.

Not that we need it. Charles is the only ladykiller we know, and we remain fascinated. And despite the character having Mein Kampf on his shelf and showing fellow prisoners Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — “Hitler’s favourite film” — it should be remembered that the ‘Charles’ in his name came from a Chaplin impression he used to do back in the day. (Or, at least, that’s how the story goes.)

Rating: 4 stars


First published Rediff, October 30, 2015

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Review: Luv Ranjan’s Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2

pkp2aLet’s start by setting the record straight: misogyny is not the problem here.

Sure, misogyny is certainly a giant (and growing) problem, but the beliefs of the filmmaker should never get in the way of an appreciation of their film. Luv Ranjan, going by the first Pyaar Ka Punchnama and this sequel, may well be a man who has lost all faith in the fairer sex (or, indeed, in their fairness), but the only question that must be asked of Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2 is simply whether it is funny enough.

No, no it isn’t.

Watching Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2 is like watching an online Indian comedy sketch. It contains some genuine belly laughs, significant stereotyping and much generalisation, and some original insightful zingers. This would all be perfectly great were it not for its feature-length running time. (Imagine TVF’s sketch with the father asking for Twitter advice lasting more than two hours.)

The idea is that men are doormats and women wreck their lives. This is not in itself a premise we haven’t laughed at before, in sharper sitcoms or better-written films, but Ranjan’s commitment to his cause is alarmingly militant. In what is scripted almost like a work of cautionary propaganda, all the men are superlatively sterling, and all the women plain evil. The jokes aren’t bad per se but the fact that they all seem to be heading toward this demented kind of lecturing, well, robs them of any good humour. More than laughing I felt instead like stepping away, slowly.

It starts off with three boys — relatively well-to-do man-children living together in the kind of mancave that has a motorcycle as an accessory — meeting their three girls. These encounters range from sweet to utterly tasteless but there is something refreshing (and, to me, surprising) about how all these boys and girls look at dating and courtship as a sport built on awareness. A boy tosses a line, a girl lobs it back, and the fact that they’re hooking up is already a given. Who has time for even verbal foreplay anymore? All you need, the film explains, is confidence.

There are a couple of decent gags here. Sunny Singh, the most endearing performer in the film, a gullible but sincere computer engineer, meets his girl at a wedding. She starts off calling him “Siddharth Bhaiya” but bites her tongue at the “bhaiya” later on when he’s driving her home, and Singh’s quiet jubilation at this, um, bhaiyalessness is almost Thackeray-like. Later the boys reference the ultimate male-bonding film, the genius that is Chashm-e-Buddoor, by appropriating the line “muh kadwa kar le” but using it for beer, not cigarettes, and Singh describes a girl’s name as so sweet as if sung by LataJi.

The girls get a couple of stray laughs, with one girl who works at a BPO constantly stung and correcting anyone who uses the words “call-centre”, and another girl in shorts — Nushrat Bharucha, who takes on her hammy role with genuine, almost infectious enthusiasm — who feigns enthusiasm for a cricket match a couple of times before she stops pretending that it’s more interesting than her Whatsapp.

Yet, despite a few good gags, these are not characters but merely types, all of whom are sacrificed at the altar of Ranjan’s Jugheaded belief system. One of the boys who was so confident he picked up a girl by asking her to tattoo his name on her hand lest she forget it, himself forgets all this confidence as he turns, overnight, into a slave. As do the other boys. Meanwhile, just in case we haven’t noticed, the soundtrack starts telling us that they literally ‘have become dogs.’

Okay then.

pkp2bThis is not a bad film per se, but a genuinely misguided one. The first film had three grown men reduced to snivelling, sobbing losers by the end, but it did show some crackling camaraderie between its leads. This time the men don’t cry but emerge even more pathetic, chained to a trio of witches who seem to have enchanted them while never giving them an ounce of happiness.

And forget about hurting our sentiments, this juvenile single-minded immaturity hurts the comedy. It hurts the writing. It hurts the characters. It hurts the film. As for Mr Ranjan, I’m hoping the film’s climax was merely a feeble joke and not an indicator that he idolises Norman Bates.

Rating: 2 stars


First published Rediff, October 16, 2015

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Review: Sanjay Gupta’s Jazbaa

jazbaa1In many ways, Jazbaa is the Irrfan Khan acid test.

Not that Irrfan needs to be tested, of course. He is a superlative actor in the middle of an incredible run of form, and as we have seen from his sensational recent outings, he seems to just get better and better and better. However, those are wonderfully written parts in films helmed by fine directors, but does Irrfan have the bulletproof screen-presence required for blockbuster buffoonery? Can he commit to a moronic script? Does he have, I dare ask, the Khanhood?

Sanjay Gupta’s Jazbaa says no. (And for that we should all heave a sigh of relief.)

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

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

Later Rai, back in her catsuit, runs a race at her daughter’s school with all the other mothers briefed not to overtake her (and given comfortable, normal clothing as a payoff). She wins and looks for the kid, but as she shouts “Sanaya” over and over, her eyes are bloodshot by the third yell — which seems a bit much considering, for all Rai knows at this point, the kid could just have gone to the little girl’s room, right? The hysterics have begun, and the rest of the film is an excuse for Rai to bawl her increasingly red eyes out while Amar Mohile, the man who ruined Ram Gopal Varma’s oeuvre (and eardrums) with maddeningly loud background music, amps it up so our ears bleed.

In one line, the idea of the film — about a mother trying to save her daughter by getting a murder suspect off trial, thereby betraying a victim’s mother in the process — is a strong backbone for any melodrama and, naturally, comes from a Korean film. It is Gupta’s hyperactive treatment that is the culprit, swooshing cameras and oversaturated visuals and an edit-pattern that prides itself on how audible the cuts are. Sigh.

The dialogue is horrendous, with Irrfan getting the kind of lines you’d find on a sticker behind an auto-rickshaw. But while he has to spout weird analogies about relationships and mobile networks, he isn’t alone. A sly beardo tells Rai, with much import, that “what has never happened some day happens.” Shabana Azmi, who plays the victim’s mother, and her daughter exchange some perplexing lines about how holding a cup by its handle increases the distance between the tea and the drinker, and somebody who wants to live would want to feel life with her naked fingers. Why even a cup then, Mr Gupta? Why not have characters bathing their hands in tea and licking it off? (Sorry. Didn’t mean to give you a visual idea. Don’t use this next time. Please.)

jazbaa2Gupta is a slickly efficient action director, but there aren’t even worthwhile setpieces in Jazbaa. It is a mercifully brief movie, just about two hours long, and goes by briskly enough, but that’s about it in terms of the good part. Nothing is consistent here. Chandan Roy Sanyal, who plays the convicted murder suspect, goes from ferocious to cool-headed, from smiling to schizophrenic, for no apparent reason. Rai cries a lot but seems emotionally frozen. Meanwhile, the heart bleeds for Atul Kulkarni, the fine actor playing a lawyer in this tacky film, while his wife Geetanjali wowed us as a lawyer in the striking Court.

Khan struggles with a horrid part where, after he learns his friend’s daughter has been kidnapped, he instantly throws a tremendous tantrum, a hissy-fit about why he wasn’t told first instead of helping this visibly unstable woman.

At some point Gupta wants to make Khan appear pensive and lonely, so he sits at a giant table in a restaurant, by himself, and then — being a character given to talking to himself and to the camera — he tells himself to run. But it is too late. Gupta has cut to a generic hip-hop song, a ‘party song’, the kind Irrfan himself satirised so well recently. That says it all, the gulf between the lampooned and the lampooner. Earlier, Khan offers a fellow policeman a bribe of the very purest shilajit, but that might have come in handier for Gupta’s flaccid film.

You can give us red eyes in a green film, Mr Gupta, but that doesn’t make it Christmas.

Rating: 1 star


First published Rediff, October 9, 2015


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Review: Prabhudeva’s Singh Is Bliing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 1.5 stars

First published Rediff, October 2, 2015

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Review: Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar

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

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

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

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

What you cannot doubt is doubt itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 stars


First published Rediff, October 2, 2015


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