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Review: Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam

drishyam1Some movies appear on our viewing doorstep carrying far too much baggage. Drishyam, for instance, is a Hindi remake of a Malayalam film of the same name made into several languages with leading men of exceptional pedigree, and which has also, I believe, stolen its set-up from a Japanese mystery thriller, The Devotion Of Suspect X. That’s an awful lot of suitcases all right. As with too-eager houseguests, there are ways for filmgoers (and critics) to deal with such visitors, and in this particular case I decided against homework, invited the film in and asked it to leave its luggage out by the door.

I’m glad I did, because while I haven’t watched any of the other Drishyams or read Suspect X, this Hindi version is an utterly unremarkable thriller, one that could have been potentially cool and wily, but one that falls well short of being memorable. It’s a depressingly ordinary film, and the allegedly stolen plot — about a crime being covered-up — is something we’ve seen many, many times before.

Heck, if you want to see a genuinely great thriller about a movie-inspired protagonist buying tickets and meeting people to construct a watertight alibi, go watch Sriram Raghavan’s fantastic Johnny Gaddaar instead of reading the rest of this review.

Ordinariness aside, Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam is watchable and even builds tension effectively from time to time, but ends up an overlong, overbaked drudge, largely because of Ajay Devgn in the lead, trying to look cerebral and calm while assuming solid-coloured shirts will absolve him of the artlessness he has flaunted in recent movies. It would be unfair to compare most leading men to masters Mohanlal and Kamal Haasan, but Devgn — who used to be a striking brooder, a man who appeared to know how to simmer on the inside — is now just talking softly while essentially swaggering along regardless. Vulnerability? Perish the thought. The idea of subtle internalisation has led this man to sheer cardboard.

The way the film sees him doesn’t help. Even while playing an everyman who loves his family, a song montage in Drishyam has Devgn standing away from his wife and daughters, wearing sunglasses and striking a hero pose till the family comes and coos over him. (Later in the same sequence his wife tries on heels and slips; Devgn sits back and laughs, making no effort to help her.)

Devgn’s Vijay is a cable-operator who lives in a giant villa with a fawning family, and one day things go quite bizarrely awry. Something must be done to save his world, and Vijay — a film-lovin’ orphan who prefers spending most nights with a tiny TV in his office instead of his moronically indulgent wife — takes inspiration from the movies. Except, and here is one fundamental problem with this meta film-within-film setup, he doesn’t really do or learn anything of actual brilliance, with films having apparently taught him the mere value of being stubborn. There are times he gets a lump in his throat watching Bachchan ham it up hard (or one in his trousers watching Sunny Leone do the same), but it all appears too forced. Save for a couple of scenes, the cinema-beats-life trope doesn’t really pay off.

drishyam2What does pay off, as always, is casting Tabu in a meaty role. Despite first showing up in a bewilderingly tight police shirt — which then leads to her striding through a corridor in slow-motion, almost a la Baywatch — the actress is characteristically impressive in her role of a no-nonsense cop. There’s a case, she has a stake in it, and she knows what she’s doing — something Tabu expresses with brilliant weariness as she rolls her eyes at her husband who objects to her brutal methods. She’s a badass superstar who looks like she means it when she munches over dialogue about ‘visual memory’ et al, but her epiphanies are too conveniently arrived at, while her methods are too thickheaded.

Drishyam starts far too snoozily. The narrative intent is clear — to normalise the world (and Devgn) before shifting into thriller-mode — but the film is clumsily written, with dialogue that sounds wooden; the first hour of the film sounds like an amateurishly dubbed film instead of one we’re watching natively. There are a few smart flourishes, but the filmmakers linger on the one or two good twists for so long that they render them tedious. (There is even a cheeky reference to Suspect X, I believe, in the throwaway mention of a “retired professor” who lives nearby.) But mostly there is more tackiness than craft, demonstrated best by the ill-produced recreations of the movies Vijay watches and in the way fake newspapers are visibly made up of computer printouts with Times New Roman taken too literally.

Don’t get me wrong, several parts of the film work and, for the most part, Drishyam motors along far more efficiently than most Hindi films — but isn’t that too low a bar? Is it too much to ask for a ingenious, tight thriller?

At one point in the film Tabu makes the link about Vijay and the movies, and this is where I rubbed my hands together and thought we were (finally) in for some intriguing traps that subvert or mock cinematic cliché, a truly brilliant cat and mouse game. Alas, nothing comes of it and we never get a battle between equals. Perhaps because she’d have eaten him alive: lug, luggage and all.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 31, 2015

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Column: Scandal Point-less

It’s bloody hard to create controversy, you know? Yes, I know it’s all done for release-dates and ratings and eyeballs, and you’re right, naturally, but the very act of it — of summoning up scandal or sparking off a storm — is damn near impossible in this day and age. Just think, if you will, of the last time something genuinely shocked you. A piece of news that made you sit up and take notice, made you call up a friend to discuss it, got you gobsmacked enough to keep you from tweeting sarcastically about it for five dumbfounded minutes. It doesn’t happen anymore, it just doesn’t.

We’ve all heard the weirdest rumours — about everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan to men named Modi — and read about the saddest exposés — involving everyone from Cary Grant to Bill Cosby — and I don’t think anything can significantly raise our eyebrows anymore. In a world where everyone is constantly out to “break the Internet,” all we have left are a few cracks.

Can controversy sell a film? No. The public today is too cynical to really care if x slept with y — unless they like how x and y look on screen together, in which case, of course, they’ll queue up for their movies anyway. According to the old-school publicity pundits, what controversy does is keep a film’s name in the headlines, but my point is that when a blockbuster is coming up, we’re bombarded with its name regardless of gossip. It doesn’t matter how little we may care, we know when the next Rohit Shetty film will release. And smaller independent films have budgets too measly — and are too star-less — to manufacture any effective buzz through the grapevine. Who would care if two actors the public doesn’t know about are brawling? (The few hundred people who already revere these actors too good to be super-famous could care less about a blind-item column.)

The truth of the matter is that visibility does not equal success. We go to the movies for all kinds of reasons — we like the actors/filmmakers/posters, we’ve heard good things about what’s playing, or, in some cases involving certain superstars, we go because we are comforted by the fact that we know exactly what we’re going to get — but I don’t think any of us think someone else’s scandal is worth spending our own money on. People tallying up ‘trending topics’ should remember that retweets don’t cost a rupee. The loudest of the noise comes from preaching to the choirs. If success could be determined by the amount of newsprint one can swallow, Bombay Velvet would be a historic hit. And Gajendra Chauhan would be our megastar.

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First published The Hindustan Times, July 25, 2015

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Review: Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan

It was merely a matter of time before someone cracked the Rajkumar Hirani code.

The most memorable tent-pole filmmakers — the big mainstream showmen and pleasers of crowds — often create their own self-celebrating genre. They strike upon and cautiously hone a formula (something Manmohan Desai, for example, managed to do with near-mathematical precision) and then they reap. Till, that is, someone new figures out this formula and replicates it to great effect. It is an invariable and unsurprising cycle, and it happens even though some masala filmmakers take longer to milk than others.

bajrangi1Bajrangi Bhaijaan is an overearnest, oversimplified, preposterously sweet and frequently schlocky film, which shouldn’t work because of how predictable and soppy it is. Yet, because of a finely picked supporting cast, some sharp lines of dialogue and, most crucially, because of its overall heart, it works, and works well. This may well be a Kabir Khan film, but for all those who wished to see Salman Khan in a Raju Hirani project, consider that mission accomplished.

Over in the part of Kashmir that lies with our neighbours, a mother-to-be watches a cricket game on television, all but blowing kisses to a handsome green-clad batsman. The match is conquered and the kicking infant is to be named after the swaggering strokemaker, but it happens to be a girl. We meet Shahida at age six, and she’s pretty as a picture but has never spoken a word. The mother decides she’ll take this daughter to the grand wish-fulfilling dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin over in Delhi, but things go wrong and, mostly because the poor child is unable to cry out for help, she’s left behind in India.

It is in Kurukshetra that this lost little girl runs into local good-for-nothing Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi, a Hanuman-worshipper who believes she’s a brahmin — “who else could be that fair?”, he reasons — and tries to find her parents. Eventually, after naming every city he can think of, he figures out that she’s “a Mohammedan” from Pakistan, is shocked, but decides to go drop her back across the line, all while chanting Hanuman’s name and bowing to every monkey he sees. A mace-shaped pendant hangs from his thick neck, and it must be said that the well-meaning Pavan has an equally thick head.

bajrangi2Kabir Khan cleverly cast his usually invincible hero as a smiling dullard, a man who took ten years to reach the tenth grade and eleven more years to graduate college (a nice parallel, then, to the much-mocked eternal youth enjoyed by Afridi). The thought of another film with Salman Khan flexing his biceps and ripping his shirt off to beat up a dozen men with one pelvic punch is nauseating, and thus seeing him as an emotional fool (who is too ticklish to wrestle) is automatically refreshing. The little girl is played quite wonderfully by Harshaali Malhotra, a seraphic child with gleaming eyes and it is she who smoothens over the film’s roughest edges — like, for instance, an unnecessary fight scene in a brothel — just by looking at Salman with such sheer awe.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui leads the supporting cast, playing a Pakistani news-scavenger based, oddly enough, on Chand Nawab, a real-life reporter who went viral following a clip where passers-by (and his own concentration) couldn’t make room for his modest intentions. Siddiqui nails that particular scene and brings much credibility to the proceedings, excelling with his body language here while laughing uncontrollably lying on a bed of corn or when grabbing an old man’s hand to get himself forcibly slapped. Siddiqui sinks his teeth into a good part and runs with it; at one point, when putting up a story he has shot himself on YouTube, his character — so used to desperately slapping his credit on the videos he sells to news channels — signs off, out of habit, “cameraman Chand Nawaz ke saath, Chand Nawaz…” Perfect.

Kareena Kapoor Khan looks dazzling but has far too little to do, Sharat Saxena and Rajesh Sharma are routinely excellent in their gruff roles, and Om Puri has a warm little cameo, but the film is set up by the overwhelming earnestness of Meher Vij in the role of Shahida’s mother, who wears her heartbreak very believably indeed. The filmmakers even throw in one of the old men from that great Kashmir film, Haider in a bid for credibility, and having all these fine actors even in tiny parts helps things considerably.

Also helping things along are a few deft writing touches about bigotry, religion and neighbourly love. A lot of this is hamhanded, but a fair bit is rather interesting, like Pavan being the son of an RSS-man and being revulsed by the smell of meat in the morning, and him threatening to throw out a Pakistani Embassy official from India who turns out to be “just another Indian.” Or like the fact that Kashmir and Switzerland look pretty darned alike.

At two hours and forty minutes, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is seriously long and the climax feels it might never end, but hey, haven’t classic Bollywood weepies always gone on forever? At least Kabir Khan has done his tearjerking properly, added in some burkha tomfoolery and, at one point when the young girl wants chicken and her guardian can’t deal with it, even thrown some Benny Hill madness into it. I tell you, that Hirani code stands cracked good.

In one scene a Pakistani cop, suspicious of his quarry, brusquely interrogates them and Nawaz foxily conjures up a tale of star-crossed lovers and elopement. The policeman breaks into a grin, his ears perk up, and he immediately wants to know more. India, Pakistan, whatever: we’re all just suckers for story. Jai Shri Drama.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 17, 2015

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Review: Mohit Suri’s Hamari Adhuri Kahani

hak1Vidya Balan cries throughout Hamari Adhuri Kahani.

Her character, Vasudha, is a timid and relatively mousy woman, one who has let herself be cowed down by patriarchy even when no patriarch is present in her life, and she frequently flies into panicked hysterics. But the character and her motivations are not why I think Balan — one of our finest actresses — is crying; I think she’s weeping her eyes out because, with every take, she realises how unforgivably atrocious this film is.

Mohit Suri has been an efficient director of plot-heavy cinema (with plots often filched from other places), a man who trades almost exclusively in weatherbeaten movie cliches but has always done so with some speed and slickness. This time, working from a script written by Mahesh Bhatt, his focus appears to be not story but, simply, sadness. Everyone in this film, in virtually every frame, looks pained. The relentless background score swells to a crescendo, and then swells up again, to another crescendo. The characters are all pathetic folk with twisted childhoods. The word ‘mangalsutra’ is made massively heavy (while the word ‘terrorist’ is used with remarkable casualness) and there is much, much bad parenting on display. Merely totting up many a sad element doesn’t create heartbreak, however, and grand tragedy cannot be stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. What we have here is Suri’s monstrosity.

Hari (Rajkumar Rao), an old, limping man, has vanished with his dead wife’s ashes. He has left, in their place, a novel he has apparently written on the fly instead of a letter of explanation, and it is this that his long-neglected son reads and sobs over. It is a novel, that ,peculiarly enough, is not told from the narrator’s point of view and contains too little about himself, preferring instead to dwell on voyeuristic imaginings of what his wife Vasudha and her lover Aarav must have gotten up to. Awkward.

The film is a dreadful drag, with godawful dialogue. “Looks like you love your job,” Aarav says, played by a bored Emraan stating revelatory facts so often here that his name may well be Exposition Hashmi. “How can you tell?”, Vasudha (rather needlessly) gasps, but despite lovin’ it, soon resignedly declares. “Mere ghar ka choola isi kaam se chalta hai.” Okay then.

hak2Aarav, a self-made billionaire with a truly miserable childhood, offers Vasudha a job in Dubai. Vasudha, who has been lying to her young son about the father, Hari, that mysteriously deserted them five years ago, decides with much deliberation to take the job — and promptly deserts said child instead of taking him along. As for Hari, he may or may not be a terrorist, depending on what you want to believe about a story where trees double up as get-out-of-jail-free cards. Also, Hari is the worst kind of misogynist, believing he owns Vasudha forever. Vasudha… It is a name that unfailingly reminds me of Jaya Bhaduri in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s classic Chupke Chupke, where at some point while spelling out her name she is interrupted by her sister and called an ass. Balan’s Vasudha is far more asinine, an apparently independent and well-educated woman who is aware of her husband’s appalling behaviour, is freshly disgusted and surprised by it each time. When told he’s a terrorist, that seems to matter less to her than the fact that he hasn’t called.

Meanwhile Suri ladles on the sad cliches, lifting clumsily from the most iconic tragedies. At one point Hashmi stiltedly caresses Balan’s chin with a flower, presumably thinking of Mughal-E-Azam. The film’s most catastrophically bad scene comes from An Affair To Remember, in which Hashmi takes Balan to see his piano-playing mother (as opposed to Cary Grant’s piano-playing grandmother). The mother plays said piano while Hashmi, standing in the same room, tells Balan about her sad life. He then walks up to the mother and she’s stunned to see him. (Time and again in this film, characters are startled by other characters already being in the same room as them; this, I wager, is because the background score makes sure they can’t hear anyone approach.) They talk for a bit before the mother notices Balan. She turns to her and asks, with a beatific smile: “Arre, yeh banjaaran kaun hai?” Then she, a former cabaret performer and apparent clairvoyant, starts telling her about how she shouldn’t live in the past, should not be a sati or a Sita — even as this mother herself is spending her life playing muzak to her comatose husband. (I’m told this mother is played by the lovely Amala Akkineni; I choose, for her sake, to not believe this.)

It is a film where three fine actors all play idiots. Hashmi’s character keeps going off to literally smell the flowers, Rao’s character is a possessive neanderthal, and Vidya’s character is plain dumb — for one thing, she needs to know that yelling “Hari! Hari!” as she runs behind a police jeep will only make the cops drive faster.

Now let’s talk about what’s good in Hamari Adhuri Kahani. The thing is…

Rating: One Star

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First published Rediff, June 12, 2015

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Review: Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dil Dhadakne Do

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, June 5, 2015

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Review: Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet

Bombay Velvet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, May 15, 2015

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Review: Shoojit Sircar’s Piku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, as if that wasn’t enough, Sircar makes Padukone say ‘pachcha.’ Piku uses this Bangla word for arse — a cute splat of a word, with a tchah-sound built right in — while at a dining table full of eagerly nostalgic relatives and Padukone plays the moment magnificently, her eyes twinkling and grin well in place, dropping her guard to say an ‘uncouth’ word and, simultaneously, thrilled to be saying it. Bravo.

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

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

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 8, 2015

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