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Review: Sajid Nadiadwala’s Kick

kick1It was bound to happen.

At some point, a canny producer was sure to realise that all that matters in the kind of movies Salman Khan does nowadays is Salman Khan. After looking at, for example, Bodyguard or Ready — hideous, tacky eyesores that nonetheless rule the charts — it was only a matter of time before he’d see little need for an expensive, credit-hogging middleman and chuck this “director” fellow out.

Blasphemous, I know, but with films like this, it’s hard to argue. I remember a Mithun Chakraborty interview many moons ago where the actor — speaking of his heartland-conquering B-movies — described a continuity error, a fight scene where he was wearing a red shirt in one shot and a blue shirt the next. The director asked Chakraborty to reshoot but he laughed off the idea, saying it should be released as it was, and that his audience bothered only about him, not trifles like that. He was right, the film was a hit, and, alarmingly enough, our biggest blockbusters today seem to run on the same principles. Especially those that star Salman.

It is a pleasant surprise, thus, to see producer Sajid Nadiadwala taking his directorial debut seriously, making sure every part of the engine is slickly oiled. The loopy script coasts along breezily, Ayananka Bose’s cinematography is lush (and frequently more artful than you expect from a Salman project), the girls are considerably attractive, and — perhaps most importantly — the film smartly avoids the self-serious drivel that can ruin a shamelessly silly action film. (Case in point, the ponderous Dhoom 3. Kick, in one line, is basically Dhoom done right. But more on that later.)

The plot is threadbare enough to not matter. Shaina, a psychiatrist narcissistic enough to wear her name on a chain and depressive enough to turn ‘sex’ into ‘sorrow’ while playing Scrabble, is lamenting the loss of her lover. She tells her new suitor, a cop, about her ex, a guy called Devi Lal who did anything for kicks. (Including, presumably, always refer to them in the singular.) Devi quirkily won her over, but things soured and he dumped her, and she’s oh so heartbroken. The cop, Himanshu, tells Shaina he can empathise, because he too has someone in his life: a masked master-thief he just can’t get a hold of. (Ahem.)

No points for guessing the man of their dreams is the same. Salman Khan doesn’t often bother to act these days, swaggering through most of his parts without any consistency, yet he seems to be playing this Devi/L properly and in character, perhaps freed by the insouciance of the anything-goes role. Even in weak scenes, his screen presence is extraordinary. He’s clearly having a blast not having to mouth lewd lines or take his shirt off. Every now and again, Kick delivers flashes of that gleeful spontaneity we saw back in Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya when he was hopping around one-legged in a chicken-coop calling himself Murgaman.

Kick perfunctorily skips through most of the emo stuff — inevitable scenes showing character motives and changes of heart — in its quest to find the shiniest Bhai moments. The film is predictable, the script is lazily convenient, and yet there’s a surefootedness in the way Nadiadwala jauntily carries on increasing the tempo, piling on the Khan. His cinematographer shows some masterful framing and composition, capturing the energy of the moment very well most times, and at other times making things look very pretty. Jacqueline Fernandes looks good as a bimbette taken in by Khan and, despite her unfortunate dialogue delivery, isn’t ever around in stretches long enough to be grating. Mithun (yes, he of the red/blue shirts) plays Salman’s father; Nawazuddin Siddiqui makes bottle-popping noises with his mouth and borrows Manoj Bajpai’s Aks laugh to play villain; and Randeep Hooda is the cop who intriguingly enough appears to be quite turned on by the crook he’s after.

kick2If all that sounds trashy, well, it is. But it’s mostly fast enough to feel like a blast. At its worst — and there are more than a few scenes that are too long, too mawkish — Kick is at least entertainingly cheesy in a drinking-game sort of way. It’s never objectionably bad, and that hasn’t been said about a Salman Khan film for around fifteen years. While on the 90s, there seem to be peculiar (but again, amusing) tributes of some sort: a kooky flashback about Salman’s childhood is animated a la Def Leppard’s Let Get Rocked; and an item song starring the ravishing Nargis Fakhri takes place in some freaky netherworld equally fit for both Alisha Chinai and The Undertaker. It’s almost trippy.

The rest of the film is The Salman Khan Show.

The Dhoom movies provide a pretty valid parallel, and I don’t just mean the basic cops-and-robbers template. The first Dhoom was merely a fun action film; the second amped it up with massive stars, more bling, louder stunts, better bikinis. Dhoom 2 didn’t even try to make sense — a man was dressed up as a Grecian statue in one shot and a watchman in the next — but it looked so captivating we were blinded by its gloss. Dhoom 3, unfortunately, tried way too hard; it stole a plot, added in melodrama, slowed down its chases. The result was an utterly unremarkable car-wreck.

Kick, therefore, is the Dhoom 2 of the Salmaniverse. It looks good, moves fast, shows off its superstar. In the world of harebrained Bhai films — Dabanng included — Kick is the best made and the most fun. If you’re a fan, you just hit the jackpot.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, July 25, 2014

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Review: Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya

I was fourteen when more than half the boys in my school suddenly started wearing their shirts half-untucked. Not the slightly tousled careless untucking caused by a hurry or negligence, you understand, this was a very deliberate half-in, half-out approach followed strictly in an attempt to emulate Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj Malhotra. And this took place across barriers of cool and klutzy; the half-tuckers included those dolts who would go on to buy C-O-O-L Kuch Kuch Hota Hai bracelets as well as those wavy-haired guitarists who proclaimed Hindi films passé. It was inevitable. 

On those of us of a certain vintage, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge made a tremendous impact. One of my oldest friends still measures her swoons by how good Khan looked when brushing his convertible-swept hair in Ho Gaya Hai Tujhko Toh Pyaar Sajna, and I have myself approached strangers in bars and used “Robbie ki party” as, um, as an icebreaker. (For the record, it works.) Whatever you may ironically say about that 20-year-old film now, the fact remains that — to us — it was one of those pop-culture waves that changed everything.

humpty1Which is why I’m wary of dismissing Shashank Khaitan’s Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania as a DDLJ-ripoff or parody or spoof, and instead commending it as a romance that just happens to feature a star-crossed pair of DDLJ-obsessives. Humpty, a grown fanboy who still weeps when watching that other movie’s climax, is more like romcom-obsessive Mindy Lahiri from The Mindy Project than any of our regular leading men. His prospective Dulhania is a girl who, having drunk her fill of Kareena juice, pouts her way through life in a way that suggests consequences don’t matter — until, naturally, they do. 

It all begins, as most of us who have had to deal with a big family wedding these days can attest, with a lehnga. The girl demands one of those designer garments costing as much as a hatchback, and decides she’s going to hustle up the money for it herself. The boy — whose name comes from childhood chubbiness but who has taken the first four letters of said nickname to heart — finds himself charmed by this self-proclaimed firecracker, and decides he will help on this sartorial mission. Plans are hatched, jewellery is pawned, aunties are blackmailed…. And all this takes place in a whirl, the director slathering on eventful scenes with a narrative economy that feels almost too brisk. 

It must here be mentioned that this frequently-farcical opening stretch takes more than some getting used to. We’ve been seeing this a fair bit these days — insouciant Punjabi kids with ‘attitude’ and a strut, flinging Facebooky terms at each other — and unlike, say, Mere Dad Ki Maruti, which nailed this zing (and the zingers) quite effortlessly, things constantly seem staged and unreal in this film. Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt are likeable enough right from the start, but it all feels like make-believe, like two kids playing it smart instead of playing it real. He’s always Varun, she’s always Alia, and such is their eagerness to appear natural that they almost yell the (mostly-clever) lines at each other. Things get positively deafening inside a coffee shop. But they are, as mentioned, easy performers and — like watching a school-play starring cousins you’re fond of — it’s easy enough to sit through this because the supporting cast is sparkling, and because Khaitan keeps the story purring. It feels like harmless, forgettable fun.

Then everything changes. This is confoundingly enough a film which follows a tremendously predictable graph — one channeling not just that Raj-Simran movie but also Maine Pyar Kiya, Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya and several of those charming Genelia D’Souza films from the South, like Bommarillu — and yet a film that manages to stay captivating and current. The strength of Khaitan’s film lies in how it’s not trying too hard, it’s not trying at reinventing the wheel, and instead being honest to two characters who, it becomes gradually apparent, aren’t who they said they were — or, more importantly, they aren’t who they thought they were.

So after Humpty pulls away from his girl Kaavya — quoting a Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge line verbatim and turning it into a plotpoint — Khaitan’s film begins to slow down and come into its own. The girl loses her invincible swagger once she’s home; the boy who surrounded himself by silly (but great) friends feels inadequate when facing genuine competition. This vulnerability gives Khaitan’s protagonists a certain depth, and makes up for that over-flippant first half where, it is now clear, they felt fake because they were being fake, and now that all the posturing is over, their story can begin in earnest. And it does.

If I’m making this sound like a serious film, I apologise. This is a lark, a goofy film where you know what’s going to happen but where you enjoy watching it unfold. The supporting cast is very solid indeed — special praise to Ashutosh Rana as Kavya’s Amrish-esque dad, plus Sahil Vaid and Gaurav Pande as Poplu and Shonty, Humpty’s irresistibly loyal buddies — and television stud Siddharth Shukla is well cast as an ideal man, one we first see getting off a car smiling so wide it looks like his cheekbones have been doing weights.

Alia Bhatt starts off cutesy and a tad too affected (her yoga inhalations are pure plastic, but then aren’t they supposed to be?) yet is charming enough to keep things bubbling over till the actors drop their guard, after which she shows off some serious talent — especially rocking the Arms Outstretched pose (©SRK). It is Varun Dhawan, however, who really takes this movie home. His Humpty is sweeter than he is roguish, and when this film calls for sincerity, he doles it out impressively. He creates a character worth caring about, and his chemistry with Bhatt is quite endearing.

When done well, there is no such thing as “too filmi.” Filmi people end up living filmi lives — and sometimes we get to watch. Good on you, Shashank Khaitan. Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania is the kinda film Simran would have loved.

 

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 11, 2014

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Review: Mohit Suri’s Ek Villain

ev1Let’s start with what we know.

We know, by now, that Mohit Suri can direct. He knows how to block a scene, he knows how to use actors competently, he knows the importance of a strong moment, and the songs in his movies (more often than not) actually aid the narrative instead of weakening it.

We know that Siddharth Malhotra is an impressive looking lad, manlier than most of Bollywood’s current brigade, and that when left free of dialogue — as he was in Hansee Toh Phansee earlier this year — he can muster up both likability and a smoulder.

And, ever since 2004’s Naach, we’ve known Ritesh Deshmukh can act.

What else do we know? We know that Ek Villain is a shameless ripoff of the madly thrilling Korean film I Saw The Devil, a crackling 2010 horror-thriller full of elegantly executed ultraviolence, a gore-fest so deftly handled it remains impossible to look away from.

Yet, there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with the way we remake films. You know those often-hilarious South Asian DVD covers for pirated Hollywood films? Where they misspell the actor names and write a bizarre, ungrammatical and illogical version of the summary? With peculiar posters where content from two movies is often melded freakishly into one, as if all Tom Cruise movies were the same? Well, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that our filmmakers might not be remaking the films themselves but these odd DVD covers. (No, dear producers, that is not what you call a cover version.)

Hence we have Ek Villain, where we take a hardboiled Korean film — full of brutal gore and sexual abuse but enough panache to stay constantly gripping — and inexplicably scramble it into a sex-less, gore-less slasher film with a wide-eyed love story running through it all. Gone are the thrills from the original and in come the cliched background score, watered-down murder scenes, and much, much silliness.

Shradha Kapoor, for example, who has Pharrell Williams’ Happy as her mobile ringtone, chirpily sits around filling up her journal with polaroids, when she turns to see a menacing figure. Clad in all black, with gloved hands, he advances upon her, basically the Scream killer minus the ghostface mask. Her reaction, however, is one of plucky indignation. “Why didn’t you knock?”, she demands from this shadowy figure. “Don’t you know it’s not polite to enter someone’s room without knocking?”

And the idiocy rolls on, scene after scene strung together and not even attempting to make sense. There’s a mental-asylum ‘kidnapping’ that makes no sense (but is still in the film to show off Mohit’s/Siddharth’s love for the iconic Amitabh cheesefest, Shahenshah); a man who robs his victims but doesn’t have money to pay an autowallah; and a pinwheel that helps the ‘good’ guy find the bad one. Yes, a pinwheel. Like you get on Juhu beach. In the original film it was an engagement ring, and here it is a pinwheel, those flimsy paper things you can buy six of for a tenner. Because that’s enough to convict a man. Why this change? (Beats me, but the cover must have been a masterpiece.)

Why, again, is this a remake? Why would these filmmakers steal from a film and yet leave out the good parts, the bits that made those films great? And why do we do it over and over again? Suri can shoot a chase, certainly, but do let’s give him a meatier script.

Malhotra isn’t bad, except for his propensity to grunt all the time, as if snarling like a beast were the only way to show toughness. (It isn’t. It shows brain damage.) Ritesh Deshmukh is good, despite being straddled with awful dialogue. “Everyone makes fun of me,” he complains woefully, a possibly true-life sentiment that could be blamed on his Hindi film choices. Shraddha Kapoor, alas, has evidently been told that talking too fast will make her appear spontaneous (and thus give her an edge into the Parineeti Chopra market), but while the girl has a nice smile, it takes more than coke-sped-up dialogue-delivery to create a fresh, natural character.

If I were to review it in one word, I’d say Ek Villain is…. Unneccessary. It features some genuinely awful writing, it is sillier than the examples thus far have illustrated, and the one good thing you can say about the film is that it ends briskly enough. Oh, and that it has Remo Fernandes with a most amusing accent. But that’s more consolation than recommendation. Given free tickets, sure, you could escape Humshakals in theatres this weekend with this mediocre effort, but I say do yourself a favour and seek out the Korean DVD. (Uncover it, even.) Now that’s bloody special.

 

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 27, 2014

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Review: Sajid Khan’s Humshakals

Two nights ago, I had a dream. I dreamt (I kid you not) that I watched and didn’t actually loathe Sajid Khan’s Humshakals, which led to me waking up disturbed and profoundly confused. Is it possible that the most puerile filmmaker (in an industry not known for very mature films) did something half-decent? Could it be…

No.

No, it couldn’t. Humshakals, a film I watched the following night, turned out reassuringly enough to be bilge of the lowest order, the kind of thing we expect from Sajid Khan and yet even more harebrained. I sat in the theatre cringing and sighing, actually feeling the stultification: by nightfall I’d lost so many brain-cells I (almost) rooted for England in a football game. Shudder.

In a particularly painful hat-trick, the last three Fridays have seen me review the silly Holiday, the absurdly amateurish Fugly, and now this pathetic ‘film’. But there is one vital difference between those two turkeys and the one Sajid Khan has just dished out. Those are mediocre films basking in their own incompetence; Humshakals is a work of cruelty.

I’m not buying it, Sajid Khan. No director, I believe, can be senseless enough to think this is fine or remotely funny. Monkeys could direct a better film, and, going by what I’ve watched over the years, some have. But Humshakals couples its crude farce with a certain aggression, as if daring the audience to stay in their seats while it repeatedly spits at them.

This is not filmmaking, this is sadism.

Khan hints at it himself in a scene where an asylum warden tortures inmates by showing them Khan’s own flop, Himmatwala. We all relate, strapped into our seats, luduvico luddites assaulted by that which must not be watched. Every minute — and there are a hundred and fifty seven bleeding minutes — is so brutal it will make you want to give up your deepest secrets in exchange for escape.

The idea of having three actors in three roles apiece sounds like an ambitious one, but ambition is a concept foreign to Sajidland, where every time there is the slightest scope of a misunderstanding between the doppelgangers, the background score spells it out. Just how dumb do you think our audiences are, Sajid? Or were you trying to make Judwaa appear nuanced? This is a racist, sexist, equal-opportunity offender of a film, which wouldn’t have been awful in itself were it not also patently unfunny. Seriously, if you run into anyone who claims to have enjoyed this film, step away slowly.

For this is a film where Ritesh Deshmukh humps Suresh Menon’s leg; a film where parathas are made of cocaine; a film where Saif Ali Khan gets rapey with Deshmukh in drag; a film where two black men appear just so Saif can mouth a line about kaali daal; a film where virtually everyone looks identical and has the same name; a film where people who have hair wear wigs anyway; a film where Ram Kapoor romances himself; a film where characters who have the mental age of children nevertheless start talking like Ranjeet when aroused; a film where Saif Ali Khan, Nawab of Pataudi, drools and barks; a film where a mention of North Korean fascist Kim Jong Un is prefixed by the word “chinese chowmein”….

And so on.

hums1The biggest casualty from this monstrous effort is, in my eyes, Saif Ali Khan, who may well be disowned by friends and family. Khan gamely tries to embrace Sajid’s hammy script, but the results are grotesque: he overplays it, out on a limb far from the acting tree, and it doesn’t make for a pretty picture. Especially since he spends a significant chunk of the film dressed as a waitress, looking not half as effeminate as he did during his early, dupatta-chasing years — he’s now more like the wicked witch of the west. Ritesh Deshmukh, normally the better part of a Sajid film, spends this one making faces while peeing from the roof. Ram Kapoor, an otherwise fine actor, looks more like Shrek than ever, and is let down by a film that has cast him cause he’s fat. Even the great Satish Shah — who has aged remarkably well, casting directors across the nation — shows up as an ill-conceived neo-Nazi warden who is, unforgivably, slapped around by these morons. Ugh.

What other Sajid Khan staples? There are three trampily dressed women — of whom Esha Gupta stands out, for it takes a special kind of talent to be that glaringly awful as an actress — and, of course, the inevitable Chunky Pandey with a silly accent.

It’s all bad. All of it, every last instant, every single word. (The lyricist even rhymes “junoon” with “caller-tune.”) Which makes me wonder exactly what Sajid Khan’s motives are for savaging our audience thus. Is he the real neo-Nazi here? 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”?

Your guesses are as good as mine. Because a filmmaker he ain’t.

Rating: No stars

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First published Rediff, June 20, 2014

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Review: Kabir Sadanand’s Fugly

Take a dash of Dil Chahta Hai. Throw in liberal doses of Shaitan, add several tablespoonfuls of Fukrey, with a climactic heap of Rang De Basanti on top. Meticulously take out all the actors, all the finesse, every smart and clever bone. Throw it in a blender and then water it down till it’s not just an offensively bad film but a defiantly tacky one, a truly, truly cheap concoction that exists only to make you sick. Fugly can’t, in all good conscience, be called an actual movie — but it is the most appropriately titled mess of all time.

fugly1The kids in Fugly talk like… Nobody in the history of tongues. Young people don’t talk like that. Students don’t talk like that. Morons don’t talk like that. Coming to think of it, perhaps it takes a special talent to create four protagonists so constantly imbecilic that you want to whack the (Haryanvi) bejeezus out of them. Jimmy Shergill, playing a politically minded cop with an absurdly fake moustache, possibly signed on for this film simply because his character gets to slap these fools around a lot and bring them to their knees. Hurrah! The director might not have intended it,  but Shergill is without question the hero we root for.

Or we would — if we actually cared. This is a pathetic excuse for a film, with iPad-carrying sheikhs sitting on open-air toilets in the freezing cold; with vandals breaking into (conveniently open) shops wearing wigs that make them look like skunks, with desperate TV journalists noiselessly pawing the air as they stand in the background of an ICU; with farmhouse parties that net do-nothing organisers a lot of cash, with street-corner gigolos on Delhi streets who take a shine to commode-minded fools.. Yes, it’s all one big stinking mess that needs to be flushed away, double quick. Not least for making one of our country’s rare few sport champions look like crap.

As the recipe I began with might have illustrated, the devastatingly unoriginal Fugly tries to bite off far too much, and, without knowing how to chew, chokes on its own stupidity. There are a couple of good scenes — a Haryanvi politician accidentally resigns, Shergill has one good line about charging VAT for a bribe, the casual warmth with which a wizened old uncle shoos his nephew out the room (so he can get it on with an unconscious girl) — but everything else is embarrassingly amateurish roadkill. Four friends go on drives, jump while they dance, flout the rules because one of ‘em has a powerful dad, and then get screwed. But director Kabir Sadanand, who comes to us after having cut his teeth as an actor in the fantastically subtle world of the Hindi soap opera, persistently adds morality and preachy themes to this hacky mix. It’s enough to make you want to barf — or watch a Jaccky Bhagnani movie instead.

Had there been actual actors playing the leads in Fugly I’d have spoken about them (and surely actors like Shergill and Anshuman Jha, who appears briefly as a boa-clad baddie, don’t want to be spoken much of in relation to this monstrosity) but evaluating or even discussing the four new leads in this production would be tantamount to blaming four clueless kids — sorry, three kids and a boxer — for being misled by the man showing them candy. Thus the blame for this trainwreck lies in Sadanand’s incapable hands, and were he a minister we’d be clamouring for his resignation. Tragically our filmmakers remain even less accountable.

Contrary to popular belief, I posit this film’s producer Akshay Kumar hasn’t lost his mind. Fugly has a couple of tracks catchy enough to ensure airplay and, much more crucially, has clearly been made on a budget so tiny it couldn’t buy Salman Khan’s nosehair-clipper. Merely calling Fugly cheap is an unforgivable understatement: it looks like its been sloppily cut together from footage left over from bad cable TV shows. As a friend said, the Homeshop 18 infomercials have better production values — and better scripts. So Kumar, making this movie for next to nothing, won’t lose a thing and might even make some money (in a world where Gunday is a hit), but if you fork over your dough and actually spend time on this, well, you’ve Fuglied up bigtime.

Rating: No stars

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First published Rediff, June 13, 2014

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Review: Holiday is too slow to thrill

Offensively bland movies often throw up unrelated food for thought. While enduring the painfully boring Holiday, for example, I wistfully wondered how much fun things could be had the filmmaker chosen to change his vantage point: to go from the clichéd hero to the much more interesting character, his hapless (but reasonable) policeman buddy. Played as he was by Sumeet Raghavan, I kept willing the film to cut away from its insipid proceedings to this perfectly likeable cop’s home life, to his miserly wife and his poetry-spouting brother. What a lark that would be.

Alas, this film is made by AR Murugadoss, the man who made Ghajini — and the man who can thus be blamed for our blockbusters having turned dafter than ever. And clearly he and I have very different definitions of the word “lark.”

Holiday calls itself a thriller. And indeed there is a thumping background score and much, much malarkey about sleeper cells and terrorists. In the middle stands Akshay Kumar, with unfortunately flat hair, holding a Rubik’s Cube, and making what appear to be very random assumptions. He’s ridding Mumbai of the scourge of terrorism, and good for him. Because these are simple action movie setups that, despite their harebrained processes, can lead to slick enough thrillers.

holiday1Except Holiday ticks in slow-motion. Imagine, if you will, that legendary scene from the first Mission Impossible film with Tom Cruise suspended from the roof. Pure upside-down adrenaline. Now, if Murugadoss were to direct that scene, we’d spend forty minutes watching Cruise finding a shop to buy ropes, figuring which sneakers are least likely to squeak, and then detailing his plan at great length — before eventually executing it in slow-motion with half the shots replayed from different angles. Holiday, obsessed as it is with detailing Akshay’s efficiency, takes obscene amounts of time getting to the point. Remember the endless shots of people walking in Akshay’s Special 26? This is far worse.

Kumar plays army man Virat, a vacationing busybody hunting for a bride. Shortsighted enough to describe Sonakshi Sinha as “naazuk,” Kumar is bowled over watching her box. He proceeds to tap her thigh when she’s in the middle of a judo match, a move that results in her angrily hurling a javelin at him. Unfazed, Kumar pulls a big red heart out his jacket and gladly lets her javelin puncture it. Sure, it’s a throwaway moment from a silly song, but it well captures the spirit of this ridiculously childish romance. Sinha plays a pigheaded and alarmingly superficial sports-nut who, after slapping her father and berating a friend’s husband for being bald, decides mousily to settle for Kumar because, um, good men are hard to find nowadays, y’know?

Kumar, meanwhile, chases bearded men with the kind of parkour enthusiasm one would imagine he saves for those smuggling bottles of Thums Up. Jumping from balcony to balcony — and, as mentioned, from half-formed conclusion to conclusion — Akshay gamely and recklessly heads to the climax. At one point, the actor seems to have forgotten what he’s shooting for. He rounds up his squad, gives them a pep talk about turning sleeper cells into “coma cells,” and then — like a veejay trying out for an IPL-hosting gig — he bounces up, grinning, with a “boom!” (I’m astonished a plug for the next season of Fear Factor didn’t immediately take over the screen.)

It may as well have. Cut down to less than half its running time, Holiday could perhaps have been bearable. As it stands, three hours long and incredibly yawnworthy, it’s the kind of mess that makes you miss scenery-chewing villains like Prakash Raj and long for item songs. Anything for a respite. The audience nearly applauded when the intermission began, I kid you not.

Think you can handle the truth? Holiday is about the brave men and women fearlessly serving the nation and making sure you rest easy. The men and women who take on unthinkable odds, waking up and rushing to theatres first thing in the morning to catch a movie starring the hero and heroine from Joker and made by the guy who made Ghajini. We watch, and we warn, so you may not have to. Because a critic is never off duty.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 6, 2014

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Review: Amole Gupte’s Hawaa Hawaai

hh1It is a rare and wondrous thing when students genuinely admire a teacher.

I remember sniggering cruelly many years ago when my kid brother, extolling the virtues of one of those self-aggrandising heads of tuition institutes, resolutely referred to him as “Sir Vipin” instead of “Vipin Sir,” convinced of his greatness and boardexam-beating power. Growing up, we’re naturally disposed unfavourably toward teachers, but the few who shine through and make us believe also win us over completely. Merely being their student becomes a point of young pride, and we begin thus to look to them for perfection, unreasonably expecting flawlessness and answers to everything.

It’s stunning, faith. And this is the wide-eyed keenness Amole Gupte captures so well in Hawaa Hawaai, where a skating-instructor is merrily deified by his adoring children, hoisted by them onto a rockstar-high pedestal. “Lucky Sir, Lucky Sir”, they chime in unison (younger but wiser than my knighthood-conferring sibling, clearly) as their sharp-eyed teacher shows up to an empty parking lot — and encourages them to fly.

Lucky Sir happens to be sitting in a wheelchair while cheering the kids on, but this doesn’t stop eager tea-boy Arjun from instinctively recognising a superhero. He sees the swish kids swoosh around on their rollerblades and dreams of wheels on his own feet, and the film is about following those dreams, come what may.

It’s a smart angle for the film, too. Rollerblades, by their very nature — that of something normal stuck onto something normal to make something relatively extraordinary — lend themselves perfectly to the Do-It-Yourself concept, and armed with an ensemble of talented (and adorable) youngsters, Gupte affectionately crafts a truly sweet underdog story. Modelled on those American movies where fathers and sons build flimsy soapbox-racers that go on to beat karts many times as expensive, Hawaa Hawaai is simple but wonderful. It’s a well-textured and etched film, one refreshingly lacking in villains — even the richest, chubbiest kid isn’t a meanie — and one that heartbreakingly but smilingly illustrates the disparity between the kids shown in the film and the kids who can afford to buy theatre tickets to watch this film. Which is exactly why you should drag every kid you care about to this movie.

It is also the kind of film that may well have been dismissed as cloying, predictable or manipulative, but so stridently does Gupte’s sincerity shine through that cynicism is left at the door very early on. The film opens with a father singing an ode to the daily bread while a mother makes chapatis, and this, naturally, is a massive gamble, a move that could make the film seem dated, stagey and too much of a morality tale, but Gupte (who literally sings this song) endows this basic moment with such heart and warmth that it serves only to make the audience feel cosier about the idea of a moral lesson.

hh2Played by Gupte’s son Partho, Arjun is an indefatigable youngster, a well-raised boy who wears a constant smile to fend off hard times. Partho is a fine actor and an irresistibly cute kid — with superb Hindi elocution —  and Gupte surrounds him with a quartet of kids who are every bit his equal. These four — Gochi (Ashfaque Khan), Bhura (Salman Khan), Abdul (Maaman Menon) and Murugan (Tirupati Krishnapelli) — play homeless kids working several rungs below minimum wage, and they make for an amazing entourage, the real wheels pushing Arjun ahead. It’s hard not to smile (and sob) at them

Saqib Saleem, one of those naturally talented actors lacking in false notes, plays Lucky, and he’s a great fit for Gupte’s cinema considering how his performances hinge on believability instead of bluster. His is a more demanding character than initially apparent, and Saleem handles it well. He takes one look at Arjun’s homemade skates and incredulously dubs him his Eklavya, his ‘unworthy’ student and true champion, and thus do the kids begin calling him “Eklaava.” Most of the cast is on the money: Makarand Deshpande is beatific and blissed out as Arjun’s father, Neha Joshi is terrific as the boy’s mother, and it’s always good to see Razzak Khan grin. But the kids are the champs.

This is a brisk, enjoyable film, and while the climactic race is somewhat marred by an overdose of melodrama — Gupte’s far better at subtler strokes than the few broad ones he tries — it is rare to find a Hindi film hero more deserving of our cheers than Arjun. That unfortunate hint of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in the final race doesn’t alter the fact that this is an earnest, important and evocative film.

Important? Yes. Gupte’s first film, the marvellous Stanley Ka Dabba was better-realised cinematically and held more to cherish, but Hawaa Hawaai tries to bite off more. And while its larger point about farmer suicides certainly ought have been handled more subtly, at least this film — like its characters — goes for broke. And that’s what makes it special. Or, as Arjun would say, “peshal.”

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 8, 2014

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Review: Vikas Bahl’s Queen

queen1

This is a story of girl meets girl.

The girl, a pink-sweatered doll showered with sticky compliments by her mithaiwallah parents, is all set to be married. She wishes she could learn the dance steps from Cocktail her grandmothers are practicing, and that her best friend showed up in time for the best sangeet-selfies. She doesn’t get married. Instead, after a lifetime of making the most of what is dealt to her, she goes away and finds a version of herself she never knew existed.

This is a story of girl meets girl, and you should know upfront that this is not a love story.

Unless, of course, we refer to the relationship between the audience and the protagonist. Because I dare you to watch Queen and not fall in love with the character.

Vikas Bahl’s film starts off  looking like yet another entry to the increasingly cluttered Delhi-Shaadi subgenre, but it is clear soon enough that this is a film etched more acutely than most. A crying girl grabs a laddoo because it’s nearby, college girls wolf down golgappas on credit, and, after a fiancée gets dumped in a coffee shop, her former man dusts the table free of the mehndi flakes that fell there when her desperate hands chafed helplessly around her cellphone. Relationship detritus comes in the oddest of shapes.

What happens in this film isn’t as important as the way it does. The plot is a mishmash of Meg Ryan’s French Kiss and Sridevi’s English Vinglish, but Bahl’s treatment is fresher and more vibrant, and — incredible as this may sound — his leading lady is better.

Kangana Ranaut is gobstoppingly spectacular. The actress has always flirted with the unfamiliar but here — at her most real, at her most gorgeously guileless — she absolutely shines and the film stands back and lets her rule. There are many natural actresses in Hindi cinema today, but what Ranaut does here, the way she captures both the squeals and the silences of the character, is very special indeed. Her character is built to be endearing and Ranaut, while playing her Rani with wide-eyed candour, is ever sweet but never cloying. It’s a bold but immaculately measured performance, internalised and powerful while simultaneously as overt as it needs to be to moisten every eye in the house.

Having a name that literally means royalty, a name that feels more like a monarchist suffix than a name, can make for awkward conversation when one is forced to explain it to those from farflung shores, and Rani does better than I ever did, enchanting Frenchmen and Italians and Japanese with an irresistibly proud “Queen!” chirrup. The girl goes to Paris and Amsterdam and has many an adventure, and even as Rani steps out to discover her own character, Ranaut stays firmly and impressively in character. In a bar with a waitress ready to pour a spigot of booze down her throat, for example, Rani opens her mouth more out of an obedient instinct than a willingness to drink.

And so this girl from Delhi’s Rajouri Garden traipses around the world, Skyping with her family upto ten times a day, and yet finding liberation around every corner. The cast is mostly excellent — most notably Rani’s family, particularly her grandmother and kid brother/chaperone, and her best friend from college who laments her own shitty life — and Rajkummar Rao is perfectly cringeworthy as a wannabe who believes a London trip makes him better than those around him.

queen2This is a massively entertaining film, even though it does run too long, and Rani’s fun travails are bogged down by a sense of tokenism, by her friends being White, Black and Asian (and the Asian being one of the most annoying Japanese caricatures since Mr Yunioshi from Breakfast At Tiffany’s). The unbelievably hot Lisa Haydon — with Mick Jagger’s tongue tattooed on her thigh — drapes her legs around everything in a seemingly relentless quest for stripper-poles, and her accent is atrociously inconsistent, but ah well. This isn’t about her. Everyone in this film is playing a supporting role, even the director. When nothing else works in the shot, you can turn unfailingly to Rani, besotted, and smile at her with an affection you saved for your teenage crushes. She’s a wonder.

Kudos, then, to screenwriters Parveez Shaikh, Chaitally Parmar and Bahl, but those applauding the great writing shouldn’t forget Ranaut herself, credited for Additional Dialogue. She made Rani as much as Rani’s making her, and to that we must tip our hats.

Ranaut always seemed like a misfit in mainstream Hindi cinema, a stunning but strange creature who belonged to a different jigsaw, but now our movies are beginning to catch up with her. Queen is a good entertainer, sure, but, more critically, it is a showcase for an actress poised to reign. This is one of those monumental moments when you feel the movies shift, and nothing remains the same. I’ve seen the future, baby, and it’s Kangana.

Rating: Four stars

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First published Rediff, March 7, 2014

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Review: Ali Abbas Zafar’s Gunday

gunday1Gunday is the sort of film some people may mistakenly call a bromance. There is, however, nothing bro-tastic at all about this loud and slow-motion actioner, a film that tries hard to be old-school but proves only that its makers need to be schooled. This is, as a matter of fact, a more blatantly homoerotic film than any in our history. If you’ve played a little nudgenudgewinkwink at Sholay subtexts, your mind will explode when the Gunday leads — with coaldust blown into their faces by a guy about to kill them — look at each other and… well, pucker.

That’s right, these two are always on the verge of jumping each other’s bones. Chests shaven, oiled and heaving — in sickeningly slow-motion — Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor consistently look at each other with maddeningly lusty eyes. Theirs is a physically demonstrative friendship, to the extent that whenever Ranveer hugs Arjun he sinks his face into the nape of Arjun’s neck, and when they are both aroused by the sight of Priyanka Chopra inserting herself into a classic song, the sexiest in Hindi film history, they feel the need to immediately hold each other’s hands. It coulda been a progressive film if it wasn’t constantly trying to call itself macho.

They could have called it Gun-Gay but that’d mislead us into believing this could be a quieter film.

Not so, ladies and gents, not so. Director Ali Abbas Zafar has directed a monstrous film, one with a repellent 70s-set storyline that makes no sense whatsoever, and a cast who should all hang their heads and offer up a minute’s silence for assaulting their respective filmographies. This is garbage.

Now, some of the films of the 70s and 80s — those loud and over-the-top actioners with wicked zamindars and wronged fathers and disabled mothers and avenging heroes — were trashy as hell, but they added up. They had solid, meaty plots and, more importantly, they had really good actors as villains being defeated by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Sunny Deol and Sunny Deol’s dad. These were men with great presence facing off against solid actors who made careers out of being evil, and the meaty plot — the twists and turns of which would always take more than a few lines to summarise — only made them more fun.

This has none of that, with a plot thinner than sliced cheese, hacky characters and actors who don’t know what to do with themselves. Ranveer and Arjun essentially play a couple of gangsters — and very repressed men in love with each other who get off seeing each other do Baywatch runs — who find everything going for a toss when a heroine walks in on them with their dhutis up. Neither is in love with the girl, but both overcompensate, playing a game of chicken as they clinch each other tighter. That, in a nutshell, is all there is to it.

Meanwhile Irrfan Khan, who apparently gets paid pretty good money for films these days, does his bit and says a few lines and makes them count. He isn’t around much, but if bilge like this helps actors like him make a buck, long may he spend counting out his money.

gunday2Naturally, the two idiots fight over the girl. And it is in the film’s asinine second half, where they stop embracing and start yelling at each other, that it becomes clear these aren’t heroes at all. They might be the best looters of coal this side of Dhanbad, and may have amassed a fortune — wealthy enough to buy anything but shirt-buttons, clearly — but these are two villains in the lead roles, two villains lacking the charisma to be the main baddies. Basically, we’re seeing a three hour film featuring the kinda guys who’d take orders from Sadashiv Amrapurkar or Amrish Puri to go get biffed by Sunny paaji.

Somewhere in this mess is Priyanka Chopra, looking like a bobble-head and making about as much sense. Her commitment to the part is in the way she sashays, and while she delivers most dialogues better than the boys, she’s given a maddeningly inconsistent character. At one point when pushed onto a pile of coal, she falls down straight but in the next shot is lying on her side with her butt stuck out, possibly in the hope that she can Rihanna her way out of a graceless film. (Spoiler: She can’t.)

The film starts off weak, with accidentally fun moments every now and then — the only one that stayed with me involves Pankaj Tripathi stretching out his arms in a Shah Rukh Khan pose after being shot — and we begin with a couple of annoying kids who refuse to grow up. That Bachchan-defining shot, of a child running and kid-legs turning into Amitabh-legs as the camera pulls out, finds many echoes here, but despite many slow-motion opportunities, the running kids exasperatingly enough stay running kids. That’s about the only suspense in this film until the two leads finally appear, Ranveer’s nipple bouncing alarmingly, as if it’s been paid extra.

Everything goes further downhill from there. These are protagonists who wear white pants with red hearts on the bottom, and yet this film doesn’t pick up on opportunities for irony or kitsch. Calling it a throwback seems insulting enough; imagine the Once Upon A Time In Mumbai films without Ajay Devgan, Emraan Hashmi and Akshay Kumar. That’s what Gunday is. And Ali Abbas Zafar should have his directorial license revoked for daring to end this godawful film with a Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid finish.

Rating: Half a star

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First published Rediff, February 14 , 2014

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Review: Sohail Khan’s Jai Ho

jaiho2Like with Alok Nath jokes, it all began with Maine Pyar Kiya. That Sooraj Barjatya hit had characters (with “friend” written on their baseball caps) moronically state that friends don’t thank each other or apologise, a preposterous declaration which must have led the next generations into an era of boorish dickishness in the name of dosti.

Not much has changed 25 years later as Salman Khan, in his latest film — an uncredited and inexplicably violent take on Pay It Forward — starts telling people not to say thanks, but instead help three people in need, and tell them to help three other people, and so on. (In the film this leads to Salman passionately drawing stick figures while people stand around him, cheering as they help him multiply numbers by 3. Um, yeah.)

Sohail Khan, Bhai’s bhai and the director of Jai Ho, obviously likes the idea and extends this welfare policy charitably towards familiar but out-of-work actors, thus negating the need for extra. Everyone from the rickshaw-wallah (Mahesh Manjrekar) to Nameless Corrupt Cop No 2 (Sharad Kapoor) is a recognizable face; even the neighbourhood drunk is “Khopdi” from Nukkad.

In the middle of this world stands Salman Khan, playing himself. Khan, Bollywood’s real-life answer to Derek Zoolander, does his thing like only he can. And the crowd responds. Sitting in a single-screen theatre, the air was filled with shrill, thrilled whistles as soon as the censor certificate hit the screen. The first glimpse of Khan — via braceleted wrist — had the crowd in paroxysms. Imagine a movie theatre full of 14-year-old girls getting their first glimpse of Michael Jackson (Or McCartney. Or Bieber. Pick a generation) except with grown men shrieking instead of preteen girls. (During the climactic fight sequence, these men raucously yelled “kapda utaar”, breathlessly exhorting their bhai to peel off his shirt and make their day. It’s more blatantly than any of our leading ladies get objectified, that’s for sure.)

jaiho1People get attacked; Salman helps. People need stenographers; Salman helps. A little girl needs to go to the restroom; Salman helps. Someone grabs his sister’s collar, Salman snarls. You get where this film is going, yes? In his own lunkheaded manner, perhaps this very choice of film is Salman being sensitive. Perhaps he feels that people watching his film will go out and help other people… But to what end? Despite the hamfisted direction (at one point Suniel Shetty shows up on a highway and starts shooting people with a goddamned tank) the film’s main problem is that Jai Ho isn’t about being a samaritan or paying it forward; it’s about a man who can smash the system all by himself. Not entirely relatable, nope.

Meanwhile, amid the sea of familiar faces peeks the new girl, Daisy Shah. She makes her way onto the screen doing pseudo-Indian classical dance steps while wearing cowboy boots. She’s trying really hard to be MTV but is only applauded, rather disturbingly, by middle-aged folks while the kids watching don’t seem to care. After some silly bickering — and a ghastly recurring joke about her innerwear — Salman falls for her, but it isn’t as if she matters. There are too many characters, you see, to create and set-up and conveniently resolve, and mercifully a lot more screentime is given to the lady who plays Salman’s sister. Tabu’s still got it, and as evidenced by the seetis from my neighbours when she did a brief jig, she can still rock it hard.

The one thing that left me truly touched, however? The fact that Sohail Khan took forward that lament from Austin Powers, that “people never think how things affect the family of a henchman” and showed a goon who had been beaten up watching TV with his family and lamenting his actions. Its… It’s hard to make up, really.

As for Khan, there’s nothing new to see here. But that’s probably the point. For a man who’s pushing 50, he’s looking spry and seems to be having fun playing to type, though the absurd amounts of money his movies rake in obviously help. Having said that, my one and only laugh in Jai Ho came when Khan punched a car window and — in a film where he throws people through all manner of doors and walls and vehicles — explained himself saying he didn’t know it had been rolled up. Does he really want to be in on the joke now? Or maybe he already is.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, January 24, 2014 

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