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My picks for the Mumbai Film Festival

The 16th Mumbai Film Festival starts today, October 14.

The official website gives you everything you need to know, and lets you reserve tickets.

But this here link (RS MAMI Picks), gives you a PDF of the schedule with my must-watch films of the festival — based on things I’ve read, heard and trailers of the films playing — highlighted in unmissably bright yellow. Thus, if you like, follow the yellow brick road. I’ll be there.

(Oh, and I haven’t highlighted Richard Linklater’s Boyhood because it’s a no-brainer. Watch that cinematic marvel as many times as you can.)

Have a great festival, and holler a hello if you see me. (Just not if a movie’s playing.)

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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, October 1, 2014

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Is Sajid Khan the worst director in India?

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

First published Mandate magazine, August 2014

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Review: Shashank Ghosh’s Khoobsurat

Some movies are like candy. Wrapped in bright plastic and frequently too sweet for your own good, they act as sunny, unsurprising treats that lead to sticky, syrupy smiles. Disney Pictures is founded on these spoonfuls-of-sugar, on these simplistic stories of larks and laughter (and Happily Ever After). Now, the first Hindi release prefixed by that iconic, firework-veiled castle fittingly stays away from grandiose cinematic ambitions and, instead, wears a delightfully large grin.

Shashank Ghosh’s Khoobsurat is a bright red lollipop. It is a remake of the similarly-titled 1980 Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, which, in turn, was a retread of the director’s own 1972 classic Bawarchi, a far better film. Mukherjee — perhaps the finest of all Hindi movie storytellers — was himself retracing familiar ground, and the result, while earnestly sweet and remembered with nostalgic fondness, isn’t a film that has aged particularly well. The best that can be said for that film’s leading lady, Rekha, never the finest of actresses, is that she’s constantly brimming with enthusiasm, and now — in this role that celebrates well-dressed klutziness — so is Sonam Kapoor, more comfortable in her skin than we’ve recently seen.

khoobsurat1Her Prince is a fellow who makes women melt. Fawad Khan, rightful ruler of Pakistani primetime television, is a shark with stubble, a handsome and suitably haughty fellow with piercing eyes and, as his heroine observes, “itni lambi lashes.” She says this in her head, Ghosh peppering his film with these subtext-subtitles a la Annie Hall, and while the mid-dialogue voice-overs don’t quite work at the start, the director persists and the thought-bubble lines give the film its own simple charm. The film is set in a sternly-run palace where things are thought, not said, and Kapoor’s Mili — visiting as the half-Bengali physiotherapist to the King (who doesn’t try to speak any Bengali, thank heavens)  — is trying hard not to make an ass of herself. (Trying, and failing.)

The dictator in these parts is the queen, played smashingly by the glorious Ratna Pathak Shah, in grand tribute to her mother Dina, who, as the imperious mother in the 1980 film, was the best thing about it. Shah’s Rani-Sa flings daggers with her eyes, keeps her dialogues frosty and, in a moment where she disdainfully kicks off a rubber slipper, shows why she is one of the finest performers we have. Theatre veteran Aamir Raza Hussain, in a delightful role as a wheelchair-bound king — think Captain Haddock in The Castafiore Emerald, were he married to Castafiore —  is a warm and fuzzy character, a perfect foil to his cold queen. And miraculously enough, these actors being what they are, they sneak some chemistry into the few moments they have.

This film, in fact, is doused with chemistry. Many a Disney film focusses too pinkly on the princess and leaves its blond, blue-eyed princes relatively interchangeable; I dare you to name the leading man in Anne Hathaway’s Princess Diaries without looking it up. But the filmmaker is here aware of the relative dishiness of both his actors, and cleverly constructs them as preening characters aware of their own looks. She wears rouge when massaging a cricketer’s foot, he — tightly ravelled in formalwear — even once wears a necktie to bed. Mili and The Prince don’t get off on the right foot, but she thinks he’s hot and he can’t help stare at her legs. As a result, when they do kiss in the film, they keep breaking away, only to gaze at each other more hungrily.

In every way, this film offers up the expected — only it does so with a smirk. The kind of knowing, genial smile an old, elaborately-moustached khidmatgaar might give a guest he particularly likes while serving them surreptitiously spiked coffee. Mili, who thinks dressing up to meet a neighbouring Maharajah means wearing a ballooning pair of stars-and-stripes pants, isn’t made for the palace life, and the palace, stuffed into place by its elegant dictator, isn’t quite ready to be shaken up. But, as the template dictates, she breezes through and all is eventually made better.

Kapoor, also the film’s co-producer, has chosen well, playing a clumsy character and tossing aside vanity to essentially play a clown in a baseball cap. In many ways, this role of a long-limbed girl who doesn’t often know what to do with her hands and feet suits her well. She spends the film making overdone, gif-worthy faces — be it when laughing inappropriately or when she’s bawling uncontrollably sitting between her father and a poster of Cary Grant — and that is just what Disney heroines should do. Khan, as a Prince who doesn’t even bother to say bless-you to a nearby sneezer, is a great find, an actor who doesn’t need to overplay his smugness, one who wears royalty lightly and well. He’s understated, exceptionally good with dialogue, and naturally, as per the brief, Charming.

There are a few bum notes, not least of which is Kirron Kher who, while warm, is too much of a caricature even for a Disney movie. She’s the William Wallace of Punjabi Mothers, an iconically cringeworthy character who doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Neither, it must be said, does Ghosh, the quirky director here wearing mouse-ears and colouring neatly within cliched lines. Yet his Khubsoorat was always meant to be a lozenge — and, when unwrapping candy, it’s always best to know what we’re in for.

Rating: 3 stars

~

First published Rediff, September 19, 2014

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Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Art For Heart’s Sake

Sunday morning, I changed the caller tune on my phone. Moved from an English oldie to Har seedhe raste ki ek, the fabulous title song from Golmaal. About eight hours later, a colleague messaged me the news, minutes before it took over the television channels. A lump hit my throat and I instantly flashbacked to last year, when I had called up Hrishida.

chupkechupke1Working on a feature on India’s best films, I couldn’t look past Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the name tempting me from the film directory. Could I get an opinion from the man who made Anand? I called, and he picked up, huskily assuring me that it was he. I stammered out a nervous introduction and, making sure not to cut me off mid-sentence, the filmmaker finally stopped me. “I cannot help you, I’m sorry,” he wheezed into the phone. “I am very ill.” I hastily muttered an apologetic, awkward goodbye as the line went dead.

I was shattered and, I soon realised, heartbroken. Yes, filmmakers get old and their films live on. Yes, life goes on. But that this would happen to Hrishikesh Mukherjee somehow just hit harder. I felt helpless and greatly dismayed, and was resultantly puzzled. Not just had I never met the man, I also hadn’t ever really read up or researched his background and technique. Yet, I felt inexplicably attached to him. All I had done, of course, was fall in love with the films he made. And that’s all it takes.

There are filmmakers with a great cinematographic eye, those with powerful use of light and shadow, those who throw their actors over the edge to achieve mammoth performances and those who overwhelm you with sound and fury. In terms of emotion, Hindi cinema is packed with directors conversant with maudlin melancholy and rolling-in-the-aisles humour.

Mukherjee’s cinema stands beyond directorial technique, or mere storytelling. His are films with depth and one-liners, films with pathos and slapstick, films with farce and grand tragedy – above all, however, they are films bred in familiarity. Absolute familiarity. Wonderfully etched characters are drawn with such tender nuance that not only do we relate to them, they echo people plucked uncannily from our lives. From jobhunters in short kurtas to lanky alcoholics with telescopes, Hrishida‘s folk have been disarmingly real, even despite great caricature. You can’t help loving them.

And it was not as if he drew his actors from the haughty sidelights of parallel cinema. These were superstars, not art-house critical favourites looking scornfully at the mainstream. He gave Amitabh Bachchan visibility in Anand, and subsequently balanced out his angry-young-man credentials with roles of acting significance. In 1973, Hrishida‘s Abhimaan rose alongside Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer; 1975 was the mammoth year of Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay and Yash Chopra’s Deewar, but Hrishida did his luminous bit with Mili and Chupke Chupke. His films might not have been Amitabh’s blockbusters, but they do give us the megastar’s most substantial performances.

The stories are literature by themselves. From immense marital discord to the inevitability of death, from delicate Wodehousean farce to war of the classes, he tackled it all but laced his movies magically with an earnest realism that touched us to the core. Special cinema of course, but crucially special sans fanfare. A Hrishikesh Mukherjee film didn’t come with any massive pretentions of grandeur, any conceit of inaccessibility. This was dal-bhaat filmmaking, supremely fresh everyday slices of life, served up unfailingly warm and tender. The films he made discriminated not between frontbenchers and critics, cineastes and collegekids, critics and our mothers.

golmaal1And how they endure. From Rajesh Khanna’s babumoshaai to Utpal Dutt’s eeesh, not to mention lyrical dialogues impossible to forget, the words penetrated the nation’s collective lexicon. Even today, cable operators are well aware that their best chance of getting people to watch a poor-quality channel on a Saturday afternoon is to show one of Hrishida‘s Amol Palekar comedies. And the dramas are infinitely compelling, peopled by characters he turned into our extended family. The stories are ever poignant and never overdone, and we’re repeatedly forced back into choking back a sob. Or stifling louder-than-acceptable guffaws with our hands. The magic lies, of course, in the fact that we are often torn by both emotions simultaneously.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was truly the heart of Hindi cinema. His films have transcended libraries and genre, and simply become a part of who we are. I grew a moustache recently and, despite the Mangal Pandey jibes, my predominant encouragement is drawn from Utpal Dutt’s inimitable Golmaal lines on the importance of a man’s mouch. I am not a man for funerals, but there are some cases where one just has to pay last respects.

The caller tune on my phone, needless to say, now stays, a tribute to the great humanist filmmaker. It is the kind of song that inevitably makes you break into a grin, but like Hrishida‘s cinema, the lump in the throat stays alongside the smile.

~

First published Rediff August 30, 2006, after HrishiDa’s passing. Here is the piece from his funeral.

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Review: Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny

ff1Some beholders like it big. Colombian artist Fernando Botero, a fine fetishist of the fleshy, spent decades drawing and sculpting the ornately obese, men and women chubbily camouflaged by an abundance of curves — and by unexpected softness. Botero’s influence in Homi Adajania’s wickedly titled Finding Fanny appears an obvious one — I thought I saw a print hanging from a balcony early in the film — but also one that directly inspires a character. Don Pedro is a painter and poser, a worshipper of womanhood, who, with orotund declaration, reveals his love for the large.

A genuine vulgarian who peppers his conversation with cliched phrases and fills majestic brandy bottles with cheap whiskey, Don Pedro — bestowed with unlikely elegance by the fabulous Pankaj Kapoor — is just one of this film’s oddball cast, a cast made up exclusively of cartoonish characters who each, like a certain narcoleptic pussycat, have failed to land on their feet. These are more caricatures than people, true, but they are fondly sketched, best compared to those immediately evocative Goan screwballs made up by the late great Mario Miranda with his trademark wiggly lines: a postman with no letters to deliver; a gloomy mechanic with a penchant for sunglasses; an overbearing lady with a sharp tongue; and, well, a girl so pretty nobody dare touch her. Instead of the fictional village of Pocolim, they could all live on the unchanging walls of Bombay’s Cafe Mondegar.

There is a story, of course, and it is naturally that of a goose-chase: for isn’t all fanny-finding, any hunt for skirt, ultimately a great big shot in the dark? But this 93-minute gem isn’t about plot. It is about these wonderfully whimsical characters and about the mood they inhabit. It is about novelistic narration and cinematography that appears tinted by Instagram. And, perhaps more than anything else, it is about English that is as broken as the characters.

India, you see, is entirely occupied by the Bollywoodites. Well, not entirely… One small corner of indomitable Goans holds out… against, at least, the incessant thumkas emanating from cinema both Hindi and Southern. Goa, like so many of us, speaks English, but Goan English — by way of the Portuguese and the Konkani, by way of pork vindaloo and feni — is a unique beast, a frisky lizard that often darts off in unexpected directions mid-sentence. Finding Fanny plunges boldly and determinedly into this port-wine patois, and strikes gold.

Yet making an absurdly loopy film isn’t just about kooky characters and madcap milieu (though they are a tremendous help). It is about consistency, for it must stay true to the flavour it promises in order to ground the lunacy into something we can appreciate over a feature-length period, rather than a string of gags forced onto the same backdrop, and Adajania’s film impressively holds steadfast. Every minute is silly, unexpected, cheeky. Apropos to the film’s title, cinematographer Anil Mehta’s camera pointedly (but casually) lingers on the women’s derrieres and the men’s crotches, and there is a gloriously puerile preoccupation with, as the Generals in Dr Strangelove would say, “bodily fluids” throughout the film, as we witness bedwetting and spitting and sneezing and dreams that are more than moist.

Most of this dreaming comes from the postman, Ferdie, played by Naseeruddin Shah sounding considerably shriller than usual. It is he who seeks the girl named Fanny, and angelic Angie, a local widow, comes naturally to his aid. Deepika Padukone’s Angie initially looks to be the film’s straight-man, the one normal cog in a sea of nuts, but it is soon apparent her quirks are as strong, albeit less obvious. Her officious mother-in-law (Dimple Kapadia, with a posterior that would have pleased the lads from Spinal Tap) can’t help but tag along for the ride, the ride in turn chauffeured by the reluctant Savio, (Arjun Kapoor) a tattooed scowler with designs on Angie. And of course, Don Pedro.

ff2Padukone is luminous, a sly girl with a loose-slippered gait, a casual floppiness that nearly camouflages her look-at-me narcissism, and the heroine gets the body language astonishingly right. She is a very good narrator and — as evidenced by her eyes during the instances of vulnerability the script allows her — a captivating actress. Her Goan accent slips a bit (everytime she says “yaar,” for instance, it is with a city twang) but that happens to the finest actresses. This is a role Padukone should be justly proud of. Not least because it balances the film.

For, on one hand, we have Dimple Kapadia and Arjun Kapoor, acting sparsely and naturalistically, letting tush and tattoo respectively do the exaggeratedly heavy lifting for them while they mostly just react. Kapadia is excellent in her part, and Kapoor is a revelation, one who should seek out clever films that allow him to shine with his lackadaisical lustre. On the other end is Pankaj Kapoor, grandstanding with hammy theatricality, a perfect foil to the equally overplayed Naseeruddin. The first time the two shake hands there is a distinct echo of Beckett, specifically Waiting For Godot, to the proceedings, and I see Kapoor as the pretentious Pozzo to Naseer’s Estragon, a forgetful, perpetually put-upon dreamer lacking in conversational skills. (Why, he even runs into a character named Vladimir who looks like a soviet version of himself, even crying just like him.)

It is this equilibrium Adajania must be applauded for loudest: when things get all shouty near the film’s climax, one character balances it all out with a big, pleased-as-punch grin even as he is surrounded by outrage. Admittedly, the climax is a muddied one, with Adajania straining to tie up loose ends when his very storytelling style — in both this film and his promising debut, Being Cyrus — seems best suited to leaving knots ambiguously open. The epilogue is particularly unnecessary. But, made in a land of Hindi genre movies and starring one of Bollywood’s glitziest girls, Finding Fanny is bold enough already. It gives us much, much to smile pleasantly at, to guffaw at, and one moment that will make the theatre gasp — before it brings the house down.

Drink in, then, the grainy blue skies and the utter timelessness, for this film  could be set in 1984, 1965 or tomorrow. Drink in the characters we (and the actors, clearly having a blast) could use more of. Drink in the originality and the swiftly economical storytelling. Drink it all in, and order seconds just as you would at Mondegar, without worrying about the cheque. Because — as Don Pedro teaches us — sometimes we just need a new drink in a marvellous old bottle.

Rating: Four stars

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First published Rediff, September 9, 2014

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Review: Rohit Shetty’s Singham Returns

Singham-Returns-Action-Car-Blast-SceneYo, Rohit Shetty, what’s with the volume, bro?

It’s clear what a director like Shetty — one with a box-office track-record even more invincible than his superheroic leading men — is trying to do with each successive film: up the ante. More action, more explosions, more bang for the buck. For some reason, alas, in his latest, Singham Returns, he’s literally amped things up. This is a truly deafening film, made this loud perhaps to knock out the skeptics among the audience. Is this how brains are washed into submission?

Ear-cruelty aside, Singham Returns is a full-blown tribute to the kind of pulpy 90s action film which would star Sunny Deol and have the word Saugandh or Badla in its title. Or, at least, it could have been. Things start off with Ajay Devgn’s cop meting out some firm-but-liberal justice to a bunch of kids, before the plot kicks in, and it is here, during the first half hour of the movie — with an exaggeratedly “bad man” godman and various shady politicians — that we are led to believe we’re in for some good ol’ masala fun.

But, in the sort of scripting downfall that would break Subhash Ghai’s heart, the film turns into a mess and leaves the plot behind. Even now, the hackiest of 80s and 90s films rerunning endlessly on movie channels on television remain somewhat watchable simply because they had big meaty storylines. They might have been bad movies, but there was enough meat in the narrative — there were real stakes and genuine threats and points of conflict and misunderstanding and some manner of authentic twists — to render them at least potent. The problem with Singham (and, for that matter, any of these uninteresting modern day star-vehicles) is that the hero roams about unchallenged, unopposed, enexciting.

Singham-Returns-Ajay-Devgn-ChutkiThe hero himself ain’t bad — for whatever that’s worth. Ajay Devgan wears his scowl like a wrestler would wear a championship belt, proud and unsmiling. He’s got a fine, old-school swagger and his asskicking looks relatively authentic. But what a bore his character, this Bajirao Singham, is, as he takes on all comers without once looking in danger of defeat.

The primary villain is Amole Gupte, playing a godman with a nearly GulshanGroveresque subtlety. He’s amusing enough — especially when in his civvies, wearing red shorts and a tee-shirt that says “Dope Chef” while he chills with a beer — but he soon becomes too much of a caricature, mouthing absurd lines like one where he boasts of having built his career on a pile of corpses. A couple of truisms about superstitious folks and mangoes notwithstanding, he isn’t allowed be to be half as menacing — or as fun — as he should be.

Technically, these are childishly crafted films. When two characters talk, there is a bewildering use of soft-focus to underline the character speaking, even if both are in the foreground. There are face-offs — between Devgn and Gupte, for example — where a third person enters the background of the frame merely so he can get slapped. And when Devgn gets truly angry, there are motion-trails near his fist as he roars and leaps up to strike baddies with his Lady Gaga claw.

Shetty’s having a fair bit of fun — a fact evident in the way the film snickers at Devgn’s advancing years, borrows a character and a line from the TV show CID, and objectifies its banian-wearing hero instead of the heroine (just like in the original Singham, a film I’d called “Devgn-porn”) — but one wishes he’d saved some for the rest of us. Singham Returns is a ridiculously loud drag.

The action is daft-but-enjoyable in the beginning but soon gets repetitive, no thanks to the audience forced to plug up ears with their fingers. Shootout after shootout takes place and people get killed but in the end its all down to Singham getting into Hulk mode and mowing down everyone single-handedly. How terrific it’d be if he just, like The Hulk said in The Avengers, stayed eternally angry? Or is that just our role as critics who have to spend their mornings at these movies?

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 15, 2014

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