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Oscar Review: The Imitation Game

Remember the first time you heard the last Pink Floyd album? No, not that recent bit of noodley-guitar nonsense, but The Division Bell, twenty years ago? I was thirteen and instantly heartbroken, because, despite most of the same band placing most of the same old sounds in the same old places, they didn’t have anything to sing about. No soul. There was craft, certainly, and David Gilmour can wring poetry out of a fretboard like the best of ‘em, but this was not the Floyd of Barrett or even the Floyd of Waters, this was just a talented set of architects trying very hard to sound like Pink Floyd — without ever feeling like them. In other words, an imitation game.

THE IMITATION GAMEIt’s much the same in Morten Tyldum’s new film about British genius Alan Turing. There is wonderful biopic-meat to be found in the story of a mathematician who succeeded at war against the Nazis, pioneered computers and was eventually — and tragically — done in for happening to be a homosexual. There are some fine actors preening under their respective spotlights, most of all Benedict Cumberbatch who wields that lead guitar like an acoustic boss. And yet this is a bland, flavourless film, a film that runs smoothly but too predictably, a film that cries its heart out (with much sincerity) but one that never, ever sings.

Which means, naturally, that some people will love The Imitation Game. It is an unsubtle film that delivers exactly what you expect in the most predictable way, and one which repeats its mantras over and over; one line,  “it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine” is repeated at least four times, clearly marking it as this movie’s great power and great responsibility. For the undemanding viewer who doesn’t mind spoonfeeding — in a stiff English accent, no less, with two actors from Downton Abbey just for good measure — this is a perfectly watchable film, even though every scene predictably ends with Cumberbatch’s Turing getting the last word or having the last laugh. Fans of The Division Bell, those blokes who sit in bars with frozen playlists and raise their whiskey-sodas to Pinkish Floyd and celebrate a lyric like “the grass is greener” only because they remember the words, may just have a field day.

Despite the wasted potential, The Imitation Game is a competently made film, telling the story of a British hero who envisioned computers many years before anyone else, a man who developed codebreaking machines to interpret Nazi codes during the second World War, and a man convicted of being gay. Cumberbatch is excellent in the part, though his part is ridiculously straitjacketed by antisocial stereotypes: he comes off like a fey, attractive-version of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, a dreamy blue-eyed man who can break the enigma machine but who can’t decipher an invitation to lunch.

imitation2It is also exasperating, in a film that pivots around the persecution of a man for his sexuality, to watch Cumberbatch play Turing with such utter asexuality. We know, from Sherlock, that Benedict can do aloof better than most loofs, and he brings a poetic vulnerability to the role, but the film doesn’t explore his heart, his instincts, his cravings — it just lets him use the word “logic” a lot, to the point where we start examining his ears for Vulcan sharpness.

Kiera Knightley does a fine job as Joan Clarke, his female foil — and the woman who can solve cryptic crosswords even faster than Turing — and it’s always good to see Mark Strong in anything, but this is a structurally spineless endeavour, with actors like Charles Dance made to play Charles Dance without really letting them get into nuance.

Historical experts are up in arms about many inaccuracies in the film’s narrative, but there is one particular inconsistency that is quite befuddling: for drama’s sake, the screenwriters let Turing cross paths with a Soviet spy (one he never met, according to history) and the spy, in order to keep Turing from exposing him, threatens to reveal Turing’s homosexual secret to the army. Turing capitulates, and in that moment is bewilderingly enough shown as a traitor to the English cause.

If you do end up watching The Imitation Game and rightfully applauding its performances, do so with gusto but do also look up the facts of Turing’s life. As for this critic who expected more from yet another obvious biopic-shaped piece of Oscar-bait, well, as that feeble Floyd album sang, High Hopes.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, January 16, 2015

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Review: Amit Sharma’s Tevar

Yawn.

Tevar — yet another of those mindless South remakes we’ve been indulging in so faithfully ever since Aamir Khan showed us the way in Ghajini — is a tiring slog, devoid of personality, riding unfairly on the shoulders of a young lad.

tevar1Arjun Kapoor, owner of said shoulders, isn’t bad at all. He’s likeable as the local hoodlum, gnashes his teeth with suitable enthusiasm during a fight scene, and the first time he runs into Manoj Bajpai, he chooses to smash Bajpai’s head into the hood of a jeep with a loud and rather pleasing ‘clang.’ Later, when Sonakshi yells shrilly at him, he looks understandably dumbstruck: “Man, did I pick the wrong girl to nab.” Also, to his eternal credit, he calls her a watermelon.

That aside, however, Kapoor can’t quite manage the buffoonish heavy-lifting the most imbecilic of our blockbusters demand: the kind routinely carried off by Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan or Ajay Devgn’s nipples. Here, Kapoor sings about being a Salman fan, which poses the box-office critical question: we know people go to see Bhai, but will they go to see, um, Bhanja?

Because there is no other reason to sit through Amit Ravindernath Sharma’s directorial debut. This simply-plotted film sloppily carries on and on, and while some action sequences have an intriguingly gritty texture — at one point a goon slams Kapoor in the chest with a giant old-school istri — Tevar emerges an overdone, underwhelming film with zero charm. A murder you can see coming a mile away is drawn out long and stretched interminably, made literally into a bloody procession celebrated by the town as folks sing and dance and pray around the gradually slaughtered victim. There is clearly no room for efficiency in this crappy narrative.

And crappy it certainly is. A young Agra ruffian, quick to wallop local lotharios, accidentally saves a Mathura girl from a bigtime Mathura baddie, and much chaos ensues — predictably bloodily, predictably loudly. It’s a chore to sit through this thing, a hundred and sixty inane, hammy minutes. It is so unendingly filmi, in fact, that by the time the hero gets to his feet in the climactic fight, even the villain can’t help rolling his eyes.

tevar2Manoj Bajpai, chewing on scenery as if Prakash Jha hasn’t made a movie in months, does however make for an entertaining villain, at least at the start. For example, he proposes marriage with brutal honesty, confessing to the girl that he is a badmaash, sure, but even badmaashes are slaves in front of the missus, and so would miss like a slave? It’s as sincere as slime can be, and if only there was an actual actress in front of him — someone with a spark, capable of stinging with their eyes, like vintage Hema Malini or even current Priyanka/Kareena — it would have made for quite a scene. Unfortunately, all we have is Sonakshi Sinha, reacting to things with a stunning, all-encompassing blankness.

Other decent actors are short-shifted. Raj Babbar isn’t bad as the gruff cop, but the legendary Deepti Naval gets no role, just like the reliably excellent Rajesh Sharma. Shruti Haasan swings by for an item song and looks scorching hot, but is tragically made to lip-sync to a song sung so crudely she soon becomes reminiscent of those hot girls in college you wish you never heard speak.

Things could have been improved with even a smidgeon of character development. If Kapoor’s character Pintoo wasn’t shown just as a friendly fighter but a guy opposed to all exploitation of women, for example. Like the feminist Sonakshi’s dad Shatrughan Sinha played back in Naram Garam. With just two-lines of hero-describing dialogue, Pintoo’s character and motivations could have been established. What we have here is a highly generic ‘Sunny Deol type’ hero, and — in possibly a spoof of the Anurag Kashyap magnum opus — a villain who vows not to put his pants on till he finds the girl. Um, okay then. And since one can’t, in all good conscience, let anyone stray into Gangs Of Jockeypur, consider yourselves warned. Stay away.

Rating: 1 star

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First published Rediff, January 9, 2015

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The 10 best actresses in Hindi cinema, 2014

Take a bow, ladies.

It is truly a thrilling and liberating time to be an (established) actress in Hindi cinema, a time when risks are smiled upon and when roles are pushing various envelopes. The ten women singled out for applause this year have played characters that include a cop, a lesbian, a hostage, a tourist and a boxer — what an amazing range, and those are just the labels. The true magic lay in richly textured and well-etched characters they created.

Here, then, are the ten terrific ladies leading the class of 2014:

BApriyanka1010. Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom

Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom is an abysmal excuse for a film, one of the worst biopics I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through, but leading lady Priyanka Chopra worked her derriere off for the part, and it shows. Prosthetic debates aside, Chopra puts in a plucky, emphatic performance as the already-legendary boxer, playing her with a committed bravado.

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BAseema99. Seema Pahwa in Ankhon Dekhi

Rajat Kapoor’s slice-of-life fable about a lower-middle-class Delhi family centres around the patriarch caught in introspection and whimsy, but the glue holding the family together is the beleaguered wife and mother, played by Pahwa. Nagging, miserable and often exasperatedly talking to herself, Pahwa nevertheless conjures up a mother character we recognise — and one who, when asked point blank by her increasingly eccentric husband if she thinks he’s going mad, is loving enough (and resigned enough?) to assure him he isn’t.

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BAsonam88. Sonam Kapoor in Khubsoorat

Remaking a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film was always going to be an uphill task, but director Shashank Ghosh avoided all comparison by turning his update into a glossily Disneyfied confection, with Kapoor as its ideal candified centre. Channelling her inner Emma Stone, Sonam delivers a breezy and energetic performance that is klutzy, refreshingly free of vanity, and full of gif-worthy faces.

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BArani77. Rani Mukherji in Mardaani

Rani is scary in Pradeep Sarkar’s Mardaani — and I don’t mean her hefty, unflattering look. Cops are often called tough as nails, but Mukherji exemplifies it with a hardline, no-nonsense performance that provides a spine to an otherwise feeble film. Sure, the film is a showcase for the actress, but when she is this effective — closer to the intensity of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s cop in Kahaani than to the cartoonish bravado of Salman Khan’s cop in Dabanng — that’s not a bad thing at all.

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BAdeepika66. Deepika Padukone in Finding Fanny

We’ve always had a problem with actors trying to emote in English, mostly coming off as overdone or badly accented or merely, tragically unnatural. Padukone, however, is stunningly candid in Homi Adajania’s film, serving as narrator and muse and resident stunner but doing it all with a merrily light touch. It’s a strongly believable performance — she’s restrained even when hornily jumping a guy — and this kind of easy candour is rare in our cinema.

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BAalia55. Alia Bhatt in Highway

A sheltered girl kidnapped the night before her wedding, Veera Tripathi has no business pluckily falling in love with her dour abductor. And yet she does. She confides in him, sings to him, provokes him, and — atypical even to Stockholm Syndrome — begins to mother him while envisioning a future together. It is all beautiful to look at but decidedly deranged, and Bhatt shines effervescently and credibly in the demandingly odd part.

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BAtejaswini44. Tejaswini Kolhapure in Ugly

Shalini Bose doesn’t care. About her ex-husband. About her current husband. About what whiskey is filling her glass. About what the domestic help might think of her outbursts. About how she looks. About how she’ll get through tomorrow. About her daughter. Everything is a burden to this miserable character, and Tejaswini Kolhapure, shrouded in fatigue, ekes out a performance through silences, small but telling gestures and sad, sad eyes. Once upon a time when trying on a red dress for a stranger, those eyes could manage a sporadic sparkle but by now they’ve glazed over. Apathy this absolute has to be this haunting — or so we may only imagine.

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BAmadhuri33. Madhuri Dixit in Dedh Ishqiya

It’s all about the words with Begum Para, be they the words of besotted poets vying to win her beautiful hand, or the strategically-plucked words from handmaidens who know better. Dixit, as the imperious Begum with a mischievous smile, impressively enunciates her finely chosen words with appropriately italic lilts, but — even better — reacts with glorious grace to the words surrounding her, no matter what is said. This is an elegant, un-showy performance made up of precise, subtle tonal shifts, and it is a treat to watch Dixit dazzle like only she can.

Also read: The Madhuri Dixit Interview

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BAkangna22. Kangna Ranaut in Queen

In any other year, Ranaut would be champion.

Carrying off Queen, directed by Vikas Bahl, is no small feat, for the entire film rests definitively on the shoulders of one actress. Ranaut, playing the simple Delhi lass Rani Mehra, excellently — and seemingly effortlessly — captivates us from the start as she hungers for the right selfies and sangeet steps. She comes so close to the audience that we can almost hear her heart break, and we’re curiously perched on her shoulder as she decides to fly solo for her honeymoon.

And then someone tries to pinch her bag. This is the moment that Rani and Ranaut dig their heels in and hold on tight, throwing out hysterics in hyper-real fashion and making sure she’s won us all over, this gritty girl who refuses to fade. Ranaut, who has written her own dialogue in the film, fashions a character with undying spirit and verve — who also, as it happens, is most unlikely to be able to spell verve. Or even say it right.

The way she says “hawwwww,” the thrill she finds in a lassi drinking competition, the infectious twinkle in her widened eyes when telling a “non-veg” joke, her brilliant unselfconsciousness… Nobody enchanted us like Rani, and there’s never been a character like her. As said, in any other year… But sometimes a character we know — or think we know — can be even better.

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BAtabu11. Tabu in Haider

She’s all about family. Her husband, a noble doctor, constantly imperils their very existence, and we come across her teaching a classroomful of children to parrot the definition of a perfect home, in perfect unison. Ghazala Meer is Shakespeare’s Gertrude but armed with Indian-mother possessiveness, a woman who rushes onto a cricket field and points a gun at her own head to banish her boy, to keep him from mixing with militants.

Many years later, walking through a field, mother and son discuss that memory strung violently high. He accuses her of bluffing, and it is at this point that Tabu — so far luminous, emotional, inscrutable, all arrows we know well from the formidable quiver of her filmography — smiles a heartbreakingly wry smile, the smile of a mother who knows so much more. And, equally, of a woman who wistfully, earnestly, longingly wishes she didn’t know better.

As lover and as liar, Tabu is sensational in Haider. She screeches, she sobs, she succumbs — all with a miraculous consistency, elaborately crafting one of Hindi cinema’s most memorable characters. It is the kind of performance that reveals more magic with each viewing, one that embeds itself in audience memory and one that, standing as it is boldly left of centre, becomes the heart of the film. And throbs so damn strongly it changes the beats set by the Bard.

In other words, the mother of all performances.

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Also read: The life and scenes of Tabu The Fearless

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First published Rediff, December 31, 2014

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The 10 best actors in Hindi cinema, 2014

2014 was a great year for our actors, and a lot of them did exceptionally well. Restricting this annual fixture to a list of ten was harder than it is in most years, and the credit for that goes to filmmakers who celebrated underrated actors by giving them meatier roles, those who armed them with sharp lines and characters, and those who pushed established artists out of their comfort zones.

Here, for my money, are the actors who led the class of 2014. Bravo, gentlemen.

BAmanavk1010. Manav Kaul in Citylights

Hansal Mehta’s turgid remake of the exciting Filipino film Metro Manila was a limp, disappointing affair, but Manav Kaul took a supporting role and ran with it, creating a character far more intriguing than in the original film. His Vishnu, a street-smart security guard, is one for the books, and Kaul plays him with a sly, easy believability and significant magnetism.

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BApankaj99. Pankaj Kapur in Finding Fanny

The first time we meet Kapur in Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny, we see his bare, hairy chest with a drop of sweat running down it. This is a grimy, sultry, lecherous performance, one that borders close to being a caricature — that of an overbearing, pompous artist — and while it certainly appears that he’s pretending his way into a certain lady’s pants, Kapur’s genius lies in the way he is later repulsed by the muse he’s been chasing. It is a moment of hardcore disgust, unfiltered hatred. It might not be obvious throughout the film, but this Don Pedro is indeed all about high art.

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BArajkumar88. Rajkumar Rao in Queen

Queen, directed by Vikas Bahl, is by no means a film that has room for a leading man, but Rajkumar Rao does the next best thing (or is it an even better thing?) by playing the perfect foil. He’s excellent as an indefatigable Delhi suitor, carrying more balloons than should be legal, he’s terrific when replying to his fiancee’s Hindi questions evasively and coldly in English, and, later in the film when he realises that the girl is out of his league, his helplessness is quite perfect.

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BAnjha77. Narendra Jha in Haider

Most of us walked out of Haider in a state of wonderment, and one of the key questions had nothing to do with crossborder politics or Shakespeare. We had to know who was the tremendous actor playing Haider’s father, a man of such unwavering calm, such striking sobriety. Jha, hitherto seen mostly on television, lays down the firmly real tone for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation, and is the kind of doctor we would all like to know. An inherently thoughtful man, he brings an air of gravitas and grace to everything he says — even to the platitudes. How perfect for the Bard’s words.

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BAgirishk66. Girish Kulkarni in Ugly

There are a lot of fine actors in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, but the film reaches a true boil only when — minutes after a man is killed and a girl kidnapped —  Kulkarni’s Inspector Jadhav infuriatingly yet meticulously takes his own time at a police station. It’s a shining performance, that of a cop who can be both commanding as well as sycophantic, and in a film full of characters arguably too dark to be real, it is Kulkarni’s Jadhav who brings in the believability.

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BAsanjay55. Sanjay Mishra in Ankhon Dekhi

It’s always heartening when a powerful yet underutilised actor finally blooms into his own as soon as enough elbow room is made available, and the greatest triumph for director Rajat Kapoor was to let Sanjay Mishra reign over Aankhon Dekhi. His character — who literally believes only in what he can see — is one that could well have been farcical, but Mishra succeeds in creating a poignant, emotionally stirring (and utterly unconventional) hero.

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BAaamir44. Aamir Khan in PK

It takes some serious commitment for an actor to go through a long film with his eyes stretched perpetually to lid-ripping point, but that is by no means the only impressive facet to Khan’s fresh-faced performance as an alien giddily eager to explore the Earth. Straitjacketed by that ridiculously wide-eyed expression, he nevertheless manages to convey wonderment, helplessness, epiphanies and loss very effectively indeed. Rajkumar Hirani’s film might have its detractors, but few will contest that Khan is at his best.

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BAirrfan33. Irrfan Khan in Haider

The greatest ‘hero’ entry of 2014 belonged to Irrfan as — with the snowy white screen diffused into a long blur — he gradually came into focus, wearing snow-goggles, a limp and armed with the baddest, awesomest bass-line. A fiendishly clever update on Shakespeare, Hamlet’s father’s ghost was transformed into a man with ghost identities, a slithering merchant of motive. He may or may not be worth trusting, but, thanks to Irrfan and his compelling screen presence, is definitely worth following. His character, Roohdar, may well have been called Rockstar.

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BAvijayr22. Vijay Raaz in Dedh Ishqiya

Once in a very blue moon, an actor takes a part originally grounded in pantomime — that of the moustachioed villain, in this case — but turns in a performance so disarmingly nuanced that he rises above the label of what he does to the why of it, fascinating us with a character so richly textured that we care about him more than any hero-type.

In Abhishek Chaubey’s delicately crafted and beautifully tongued film, Raaz plays a politician and goon, but with such heart that we may spend the film guessing at his motives. Is his bullying merely bluster because he is expected to be rough? Would he carry on Mexican standoffs forever if his opponents were armed with the right rhymes? Instead of forcibly abducting the begum of his dreams, he kidnaps a portly poet so he can pretend to craft verse, wanting desperately to impress instead of to intimidate.

It all sounds comical (and most of it is splendidly droll) but Raaz brings such wary wistfulness to the part that it becomes impossible to ignore his grand pathos. As I’d mentioned in my review, this is the kind of role that, in an American production, would have been played by great chameleons like Javier Bardem or Christian Bale. And Raaz owns it.

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BAkk11. Kay Kay Menon in Haider

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius is a villain. He is a schemer, a cunning uncle, a plotter to the throne and a pretender defiling his brother’s bedchamber with grand designs on his wife. It is a part that has traditionally required powerful theatrical credentials as well as a certain dynamism of character.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider requires even more, demanding that Kay Kay Menon embody all of these vile things — and yet none of them. The adaptation is carefully balanced on a tripwire of deceit, with a lie at its centre, and depending on where you stand, Kay Kay’s Khurram is either dastardly or dashed. As a result, the actor plays everything double-edged, and thus, when, for example, he pleads to his nephew’s better sense and speaks about the need to avenge his missing brother, he could be either sincere or a scoundrel. Or even a mix of both.

It is remarkable how much of this dualist balance Kay Kay brings to the part, leaving everything crucially open to interpretation. He makes the character appear shifty and sly, though — thanks to his ever-evident discomfort — he could as well just be ashamed of himself for coveting his brother’s wife. But that doesn’t mean he engineered his demise. Or does it?

In one of that great film’s most striking departures from the original text, Menon’s Khurram sits as this Hamlet performs his Mousetrap play with the Bismil song, watching with a smile on his face while everyone around him is repelled by Hamlet’s naked audacity. In the play, he’d stormed out of the performance, propelled off-stage by his fury. In the film, he watches, applauds and — even with mud on his face — smiles an indulgent smile. Does he know better than we initially believe? Thanks to the sheer mastery of Kay Kay’s performance, we can only guess.

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First published Rediff, December 30, 2014

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Review: Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly

The cop wants to know how caller ID can display the picture of the person calling. It is a nightmarish situation, with your daughter kidnapped, your wife unaware, and you panicking in a police station, desperate to get things moving in… well, in some direction. Any direction. And the cop wants to know about smartphones and caller display pictures. It’s best, you think, to just show him so he can stop picking needlessly at this minor detail, so you decide to take a picture of him. At which point this Inspector straightens his policeman peak-cap and poses for the phone camera.

ugly1This moment from Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly is an absurd but pitch-perfect sequence, one of existential exasperation and harrowing helplessness. A little girl has been kidnapped from a car and here we are all of us — victim, friend, audience — standing at a police station, watching an Inspector smile into a phone. The horror is kafkaesque, and yet, because of the way the director plays it, entirely relatable, macabre to the point of being satire and yet chillingly all-too-real.

Ugly — a constantly riveting, ticking timebomb of a film — is by far Kashyap’s finest film. It is a visceral, frequently surprising ride, a dark thriller (not for the faint of brain or the morally queasy) that surpasses the shadowy greatness we witnessed in Kashyap’s masterful Black Friday several years ago. Ugly works even better perhaps because here, unencumbered by the need to stick to facts, he can give his characters and their demons free rein over the proceedings.

All we know is that a girl has been kidnapped. We think we know things around that, but Kashyap surrounds us with enough moving pieces (and their furtively shifting motives) for us not to be certain of anything else. The girl’s father is a desperately struggling actor, her mother is a whiskeyed-out wife too jaded to lift an eyebrow, and her new father is a tough-as-nails police chief who hates the actor his wife used to be married to. And that’s just the simple bit, Ugly is all about wheels within wheels.

The film could have been a gripping enough police procedural, but it is in these frisky, fickle motivations that the film finds its odd, brutal rhythm. Every character in the film looks to be hiding something, everybody’s lying to somebody around them, and as things heat up and masks are worn and discarded, Kashyap makes all his characters supplicate in front of the deity of Opportunism. This is where the storytelling excels, in shifting gears and making you root for one character, then another, then another, without ever pointing in the obvious direction. Just like a chase sequence right before the police station sequence I mentioned earlier, nothing here turns out like you expect — and there are things that may well make you gasp.

ugly2The performances are striking, but it’d be criminal to not single out three in particular: Tejaswini Kolhapure, who, as the mother of the kidnapped child, wears the hangdog look of surrender so hauntingly it hurts;  Girish Kulkarni, playing the sharp but frustrating police inspector and grounding Ugly into a very real zone; and Vineet Kumar Singh, playing a slimy casting director who has lots to hide up both his sleeves. Ronit Roy is solid as ever as the cop who doesn’t mind cracking a few harmless skulls if they lie in his way, and Rahul Bhat does well as the actor so convinced of his own star-quality that he’s already changed his name.

Kashyap’s cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis (who has previously excelled with Dibakar Banerjee films like Shanghai and Love Sex Aur Dhokha) composes frames that appear highly natural and yet are highly dramatic frames. The actor’s blue-walled little house, for example, is shot almost as if a graphic novel was the storyboard, all blues and blacks and a disarming use of contrast to hide details that might otherwise tell too much. Kashyap’s use of visual motifs — bindis on a mirror, scratches on a car — is present here but in more blank-verse style than overtly poetic. The result is a cinematic universe so teeming with possibility that, like Fargo, it could have a television show living within it.

This is, in many ways, Kashyap’s least indulgent film, because, having cooked up a meaty plot, he chooses not to obscure it with style and gravy, but instead thicken his pot with intrigue. Then again, sculpting a film this dark and twisted, a nearly nihilistic film, may well be called a work of misanthropic indulgence in itself. There are a couple of moments where he goes overboard, one of which accompanied by a song and celebration, but where would the fun be in an Anurag Kashyap film without flourish?

Ugly is a tale of torment, masterfully woven around the universally urgent trigger of a disappearing minor — and yet where, in the larger scheme of things, that kidnapping itself becomes, I daresay, a minor detail. Genius.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, December 25, 2014

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Review: Rajkumar Hirani’s PK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, December 19, 2014

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Review: Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, December 24, 2009

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