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Review: Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Has there ever been a name as American as Armie Hammer? It is a cartoonish name with inbuilt stars and stripes, the sort of name that insists on a father named Jack and a son called Sledge, a name that behooves a pro-wrestler, a porn-star or a GI Joe action figure. As an actor, the blonde, light-eyed Californian is unsurprisingly remembered from solidly American parts, like that of a cowboy or a moneyed Harvard student.

uncle1Trust recklessly cheeky director Guy Ritchie, therefore, to take this Golden Age superhero and douse him in an Absolut accent, cherry-picking him for the part of a roughnecked Russian. Meanwhile, Henry Cavill, a remarkable specimen of British beefcake, is here made to play an impossibly suave American, as campily as Roger Moore. The Man From UNCLE, based on an old American television show, is thus nothing more than a Cold War themed party, a game of ‘Spy Vs Spy’ the director plays with a quartet of astonishingly attractive actors, taking them swaggering across Europe over a silly, forgettable plot. (This is the film The Tourist should have been.)

Forgettability, as those in the know will attest, is not necessarily a bad thing. As if mesmerised by how spectacular it all is — the cheekbones, the wardrobes, the continent, the cars — Ritchie winds down his usual breakneck pace and gives us a spy movie that looks good in cufflinks — and knows it. It is a pleasant, preposterously frothy bit of summer entertainment with a chilled effervescence that matches the head on a champagne glass. Entirely transient, but ah, such a joy as it flits by. And so damn cool.

The time is 1963, and the American agent Napoleon Solo is being forced to team up with his comrade from across the Iron Curtain, Ilya Kuryakin. The two need to rescue a German girl, Gaby (daughter of “Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist”) and find her father, who might be arming very wrong hands. She’s played by the striking Alicia Vikander and the very wrong hands belong to the very beautiful Elizabeth Debicki, rounding up Ritchie’s exceedingly attractive foursome. Every actor lays on the affectation thickly. Debicki, for example, drapes herself like a carefully discarded mink coat on the top of a light couch where Cavill’s Solo is lying down so that the tranquillisers about to kick in don’t injure his (finely-sculpted) head.

This is a throwback, then, to the Bond films of yore, films where James fussed about his shirt-studs and film looked as colourful as it could: one of Ritchie’s characters even waxes gleefully about the joys of Kodachrome, and “colours so real you can almost taste them.” There is naturally the sexism appropriate to the cinema of that era, though even that is turned nimbly on its head. A delicious scene in a Roman boutique, for example, sees Solo and Kuryakin argue about how to dress Gaby as they go undercover, picking out dress and belt and clutch for her, and she’s the one who is efficiently all business while the two hunks dandily bicker on about whether a Rabanne can — or, indeed, needs to — match a Patou.

The sight gags are perfect — a meeting between two CIA and KGB operatives takes place in a crowded cafe, but at the end of the meeting the entire crowd clears out in pointedly un-neutral fashion — and Ritchie naturally has his fun with wordplay, at one point taking the word Special” from ‘special agent’ and applying it as one would do today, with, say, the ‘special Olympics,’ but one of the things that makes UNCLE such a lark is how finely, funnily tuned the action sequences are, playing out like Tom and Jerry moments shot and assembled via a sophisticated series of close-ups and reflections and comic-booky split-screens. Ritchie’s last few films have lacked spirit, especially the hollow Sherlock Holmes outings, but this is a film that feels drunk with affection.

Naturally a film like this is not everyone’s kind of Bollinger, and there is admittedly much smug indulgence on display. The plot, as warned, is almost entirely superfluous. But ah, there is such pleasure to be found in the small, integral pieces of the flippantly constructed whole: just try saying Debicki’s name Victoria Vinciguerra out loud, like the first two words of a tongue-twister, and not smiling. My jaw hurt from the feature-length grin Ritchie elicited, and it’s good to see him, like Hugh Grant in this film, back at ease. If one must slouch, one best do it hidden by an impressively-cut suit, and The Man From UNCLE is as lovingly tailored as they come. Even if it wears brogues, not Oxfords.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 28, 2015

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Column: That Sholay coin-toss and the role of chance in storytelling

It is temptingly easy to dismiss the cinematic coin-toss as a bit of chicanery, just another convenient plotting trope. Characters go down one road when they so easily could have strolled down another, and the road they choose is the one picked by the writers, with heads or tails (or neither) doing the rationalising for them.

Yet there is something classically timeless about relying on something so basic, so universal, so instantly echoed around the world — and making it work. The setup is simple, thrown up at will. The trick lies in the consequences; it’s all about sticking the landing. A really good coin-toss is hard to forget.

chigurh1One of the most memorable tossers in all cinema is Anton Chigurh, the villain in No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Played — in an Oscar-winning turn — by Javier Bardem and a jagged-fringed haircut, Chigurh is a nightmarishly calm killer who mows down the innocent, but pauses to flip a coin before it — as if to give them a last glimmer of hope. Or to not take all the credit for their death.

It is hard to imagine McCarthy, that grizzled Pulitzer Prize winner, being inspired by a Batman villain, but Chigurh’s methods do indeed quite mirror those of Two-Face, who has always been more fearsome on the page than the screen, played to cartoonish effect by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever and insipidly by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. Not that these didn’t have precedent; gangsters and mob bosses have tossed coins ever since George Raft started it all in the 1932 Scarface.

The entire act might not be as existential. It could, of course, quite simply be big bad kids toying with their food; a trivial amusement, a flick of thumbnail against coin before the actual ringing of the death knell.

It is also often said that the result of the toss matters less than what one hopes for as the coin is flipping through the air. This is why regardless of heads or tails, some villains end up pulling the trigger anyway.

Less bloodthirsty coin-tossing is par for the course in buddy-movies, often with some nudge-nudge wink-wink sleight of tongue as in Andaz Apna Apna, where Aamir Khan’s Amar hoodwinks Salman Khan’s Prem with a “Heads I win, Tails you lose” toss. By the time the slackjawed Salman figures out he’s actually won, a triumphant Aamir is long gone.

What makes us trust in this random 50:50 toss? The question was most profoundly debated in a 1953 Donald Duck comic where the phenomenon of using a toss to determine all decisions was dubbed ‘Flipism.’ Donald, after meeting the weird Professor Batty who tells him to trust in the coin and follow Flipism, loyally does what the tosses tell him, landing up in a world of trouble and blaming the coin. Yet others are more discreet in their use of the same. It is only at the end of Asimov’s wonderful short story The Machine That Won The War that we learn that the omniscient all-powerful computer wasn’t really being consulted because one of the protagonists had been tossing a coin to make all his final decisions.

Sometimes the coin doesn’t come up heads or tails. In Frank Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes To Washington, for example, the only reason James Stewart’s Mr Smith gets to go to Washington is because a governor is trying to choose a senator between rival candidates Mr Hill and Mr Miller. He tosses a coin which lands on its edge, which leads him to drop both candidates and choose Smith.

sholaycoin2For Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, screenwriters Salim and Javed stole the trick from the underrated 1954 Western, Garden Of Evil, where Gary Cooper and Richard Windmark draw cards to see who will stay back and fight the Apaches pursuing them. Windmark, the ‘winner,’ stays and dies. In Sholay, Jai, played by Amitabh Bachchan — whose coin always comes up heads — stays, saves the day and eventually dies. Jai’s trick coin became the stuff of legend, the kind of thing that films of today would have merchandised like crazy.

What is most notable looking back at Sholay’s screenplay, however, is the fact that because Jai was cheating, it made all the tosses he’d seemingly ‘won’ over the course of the film all choices he had made instead of choices they’d stumbled into out of randomness. Therefore, despite Dharmendra’s Veeru stayin’ alive and getting the girl and the flashier songs, and Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur getting his hard-earned revenge by the final reel, the sequence of coin-based decisions ultimately makes it clear that Jai is the protagonist, the man who chose the way the story winded, and the true hero of Sholay.

And all because of how wisely he used a coin.

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First published Rediff, August 18, 2015

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Review: Karan Malhotra’s Brothers

brothers1If the number of crucifixes in a film signify how pious it is, Brothers must have been shot in the Vatican. The characters — a Fernandes family from Mumbai — are Catholics, it is established early on, but director Karan Malhotra keeps labouring the point home — all the characters wear crucifixes around their necks, walk out of churches in slow-motion, have Jesus tattooed on their biceps, do a Hail Mary before getting their fingers bloody, and so forth. One man is even named Cross. Talk about using the lord’s logo in vain, the entire film sees more dangling-cross action than George Michael’s earlobe from back in the day.

As we know from tic-tac-toe, where there are crosses there must be zeroes. True to symmetry, Malhotra gives us many a moment of absolute worthlessness. The entire first half, in fact, is unwatchable. Right upto the point of intermission, relentless melodrama is thrust our way with operatic zeal, complete with an excruciating, crescendo-driven background score and characters trying to out-wail it. It’s all tears and flashbacks and, funnily enough, it’s entirely unnecessary. The quickest fix for this truly bad film? Watch only the second half.

Actually, I must here apologise. I may here have implied that the post-intermission portion is any good. It isn’t, though the good news is that after such a horrendous first-half, it does at least feature some spiffy camerawork and well-choreographed action sequences. The bad news is that this is all the second half has, as we go through MMA fight scene after MMA fight scene till we get to the MMA fight scene we knew was coming all along: one where two brothers glare and fight and cry ad nauseam.

This is an official remake of Warrior, a Hollywood drama from 2011 featuring a bunch of great actors jumping on the Mixed Martial Arts bandwagon and ending up with a film that is, I’m told, both a solid action drama. Malhotra, a young man who made the too-loud new Agneepath, is a perplexingly old-school director who seems committed to making movies that look like they were assembled from Prakash Mehra outtakes and plot-points too silly for Mukul Anand to use. Warrior may have been melodramatic to begin with, but Malhotra amps up each possible moment, laying it on impossibly thick and spelling every little gesture out for the audience. So a flashback of the mother reading is not just simple and sunny, but features a wannabe-Morricone background score while she reads books on true love by Brian Weiss. And that’s the subtle bit, for this is a movie when characters see large cuts on other character’s cheeks and say things like “ooh, itna bada cut?”

brothers2Jackie Shroff, grey and grizzled and looking like an underfed and grumpy Santa Claus, plays a father who used to be a street fighter. His sons — Akshay Kumar, a physics teacher, and Siddharth Malhotra, a surly guy who shakes his leg a lot —  hate each other and aren’t particularly nice to him. Still, the old fool keeps wishing they’ll all make up. It’s all rather like Rakhee in Karan Arjun going on about her sons prodigally returning. Except Shroff frequently hallucinates about coffins. (With giant crosses on them, of course.)

There is much randomness. Jacqueline Fernandes plays Kumar’s long-sobbing wife who gets so deliriously happy on seeing a text message that it may well have contained news about a Kick sequel. Kiran Kumar plays an evil MMA promoter who smokes so many cheroots his name could have been Disclaimer Braganza — obviously he’s Catholic too. (Also, he builds up hype for months and months only to end up with a two-night tournament. Tsk. Whatever would N Srinivasan say?) Ashutosh Rana, who doesn’t seem to have aged at all in the last two decades, plays a sometimes slimy, sometimes loyal manager. Shefali Shah shows up and makes sure her nostrils flare up more than Kumar’s thigh muscles. And, in a vulgar and ill-choreographed song sequence, an A-lister shakes her caboose so desperately it feels like she wants to be renamed Kareena Kapoor Kardashian Khan.

Akshay Kumar looks believably fit, both during his training montage and his fights — the first of which he wins with a brutal finisher that led my friend to exclaim that Kumar “broke his arm with his balls,” which is symbolism at its most testicular. Bravo.

But that’s all this film has, a ball-busting Kumar and one particular fight that ends with delightful abruptness. Everything else is exhausting.

Most of us in India first heard of MMA in the 90s when Monica from Friends was dating a billionaire who wanted to be a UFC champion. Now, all I’ve seen of the octagonal fighting championships is the superheroic Ronda Rousey, an undefeated megastar who finishes off opponents in something like 16 seconds. Weighing 158 unbearable minutes, Brothers is nearly 600-times as long as the Rousey win —- and not one-millionth as thrilling.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 14, 2015

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Column: Diamonds Are Forever

bellucci1

A column written to celebrate James Bond finally finding himself one helluva woman.

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“I frequently wince at the word ‘cougar’ because of the way it has been appropriated by the media—like a polite, acceptable term for MILF—but it admittedly helps us look at these agile huntresses allowing for more grace than, say, we do when discussing sugar-daddies seeking blondes. On-top may well be the default position for women based on how naturally they hold relationship reins; their ever-indulgent seductions put fumbling male look-at-me flirtations rightfully to shame. And there is something ineffably sexy about a woman who knows better.”

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First published Vogue, August 2015

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Review: Shimit Amin’s Chak De India

Some films age remarkably (and endearingly) well. My review, from exactly eight years ago:

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The prodigal Khan returns.

Chak De! India is the basic, every-single-sports-movie story of a disgraced player, here called Kabir Khan, pulling together a team of misfits to do the impossible — here winning a World Championship.

This is also a return to glory for Shah Rukh Khan, the superstar doing excellently as he tackles a cast with (almost) entirely deplorable acting chops and makes you believe. Director Shimit Amin shoves a hockey stick into the actor’s hand, and — fitter than he’s looked in years — Khan flies across cinematic AstroTurf, and shines.

Stop looking up MiracleA League Of Their Own or The Mighty Ducks DVDs — it’s a straight sports film, and you walk into the theatre knowing how it’s going to turn out.

We start, of course, with the fall. Kabir, India’s most successful Centre Forward of all time, flubs a crucial penalty and is castigated by his nation — an Islamic last name and a meteoric temper make for a media-unfriendly mix — as Pakistan win the cup. Thus surrounded by awful actors, Khan bids farewell to his beloved sport, even as insufferable little kids clamber onto shoulders to get a better look at the traitor. Insert typically strained background music here, and you’re cringing for both Khan and the film.

Seven years later, mercifully cutting out the tiresome Rambo-esque routine of having to persuade the self-pitying hero to return, Khan is raring to go. He hasn’t been on a field since, and is eager to resolve — as evidenced by strategic fidgeting with waiting-room bottle caps — hockey issues.

His plan is simple: to start from the very bottom. The Indian Women’s Hockey Team is an outfit so utterly neglected that its administrators aren’t even actively seeking a coach. Anjan Srivastava dips a Marie biscuit in tea, raises an eyebrow, and not having anything at stake, lets Khan go for it.

chakde1So girls, then. A motley assortment of Reddys, Boses and Sharmas are picked from the length and breadth of the country, each falling into conveniently label-friendly stereotypes, but — and here’s what makes all the difference — the tags are affectionate, the cliches run warm and friendly. And we grow to see a mostly-gangly gang of 16 indisciplined non-actresses, trying to keep up with a coach who actually takes himself seriously. And pushes them hard.

It’s completely par for the genre-specific course — dissent, pressure, defiance, infighting, lack of self-belief, external skepticism, and of course, ego. Again, what matters is the fluidity with which writer Jaideep Sahni has coloured inside the lines. The film’s true star, Jaideep’s ensured that screen-time is divided mostly evenly among the lot, yet separating a few characters for obvious star roles — Experienced, arrogant Bindia (Shilpa Shukla); attractive, ego-driven Preeti (Segarika Ghatge); massive, Punjabi Balbir (Tanya Abrol); and pint-sized, defiant Komal (Chitrashi Rawat). The rest are all warm and likeable enough — Vidya Malvade plays almost-sobbing homemaker Vidya; Anaitha Nair’s Aliya is tremendously pretty — but these are the four players leading the pack by far, taking the story towards the goalposts.

The first half takes its time to buildup, predictably. There’s no surprise as the tale unfolds, and the horrible, overwhelming background score tries too hard — this is, after all a Yash Raj film, and considering that they’ve gone for a no-heroine authentic sports movie, we ought allow them that major concession — and is further undercut by trite, jingoistic dialogue. Granted, these come at occasional moments, but the melodrama truly jars. A stellar Khan holds the film together as Amin and the girls gradually get to grips — with both lines and sticks.

The second half shuts you up, with a McMasterstroke. Here, they play. And, considering you watch several sections of hardcore women’s hockey — my personal viewership of womansport is limited to tennis and the occasional game of beach volleyball — in silence, glued to the screen pretty much throughout, Shimit’s done very well indeed. The film is compelling, constant, and leaves little room for filler. While certain tracks are painfully obvious, the fact that the director neatly cuts through several at the same time ensures a drastic reduction in complaints.

chakde2And by now, the girls actually seem to be acting okay — well, either that or the more impressive achievement, that we’ve warmed up to the characters enough to like them despite their raw edges. Preeti and Komal, warring attackers, keep us nicely hooked as the director tries to keep their angle unpredictable; Bindia does well to get frustratingly under our skin; and Balbir gets us to chuckle, sometimes despite ourselves. Vidya is a bit of a moaner, an essentially unimpressive goalkeeper, adding to the lamentable Indian knack for choosing less competent captains.

Khan, of course, is King. This is a bravura performance, a gritty drive by an actor who clearly has sport in his blood. The fit of Shah Rukh as a hockey coach — inspiring, canny, frustrated, helpless and profoundly hopeful — is so naturally perfect that it’s a wonder he hasn’t done a sports film before. It’s been a while since we’ve seen him visibly relish a role like this, and while he has to mouth some clunky dialogue, Khan is simply super.

Chak De! India isn’t quite a Lagaan or an Iqbal, selecting the sport less trod rather than the one conventionally heralded, and so it isn’t likely to expect applause in the aisles as the team manages to unite together. It is, however, more of a sports film than both those, the story of a team overshadowing the story of an individual. It’s shot nicely, but my wishlist for Amin would be that he had found a better commentator to do the play-by-play and, for heaven’s sake, taken some aerial shots.

Shimit Amin’s film struggles a bit, clearly trying hard to strike a balance between classic melodrama and the sporting genre. There are times when it tries to straddle the fence hastily, even failing badly, and as a result the movie, while a perfectly good sporting film, seems to have lost the edge we might have expected from the Ab Tak Chhappan director. It’s a fine, true-blooded sports movie though, and deserves applause.

Sure, you know what’s going to happen, but it’s a good ride — and especially satisfying to see Swiss flower-fields replaced by Australian stadiums. Not to mention the return of the King.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 10, 2007

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Review: Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation

That Tom Hollander, he’s come a long way. Back in 2009’s brilliant In The Loop, Hollander played the dumbfounded Simon Foster, a Secretary Of State of some kind and a smalltime MP. Now, in Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation — the fifth film keeping that inflammable Lalo Schifrin theme-tune from the sixties still hot — Hollander has flown up the ranks enough in order to play the Prime Minister of England. Which isn’t to say that he is any less inept.

Nearly everyone, as a matter of fact, in the new Mission Impossible movie, appears significantly dunderheaded with the exception of the all-conquering leading man and — in a rather nice switch — the leading lady (who is, refreshingly enough, not his leading lady). We’ll get to her soon, but let us first deal with the well-cast but often clueless men: there’s Alec Baldwin, every bit the CEO of GE, using words like “salvageable assets” while describing a spy organisation; there’s Jeremy Renner, wearing a well-cut suit and a permanent scowl; there’s Simon Pegg, playing Halo wearing exquisite headphones and, later, doing all the damsel-in-distress screaming a movie can handle; there’s Ving Rhames saying he can handle it (in a thick voice) and then failing to do so; and there’s Sean Harris playing a big cold villain who is basically Blofeld without a monocle — pity, that. He could have used some reflection at the end of this film.

MI2All these men, at various points of the film, look utterly useless. This is obviously by design, since the film is meant to glorify one astounding superstar who can hold his breath for six straight minutes and then carry off, in broad daylight, a shirt only meant to be worn in a nightclub as nefarious as the Viper Room. Tom Cruise is 53, and, having swigged from the elixir of eternal youth, eager to show off the results. He is — in the best sense of the term — an old-school superstar, the sort they don’t make anymore. He’s a cocksure, attractive Hero with one helluva smile who wears his invincibility casually, like a light sports-jacket. Despite the name of the franchise, nothing seems remotely impossible — or even unlikely — for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. He the man.

And — in a move Bond-movies can learn from — she the woman. Rebecca Ferguson plays a crafty double-agent called Ilsa Faust, a woman introduced to us, one must confess, a bit too sexually, but one who promptly throws off the femme fatale stereotype to picks up a sniper-rifle instead. She might look good in heels but she slips ‘em off whenever action calls. (And action presses redial pretty often.) There is a scene where she commands Hunt to take her skyscraper-high shoes off so she can run across rooftops more efficiently, and then, before running, she takes them from him. Throughout this film, she holds her own. Mercifully, there is no romantic subplot to muddy things up.

McQuarrie — who directed the ineffective Jack Reacher but also wrote The Usual Suspects back in the day and, more tellingly, the very cool Cruise-killing Edge Of Tomorrow — was handpicked by the star for the director’s chair. This marks the first time the director isn’t a distinctive stylist, with the four films before this one boasting of Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams and Brad Bird. What sticks in the mind most is De Palma’s dizzyingly complicated but thrillingly sexy first chapter. Yet while McQuarrie might not already have a directing voice per se, this frees him up to go straight for the meat instead of trying to add his own directorial stamp. As a result, the new film is almost entirely free of fat, a lean thriller that is so slick it feels lubricated.

It’s all good, and it looks spectacular. Robert Elswit shoots this film both briskly and beautifully, and a Hitchcock-saluting sequence at the Vienna Opera House borrows from The Man Who Knew Too Much while, using a beautiful vertical panorama shot, nearly triggers vertigo. The action is forever coherent, with special attention being paid to the tinier nuances of the gigantic setpieces. We see Cruise’s cartoonishly pained expression when strapped outside a flying plane, we hold our collective breath when he drifts his car like a boss, and, during an assassination gone wrong, we cut away briefly to see the intended target make a Monty Python joke and brush it off as “just a flesh-wound.”

There is one glitch, though. This Mission Impossible villain is, as said, a pale Blofeld imitation, which automatically makes him a Dr Evil imitation: running a secret organisation and trying to acquire a sum way too small to endanger the world or require the Prime Minister’s retinal scan: in this film we talk about 2.4 billion dollars. It’s not small change, sure, but we all know Avengers 3 will make more than that.

MI1Still, this is a smart, constantly engaging ride which doesn’t spend long on exposition. Much of the shadowy work now looks much better done by day, and stunts are based on ingenuity even more than they are about spectacle. We frequently don’t remember how tall the building was, but do remember sweat falling onto a glove. This fifth instalment might not be as iconic, but it is genuinely compelling. Also, as a bonus in this comic book blockbuster age, you can enter this Tom Cruise film knowing nothing of backstory or mission history, and come out massively entertained.

It’s hard not to be awestruck. The 53-year-old leading man hasn’t self-destructed in five films, and I, for one, can’t wait to see Cruise lunge forth a sixth time. This is his kind of, um, risky business.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 7, 2015

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Review: Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 31, 2015

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