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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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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey

kaminey3

Once in a particularly blue moon, comes a film that makes you wolf-whistle. One that then ties you to the edge of your seat, forcibly pins you there and pounces on you, eventually leaving you sitting in the dark, drained and grinning and more satisfied than a film has any business leaving you. This, ladies and gentlemen, is that kind of ride.

And way more.

Vishal Bhardwaj reinvents the filmi rollercoaster with feverish glee as he takes a wonderfully twisty plot and paces it flawlessly around a bunch of madcap, irresistible characters. It takes nearly twenty minutes to get used to things, the characters, the words they speak, they way they speak them, and the tone of the film — heck, to get used to this film’s world. Then on, the film just freakin’ flies.

Yet before getting into the breakneck chaos, it is this unapologetic figure-it-out stance that we must initially applaud. Too often are our caper films and thrillers compromised by oversimplification and spoonfeeding, by filmmakers believing audiences need things spelt out and giving them bite-sized flashbacks to easily digest each twist. No more, says Bhardwaj, throwing us a delicious jigsaw and letting things fall into place in their own sweet time. The result is startlingly clever, an innovative film with genuine surprises. Kaminey is the kind of film whose success we ought all pray for, because it’ll prove smart cinema works.

kaminey1So delicious is the movie’s gradual unravelling that I refuse outright to let you in on the plot itself — an enthralling tale of drugs, deceit, dingbats and dead-ringers — because you need to discover this on your own. Go in as fresh as you can, you deserve to taste this one by yourself. Letting on what actually happens would make me one of the film’s titular knaves.

Suffice it to say that Tassaduq Hussain, who also shot Vishal’s brilliant Omkara, does it more than adequate visual justice, and the largely-handheld film emerges very stylistic indeed. It’s fast, funny and constantly rollicking, and the characters are spectacularly entertaining.

As is the cast. Shahid Kapoor plays Guddu the stutterer and Charlie with a lisp, saying f for every s, and does strongly enough to credibly seem like two different people; Priyanka Chopra’s delightfully high-strung Sweety pulls off hysterical Marathi with impressive fluency. Yet it is the ensemble of fantastic oddballs who truly make this film special: from Amole Gupte’s demented Santa Claus routine as Maharashtra-lovin’ gangster Bhope Bhau to Chandan Roy Sanyal’s lethally capricious coke-lover Mikhail, from Shiv Subrahmanyam’s helpless corrupt cop Lobo to Tenzing Nima’s ludicrously likable drug-smuggler Tashi — the film is full to the brim with splendidly unfamiliar faces, each of whom deserve a hand, not just the ones singled out here.

And Vishal generously gives each character their time in the spotlight. Guddu heartwrenchingly recounts his middle-school love, while Sweety captures beer-driven arousal with charming realism. Bhope bribes a big-eared nephew with chocolate, while Lobo coaxes the stutterer to give a police statement through song. The Bengali gangsters shoot bullets near each other for laughs, while the Marathi ones are transfixed by Guddu-Sweety screensavers on a laptop. Charlie unwraps a cellphone from plastic as he tries to placate gangsters, while — in an extraordinary moment — Mikhail sets the screen ablaze as he staggers in on the same gangsters, high on coke and unpredictable as a broken roulette wheel. There’s so much to marvel at in these characters that it isn’t funny. Oh wait, it is. Very.

What raises this rambunctious gangster movie head and shoulders above its genre is the writing. The wordplay is constant, subtle and absolutely exquisite — a tough ask when one hero trips over words and the other narrates — yes, narrates — with a lisp. And there’s a witty duality running through the film’s twin tales: a character barks into a phone, and this sound echoes later when someone pleads in front of Bhope, daring not to take his name but just calling him repeatedly big brother, “bhau-bhau”; Mikhail introduces himself to Bhope by calling himself Tope Bhau, and nearing the climax Bhope is told by another that they have ‘topein‘ (cannons) too; when Mikhail wins a race, arriving just in time, he breaks into the Spiderman theme — and Charlie responds with Fpiderman-Fpiderman. When a character wants to steal a king’s ransom in drugs to help a pregnant woman, another snarls back: ‘Toh kya meri coke ujaadega?’ Ha. It’s nuanced, lovely writing, the sort we never get to see in films nowadays.

Bhardwaj has never been secretive about his Quentin Tarantino adoration, referencing the director memorably in Blue Umbrella, and doing it here again with high heels and an injection. While Tarantino exclusively uses music he already loves because he doesn’t trust anyone to create anything as good, Bhardwaj has always done it all himself, writing, directing and composing — not to mention singing, and its worth noting the slight s/f lisp he gives the film’s magnificent title track when it plays on screen. Yet here he takes a leaf from QT’s book and brings back the saucy RD Burman track ‘Duniya mein logon ko‘ (from 1972’s Apna Desh) and makes it his own, giving it sassy new context out of its dated backdrop — no more Rajesh Khanna in a red suit, this song is now all Shahid.

kaminey2So the film leaps through implied ultraviolence and dark humour and you hold on, exhilarated — just as you have through, say, Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. And while that itself would be no mean feat, Bhardwaj ups the ante with an audacious climax, suddenly bringing emotions right to the fore.

And while films of this ilk are full of disposable-bodies and corpses-in-waiting, one discovers that Vishal has — sneakily, stealthily, surreptitiously — kept the sentiments so darned real that by the time the climax rolls around, you do actually give a damn about these characters.

Wow. Now if that isn’t kameenapan, I don’t know what is. Awefome.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 12, 2009

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Review: James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy

guardians1It all begins with the most, most ideal song. 

Not just is I’m Not In Love a smashing mid-70s anti-ballad dripped in cynical coolth, a suitably atmospheric song as crammed with irony as Marvel’s latest (and weirdest) blockbuster aims to be, but it happens also to be the work of a brilliantly daft British band who called themselves 10cc because they claimed to literally have more, um, spunk than anyone else. And if there is one thing James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy is positively brimming with, it is spunk. 

Because, contrary to what the “From the makers of The Avengers” tag might tell you, this is the riskiest of comic-book movies, a delirious outer-space romp featuring an obscure, unknown band of misfits. It has no major stars — fine, there are two well-known leading men, but neither appears on screen. It is an action-adventure that realises the need for wit in adventure and the need for charm in action. It doesn’t feature cameos from Iron Man or Hulk or any of the regular Marvel Comics heroes whose t-shirts we own already. And yet here it is, this massive-budget whimsical 3D-jellyfish of a movie, one hard to stop staring at.

We meet Star-Lord on a deserted planet. Walking into a cavern, he hits a button on his Walkman™, breaks out more 70s awesomeness, and begins to boogey. Small purplish dinosaur-iguana hybrids show up and this man — our ludicrously self-assured hero — kicks one aside without missing a step, picking up another to use as a makeshift microphone while lip-syncing his way through lethal territory. Like Indiana Jones, were he a karaoke fiend. He’s not alone. Everyone in this film is bizarre and atypical, and all these freaks make for a thoroughly unpredictable melange. Like Star Wars, then, had Star Wars been confident enough to laugh at its own looniness. 

The thing about Star-Lord… oh hang on, nobody really calls him that. The thing about Peter Quill, intergalactic lothario and space scavenger, is that he’s a ball of fleet-footed fun. Things invariably go belly-up, but — armed with his songs — he coasts along with pluck and smarts, despite frequently appearing clueless. On his way, he befriends Gamora, a fantastic, fatal woman with green skin; Rocket, a canny opportunist who hates to be reminded of his resemblance to a raccoon; Drax, a guileless brute built like a mountain; and Groot, a walking tree who likes to introduce himself rather often.

The plot is simplicity itself, involving jailbreaks and chase scenes and a stolen orb and seemingly impossible missions, all of which sounds like (and, admittedly, is) regular superhero movie hokum. Except Gunn throws it together with a lighthearted, Pixarry swiftness, giving us a refreshingly frothy ride with genuinely memorable characters. The cast is exceedingly well-chosen, with the highly affable Chris Pratt proving quite the swashbuckling fool, bestowing his character with both recklessness and vulnerability — most visible when he’s plaintively (and, for once, honestly) trying to convince a girl that he’s just done something exceedingly heroic. Zoe Saldana is a striking Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista is pleasant as the oafish Drax, and Bradley Cooper is most entertaining as the voice of Rocket. But it is Groot — voiced by Vin Diesel, who, it must be remembered, shone in Iron Giant long before The Fast And The Unending — who makes for a powerful yet truly melancholic figure.

Gunn’s is an emotionally straightforward yet effectively evocative tale, one that works better because of how nimbly it leaps ahead. And so much, indeed, is so quotably funny — Drax’s simple-minded Obelixian drollery; Rocket’s wiseguy sarcasm; Groot’s last line; Gamora’s insinuation that Quill’s attempt to dance with her is “pelvic sorcery;” Quill’s confession of being so prolific that a black-light on his ship would make it look as spattery as a Pollock painting — that it’s easy to overlook how this is unquestionably the best looking Marvel movie of all time.

When we first read comics, heck, when we first saw them — before we could applaud character growth and motivations and morality — we breathed in their mad art. The legendary artists gave us heroes, sure, but more than that they gave us worlds, vivid eye-popping universes chock-full of wondrous surrealism, big splash pages loaded with so much spectacular detail that we’d pore over each panel for hours, looking at it from different angles to try and fully grasp its amazingness. More than any other comic-book movie, Guardians Of The Galaxy, with its psychedelic palette and its ridiculous attention to detail, recaptures that sense of awe, that loud pop of wow that made the funny pages magical. Bravo, cinematographer Ben Davis and production designer Charles Wood.

guardians2The action scenes are both coherent and dazzling, but I want to see Gunn’s film again just to gape at what isn’t front and centre. A trafficker of stolen goods laying down thin slices of gold and graphite to play a game of solitaire; Gamora sucking at a fruit that could be both mango and oyster; Groot forming an intricate shield-of-branches with one hand; a lethal arrow obeying its master’s whistle; the villain looking like an HR Giger version of The Undertaker; an evil ship looming above a city like a filleted backbone; the severed head of a god serving as an outpost planet; and those who ravage this crazy space — god bless Joss Whedon — wearing red coats. 

Guardians Of The Galaxy takes place in a remarkable world drawn lovingly and beautifully by imaginative folks low on skin-coloured crayons. A world that holds not merely quirks but nuances. These are worth beholding, worth gawking at. These are… marvels.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 8, 2014

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Review: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

gbh1Pastry is a beautiful thing. Layers of differing consistency, perfectly harnessed flavours inventively brought together to complement each other as well as to throw up the odd surprise, covered with icing and embellishment to make for a seductively attractive treat, one that beckons those within range — and tempts those watching from afar. Nobody does cinematic confectionary quite as painstakingly as the delightful Wes Anderson, a director who unabashedly tosses aside realism in favour of dreamy impressionism. Everything is lovely; everything is in its place; things, and, indeed, people, move with the precision of choreographed puppets… It is all mesmerising, a dollhouse world with oh so much to make jaws drop.

And it is within this immaculate world that Anderson throws in broken marionettes, exquisite but deeply flawed characters, their lives stretched to tether-defying limits by discord or adventure. Each is fascinating but faulty, as if their clockwork is — ever so slightly — off-kilter. Around these creatures of whimsy and the stunning, often-insular worlds they inhabit, there is much genuine magic, taking place so naturally and ineffably that even talking about it feels like precariously grazing a bubble with a tentative fingertip. It is genius, and, in his latest film, Wes Anderson uses his considerable imagination to brighten up what may well have been a dirge.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite its pink-as-icing facade and pop-up book visual style, is a romanticisation of the saddest of times, of a fictionalised Europe before the Nazi invasion, of a world that was never as ideal as in Wes’ vintage-Hollywood loving imagination. It is a carving-up of nostalgia, a satirical embellishment, an evoking of pure wistfulness — a spoonful of (castor) sugar to make the medicine go down.

Anderson explored this craving for what-ought-have-been instead of what-does marvellously in his last outing, Moonrise Kingdom, but this time his story — a story within a story within a story within a story — is nestled between many layers of memory, with perhaps each narrator reflexingly throwing in what they yearned for instead of what merely/banally/really was.

gbh2In the present day, a girl visits a writer’s grave and read’s his book; in 1985, the writer gives an interview about The Grand Budapest Hotel; in 1968, the writer visits the then-decaying hotel and runs into the hotel’s owner, Zero Moustafa, who tells him how he came to own the empty, fading establishment; and in 1932, young Zero walks around gobsmacked by the glory of the hotel even as his mentor, Gustave H, throws him into a swirl of adventure. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman shoots in striking 35mm, and brilliantly endows each narrative timeframe with a different aspect ratio, looking at it through different pairs of eyes, masterfully using the intensely squared 1.33:1 format for the longest sequence, the 1930s, giving it a now-uncommon vitality akin to that of classic comic panels.

In fact — with a plot involving death and secret wills and evil heirs and purloined paintings — it smells distinctly of Hergé. Yet, through the unique blocks of eye-tickling colour and Wes’ singular vision, the Tintinny fragrance is mostly overshadowed, and the new scent is more like that bottled up and dabbed on by the inimitable Gustave H: It is called L’Air D’Panache. And panache fuels this film more than anything.

“The plot thickens, as they say,” mutters Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes in a performance so exuberant and articulate it may well be his best. This he mutters while breaking out of jail, but despite the urgency of the situation — like the film and Wes himself — he immediately and helplessly digresses, wondering about the turn of phrase. “Why, by the way? Is it a soup metaphor?” Fiennes’ Gustave is a charismatic tornado, a concierge so wonderfully equipped to every situation that the almighty Jeeves might have felt threatened, offering his guests every assistance including — for the rich and blonde — more than he absolutely should. Let’s just call it a too-thorough turndown service. Ahem.

gbh3Fiennes is spectacular, but the entire ensemble has a freakishly fun time. And what actors! A withered Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum as an elaborately-whiskered attorney, Willem Dafoe as a menacing enforcer, Adrien Brody as a black-clad scoundrel, Edward Norton as a ZZ officer (this film’s equivalent of an SS officer), Saoirse Ronan as the “always and exceedingly lovely” girl who works in the bakery, F Murray Abraham as the dignified old Zero, and Tony Revolori — a bright and gifted youngster, his eyes widened by naivete and impossible devotion — as young Zero, the film’s hero. And the only actor we don’t already know and love. There is also, in one standout scene featuring concierges across the Continent, a slew of Anderson regulars making fleeting but flawless cameos, even as round irises frame them further inside the tight 30’s square.

So it is an adventure, surely, a gloriosky tale of wonder, but it is also a tale we are told long after it ceases to matter, after the dreamscape has been stomped on with hobnailed boots and after Alexander Desplat’s enchanting, rainbow-coloured background score — as much of a leading man as Fiennes, truly — has faded away into bleak blizzard sounds. Everything is over, then, and yet we’re left enchanted, soothed, nearly hypnotised by the candied loveliness washing over us. Wes rarely sermonises, but what he gifts us with The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite the balm: it is a realisation that if we close our eyes (or, indeed, open them wider), history is just as we choose to remember it. And nobody makes denial look this fabulous.

 

Rating: Five stars

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First published Rediff, July 25, 2014

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Review: Sajid Nadiadwala’s Kick

kick1It was bound to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the film is The Salman Khan Show.

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, July 25, 2014

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Review: Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 11, 2014

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Review: Mohit Suri’s Ek Villain

ev1Let’s start with what we know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 27, 2014

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Review: Sajid Khan’s Humshakals

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

No.

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

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

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

This is not filmmaking, this is sadism.

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

It’s all bad. All of it, every last instant, every single word. (The lyricist even rhymes “junoon” with “caller-tune.”) Which makes me wonder exactly what Sajid Khan’s motives are for savaging our audience thus. Is he the real neo-Nazi here? Is he trying to make the country stupid? Is he suicidally trying to see how far people — producers, audiences, actors — let him go before someone assassinates him? Is this all some subversive meta-joke being perpetrated on us for not having applauded his acting in Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate? Is he turning his whole life into one gigantic “ham scene of the week”?

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

Rating: No stars

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First published Rediff, June 20, 2014

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Review: Kabir Sadanand’s Fugly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: No stars

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First published Rediff, June 13, 2014

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Review: Holiday is too slow to thrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 6, 2014

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