DJ Caruso’s xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage

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One has to feel at least a bit sorry for Vin Diesel. Diesel, following franchises like xXx and The Fast And The Furious represented a new kind of mainstream action hero: a lunkheaded leading man, a swiss-army-knife of brains and brawn. He’d rappel down the skyscraper, punch out a squad of guys, and get the last word in edgeways. However Diesel was always hard to watch if his script included more than three words of dialogue — with three words he is, as we know, immaculate — and was soon overtaken at his own game by such big-screen titans as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, a man with enough screen presence and swagger to make the universe giggle.

Now Diesel looks like the me-too player, and nowhere as cool as the big guy. If he was a rapper he’d be called Little Dwayne.

xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage is one of those obviously harebrained actioners, a film that isn’t scripted as much as enacted out with action figures. However, just like diverse communities are thrilled to see racially diverse Barbie dolls that represent them better, we here have Deepika Padukone stepping up as the edgy tough desi who wears dominatrix boots on a beach, shoots straight and — this must be said — talks like she wants a job at the Kwik-E-Mart.

Padukone always spoke differently from her peers. In an old profile, I had singled out the way she “pronounces her apostrophes,” and in her Hollywood debut, the actress — who has enough screen presence to drown in — turns up both the heat and the accent. Out West she’s evidently chosen to amp up her exoticity, and this might not be a bad move. Her character Serena is basically a Bondgirl.

Which is why it’s a shame this kickassery takes place in a film that exists purely in manservice, a film so beholden to its leading man that not just do dozens of women throw themselves voluntarily on the oaf, but bad guys have trouble slagging him off. At one point someone with a gun to his head insults him by calling him — um — “Hero.” Everything comes up Diesel so often in this film I was wondering what would happen if a Bollywood-pampered actor like, say, Ajay Devgn watched it, not least because Diesel and Padukone have a scene showing each other various lion tattoos. Playing SinghamSingham, basically.

The film is a string of stunts, and if you haven’t watched an xXx film before, dear, lucky reader, suffice it to say that it’s like one of Akshay Kumar’s endless string of Khiladi movies save for the charismatic hero and the annoyingly catchy songs. Diesel’s Xander is a daredevil who knows it all, having gotten his start zipping around being cool on a skateboard — like a follicly challenged McFly.

Now, he and various other talents apparently too cool for jailtime, must save the world and take orders from — you guessed it — Samuel L Jackson.

Starting up, I thought this xXx might actually be a breeze, thanks to the one and only Toni Collette channeling Posh Spice to play the villain, but she’s weighed down by a 3D film where unmemorable action sequences drown out her superbly sardonic eyebrow tilts. While on the 3D, it shamefully renders Donnie Yen’s blindingly cool fight scenes redundant, since even though the actor is doing ‘em for real, they feel computer generated and synthetic.

If you are a Padukone loyalist, watch it for her. Watch it for her on a bigger canvas than she’s been on, and for an Australian actress named Ruby Rose, who looks lethal the way only those with turquoise-tinged hair can, and for the two of them going down a hallway with guns in hand, badass girls going full metal Contra. There are times when director DJ Caruso’s camera seems to stare too long at Padukone, and at the intensity in her fiery eyes. Can’t blame him. It might not be a fine film, but our Badass Indian Barbie did good in this cheesy action-figure extravaganza. Diesel just gets in the way — probably because Padukone is electric.

Rating: 2 stars

~

First published Rediff, January 13, 2017

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The worst Hindi films of 2016

As always, there were many contenders for this list. But these ten films — these ten monstrosities — are the absolute bottom of last year’s barrel.

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10. Fitoor

Grated expectations. What a pretty mess this was.

In my review, I’d said:

People age oddly in Fitoor.

A small Kashmiri boy with innocent eyes and a Saleem Sinai nose becomes a natural artist but, as if working with unreasonably heavy paintbrushes, emerges also a musclebound dimwit. A haughty young girl with a National Velvet self-confidence morphs into a red-haired waxwork unable to pronounce words that came so naturally in her youth. And an old opium addict, one of the most famous female parts in all Victorian literature, ages the most tragically: poor Tabu with abruptly heightening hysteria and increasingly weird eye-makeup, growing old like a Transylvanian raccoon.”

Read my full review.

9. Befikre

The tragic story of a filmmaker who once made a great film and can’t forget it.

In my review, I’d said:

A mediocre advertisement for Paris Tourism, the film is an inane mess where characters contradict themselves merely in order to outdo their own stupidity. Ranveer Singh is a Delhi boy who titters at lesbians and uses “that’s so gay” as an insult, while Vaani Kapoor is a French girl of Indian origin who has a prolific sex-life, and — conveniently for the production incentives — shows tourists around Paris. There are no emotional or romantic stakes anywhere in sight, and it’s hard to give a flying fikar what happens to these idiots.”

Read my full review.

8. Rock On 2

Remember that time a boyband reunited and it was amazing?

Neither does Farhan Akhtar.

In my review, I’d said:

“When Farhan Akhtar sees a fire, he glares at it.

In Shujaat Saudagar’s Rock On 2, Akhtar enters a burning building in an attempt to rescue people, but wherever he sees flaming embers, his response is to glower at them. (This technique isn’t as effective as the leading man wishes, and the entire property is soon scorched to the ground.)”

“Also, if glaring at things would cause them to stop happening, the Rock On 2 screening I was at would have wrapped up roughly 15 minutes from the start.”

Read my full review.

7. Sarbjit

True to his painful life, Sarbjit suffers in biopic form as well.

In my review, I’d said:

Speaking of wrongful imprisonment, spare a thought for audiences trapped in the theatre while Aishwarya Rai dials up the hysteria. Hysteria, in itself, is not a bad thing, and heaven knows a loving Punjabi sister attached to a brother (who apparently got drunk and wandered into Pakistan) deserves to be more than a bit high-pitched, but the director, in his urge to sell kerchiefs, goes too far and pitches Ash in unbearably shrill territory. Rai ages with caricatured speed, both hair and skin turning grey by the scene, and her Punjabi accent fluctuates violently, from basic swallowing of vowels to hardcore chest-thumping consonant-stretching (“Srubjittttttt-uh”).”

Read my full review.

6. Baar Baar Dekho

Forget the title: the only bars you need are ones serving alcohol. These are two unhappy hours.

In my review, I’d said:

This is a hero who, minutes after he first leaps forward in time, decides to let his hair down and chill over a party song. This is a hero who, recognising the potential for an affair that could wreck a marriage or two, goes ahead and tries it out first. This is a hero who learns of a once-prosperous friend’s life going awry but doesn’t bother to help him with a warning. This is a hero who, after assuming a day in court signals the wedding of his son, is stunned to see his wife there. This is a hero who makes use of a second-chance by being needlessly rude to various people who may perhaps cross a line in the future, but are blameless at the time he’s throwing them shade.”

Read the full review

5. Azhar

A film that takes the biggest criminal in Indian sport and proclaims him noble. And while that sounds intriguing, the film isn’t.

In my review, I’d said:

There is a scene involving Azhar’s famously turned-up collar, where his wife tells him she likes it folded traditionally, like a gentleman, and she asks him to fix it. He thinks of Sangeeta who likes it raised, like a cocksure superstar, and reluctantly fixes it. It’s a fine idea and could have been a strong moment, except the collar didn’t look too raised at the head of the scene, or too mellowed afterward. It looks the same and the scene plays out, like this film, entirely ineffectual.”

Read my full review.

4. Ki & Ka

Men and women are the same, claimed this film. Then it showed that anything a woman can do, a man can do far, far better.

In my review, I’d said:

Ki & Ka wants to be important, it wants to be revolutionary, it wants to be a feminist statement of equality. Admirable, sure. But it doesn’t know how. It is a film that thinks it knows better, but really — really — doesn’t. This is a film without breasts that desperately wants to burn a bra.”

Read my full review.

3. Mohenjo Daro

If this is what we think history looked like, too many Bollywood hits suddenly make sense.

In my review, I’d said:

Roshan is called Sarman, an unfortunate choice of name for a character who is to lead people in revolution, because when they rousingly and cheerleadingly call out his name it sounds like they want some preaching.”

“Sarman has eyes for Chaani, the high priest’s feather-wearing daughter. Played by Pooja Hegde, Chaani is an insipid heroine, one who wears the exact same caught-in-the-headlights expression when a) a horse bears down on her, b) when Hrithik moves in to kiss her, and c) when she’s being choked.”

Read my full review.

2. Buddha In A Traffic Jam

I’d call this the worst film of the year, but enough people weren’t assaulted by it.

In my review, I’d said:

Few films are this unaware of their own goofiness, and a lot of the absurdity is impossible to sit through with a straight face: the way Pallavi Joshi launches into the history of pottery when asked about her charitable organisation. The way Mahie Gill breaks into a shouty lecture in a library and hurls around the F-word as if wielding a machine-gun. The way Arunoday starts squeaking about Naxals like some alien race who have infiltrated humans and live among us. The way Kher is first reluctant, but then immediately eager, to sing along to an Elvis song.”

Read my full review.

1. Shivaay

Leave the direction to Mr Shetty, the critic typed in sheer, stunned disbelief.

In my incredulous review, I’d said:

Where, in fact, can one begin?

Perhaps with Devgn himself, a man who casts himself as invincible and flawless, a director influenced by such immodest greats as Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan and Madhur Bhandarkar. Devgn, we learn, is a filmmaker who enjoys making jokes about the divinity of his own genitalia.

Perhaps with the way this film is shot in Bulgaria but pretends it’s on Everest, which leads us to Devgn turning to a Bulgarian girl at a Bulgarian mountain and chest-thumpingly asking her if they have views like this in Bulgaria.”

Read my full review.

~

First published Rediff, January 12, 2017

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The best Hindi films of 2016

This has been a year of makeshift marvel. My Best Actor and Best Actress selections showcase worthy performers, but this set of movies makes it clear that this year has been characterised by fundamentally flawed winners. Most selections on my top ten come with built-in caveats, and yet they are films I’d rather celebrate than blackball. Here, after much deliberation, are ten misfit movies that sum up an odd year.

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10. MS Dhoni

There are a lot of problems with a film like this — not least the fact that it is a biopic partly produced by the subject himself — but the superlative performance by Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead role makes it worth watching. Also, the way Neeraj Pandey’s film captures how all-knowingly we consume cricket in this country stood out for me.

In my review, I’d said:

“The film brilliantly shows these family members and friends watch Dhoni bat on television, sitting superstitiously in the same positions each time, developing their own match rituals, and growling angrily each time Dhoni gets out, full of suggestions about what he should have done instead — because of course they know better. It is exactly how too many of us watch cricket, too involved, too irrational, too all-knowing, and, with this masterstroke, Dhoni the film makes us feel like the family of Dhoni the man.”

Read my full review here.

9. Raman Raghav 2.0

I watched Anurag Kashyap’s latest film on Netflix a few nights ago, and while this is a film plagued with issues — insufferable chapter headings, a sloppy screenplay, the weakly written cop — it still shows off craft and style. It also clearly got under my skin, some moments proving hard to dislodge. This is a reasonably uncomplicated serial killer film — one that wonders why we shun who we shun — and motors along thanks to the fascinating Amruta Subhash and the uniquely smouldering Sobhita Dhulipala. Kashyap doesn’t make Nawazuddin Siddiqui dig deep enough into his bag of tricks to bring us something new, alas, but the director has always had enough flair to make both violence — and the tension of waiting for impending violence — work.

8. Pink

Some films need to scream. Aniruddha Roy Choudhury’s film about the toxicity of the male gaze couldn’t afford to be subtle. Thanks to its everywoman casting and its overall clarity re: message — even if not re: plotting, which has a fair many loopholes — it does impart a message the Indian man needs to hear.

In my review, I’d said:

The old man goes for his morning constitutional at pranayam-o’clock, a persecuted prisoner crouches behind a policeman’s desk like a personal stress-toy, an academic admits he “can either be truthful or be liberal,” and politically powerful men sit in court and grumble helplessly instead of cinematically throwing their weight around. The first half of the film — steadfast in its refusal to either show the incident or even let us hear an account — is built on silences, on unmet gazes, on leaving it all between the lines.”

Read my full review here.

7. Dear Zindagi

What screws us up?

The short answer is anything. Gauri Shinde’s sophomore film started us off with an irascible, unlikeable protagonist and slowly let us see what her insecurities were made of. The very fact that her childhood issues were not cinematically scarring ones born out of molestation and murder, for example, showed how each one of us can and, often, does need a therapist. As a maid in the film casually opines, everyone should try it sometime.

In my review, I’d said:

The intermission is a nightmare. This is true for the format in which Hindi cinema is traditionally exhibited, as the interruption creates a narrative chasm that messes up both filmgoer and filmmaker, but it is doubly true for Dear Zindagi, which ingeniously uses a bad dream to slap recess upon us and allow us out of the theatre. While the heroine lies awake in bed, jarred by an acute fear of being judged, we walk around and, over coffee and cola, do that very thing and judge her as we pick apart the film, in our own heads or in packs.”

Read my full review here.

6. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

This film is a wail. Karan Johar has made a career out of showing us well-manicured people in varying states of frequently familial anguish, but Ae Dil sees the filmmaker at his most stark and emotionally naked. A treatise on the idea of unrequited love — something Hindi romances have traditionally conditioned us not to acknowledge — the film may overreach in its desire to subvert genre expectations, especially with a laboured climax, but it stays stubborn to the end. It may be inconsistent but when this film works it stuns, with its intent as visible and as hard-hitting as a flowerpot weighing down a heart.

In my review, I’d said:

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is a film about ‘tedha love’ — crooked love, love that refuses to stay straight — and about the unshared, pure potency of unrequited passion. It is a film about words long and sharp, elaborate and precise, and about the way we muck up and often manage to slip — inadequately and without definition — between them and between the lines. The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes all we need is a compelling reason to cry.”

Read my full review here.

5. Kapoor & Sons

I wasn’t smitten by Shakun Batra’s film on first sight, but scenes lingered persistently in the head. A second viewing — while confirming all my issues — made me a lot more appreciative of the nuanced writing, characters and of Batra’s unerring ability to find the vibe. Batra tells us of a family that, like so many of ours, teeters perilously on the edge of being a fractured one, and this he does with sensitivity and skill.

In my review, I’d said:

It starts off so well, establishing an interesting, textured family — a nonagenarian grandpa who keeps faking his own death in desperate greed to be noticed, a father who failed at being an entrepreneur and now lives on borrowed money, a mother who complains and gripes and flings barbs while looking to her perfect son to make things at least appear sunny, aforementioned perfect son who has his hands very full trying to remain as perfect as considered, and, finally, the younger son, a bartender who wants to be — like his big brother — a successful novelist. This is a film, in short, about people who want more attention than the world grants them.”

Read my full review here.

4. Udta Punjab

“I don’t like the drugs but the drugs like me.” All of Punjab may well be mouthing that Marilyn Manson anthem, even if they haven’t heard that song and frequently, like with spurious substances, end up settling for cheap local purveyors of groove. Abhishek Chaubey’s rollicking film, through the story of a drug-addled singer and the people he encounters, tells us just how sickly a state the state is in. This could have been a rollicking film — it has a Guy Ritchie sensibility at its core and lifted some bits from a britcom novel — but Chaubey and writer Sudip Sharma make sure theirs is a very now, very Punjab film. It’s a riot, certainly, but also a revolution.

In my review, I’d said:

It is in the second half, after the preachiness has made way for plot, that Chaubey’s finesse comes to the fore and the film gleams with originality. The leaps forward are unexpected, the narrative choices brave, and the detailing exquisite. We hear about a good-for-nothing Tommy having gone to the UK to study, and near the start of the film there appears a giant sign proudly advertising ‘Without IELTS,’ promising the chance to study in Britain without clearing the basic English language hurdles. Preet has a GMAT book by her desk, showing that even the crusading doctor wanted escape. There is a brilliant moment as Sartaj embraces the anonymity offered by a pagri, and there’s something magical about the way he keeps saying ‘sissdi’ because for him the word café means a branch of Cafe Coffee Day.”

Read my full review here.

3. Neerja

The best shot film of the year, Ram Madhwani’s directorial debut was both inspirational and relentless. Telling us the true life story of Pan Am purser Neerja Bhanot who, when pushed to a corner, chose to react more valiantly than any of us could imagine, this film is a compelling exploration of the fundamental idea of bravery, and of what makes a hero. Throughout the narrative, Madhwani — who tells his story through several long and unforgiving takes — finds his strength consistently through sparseness, by skimping on obvious cinematic sentiment and keeping things as realistic as they appear. Airtight filmmaking.

In my review, I’d said:

The frequently claustrophobic, frequently handheld cinematography adds to the feeling of narrative turbulence even though the plane is stationary. Cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani captures the rising anxiety with a perpetually moving camera and his frames are made special by abrupt pans: the view swings down suddenly, rapidly, to briefly peek at a nervous child peeing, or at a dog scratching himself restlessly next to his sleeping mistress.”

Read my full review here.

2. Dangal

Nitesh Tiwari’s strikingly effective Dangal takes on our country’s warped gender expectations — and knocks them out for the count. This film about wrestler Mahavir Phogat and his champion daughters Geeta and Babita Kumari shows us a highly flawed but focussed man driving his daughters ruthlessly hard, in an attempt to emerge victorious.

He succeeds, and the brilliantly acted film pulls no punches in its depiction of his methods. Where you stand on the-end and the-means says more about you than the film, which — solidly and spectacularly — exists to rouse and to evoke. What price to pay to catch the fox? This is what the Phogats paid, you decide how right it is. What cannot be doubted is that it is thanks to this trailblazing family that the fox now exists within reach.

In my review, I’d said:

It is when Phogat realises girls can win golds that the epiphany drives him into a fascistic tiger-dad, pushing his daughters to breaking point. Richard Williams — father of Venus and Serena — had drawn up a 78-page plan to turn them into tennis legends, and started pushing his girls into the sport as early as four, later banning them from boyfriends and decapitating any Barbies that may come their way. Mahavir Phogat, who mercilessly chops off his daughters’ hair and exposes them to much jeering, gets it.”

Read my full review here.

1. Fan

This may be the most flawed film on this list.

It is also, without question, the most fearless.

Every other Hindi film this year has been one you have seen before, in some shape or form. We have seen films like them before, from other actors or other countries, films of their shape or genre or style, but Maneesh Sharma’s deeply misunderstood Fan is an entirely audacious new creature that is all its own.

It is a commentary on stardom and on the idea of fans speaking for — and even above — those they claim to worship. It is a film about aspiration and fame starring the biggest actor on the planet, set in a country that unhealthily deifies heroes to the level of demi-gods. And, as if that wasn’t intriguing enough, it  breaks ground and casts him in both parts: a man who broke into our lives playing obsessive lovers, here playing both obsessor and the object of his own obsession.

I have gone on about the astounding twin performance before but there is much more to see. It is inward looking, deceptively profound and even surprisingly confessional, a film that makes us question what we think about Shah Rukh Khan as much as it questions what Shah Rukh Khan thinks about his own stardom.

Fan is far from perfect. It gets too caught up in tropes it is rightfully trying to skewer, giving us many overlong action sequences that dilute the film. Yet even if ‘only’ for what might cruelly be called the casting gimmick — one that shows off a heartening willingness to go out on a limb, both on the part of India’s biggest studio and India’s best-known actor — it is one of the bravest Hindi films I’ve ever seen. Twenty years later, it’ll be the one on this list we’ll still be arguing about.

In my review, I’d said:

Lookalikes don’t really resemble the celebrities they attempt to ape. Styled to accentuate a passing resemblance, they more often than not look like a wonky, wet-watercolour version of the real thing, something sculpted with less finesse and more raggedy edges. The fleeting moment of doppelgänger magic only takes place if and when they manage to find precisely the right light, the right angle and the right expression — for that one instant, the star’s the limit.

Limit isn’t a word too familiar to Gaurav Chandna, a West Delhi cybercafe owner who dreams Mannat-sized dreams.”

Read my full review here.

~

First published Rediff, January 10, 2016

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The best actors in Hindi cinema, 2016

Lists are made to be debated. To be obsessed over and taken apart and analysed, and while we critics bemoan the December ritual of rankings, those of us who love Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity will also confess to enjoying the absurd make-believe analysis of it all.

On that note, I’d like to thank the ten men here for making this year’s Best Actor list a tricky one to rank and a thoroughly pleasurable one to write. The characters range from sporty ones to scary ones, and to see so many mostly mainstream actors picking such intriguing and challenging roles is a good sign. Here, ladies and gentlemen, are Hindi cinema’s actors of the year:

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10. Amitabh Bachchan (Pink)

The man with the baritone had an inconsistently written role in Pink, with his lawyer Deepak Sehgal conveniently flitting in and out of bipolar disorder and sounding articulate just when needed. Yet Amitabh Bachchan is suitably commanding for a film that requires us to heed his words, and he holds court — in court, no less — with majesty. A line where he reproachfully scolds a lying witness for “overacting” is particularly priceless.

9. Diljit Dosanjh (Udta Punjab)

Dosanjh has the straight-man role in a film brimming with weirdos, always a tough ask. He plays an insignificant cop jolted out of apathy, and diving headlong into a small part of Punjab’s murky drug scandal. The way he gradually realises the fatality of the situation and just how much is at stake mirrors the jolt the filmmakers intend for the audience. His journey from bystander to doer — one that Dosanjh undertakes with slack-jawed believability and steely earnestness — grounds the film.

8. Jim Sarbh (Neerja)

Some performances that require the opposite of restraint. There are times when the very idea of holding back needs to be thrown clear out the window, and Jim Sarbh did well to embrace his feral side in this portrayal of a savage terrorist hijacking a plane. A jagged-edge character with the jumpiness of an indecisive wolf, Sarbh brings a vital element of horror — cinematic horror, even — to a film that otherwise keeps its seatbelts firmly fastened.

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7. Fawad Khan (Kapoor & Sons)

Reams could be written about the effortless way with which Khan plays his characters, luxuriating in the roles and sinking easily into them without trying to prove who he is, but this should, for now, suffice: it is a joy to watch a man who knows what he’s doing. Playing the family favourite with a closeted secret, Fawad is superbly credible and nuanced in expressing his sensitivity, hitting his peak when rendered speechless by a kiss he doesn’t know what to do with.

6. Ranbir Kapoor (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil)

Kapoor has made a career out of playing the man-child unsure of the road ahead, but scarcely has he been as emotionally naked as in this story of unrequited passion. He goes from being a cocky goof to a smitten pretty boy to a surly jerk who won’t take no for an answer, and Kapoor consistently inhabits this wishy-washy yet romantic character. A scene where he rests his head on that of his doomed love and waltzes into the dreaminess of what could have been is a standout.

5. Shahid Kapoor (Udta Punjab)

The fear is what impresses. Kapoor has always been good with swagger, and brings a legit popstar energy to the role of the frequently white-nosed Tommy Singh, but it is the wide-eyed alarm in his eyes that makes his character really swing. Whenever the shoe drops, he stares at the truth as if freshly awakened, and, faithful to the slowness of his foolish protagonist, it takes a fair few awakenings to really stun this tubelight into action. His singing scenes are stellar — with the actor nailing an a capella seeming moment — but I keep going back to those shocked eyes, widened to the point of electrocution. A top moment is when Kapoor, thunderstruck at seeing an uncle — someone he shot a gun at a couple of scenes ago — insistently order cola he knows Kapoor will ask for, scampers up to him and embraces the uncle, overcome and overdue.

4. Rajat Kapoor (Kapoor & Sons)

There is a furtiveness behind nearly each of Kapoor’s actions in this film, and while this may not always appear evident — like when he is carefully arranging cookies on a plate, or pouring out juice while smothered in a bright fuchsia boa — this underlying self-consciousness comes into relief when we learn that he, a frustrated failure of a man but a fine father, has his own skeletons. Guilt, being so intangible and subjective, is an easy emotion for an actor to overplay, and Kapoor provides a masterclass in how not to underline the obvious.

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3. Aamir Khan (Dangal)

Weight is one thing, tenderness another. The muscle Khan displays as a young man at the beginning of Dangal is far too impressive; overtly defined and glistening, it looks nothing like the authentic small-town wrestlers in the opening montage, with their rounded-corner bodies and overall broadness. It is as the actor starts losing shape that the character gains definition, and his smallest movements start showing off knowledge: of wrestling holds but also of how to massage his daughters’ feet. This character — a dictatorial father and a bully — is the most flawed man on this list, but Khan plays him with nearly enough righteousness and pride for us to overlook his flaws. And then, forsaking all heroic pride, he makes no bones of losing to his girl.

2. Sushant Singh Rajput (Dhoni)

Sushant Singh Rajput looks nothing like Mahender Singh Dhoni, one of the most recognised Indians alive. Yet such is his mastery of body language and sheer tonality that we begin to see Dhoni in Rajput, in obvious ways — his gait and his flawlessly mimicked strokeplay — which can come with dedicated rehearsal and rigour, but also in less labelled nuances of character, such as the way the cricketer, coming to grips with celebrity, attempts to perfect the exact width of his on-screen smile. Rajput plays Dhoni as a young squirt and as six-hitting cricket conqueror, and does so with grace and inevitability. Of course this is how Dhoni must have been, he must have felt, he must have struggled, insists Rajput’s performance. And willingly we believe.

1. Shah Rukh Khan (Fan)

Nobody but Shah Rukh Khan could have done this.

The idea of obsessed fan and overindulged filmstar is an old one, but Khan takes it to a different level by taking on both heads and tails. He is spectacular as the wannabe, the hungry young man stuck in emulative loops, eyes a-gleam with hope and desire and, when it comes to the man he loves, avarice. With cut-price copies of his stunts, his wardrobe and his romantic gestures, Khan’s Gaurav proves his love and then crosses the line. In a way reminiscent of… well, Khan himself when he stutteringly stalked young women decades ago.

Meanwhile, in the braver and infinitely less showy other role, Khan delivers a devastating critique of his own image. The actor, having already and boldly crowned himself his own greatest admirer by playing the fan, here plays The Star. He is secure and brave — often stupidly reckless, single-handedly running down streets emboldened by years of doing stunts — but also desperate and flailing, and tellingly eager to hold on to a job, even if it means coaxing a businessman to continue letting him entertain guests at a wedding. This is a vain man who surrounds himself with memorabilia marking his own fortune, and a man so out of touch with even his immediate world that his watchman mistakes a pretender for the real thing.

There’s never been a performance like it. But then there’s never been a Shah Rukh Khan.

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~

First published Rediff, January 2, 2017

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The best actresses in Hindi cinema, 2016

It is that time of year again, when lists are made and arbitrary rankings are passionately made and argued about.

Actresses out-performed the actors in Hindi cinema this year, and keeping this list down to ten names was hard. The following names include a debutant and a veteran, obvious inclusions and unlikely suspects, and one young lady who rocked the list twice. They all created characters worthy of admiration, those that won our respect and those we’d applaud any given Friday.

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the class of 2016:

10. Taapsee Pannu (Pink)
In Pink, Pannu’s character is a feisty girl with her spirit decapitated by a nightmarish situation. She flares up from time to time but — despite not being in the wrong at all, something we realise with the photographs of the attack on her — breaks down and is desperately, believably and heartbreakingly apologetic in court. A restrained, real performance.

9. Vidya Balan (Kahaani 2)
Balan, an actress who eschews vanity and dives headlong into character, has a lot to do in this film as a woman with a murky past and a precarious present. She is, as always, immensely credible — both when unsure of herself and when recklessly raring to go — and shares her breathlessness with the audience.

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8. Ratna Pathak Shah (Kapoor And Sons)

This family drama relies on an ensemble of fathers and sons and grandfathers, but holding everything in place is the haranguing mother, played to perfection by Shah. Forever on the end of her tether, the only woman in the family is exhausted, exasperated and driven past breaking point by secrets all around her. Shah, always terrific, brings fragility to the film.

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7. Zaira Wasim (Dangal)
Zaira Wasim made her debut as the young Geeta Phogat, and while it feels unfair to single out one of the daughters even as both were given a gruelling workout, Wasim sparkled in the wrestling film as the elder daughter, warring a dictatorial father, looking out for her younger sister and being the first one to blaze the gender-defying trail by slamming cocky young boys in langots who never knew what hit ‘em. The grown-up Geeta is played very well by Fatima Sana Shaikh, but it is the younger Geeta who shoulders the first half of the film. We must all buy this girl golgappas.

6. Kirti Kulhari (Pink)
Kulhari’s character in Pink seems to be the relatable, level-headed one. A girl who knows what trouble is and wants to stay out of it, thank you very much. She plays this tightly coiled character quietly till she is pushed past reason, after which she bursts into justifiable hysteria. After much courtroom conjecture on whether the molested girls actually were soliciting the men, Kulhari declares that they were indeed doing so, and questions how that is important. She shockingly and immediately makes that misogynistic line of legalese irrelevant, giving the film a lot more depth and cutting closer to the bone.

5. Alia Bhatt (Dear Zindagi)
Bhatt plays a surly, spoilt sourpuss of a character in Dear Zindagi. Until, that is, she opens up and makes us aware of the many conflicts and insecurities inside her. It is a seemingly simple but genuinely impressive performance, one that is never obvious and a character that unravels instinctively as the actress lets us in. Bhatt makes her character, and her problems, feel real.

4. Anushka Sharma (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil)
Playing the most complicated character on this list, Sharma does fantastically to make her Alizeh — cursed with too much clarity except when in love — come alive. Both spritely and sad, Alizeh lives on impulse but is rock-solid when drawing a line. A stubborn girl, she may not know exactly what she wants, but decidedly knows what she doesn’t. She has patience, compassion and the ability to say no, and Sharma is smashing in the part.

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3. Sakshi Tanwar (Dangal)
Dangal is so much a father-daughter film that the mother — with her lack of say in the matter — may be sidelined, but so credible and vulnerable is Tanwar, pitching her mostly silent character between the lines, that it’s hard not to be bowled over. Hers is a character mired in helplessness, dealing with pigheaded spouse and offspring, trying hard to strike an agreeable balance while armed with merely a sigh, and eyes that truly do speak volumes. Except when chicken is brought home. She’s having none of that.

2. Alia Bhatt (Udta Punjab)
The preternaturally talented Bhatt is pushed into a nearly thankless role in Udta Punjab, a film where she plays a horribly abused victim, a girl with no name who has drugs and drunkards forced into her. It is a put-upon part that gathers momentum as it goes along, culminating in an avalanche of an outburst that ends up the film’s highest point. With one fiery speech, Bhatt tells us of her hopes and her misery and her dreams of escape, before attacking a pack of bastards with a hockey stick she clearly knows how to wield. Unforgettable.

1. Sonam Kapoor (Neerja)
In the role of her career so far, Sonam Kapoor turned into Pan Am purser Neerja Bhanot. It is an emotionally challenging and delicately balanced performance that leaves us with enduring memories of a real girl we never knew.
Kapoor is spot-on as the purser and the affectionate daughter, but it is aboard the hijacked aircraft — where push does indeed come to shove in the most brutal of ways — that we see what her Neerja is capable of. The girl is both scared and determined, full of alarm and conviction in equal measure. In a standout scene, she silently and wistfully sits by herself and eats a cookie. Before all hell breaks loose.
It’s heartbreaking to see one so young and likeable forced to dig deep in this superhuman way, and Kapoor vividly captures the real Neerja’s fiercely brave mindset. By the end of this claustrophobically photographed film that left the actors with no escape, Kapoor’s Neerja made me wish I knew wrong and that the film would somehow end differently from fact. What a performance.

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First published Rediff, December 28, 2016

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Review: Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal

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This summer, India learnt the name Produnova.

An intricate gymnastic move named after a legendary Russian athlete, the Produnova is a vault so complex that only five gymnasts have actually executed it. The Olympic gold-medallist and reigning queen of the sport, American gymnast Simone Biles shuns it entirely, saying, “I’m not trying to die.” This is a reflection of both the systematic way in which international athletes train where they can measure the odds, and of its stark contrast with Indian athletes — especially female stars like Dipa Karmakar, who rocked the Produnova at the 2016 games — and the way they face each round on the world stage with an absolute go-for-broke mentality, never sure of another chance.

Dangal, Nitesh Tiwari’s film about the marvellous Phogat sisters who have won wrestling golds for India, captures this mindset brilliantly. A film about real-life sporting champions can often be a predictable guts-and-glory tale, but instead of creating contrived points of conflict, this film masterfully brings the actual struggle into relief: the paucity of funds, the lack of opponents to train with, a belief in technique which may be dated. The film automatically feels original. An authentic wrestling mat becomes the subject of dreams. A local wrestling promoter claims more villagers will turn up to see women fight than to look at lions.

He’s right. The villain in Dangal is the mindset.

The first proponent is their father. Mahavir Singh Phogat, a former national wrestling champion, wants sons to further his legacy and do what he never could, to win wrestling golds on an international level, but — despite all the “unfailing” plans thrust his way by village know-it-alls — much to his chagrin, he keeps on producing daughters. It is only when he realises girls can win golds that the epiphany drives him into a fascistic tiger-dad, pushing his daughters to breaking point. Richard Williams — father of Venus and Serena — had drawn up a 78-page plan to turn them into tennis legends, and started pushing his girls into the sport as early as four, later banning them from boyfriends and decapitating any Barbies that may come their way. Mahavir Phogat, who mercilessly chops off his daughters’ hair and exposes them to much jeering, gets it.

Aamir Khan plays this phenomenal character, both fascinating and flawed, a winner utterly sure of his beliefs who bends the world around him to his will. It is the performance of a lifetime, and Khan — incredibly buff when young, proud and paunchy when old — is sensational as he shows them the moves and imparts knowledge to the girls. With his wrist resting on his hip like a too-full teapot, his Phogat seems always to be thinking, planning, focussing. He knows what he’s doing. Eschewing vanity and leading man cliche, Khan shows us commitment to the part and, most impressively, the ability to — as they say in scripted wrestling — eat a loss. It’s stunning.

At one point he asks for his nephew to help the girls train, and the boy’s father confesses that he doesn’t want to say yes but doesn’t dare say no. This is good enough for Khan, who immediately shoves the boy into all manner of servitude. It is this incredibly put-upon nephew (Aparshakti Khurrana) who narrates the film, his idiomatic turns of phrase lacing the well-written film with the rich, local strains of Haryanvi humour, a dryish humour so dependent on language and tone. We are told, for instance, about an alarm clock cunningly being led astray, and, quite neatly, about the stubbornness of the god who wouldn’t grant Phogat his long-desired sons.

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Not that he needed them. Geeta and Babita Phogat are dynamite from the get go, a couple of girls traumatised by the training regimen until they realise that winning is better than golgappas — which they are not allowed to eat anymore. The two girls are played by Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar who win us over with innocence and exasperation before showing us how expertly they move. The wrestling choreography in the film is excellent and strikingly credible, and the girls are great here, and even better when they grow up into Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra. Mat skills aside, both girls give rousingly strong performances, with Fatima’s Geeta pulling off a fine, fine moment with Aamir as father and daughter wordlessly inhabit a phone conversation. He grunts, she sobs — as may many of us.

One of the best performances in Dangal comes from Sakshi Tanwar, who plays the hapless mother, trying to strike a balance between an unyielding father and daughters who just want to be girls a little longer. Her character, literally living between rocks and hard places, is realistically short on dialogue, but her eyes are incredibly expressive as she wears futility — and triumph — on her face. The film has a fine ensemble, and a special mention must be made of casting director Mukesh Chhabra for peopling it with such authentic faces and characters who say so much even when wordless. The film opens with a tussle in an office, and the bit actors — the woman in pink smiling shyly at the men circling each other, the old man looking admiringly at Aamir Khan as he buttons up his shirt — are wonderful.

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In a film so evocatively muddy, it’s sad to see Dangal create a cardboard villain caricature at the end, and to throw in an absurd climactic scene involving a locked door — a bit of melodrama jarringly out of place in this grounded narrative — but even this stumble leads to the girls finding their own way, liberated from any mansplaining. They do it their way.

Pritam’s soundtrack is a solid one, and Satyajit Pande’s textured cinematography oscillates between the poetic — there is a lovely slow-motion shot of dirt from a shaking head flying across a red sky — and the powerfully prosaic, with the wrestling scenes looking startlingly real. This is by far the most credible an Indian sport film has ever felt, with even the commentators getting in on the action, giving most of us a tutorial in how to watch the sport.

Dangal teaches us where rainbows lie in wrestling, and while it is a celebration of true greats — and true grit — this isn’t about one sport. India needs to watch this film for the way it puts the ‘her’ in ‘hero.’

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, December 22, 2016

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Review: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land

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Twenty Decembers ago, Woody Allen’s underrated Everyone Says I Love You had the director dance with the striking and cherubic Goldie Hawn on the banks of the Seine, by moonlight. As Allen clumsily kept pace, Hawn began suddenly to float — as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and her black dress just happened to be cut from magic carpet. In a film about divorce and infidelity and many layers of lies, this achingly poetic moment — where the ex-wife takes flight during a nostalgic dance and turns into a gliding goddess — is one of my absolute favourites from Allen’s oeuvre, for its unashamed romanticism and for the way it makes my heart soar, sing, yearn to dance.

Every single bit of La La Land feels as magical as that singular burst. It is a film that tapdances on air.

Damien Chazelle starts his exuberantly splashy musical with gridlock. An unbroken opening shot, choreographed with Broadway precision, shows us young men and women — young aspirants — cavort from traffic-jammed car roof to car roof as they sing of dreams and sun, wearing primary colours and priming us for the technicolor pop of the film. It is a gorgeous sequence, certainly, but what struck me most was the thoughtfulness of the visual decision: the reason this is a showily single-take opening shot is because traffic is impossible to fly or cut away from. But that doesn’t mean you can’t jump onto the roof of a car and warble.

Then, as the colourful stars-to-be leap back into their unmoving vehicles — the song providing no escape, merely respite — the sun-drenched world is identified as winter. This, we are told, is not merely a hot day in Los Angeles but, in fact, La La Land, and that is a place more unreal than you expect.

Mia is an actress. Which is to say she is a barista at a cinematically located cafe who goes to auditions and somehow — remarkably — never catches an important eye. In a city full of them, she is another girl behind the wheel of a Prius. Sebastian is a struggling pianist with the lofty dreams of resuscitating jazz itself by opening up his own club. He drives a defiantly vintage convertible, goes the wrong way, and honks like a foghorn operator. They are blue chalk and blue cheese, exotic and far from ordinary, archetypes but the kind you wouldn’t expect to go as well together.

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With all the charm of an old-world musical — Chazelle swigs from the same hipflask passed around in the day by Jacques Demy, Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli — La La Land is a film that could easily be described as a throwback or a homage, yet despite hat-tips and references, it is very truly — and very irresistibly — its own thing. This is a musical about loving musicals, just like it is a film about a boy who loves jazz and a girl he teaches to love jazz, rather than a film about jazz itself. In this, it is so deliriously stunning that most will fall for it regardless of tolerance for jazz or musicals. It’s a screen romance for the goddamned ages.

Part of the film’s virtuosity lies in the apparent lack of it. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are the film’s magnetic leads, and while they are both superb performers with rare and vintage chemistry, neither is a song-and-dance performer on the scale of the old musicals La La Land loves.

Gosling, in particular, is visibly laboured while dancing the first time, yet this amateurishness serves the character brilliantly, as we see him concentrate hard on his steps as he tries to impress this girl who casually, cruelly — and yet alluringly — just called him George Michael. The two have just strolled away from a party together and found themselves a bench with a knockout view, and the resulting song is enchanting. The standout bit is when Stone casually pulls out black-and-white tap shoes from her bag to match the ones Gosling wears, while he playfully kicks some dirt her way. These are characters who know they’re in a musical, and the giddiness this gives them is infectious.

That said, the film knows when to kill the music. The record playing in the background runs scratchily dry just when the conversation takes a turn for the brutal. There is an astonishingly irony-free scene where Sebastian talks over jazz music while talking about people who talk over jazz music, and this is almost immediately countered by a scene where background jazz takes over and talks over people. (Not just any people, mind you, but people sitting around a dinner table proclaiming a home theatre better than a real one.) Finally, in the film’s spellbinding climax, music takes over everything. Including our dreams.

Chazelle, who made the compelling and mercilessly paced Whiplash a couple of years ago, is the most worthy kind of nostalgist: an actual artist. La La Land is a dreamy rhapsody, a picture made with both affection and originality. The writing is note-perfect. Mia, who invokes Kenny G to needle her boy, finds herself in an experimental, improvisatory film — like jazz, really. Sebastian, a possible stand-in for the director, uses words like “shanghaied” to romanticise his own frequently hairy struggle, and wonders why we consider romantic a dirty word. Later, as a successful jazz band beckons, Sebastian is realistically asked how he intends to ‘save’ jazz by clinging to the past. He doesn’t know, though he might stubbornly say he does.

The way to save the musical, on the other hand, has to be a grand flourish. This, the best in decades, is just the ticket. Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (of American Hustle and Promised Land) shoots the vivid and timeless sequences with smitten eagerness, as if constantly trying to take in something magical, swooping up to grab a palm tree one moment, sideways to sneak in a wry smile the next. The production design is coded in solid and primary colour, with the protagonists even wearing white shirts when happy and optimistic (though Seb’s stay beneath his slim-cut suits) and then, when things take a turn, one of them is seen in a lot more black. We even go from classic white piano keys to hard black ones on a keyboard that looks digitally sinister. Bright colour constantly and mesmerisingly surrounds these vital monochrome decisions, of course — including the fiery scarlet of a keytar wielded by a man who, instantly regretting it, refers to himself as a ‘serious musician.’

The music itself, by Chazelle’s friend and collaborator Justin Hurwitz, is swooning and melancholy and pretty, utterly perfect for the film and liable to be stuck in our freshly-shanghaied heads a fair while. Stone’s clear, insistent vocals have a bit of a Hepburn quality, while those by Gosling are approachable in their simple mumble, vocals we can attempt to imitate without feeling foolhardy. When they sing, the rest of the film fades away and both actors burn even brighter under that singular gaze.

Excellent actors, they are in crackerjack form even when merely toying with the acoustic oddness of the word ‘Boise’, saying the name of the place over and over just to play with the sound, grinning moonily at each other while we gaze up at them. He, who can do anything, is amazing as he makes ferret-like faces for a photographer. She, holding oceans of vulnerability in her mammoth manga eyes, imbues each word and glance with meaning. These are actors we are fortunate to see peak before our eyes.

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In one unforgettable scene, the two are at the Griffith Park Observatory, its attractions apparent from a shot that swirls up its roof in kaleidoscopic fashion. She impishly plays with a bright red switch, he hurriedly polishes its handle with the handkerchief he obviously carries, and then the kerchief floats upwards. This is an echo of so many musicals — specifically Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen in The Belle Of New York — but the real prestidigitation lies in the quick moment when Stone, before taking off against a backdrop of simulated space and thunderstruck by the unreality it all, looks directly and knowingly at the camera, as if to share her whoa with us.

It may be this confident awareness that makes La La Land a cinematic triumph. It cycles through seasons knowing they look all the same, and — when it signals Winter a second time — the reason the sky appears too good to be true is because it is. As is the finale, which pulls the rug out from under our feet in a fantastical way few films ever dare, distilling the film’s essence while, again, letting the music do all the talking.

This is a sublime cinematic experience, a rare joy that — to quote a song I always hear in Sinatra’s voice — left me Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered. It is a film so special I had to watch it twice before writing about it, and you know what, La La Land? Everyone says I love you.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, December 16, 2016

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