Review: Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures

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The coffee is in a different pot.

The year is 1961, and nervous mathematician Katherine Johnson is an exceptionally bright woman assigned to NASA’s Space Task Group. Here, in a world of white men wearing detergent-commercial white shirts and grey pants and thin neckties, she feels like an anomaly. An anomaly who has to walk a couple of miles to go to the restroom for colored women, and one who — as mentioned — is given a different pot to drink her coffee out of.

Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells us about the crucial contributions made by female African-American mathematicians at NASA during the Space Race, and, as the more effective of these films are wont to do, it does its eye-opening slowly.

It starts off shakily, for example. We see a young child picking out shapes from a stained glass door — “Isosceles, scalene, equilateral, rhombus, trapezoid,” are young Katherine’s first on-screen words — and drawing dodecahedrons before nodding determinedly from behind thick glasses. We are lectured on her prodigious mathematical talent, and the music swells in overwrought fashion as the opening titles begin. These montage-y starts to films always remind me of the “Previously on” sections on TV dramas, and that rarely bodes well. Over the next fifteen or so minutes, I became convinced I was watching a well-meaning film made without personality. Like a Ron Howard film, say, minus the secret sauce that makes his films so darned watchable.

Then, around the time Katherine discovered her coffee pot, I realised how strong this movie really is. It gives us a linear narrative with immensely predictable storytelling beats, certainly, but that simplistic unfolding lets us pay attention to the segregated details and the remarkable heroines the film celebrates. The actresses — the phenomenal Taraji P Henson as Katherine, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy and Janelle Monae (who is having a particularly amazing season) — are magnificent, and despite the schmaltz and simplicity of the narrative, their vibrance and character wins us over. I’d rather watch these immensely cool women perform mathematical heroics than Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game or Russell Crowe in Howard’s own A Beautiful Mind. Make no mistake, these minds are beautifuller.

Melfi’s unspectacular, solid storytelling consistently makes room for flavour — at one point the heat is illustrated beautifully by Pharell’s song, Runnin, which goes “Summertime in Virginia was an oven, all the kids eating ice cream with their cousins…” — and for inspiration. This was 1961, and the segregation — at a place like NASA, for God’s sake — was horrific. “Well, that’s NASA for you,” sighs a weary supervisor, played by the appropriately pale Kirsten Dunst. “Fast with rocket ships, slow with advancement.”

It is this slowness that affects the entire space program, something noticed by Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group. Harrison is played by a gruff and wonderful Kevin Costner, an actor who constantly makes stakes seem to matter. The Russians lead the space race and he can’t stomach the idea that they might be smarter or more committed than his own men. They may, however, be less racist — and that is something he realises can surely get in the way.

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The film is about three women — even though Katherine’s is the story firmly at the centre — and thus serves also as a story of support and sisterhood, about the way determined people seek out and form their own little communities regardless of odds. Soon after the opening credits, we meet these three distinct ladies around a stalled automobile. Katherine’s trying to start the car, Mary’s perched on the trunk, checking her makeup, and Dorothy’s lying under the car, trying to make it go. The dynamics are very clear, as is their thrill when a policeman offers to escort them to NASA. Mary takes the wheel and sticks the car firmly on the heels of the cop car, and as the other girls wonder why, she explains the rarity — and importance — of a moment in 1961 with three black women chasing a police car.

Hidden Figures tells us a genuinely inspirational story in obvious fashion, and is buoyed by the performances all around. Henson is remarkable as Katherine, creating an unassuming, professional hero for the ages. At one point, a gent is perplexed that women get to do such “heavy” theoretical lifting at NASA, and she snaps into quickwitted anger. Women do work, she emphasises. “It’s not because we wear skirts,” she says, a half-smile appearing on her face as she realises the cleverness of her freshly conceived retort, “it’s because we wear glasses.” Bravo.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 17, 2017

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Review: Chris McKay’s The Lego Batman Movie

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There are many Batmen.

Detective. Dark Knight. Dancer.

Father-figure. Fascist. Flirt.

Teacher. Troublemaker. Terrorist.

Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939, the crimefighting vigilante has had a varied and sprawling mythology. With many a writer and filmmaker desperate to leave their own stamp on the shadowy character, the years have seen him turned into a simultaneous embodiment of both ridicule and high cool. Classic superheroes usually stick to their personality type, but Bats has often had his very disposition overhauled — enough to make him the most schizophrenic of superheroes.

The Lego Batman Movie takes this head on. Unlike other Bat movies that singled out aspects of his psyche, this delirious little film by Chris McKay aims for the entire utility belt and goes for them all. It’s frantic, it’s dynamic, it’s self-referential and clever and cheerful, but, most importantly, as Batman says, it bets on black. Like no movie before it. It’s every Batman.

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It also bets on Bojack. The film opens with the word “Black” said on a black screen as Will Arnett, who voices the superhero, speaks of important movies starting with black screens, wonders aloud why Warner wouldn’t just say Brothers instead of saying “Bros” on their logo, approves of the “macho” logo for RatPac production… all this before the film has started.

This moment feels like watching the opening of This Is Spinal Tap with the DVD commentary on — and that, to me, is the highest conceivable praise. Arnett, who miraculously brings alive Bojack Horseman on Netflix, perhaps the most messed up animated character in television history, is an overwhelmingly fine choice for this screwy part. Gravel-voiced and relentlessly self-celebrating, Arnett’s Batman is irresistible and imperious and oddly credible even when singing about how he does the sickest backflips.

This Batman sings as he works, glorifying himself as if he were also his own Bat-Minstrel, but — tellingly — he makes sure that even songs heralding his own awesomeness always leave room for a solo he obviously plays himself, be it a guitar solo or a beatboxing solo. This is a man who may be Elvis, but wants also to be every single Beatle.

He is also a man who, when faced by odds too towering, instructs his computer, quite simply, to “Overcompensate.”

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The film opens with The Joker (Zack Galifianakis) trying to assemble an all-star group of Bat-baddies, because he has a plan — a plan “better than the one with the two boats,” and the one with “the parade and the Prince music.” There is much mocking of gargantuan cinematic action set-pieces during this sequence as Lego blocks crash and tumble colourfully against each other, threatening to break Gotham City apart. Naturally, this plan is foiled by the adorable but insufferably smug Batman who then deals The Joker the cruellest blow.

Grandstanding as Batman’s greatest enemy, the Joker is told that he’s nothing of the sort. “I’m fighting a few different people,” Batman admits, an ever-so-slight sheepishness in his growl. “I like to fight around.” We watch The Joker’s heart break and, while the relationship jokes might seem juvenile, this soon develops into the most mature and compelling take on the Yin and Yang dynamic between Batman and The Joker that has been put on screen. Alan Moore, bearded writer of The Killing Joke and full-time loather of DC cinema, would be proud.

The film bravely and brilliantly offers other perceptive insights — like the way Batman has, over the years, ruined Gotham City instead of fixing it — and while there is much here to laugh at, there is also a lot that cuts deep. Batman would relate.

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The jokes are superb. This is stellar writing, better even than the Deadpool movie and — quite honestly — superior to what Frank Miller, who changed Bat-mythology forever with The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Returns, did with the world’s greatest detective. This film understands its hero. It has a masterful grip on the character and doesn’t let go, even as the odds ratchet unprecedentedly higher. Voldemort and Sauron show up, for God’s sake. Yet, impressively enough, for once, all the unbelievable climactic excess feels great. It feels earned, because of a rollicking non-stop plot, because of great characters, and it feels — exactly — like the explosion that took place when you and your friends used to bring every single toy to the same living room. It’s glorious.

I don’t want to give away any of the film’s joyous details and gags, but suffice it to say that Robin (Michael Cera), Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) are all excellently written and voiced. (I’d have called her Batgirl but, after the way Barbara cuts Batman down to size, I dare not.) This is a movie you should stumble into as unprepared as possible, and while you have already almost read this review to the end, let me reassure you that — as Batman says, aghast at the thought that someone could consider all his adventures finite — “I haven’t told you everything.”

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It’s been a while since we’ve had a Batman film we can love. We each have our favourites — and to me Tim Burton’s Batman edges out Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, with the deft animated film The Mask Of The Phantasm sandwiched between the two — but what The Lego Batman Movie underlines is the fact that, despite differences in opinion, this is a truly iconic character and we must revel in his absolute awesomeness. This is a film about how we all — Batman included, obviously — love something about the Batman, and it celebrates every bit of it. Even the shark-repellent. The magic lies in all those bricks coming together with a profoundly satisfying click.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 17, 2017

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Review: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight

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The cinematographer shines the brightest in Moonlight. The film by Barry Jenkins is a soulful and evocative work of motion picture poetry, performed by fine actors and with a musical score that keeps things heartbreakingly dreamy, but what cinematographer James Laxton brings to the table is the most special of all. Based on Tarrell McRaney’s gorgeously named play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film features young black men, dominating black men, confused black men and romantic black men filled with yearning, and Laxton amps up the contrast ratio to make their skins gleam.

The film is shot as if the main character Chiron has a camera for an imaginary friend. It perches near his shoulder and, wordlessly, gives us a sense of what this blessedly silent protagonist might be feeling. The camera keeps pace with him, running when it needs to, but mostly — and importantly — floating around him, shooting him in slow-motion except it isn’t slow motion. It is, merely and exquisitely, soft.

Yet the world captured is a hard one and the skin we see brilliant and shining, lambent with a proud distinctiveness, while the glaringly high contrast bleaches out the over-sunny Miami backdrop even as it brings Chiron and his people into sharper focus. Poetry, like I said.

We get to know Chiron three times, across three age-demarcated chapters of his life — Little, Chiron and Black — and these are the three names he earns for himself at three distinct times. We see a confused young man come of age and find his way and lose his way and, gradually, grow into his own. He comes to accept not just the potentially blue colour of his skin but his own sexuality. It is achingly tender, and Jenkins lets the film wash over us in linear fashion, letting us sense and smell and feel Chiron and his awakening, letting us, too, long for a midnight swim.

It stretches, as some poems do, too long, and Jenkins is as besotted with the brittle world he captures and his fragile protagonist — played marvellously by Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, over the years — as he means for us to be. Each chapter opens with an immediate indication of where the narrative will head, and this constant narrative inevitability, married to the film’s languorous pace, makes for something both beautiful and dull. Jenkins lists Wong Kar-Wai as a lasting influence on his work, and while we see echoes of that masterful cinematic lyricist here, Kar-Wai’s rhymes are born almost entirely out of the unexpected. Jenkins creates moments you can picture before you see them, but they are, nevertheless, frequently worth a sigh.

The performances are mostly fine, led by Mahershala Ali as a tender crack dealer and Janelle Monae as his flawless girlfriend, yet as I write about them I realise how singular, just how one-note, each character is. This is, I believe, by design. Each supporting character in this film has but one role in Chiron’s life, and they each play that very part while the boy in the centre grows into a man, fed on those specific, vital aspects. He is a spectacularly quiet protagonist, internalising these notes around him and taking them all in. Like the film, he is made whole by fragments. Unfortunately, this approach also leads to some shortchanging for some of the actors involved, and Naomie Harris, as a strung-out junkie mother ends up playing her part in a melodramatic pitch jarring to the rest of Moonlight.

For Moonlight is, above all, a plea. It is a wish and a dream, telling us that nothing in life — and indeed, no life — is beyond bliss, and that all it takes is a bit of jukebox serendipity and, most important of all, the right shoulder to live on and nest in. The moon may or may not be a balloon, as ee cummings unforgettably wondered, yet all that matters is that everyone’s in love and flowers pick themselves.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 17, 2017

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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

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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.

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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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