Category Archives: Review

Review: Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2

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Sujoy Ghosh knows flavour. Few directors are as adept at creating atmosphere so swiftly and effectively, and Ghosh soaks his cinema in a seemingly authentic world. Authentic smelling, even, given the way his new film shows us Vidya Balan shielding her nose before entering a humid crowd, and the stains of sweat around her armpits as she scampers breathlessly through a rundown government office, fanning herself before her world falls completely to pieces.

Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh is many things at once — a mystery, a drama about identity, a slowburn thriller, a public service admonishment — but it is primarily, well, Bengali. The first Kahaani, set in Calcutta, featured its fair share of Bangla, but this one is in a different league. Some characters speak entirely in Bangla without subtitles (Ghosh judiciously uses words that sound the same, only minus o-sounds, in Hindi), while others say wondrous things like “Gyarah baje nagaad” where Eleven O’Clock is said in Hindi but rounded off with that lethargic Bangla word for ‘thereabouts’, which could make it mean absolutely anything. Poetic, really.

If Hindi cinema is an arrowroot biscuit and Bengaliness the cha it is dipped into, Ghosh’s biscuit teeters perilously on the edge of collapse. Yet, with the expertise of a lifelong double-dunker, the filmmaker pulls it out intact.

It is the dexterity with which Ghosh uses his tools — Bangla, Balan and Bengal — that draws us in as the film starts, before the plot unspools and we’re plunged into a dark thriller. There is a kidnapping, there is a flashback, there is a conveniently detailed diary entry, and there is a brooding cop who looks like he hasn’t slept in months even after we actually see him sleep. It is all gripping stuff — engaging, at any rate — though Ghosh clearly has more fun colouring outside the margins, outside the plot itself. My favourite moment in the film is a mad-eyed beggar laughingly threatening a cop with jail.

With a fine ensemble and solid textural detailing, the film holds our interest as it motors ahead but, like a flimsily glued house of cards, the plot falls apart the moment we think about it. Ghosh’s grip gets far looser post-intermission, when the film falls into predictability — even inevitability — and the villains are exposed as pantomime caricatures whose motivations are contrived and overdone. One character, for instance, exists only to pay tribute to Kill Bill’s Elle Driver.

It doesn’t help that the details appear more loaded with meaning than they are. There is a scene in which Vidya Balan’s character, who we have so far only seen conversing in Hindi, speaks first in fluent Nepali and then restlessly taps her fingernail in what sounds like morse code. We are aware that this character, Durga Rani Singh, has a history and there are many hints to that — is she supercop, assassin on the run, escaped mental patient who is now creepily fixated on one particular child in a schoolful of them? — but none of it emerges, or appears to matter.

Later, during a dramatic showdown when a wife discovers a massive revelation about her husband, he behaves as if he’s broken a wineglass and she should be less upset. “Come on, yaar,” he tells her, cutely chiding her for crying.

Balan, with tremendous commitment to the part, gives us a stirring performance free of vanity or obviousness. She is obviously a gifted performer, but her biggest strength as an actress may well be her knack for winning the audience over; when she gasps, we gasp. The supporting actors are impressive — particularly Kharaj Mukherjee as an all-knowing ignoramus cop memorably called Haldar, Manini Chadha as an attractive policeman’s horny wife, and an actor known for innocence playing far from type — but the big twist in Kahaani 2 is a striking performance from Arjun Rampal.

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Dry, weary and laconic, Rampal plays the investigating policeman and manages to look both hangdog and dignified at once, walking through the film with the gait of a once-fit stud who doesn’t now bother about promotions or pasture. It’s a clean and internalised performance, and Rampal — who was also the best thing in Rock On 2 a couple of weeks ago — deserves a hand.

Set in Calcutta, Chandan Nagar and Kalimpong, Kahaani 2 has the bones of a fine thriller, and I enjoyed Tapan Basu’s murky cinematography, shadowy and quick, leaving a lot of the actual action to our imagination. The idea of a woman refusing to let the truth die is compelling, and Balan is perfectly cast in the lead. Yet the film ultimately rings hollow. Ghosh throws in too much red herring bhaaja and, teasing twists that could have given us some final drama, shies away from a satisfying finish.

There is a fine beat early in the film where Rampal asks a cop for a file to record evidence in, and is told by a very amused subordinate that nothing ever happens in Chandan Nagar. That is perhaps what we should remember while eagerly waiting for cleverness and sleight of hand from Ghosh’s lovely, well-acted but vacant film. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chandan Nagar.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, December 2, 2016

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Review: Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi

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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.

We return to see the dream being pieced together, a dream that — besides making us feel like “short, strange people” — lets us into the character’s head, and lets us draw our own conclusions. (Though conclusions, as Dear Zindagi patiently explains, aren’t quite the point.) Gauri Shinde’s deeply internal film is the straightforward, sincere story of a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown — or at least on the verge of thinking of the words ‘nervous breakdown’ — and one that speaks, on some level, to us all.

Any on-screen depiction of a patient-therapist dynamic is inevitably oversimplified, as basic psychology is made universal and palatable, and issues are sorted with simplistic ease. What separates the good portrayals from the weak are, I believe, a lack of obviousness, relative realism in the dialogue, some evident (and some hidden) insight, and, most importantly, the feeling that the character is actually learning something right in front of our eyes. (My gold standard, by the way, isn’t a film but instead the season finale of the first season of Frasier, an immaculate episode where the two shrink siblings sit in a cafe and ponder a question, one that starts out throwaway but gains remarkable weight as the realtime episode carries on: ‘Are you happy?’)

Shinde scores on these fronts, cannily focussing on a dyspeptic protagonist whose default setting is to be rubbed the wrong way. Kiara is a bright cinematographer who thinks she knows better than the directors she works under and is highly aware of the studied state of topsyturviness in her apartment, but her love life is a shambles, where everyone — even the drunken ditz in a bowler hat — makes more sense than her. Relationships see Kiara reduced to a whiny, irascible mess and, since this gets in the way of work (and sleep), she decides to go visit the hottest therapist she can find.

This linen-clad therapist, a twinkly-eyed man who tinkers with bicycles and plays kabaddi with waves on the beach, is too good to be true, right from the get-go. He talks, she listens and we, leaning forward, eavesdrop. That is all this darling little film does, and all it needs to do.

He is played, with a knowing smile and easy grace, by Shah Rukh Khan, and there is a dashing effortlessness to his charm. We have rarely seen Khan not angling for a girl, and he shines here as he exhorts his young charge toward revelation while backing away from conversational — and cinematic — spotlight. Modesty might not be a colour familiar to him, but Mr Khan wears omniscience lightly and majestically.

The film, of course, is about the girl. Shinde, who gave us an absolutely irresistible female protagonist in English Vinglish, turns the tables and gives us a girl frequently hard to like. She snaps at her friends, is rude to family, and is so inconsistent with the aggression with which she acts out that I was beginning to doubt the actress playing the part. No fear. Shinde and the mercurial Alia Bhatt, who plays Kiara, know exactly what they’re doing, and there is reasoning for the way this girl behaves.

The preternaturally talented Bhatt plays Kiara with defiant pluck, a shy girl overcorrecting for her insecurity, lashing out before she’s lashed at. There are times the performance appears showy, but the actress brings such a raw, earnest vulnerability to her highly flawed character that she remains compelling throughout. Despite this being a film with a lot of talking, Bhatt’s silent moments are the ones that threaten most to stay with me: her eyes scorched in thought as she chows down flat street-side noodles; the stunning pause after she wonders whether she is, in fact, “common”; and, unforgettably, one of the most fantastic slapstick pratfalls I’ve seen in recent times.

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There is much joy in the details. In the way the therapist begs for two more waves to play with on the beach, and, later, the patient tries literally to steal five extra minutes with him. In the way a singer — one who is helpfully labelled Wolf — tries many a smarmy line, but nothing impresses a girl like quick reflexes. In the way the background score knows when to hush up and the camera knows when to push in really close and give the character her moment.

The supporting cast is uniformly solid, and the finely crafted film is shot well by Laxman Utekar, though, for obvious reasons, I wish it had a female cinematographer. The writing is what really shines, restrained and easy. The therapist likens trying out lovers to a hunt for the perfect chair, and, at some point, one fellow — a particularly roomy one, who shuts up easy — is offhandedly described as a ‘musical chair.’ It goes without saying that those make fleeting seats. Beautiful.

Shinde might be the most celebratory feminist among our mainstream filmmakers, her heroines far from being defined or restrained by men. Dear Zindagi is a lovely picture, made with finesse and heart, and one that not only takes some stigma off the idea of seeking therapy, but — in the most natural of ways — goes a long way in making a viewer think of the people who matter most.

The single smartest trick in this film, however, may well be the primary casting decision. Because a good therapist is a superstar.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, November 25, 2016

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Review: Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

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The film opens with Ranbir Kapoor’s character, Ayan, talking to an interviewer. She commends the singer on the fact that he’s broken through and found a foothold in music, “that too non-film,” and in a couple of lines, he calls his love “aamir” — which is to say the kind that cannot die. It is an atypical choice of word, and a couple of seconds later when we meet young Ayan fumbling around and proving to be a feeble kisser, it is clear that the nuanced usage of the word, the Persian use over the Urdu use, isn’t a part of his vocabulary. At least not yet. Over the course of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, this character learns to feel, to address, and to speak.

Karan Johar’s new film casts Kapoor in that clueless persona the actor has often inhabited, but chooses to hand the reigns of the narrative — and, indeed, of the young man’s heart — to Anushka Sharma, who delivers a performance effervescent enough to win over cynics and yank at their kerchiefs. In fact, between Sharma’s electrifying and unapologetic Alizeh and Aishwarya Rai’s quip-carrying poetess Saba, Johar makes sure we know his women know better. And yet they may not be the better off for it.

This is a mature, relatively intense film and, in many ways, Karan’s least compromised work. There is something humane and naked about the sentiment expressed here, despite the glitz, and it throbs with palpable intensity. It is an emotionally bare film about an entirely unprepared young lover, and the vulnerability feels disarmingly real. It feels almost personal. Karan introduces us to his loquacious leads and lets them do the talking — an awful lot of talking — without feeling the need for extraneous comedy or even supporting characters who aren’t germane to the affairs in the middle. Karan Johar has finally cut loose the extended familial ties; this one is all about loving.

Ayan is a rake, a blissful wastrel with a private jet and little to do, and an eye that sees him impulsively tail women who catch his fancy. He sees Alizeh vogueing energetically on a dancefloor and — after she takes charge, paying for drinks and overhauling his plans — finds himself immediately, understandably besotted. The two are Bollywood-referencing bewaqoof younglings, after all, wealthy beyond worry and drawn to each other’s brand of mad energy. She proclaims that she, like raita, lays herself out because that’s just who she is, and he, perhaps like paapad, has dipped into her lunacy and now longs to dive in.

Both actors are on fire from the start. Kapoor plays the brat brilliantly, his Ayan restless and fitful with misplaced anger and misguided affection. His mask of coolness slips early on — even MDMA makes him wail like a hurt baby — and Sharma’s beguiling Alizeh takes charge, deciding what and where they’ll do. The two have an infectiously giddy dynamic, an immediately crackling chemistry that can’t be denied. It is, thus, a shame that Johar chooses to drown their bubbly banality with an incessant background score that makes it sound like someone in the theatre has left their phone on.

As with all immediately heady chemistry, things get sticky. The two come closer but then we meet Alizeh’s eye-wideningly handsome paramour, which sends Ayan’s world careening into the worst kind of spiral. That said, stomping around an airport after a wedding, looking like Mogambo with a rucksack, Ayan encounters a woman who immediately takes his breath away. This woman, Saba, proceeds to smash back his verbal lobs with practiced ease while he keeps talking about blushing — even when he isn’t.

It is, then, a love rectangle. It just feels more personal. When a cleanly shaved Kapoor preens in front of a mirror, mehndi on his hands and a smile exulting in his own prettiness — with concealer, just this once, masking that scar under his right cheek we see all the time — he looks freshly plucked, stripped by love and utterly open to the guillotine. His optimism feels frightening. On one end is a girl who revels in passing judgement and on the other, a woman so used to compliments that she doesn’t feel the need to acknowledge them, or to be falsely modest. As you might have surmised, he’s hurtling head first into disaster, but we can’t look away.

Johar has improved massively as a storyteller, this film more polished and assured than anything he’s done before. Sure, this is a highly glossy film — and only in a Johar production will people at a headphone party dance in choreographed fashion to the same damn song, and a bag from Shakespeare & Co contain clothes instead of books — but the gloss, like foundational makeup, is there to hold these excruciatingly attractive people and their excruciating problems in place. It suits the world instead of dictating it, and the film looks terrific.

As the princely DJ, Fawad Khan has far too little to do in this film — though even a role with him on-screen throughout the film wouldn’t have justified the ridiculous kerfuffle his casting has caused — but looks perfect for the part. Aishwarya Rai looks stunning as well, but is markedly ill at ease handling unwieldy urdu couplets. Her eyes have helplessness and longing but she lets down well-conceived lines that deserved far better. This is a Julia Roberts type of role, and Ms Rai emerges this film’s feeblest link.

Kapoor is super at being charming but has developed a specialisation in cluelessness, and both sides shine through in this winning, woeful performance. Playing a singer, he embraces syncing mannerisms beautifully — the guy would rule at Dubsmash — and it’s lovely to watch him play off Sharma. He lights up for her, he powers down for her, and the film belongs to the actress who strikingly, come what may, sticks to her guns. Even if all she’s doing is patiently let a weeping boy kiss her on the head. At one point, as he tries inexpertly to drape a saree around her (so that they can roleplay Yashraj-Yashraj) she looks at him wistfully, overcome by a love that is both too strong and yet not strong enough.

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. Thank you, Karan Johar. For this film feels like a sob.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, October 28, 2016

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Review: Ron Howard’s Inferno

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Tom Hanks is not Nicolas Cage.

This, for the most part, is a good thing. Academy Award winners both, Hanks and Cage first made their bones with off-kilter comedies where Hanks played the wonderful regular guy gone a bit wonky, while Cage played the wonky guy with just a touch of regular. As they moved into serious cinema and became distinctive actors able to shoulder challenging projects, Hanks grounded himself by excelling in roles demanding verisimilitude while Cage flew off into determinedly weird parts and genres. Prestige found one while toupees found the other. And both fit into their own worlds: Cage couldn’t have pulled off Forrest Gump, Hanks would have scuppered Adaptation.

I talk to you about these two actors I love simply because Hanks has crossed the line with Inferno — Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel of the same name — and stepped firmly into Cage territory, by making a sad, schlocky mess of a movie with an inane plot, daft storytelling and bad hair. This is a simplistic, silly mess that tries desperately to appear intelligent by invoking the name of Dante Alighieri a dozen times — when all it really wants to do is be a National Treasure goof. It emerges as neither, because Howard and Hanks treat the material as if it makes sense instead of embracing its B-movie heart, as a modern-day Cage movie would. This could have been a glorious so-bad-it’s-good entertainer, but thanks to its self-seriousness, Inferno emerges merely bland and undercooked. There’s nothing to this film.

The plot is admirably loony — that of a mad scientist (!) trying to heal the world by culling half its population — but the clues, hidden here in Botticelli’s famed Map Of Hell painting, are too easily solved, without either clever deduction, dramatic fuss or even preposterousness. Everybody in this film rushes from clue-spot to clue-spot as if at a scavenger hunt for slow children, and nothing comes close to making sense. The scientist has, exasperatingly enough, offed himself and instead of having detonated his apocalyptic world-halving virus, he has absurdly left clues so that his followers can find it and set it off. GK Chesterton this ain’t.

Hanks, as Robert Langdon — basically an incontinent Indiana Jones — is a bumbling professor who appears to have lost his memory after a blow to the head, and while it is indeed pleasing to see the actor bring alive a character who remembers the order of Dante’s circles of hell while forgetting the word for coffee, it is also dull. Even less cognisant of the film’s genre is Felicity Jones, who, as Langdon’s comrade in crisis, shuttles around with an annoying urgency and — while a fine actress otherwise — fails spectacularly in her shrill attempt to create an intriguing leading lady in the genre. (If in the mood for a genuinely fun film about hidden ciphers and professors on the run, I recommend a 50-year-old Stanley Donen lark called Arabesque, starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. You’re welcome.)

Also in this film is our very own Irrfan Khan, an actor who can do anything but, cast here as a smarmy, omniscient Bond villain type, he isn’t given quite enough of a challenge. Save for correcting his assistant and pointing out which of his own questions are rhetorical (all of them), Khan’s character — called ‘The Provost’ —  is basically a pro wasted.

I’m not saying Nicolas Cage could have rescued this film. Far from it. I’m just saying he might have given us some moments to grin at. This one is just a yawn. Should you try it out? I infer: no.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, October 14, 2016

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Review: Neeraj Pandey’s MS Dhoni – The Untold Story

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The first time it is suggested that Mahendra Singh Dhoni try his hand at cricket, he breaks into that grin we know so well. What good is a sport with such small balls, he laughs to a schoolmate, shrugging off the idea. A pre-teen boy playing football at the time, goalkeeping is more his thing — until, that is, the cricket coach wonders if he fears the hard red ball.

He doesn’t.

Neeraj Pandey’s Mahender Singh Dhoni: The Untold Story is an odd biopic, a rousing rags-to-riches story that happens also to be a hagiographical picture of a flawless protagonist. Producing a film about oneself is something we would expect more from Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan than from a sportsperson, and this cricketer-endorsed version of the Dhoni story steps forward with singular intent: to deify its already-deified hero. (Any rating for this film, thus, must be accompanied by an asterisk — or, given the amount of undisguised product placement, a sponsor logo.)

This celebration, however, it accomplishes rather effectively. Pandey focusses on the early, raw Dhoni years far more than he does on the more unseemly later dotted with scandal and shade, and while all this gives us is a rags-to-riches story about a sincere young man destined to win and born to lead, it is still an engaging and passionate enough tale to fill our cricket-partial stomachs, one we can nod happily along to. The film doesn’t challenge our perception as much as amiably pat it into place, yet — thanks largely to a remarkably committed performance by the leading man — the film scores like a champ.

It feels at times like we’re watching a highlights package of a game we’ve already watched and loved, but sometimes that is satisfying enough.

The film opens with the 2011 World Cup. We see the back of the captain’s head, as he, with his trademark Nadal-esque sleevelessness, watches a wicket fall and pulls his Number Seven jersey on, choosing imperiously to take charge instead of letting the padded-up batter walk out to play. We all know what happened next, an unbelievably timed innings that climaxed with a shot — one shot I wrote an essay about — that many of us can never forget.

Pandey smartly pays more attention to what came before any of us were watching. To the young boy begging his mother for a Sachin Tendulkar poster. To the puritan annoyed at a friend drinking beer. To the thinker who calculates the time in which he needs to finish an exam in order to reach a cricket game. Walking out to join a more experienced batsman with a steep target on the board, Dhoni asks if the other guy can do it if he gives him the strike. The batsman says he’ll try. “If it has to be tried, I might as well try it myself,” says Dhoni, full of pluck and strokeplay.

Playing one of the most famous men in the country, Sushant Singh Rajput doesn’t put a foot wrong. Literally. Right from that walk, his body language as Dhoni is immaculate, and he nails everything: the swagger, the trademark shots, the oddly effete nail-biting manner. These slavish Dhoni imitations are superlative enough, but Rajput — an accomplished and restrained performer — fleshes out this character of superhuman perfection and turns him into someone real, someone worth believing in and cheering for.

The actor makes us believe in Dhoni’s hunger, in his earnestness, in the way he embraces responsibility — in an inversion of the superhero cliché, Dhoni appears to have realised that taking on great responsibility will lead him to greater power.

The most pleasant aspect of the film is the way it shows friends and family rally around Dhoni and believe unflinchingly in their boy. Set in Ranchi — with pink chart-paper school projects on blue and green walls, rubbing shoulders with religious imagery and Sportstar posters — the film is about the tribe of believers it takes to lift any of us truly high. Dhoni’s family, his coach, his friends, his teammates… He might not have arrived yet, but he travels with a pack of supporters, at times a motorcycled convoy. A Dhontourage, if I may.

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.

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The film gives us many moments of Dhoni rising to the occasion — underscored by brief montages of hapless, helpless bowlers —  but too few of Dhoni struggling. It is as if batting came too naturally and effortlessly to him. Tragically, we don’t get to watch him, the canniest and most boldly strategic captain we’ve had, plot out any of his unconventionally sharp decisions. There are two romances — with well-cast girls — but, like the poor songs, these hamper the narrative and slow it down. It is only Rajput’s valiant performance that keeps us believing — especially as he stands in front of a mirror and self-consciously practices precisely how wide his grin needs to be.

In a bright move, the film uses a lot of actual television footage, ForrestGumping Rajput’s face on Dhoni’s body and letting him advise Lakshmipathy Balaji and celebrate with Harbhajan Singh instead of casting lookalikes for these parts we know so well. The first time we see Sachin Tendulkar, for example, the film gives him what is sometimes (and fittingly) referred to as God’s View, turning the narrative camera into the Sachin character and letting Dhoni walk up to him for an autograph. It’s quite a moment.

That, in fact, is part of a greater moment, a scene where a pretty girl meets Dhoni on a flight and — while awestruck by other cricketers — thinks nothing of MS, who she doesn’t yet know. It is a fleeting scene but teases the idea of a truly good film. We could have had something special, something close to Rush, a proper sports film with conflict and heart and internal struggle. Rajput steps forward and tonks it out of the park, but it would mean much more if this wasn’t an exhibition match on a conveniently doctored pitch.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, September 30, 2016

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Review: Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink

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An old man stares ferociously at a girl in the park.

The girl — white Apple earbuds in place, out on a jog, sweaty and out of breath as she does her stretches — stares back, unblinking. She looks wary of the stare but not afraid of it.

It is an uncomfortable moment with the starer boring a hole with his eyes and the girl confronting it confidently with her own, and, coming as it does rather early in Pink, I began to wonder about a possible connection, a relationship, an estrangement. It is because the girl appears to know the stare so well. As the movie rolled on and it became clear there was no connection between the two at the time, I realised the reason she knew the stare is because all girls do.

All girls. Pink, directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, isn’t about heroines or crusaders or activisty girls who know how to generate social media buzz. It is, simply and effectively, a film about girls and the brush with which they are often painted in this country. Three girls go to a rock concert on the outskirts of Delhi — the de facto badlands in current Hindi cinema — and find themselves in a situation with three boys. We aren’t shown what happened. The film adroitly opens on a black screen with the voices of a pleasant situation in the background — a male voice protests the very idea of a last drink, and so on — before things go awry.

We see the girls run home and the boys run to hospital. One of them has been struck and could lose an eye. The girls are nervous, skittish, fearing for their lives and, tellingly, apologetic about the incident. The fear is real on both sides. Flatmates housed in a quieter Delhi suburb, the girls close the blinds and conversation between them is highly stilted, till the three declare it time to smile and attempt to tickle themselves into normalcy. But normalcy, as we see, isn’t as easily amused.

The film is remarkably well-cast. Taapsee Pannu is Meenal, the one who seems to have impulsively caused it all and keeps blubbering sorry. Kirti Kulhari is Falak, the reasonable, mature one who wants to avoid trouble at all cost. Andrea Tariang is Andrea, a sweet girl frequently and realistically described as ‘North-Eastern,’ as if that is all that counts. There is nothing unusual or exaggerated in these girls or the bond they share, and as the opposing lawyer (played by an arch Piyush Mishra) continues to brand them ‘women of low character,’ you see them crumble, not rise. It’s devastating.

The reason it hits so hard is because the film is made with a fair bit of restraint, and all the detailing appears free of gimmickry. 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.

Pink puts the girls — and, by extension, the audience — through the wringer. There is nothing pleasant about the way we see them broken down by the patriarchy, threatened by a lout who wasn’t even there at the rock show, but, desperate to prove his ballsiness, wants to take charge to terrorise and punish the girls. How dare they.

This is when the old man steps up. Amitabh Bachchan, a retired lawyer suffering from bipolar disorder, takes up cudgels on behalf of the girls, delivering courtroom blows with pugilistic grace. Like we know from Prakash Mehra movies, into each life some Bachchan must fall. The girls hang on to him with incredulous desperation, and he bats for them with all he has. At one point Meenal hangs by Bachchan’s elbow, words entirely unnecessary.

Bachchan towers through Pink — the way he bellows “et cetera” is alone worth having the heavy-hitter at play — but there are softer moments like one where he appears to have dozed off in court, or where he lays his head by his convalescent wife’s bedside and needs his hair ruffled and his conviction validated. It is a role that goes from saying nothing to talking too much, and that gear-shift is managed impressively by the actor, even though the film dismisses his mental condition quite conveniently as it goes on.

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Other hiccups include Pannu’s freshly painted collarbone tattoo that gleams wetly throughout the proceedings even as the boy’s injuries fade away, and Bachchan’s law-library made up of books with comically unlabelled spines, yet these — like the poorly chosen name of the film — are but niggles. This is a solid, terse film that makes its points in mainstream fashion with an appropriate lack of subtlety. Pink is a barnstormer — and it doesn’t pull its punches.

All three girls, as said, are excellent. Pannu has the film on her shoulders and she is consistently, impressively credible, Kulhari is marvellous especially when — belatedly exploding — she shockingly changes the ‘what if’ question to a ‘so what if’ argument, and Tariang doesn’t hit a false note, grounding the film in both reality and vulnerability. Angad Bedi is spot-on as the entitled, injured scoundrel, and Vijay Varma is scene-stealingly brilliant at expressing the casually misogynistic ruthlessness we now tragically but inevitably associate with the Delhi mindset. Vinod Nagpal is, as always, terrific as a trembling but brave landlord, and Mamta Malik makes her Haryanvi cop memorable.

The entire film is hard to shake off, and Chowdhury must be applauded for his creative choices. At one point an objection is made and Bachchan — not unlike many of us — accepts it by saying “fair enough,” instead of taking it head on. When was the last time you saw a reasonable lawyer? But after scaring the bejeezus out of us — out of even Meenal, who doesn’t realise or remember just how far from sorry she should be — the film abandons realism and reaches out for hope.

Pink eventually goes from a nightmare to a film of wish-fulfilment, because not just do we have Bachchan as a stupefyingly articulate orator scolding witnesses with panache — “I object… to this awkward performance. He is overacting.” — but we have Dhritiman Chatterjee playing a judge who understands rhetoric.

If that entire courtroom drama feels too good to be true, that’s because, soberingly enough, it is. Amitabh Bachchan isn’t around to stand by our women. We should be.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published, Rediff, September 16, 2016

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Review: Nitya Mehra’s Baar Baar Dekho

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I wonder if Katrina Kaif is good at poker.

In Baar Baar Dekho, Kaif wears an all-encompassing blankness, looking like a striking but not altogether realistic waxwork. She’s a vision, albeit one whose accent-soaked Hindi — more unbearable than ever — gets in the way of possible appreciation, and I wager she’d be an unnerving opponent on a card table, one both stealthy and distracting.

Cast in a film, however, her blessings are less obvious. Particularly with a co-star not known for any acting talent either, in a film where a feeble script is built on constant, relentless revelations with artlessly expository dialogues. Characters consistently point out the obvious, labelling things for the audience: one points to a Hanuman statue and calls it Hanuman, while a woman at a Thailand resort points out a Welcome To Thailand sign when a guest — who may well be asking which floor he’s on — asks where he is. Siddharth Malhotra, who plays protagonist Jai Verma, stands around at a lavish pre-wedding party and tells his bride-to-be that he could have spent all this money on vedic mathematics research instead.

Right. That is a creative decision in the same league as Chitrangada Singh teaching Economics at Oxford in the execrable Desi Boyz. Worse, perhaps, since Jai is a real piece of work.

The most imbecilic hero I remember in awhile, Jai is a math professor perpetually wondering what is going on. A slackjawed dullard, he walks around in a duh state, asking silly questions trying to keep up with his surroundings. Granted, director Nitya Mehra frequently (and inexplicably) pulls the rug out from under his feet, with a half-baked plot which is two parts A Christmas Carol and one part Groundhog Day, but there is no excuse for a hero this dismal and lunkheaded in any romantic film.

We have to believe that this guy is a math-obsessed academic, and that his lady Diya (Kaif) is turned on by hearing numbers multiplied quickly, the way Jamie Lee Curtis melted for the Italian tongue in A Fish Called Wanda. Nothing in this movie adds up, but the gist is that Jai — annoyingly tentative and indecisive about marriage, in-laws and the woman in his life — keeps getting jolted ahead into the future where things change and he remains the same stupid self, struggling to catch up. It is all rather excruciating, despite the glossy settings and the casually futuristic detailing, largely because Mehra labours her point endlessly and her tubelight hero never seems to learn a thing.

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. This is a hero who calls his pregnant wife fat and then proceeds to make the car drive to hospital all about himself, later preferring to accost a pandit in a corridor rather than be there to hold his hand.

And then… he calls himself a genius.

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Geniuses are in entirely short supply when it comes to this production, with a boisterous Ram Kapoor proving the least objectionable element. Comedian Rohan Joshi is around — carrying a briefcase into a hospital only because he wants people to think he’s a banker — and, without the slightest chance to try out his comic chops, looks incredulous at the film he’s in. Perhaps he’s distracted by the music, by songs like Kho Gaye Hum Kahan which sound shamelessly like Karen O’s The Moon Song played through an Amit Trivedi filter. Characters go through a lot in this film — the Groundhog Day section of the script is the most tedious and the most contrived — but none more than the audience.

Diya, portrayed by Katrina as high-strung and shrill, is — by my reckoning — the most patient and understanding wife in the world. Married to an utter idiot, her outbursts are entirely justified, and come what may, she does put up with him and consents to loving him. Poor thing. And yet, even at the end of this unbearable film when things are finally, belatedly being set right, the fool husband complains about her impossible temper. As if it’s her fault. Poor show, Ms Mehra. If you could go back in time to set this film right, make something else instead.

Rating: 1 star

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First published Rediff, 9 September, 2016

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