Category Archives: Review

Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon

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She doesn’t want to sit on his lap.

Miss Julia is enraged, and all her billionaire boyfriend Russi Billimoria does — as the man in charge, her lover, her producer —  is slap the inside of his left thigh, inviting his tigress to clamber aboard so he can make it all better. She seethes while he smugly and knowingly slaps his goddamn thigh, like a particularly unctuous Krishna. Julia wants to defy him but dare not, and she cycles through her fury, before, in her own way, showing as much non-compliance as may be mustered. She does indeed go to him and allow herself to be patted down and placated, but she perches on his right thigh instead.

Rangoon, Vishal Bhardwaj’s new film, is his loudest and largest, a period drama that blasts off with an impressive, immersive war sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in something by Christopher Nolan. It is also, by some degree, his most accessible film, one that leans less on metaphor and symbolism and more directly on plot. The emotions are overt, the triggers are obvious, the fundamentals spoonfed to the audience more than Bhardwaj usually does, but the world he conjures is stunning. This is a barnstormer, but one made with superlative craftsmanship.

This is also Bhardwaj’s own gleeful riff on what Quentin Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds — it is a film where the Indian auteur uses a thicker paintbrush to earn a grander canvas for him to draw out his own wishfully revisionist historical fiction. Subhash Chandra Bose’s revolutionary Indian National Army features prominently in this pre-Independence wartime saga, with Bhardwaj himself unforgettably singing the Azad Hind Fauj anthem, Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana as rewritten by Bose.

That, however, is later. First, as movie posters of the day used to promise, come the “Thrills! Chills! Spectacle!”, and rightfully so. The year is 1943, and while Indian soldiers fighting under the British flag are being imprisoned by the Japanese Army, a young girl known for her stuntwork is making waves as India’s most popular cinematic attraction. Miss Julia is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition, a bright and beguiling cauliflower-haired sensation who swings from chandeliers, runs across tops of trains, and fights off pirates with swashbuckling flair. With her black eyemask and trim figure, she may as well be called the Lean Ranger.

It is this magnificent sideshow-attraction who swallows her pride (in a way that she probably can swords) for Russi, a one-armed magnate who was once, like her, an action hero doing his own stunts. He now finances the movies, and is seduced by the idea of an Army tour for his staggeringly popular Miss Julia, one where she can go boost Army morale and help protect his chummy camaraderie with the British.

The best laid plans, as we know, don’t belong in the movies. This seemingly innocuous idea leads to wartorn bloodshed and revolutionary chaos, even as a boy and a girl fall in love while another boy looks on. Sides are chosen and betrayed, and many a promise is broken. The film is shot exceptionally well by Pankaj Kumar, mounted on a grand scale with finesse we in India are not used to, and some of the shots — like one swirling up the inside of a grand old theatre, or the aerially shot war-sequences — are glorious. All this while Bhardwaj treats his film like a libretto, using songs with pointedly prickly Gulzar lyrics to underscore the narrative.

Billimoria is a terrific character, a posturing prince who can’t resist the grandiloquent gesture. Played by Saif Ali Khan, he comes across as an impeccably-heeled dandy intoxicated by his own insistence on his own power. Early in the film, Julia — repeating Billimoria’s creed that the British are the best bosses for India — is teased for being Russi’s parrot, and, much later, Billimoria declares his love for Julia by saying she is the one within whom his life is imprisoned — much like a parrot safeguarding an ogre’s life in an ancient tale.

This idea of helplessness in love is what drives the love triangle in Rangoon, which sees all concerned parties nonchalantly express their lack of choice and resign all agency in the matter. This may perhaps be why, even though the film has strong chemistry, the romance is less heady than it is matter of fact: we’re supposed to take the characters’ word for it. They are in love because they say they are, and who are they to answer why? The heart — bloody hell — wants what it wants.

‘Is there anything greater than sacrificing one’s life?’ the characters ask. ‘Yes,’ answers the film. ‘Yes. That who is worth dying for.’

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Living on the brink of death is Nawab Malik, a valiant Jamadar in the Indian Army with his focus unwavering from his mission. Until, that is, Julia enters and mud-wrestles his concentration to the ground. A righteous man drawn to an impossible lover — one who can throw knives and tantrums with equal panache — he is flummoxed by this woman who declares herself untouchable but whom he must hold close. Shahid Kapoor is perfect as Malik, duty-bound and clipped and proper even when barking orders in Japanese, giving this film a much-needed war footing.

Other castmembers worth applauding include Saharsh Shukla as Zulfi, Julia’s fiercely loyal make-up man who risks his life to save her bags, and Tony-winning British actor Richard McCabe as the shayari-spouting Brit commander, Harding. At one point, McCabe practices ghazals on a harmonium and, his mouth meticulously curling around beautiful words he loves so obviously, the scene reminded me of Chhabi Biswas and his singular obsession in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar.

This isn’t likely to be a coincidence, for few things happen by chance in Bhardwaj movies. This one was originally conceived over a decade ago as an action movie about a Miss Julia — a Fearless Nadia-esque foreign superstar — who rode roughshod across Indian imaginations, and was set to star the one and only Uma Thurman. Now, many years on and in a different version of the film, with another actress having made the part entirely her own, Billimoria still calls Julia ‘kiddo’ — which just happens to be Thurman’s last name in the Kill Bill films.

Kangana Ranaut is Julia — jagraati Julia, Julia worth staying nights up for, announce the lyrics as we meet her — and the actress is extraordinary as she rides and throws and dances with aplomb in what is physically an immensely demanding part. Ranaut looks like she knows how to actually crack a whip instead of just hurl one around, and acquits herself admirably in old-world stuntwoman sequences, all the while playing the part with enough vulnerability and insecurity to mark Julia out as a confused girl who doesn’t quite know what she’s doing. Ranaut is lovely where she teases her friend in the back of a car or where she begs half-heartedly for mercy when pinned down by her lover, and despite so much going on in Rangoon, Bhardwaj and Ranaut make sure the film acts also as a coming-of-age story for Julia.

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That said, this isn’t the filmmaker at his finest. The film feels longer than it is, some of the songs interfere with the too-meaty plot, and the romance never feels as soul-stirring as I assume it was intended to. The climax is a bit of a tightrope walk that culminates in a fair few near-misses, and ends on a rather regrettable misstep.

Yet it is impossible to look away. Rangoon haunts in unlikely fashion and, while the director’s most straightforward picture, holds enough of its own marvels to justify multiple viewings. Like a song-and-dance troupe trampling all over a map of Europe to tell their own fractured, misguided jokes, or an old man cosily swilling wine after having faked his own death, Rangoon may be direct but it is never obvious. As the credits used to say back in the day at the close of a spectacular film, “Remember, it’s a Vishal Bhardwaj creation.”

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, February 23, 2017

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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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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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