Category Archives: Review

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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Review: Aditya Chopra’s Befikre

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I wonder what films Aditya Chopra watches. I wonder who the reclusive filmmaker meets and speaks to in real life, and what on earth he imagines lovers and romantics to be doing. Perhaps he, who obviously watches his own iconic success Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge a million times over, believes (and hopes) they do the same. Yet if he intends to connect with his audience and make films speaking the ‘with-it’ language of the youth today, perhaps it is finally time he put an end to his Willy Wonka lifestyle, strolled out of his production house and took a look at the world.

This is because his Befikre is a colossally stupid film, a bad comedy with some skin and spit-swapping thrown onto it in a desperate attempt to attract attention. Despite the montage where lovers — old, blond, bewigged — smooch over the opening credits, what follows is not a youthful or fresh or interesting film. Like a big budget wolf dressed like a particularly skimpy sheep, this film recycles ideas we’ve seen done to death by Chopra’s own production house: the underdressed carefree tourism of Neal And Nikki melts into the inevitability of Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai, itself built upon the second half of Chopra’s DDLJ, with the Dance Of Envy from Dil Toh Pagal Hai thrown in for good measure.

Befikre goes through all these hackneyed bits while trying, in foolhardy fashion, to make a combination of the over-imitated talkie Before Sunrise and the wildly sexy Love Me If You Dare. Love Me If You Dare, a twisted French romance about a pair of lovers egging each other on from fun and games to callous and destructive madness, is a film that fetishises recklessness and the idea of committing to something impossible: a dare. It is a heady film that captures, vividly and sexily, the volatility of a relationship built on wildcards.

Befikre doesn’t dare.

A mediocre advertisement for Paris Tourism, the film is an inane mess where characters contradict themselves merely in order to outdo their own stupidity. Even the stolen idea of daring each other into anything isn’t adhered to as we see a couple of fools fall in love — the only upside to this being that they cancel each other’s imbecility by taking themselves off the market. 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.

He falls for her, she falls for him, and then after a year of separation — though we hardly see them apart — they decide to be friends. How very French, says the film, which also believes that a young man being polite to his mother is not French. Ah. I wonder where Aditya Chopra stands on fries. That said, we do find out where he stands on desi potato eating, this film’s big romantic question being a mother asking her daughter if her potential soulmate is aalu paratha enough for her.

Kapoor’s character is confident but unbearable in the film, yet at least she occasionally makes sense when talking of life and love and marriage. Singh, who plays a lame stand-up comic, knows absolutely nothing. There are other people on the scene, lovers for these lovers, and while he scores a pretty French girl who tries on headphones and enjoys stripping, she finds herself a smooth, un-boring banker. I must here admit that given the romantic cinema we’ve seen this year, it feels refreshing that this banker is played by some regular guy and is not a cameo by some beautiful Pakistani man.

There is, as the trailer promises, a whole lot of kissing in this film, and if you are in the mood to watch much mushing-together of mouths and to see Singh and Kapoor go at it with far too much aggression — her pre-kiss look is that of a rugby player readying for a scrimmage — then this film may, by all means, be your thing.

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I must however warn you that none of this is remotely sexy. Despite Kaname Onoyama’s cinematography being one of this film’s few pluses — there are some fine tracking shots pulling out from the two of them into the lovely world around them — it is bewildering how unflatteringly Kapoor has been photographed, and Singh cancels out his own charm by frequently displaying the energy of an electrocuted monkey.

Singh is a fine actor but struggles with the inanity of this material, material that requires him not merely to be always-on, but to be always obnoxious. The only moment he manages to salvage is one early on where he locks eyes passionately with a statue; it’s the actor’s way of flexing his leading man muscles and saying he could romance anything. He manages his character by wearing his cluelessness on his sleeve, and making his Delhi boy loud and vaguely effete, and resultantly renders this weak film nearly watchable. (As an aside I must hereby request some filmmaker to cast Singh in a completely effeminate and clueless role, even that of a valley girl. The Alicia Silverstone role from Clueless, even. He’d kill.)

At a point when our mainstream cinema is beginning to grow up, Befikre is painfully childish drivel that proves to be a maddening waste of time. It starts out shrill, turns predictable, and ends up chaotic. To use the language of the youth Aditya Chopra is attempting to speak, let’s call it Befi-cray-cray.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, December 9, 2016

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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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