Category Archives: Uncategorized

Column: Why Court is a solid choice to send to the Oscars

Were Twitter to be believed, not just is Court the finest Indian film of many years, but it has also picked up an Oscar already. Ah, sweet, sweet hyperbole. This online rejoicing — with the selection of Court as India’s official entry for the Foreign Film Oscar — is, of course, indicative of the deeper malaise and cynicism at the roots of the Indian film fan. Things have gotten so bleak that we’re ready to pop the champagne not when we win but at the mere sense of the right films finding the right kind of encouragement.

Because films getting their due, so to speak, is not par for the course. We’ve seen great films flounder and bizarre films getting selected, owing to lobbying power and red-tape and cliques and feelings of insecurity and envy among the filmmakers chosen to make the decision. There has been no transparency in the selection process, and even this year, where the fine Marathi filmmaker Amol Palekar assured us that Court was picked unanimously, such is not the case as we read in my colleague Aseem Chhabra’s insightful piece which includes details of Palekar and Co watching Court, stopwatch in hand, trying to make sure there isn’t too much English in the film.

courtposterIt is the kind of absurdist scene, in fact, that director Chaitanya Tamhane might have liked to include in his Court, a film that deals with the daftness of the system and does so with assured stillness. I reviewed Court earlier this year and while I do not believe it to be the devastating masterpiece it was heralded as, I find more than enough to admire and enough, most certainly, to impress an international audience. Particularly in terms of what they expect from Indian cinema. Court is at par with most of the strong European cinema we see, and it will surely travel well — visually, and with its universality and its near-nihilistic imagery, it speaks their language.

Killa creates a whole new language. Avinash Arun’s film would have been my pick for the Oscars, a film so dazzlingly pure that it washed over me like raw, broken verse. I’ve gushed over it before and the primary reason I thump its back harder than other impressive films — like Court and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan — is because while those films show a European art-house sensibility, this film doesn’t try at all to cinematically impress or startle. It doesn’t fall back on cinematic tropes and devices, even great ones, and instead forges its own unlikely and beautiful path. It is a very special film.

Any of these three films could have made worthy ambassadors for our cinema — and how marvellous is it that each has been made by a debutant? We truly are in good hands.

Besides the new bunch, my pick for something like this — something so varied as the Oscar foreign language pool, something that prefers Korean films to seem Korean, Swedish films to look Swedish — would have been Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, which is a staggering retelling of Hamlet complete with rare, self-critiquing political commentary. The Oscars love self-effacing cinema, plus the members may also have embraced Haider because they’d find traces of that larger-than-life carnival behaviour they currently associate with Hindi cinema.

On the whole, however, Court is an oak-solid choice and has gone down very well with India’s journalists and culture commentators. This is important because the last few years have seen such an outcry of dissent regarding the selected film that anyone from the West looking our way for context about the picked film would have found nothing but hate. If an American journalist or filmmaker two years ago would have wanted to find out about Indian pick The Good Road, all they would have found would be articles sobbing over how the (brilliant) Lunchbox was left out in the cold. At least with Court they’ll see a groundswell of support. And love. And all of that counts in terms of building a case for a film.

Good luck, Chaitanya Tamhane. May the jury system prove better for you than the bench trial did for your protagonist.


First published Rediff, September 24, 2015


Filed under Uncategorized

Review: Kabir Khan’s Phantom

Old jungle saying: cast a film well.

There is a lot that a film-going audience can forgive in a production – from continuity errors to script flaws, from incoherent cinematography to weak plots – but one of the hardest to overlook is when the filmmakers pick the wrong people for the principal parts. Truly remarkable lead actors are magic – they salvage a bad film or shoulder a good one, and shine even when the film around them is flimsy – but even merely suitably-chosen actors can, at the very least, make a film appear adequate.

What, then, does Kabir Khan do? Who does he – a man who has just given Salman Khan the biggest hit of his career in Bajrangi Bhaijaan – cast in a film about killing terrorists and “vigilante justice”? A tough action hero and a girl who knows her way around a minefield? Actors who appear gritty and credible when squeezing a trigger, looking like morality is a luxury for those who get to sleep at night?


He casts a Nawab and a mannequin.

phantom1Phantom could never have been a great film. Based on a book called Mumbai Avengers, it was always going to be an unsubtle work of jingoistic finger-pointing, a film that suggests that intelligence agencies securing a nation should blindly rush into eye-for-an-eye territory. Yet while it remains a work of immature, even irresponsible wish-fulfillment, that in itself does not keep it from being a passable actioner. In fact, we saw something similar earlier this year with Neeraj Pandey’s Baby, which, while not particularly sharp, was slickly watchable — largely because of how Akshay Kumar took a role with negligible depth and created a protagonist worth watching.

Alas, here we have the Anari to Kumar’s Khiladi. Phantom stars Saif Ali Khan in the John Rambo mould, a loner coaxed out of an invisible, ex-Army life to assassinate evil Pakistanis. Yes, it’s Saif Ali Khan essentially playing Sunny Deol. This is a patently absurd bit of casting, defeated only by the choice of the doll-faced Katrina Kaif as a former RAW agent. Khan, who would much rather charm in a suit, here wears one scowl throughout, while Kaif, who speaks every line of dialogue in the same pre-teen tone, is here made to pick up a machine gun and fire.

Everyone misses the mark. Kaif’s character, the director, and Saif. This is less a motion picture and more a vanity vehicle for two stars who want to try roleplaying as GI Joes. The result is an exasperatingly childish film. When Khan tells Kaif about his deadly classified mission, she rolls her eyes casually, cutely peeved at how he’s always dragging her into things. When she speaks of childhood memories of her father taking her to tea (and cake) at the Taj– the hotel ravaged by the 26/11 attacks – his immediate reaction is to smile and declare that he’ll take her there “once all this is over” for tea (and cake), hence making clear his intent to pounce on her daddy issues.

She isn’t the only one with daddy issues, to be fair. Saif’s character, Daniyal Khan, is a disgraced-Army man who keeps phoning his father who keeps hanging up, because that “disgraced” part doesn’t sit well with him – even though there is absolutely no evidence against Daniyal. Dad has also presumably burnt up all adult pictures of his son, which is why the only photograph of Daniyal his mother finds is one from his youth: Saif as an effeminate 16-year-old, the kind of guy who’d sing about blue dupattas and yellow suits. Perfect. Just the reminder we need to reinforce the idea of a truly macho Saif.

Pointed parallels are drawn to the real-life masterminds behind the 26/11 attacks, and an attack on David Headley is genuinely interesting, if a trifle too convenient. Kabir Khan mounts his action scenes competently, even impressively – I was rather taken aback by the appearance of a submarine at one point – but, in an effort to mislead the audience into tension, there is too much cross-cutting to try and bring us close to the wire. This may be fine in theory, but in practice it means repeated shots of Saif biting his lip, intercut with shots of a paunchy cop running really slowly, and in slow-motion. Sigh.

phantom2Tragically, pretty much everything in Phantom goes according to plan, making for an inert, unchallenging and boring watch. By the time the Titanic-themed climax rolls around, even Katrina’s exhausted by the nonsense; she stops pretending to care and starts shouting “Daniel!” instead of Daniyal.

According to this film, India’s Research and Analysis Wing is a threadbare office, full of old and dusty files yanked from cabinets by character actors who must wish they were in sensible films instead. Over in Pakistan’s ISI, equally fine actors stand around a computer waiting forever for a jpeg to download. Shameful, really. All this talk of intelligence, but no smarts anywhere in sight. Stay away from Phantom. It gives audiences a raw deal.

Rating: 1 star


First published Rediff, August 28, 2015


Filed under Uncategorized

Review: Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan

(Full disclosure: Masaan is produced by Drishyam Films and they are the people producing my directorial debut, X, as well.)

It’s devastatingly hard to crush a skull.

masaan1For all its lifelong fragility, the human skull is a significantly tough nut, which is why crematoriums have assistants on call to shove a stick into a pyre and ram it through what once was head, breaking it down so the flames licking at it can consume it quicker. As a child, I thought this skullcrushing was the reason these people are called Domes. They aren’t, even if it sounds like they are. Doms — or Masaanis, as they’re frequently referred to in North India, the ones who man the Masaans, the crematoriums — are a brutally marginalised people, one the rest of our frequently filthy yet eternally queasy nation considers too filthy to touch.

It is here that Neeraj Ghaywan’s directorial debut Masaan blurs the lines, and in striking relatable fashion: does untouchability even matter on the other end of a Facebook friend request?

This is a fine little film about morality and loss and loneliness and Banaras and… well, and a balloon. At the heart of this film, buoyant like that freshly released scarlet balloon, is a young romance between a girl who likes poetry and a guy who fancies her madly enough to admit he hasn’t heard of any of the poets she mentions. She knows this, of course, she knows only too well that he wouldn’t have heard, say, of Nida Fazli, but she’s playing him because she likes hearing him confess inadequacy. He is smitten by her uproarious ways — screenwriter Varun Grover uses the nearly too-quaint word utpaat — and tells her, conjuring up every bit of male bravado, that he’s there for her and that she should come to him were anyone to make her cry. “But what if you make me cry?,” she asks, smiling, and he can’t help but smile back and, gratefully, drop his ‘macho’ guard. “Well, even in that case, you better tell me.”

The fact that he is a Dom doesn’t faze her, though she’s aware of parental intolerance hitting flagpole highs in the cowbelt. But, in keeping with this film’s serene life-goes-on philosophy, she’s happy to flow along. She suggests they run away from their homes and build some kind of a life together. “Anyway I’ve heard everything gets sorted out after some time.”

This story — enacted by debutants Vicky Kaushal and Shweta Tripathy — is a thing of beauty, something so pure and uncluttered that I could gaze at it for much longer than the film lets us, even though tinting this modern love with 90s nostalgia might be overkill. We’ve seen a lot of this awkward smalltown mooning before, but tthis is a romance with heart, stakes and even, sadly, stakes through hearts. Kaushal is sincere, understated and has eyes brimming with yearning, and Tripathy is effervescent enough to change the film’s intentionally murky tone merely with her eyes. She’s the best thing in Masaan.

So good, in fact, is this romance that everything else in Masaan seems almost superfluous. There is a bitter yarn of blackmail, of policing moral and immoral, and while handled with much believability, this is an invariably hoary track. Sanjay Mishra is wonderful as an old translator who sits on the Benaras ghats while Richa Chaddha, playing his conflicted daughter, goes through the motions too blankly. An internalised performance is one thing, but here Chaddha, a usually fine actress, builds her character inconsistently and has trouble ‘acting’ when the performance demands it most. In one confrontation with Mishra asking what she’s blaming him for, she spits back the words “Ma ka” (“for Mother”) almost before he says it; in a film this given to naturalism, her performance jars.

Perhaps that is why Masaan could ideally have been less committed to naturalism than it is to the poetry it aspires to. Avinash Arun, who directed the astonishing Killa recently, is the cinematographer and his work here is marvellously fluid, lapping by the water and diving under and above the obvious, his lens barely glancing at words typed on-screen and thus keeping us, the viewer, either alert or wistful. Yet for all its beautiful cinematography, the imagery in Masaan ends up soothing and never scorching, which feels like a bit of a letdown given the stunning potential on display. This is a lovely, lyrical film (with a great soundtrack by Indian Ocean) but I wish the song could have said more than que sera sera.

The trap of telling a greater story using interlinked, dovetailing plotlines is a sticky one, and while Ghaywan acquits himself well, there is some irregularity that yanks the film down, especially when the varied threads of story are being glued together, which smells too convenient. Yet this film is an immense achievement for a first-time filmmaker, and must be applauded.

masaan2At one point, a railway employee, played by Pankaj Tripathi, uses a line — about a station where more trains stop than start, a Hotel California-esque line on how it’s easy to get there but hard to leave — to try and impress a woman. Earlier in the film, Kaushal shyly, falteringly comes up with a line about how he loves his girl because she’s the youngest in her house, riffing off something she said, and we can see the grin run through his body as he feels the thrill of her succumbing to his line. These are the unforgettable bits. The lines work, Ghaywan. Forget life, death, blackmail, Benaras and corpses; balloon is all you need.

Rating: 3.5 stars


First published Rediff, July 24, 2015


Filed under Uncategorized

Hindi cinema’s half-yearly report card, 2015: The bad (and the ugly)

Half of 2015 has flown by, and it’s a good time to take stock of Hindi cinema and its latest shenanigans. Yesterday, I looked at the good stuff, the films and performers that impressed us in these last six months. Today, however, the red pen is out and offenders must be informed of their grotesquery. It’s time for the bad and the ugly.

psepmThe bottom of the barrel:

There are some films that smell bad right from their posters and titles, which invariably sound like either softcore pornography or MTV spoofs: Sharafat Gayi Tel Lene, Hey Bro, Dilliwali Zaalim Girlfriend, Sabki Bajegi Band, Kuch Kuch Locha Hai, I Love Desi, Mere Genie Uncle 3D and Barkhaa — which is not a biopic, alas — and P Se PM Tak. I usually refrain from picking on such soft targets, but P Se PM Tak — about a prostitute becoming the Prime Minister — is notable because it is a feeble, satirical dud made by Kundan Shah, the man who made Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, a film with enough bite to last us a lifetime. To see him reduced to such C-grade juvenilia is truly, truly tragic.

The colossal disappointments:


You may level many a complaint against R Balki — his climaxes are unforgivably maudlin, his films rely too heavily on casting gimmicks, he has a weird fetish for precocious, dying children — but one thing you must concede is that he pushes Amitabh Bachchan to absurd extremes. In Shamitabh, not just is Dhanush wasted in a stupid movie about an invention that could revolutionise the lives of ventriloquists worldwide, but Bachchan is forced too far over the hammy line, the film’s nadir coming in a confrontation our legend has with a Robert De Niro poster. It’s a devastatingly bad film.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

I firmly believe Dibakar Banerjee is one of the coolest, cleverest directors we have ever had in Hindi cinema. He’s fearless, uncompromising, visionary… and yet he took a well-loved fictional character — a character he gets, a character he digs, even (as evidenced by his foreword to an English-language translation of three Byomkesh Bakshi stories) — and tossed him from intricately plotted next-door drama to a gigantic but ridiculous plot that didn’t add up to anything. It’s a pretty looking, well-acted film but what’s the point of a Byomkesh film where the mystery isn’t smart enough?

The Unnecessaries — movies that have no reason to exist:

There are many Hindi films that shouldn’t have been made, but there are some that are completely flawed right from a conceptual point of view: Mr X is a film about invisibility where the invisible man is mostly visible; Ab Tak Chhapan 2 is a sequel to a masterful film that makes Nana Patekar shoot blanks; Hawaizaada is a long-debunked myth brought to life very tackily; Broken Horses has Vidhu Vinod Chopra remaking his classic Parinda for a straight-to-video level English release; and Hamari Adhuri Kahani director Mohit Suri and writer Mahesh Bhatt try so hard to make audiences weep in every scene that they end up making talented actors look pathetic. (And, understandably, heartbroken.)

Worst performances:

Shruti Haasan: Is Kamal Haasan’s daughter pretty? Sure. Should she act? No, please, for the love of God, no. Shruti grates on the nerves excruciatingly hard in Gabbar Is Back, shrill and screechy and horrid. Akshay Kumar must have shot the film with cotton stuffed in his ears.

Sonakshi Sinha: One ought perhaps to admire Sinha’s apparent commitment to furthering Bollywood’s bimbette stereotype and making Bhojpuri heroines look progressive by comparison. Tevar features yet another painful I’m-so-dumb performance from Sinha, and while I agree we should all be used to it by now, it still hurts every single time.

Aamir Khan: It’s hard to make an audience hate an adorable dog, but, as we all know, the word Impossible doesn’t exist in Aamir Khan’s dictionary, and he ensures we spend Dil Dhadakne Do hoping someone would throw Pluto the dog overboard. Voicing a dog who goes on holiday and complain judgementally about his extended family, Khan delivers childishly written platitudes about humans and their habits, never quite lifting a paw — or, indeed, giving a woof—  to help people he is supposed to love.

bombayvelvet1Special Award For Achieving Universal Loathing:

Once in a blue moon — and usually never around Eid or Diwali — comes a film that makes critics and audiences agree. Last year it was Queen, that saw us all applauding and buying tickets, and this year from the same production house came, well, Bombay Velvet. Anurag Kashyap tried to channel his inner Milan Luthria (who knows why?) but an odd mix of ambition and pretension got in the way of storytelling, and the result is a film with devastating music and fine actors which is amateurishly plotted, never compelling and where we aren’t made to care about a single character. Even Ranbir Kapoor can’t pretend to like this film.
Special Award For Being A Cautionary Tale:

msg1This goes to the one and only Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, a godman whose history you really should look up. Here, we’re only talking about the already-legendary MSG: The Messenger. In my review I stated that MSG wasn’t a movie, yet, since it wanted to be judged as one, we may as well put its hirsute hero in the dock. If only for believing yes-men, and thinking he — a man who does not watch movies — could effectively be a writer, director, cinematographer, editor, music composer, fight choreographer, and leading man. MSG is incredibly, unbelievably weird — enough to make Saint Ji shoot lasers with his eyes and talk to charred Barbie dolls. Sigh. I almost wish it was in 3D.


First published Rediff, July 2, 2015


Filed under Uncategorized

Hindi cinema’s half-yearly report card, 2015: The good stuff

Half of 2015 has flown by, and it’s a good time to take stock of Hindi cinema and its latest shenanigans. Today, I’ll focus on the good stuff, the films and performers that have impressed us in these last six months — while keeping the red pen ready for tomorrow’s more ominous instalment of the report card.

nh10aThe best films

Piku: Without a doubt, this is the A+. Shoojit Sircar’s finely crafted and emotional film about a constipated father and his irritable daughter is something special, challenging and conceptually very ambitious indeed. The acting is top-notch, the storytelling is warm and relatable, and it is a film worthy of many a viewing.

Badlapur: Sriram Raghavan’s intense slow-burn drama about revenge is a compelling and visceral work of art, with an arresting, unpredictable narrative, heaps of style, and a deeply introspective core that lifts it above the genre.

NH10: We haven’t done many true slasher movies in India, and Navdeep Singh’s gritty tale of a woman on the run is made unforgettable because of how believable the whole nightmare seems.

The interesting attempts

Dil Dhadakne Do: Sure, it’s a bit too long and there’s that insufferable talking-dog voiceover, but Zoya Akhtar’s film does indeed feature some genuine and rather quotable gems.

Hunterr: Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s film about a horny hero never quite takes off, but has some seriously quirky stuff going on and is bolstered by its performances.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha: There is a lot of marvellous flavour to Sharat Katariya’s film which gets a lot of things right but ends up being a paean to arranged marriage and how we must all settle.

*Tanu Weds Manu Returns: I must confess I was travelling when this released and haven’t yet caught the film, but even trailer-length glimpses of the short-haired (and electrifying) Kangna Ranaut ensure it being ‘interesting.’

The best actors piku1

Deepika Padukone: Is Padukone our best leading lady right now? She’s certainly not playing it safe, pushing it with every role. Piku sees her flanked by two legendary actors, but she is, impressively enough, the one who shoulders the film.

Irrfan Khan: What can one say about the marvellous Mr Khan? Piku features him as the most wonderfully nonplussed leading man, and as always, he brings tremendous nuance to a role that would, in less capable hands, be a mere comic foil.

Anushka Sharma: Sharma is exceptionally good in NH10, stripped of makeup and believably panicked as she tries to survive a hellacious night. A powerful performance.

Anil Kapoor: Kapoor, one of our most consistent performers, rises to his belligerent best in Dil Dhadakne Do, steamrolling over the talented ensemble to ensure you go home wowed by him.

Radhika Apte: Does this actress know what a false note is? It sure doesn’t look like it, and Apte — who is superb in both Badlapur and Hunterr — is excelling with a truly eclectic filmography.

The big surprises ranveer1

Varun Dhawan: Dhawan, so spontaneous and buoyant in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya just last year and, heck, bouncing off walls in ABCD2 a few days ago, dialled it all down and went gruff and bearded and mature for Badlapur. The gradual slide of man to monster is slow and challenging, and Dhawan nails it.

Ranveer Singh: Similarly, Singh, known for his far-out frippery and hammy flamboyance, peels off the moustache and swagger and plays it straight (and bemused) in Dil Dhadakne Do, giving us the kind of calm, internalised performance we really aren’t used to anymore. Bravo.


First published Rediff, July 1, 2015


Filed under Uncategorized

My picks for the Mumbai Film Festival

The 16th Mumbai Film Festival starts today, October 14.

The official website gives you everything you need to know, and lets you reserve tickets.

But this here link (RS MAMI Picks), gives you a PDF of the schedule with my must-watch films of the festival — based on things I’ve read, heard and trailers of the films playing — highlighted in unmissably bright yellow. Thus, if you like, follow the yellow brick road. I’ll be there.

(Oh, and I haven’t highlighted Richard Linklater’s Boyhood because it’s a no-brainer. Watch that cinematic marvel as many times as you can.)

Have a great festival, and holler a hello if you see me. (Just not if a movie’s playing.)

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: Siddharth Anand’s Bang Bang

Action films aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when a girl would heat a knife on a candle and dig out a bullet while Amitabh Bachchan threw out a trademark grimace. Nowadays all the girl needs to do is shine a torch while the guy puts on a bandaid. Expecting these insipid heroes and heroines then to, well, bang-bang seems like too much of an ask, especially from the man who made Ta Ra Rum Pum. All we end up with is a film full of bad foreplay which cuts to a song just when the characters should go bang.

They aren’t even good looking songs, alas. Every song sequence in Bang Bang, as well as the many uninventive but expensive action set pieces, looks like a television commercial for something: deodorant, talcum powder, lavender scented bath soap… This aside from the fact that the film is positively mired in grotesque product placements for pizza and fizzy drinks. This, of course, is what happens when a film happens to star two celebrities who are completely packaged products in themselves. Unfortunately for director Siddharth Anand, however, his actors have zero chemistry.

On paper, I admit it’s a good idea, to try and give us the Dhoom 3 experience we never had — by bringing back Hrithik Roshan, heists and a hot girl — and to improve it by removing Uday Chopra from the equation. Somewhere in the middle of this restructuring, somebody had the bright idea to call this an official remake of Knight And Day, a Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz romp that had a ridiculous plot but worked because of how gamely the two superstars dealt with the material. Roshan takes the material lightly and goes through the motions charismatically enough, but the formerly svelte Katrina Kaif — trying too hard to recapture Diaz’s sprightly goofiness — comes across as insufferable. Perhaps she’s been drinking too many of those artificially-sweetened mango-flavored drinks she flogs.

Bang Bang is all about Roshan stealing the Kohinoor — which, given the film’s advertorial bent, I’m surprised wasn’t a product placement for basmati rice. The world is thus after him, but he falls for a naive girl dreamily hunting for a “kitna susheel” boy, possibly the only girl in the world who takes one look at the legendary diamond and asks what it is. Brilliant. Besides the consistently cringeworthy dialogue, all Bang Bang holds are stunts.

Oh, if only they were good stunts. Alas, every over-choreographed look-at-me sequence looks like something we’ve seen a dozen times over, never thrilling and fundamentally unexciting — if for the simple reason that Roshan’s unstoppable character, much like the director, never does anything fresh or clever. He gets into big-budget fixes, sure, with cars and buses and seaplanes, but unlike in the original, where Cruise would actually do something ingenuous to get out of a jam, here conveniently timed coincidences do the job for him. As a result, the stakes never seem significant.

This is a stupid, stupid film trying to be slick, a B-grade film made on an A-list budget. The one saving grace is to see Deepti Naval and Kawaljeet, fine and underused veteran actors, playing an old married couple. Except they live in a house named House. Everything else is like bad guy Danny Dengzongpa likes his pizza: mass-manufactured, with a cardboard crust and extra, extra cheese.

Rating: 1.5 stars


First published Rediff, October 2, 2014


Filed under Uncategorized