Category Archives: Year In Review

The worst Hindi films of 2016

As always, there were many contenders for this list. But these ten films — these ten monstrosities — are the absolute bottom of last year’s barrel.

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10. Fitoor

Grated expectations. What a pretty mess this was.

In my review, I’d said:

People age oddly in Fitoor.

A small Kashmiri boy with innocent eyes and a Saleem Sinai nose becomes a natural artist but, as if working with unreasonably heavy paintbrushes, emerges also a musclebound dimwit. A haughty young girl with a National Velvet self-confidence morphs into a red-haired waxwork unable to pronounce words that came so naturally in her youth. And an old opium addict, one of the most famous female parts in all Victorian literature, ages the most tragically: poor Tabu with abruptly heightening hysteria and increasingly weird eye-makeup, growing old like a Transylvanian raccoon.”

Read my full review.

9. Befikre

The tragic story of a filmmaker who once made a great film and can’t forget it.

In my review, I’d said:

A mediocre advertisement for Paris Tourism, the film is an inane mess where characters contradict themselves merely in order to outdo their own stupidity. Ranveer Singh is a Delhi boy who titters at lesbians and uses “that’s so gay” as an insult, while Vaani Kapoor is a French girl of Indian origin who has a prolific sex-life, and — conveniently for the production incentives — shows tourists around Paris. There are no emotional or romantic stakes anywhere in sight, and it’s hard to give a flying fikar what happens to these idiots.”

Read my full review.

8. Rock On 2

Remember that time a boyband reunited and it was amazing?

Neither does Farhan Akhtar.

In my review, I’d said:

“When Farhan Akhtar sees a fire, he glares at it.

In Shujaat Saudagar’s Rock On 2, Akhtar enters a burning building in an attempt to rescue people, but wherever he sees flaming embers, his response is to glower at them. (This technique isn’t as effective as the leading man wishes, and the entire property is soon scorched to the ground.)”

“Also, if glaring at things would cause them to stop happening, the Rock On 2 screening I was at would have wrapped up roughly 15 minutes from the start.”

Read my full review.

7. Sarbjit

True to his painful life, Sarbjit suffers in biopic form as well.

In my review, I’d said:

Speaking of wrongful imprisonment, spare a thought for audiences trapped in the theatre while Aishwarya Rai dials up the hysteria. Hysteria, in itself, is not a bad thing, and heaven knows a loving Punjabi sister attached to a brother (who apparently got drunk and wandered into Pakistan) deserves to be more than a bit high-pitched, but the director, in his urge to sell kerchiefs, goes too far and pitches Ash in unbearably shrill territory. Rai ages with caricatured speed, both hair and skin turning grey by the scene, and her Punjabi accent fluctuates violently, from basic swallowing of vowels to hardcore chest-thumping consonant-stretching (“Srubjittttttt-uh”).”

Read my full review.

6. Baar Baar Dekho

Forget the title: the only bars you need are ones serving alcohol. These are two unhappy hours.

In my review, I’d said:

This is a hero who, minutes after he first leaps forward in time, decides to let his hair down and chill over a party song. This is a hero who, recognising the potential for an affair that could wreck a marriage or two, goes ahead and tries it out first. This is a hero who learns of a once-prosperous friend’s life going awry but doesn’t bother to help him with a warning. This is a hero who, after assuming a day in court signals the wedding of his son, is stunned to see his wife there. This is a hero who makes use of a second-chance by being needlessly rude to various people who may perhaps cross a line in the future, but are blameless at the time he’s throwing them shade.”

Read the full review

5. Azhar

A film that takes the biggest criminal in Indian sport and proclaims him noble. And while that sounds intriguing, the film isn’t.

In my review, I’d said:

There is a scene involving Azhar’s famously turned-up collar, where his wife tells him she likes it folded traditionally, like a gentleman, and she asks him to fix it. He thinks of Sangeeta who likes it raised, like a cocksure superstar, and reluctantly fixes it. It’s a fine idea and could have been a strong moment, except the collar didn’t look too raised at the head of the scene, or too mellowed afterward. It looks the same and the scene plays out, like this film, entirely ineffectual.”

Read my full review.

4. Ki & Ka

Men and women are the same, claimed this film. Then it showed that anything a woman can do, a man can do far, far better.

In my review, I’d said:

Ki & Ka wants to be important, it wants to be revolutionary, it wants to be a feminist statement of equality. Admirable, sure. But it doesn’t know how. It is a film that thinks it knows better, but really — really — doesn’t. This is a film without breasts that desperately wants to burn a bra.”

Read my full review.

3. Mohenjo Daro

If this is what we think history looked like, too many Bollywood hits suddenly make sense.

In my review, I’d said:

Roshan is called Sarman, an unfortunate choice of name for a character who is to lead people in revolution, because when they rousingly and cheerleadingly call out his name it sounds like they want some preaching.”

“Sarman has eyes for Chaani, the high priest’s feather-wearing daughter. Played by Pooja Hegde, Chaani is an insipid heroine, one who wears the exact same caught-in-the-headlights expression when a) a horse bears down on her, b) when Hrithik moves in to kiss her, and c) when she’s being choked.”

Read my full review.

2. Buddha In A Traffic Jam

I’d call this the worst film of the year, but enough people weren’t assaulted by it.

In my review, I’d said:

Few films are this unaware of their own goofiness, and a lot of the absurdity is impossible to sit through with a straight face: the way Pallavi Joshi launches into the history of pottery when asked about her charitable organisation. The way Mahie Gill breaks into a shouty lecture in a library and hurls around the F-word as if wielding a machine-gun. The way Arunoday starts squeaking about Naxals like some alien race who have infiltrated humans and live among us. The way Kher is first reluctant, but then immediately eager, to sing along to an Elvis song.”

Read my full review.

1. Shivaay

Leave the direction to Mr Shetty, the critic typed in sheer, stunned disbelief.

In my incredulous review, I’d said:

Where, in fact, can one begin?

Perhaps with Devgn himself, a man who casts himself as invincible and flawless, a director influenced by such immodest greats as Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan and Madhur Bhandarkar. Devgn, we learn, is a filmmaker who enjoys making jokes about the divinity of his own genitalia.

Perhaps with the way this film is shot in Bulgaria but pretends it’s on Everest, which leads us to Devgn turning to a Bulgarian girl at a Bulgarian mountain and chest-thumpingly asking her if they have views like this in Bulgaria.”

Read my full review.

~

First published Rediff, January 12, 2017

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The best Hindi films of 2016

This has been a year of makeshift marvel. My Best Actor and Best Actress selections showcase worthy performers, but this set of movies makes it clear that this year has been characterised by fundamentally flawed winners. Most selections on my top ten come with built-in caveats, and yet they are films I’d rather celebrate than blackball. Here, after much deliberation, are ten misfit movies that sum up an odd year.

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10. MS Dhoni

There are a lot of problems with a film like this — not least the fact that it is a biopic partly produced by the subject himself — but the superlative performance by Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead role makes it worth watching. Also, the way Neeraj Pandey’s film captures how all-knowingly we consume cricket in this country stood out for me.

In my review, I’d said:

“The film brilliantly shows these family members and friends watch Dhoni bat on television, sitting superstitiously in the same positions each time, developing their own match rituals, and growling angrily each time Dhoni gets out, full of suggestions about what he should have done instead — because of course they know better. It is exactly how too many of us watch cricket, too involved, too irrational, too all-knowing, and, with this masterstroke, Dhoni the film makes us feel like the family of Dhoni the man.”

Read my full review here.

9. Raman Raghav 2.0

I watched Anurag Kashyap’s latest film on Netflix a few nights ago, and while this is a film plagued with issues — insufferable chapter headings, a sloppy screenplay, the weakly written cop — it still shows off craft and style. It also clearly got under my skin, some moments proving hard to dislodge. This is a reasonably uncomplicated serial killer film — one that wonders why we shun who we shun — and motors along thanks to the fascinating Amruta Subhash and the uniquely smouldering Sobhita Dhulipala. Kashyap doesn’t make Nawazuddin Siddiqui dig deep enough into his bag of tricks to bring us something new, alas, but the director has always had enough flair to make both violence — and the tension of waiting for impending violence — work.

8. Pink

Some films need to scream. Aniruddha Roy Choudhury’s film about the toxicity of the male gaze couldn’t afford to be subtle. Thanks to its everywoman casting and its overall clarity re: message — even if not re: plotting, which has a fair many loopholes — it does impart a message the Indian man needs to hear.

In my review, I’d said:

The old man goes for his morning constitutional at pranayam-o’clock, a persecuted prisoner crouches behind a policeman’s desk like a personal stress-toy, an academic admits he “can either be truthful or be liberal,” and politically powerful men sit in court and grumble helplessly instead of cinematically throwing their weight around. The first half of the film — steadfast in its refusal to either show the incident or even let us hear an account — is built on silences, on unmet gazes, on leaving it all between the lines.”

Read my full review here.

7. Dear Zindagi

What screws us up?

The short answer is anything. Gauri Shinde’s sophomore film started us off with an irascible, unlikeable protagonist and slowly let us see what her insecurities were made of. The very fact that her childhood issues were not cinematically scarring ones born out of molestation and murder, for example, showed how each one of us can and, often, does need a therapist. As a maid in the film casually opines, everyone should try it sometime.

In my review, I’d said:

The intermission is a nightmare. This is true for the format in which Hindi cinema is traditionally exhibited, as the interruption creates a narrative chasm that messes up both filmgoer and filmmaker, but it is doubly true for Dear Zindagi, which ingeniously uses a bad dream to slap recess upon us and allow us out of the theatre. While the heroine lies awake in bed, jarred by an acute fear of being judged, we walk around and, over coffee and cola, do that very thing and judge her as we pick apart the film, in our own heads or in packs.”

Read my full review here.

6. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

This film is a wail. Karan Johar has made a career out of showing us well-manicured people in varying states of frequently familial anguish, but Ae Dil sees the filmmaker at his most stark and emotionally naked. A treatise on the idea of unrequited love — something Hindi romances have traditionally conditioned us not to acknowledge — the film may overreach in its desire to subvert genre expectations, especially with a laboured climax, but it stays stubborn to the end. It may be inconsistent but when this film works it stuns, with its intent as visible and as hard-hitting as a flowerpot weighing down a heart.

In my review, I’d said:

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is a film about ‘tedha love’ — crooked love, love that refuses to stay straight — and about the unshared, pure potency of unrequited passion. It is a film about words long and sharp, elaborate and precise, and about the way we muck up and often manage to slip — inadequately and without definition — between them and between the lines. The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes all we need is a compelling reason to cry.”

Read my full review here.

5. Kapoor & Sons

I wasn’t smitten by Shakun Batra’s film on first sight, but scenes lingered persistently in the head. A second viewing — while confirming all my issues — made me a lot more appreciative of the nuanced writing, characters and of Batra’s unerring ability to find the vibe. Batra tells us of a family that, like so many of ours, teeters perilously on the edge of being a fractured one, and this he does with sensitivity and skill.

In my review, I’d said:

It starts off so well, establishing an interesting, textured family — a nonagenarian grandpa who keeps faking his own death in desperate greed to be noticed, a father who failed at being an entrepreneur and now lives on borrowed money, a mother who complains and gripes and flings barbs while looking to her perfect son to make things at least appear sunny, aforementioned perfect son who has his hands very full trying to remain as perfect as considered, and, finally, the younger son, a bartender who wants to be — like his big brother — a successful novelist. This is a film, in short, about people who want more attention than the world grants them.”

Read my full review here.

4. Udta Punjab

“I don’t like the drugs but the drugs like me.” All of Punjab may well be mouthing that Marilyn Manson anthem, even if they haven’t heard that song and frequently, like with spurious substances, end up settling for cheap local purveyors of groove. Abhishek Chaubey’s rollicking film, through the story of a drug-addled singer and the people he encounters, tells us just how sickly a state the state is in. This could have been a rollicking film — it has a Guy Ritchie sensibility at its core and lifted some bits from a britcom novel — but Chaubey and writer Sudip Sharma make sure theirs is a very now, very Punjab film. It’s a riot, certainly, but also a revolution.

In my review, I’d said:

It is in the second half, after the preachiness has made way for plot, that Chaubey’s finesse comes to the fore and the film gleams with originality. The leaps forward are unexpected, the narrative choices brave, and the detailing exquisite. We hear about a good-for-nothing Tommy having gone to the UK to study, and near the start of the film there appears a giant sign proudly advertising ‘Without IELTS,’ promising the chance to study in Britain without clearing the basic English language hurdles. Preet has a GMAT book by her desk, showing that even the crusading doctor wanted escape. There is a brilliant moment as Sartaj embraces the anonymity offered by a pagri, and there’s something magical about the way he keeps saying ‘sissdi’ because for him the word café means a branch of Cafe Coffee Day.”

Read my full review here.

3. Neerja

The best shot film of the year, Ram Madhwani’s directorial debut was both inspirational and relentless. Telling us the true life story of Pan Am purser Neerja Bhanot who, when pushed to a corner, chose to react more valiantly than any of us could imagine, this film is a compelling exploration of the fundamental idea of bravery, and of what makes a hero. Throughout the narrative, Madhwani — who tells his story through several long and unforgiving takes — finds his strength consistently through sparseness, by skimping on obvious cinematic sentiment and keeping things as realistic as they appear. Airtight filmmaking.

In my review, I’d said:

The frequently claustrophobic, frequently handheld cinematography adds to the feeling of narrative turbulence even though the plane is stationary. Cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani captures the rising anxiety with a perpetually moving camera and his frames are made special by abrupt pans: the view swings down suddenly, rapidly, to briefly peek at a nervous child peeing, or at a dog scratching himself restlessly next to his sleeping mistress.”

Read my full review here.

2. Dangal

Nitesh Tiwari’s strikingly effective Dangal takes on our country’s warped gender expectations — and knocks them out for the count. This film about wrestler Mahavir Phogat and his champion daughters Geeta and Babita Kumari shows us a highly flawed but focussed man driving his daughters ruthlessly hard, in an attempt to emerge victorious.

He succeeds, and the brilliantly acted film pulls no punches in its depiction of his methods. Where you stand on the-end and the-means says more about you than the film, which — solidly and spectacularly — exists to rouse and to evoke. What price to pay to catch the fox? This is what the Phogats paid, you decide how right it is. What cannot be doubted is that it is thanks to this trailblazing family that the fox now exists within reach.

In my review, I’d said:

It is when Phogat realises girls can win golds that the epiphany drives him into a fascistic tiger-dad, pushing his daughters to breaking point. Richard Williams — father of Venus and Serena — had drawn up a 78-page plan to turn them into tennis legends, and started pushing his girls into the sport as early as four, later banning them from boyfriends and decapitating any Barbies that may come their way. Mahavir Phogat, who mercilessly chops off his daughters’ hair and exposes them to much jeering, gets it.”

Read my full review here.

1. Fan

This may be the most flawed film on this list.

It is also, without question, the most fearless.

Every other Hindi film this year has been one you have seen before, in some shape or form. We have seen films like them before, from other actors or other countries, films of their shape or genre or style, but Maneesh Sharma’s deeply misunderstood Fan is an entirely audacious new creature that is all its own.

It is a commentary on stardom and on the idea of fans speaking for — and even above — those they claim to worship. It is a film about aspiration and fame starring the biggest actor on the planet, set in a country that unhealthily deifies heroes to the level of demi-gods. And, as if that wasn’t intriguing enough, it  breaks ground and casts him in both parts: a man who broke into our lives playing obsessive lovers, here playing both obsessor and the object of his own obsession.

I have gone on about the astounding twin performance before but there is much more to see. It is inward looking, deceptively profound and even surprisingly confessional, a film that makes us question what we think about Shah Rukh Khan as much as it questions what Shah Rukh Khan thinks about his own stardom.

Fan is far from perfect. It gets too caught up in tropes it is rightfully trying to skewer, giving us many overlong action sequences that dilute the film. Yet even if ‘only’ for what might cruelly be called the casting gimmick — one that shows off a heartening willingness to go out on a limb, both on the part of India’s biggest studio and India’s best-known actor — it is one of the bravest Hindi films I’ve ever seen. Twenty years later, it’ll be the one on this list we’ll still be arguing about.

In my review, I’d said:

Lookalikes don’t really resemble the celebrities they attempt to ape. Styled to accentuate a passing resemblance, they more often than not look like a wonky, wet-watercolour version of the real thing, something sculpted with less finesse and more raggedy edges. The fleeting moment of doppelgänger magic only takes place if and when they manage to find precisely the right light, the right angle and the right expression — for that one instant, the star’s the limit.

Limit isn’t a word too familiar to Gaurav Chandna, a West Delhi cybercafe owner who dreams Mannat-sized dreams.”

Read my full review here.

~

First published Rediff, January 10, 2016

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The best actors in Hindi cinema, 2016

Lists are made to be debated. To be obsessed over and taken apart and analysed, and while we critics bemoan the December ritual of rankings, those of us who love Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity will also confess to enjoying the absurd make-believe analysis of it all.

On that note, I’d like to thank the ten men here for making this year’s Best Actor list a tricky one to rank and a thoroughly pleasurable one to write. The characters range from sporty ones to scary ones, and to see so many mostly mainstream actors picking such intriguing and challenging roles is a good sign. Here, ladies and gentlemen, are Hindi cinema’s actors of the year:

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10. Amitabh Bachchan (Pink)

The man with the baritone had an inconsistently written role in Pink, with his lawyer Deepak Sehgal conveniently flitting in and out of bipolar disorder and sounding articulate just when needed. Yet Amitabh Bachchan is suitably commanding for a film that requires us to heed his words, and he holds court — in court, no less — with majesty. A line where he reproachfully scolds a lying witness for “overacting” is particularly priceless.

9. Diljit Dosanjh (Udta Punjab)

Dosanjh has the straight-man role in a film brimming with weirdos, always a tough ask. He plays an insignificant cop jolted out of apathy, and diving headlong into a small part of Punjab’s murky drug scandal. The way he gradually realises the fatality of the situation and just how much is at stake mirrors the jolt the filmmakers intend for the audience. His journey from bystander to doer — one that Dosanjh undertakes with slack-jawed believability and steely earnestness — grounds the film.

8. Jim Sarbh (Neerja)

Some performances that require the opposite of restraint. There are times when the very idea of holding back needs to be thrown clear out the window, and Jim Sarbh did well to embrace his feral side in this portrayal of a savage terrorist hijacking a plane. A jagged-edge character with the jumpiness of an indecisive wolf, Sarbh brings a vital element of horror — cinematic horror, even — to a film that otherwise keeps its seatbelts firmly fastened.

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7. Fawad Khan (Kapoor & Sons)

Reams could be written about the effortless way with which Khan plays his characters, luxuriating in the roles and sinking easily into them without trying to prove who he is, but this should, for now, suffice: it is a joy to watch a man who knows what he’s doing. Playing the family favourite with a closeted secret, Fawad is superbly credible and nuanced in expressing his sensitivity, hitting his peak when rendered speechless by a kiss he doesn’t know what to do with.

6. Ranbir Kapoor (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil)

Kapoor has made a career out of playing the man-child unsure of the road ahead, but scarcely has he been as emotionally naked as in this story of unrequited passion. He goes from being a cocky goof to a smitten pretty boy to a surly jerk who won’t take no for an answer, and Kapoor consistently inhabits this wishy-washy yet romantic character. A scene where he rests his head on that of his doomed love and waltzes into the dreaminess of what could have been is a standout.

5. Shahid Kapoor (Udta Punjab)

The fear is what impresses. Kapoor has always been good with swagger, and brings a legit popstar energy to the role of the frequently white-nosed Tommy Singh, but it is the wide-eyed alarm in his eyes that makes his character really swing. Whenever the shoe drops, he stares at the truth as if freshly awakened, and, faithful to the slowness of his foolish protagonist, it takes a fair few awakenings to really stun this tubelight into action. His singing scenes are stellar — with the actor nailing an a capella seeming moment — but I keep going back to those shocked eyes, widened to the point of electrocution. A top moment is when Kapoor, thunderstruck at seeing an uncle — someone he shot a gun at a couple of scenes ago — insistently order cola he knows Kapoor will ask for, scampers up to him and embraces the uncle, overcome and overdue.

4. Rajat Kapoor (Kapoor & Sons)

There is a furtiveness behind nearly each of Kapoor’s actions in this film, and while this may not always appear evident — like when he is carefully arranging cookies on a plate, or pouring out juice while smothered in a bright fuchsia boa — this underlying self-consciousness comes into relief when we learn that he, a frustrated failure of a man but a fine father, has his own skeletons. Guilt, being so intangible and subjective, is an easy emotion for an actor to overplay, and Kapoor provides a masterclass in how not to underline the obvious.

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3. Aamir Khan (Dangal)

Weight is one thing, tenderness another. The muscle Khan displays as a young man at the beginning of Dangal is far too impressive; overtly defined and glistening, it looks nothing like the authentic small-town wrestlers in the opening montage, with their rounded-corner bodies and overall broadness. It is as the actor starts losing shape that the character gains definition, and his smallest movements start showing off knowledge: of wrestling holds but also of how to massage his daughters’ feet. This character — a dictatorial father and a bully — is the most flawed man on this list, but Khan plays him with nearly enough righteousness and pride for us to overlook his flaws. And then, forsaking all heroic pride, he makes no bones of losing to his girl.

2. Sushant Singh Rajput (Dhoni)

Sushant Singh Rajput looks nothing like Mahender Singh Dhoni, one of the most recognised Indians alive. Yet such is his mastery of body language and sheer tonality that we begin to see Dhoni in Rajput, in obvious ways — his gait and his flawlessly mimicked strokeplay — which can come with dedicated rehearsal and rigour, but also in less labelled nuances of character, such as the way the cricketer, coming to grips with celebrity, attempts to perfect the exact width of his on-screen smile. Rajput plays Dhoni as a young squirt and as six-hitting cricket conqueror, and does so with grace and inevitability. Of course this is how Dhoni must have been, he must have felt, he must have struggled, insists Rajput’s performance. And willingly we believe.

1. Shah Rukh Khan (Fan)

Nobody but Shah Rukh Khan could have done this.

The idea of obsessed fan and overindulged filmstar is an old one, but Khan takes it to a different level by taking on both heads and tails. He is spectacular as the wannabe, the hungry young man stuck in emulative loops, eyes a-gleam with hope and desire and, when it comes to the man he loves, avarice. With cut-price copies of his stunts, his wardrobe and his romantic gestures, Khan’s Gaurav proves his love and then crosses the line. In a way reminiscent of… well, Khan himself when he stutteringly stalked young women decades ago.

Meanwhile, in the braver and infinitely less showy other role, Khan delivers a devastating critique of his own image. The actor, having already and boldly crowned himself his own greatest admirer by playing the fan, here plays The Star. He is secure and brave — often stupidly reckless, single-handedly running down streets emboldened by years of doing stunts — but also desperate and flailing, and tellingly eager to hold on to a job, even if it means coaxing a businessman to continue letting him entertain guests at a wedding. This is a vain man who surrounds himself with memorabilia marking his own fortune, and a man so out of touch with even his immediate world that his watchman mistakes a pretender for the real thing.

There’s never been a performance like it. But then there’s never been a Shah Rukh Khan.

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~

First published Rediff, January 2, 2017

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The best actresses in Hindi cinema, 2016

It is that time of year again, when lists are made and arbitrary rankings are passionately made and argued about.

Actresses out-performed the actors in Hindi cinema this year, and keeping this list down to ten names was hard. The following names include a debutant and a veteran, obvious inclusions and unlikely suspects, and one young lady who rocked the list twice. They all created characters worthy of admiration, those that won our respect and those we’d applaud any given Friday.

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the class of 2016:

10. Taapsee Pannu (Pink)
In Pink, Pannu’s character is a feisty girl with her spirit decapitated by a nightmarish situation. She flares up from time to time but — despite not being in the wrong at all, something we realise with the photographs of the attack on her — breaks down and is desperately, believably and heartbreakingly apologetic in court. A restrained, real performance.

9. Vidya Balan (Kahaani 2)
Balan, an actress who eschews vanity and dives headlong into character, has a lot to do in this film as a woman with a murky past and a precarious present. She is, as always, immensely credible — both when unsure of herself and when recklessly raring to go — and shares her breathlessness with the audience.

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8. Ratna Pathak Shah (Kapoor And Sons)

This family drama relies on an ensemble of fathers and sons and grandfathers, but holding everything in place is the haranguing mother, played to perfection by Shah. Forever on the end of her tether, the only woman in the family is exhausted, exasperated and driven past breaking point by secrets all around her. Shah, always terrific, brings fragility to the film.

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7. Zaira Wasim (Dangal)
Zaira Wasim made her debut as the young Geeta Phogat, and while it feels unfair to single out one of the daughters even as both were given a gruelling workout, Wasim sparkled in the wrestling film as the elder daughter, warring a dictatorial father, looking out for her younger sister and being the first one to blaze the gender-defying trail by slamming cocky young boys in langots who never knew what hit ‘em. The grown-up Geeta is played very well by Fatima Sana Shaikh, but it is the younger Geeta who shoulders the first half of the film. We must all buy this girl golgappas.

6. Kirti Kulhari (Pink)
Kulhari’s character in Pink seems to be the relatable, level-headed one. A girl who knows what trouble is and wants to stay out of it, thank you very much. She plays this tightly coiled character quietly till she is pushed past reason, after which she bursts into justifiable hysteria. After much courtroom conjecture on whether the molested girls actually were soliciting the men, Kulhari declares that they were indeed doing so, and questions how that is important. She shockingly and immediately makes that misogynistic line of legalese irrelevant, giving the film a lot more depth and cutting closer to the bone.

5. Alia Bhatt (Dear Zindagi)
Bhatt plays a surly, spoilt sourpuss of a character in Dear Zindagi. Until, that is, she opens up and makes us aware of the many conflicts and insecurities inside her. It is a seemingly simple but genuinely impressive performance, one that is never obvious and a character that unravels instinctively as the actress lets us in. Bhatt makes her character, and her problems, feel real.

4. Anushka Sharma (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil)
Playing the most complicated character on this list, Sharma does fantastically to make her Alizeh — cursed with too much clarity except when in love — come alive. Both spritely and sad, Alizeh lives on impulse but is rock-solid when drawing a line. A stubborn girl, she may not know exactly what she wants, but decidedly knows what she doesn’t. She has patience, compassion and the ability to say no, and Sharma is smashing in the part.

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3. Sakshi Tanwar (Dangal)
Dangal is so much a father-daughter film that the mother — with her lack of say in the matter — may be sidelined, but so credible and vulnerable is Tanwar, pitching her mostly silent character between the lines, that it’s hard not to be bowled over. Hers is a character mired in helplessness, dealing with pigheaded spouse and offspring, trying hard to strike an agreeable balance while armed with merely a sigh, and eyes that truly do speak volumes. Except when chicken is brought home. She’s having none of that.

2. Alia Bhatt (Udta Punjab)
The preternaturally talented Bhatt is pushed into a nearly thankless role in Udta Punjab, a film where she plays a horribly abused victim, a girl with no name who has drugs and drunkards forced into her. It is a put-upon part that gathers momentum as it goes along, culminating in an avalanche of an outburst that ends up the film’s highest point. With one fiery speech, Bhatt tells us of her hopes and her misery and her dreams of escape, before attacking a pack of bastards with a hockey stick she clearly knows how to wield. Unforgettable.

1. Sonam Kapoor (Neerja)
In the role of her career so far, Sonam Kapoor turned into Pan Am purser Neerja Bhanot. It is an emotionally challenging and delicately balanced performance that leaves us with enduring memories of a real girl we never knew.
Kapoor is spot-on as the purser and the affectionate daughter, but it is aboard the hijacked aircraft — where push does indeed come to shove in the most brutal of ways — that we see what her Neerja is capable of. The girl is both scared and determined, full of alarm and conviction in equal measure. In a standout scene, she silently and wistfully sits by herself and eats a cookie. Before all hell breaks loose.
It’s heartbreaking to see one so young and likeable forced to dig deep in this superhuman way, and Kapoor vividly captures the real Neerja’s fiercely brave mindset. By the end of this claustrophobically photographed film that left the actors with no escape, Kapoor’s Neerja made me wish I knew wrong and that the film would somehow end differently from fact. What a performance.

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First published Rediff, December 28, 2016

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The 2016 Half-term Hindi Cinema report card: The Good and The Bad

Six months of 2016 are almost up, and as tradition dictates, it is time to take stock. Here I step back and take a look at what’s worked and what hasn’t. 

The Good

The Top Films

For me, there have been three standout films in 2016 so far, and these couldn’t be a more diverse mix. Neerja is a story about a hero worth celebrating, finally told the right way without feeling the need for embellishment. Fan is a fascinating exploration of the nature of celebrity coming our way from a megastar’s genuinely unique vantage-point. Udta Punjab is a rollicking film that amuses us in order to open our eyes and show us just how dismally drugs have sickened a state we like to label healthy.

The Top Performers

Think what you may of the film itself (which I love), Shah Rukh Khan is jawdroppingly good in Fan — both as the 25-year-old young admirer and as the jaded but determined ageing movie star. It is an immensely brave performance demanding stunning commitment, and he shines.

Udta Punjab boasts many a great performance, with Shahid Kapoor finding magic in the manic, Alia Bhatt delivering a remarkable dialogue-driven scene that continues to haunt, and actors Manav Vij and Diljit Dosanjh bringing immense credibility to the film.

Sonam Kapoor is brilliantly cast in Neerja, and she shrugs off her Sonamicity to play a girl the audience roots for — despite the fact that we know the ending to her sad story. It is the kind of part that enables an actor to graduate to another level, and Kapoor rises to the occasion. Standing right by her and barking orders is theatre actor Jim Sarbh, who really turns up the heat as a feral terrorist.

Another film with a striking ensemble was Kapoor & Sons, and I feel it important to single out Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah, who, as a miserable married couple, create characters who are grounded and flawed and heartbreakingly believable.

Finally, some sensitivity

Is this the year ‘mainstream’ Hindi cinema is waking up to sensitive portrayals of homosexuality? Fawad Khan is great as a young man pretending he’s straight when his family’s looking in Kapoor & Sons, while Manoj Bajpai is at his most endearing in Aligarh as the soft-spoken and articulate Professor Siras. Both are a far cry from the campy, limp-wristed portrayals we’ve seen before, and one hopes this maturity lasts — it was particularly disheartening, for example, to read about the number of leading men who weren’t secure enough in their own sexuality to take up Khan’s role.

All hail the new dude

How has it taken Hindi cinema this long to nab a Sikh leading man? Considering just how much Punjab we’ve been force-fed over the years, its stunning that we’ve had to wait this long to see a true-blue Sardar hero. Diljit Dosanjh, with his quiet, understated intensity, is the leading man in Udta Punjab, the character who follows the hero’s journey and the film’s most evocative performer. Let’s make sure we don’t lose him, because the man is sensational.

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The Bad

The worst films

Oh, where does one start? Possibly with Buddha In A Traffic Jam, but then, rather like MSG – Messenger Of God last year, that can barely be called a film: it is one of the most incompetent theatrical releases I have seen in quite some time, an amateurish and juvenile collection of ideas thrown at the audience through bad actors and awful direction. There is Fitoor, an overblown adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, made here with lavish production values but a leading pair who cannot act — or cannot be bothered to try. There is Jai Gangaajal, a film ostensibly with Priyanka Chopra in the lead role as a tough supercop, but really a vanity project for the director Prakash Jha to try his own hand at acting. There’s Azhar, a toothless film about the meatiest cricketer story we know, one that tries to laugh away sins by coming up with some nonsensical excuse. And then there’s Ki & Ka, a film about gender equality which tries to show how men are better than women even at doing what women do.

The Sunny Leone situation

Whatever do we do about Sunny Leone? She’s got a bright smile, intelligent eyes and knows how to whip a misogynist television interviewer, but what are we doing with her? On one hand we make her cavort in the hideous Mastizaade, and on the other we try to declare her as unapologetic and progressive in One Night Stand — just before we cut to another song letching at her. Sigh.

The year Amitabh Bachchan starred in the same bad film. Twice.

Sure, Wazir and TE3N are different films. We know that. They’re set in different cities, made by different directors, have other younger actors trying to decipher what Amitabh Bachchan is upto. And yet both films hinge on the exact same twist involving Bachchan. Not just is it a predictable reveal in both cases, but also both films end up concentrating on Bachchan and the identical twist with such reverential self-love that the climaxes derail any good work that may have been done so far. 

A year of awful makeup.

Aishwarya Rai in Sarbjit gets older and browner and greyer and more rubber-skinned with nearly each scene, even as her hysterics gets screechier. Tabu beats her, however, with the oddly raccoon-like fashion her eyes sink into dark black holes as she goes from striking redhead to scary Rekhaish crone in Fitoor. And then there’s Rishi Kapoor, prosthetically older in Kapoor & Sons, where they make him so distractingly prehistoric it becomes dashed hard to concentrate on his (middling) performance.

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First published Rediff, June 2930, 2016

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Oscar column: Why we should be glad Mad Max didn’t win Best Picture

What is better than winning Best Picture?

It sounds bonkers, I grant you, yet hear me out: At the Oscars, being on the inside of the Best Picture envelope isn’t as golden as it gets. The ultimate prize, the real ultimate prize, is being the film everyone roots for to be inside said envelope — and then not showing up. Not breasting the tape. Not being Best Picture, but instead losing in a way that inspires public outcry and cinephile heartbreak around the world.

Think about it. The King’s Speech will forever be remembered for being a middling film that got in The Social Network’s way. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with Forrest Gump — a schmaltzy but ingeniously-crafted and well-acted film, with a genuine touch of cheek — yet how many of us can forgive it for toppling the one and only Pulp Fiction? The English Patient robbed Fargo. And, in the most quoted Oscar flub in recent history, Crash beat Brokeback Mountain. Sure, Crash picked up the gold — after presenter Nicholson chose not to disguise his surprise — but who won? Who goes down in history?

The better loser, that’s who.

It’s a lesson we learnt most memorably with a young Italian boxer. That big lug Rocky Balboa lost the fight at the end of Rocky, but he won over hearts, both of the audience and The Academy, bizarrely beating all-time masterworks like Network, All The President’s Men and Taxi Driver at the 1977 Oscars. At the 88th Annual Academy Awards this week, no loss rang out as devastatingly as that of 69-year-old Sylvester Stallone. Sitting with crossed fingers in the front row, he was hoping for a Best Supporting Actor trophy in order to complete a remarkable full circle —  a true ‘American dream’ story from poverty-struck porn-performer to Oscar-winner — but alas, despite the Academy’s much-feted love for a redemptive narrative arc, such picket-fenced perfection was not to be.

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This is a terrific picture from Stallone’s first Oscars, the one where Rocky triumphed, where the actor, losing out on Best Actor, holds dead air while the film’s producers clutch their Oscars. This year was supposed to see him finally nabbing one he earned at the end of a long career. At long, long last.

And yet Sly lost, despite having performed admirably well in Creed, and while my first reaction (as a fan with Gotta Fly Now coming out of my ears, now, even as I type these words) was that he run up the stairs (of course) to the Oscar stage and check the envelope in case bumbling presenter Patricia Arquette had done a Steve Harvey, the truth is that it adds up. Mark Rylance was great in Bridge Of Spies. Not as good as, say, Christian Bale was in The Big Short, but Rylance delivered a finely-tuned and nuanced performance, and was the best thing in that film. The loss makes sense. Stallone — and Balboa in the first film, and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis in the latest — lost the fight when the votes were counted, but boy, did they go the distance. How they made us cheer.

There is, every year, at least one field where we individually pray against all realistic odds. This year, I personally rooted — unrealistically and in vain — for an upset in the Best Cinematography field, for the invincible Emmanual Lubezki to be upstaged despite his spectacular, masterful vistas in the boastfully shot The Revenant. Instead, I longed for a reward for the thoughtful, sumptuous visual mastery shown by Ed Lachman in Carol. Shooting on 16mm film, Lachman is consistently poetic and evocative, telling a story while simultaneously mirroring the style of iconic 50s photographers like Saul Leiter.

lachman(It is a magnificently shot film, and I have a feeling Lubezki agrees. On the three-time winner’s sensational Instagram feed yesterday, three days after his win, standing next to the three consecutive Oscars, is featured Lachman, his face obscured by a camera that is shooting Lubezki. Bravo.)

The world cheered loudly for Leonardo DiCaprio who — 22 years after the first of his 6 nominations — picked up an acting Oscar for The Revenant, though this wait had been mythologised well out of proportion. Sure, he should have won for The Wolf Of Wall Street, but the Oscars rarely reward performances that effervescent, that electrifying. Also, the man is merely 41, and has several movies — several Scorsese movies, even — yet to tackle. This wasn’t the film he should have won for, and certainly not the film he deserved a standing ovation for. He strolled into the Oscars an odds-on favourite, yet the moment was made to feel like a struggle.

Meanwhile, after 500 films, Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers in the history of the medium, came forth and won his first competitive Oscar for The Hateful Eight. This, in the oddest and loveliest of ironies, came nine years after he’d won an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to the arts. Who says masters lose their touch?

Not George Miller, certainly. The world was firmly in Miller’s corner on Oscar night, hoping that the visionary 70-year-old would be heralded for one of the finest action movies of all time. Mad Max: Fury Road is a work of enormous vision, rule-defying bravado and striking originality which flattens audiences with ingenuity, clarity and adrenaline. It is a progressive, modern, thematically strong, diverse, feminist statement wrapped up, quite miraculously, into a thrilling package. However, it isn’t as if a bad film won. A victory for The Revenant, jawdropping but hollow, would have felt catastrophic. Spotlight winning, on the other hand, seems right. It is a restrained, relevant, highly impactful film made with a crackerjack ensemble cast, based on a story that needs telling. (The Big Short, my personal pick of the Oscar bunch, was clearly too edgy and audacious and irreverent and, quite frankly, too clever to win a big Oscar — rather like the work of Charlie Kaufman. Way too cool for school.)

Speaking of which… Think, if you will, of The Doof Warrior.

Riding atop a truckful of gigantic speakers and standing on a massive amplifier, The Doof Warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road is a rocker in a scarlet onesie: a blind man wearing his mother’s face for a mask, playing a double-necked guitar made out of a bedpan that also doubles up as a flamethrower. Playing ragged riffs to appease the gods of war and increase fighter morale, he is, without any doubt, as insanely metal as a character can conceivably be. It’s gloriously nuts. Now, realistically speaking, does such a creature have any business belonging in a Best Picture winner?

Or ought he belong, instead, to a movie that — like a Lamborghini Countach pinup stumbled upon giddily in pre-adolescence — deserves to have its poster stuck up inside our brains forever? It’s our film to celebrate, and, hey: as worshippers of V8 engines would agree, chrome is way, way cooler than gold.

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First published Rediff, March 4, 2016

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My 2016 Oscar-themed pieces on the race for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture. Plus, my top ten moments from this year’s ceremony.

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Oscars 2016: The most unforgettable moments

oscars1chrisI once had the remarkable good fortune to be sitting unexpectedly in the Comedy Cellar in New York when a surprise guest was thrust upon us. The audience couldn’t believe it, and out strolled Chris Rock — an incendiary performer and giant comic superstar — who slayed. He was great and we were enraptured, and, this morning, Rock knocked the wind outta me from many timezones away, by the way he opened the 88th Annual Academy Awards. Featuring that monologue and nine other moments I won’t soon forget, here are my highlights from the 2016 Oscars:

1. That opening monologue:

Rock has always been a fearless, envelope-pushing comic, and everyone expected him to be provocative at the Oscars — infamous this year for their all-white acting candidates, hashtagged #OscarsSoWhite across the media. What we might not have counted on, however, was the way he would make the most preposterously ballsy jokes as he completely embraced the topic. Making the white audience uncomfortable with the kinda comic swagger that would make 80s red-leather-suit-wearin’ Eddie Murphy proud as hell, Chris Rock spoke about how the Oscars always had a white-only problem, like “in the sixties, one of those years Sidney [Poitier] didn’t put out a movie” and how it was just harder to care about these problems back when black people faced “real” problems. “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree,” he grinned to a mostly mortified audience, “it’s hard to care about Best Documentary Short.”

Wow. W-o-w.

2. David O Russell justifying his seat in the front:

oscarsdavidOscars are as much about reactions as they are about winners, and many a moment has been immortalised in the past by Jack Nicholson’s cheshire chuckles and Meryl Streep’s gracefully overt enthusiasm. This year’s audience award ought to go to director David O Russell, one of the few people to openly bust a gut laughing at Rock’s politically skewed monologue. Russell had a fine ol’ time with Rock and then, with much grace and solidarity, stood up to applaud director Adam McKay as he (with co-writer Charles Randolph) strode past to pick up his award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big Short. If that all filmmakers were this warm, or this genuine.

3. Whoopi Goldberg and SNL comics skewer the Oscar-nominated films:

oscartraceyThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences played the self-deprecatory game quite hard this year by constantly going with the #OscarsSoWhite theme, in effect laughing at themselves as loud as possible. This approach was often heavy-handed, like when presenters were often transparently paired up as white-celeb-alongside-celeb-of-colour, but when it worked, like in Rock’s monologue and this section inserting talented black comedians into this year’s nominated films, it worked fantastically well. Leslie Jones was the angry bear mauling Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Tracy Morgan wore a dress and ate danishes in The Danish Girl, and the great Whoopi Goldberg reigned supreme as she scolded Jennifer Lawrence in Joy: “I’m not mad ‘cause I know how to play the game, Joy.”

4. Patricia Arquette doing a Travolta: 

Patricia Arquette, winner of Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood last year, made for an embarrassingly bad presenter this year as she fumbled through her time giving away the Best Supporting Actor trophy. First of all, like the infamous John Travolta gaffe, she appeared to have mixed “Rocky Balboa” with something that started off sounding suspiciously like “Draco Malfoy”, and then — after reading out Mark Rylance’s name to a chorus of anguish heard around the world as Stallone hadn’t won — ended things sloppily as well.

For a while there, many (read: me) wished that these fumbles signalled her having SteveHarvey’d it and called out the wrong name, but spirits were lifted by Rylance’s lovely acceptance speech. “I’ve always just adored stories: hearing them, seeing them, being in them,” Rylance said, saluting director Steven Spielberg before going deftly political. “Unlike some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days, he leads with such love that he’s surrounded by masters in every craft.”

5. Louis CK, on the importance of documentary:

oscarslouisMaster comedian Louis CK came out to present the award for Best Documentary, Short Subject and handled the occasion with scene-stealing aplomb as he spoke of his pride to present what he called his favourite award, “because this is the one Academy Award that has the opportunity to change a life.” Eloquently going on to describe the hardships faced by documentary filmmakers in what is often a thankless pursuit for the truth, he said — with a characteristically brilliant turn of phrase —  that while “the rest of the Oscars are going home to mansions and to the homes of people with good unions and who will always work. This is Documentary Short Subject…. You cannot make a dime on this.” The kicker: “This Oscar is going home in a Honda Civic.” Bravo.

6. Joe Biden and Lady Gaga speak out for sexual assault survivors:

oscarsgagaIn the most touching moment of the night, Vice President of the United States Joe Biden and Lady Gaga formed a unique but ideal team as they sought an end to rape culture.  “We must, and we can, change the culture so that no abused woman or man has to ask ‘what did I do?’”, emphasised Biden. “They did nothing wrong.” This was followed by a profoundly emotive performance from Lady Gaga as abuse survivors took the stage, hand in hand. It was an affecting and genuinely stirring moment in a night that frequently felt insubstantial.

7. Ennio Morricone thanking his rival and then his director:

87-year-old legend Ennio Morricone — nine years after having been given an Honorary Oscar in 2007 “for his magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music” — finally won his first Oscar for Best Original Score for The Hateful Eight, and the moment was a highly emotional one. Morricone came to the stage and spoke simply in Italian, first doffing his hat to the also-nominated five-time winner John Williams before thanking his director. And just hearing his heavily accented pronunciation of the name Quentin Tarantino was enough to spark off a Spaghetti Western dream.

8. The Best Director was the most unpopular man of the night:

How things can change in a year. Last year Alejandro González Iñárritu swept the Oscars with grand fanfare with the superlative Birdman but this year his film The Revenant, while impressive, had more detractors than lovers and most of the viewing audience seemed to be rooting against the film. Things weren’t helped by a gif of Iñárritu not even trying to appear like a good sport when Jenny Beavan won Best Costume Design for Mad Max Fury Road; as Beavan walked right by him, Iñárritu crossed his arms and chose not to applaud. Perhaps he just doesn’t approve of leather jackets, but the two-time Best Director winner could have played this better.

9. Leo not taking anything, even the Oscar, for granted:

oscarsleoMeanwhile, despite the many, many editorials claiming that “A win for DiCaprio would be a disservice to actors” and saying that Most Acting doesn’t equate to Best Acting, the star himself (finally) picked up the big prize in style. I wasn’t pro-Leo this year — rooting for Michael Fassbender’s astonishing work in and as Steve Jobs instead — but DiCaprio’s sixth nomination proved lucky and his speech was perfection. He started by thanking the crew of The Revenant but quickly moved on to speak passionately about the threat of climate change. “Climate change is real,” Leonardo emphasised. “Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted.”

10. A beautiful ‘In Memoriam’ section:

And finally, those who aren’t with us anymore were remembered in lovely fashion this year. Dave Grohl plucked a guitar to a tender version of The Beatles’ Blackbird as faces of those who have left us — from Alan Rickman to Douglas Slocombe to Omar Sharif to our own Saeed Jaffrey  — flitted before us.

service.gifThe montage nearly climaxed with a clip, amazingly enough, from Zoolander featuring the late great David Bowie offering himself up, saying “I believe I might be of service.” (Always, David.)

Yet, in a surprisingly powerful touch, the segment closed with a shot of Leonard Nimoy — and ah, how poetic it felt to say goodbye by ending with a man who repeatedly told us to live long.

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First published Rediff, February 29, 2016

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