Review: Remo D’Souza’s A Flying Jatt

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The good thing about casting Tiger Shroff as a superhero is that, thanks to his fluidly lithe movements, it does sometimes become hard to spot where the actual moves stop and the wire-work begins. Watching Shroff, an endearing, almost unbearably earnest performer, reminds me of those early Salman Khan days when he was a lanky guy with long hair who pluckily tried to act, which is a great start — but alas, this poor lad has all the dialogue skills of Hrithik Roshan. Which is to say: perhaps his martial arts movies need to be watched only when dubbed into another language.

(Also deserving of earplugs: leading lady Jacqueline Fernandez, sounding like a chihuahua who loves swallowing saxophones.)

This is a shame, for A Flying Jatt isn’t bad. It ends poorly, sure, and has some catastrophically clumsy moments on the way, but as a children’s film it goes a helluva lot further than those Krrish things. It is a film, in fact, more about a superhero’s Punjabi mother than it is the hero himself, and that goes a long way in setting up the humour. Amrita Singh as the thrilled mom looking at Superman Returns tapes to educate her son on flight-pose decorum (“aise toh full speed mein udte hain”) is priceless, as is the moment when, after appropriately epic heroic buildup, Tiger fatefully wears the costume only to flop into bed and pick up the television remote.

I don’t think I’ve watched a superhero movie where the hero’s mother has enthusiastically sown him a costume, and given the apoplectic way the genre is now exploding, finding a new, authentically Hindi filmi angle is commendable. The problem with A Flying Jatt is its lack of faith in its own originality, which is why director Remo D’Souza ends up — like Amrita Singh — cribbing from superhero films we already know and love. There’s the already classic Quicksilver sequence from Days Of Future Past (link to review), there’s a Sam Raimi trolley shot straight out of Spider-Man 2, and when the big villain — Nathan Jones from no less than bloody Mad Max: Fury Road — says that he wants a better costume, evil sponsor Kay Kay Menon basically orders him a Thor suit.

D’Souza, as a director, isn’t one. The film is put together sloppily, with several comedic sequences well-intentioned but not making sense. There is, for example, a scene with Tiger taking on a tennis ball machine with nunchuks. Obvious slapstick, but it can be done amusingly and, while Shroff himself tries hard, the scene itself is staged bizarrely: it starts off with everyone wowed by the grace with which he strikes slower balls, even though the whole point of using the machine was to see if he could stop something as fast as a bullet. Still, the way this boy hits an enzuigiri to a tennis ball is something special.

And that’s before he has powers. After they kick in, and he — apparently hard of hearing — takes the shrill Fernandez for a joyride in the skies, she gasps more at seeing fireflies and a big moon than at her superpowered man.

The climax is painful and — as with all films that yearn to be really big films without having the budget — it looks more and more pathetic. The film is riddled with issues from the start — Tiger is given far too many superpowers and we never quite understand their limitations — but it is, for the most part, an amusing diversion with a leading man hard not to like. He might whimper too much, but I’ll take A Flying Jatt as a potentially decent franchise-starter even if the guy  himself isn’t always in on the joke. (Though I do wish the film didn’t preachily go on and on about how amazing Sikhs are. Who didn’t know?)

As he begins to fly around — not too high because he’s afraid of heights — two women watch The Flying Jatt go viral on news channels and one wonders if he’s an alien. “Jo bhi hai apna hai,” says the other smugly, the line — meaning ‘whatever he is, he’s ours’ — can be a dig at imported superheroes, sure, but also a line loaded with pride and one that holds more truth than all of Zack Snyder’s superhero attempts put together. Superheroes are about hope, not fear. Unless, that is, you’re afraid to show your kids a superhero movie that focusses on twerking.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 26, 2016

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Review: David Ayer’s Suicide Squad

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Remember how the iPod changed the way we shared music? We used to carry around a tape or a CD and play someone a track or two, but when we started easily (and indiscriminately) lugging around our entire vaults, the temptation to jump from one track to another got too intense. We’d play a slice of one and a riff from another, skipping restlessly from song to song in order to spread what we felt was awesome — and show off our discovering ears — as widely as we could.

Watching David Ayer’s Suicide Squad feels exactly like being trapped in an elevator with an enthused iPod-wielding kid. This is less an actual movie and more an assemblage of moments, moments mostly to do with popular music appropriated around shots of spectacle, with every single damned scene trying to hit a crescendo of cool and the film, thus, failing to find any peaks at all.

(This montage-y, music-video method of filmmaking would hurt a great deal less if Ayer’s playlist was less obvious — and less literal — for here the filmmaker underscores the entry of a badass with Sympathy For The Devil, a getting-together of seven villains with Seven Nation Army, and the return of a character with Eminem’s Without Me, a song that keeps repeating the words “Look who’s back.” It’s plain moronic to have Freddie Mercury trilling “Mama, I just killed a man” while serial killers and psychopaths try to look forlorn.)

Suicide Squad is a promising comic book idea, that of an exploitative government program to rehabilitate supervillains by turning them into an expendable, nothing-to-lose team sent into the stickiest situations. It is the kind of unlikely, motley crew story that should end up, if not somewhere striking between Ocean’s Eleven and The Holy Mountain, then, at the very least, somewhere goofily enjoyable like The Italian Job remake. The idea, of course, is basically The Dirty Dozen done with metahumans or whatever the comics are calling them nowadays, but Ayer’s film gets the fundamentals horribly wrong.

What Suicide Squad does get right is Harley Quinn, one of the coolest women in comics. It could have done without the many, many leering shots of her spandexed and barely-covered posterior — and how I wish they would have stuck to the classic Harley costume — but the looney-tune lunacy of the character is animatedly captured by the striking Margot Robbie. Robbie, who enters the film confessing boredom and asking to be played with, is marvellously off her rocker, contorts her mouth into distractingly anime grins, and creates a character that is all sass and unpredictability — and, of course, undying romance for her peculiar paramour.

Where, indeed, would Ms Quinn be without Mistah J? (The film takes its time spelling it all out for us. The first half-hour of this movie is entirely dossiers-and-flashbacks, clumsily thrown at us as if we had walked into something called Backstory Brigade.) In a film supposedly about all-star bad guys, there’s only one we all know. The Joker is among the most iconic villains in all of fiction, and here we have Jared Leto take a stab. His take — as a preening and tattooed gangster who doesn’t shake hands — slithers and hisses, but doesn’t deserve mention alongside the greats before him. His immensely-discussed ‘insane preparations’ for this role seem flummoxing: he went method on the sets and harassed his co-stars with used-condoms for this? A role Johnny Depp or Jim Carrey could knock out in their sleep? Please.

There is, though, one gorgeous shot these two raving, reckless romantics share. They take turns diving heedlessly into a vat of acid, for love. A fall with grace.

That is the only grace you’ll find in Suicide Squad. Will Smith, as the assassin Deadshot and the de-facto leader of the team, is in fine form as he negotiates terms-for-hire — including a clause saying that when his daughter is sent to an Ivy League college and if her grades aren’t great, he needs the government to “white-people that thing” — but despite his effortless swagger, the coolness of Smith’s character is often undercut by nobility.

That, actually, is a perplexing problem running through this tone-deaf film: the idea that these slimy villains would suddenly, overnight, bond like brothers and start prizing their unlikely new friendship over all else. The film starts with Viola Davis as the smugly all-knowing Amanda Waller, the government operative putting together this secret task force, and after that elaborate introduction, we see the guys go on one mission. One mission. There is no sense of urgency as these guys banter around changing into costumes old and new as a city is being torn up, and later, before the messy and inane Ghostbusters-y climax, they sit around at a bar hardly bothered about any ongoing damage. If the nihilism on display is to be applauded, it is also instantly squandered when these villains — armed by ninja swords and bad, bad dialogue — start celebrating the very idea of being buddies.

The only way this film is dark is because it’s set at night.

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There are too many characters and Ayer gets the juggle catastrophically wrong. Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress gets a neat black-hand-under-her-own-hand gimmick and embers flickering around her face that look good in 3D, but she also gets bizarrely varied accents during the finale, turning her into an increasingly bad joke. Jay Hernandez plays Diablo, a fire-summoner frequently (and somewhat confusingly) referred to as ‘a gangbanger’ to make him seem menacing, but he only ends up being unbearably emo. Karen Fukuhara’s Katana — one of the most lethal characters — here skulks around with her Soultaker blade only to repeatedly be told not to do anything. (When this girl gives up and chooses drink over duty, the slump of her shoulders is one we can relate to.)

Naturally, Batman shows up, growly and Afflecked and saved by a girl who I fervently hope is not named Martha. (Bats also features in a stunningly unnecessary mid-credits sequence, so if you do ill-advisedly go to theatres for this one, you may as well wait up.)

At one point in the film, Smith’s Deadshot shrugs off military jargon and says he wants it translated for “those of us who can’t speak good-guy.” Right about now, it’s becoming depressingly clear that the studios in charge of the DC Comics characters can’t speak good film.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 5, 2016

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Review: Rohit Dhawan’s Dishoom

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There are some filmmakers who make feature-length trailers. They think they’re making an action movie, of course, but the fact is that everything — from an overabundance of slow-motion, to the way words like “one day ago” fly across the screen in the Dhoom font, and the way the film starts and ends with music videos— is for effect. Done well, this often obvious style can be rather rollicking, and there are times when Rohit Dhawan’s Dishoom is actually fun. The first half is breezy and snappy, and the increasingly irrepressible Varun Dhawan is on point.

The setup is dynamite. It isn’t particularly groundbreaking dynamite, but it is a potentially crackling premise: India’s top cricketer is kidnapped ahead of an India-Pakistan final in the UAE. There is much room for hilarity in a setup like this, and the film taps into a fair bit of it, even as the setpieces get bloated and the background score thuds with relentless urgency and repetition. (To me, there were times when it feels like watching a music video version of 99, a cricket/match-fixing film I once worked on.)

This cricketer — Viraj, a combination of Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh, if you will — is played by Saqib Saleem, and the youngster obviously knows how to hit full-tosses all over the place. Saleem is a fine performer and the cricketing bits seem as authentic as they need to be in a film like this, and the initial mystery of who kidnapped Viraj is an intriguing one. On the trail are Kabir, an Indian supercop flown in to hunt him down, and Junaid, a Dubai-based Indian cop itching for action. It is all Buddy Comedy 101, but as can be said justifying 90% of all movies starring The Rock, we all know the genre works besides its predictability because of the way the actors play off each other. Into each Murtaugh a little Riggs must fall.

The big problem here is with the heavy. John Abraham here plays Kabir, the douchey tough-cop who smokes in elevators and speaks to his girlfriend like a bully, but Abraham — who, at one point several films ago, was at least attempting to act — has turned into a top-heavy slab with all the expressions of granite. He weighs Dishoom down considerably. Even his half-winking smirk now appears leery, as if he’s been bench-pressing with his cheeks and can’t smile a human smile any more.

This is depressing because of just how frothy Varun Dhawan keeps things. With the natural, cocky charm of a young Will Smith — a fact alluded to when Dishoom references Men In Black with its heroes calling themselves K and J — Dhawan is spontaneous and funny but, most importantly, sincere. He hits the emotional beats lightly but firmly — like when he tears up after having finally found a dog — and these are what sell his character, the way he can establish earnestness in a second and go back to being goofy right after.

Still, like I said, the first half is a lark. Varun is in form, Saqib’s realistic, and there is an entertaining cameo by Akshay Kumar who puts the man in ‘man-bun.’ It is after the interval, when the shenanigans have been left to an exhausting Akshaye Khanna, the villain of the piece, that tedium really sets in. The film keeps trying to concentrate on the plot, which is weak, and because the action scenes and chases are long and repetitive, merely changing backgrounds don’t help things as much. Jacqueline Fernandez joins the action, running in and unable to keep a straight face, but there is a priceless, awestruck moment when the shoe drops and she finally realises who these two cops are looking for.

There is much more that could have been done here. It should be snappier and the jokes sharper, and the plot could so, so easily have been made water-tight. There are even times, unforgivably enough,  when it begins to feel immaterial that the kidnapped quarry is a cricketer; it could be just anyone held up for ransom. But ah, the film is clearly aiming for laughs, and even when it gets lost along the way, blindsided by some unnecessarily elaborate action moment or by a bicepped un-actor, it still provides a fair bit of corny fun. The film’s best parts are Dhawan asking a helicopter pilot to pull over “side mein,” or Satish Kaushik trolling people on the phone. If Dishoom does well, however, I do hope they’ll avoid John in the sequels. All this film needed was a cop out.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, July 29, 2016

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Review: Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters

Hang on to your hats, ghosts. There’s a brand new gunlickin’ gunslinger in town and she ain’t in the mood for prisoners.

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One other thing she ain’t is alone. Dr Jillian Holtzmann has friends alongside her on screen in the new Ghostbusters — wearing proton packs of her own dangerous design — but, more importantly, she and the fine comediennes rocking the boat in this warmly silly reboot are giving company to cosplaying girls everywhere who have wanted goofy heroes like this for so, so long. This is a gleefully dumb summer feature, unapologetically silly and often too smitten with its own leads — in short, it’s what a big dumb shaggy-dog blockbuster should be. Only with ladies rocking the jumpsuits this time.

The original Ghostbusters, from 1984, is a deliriously daft film raised occasionally to sublime heights by Bill Murray finding his groove. An actor finding his brilliance is a thing that happens gradually, over many a moment in many a movie, but Murray seemed to roller-skate into magnificence almost entirely at one go, and most of us watching Ghostbusters were privy to that bit of magic. Ivan Reitman’s film is fine — it’s crazily enjoyable and gets better with each viewing, and if you didn’t see it in the eighties, well, you’re never going to love it the same way — but the actors were what made it sparkle, and the characters remain unforgettable. (I’m an Egon man, myself.)

Director Paul Feig understands that, and while his reboot celebrates women as well as the spirit(s?) of the original, it never tries to replicate the sparkle those gents conjured up. This film doesn’t mimic the superb silences and slow-burn, rolled-eye jokes of the old film. Instead, it lets these wonderful ladies try on the suits and situations and let their hair down their own way. It turns out to be giddily, infectiously fun and frequently forgettable. This is not a film trying to be brilliant; instead, it stays simple while it breaks ground. It is as if Feig has made it his mission statement to tell the world — with films like Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy — that hey, women are allowed to be juvenile too.

Like in the original, the plot is flimsy and peppered with gags. Like in the original, characters who believe in ghosts are laughed out by respectable naysayers. Like in the original, there is a Mayor who gets very hands-on with what our heroes are upto. Like in the original, Slimer is around, big and green and disgustingly infatuated with hotdogs — only this time he is, rather unnecessarily, in 3D. (The 3D is a waste in Ghostbusters simply because Feig lays it on a bit too thick and the climax gets especially tedious and shouty, when all we really want is more of Kristen Wiig giggling at their sexy receptionist.)

Speaking of which… we need to talk about Kevin. A picture-perfect specimen of manhood and doltishness, Kevin the receptionist can barely handle picking up the phone, but is kept around (and shamelessly, repeatedly objectified) because of the way he looks. Played by Thor star Chris Hemsworth, this sounds like a simple dumb blond gag — a gimmick even — but because of the way Feig and Hemsworth commit to the sheer imbecility of the eye-candy-only character, the result is as hilarious as the jibe is well-deserved.

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Kevin’s bosses are Dr Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Dr Erin Gilbert (Kirsten Wiig), the aforementioned Dr Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Patty (Leslie Jones). Each actress picks a flavour and sticks with it, and the cast mostly breezes through it. McCarthy, Feig’s muse, has the straightest role but she’s the one who makes exposition appear momentarily reasonable, and has a great, great line about soup; Wiig is awkward and only eventually enthusiastic, but she sounds wrong and tragically stupid whenever she uses Ghostbustin’ jargon; and Jones, broad and reckless, creates a character who knows New York — and is thus the only one with street smarts.

Like in the original, one Ghostbuster is much more memorable than the rest. A lot of this film’s players have come from Saturday Night Live, but Kate McKinnon is one of that show’s finds — I implore you to look up her Hillary Clinton sketches — and in this film, as she describes potato chips as “salty parabolas,” she is unstoppable. Wearing a lopsided bouffant that looks styled in Pisa, her Holtzmann is a thing of loony energy and joyous abandon, a nutcase who would rather go nuclear than go home. She’s jawdroppingly good and I can’t wait to see her again.

Some people who have an issue with women taking on roles originally written for men. The film addresses this fantastically by having the leading ladies read out (and get repulsed by) comments from online haters, but anyone who can’t enjoy these women having a good time — without even pretending to be Venkman and Stantz — for such dimwitted reasons doesn’t deserve to laugh with this film. It may not be a classic, but the laughs it earns are all its own.

As you may have imagined, the original Ghostbusters all have cameos in this new film. Yes, even the late great Harold Ramis. We see him as a bronzed sculpture at Columbia University, smiling at this new film and, in many ways, that is the single greatest cameo. For it lets Egon Spengler live on as both ghost and bust.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 29, 2016

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Review: Pa Ranjith’s Kabali

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Nearly halfway into the new Rajinikanth release, Kabali, a student mockingly asks Rajinikanth’s character, Kabali, about the need to be constantly clad in fancy suits and sunglasses. It is a pertinent question even from the perspective of the audience, because while the superstar actor might (mostly) have forsaken the dark-haired wigs, his character is still dressed with eye-catching distinctiveness. Kabali laughs, for it is a query he has faced often, throughout his rise from an impassioned young activist partial to garish silken shirts, to a revered gangster with an eye for well-tailored waistcoats.

The reason he gives for his sartorial excess — several times through the film, as the question continues to dog him— is that he wears clothes like the rich man in order to emphasise how someone like him, not born to wealth or greatness, is equal to the rich man. Set in Malaysia, Kabali tells the story of the large but marginalised Tamil community there, and how the Tamilians are not considered equal to the locals or the Chinese. When a guy from his gang asks him if he’ll spend all his money on suits, Kabali smiles and suggests the guy start dressing sharper too. It’s all about impact, he states, explaining that there was a reason Babasaheb Ambedkar always wore a suit and Mahatma Gandhi never did.

This is a wonderful way to rationalise the Grandmaster Flash aspect of the Rajinikanth mystique. Director Pa Ranjith, however, has more racial ammunition in hand. When asked what his lovely wife saw in him, Rajini emphasises the darkness of his skin, using it as a metaphor for intensity, power and virility. “Black power,” he says, before Radhika Apte, who plays his wife, looks at him and expresses her desire for his darkness to be rubbed against her. In a film about a downtrodden community looking to prove itself, this attention to the colour of the superstar’s skin is not coincidental.

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Despite the political sincerity, however, this film doesn’t really have much to say that is new or much to offer, besides Rajinikanth playing his age. This leads to many a great moment as Rajini inevitably slides into Amitabh Bachchan mode and chews on his lines before spitting them out with speeding-bullet force. We haven’t seen him like this before, grey and brooding and with his dynamism coiled up on the inside, and the result is quite stunning simply because of that incredible screen presence he commands — and the fact that he is who he is. The idea that Rajinikanth, 65, could kick each of our posteriors, is a relatively easy one to buy, and this film capitalises on the fact that we don’t quite question it. True, the fight scenes often consist of villains politely waiting their turn so he can take his time to attack them, but when he does attack, he does so with gusto.

The rest is humdrum. Regardless of the Bali Brahmbhatt clones in Michael Jackson clothes who sing of Kabali’s legend, it seems cobbled from many a source, most recognizably The Godfather but also, oddly and gender-agnostically, from Kill Bill. Kabali has gone to prison for 25 years following a massacre at a mandir, and he’s back gunning for revenge but also trying to help troubled youths get a better life. The villain is a man called Tony Lee, who works for someone named Ang Lee. It is thus rather cute that Tony Lee — always referred to by his full name, perhaps to symmetrically pit Ka-ba-lee versus To-ny-lee — is played by Winston Chao, who once starred in Ang Lee’s beautiful Eat Drink Man Woman.

Tragically, however, Chao — who struggles with villainous English — never quite gets the hang of things here and comes across as rather comical, as does this film’s entire third act. The drama is all there but as the bodies pile up, so do the laughs, and the whole thing comes together rather cartoonishly. All the actors seem to be performing in a different pitch, and — besides Rajinikanth enjoying this rare modern-day performance of relative restraint — everyone else is all over the place. At one point in the film Apte hyperventilates with such enthusiasm I was convinced her character had been rendered mute.

What is interesting, besides Rajinikanth, is the wonderfully mixed iconography Pa Ranjith throws together in this film about immigrants and borrowed cultures. Celtic tattoos vanish into formal shirt collars, samurai swords are laid upon corpses wreathed in garlands, an Ambedkar portrait is hung up next to that of Che Guevara, a character’s gullibility is emphasised by a Being Human shirt… These are all details that give the film both authenticity and surreality in equal measure, and they make me strongly suspect that this could have been a far more gripping and finessed film without Rajinikanth in it — and without, thus, all sorts of alterations due to worried producers and commercial considerations. But then would we be talking about it at all?

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, July 22, 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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Review: Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab

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There’s an old joke about how two smack-heads score their fix in an unfamiliar new city. They stand on opposite sides of the road, and one tosses an imaginary length of rope while the other grabs and fastens it. The first person to duck under the rope as he walks by is the man to ask. Going by Udta Punjab, the entire land-of-five-rivers is full of people tripping over non-existent lines. (As well as, of course, lines that are all too real.)

Despite the three disclaimers forced onto this movie, the backdrop really isn’t fiction. The shockingly dismal drug problems in Punjab are well-documented, but it is only with Abhishek Chaubey’s new film that we are confronted with the state’s sickly addiction issues in mainstream fashion, and it doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. This is a stirring film, one that is concerned (and besotted) with Punjab and one with a solid anti-drug message, a message delivered so single-mindedly that it even gets in the way of the storytelling. The film’s four protagonists, however, are impossible to impede.

Meet Tommy Singh. He has the words ‘Momma Da Boy’ tattooed under his clavicle, and a sticker saying ‘my guitar’ on, well, his guitar: he’s a labelled-rebel, a work of successful branding in a land where pop-music is not merely alive but routinely mainlined by famished audiences, and clueless kids look to him as a messiah. In the real world there exists a Punjabi pop genre devoted to triumphant songs celebrating getting drunk and fighting, and this celebration of rolled-up sleeves makes for a land where Tommy, an utter wannabe, struts around like the cock of the walk.

He’s a nut with winged boots and a sycophantic entourage, but closing time looms ahead. Investors aren’t impressed by his innuendo, and politicians eager to take action about the drug situation are only too glad to point at such a moronically shiny target — even as Tommy hops from foot to foot like a sniffling prizefighter before Hulk-Hogan-ing it on stage, raising a hand to his ears in order to get cheering fans to cheer even louder.

udta2.jpgThe man who arrests Tommy, and finds much catharsis in walloping him, is Sartaj Singh, a mere one-star policeman who almost lost his Tommy-loving kid brother to cheap drugs available freely and lethally at local pharmacies. Sartaj is a quiet cop, one mostly content to let things roll on with the drug mafia as per arrangement, but a nearly-dead brother changes things.

He’s on a mission now, and pointing him in the right direction is Preet Sahni, a sharp and bold doctor who calls it like she sees it. And, given that she rehabilitates addicts, she sees the worst: junkies unable to distinguish right from wrong, families living in denial about the zombies in their midst, corruption and easy access to drugs spread all across the state. She wants something to be done about it, and she’s willing to take things into her own hands. Somebody has to.

Meanwhile, there’s a hockey-playing migrant labourer from Bihar, a petite girl who finds a gigantic packet of heroin and thinks it could be key to a new life. It does lead her places, but nothing in this girl’s life works out as expected. But go see her instead of reading about her.

Chaubey’s film starts off slick but choppy, the narrative hopping across these compelling characters in a wild, whimsical manner reminiscent of early Guy Ritchie. Unfortunately, the irreverence and narrative bravado is often sidelined by heavy-handed Public Service Announcement style handling. The film is trying to open our eyes to the drug menace, but the first half of the film seems confused about where it is pitched — dark comedy or preachy drama — and, as a result, feels a bit long in the tooth. It doesn’t help that the editing appears too abrupt: we cut from scene to scene (from a packet of brown sugar tossed in the air to a cleaver coming down to chop meat for a quirkily named dog) too rapidly, almost as if the filmmakers self-consciously want to rush through these uneven bits.

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.

Shahid Kapoor is spectacular as Tommy, a coke-addled fool who wins us over with slack-jawed grace and makes the songs credibly appear his own. His shots are glamorously composed, with him the focal center of most frames, but even without this help, he’d readily command the screen. The way his voice gets squawkily high when he’s desperate, the way he says mojo with a few ‘j’s too many, the way he throws a microphone stand and makes that action look impulsive, effete and effective all at once… Wow. This is the actor at his best, and he must be lauded for embracing the lunacy so wholeheartedly.

While Kapoor’s is the showy part, Diljeet Dosanjh absolutely shines as he grounds the film with the more straight, more simmering role. Playing Sartaj, there is a touch of young Sunny Deol to his angry intensity but, man, the no-nonsense realism he brings to the part is striking. I want to watch a half-dozen films he’s acted in before, the man is clearly a star.

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Kareena Kapoor is well cast as Preet but not quite given as much to do, save for looking so perfect she eats up the words in the mouths of those around her. Alia Bhatt, as the hockey-girl, commits to her accent and deals with the film’s most unsavoury section, and is stunning during an incendiary speech that elevates the entire film to a whole other level. This is an impressive role for a starlet like Bhatt to choose, and to her I doff my hat. As I do to many across this fine ensemble cast, like Manav Vij, who plays the formidably bearded senior cop, Satish Kaushik and Suhail Nayyar.

Contrary to what you might expect, this isn’t a greatly political film, focussing instead on the problem, the characters and their internal conflicts. And it makes room for a few references. Chaubey borrows the sublime toilet sequence from Trainspotting, includes a stray Pulp Fiction nod with the way a line is said, and steals a villain reluctant to kill his relatives from his own Ishqiya films — and, in what must be an in-joke, names of Bollywood writers and directors (and buddies of Chaubey and writer Sudip Sharma) like Akshat Verma and Navdeep Singh show up on a list of suspects. But Udta Punjab truly soars when being its own madcap beast, profane and powerful and preening.

Oh, and a word about that music: Woof. Amit Trivedi is a master, Chaubey has a gift for placing music and adding context to moments, and the decision to use Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s dazzling poem Ikk Kudi as a literal part of the narrative is a marvellous one. Naturally, this call — like that of sculpting his idiocy across the side of his own head — is made by the mad musician. Good on you, Tommy. Rock a doodle doo.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, June 17, 2016

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