Column: Censorship, Udta Punjab and the $*&@#@ state of Indian cinema

udta1.jpgThe masterful Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi once used a fine analogy to describe the shapeshifting state of censorship in his country. “The restrictions and censorship in Iran are a bit like the British weather: one day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine.”

In India, things are considerably worse. We cannot remember the last genuinely sunny day, and all filmmakers are handed umbrellas with holes in them.

This week, for example, appears less overcast. The fascistic Pahlaj Nihalani, much-lampooned head of India’s archaic Central Board of Film Certification — a department straight out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil — has been rightly humiliated and shamed by the Bombay High Court who have struck down nearly a hundred cuts (in 13 separate categories) the CBFC sought for this Friday’s release, Udta Punjab. The film will hit theatres on time and, thanks to the CBFC’s infantile attempts to strangle its release, will be seen by far more people than anyone could have imagined. Bravo.

However, the High Court itself, while proclaiming that the CBFC is indeed a body for certification and that their job does not include censorship, has upheld one of the CBFC’s cuts. Now, for Indian filmmakers used to the arbitrary whims and inconsistencies of Indian censorship — where entire movies and documentaries are routinely denied certification, and where directors are often dismissively told to reduce scenes of action and intimacy “by 40%” — one cut doesn’t seem like a big deal. The film’s producers have, understandably, taken the diktat about this one excised scene rather gracefully, and surely couldn’t be arsed to fight any more.

(Plus, there is only that much genuine fraternity within the so-called film fraternity, and while it was super to see Karan Johar writing rousing columns and the industry rallying around producers Anurag Kashyap and Ekta Kapoor in unprecedented fashion, nobody expected an actual impasse or other producers to go on strike around the Udta Punjab issue. The show must… and all that jazz, no matter how truncated the show itself gets.)

Yet a big deal that cut is. It shows that — much as we’d like it to — all hasn’t changed. In our country, the revolution must be polite and careful not to offend.

Over the last two years, the current government has placed many a peculiar person in charge of our cinema. The massively unqualified and stubborn Gajendra Chauhan presides over the Film and Television Institute of India, following an appointment that led to a 139-day strike. Rajyavardhan Rathore, the Minister for State for Information and Broadcasting, impressively won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, but his only connection with cinema is the tenuous semantic one that points out that they both involve shooting. And then there is Mr Nihalani, described colourfully by Anurag Kashyap as a North Korean dictator but, in reality, a brown-nosing egomaniac who fails to notice the irony in making tacky videos about erections back in the day and making tacky videos about elections today.

Yet there is hope. The legendary Shyam Benegal, now 81 and passionate and eminently beyond reproach, was recently given the task to spearhead a committee to look into CBFC reform. He came away with the strident recommendation — one most level-headed people in cinema and, indeed, within the CBFC have been demanding for ages — that the board should merely classify cinema and not, in any circumstances, be allowed to hack away at the filmmaker’s work. Since films with a U rating have bigger chances at the box office and command a fairer price on television, this would certainly lead to some self-censorship but that happens all over the world and is the filmmaker’s internal debate. At least there will be no scissors attacking our films.

Or so we can dream, since Minister for Information and Broadcasting Arun Jaitley has promised radical upheaval in the CBFC based on Mr Benegal’s recommendations. Fingers remain tightly crossed.

However, Mr Benegal has since said, rather controversially, that there should be an ‘Adult (With Caution)’ category introduced for films that should not be given a wide-release — based on excessively adult content — and should instead be shown in red-light areas and non-residential areas. Congenial as the image is of the characters in Mr Benegal’s own Mandi queueing up to watch the next Human Centipede, this is another tricky boundary. What is excessively adult? Who defines it? And who should be given the power to choose, more than the ticket-buyer?

Despite the High Court ruling (mostly) in favour of Udta Punjab,  the issues around censorship in India remain incredibly thorny. Will filmmakers like Kamal Swaroop be able to take the CBFC to court for documentaries like The Battle For Benares? Will Indian television be able to say ‘breast cancer’ without, absurdly enough, cutting out the breast? Will the rules indeed change now? And if they do, will filmmakers whose films have been savaged beyond recognition by censors in the past apply for fresh certificates in order to bring their original vision to the viewers? Should we all finally dare to watch Dev Anand’s Censor and see how much he got right?

For now, despite the fact that we shouldn’t discard raincoats just yet, let us look to the future. Udta Punjab will be out this Friday. Director Abhishek Chaubey must be relieved, and in case that one cut is bugging him a lot — which it will, and should — he would do well to acknowledge that pretty much everyone now knows that Shahid Kapoor’s Tommy pees on the audience — the knowledge of that shot, even to those who haven’t watched the film yet, might well prove more impactful than the shot itself.

For those up in arms about vulgarity, do remember that there can be no sight as obscene as you not being allowed to see, and never forget what Frank Zappa said: “There is no such thing as a dirty word.”

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First published Rediff, June 15, 2016

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Review: Duncan Jones’ Warcraft

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War? Check. Craft? Check.

We, however, expect more from fascinating filmmakers like Duncan Jones than literally delivering what is promised on the label — and not even doing that memorably enough. Sure, this is a loud movie with giant battle sequences and much swordplay, and the production design is significantly trippy. Yet this is mostly a bloated, highly undistinguished bit of mythmaking, stuffed to the gills with clichéd characters and motivations. There is some sharpness in the way a few action moments are choreographed, but overall this is a lacklustre enterprise, tragically lacking in wit.

There are orcs — hulking creatures with fangs that grow unattractively upwards from their lower teeth — and there are humans, and both these sides battle it out through giant portals. That’s basically it, and while I’m certain gamers obsessed with Warcraft will bring much backstory into this experience, those of us who don’t play this particular title really have no business being here. We’re not worthy, thank god.

The first problem is one of inscrutability. Jones valiantly hits the ground running, showing us, in quick succession: a pregnant Orc, an Orc-baby who has the soul of a deer fed to him, a human King who looks like an uncharismatic Kenneth Branagh… and so on. Dozens of tongue-challenging names are bandied about — names with apostrophes where vowels should be — and most of them come to us by way of deep, digitally altered voices. This lack of exposition is ambitious; clearly Jones wants us to wrangle with the material and catch up to the narrative, but the story and characters are unwieldy and too plot-heavy. A Mad Max: Fury Road this ain’t, and unravelling this knotty tapestry doesn’t seem particularly rewarding. Especially when one ends up straining to tell the Orcs apart. (By the end of the movie I discovered one of them wears a kilt, so he’s either a Scottish Orc or really into Braveheart cosplay. Who truly knows?)

Visually, the film does create another world and the attention to detail is lavish and immersive, but this is 2016, and we need more than mere costuming and spectacle. Scale cannot define a giant film like this anymore, and while it’s all very well to have elaborately-upholstered wolves and impractically grandiose armour, the set-pieces seem disappointingly generic. I felt at times as if I was watching a giant film made in Telugu, for example, and dubbed into English: so wooden were the lines and so familiar the mythic tropes. There are good dads and helpless sons, for example, on both ends of the portal, and babies set afloat in rivers and sent to their survival. We’ve seen it all before, and, truth be told, we’ve had it all told to us more engagingly.

It is an efficiently made film, certainly, but there is no panache to render it interesting. Save for Paula Patton’s green-skinned half-Orc, the characters are painfully bland and the actors playing them dull. There are a couple of action moments that stun — one involving an attack by a shield formation is particularly nifty — but a good minute or three does not an entertainer make. It doesn’t even seem compellingly video-gamey, which is most tragic. There is a fine scene involving dropping a heavy character onto another, but even that genuinely clever flourish is lost as the film drags interminably on.

I’m a massive admirer of Jones’ work, and loved both his previous films, Moon and Source Code. Warcraft is, on every level, a disappointment, especially since you see what he’s trying to do — the kind of man-woman parity he’s aiming for, mostly unseen in a film of this scale — but then you see, frustratingly enough, that the film itself is a mediocre casing for any grand idea or deft nuance. It’s mostly swallowed up by badly mumbled gibberish, like the villain in the climax chanting what sounds (a lot) like saying Eddie Izzard’s name over and over again.

There is but one moment of brilliance, and this I mean literally: it is when a Guardian wizard burns up a young apprentice’s magical research, a visually arresting shot that holds the promise of Fahrenheit 451 intensity. It boils over, alas, in but a second, the rest of the film unfit to fry an egg.

Rating: 1 star

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First published Rediff, June 10, 2016

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Review: Ribhu Dasgupta’s TE3N

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There are things TE3N gets charmingly right. It starts with a moment straight out of Gol Maal, set at a police station, an affectionate tribute to kick things off, serving also as a sobering reminder that Amitabh Bachchan, once the lanky lead (or lead’s closest friend) in sparkling Hrishikesh Mukherjee comedies, is now (much) older than Utpal Dutt was when he filmed that immortal scene with Keshto Mukherjee. While on actors and aging, the film also features Bengali veteran Sabyasachi Chakrabarty, who memorably played Feluda in Sandip Ray’s films. True to form, in the one scene where we see what Chakrabarty smokes, his cigarette of choice, like the famously loyal sleuth, is a Charminar.

Age — and, indeed, time — are important parts of director Ribhu Dasgupta’s narrative in his confoundingly titled thriller, and Bachchan is the ideal choice for the part of an inconsolable grandfather, doggedly desperate to find out about a long-ago kidnapping that led to his granddaughter’s death. The actor shuffles through both bewilderment and clarity, everything a struggle for his John Biswas, from starting a scooter to remembering the name of the soup he’s making. He’s terrific in the part, evocative and righteous and overreaching for the truth, but alas, Dasgupta seems too smitten with Bachchan to get a move on and tell the story. A remake of the Korean thriller Montage, Te3n unfolds its dramatic plot — too sluggishly — but this isn’t too bad until we hit the climax, after which the film’s makers are too obsessed with Bachchan (and his reactions to the climax, and its twist) to let the story work.

One of the most exasperating things about Hindi movies are their over-reliance on flashbacks, their need to spoon-feed audiences by reminding them of something they saw ten minutes ago, and the last half-hour of Te3n goes on interminably, recapping the entire film as if to show us how clever they’ve been. Tragically, however, they haven’t been clever at all. It’s difficult not to predict the film’s twist, and — the fundamental problem in films that hinge too critically on that massive twist — when that doesn’t fall into place, the whole house of cards collapses to the ground.

Bachchan, as said, plays John The Victim, a grieving-bereaving role uncannily similar to the one he played in Wazir mere months ago. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Father Martin, a former policeman (now a short-sleeved clergyman) who happens to be John’s confidante. This, it must be said, is not Siddiqui at his brightest. The actor, perhaps in a bid to create a coldly efficient character, plays his part too drily to be as compelling as the film demands, and — worse still — delivers unfunny lines with the air of a comic waiting for a laugh. He is completely shown up by the reliably effective Vidya Balan, who with one disbelieving mention of his name, dangling questionmark raised at the end like an eyebrow, brings alive character and context immediately. “Father Martin?”

And, of course, by Bachchan, who exposes Siddiqui’s sloppy accent work; as the younger actor stumbles over ‘Ripon Sitreet’ in the most un-Bengali fashion, the veteran expertly drops in subtle touches like saying ‘Kidnapar’, as only Bengalis could. Not for him the clichéd overdoing of Os.

Cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray shoots Calcutta beautifully, even if the production design is more than a tad on the nose, with clusters of framed vintage photographs better suited to the backdrop to tony Bandra eateries trying to appear old-world instead of just a wall in John Biswas’ house. Still, producer Sujoy Ghosh ensures that there is at least an aesthetic in place, and the film is competently crafted even if it squanders its narrative potential. Overall, like the Calcutta police station that features a library of audiocassettes full of ransom demands — a shelf of kidnapper mixtapes, if you will — TE3N feels like it was put together by people who didn’t know where things should go.

Amitabh Bachchan is excellent, no question. Ah, if only his mystery involved an elusive bottle of Isabgol.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, June 10, 2016

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Review: Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

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The Nice Guys reminded me of a terrific Playboy joke.

I don’t mean a specific joke (not that I could quote it here) but I have a feeling you know what I’m talking about: one of those things that’d make us guffaw and pause while leafing through a faded, ‘vintage’ back-issue, which is to say something smart and snappy involving cheeky wordplay, actual ingenuity and (more often than not) a woman named Little Annie Fanny. Speaking of Harvey Kurtzman’s work, actually, this film feels like an old Mad Magazine strip. One of the more ribald ones.

Shane Black’s new film is essentially a 70s romp about — get this — “a porno where the plot is the point”, and, given such a fantastically, exaggeratedly Shane Black of premises, the film doesn’t bloody disappoint. The circuitous plot spins around the narrative like a yoyo gone berserk, keeping things tight but loopy, with enough room for many a corpse and for Black to embrace the madness with tremendous slapstick flair. It’s a goddamned treat.

Ryan Gosling, as a frequently drunk private dick, is at his absolute goofiest — call it Raising Arizona Nic Cage level wild — as he stumbles through the proceedings frequently drunk and constantly imperilled. Alongside him is Russell Crowe, a paunchy enforcer good with his hands. These two make for an even unlikelier pair than Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer in Black’s masterful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and play off each other with electric élan, both visibly liberated to be cutting loose from their usual worlds: Gosling from his brooding art-house films and Crowe from whatever garbage he’s done recently. (When was the last time we saw Crowe in something remotely good? I can’t even remember.)

Crowe is stellar here as Jackson Healy, dour and tough and lovably, quaintly sincere. He starts off narrating the film like a Raymond Chandler sleuth, and while this affectation sadly vanishes, he does look like a grizzled old romantic, wishing he mattered more, could do more, and even, perhaps, be a detective. Gosling’s Holland March is that very thing, though Healy’s version of a sleuth would likely solve more murders and cheat nearsighted old ladies much less. The two characters collide and one breaks the other’s arm — the Shane Black version of a meet-cute — leading them to an unlikely, riotous adventure.

The stakes are high. The Nice Guys may share the vibe of a spoof, and, to a large extent it plays out like one, but Black’s characters are real and fleshed out — from March’s relationship with his wisecracking daughter to Healy’s powerful backstory (which might be best heard with coffee) —  and the plot contrivances may be outrageous but escalate rapidly, like a particularly foulmouthed Hardy Boys story. There are activists playing dead and porn producers who aren’t pretending at the same, and smartmouthed young kids who boastfully suggest they have a screen-friendly anatomy. It might be a parody, but within the film, everyone’s playing it straight — and nobody’s named Shirley.

The blood, thus, is real, and so is the wit. Black doesn’t aim too high with the film — the Chandler-touch fades away early, as I said, and this is but a farce merely disguised in noir clothing — yet as a boisterous comedy, The Nice Guys swaggers out all guns blazing, gags flying recklessly and precariously all over the place. Visually, French veteran Philippe Rousselot keeps the action coherent even at its most frantic, shooting the silliest of action set-pieces with classical thriller precision, making even the childishly coincidental events appear urgent and compelling. Black doesn’t overdo the 70s groove, though Led Zeppelin’s Misty Mountain Hop lingers on in my head despite not featuring on the soundtrack, for reasons those of you who have watched the film know well.

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It’s a barrel of laughs, even though the film itself never quite lives up to the jawdropping opening scene, where a young boy sneaks a dirty magazine from under his parents’ bed only — after a ludicrous, lovely, fearsome turn of events — to see the centerfold he was staring at come to life. Like the girl-sawing prologue in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or ‘the robot story’ from the same beautiful film, this too is a magical sequence, and I, for one, would love to see Black — eternal lover of Christmas — someday make a film starring children.

Then again, maybe his goals are nobler: to make adults feel like children as they chortle through something frantic and joyous and just so damned nice. Little Annie Fanny would be proud.

Rating: Four stars

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First published Rediff, June 3, 2016

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Review: Ram Gopal Varma’s Veerappan

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Ram Gopal Varma has never been one to let truth get in the way of a good story.

His new film, Veerappan, for instance, opens with a quote that “a Society gets the criminal it deserves,” which is credited to Voltaire, who — to my knowledge — never said any such thing. The quote is in fact one by Val McDermid, a Scottish novelist, who was glibly riffing on the line from philosopher Joseph de Maistre where he said “every nation gets the government it deserves.” The rest is classic RGV, from the decision to give the quote a loftier source — to get people to instantly take it more seriously, I imagine — to the much odder (yet much more harmless) decision to capitalise the S, making it look like there’s a serial killer lurking around the offices of Society Magazine. Simply put, there is much Varma does that confounds everyone else on the planet.

The opening credits, with crew names underscored by bloodied elephant tusks, are superimposed over a Veerappan slaughter as the infamous bandit massacres a man. The cops, as always on the scene a few moments too late, lament their helplessness in the face of this fearsome foe. Sachin Joshii — playing a policeman identified in the closing credits simply as Cop — briefs an army squad, rookies to the Veerappan situation, with an origin story, and Varma does well to start this off as a first-person flashback, showing us, video-game-style, what Veerappan sees when but a child holding his first gun.

It is during these early shots that we are thunderstruck by Sandeep Bharadwaj, the actor who plays Veerappan, and how much of a dead ringer he is, at least from behind that iconic moustache. Varma flits through many a shot of wall-to-wall violence and there is one shot of Veerappan, dressed as a cop, hacking down a victim with an axe, that shows off the look, the level of violence, and the actor’s presence as cultivated by the director. It is a shot that endures.

That, however, is about it. Things get less and less interesting as the movie chugs on, a potentially compelling story reduced to something tedious. Joshii, mouthing aphoristic masala lines of dialogue like a child reciting words he doesn’t understand, is the film’s weakest link, and it doesn’t help that he’s always around on screen. The man has absolutely no charisma, which is why Varma’s attempts at giving him ‘hero’ moments never quite work.

Usha Jadhav, playing Veerappan’s wife, is very natural but her performance positively jars alongside that of the atrociously dubbed Lisa Ray, who — as a spy trying to befriend Veerappan’s wife — brings a near Fakhri-esque blankness to the part. The first time we meet Ray, she stares at a photograph of her combat-slain husband as if stoned out of her skull. It only gets worse. Later in the film, Joshii (who can’t say “interrogation” but keeps trying to) grills a man while Ray watches on, cocking her head as if possessed. (Perhaps RGV had briefed her for a horror film part. It’s not entirely impossible.)

What I liked about Veerappan is the fact that RGV is relentless, plodding through his plot dedicatedly without feeling the need to add a funny line or an item song (though it is rather distracting that the Veerappan theme song borrows its backbone from, bewilderingly enough, Snoop Dogg’s Wiggle) and this, I feel, is because he truly believes in the power of the subject. Tragically, his visual aesthetic at this point isn’t thrilling enough — or, at this point, new enough to be mistaken for being interesting — and, thanks to weak plotting and Joshii’s awful lines, the film ends up long and bloated.

A down and dirty production frequently resembling a TV reenactment more than it does a feature film, Veerappan is let down by its writing. The bad plotting, certainly, but also just the moronically elementary dialogue: forced to speak Hindi for this film, the characters talk in excessively wooden lines, saying things like “har decision mein risk hai” with a straight face. These are basically people talking in subtitles. (In fact, I frequently found myself wishing I was instead watching RGV’s Kannada version of the film, with English subtitles. I’m confident that might work more smoothly, and I’ll look it up.)

This, then, is not a film worth recommending. And yet there are some images that stay with me — like the aforementioned one of the dacoit as a cop, and one featuring, alongside the men, female cops in red and yellow sarees, gamely wading through water and firing at the outlaws — which convince me that Varma isn’t sleepwalking through the project. Also, as Hindi films go, it’s surprisingly no-nonsense for the most part, save for Joshii. It knows what it wants to do, and while it can’t quite pull it off, it certainly kidnaps our attention for a while.

It may well be a misfire, but Veerappan shows that at least RGV has his eyes open while squeezing the trigger. The dacoit is still at large.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, May 27, 2016

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Review: Omung Kumar’s Sarbjit

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The film Sarbjit ends with a black screen, with many a line dangling in the air and many ellipses allowing them to do so. It tells us what the film’s makers declare happened to the real Sarabjit Singh and his crusading sister Dalbir Kaur, what continues to happen today, and then, with much solemnity, it ends with a three-line quotation. The critic to the left of me thought it would be Rumi, the one on my right thought it would be Tagore, while I — given the theme of suffering on both sides of the border — expected it to be some wise Pakistani wordsmith. As it happens, the quote — which I was too gobsmacked to write down, given the name that popped up under it — belongs to none of these people, and is attributed instead to Omung Kumar, this film’s director.

It is a telling thing for a director, after having presented a film, to feel the need to quote himself at the end of it. I don’t remember having seen it before. It is as if he believes that we might not have gotten his message, and that these lines carved on the film’s tombstone will prove the heftiest blow. They do not. Sarbjit is an irresponsibly sloppy film, a film so focussed on artless emotional manipulation and trying to make the audience weep that it trivialises an important true-life story. Instead of a film about a wrongfully imprisoned farmer, Kumar — whose film stars Randeep Hooda in the title role — appears intent to create the story of a true martyr, even though Sarabjit, once caught, didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Yet Kumar wants to give us The Passion Of The Hooda.

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”).

Richa Chadha, the best actor in the film, looks visibly pained by Rai — and I don’t just mean because she, as Sarbjit’s wife, resents Sarbjit’s sister. (The first time we see Chadha, she’s literally shielding her child’s ears from Rai’s shrieks.) Chadha, however, doesn’t age at all in the film, and, had Singh been in prison for another ten years, may well have ended up looking younger than her daughters. A powerful actress, she isn’t given much to do but glower — this she does excellently — and has but one big scene, one outburst, that is rather stirring despite the film around it.

sarb2.jpgSimilarly Hooda, who overdoes tone, stays mostly consistent to this version of Sarbjit, and has a great scene where he finally meets his family through prison bars, and is overwhelmed by it all. This moment plays out strongly, but could have been so much more powerful without the cliched background music Kumar forces throughout every second of this melodramatic film.

Sarbjit does indeed deal with a story worth telling, but does so in the most obvious and uninspired fashion. There are a few nice things here — a good aerial shot of the Pakistani flag, for example, a scene where a man cleverly burns his own effigy, and a shot where the Singh family patriarch fixes his moustache for the camera — but the rest of it, from rattling chains to bruises that appear instantly, seem like weak moments taken from trailers of other movies. And in the middle of it all stands Aishwarya Rai, eyes open to stretching point, waggling her finger to rebuke people like an irked schoolmarm. Oh my.

Kumar’s last film, Mary Kom, had no flow from scene to scene and played through like a Powerpoint presentation on the boxer, bolstered only by Priyanka Chopra’s performance. This time around, the director tries too hard to get things to flow, starting with much cross-cutting only to end up with a highly linear and disjointed narrative with ill-suited songs. There is earnestness, however — even in Rai’s performance — but this is not an effective or emotional film. It is, in fact, the 80s Doordarshan version of Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

This, however, is just my opinion. I’m sure Mr Kumar can write his own review, and quote himself on the poster.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 20, 2016

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Review: Tony D’Souza’s Azhar

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When news of the match-fixing scandal broke, my very first thought was for Mohammad Azharuddin’s wrists.

The heartbreak was unbelievable, and echoes of that particular ache still remain. Believe the hyperbole. Cricket was tantamount to religion back in the untainted day, and the idea that some of our heroes were thieves was a crushing one, one the sport never quite bounced back from. It was at this point, before I pored over salacious transcripts of sting operations and read up a CBI report as if my graduation depended on it, that I wondered what would happen to those sublime wrists, wrists that carved poetry across the fields, and what handcuffs would do to them.

For, to naive teenaged me, it was unthinkable that Azhar not be jailed. Not merely banned and disgraced but imprisoned, for fraud and perjury and whatever they could throw at him, because what Azhar did was unforgivable. As the transcripts came out and the probes went deeper, it became clear that Azhar, with those flourishing wrists weighed down by designer watches, had fixed matches, had taken money, and had confessed to doing so in his own words, on tape and later in writing — I remember reading a long, rambling fax he had handwritten and sent to then-wife Sangeeta Bijlani. It was sickening, and Azhar — with a striking life that saw him go from rags to riches, captain to crud — became a villain.

This is the kind of story that deserves a cinematic telling, one of the few sports biopics that genuinely deserves to be made. Except, as Tony D’Souza’s new film hastens desperately to say at the start of the film called Azhar, this is “not a biopic.” The wordy disclaimer says something to the effect of the film being a work of entertainment based around facts about a person’s life, which sounds to me like an excuse to mock someone. Alas, there is no such irreverence — or intelligence — to be found in the storytelling here, and the predictable template the film follows is efficient, but dull.

The Bollywood biopic is an emerging genre that can already be labelled lazy, because of the way the films lean on flattery. Forced to gain the subject’s approval, the films end up glorifying the subject well beyond the truth. Greys are glossed over, achievements are amped up, and a deafening background score thuds through to highlight moments the audience already knows.

Despite all that, the story of Mohammad Azharuddin is a ripper. How did he first want to play cricket? Which batsmen did he look up to? What made him start relying on his wrists? When, indeed, did he realise their invincibility? What made him fall for Salman Khan’s ex-girlfriend? How financially strapped was his family and how did money change their lives? What was he like when shooting Pepsi commercials? Where did the wristwatch fascination come from? What did he think of emerging Sachin Tendulkar? How did he feel when the scandal broke? Who did he feel got away with it?

There is a lot to say even if a film wants to take Azhar’s side. Unfortunately, D’Souza and writer Rajat Arora avoid all of the aforementioned questions and choose instead to continually mire the narrative in obvious cliché. Even if the film starts off snappy enough, the contents are old hat. A cricketer is told by his grandfather that he should play a hundred test matches, and grandpa — who lies on his deathbed while, for some reason, clutching a cricket bat — gives him Uncle Ben like advice that is played back over and over again, even two scenes later. Meanwhile the young boy just wants to play, but distractions keep popping up. Even though he doesn’t want to have an extramarital affair, Poor Azza finds himself in one. Even though he doesn’t want to sell India out to a bookie, Poor Azza ends up doing that.

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Ridiculous as it is, this Poor Azza approach actually works for a fair chunk of the film’s running time because of the sincerity Emraan Hashmi brings to the table. He isn’t a great mimic — that dopey Azhar head nod, the slumping shoulders, the microphone mutterings — show up from time to time but remain inconsistent, but the actor is almost touchingly honest. Which is saying a lot considering he’s made to spout so much malarkey his name might as well be Mohammad Aphorism.

He — and Kunal Roy Kapoor, who plays a fumbling lawyer endearingly — are the best things in this film, but the competition isn’t at all cutthroat. Nargis Fakhri looks mad weird as a hysterically sobbing Bijlani, while Prachi Desai, as Azhar’s first wife Naureen, is cloyingly saccharine and straight out of a television soap. (This film is a Balaji production, which explains a lot.)

The story is told, as I said, with more efficiency than we’re used to, at least over the brisk first half. With the exception of unbelievably juvenile courtroom scenes, the film motors along. There are even some fun scenes, either involving an amusing Gautam Gulati — a swaggery Ravi Shastri caricature — or Hashmi himself, manfully but awkwardly throwing one hand into his pocket with a commitment that would, more than Azhar himself, make Mohnish Bahl and Alanis Morissette proud. There is one moment in the film that even gave me goosepimples, but, to be fair, the words “Azhar takes a one-handed catch” would do that irrespective of visual or typeface. Man, what a fielder. (We don’t see nearly enough of that in this film either. Would it have killed them to show us Azza alone on the field after dusk, practising hitting the stumps with those one-handed throws like only he could? Sigh. Such a wasted chance, this film.)

In the second half, as the facts become obscured and the storyline becomes contrived, the film becomes an utter drag. As Fakhri enters the film and the feeble songs increase in frequency, the film turns into something so lifeless you could call it Azerbaijan.

And then comes the death blow: With no apparent room for ambiguity, the film exonerates Poor Azhar not merely as Poor Azhar but — stupefyingly — as a man who took bribes from bookies in order to keep the rest of his team clean. Ugh. This is the bit that hurts most. This appalling justification is an unforgivably offensive conceit, and I’m furious just thinking about it now, as I type.

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.

As a work of fan-fiction, Azhar is a mostly watchable film with a solid lead, but falls far short of being either entertaining, insightful, or worthy of recommendation. Hashmi and D’Souza try hard, and their effort shows. I just wish I could have said the boys played well.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 13, 2016

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