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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Review: Vivek Agnihotri’s Buddha In A Traffic Jam

Dear Indian Right Wingers,

You have my sincerest condolences. Propaganda films can be dangerous, influential, misleading — and that is what they intend to be. The one true requirement of a propaganda film is that it be effective. Emphatic instruments of (mis)information and awareness, instruments geared to trigger a change in mindset, to squelch a way of thinking and to encourage another. It is frequently unsubtle filmmaking that belabours its point, but its work can also be subversive and sly and admittedly clever.

Buddha In A Traffic Jam is none of those things. Which is why my heart bleeds for the Indian Right-Wingers misled into believing this is the film they need to put their weight behind. Throughout history we have had propaganda films that, while putting forward lethal ideology, have also been cinematic milestones. However, where the Nazis had DW Griffith and Leni Riefenstahl, you guys have Vivek Agnihotri. It’s enough to put the ‘git’ in ‘agitprop.’

buddha2Not that Agnihotri thinks of himself as any less exalted, of course, of course. A director who has experimented catastrophically with different genres every single time — poorly plagiarised thriller (Chocolate), sports film (Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal), erotic thriller (Hate Story) — he kicks off this politically posturing film with foolhardy loftiness. The film opens in 2000 BC, with a tribal villager chopping wood, before it cuts to 2014, with the villager still hacking away at it. This is Bastar as Agnihotri sees it, unchanged even as the director, with appalling audacity, bastardises Stanley Kubrick’s iconic opening from 2001: A Space Odyssey. No, really.

The stolen ambition pours into the scene immediately after, as an outsider comes to the tribals and asks for a glass of their famed milk, which he drinks before, well, doing violent things. The Agnihotri Odyssey has artlessly veered into Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a film it steals from again a couple of minutes later when a girl — whose casting call must have said ‘must look drunk at all times’ — plunges her cigarette rather brutally into her boyfriend’s pastry before launching into a loony song proclaiming herself “a born again b**ch.”

Oh, what pandemonium this is. Set around the story of a business school student being led astray by his red-saluting professor, the film’s mechanics and motivations are laughable. The cast doesn’t help. Arunoday Singh, God’s gift to actors with self-esteem issues, is the curiously accented student. The professor, meanwhile, is played by Anupam Kher, a man it is now admittedly hard to look at without immediately picturing that blonde Patanjali meme, the actor pitching his performance wildly differently from scene to scene.

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Arunoday’s character, Vikram Pandit, is a guy who decries Facebook for its pointlessness before, a scene later, embarking on a giant Facebook campaign. He’s a clueless youth who immediately nods along with anyone who has a point of view. Bizarrely, he seems to be rather aroused by information, at one point inexplicably shown to be touching himself, one hand down the front of his boxers, while reading left-wing material written by his professor. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up. Later in the film, in case you missed the earlier scene, he pictures said professor while making love to some girl. Orgasming to his master’s voice may not be the traditional way to show commitment, but Vikram — who smokes almost as much as he speaks — is all about being a contrarian.

The problem is that we are supposed to like Vikram and his gang, which include the drunk girl, and yet Agnihotri, in his quest to make them cool and hip, makes them utterly obnoxious and loathsome. Yet in a film this feeble, this kind of criticism feels, ironically enough, like nitpicking. I could dedicate this review to the politics of Buddha In A Traffic Jam but that would be doing it too much credit; here there isn’t competence enough for this film to be discussed as a genuine statement of political cinema. This is a senseless product made with bewildering ineptitude, a film that thinks it deserves a soapbox while being utterly hollow. Even Jayant Kripalani, who appears in half a scene, stifles a yawn.

Buddha may well turn out to be a cult film, though not for reasons Agnihotri will like. 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 as 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.

The plot is preposterous, and by the end of the film, all us critics were laughing in exhausted disbelief. Is this a real movie? Did someone fund this? Is this actually releasing in theatres? In the name of Comrade Jesus, how about a solitary drop of sanity?

Most importantly, who in the world is Anupam Kher’s unseen Papa, constantly calling him on the phone and asking him to turn on the radio?

(Perhaps, given another propaganda ‘movie’ not too long ago, his Papa is MSG. Now that’s a twist I could live with.)

Rating: No stars

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First published Rediff, May 13, 2016

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Review: The Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War

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“War, what is it good for?”

Despite the existential disgust expressed by Edwin Starr in that song all those years ago, there exist far too many affirmative answers to that question: it’s good for gunrunners, media outlets, separatists, posturing Presidential candidates and, clearly, for Marvel Studios — whose superheroes have never, ever looked better.

Why, though,  are earth’s mightiest heroes fighting each other in the first place?

The idea of critiquing collateral damage from battles in superhero movies, considering all the computer-rendered rubble and skylines toppling in 3D, is almost as old as the genre itself, with examples on every level of the quality spectrum — from The Incredibles to Batman V Superman — and the new Captain America film deals with the politics of this crisis. A Superhero Registration Act is proposed, with a United Nations squad to control if and when to deploy super-powered heroes. Considering that the Avengers can’t get through breakfast without an argument — or without some philistine pouring coffee grounds in the garbage disposal — it isn’t surprising that this leads to debate, but nobody quite anticipates an impasse this formidable.

Ding! In the red tights stands Tony Stark, Iron Man, the billionaire egomaniac who, after his own significant fumbles in the face of adversity, seems all too keen to relinquish responsibility and make superheroes answerable to a neutral body who, he trusts, should know better than, say, Earth’s Most Impulsive Heroes. In the star-spangled corner stands Steve Rogers, Captain America, a soldier who once socked Hitler and who feels that heroes should take responsibility for their own actions and, given governments and their contrary agendas, “obeying orders” may not always be the best course of action.

Heavy stuff to chew on, and while naturally avoiding the obsessive level of discourse favoured by the comics in Marvel’s Civil War series ten years ago — an eleven-issue series called Frontline, for example, featured two journalists locked in deep conversations about ethics, responsible reportage and the greater good — this film, after a fantastic opening action scene, does indeed feature a lot of serious talk.

Yet, preposterous as it may seem, this approach works wonderfully, thanks to the eight years and twelve films Marvel has released before this. Over the course of the last few years, characters — like Cap himself — have grown from stereotypes to heroes with fully-fleshed personalities with well-defined conflicts, paranoia and neuroses. Marvel’s men and women have always had issues, and we’ve seen their powers and weaknesses gradually come to light as they’ve struggled with inner demons and vanquished old fears — sometimes to replace them with new ones. We’ve met (most of) the gang, and this is the film where all those years of setup really pay off.

Here’s the deal: All the old Marvel films — Even the ones you’ve loved. Even the great superhero sandwich Joss Whedon made us. All the films before Captain America: Civil War are prologue.

We’ve seen earlier Marvel productions nail some or the other aspects of superhero movies, but this new film, by Joe and Anthony Russo, ticks all the boxes in astonishingly fine fashion. Every character’s presence is justified, every comic-trope used is deployed perfectly, and there is so much goddamned personality to the choices this film makes. Rarely do all the stars align this masterfully in a franchise, and, as a lifelong Marvel fanatic, I finally feel the way I imagine Star Wars fans would have done the first time they watched The Empire Strikes Back.

The film opens with a clothesline in Lagos, delivered by a metal wing. The badassery continues as Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow kicks serious butt, with the cinematographers keeping us perched close to the action. We’re following along because we can’t look away, and the action setpieces in this film are remarkably clear and, mostly set in broad daylight, free of shadowy ambiguity. The coherence is jawdropping, a result of the Russos calling in directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch — helmers of the kinetically ingenious, near-lyrical ultraviolence in John Wick — to help them shoot the fight scenes. It shows. Each sequence contains not merely a couple of gasp-worthy moments but also moments that define each individual superhero’s strengths and chinks. It’s all striking, a joy in IMAX 3D, and the big airport scene it all builds up to is a giddy masterpiece.

Yet, as you may imagine, it isn’t all fun and quips and mid-air backflips. Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier of the previous films, continues to be haunted by his past, something Tony Stark sums up immaculately well by calling him the Manchurian Candidate. Ah, see? The seams are showing but in less obvious ways. Stark’s references are now dated, his ego bruised after the failure of Ultron, his lady Pepper has left him, at least for a while, and there is a desperation to his actions — even in the way he hits on Peter Parker’s “unusually attractive aunt.”

Robert Downey Jr has brought a lot to the Iron Man role, but while most films have stressed on his insouciance, this one shows us how bruised the wisecracker really is. It is a compelling, highly flawed character and this is the kind of performance that allows RDJ to dig deep and show off his solid acting chops. It is, thus, weird — and wonderful — to see him take a break from the action by sharing a couch with Marisa Tomei, who he once starred with in a lovely little film called Only You. He marvels at how good she looks, she — sexy as ever — tells us aunts “come in all shapes and sizes”, and Peter Parker gulps awkwardly, wondering what the heck is going on.

Oh yeah. That kid. You know Spider-Man is in this film, right? Well, he is and he’s phenomenal. Played by 19-year-old Tom Holland, this new fresh-faced Spidey is the whippersnapper we’ve always wanted and never quite gotten, and I refuse to spoil any of his moments. Suffice it to say that when this globetrotting film, which writes names of locations in boastfully large white type — in Futura, as if paying tribute to Wes Anderson, of all people — well, when the word “Queens” shows up across the screen, buckle up, because you’re in for something, well, Amazing.

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Like the directors, leading man Chris Evans, seemed bland during the first Captain America movie and winningly earnest in the second, but by this time, it feels impossible not to admire this version of the character. He is a big blue boyscout, sure — and there is a highly Superman moment involving his bicep and a chopper — but Cap is old-school in the best way. You might not care as much for his best buddy Bucky — I know I don’t — but Evans makes it clear that he cares, and that it’s personal to him. And willingly we believe. Similarly old-school is a new addition to the squad, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, a character so irresistibly magnetic he’ll immediately soar to the top of your list. Seriously, I can’t wait for his film to come out.

That’s what Captain America: Civil War does, using characters old and new with tremendous flair. Fan-favourite Avengers Thor and Hulk don’t show up, but I daresay they aren’t missed. (A hero I personally would have liked to add to the roster would be a composer as rollicking as this film is, one who would make use of the film’s many storytelling beats and the crescendo it builds up to. A certain Elf Man, if I may.) Johannson is, as always, a superlative Black Widow, here torn between Team Cap and Team Tony, but I’m particularly impressed by how well the Russos have used traditionally less-cool characters: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye finally feels life fun, while Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man has a delightful part, a guy utterly star-struck by Captain America only to later make everyone else gape at what he can do. Together, these two losers have my top comic-book moment of them all as Ant-Man, perched on the tip of Hawkeye’s arrowhead, slips through Iron Man’s fingers.

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Films about characters with rich and textured histories have a tough call in terms of clueing in new viewers and catering to True Believers, but the Russos manage this with an admirable lightness of touch that makes it clear the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in the right hands. These guys get it, the characters and the spirit of the comics. Captain America: Civil War is a great ride even if you don’t read the comics or haven’t seen any of the older films.

Let’s lay it down in terms Captain America would approve of: You can applaud a home run even if you don’t watch baseball. If you do, you know how special it really is.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 6, 2016

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