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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon

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She doesn’t want to sit on his lap.

Miss Julia is enraged, and all her billionaire boyfriend Russi Billimoria does — as the man in charge, her lover, her producer —  is slap the inside of his left thigh, inviting his tigress to clamber aboard so he can make it all better. She seethes while he smugly and knowingly slaps his goddamn thigh, like a particularly unctuous Krishna. Julia wants to defy him but dare not, and she cycles through her fury, before, in her own way, showing as much non-compliance as may be mustered. She does indeed go to him and allow herself to be patted down and placated, but she perches on his right thigh instead.

Rangoon, Vishal Bhardwaj’s new film, is his loudest and largest, a period drama that blasts off with an impressive, immersive war sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in something by Christopher Nolan. It is also, by some degree, his most accessible film, one that leans less on metaphor and symbolism and more directly on plot. The emotions are overt, the triggers are obvious, the fundamentals spoonfed to the audience more than Bhardwaj usually does, but the world he conjures is stunning. This is a barnstormer, but one made with superlative craftsmanship.

This is also Bhardwaj’s own gleeful riff on what Quentin Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds — it is a film where the Indian auteur uses a thicker paintbrush to earn a grander canvas for him to draw out his own wishfully revisionist historical fiction. Subhash Chandra Bose’s revolutionary Indian National Army features prominently in this pre-Independence wartime saga, with Bhardwaj himself unforgettably singing the Azad Hind Fauj anthem, Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana as rewritten by Bose.

That, however, is later. First, as movie posters of the day used to promise, come the “Thrills! Chills! Spectacle!”, and rightfully so. The year is 1943, and while Indian soldiers fighting under the British flag are being imprisoned by the Japanese Army, a young girl known for her stuntwork is making waves as India’s most popular cinematic attraction. Miss Julia is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition, a bright and beguiling cauliflower-haired sensation who swings from chandeliers, runs across tops of trains, and fights off pirates with swashbuckling flair. With her black eyemask and trim figure, she may as well be called the Lean Ranger.

It is this magnificent sideshow-attraction who swallows her pride (in a way that she probably can swords) for Russi, a one-armed magnate who was once, like her, an action hero doing his own stunts. He now finances the movies, and is seduced by the idea of an Army tour for his staggeringly popular Miss Julia, one where she can go boost Army morale and help protect his chummy camaraderie with the British.

The best laid plans, as we know, don’t belong in the movies. This seemingly innocuous idea leads to wartorn bloodshed and revolutionary chaos, even as a boy and a girl fall in love while another boy looks on. Sides are chosen and betrayed, and many a promise is broken. The film is shot exceptionally well by Pankaj Kumar, mounted on a grand scale with finesse we in India are not used to, and some of the shots — like one swirling up the inside of a grand old theatre, or the aerially shot war-sequences — are glorious. All this while Bhardwaj treats his film like a libretto, using songs with pointedly prickly Gulzar lyrics to underscore the narrative.

Billimoria is a terrific character, a posturing prince who can’t resist the grandiloquent gesture. Played by Saif Ali Khan, he comes across as an impeccably-heeled dandy intoxicated by his own insistence on his own power. Early in the film, Julia — repeating Billimoria’s creed that the British are the best bosses for India — is teased for being Russi’s parrot, and, much later, Billimoria declares his love for Julia by saying she is the one within whom his life is imprisoned — much like a parrot safeguarding an ogre’s life in an ancient tale.

This idea of helplessness in love is what drives the love triangle in Rangoon, which sees all concerned parties nonchalantly express their lack of choice and resign all agency in the matter. This may perhaps be why, even though the film has strong chemistry, the romance is less heady than it is matter of fact: we’re supposed to take the characters’ word for it. They are in love because they say they are, and who are they to answer why? The heart — bloody hell — wants what it wants.

‘Is there anything greater than sacrificing one’s life?’ the characters ask. ‘Yes,’ answers the film. ‘Yes. That who is worth dying for.’

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Living on the brink of death is Nawab Malik, a valiant Jamadar in the Indian Army with his focus unwavering from his mission. Until, that is, Julia enters and mud-wrestles his concentration to the ground. A righteous man drawn to an impossible lover — one who can throw knives and tantrums with equal panache — he is flummoxed by this woman who declares herself untouchable but whom he must hold close. Shahid Kapoor is perfect as Malik, duty-bound and clipped and proper even when barking orders in Japanese, giving this film a much-needed war footing.

Other castmembers worth applauding include Saharsh Shukla as Zulfi, Julia’s fiercely loyal make-up man who risks his life to save her bags, and Tony-winning British actor Richard McCabe as the shayari-spouting Brit commander, Harding. At one point, McCabe practices ghazals on a harmonium and, his mouth meticulously curling around beautiful words he loves so obviously, the scene reminded me of Chhabi Biswas and his singular obsession in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar.

This isn’t likely to be a coincidence, for few things happen by chance in Bhardwaj movies. This one was originally conceived over a decade ago as an action movie about a Miss Julia — a Fearless Nadia-esque foreign superstar — who rode roughshod across Indian imaginations, and was set to star the one and only Uma Thurman. Now, many years on and in a different version of the film, with another actress having made the part entirely her own, Billimoria still calls Julia ‘kiddo’ — which just happens to be Thurman’s last name in the Kill Bill films.

Kangana Ranaut is Julia — jagraati Julia, Julia worth staying nights up for, announce the lyrics as we meet her — and the actress is extraordinary as she rides and throws and dances with aplomb in what is physically an immensely demanding part. Ranaut looks like she knows how to actually crack a whip instead of just hurl one around, and acquits herself admirably in old-world stuntwoman sequences, all the while playing the part with enough vulnerability and insecurity to mark Julia out as a confused girl who doesn’t quite know what she’s doing. Ranaut is lovely where she teases her friend in the back of a car or where she begs half-heartedly for mercy when pinned down by her lover, and despite so much going on in Rangoon, Bhardwaj and Ranaut make sure the film acts also as a coming-of-age story for Julia.

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That said, this isn’t the filmmaker at his finest. The film feels longer than it is, some of the songs interfere with the too-meaty plot, and the romance never feels as soul-stirring as I assume it was intended to. The climax is a bit of a tightrope walk that culminates in a fair few near-misses, and ends on a rather regrettable misstep.

Yet it is impossible to look away. Rangoon haunts in unlikely fashion and, while the director’s most straightforward picture, holds enough of its own marvels to justify multiple viewings. Like a song-and-dance troupe trampling all over a map of Europe to tell their own fractured, misguided jokes, or an old man cosily swilling wine after having faked his own death, Rangoon may be direct but it is never obvious. As the credits used to say back in the day at the close of a spectacular film, “Remember, it’s a Vishal Bhardwaj creation.”

Rating: 4 stars

~

First published Rediff, February 23, 2017

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The worst Hindi films of 2016

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

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10. Fitoor

Grated expectations. What a pretty mess this was.

In my review, I’d said:

People age oddly in Fitoor.

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

Read my full review.

9. Befikre

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review.

8. Rock On 2

Remember that time a boyband reunited and it was amazing?

Neither does Farhan Akhtar.

In my review, I’d said:

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

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

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

Read my full review.

7. Sarbjit

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review.

6. Baar Baar Dekho

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read the full review

5. Azhar

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review.

4. Ki & Ka

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review.

3. Mohenjo Daro

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

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

Read my full review.

2. Buddha In A Traffic Jam

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review.

1. Shivaay

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

In my incredulous review, I’d said:

Where, in fact, can one begin?

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

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

Read my full review.

~

First published Rediff, January 12, 2017

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The best Hindi films of 2016

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

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10. MS Dhoni

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review here.

9. Raman Raghav 2.0

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

8. Pink

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review here.

7. Dear Zindagi

What screws us up?

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review here.

6. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review here.

5. Kapoor & Sons

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review here.

4. Udta Punjab

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review here.

3. Neerja

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review here.

2. Dangal

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

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

Read my full review here.

1. Fan

This may be the most flawed film on this list.

It is also, without question, the most fearless.

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

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

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

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

In my review, I’d said:

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

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

Read my full review here.

~

First published Rediff, January 10, 2016

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The best actors in Hindi cinema, 2016

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

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

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10. Amitabh Bachchan (Pink)

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

9. Diljit Dosanjh (Udta Punjab)

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

8. Jim Sarbh (Neerja)

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

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7. Fawad Khan (Kapoor & Sons)

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

6. Ranbir Kapoor (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil)

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

5. Shahid Kapoor (Udta Punjab)

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

4. Rajat Kapoor (Kapoor & Sons)

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

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3. Aamir Khan (Dangal)

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

2. Sushant Singh Rajput (Dhoni)

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

1. Shah Rukh Khan (Fan)

Nobody but Shah Rukh Khan could have done this.

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

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

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

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First published Rediff, January 2, 2017

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The best actresses in Hindi cinema, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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8. Ratna Pathak Shah (Kapoor And Sons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published Rediff, December 28, 2016

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Review: Aditya Chopra’s Befikre

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I wonder what films Aditya Chopra watches. I wonder who the reclusive filmmaker meets and speaks to in real life, and what on earth he imagines lovers and romantics to be doing. Perhaps he, who obviously watches his own iconic success Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge a million times over, believes (and hopes) they do the same. Yet if he intends to connect with his audience and make films speaking the ‘with-it’ language of the youth today, perhaps it is finally time he put an end to his Willy Wonka lifestyle, strolled out of his production house and took a look at the world.

This is because his Befikre is a colossally stupid film, a bad comedy with some skin and spit-swapping thrown onto it in a desperate attempt to attract attention. Despite the montage where lovers — old, blond, bewigged — smooch over the opening credits, what follows is not a youthful or fresh or interesting film. Like a big budget wolf dressed like a particularly skimpy sheep, this film recycles ideas we’ve seen done to death by Chopra’s own production house: the underdressed carefree tourism of Neal And Nikki melts into the inevitability of Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai, itself built upon the second half of Chopra’s DDLJ, with the Dance Of Envy from Dil Toh Pagal Hai thrown in for good measure.

Befikre goes through all these hackneyed bits while trying, in foolhardy fashion, to make a combination of the over-imitated talkie Before Sunrise and the wildly sexy Love Me If You Dare. Love Me If You Dare, a twisted French romance about a pair of lovers egging each other on from fun and games to callous and destructive madness, is a film that fetishises recklessness and the idea of committing to something impossible: a dare. It is a heady film that captures, vividly and sexily, the volatility of a relationship built on wildcards.

Befikre doesn’t dare.

A mediocre advertisement for Paris Tourism, the film is an inane mess where characters contradict themselves merely in order to outdo their own stupidity. Even the stolen idea of daring each other into anything isn’t adhered to as we see a couple of fools fall in love — the only upside to this being that they cancel each other’s imbecility by taking themselves off the market. Ranveer Singh is a Delhi boy who titters at lesbians and uses “that’s so gay” as an insult, while Vaani Kapoor is a French girl of Indian origin who has a prolific sex-life, and — conveniently for the production incentives — shows tourists around Paris. There are no emotional or romantic stakes anywhere in sight, and it’s hard to give a flying fikar what happens to these idiots.

He falls for her, she falls for him, and then after a year of separation — though we hardly see them apart — they decide to be friends. How very French, says the film, which also believes that a young man being polite to his mother is not French. Ah. I wonder where Aditya Chopra stands on fries. That said, we do find out where he stands on desi potato eating, this film’s big romantic question being a mother asking her daughter if her potential soulmate is aalu paratha enough for her.

Kapoor’s character is confident but unbearable in the film, yet at least she occasionally makes sense when talking of life and love and marriage. Singh, who plays a lame stand-up comic, knows absolutely nothing. There are other people on the scene, lovers for these lovers, and while he scores a pretty French girl who tries on headphones and enjoys stripping, she finds herself a smooth, un-boring banker. I must here admit that given the romantic cinema we’ve seen this year, it feels refreshing that this banker is played by some regular guy and is not a cameo by some beautiful Pakistani man.

There is, as the trailer promises, a whole lot of kissing in this film, and if you are in the mood to watch much mushing-together of mouths and to see Singh and Kapoor go at it with far too much aggression — her pre-kiss look is that of a rugby player readying for a scrimmage — then this film may, by all means, be your thing.

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I must however warn you that none of this is remotely sexy. Despite Kaname Onoyama’s cinematography being one of this film’s few pluses — there are some fine tracking shots pulling out from the two of them into the lovely world around them — it is bewildering how unflatteringly Kapoor has been photographed, and Singh cancels out his own charm by frequently displaying the energy of an electrocuted monkey.

Singh is a fine actor but struggles with the inanity of this material, material that requires him not merely to be always-on, but to be always obnoxious. The only moment he manages to salvage is one early on where he locks eyes passionately with a statue; it’s the actor’s way of flexing his leading man muscles and saying he could romance anything. He manages his character by wearing his cluelessness on his sleeve, and making his Delhi boy loud and vaguely effete, and resultantly renders this weak film nearly watchable. (As an aside I must hereby request some filmmaker to cast Singh in a completely effeminate and clueless role, even that of a valley girl. The Alicia Silverstone role from Clueless, even. He’d kill.)

At a point when our mainstream cinema is beginning to grow up, Befikre is painfully childish drivel that proves to be a maddening waste of time. It starts out shrill, turns predictable, and ends up chaotic. To use the language of the youth Aditya Chopra is attempting to speak, let’s call it Befi-cray-cray.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, December 9, 2016

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Review: Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2

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Sujoy Ghosh knows flavour. Few directors are as adept at creating atmosphere so swiftly and effectively, and Ghosh soaks his cinema in a seemingly authentic world. Authentic smelling, even, given the way his new film shows us Vidya Balan shielding her nose before entering a humid crowd, and the stains of sweat around her armpits as she scampers breathlessly through a rundown government office, fanning herself before her world falls completely to pieces.

Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh is many things at once — a mystery, a drama about identity, a slowburn thriller, a public service admonishment — but it is primarily, well, Bengali. The first Kahaani, set in Calcutta, featured its fair share of Bangla, but this one is in a different league. Some characters speak entirely in Bangla without subtitles (Ghosh judiciously uses words that sound the same, only minus o-sounds, in Hindi), while others say wondrous things like “Gyarah baje nagaad” where Eleven O’Clock is said in Hindi but rounded off with that lethargic Bangla word for ‘thereabouts’, which could make it mean absolutely anything. Poetic, really.

If Hindi cinema is an arrowroot biscuit and Bengaliness the cha it is dipped into, Ghosh’s biscuit teeters perilously on the edge of collapse. Yet, with the expertise of a lifelong double-dunker, the filmmaker pulls it out intact.

It is the dexterity with which Ghosh uses his tools — Bangla, Balan and Bengal — that draws us in as the film starts, before the plot unspools and we’re plunged into a dark thriller. There is a kidnapping, there is a flashback, there is a conveniently detailed diary entry, and there is a brooding cop who looks like he hasn’t slept in months even after we actually see him sleep. It is all gripping stuff — engaging, at any rate — though Ghosh clearly has more fun colouring outside the margins, outside the plot itself. My favourite moment in the film is a mad-eyed beggar laughingly threatening a cop with jail.

With a fine ensemble and solid textural detailing, the film holds our interest as it motors ahead but, like a flimsily glued house of cards, the plot falls apart the moment we think about it. Ghosh’s grip gets far looser post-intermission, when the film falls into predictability — even inevitability — and the villains are exposed as pantomime caricatures whose motivations are contrived and overdone. One character, for instance, exists only to pay tribute to Kill Bill’s Elle Driver.

It doesn’t help that the details appear more loaded with meaning than they are. There is a scene in which Vidya Balan’s character, who we have so far only seen conversing in Hindi, speaks first in fluent Nepali and then restlessly taps her fingernail in what sounds like morse code. We are aware that this character, Durga Rani Singh, has a history and there are many hints to that — is she supercop, assassin on the run, escaped mental patient who is now creepily fixated on one particular child in a schoolful of them? — but none of it emerges, or appears to matter.

Later, during a dramatic showdown when a wife discovers a massive revelation about her husband, he behaves as if he’s broken a wineglass and she should be less upset. “Come on, yaar,” he tells her, cutely chiding her for crying.

Balan, with tremendous commitment to the part, gives us a stirring performance free of vanity or obviousness. She is obviously a gifted performer, but her biggest strength as an actress may well be her knack for winning the audience over; when she gasps, we gasp. The supporting actors are impressive — particularly Kharaj Mukherjee as an all-knowing ignoramus cop memorably called Haldar, Manini Chadha as an attractive policeman’s horny wife, and an actor known for innocence playing far from type — but the big twist in Kahaani 2 is a striking performance from Arjun Rampal.

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Dry, weary and laconic, Rampal plays the investigating policeman and manages to look both hangdog and dignified at once, walking through the film with the gait of a once-fit stud who doesn’t now bother about promotions or pasture. It’s a clean and internalised performance, and Rampal — who was also the best thing in Rock On 2 a couple of weeks ago — deserves a hand.

Set in Calcutta, Chandan Nagar and Kalimpong, Kahaani 2 has the bones of a fine thriller, and I enjoyed Tapan Basu’s murky cinematography, shadowy and quick, leaving a lot of the actual action to our imagination. The idea of a woman refusing to let the truth die is compelling, and Balan is perfectly cast in the lead. Yet the film ultimately rings hollow. Ghosh throws in too much red herring bhaaja and, teasing twists that could have given us some final drama, shies away from a satisfying finish.

There is a fine beat early in the film where Rampal asks a cop for a file to record evidence in, and is told by a very amused subordinate that nothing ever happens in Chandan Nagar. That is perhaps what we should remember while eagerly waiting for cleverness and sleight of hand from Ghosh’s lovely, well-acted but vacant film. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chandan Nagar.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, December 2, 2016

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