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Review: Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

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The film opens with Ranbir Kapoor’s character, Ayan, talking to an interviewer. She commends the singer on the fact that he’s broken through and found a foothold in music, “that too non-film,” and in a couple of lines, he calls his love “aamir” — which is to say the kind that cannot die. It is an atypical choice of word, and a couple of seconds later when we meet young Ayan fumbling around and proving to be a feeble kisser, it is clear that the nuanced usage of the word, the Persian use over the Urdu use, isn’t a part of his vocabulary. At least not yet. Over the course of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, this character learns to feel, to address, and to speak.

Karan Johar’s new film casts Kapoor in that clueless persona the actor has often inhabited, but chooses to hand the reigns of the narrative — and, indeed, of the young man’s heart — to Anushka Sharma, who delivers a performance effervescent enough to win over cynics and yank at their kerchiefs. In fact, between Sharma’s electrifying and unapologetic Alizeh and Aishwarya Rai’s quip-carrying poetess Saba, Johar makes sure we know his women know better. And yet they may not be the better off for it.

This is a mature, relatively intense film and, in many ways, Karan’s least compromised work. There is something humane and naked about the sentiment expressed here, despite the glitz, and it throbs with palpable intensity. It is an emotionally bare film about an entirely unprepared young lover, and the vulnerability feels disarmingly real. It feels almost personal. Karan introduces us to his loquacious leads and lets them do the talking — an awful lot of talking — without feeling the need for extraneous comedy or even supporting characters who aren’t germane to the affairs in the middle. Karan Johar has finally cut loose the extended familial ties; this one is all about loving.

Ayan is a rake, a blissful wastrel with a private jet and little to do, and an eye that sees him impulsively tail women who catch his fancy. He sees Alizeh vogueing energetically on a dancefloor and — after she takes charge, paying for drinks and overhauling his plans — finds himself immediately, understandably besotted. The two are Bollywood-referencing bewaqoof younglings, after all, wealthy beyond worry and drawn to each other’s brand of mad energy. She proclaims that she, like raita, lays herself out because that’s just who she is, and he, perhaps like paapad, has dipped into her lunacy and now longs to dive in.

Both actors are on fire from the start. Kapoor plays the brat brilliantly, his Ayan restless and fitful with misplaced anger and misguided affection. His mask of coolness slips early on — even MDMA makes him wail like a hurt baby — and Sharma’s beguiling Alizeh takes charge, deciding what and where they’ll do. The two have an infectiously giddy dynamic, an immediately crackling chemistry that can’t be denied. It is, thus, a shame that Johar chooses to drown their bubbly banality with an incessant background score that makes it sound like someone in the theatre has left their phone on.

As with all immediately heady chemistry, things get sticky. The two come closer but then we meet Alizeh’s eye-wideningly handsome paramour, which sends Ayan’s world careening into the worst kind of spiral. That said, stomping around an airport after a wedding, looking like Mogambo with a rucksack, Ayan encounters a woman who immediately takes his breath away. This woman, Saba, proceeds to smash back his verbal lobs with practiced ease while he keeps talking about blushing — even when he isn’t.

It is, then, a love rectangle. It just feels more personal. When a cleanly shaved Kapoor preens in front of a mirror, mehndi on his hands and a smile exulting in his own prettiness — with concealer, just this once, masking that scar under his right cheek we see all the time — he looks freshly plucked, stripped by love and utterly open to the guillotine. His optimism feels frightening. On one end is a girl who revels in passing judgement and on the other, a woman so used to compliments that she doesn’t feel the need to acknowledge them, or to be falsely modest. As you might have surmised, he’s hurtling head first into disaster, but we can’t look away.

Johar has improved massively as a storyteller, this film more polished and assured than anything he’s done before. Sure, this is a highly glossy film — and only in a Johar production will people at a headphone party dance in choreographed fashion to the same damn song, and a bag from Shakespeare & Co contain clothes instead of books — but the gloss, like foundational makeup, is there to hold these excruciatingly attractive people and their excruciating problems in place. It suits the world instead of dictating it, and the film looks terrific.

As the princely DJ, Fawad Khan has far too little to do in this film — though even a role with him on-screen throughout the film wouldn’t have justified the ridiculous kerfuffle his casting has caused — but looks perfect for the part. Aishwarya Rai looks stunning as well, but is markedly ill at ease handling unwieldy urdu couplets. Her eyes have helplessness and longing but she lets down well-conceived lines that deserved far better. This is a Julia Roberts type of role, and Ms Rai emerges this film’s feeblest link.

Kapoor is super at being charming but has developed a specialisation in cluelessness, and both sides shine through in this winning, woeful performance. Playing a singer, he embraces syncing mannerisms beautifully — the guy would rule at Dubsmash — and it’s lovely to watch him play off Sharma. He lights up for her, he powers down for her, and the film belongs to the actress who strikingly, come what may, sticks to her guns. Even if all she’s doing is patiently let a weeping boy kiss her on the head. At one point, as he tries inexpertly to drape a saree around her (so that they can roleplay Yashraj-Yashraj) she looks at him wistfully, overcome by a love that is both too strong and yet not strong enough.

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. Thank you, Karan Johar. For this film feels like a sob.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, October 28, 2016

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Review: Neeraj Pandey’s MS Dhoni – The Untold Story

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The first time it is suggested that Mahendra Singh Dhoni try his hand at cricket, he breaks into that grin we know so well. What good is a sport with such small balls, he laughs to a schoolmate, shrugging off the idea. A pre-teen boy playing football at the time, goalkeeping is more his thing — until, that is, the cricket coach wonders if he fears the hard red ball.

He doesn’t.

Neeraj Pandey’s Mahender Singh Dhoni: The Untold Story is an odd biopic, a rousing rags-to-riches story that happens also to be a hagiographical picture of a flawless protagonist. Producing a film about oneself is something we would expect more from Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan than from a sportsperson, and this cricketer-endorsed version of the Dhoni story steps forward with singular intent: to deify its already-deified hero. (Any rating for this film, thus, must be accompanied by an asterisk — or, given the amount of undisguised product placement, a sponsor logo.)

This celebration, however, it accomplishes rather effectively. Pandey focusses on the early, raw Dhoni years far more than he does on the more unseemly later dotted with scandal and shade, and while all this gives us is a rags-to-riches story about a sincere young man destined to win and born to lead, it is still an engaging and passionate enough tale to fill our cricket-partial stomachs, one we can nod happily along to. The film doesn’t challenge our perception as much as amiably pat it into place, yet — thanks largely to a remarkably committed performance by the leading man — the film scores like a champ.

It feels at times like we’re watching a highlights package of a game we’ve already watched and loved, but sometimes that is satisfying enough.

The film opens with the 2011 World Cup. We see the back of the captain’s head, as he, with his trademark Nadal-esque sleevelessness, watches a wicket fall and pulls his Number Seven jersey on, choosing imperiously to take charge instead of letting the padded-up batter walk out to play. We all know what happened next, an unbelievably timed innings that climaxed with a shot — one shot I wrote an essay about — that many of us can never forget.

Pandey smartly pays more attention to what came before any of us were watching. To the young boy begging his mother for a Sachin Tendulkar poster. To the puritan annoyed at a friend drinking beer. To the thinker who calculates the time in which he needs to finish an exam in order to reach a cricket game. Walking out to join a more experienced batsman with a steep target on the board, Dhoni asks if the other guy can do it if he gives him the strike. The batsman says he’ll try. “If it has to be tried, I might as well try it myself,” says Dhoni, full of pluck and strokeplay.

Playing one of the most famous men in the country, Sushant Singh Rajput doesn’t put a foot wrong. Literally. Right from that walk, his body language as Dhoni is immaculate, and he nails everything: the swagger, the trademark shots, the oddly effete nail-biting manner. These slavish Dhoni imitations are superlative enough, but Rajput — an accomplished and restrained performer — fleshes out this character of superhuman perfection and turns him into someone real, someone worth believing in and cheering for.

The actor makes us believe in Dhoni’s hunger, in his earnestness, in the way he embraces responsibility — in an inversion of the superhero cliché, Dhoni appears to have realised that taking on great responsibility will lead him to greater power.

The most pleasant aspect of the film is the way it shows friends and family rally around Dhoni and believe unflinchingly in their boy. Set in Ranchi — with pink chart-paper school projects on blue and green walls, rubbing shoulders with religious imagery and Sportstar posters — the film is about the tribe of believers it takes to lift any of us truly high. Dhoni’s family, his coach, his friends, his teammates… He might not have arrived yet, but he travels with a pack of supporters, at times a motorcycled convoy. A Dhontourage, if I may.

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.

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The film gives us many moments of Dhoni rising to the occasion — underscored by brief montages of hapless, helpless bowlers —  but too few of Dhoni struggling. It is as if batting came too naturally and effortlessly to him. Tragically, we don’t get to watch him, the canniest and most boldly strategic captain we’ve had, plot out any of his unconventionally sharp decisions. There are two romances — with well-cast girls — but, like the poor songs, these hamper the narrative and slow it down. It is only Rajput’s valiant performance that keeps us believing — especially as he stands in front of a mirror and self-consciously practices precisely how wide his grin needs to be.

In a bright move, the film uses a lot of actual television footage, ForrestGumping Rajput’s face on Dhoni’s body and letting him advise Lakshmipathy Balaji and celebrate with Harbhajan Singh instead of casting lookalikes for these parts we know so well. The first time we see Sachin Tendulkar, for example, the film gives him what is sometimes (and fittingly) referred to as God’s View, turning the narrative camera into the Sachin character and letting Dhoni walk up to him for an autograph. It’s quite a moment.

That, in fact, is part of a greater moment, a scene where a pretty girl meets Dhoni on a flight and — while awestruck by other cricketers — thinks nothing of MS, who she doesn’t yet know. It is a fleeting scene but teases the idea of a truly good film. We could have had something special, something close to Rush, a proper sports film with conflict and heart and internal struggle. Rajput steps forward and tonks it out of the park, but it would mean much more if this wasn’t an exhibition match on a conveniently doctored pitch.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, September 30, 2016

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Review: Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink

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An old man stares ferociously at a girl in the park.

The girl — white Apple earbuds in place, out on a jog, sweaty and out of breath as she does her stretches — stares back, unblinking. She looks wary of the stare but not afraid of it.

It is an uncomfortable moment with the starer boring a hole with his eyes and the girl confronting it confidently with her own, and, coming as it does rather early in Pink, I began to wonder about a possible connection, a relationship, an estrangement. It is because the girl appears to know the stare so well. As the movie rolled on and it became clear there was no connection between the two at the time, I realised the reason she knew the stare is because all girls do.

All girls. Pink, directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, isn’t about heroines or crusaders or activisty girls who know how to generate social media buzz. It is, simply and effectively, a film about girls and the brush with which they are often painted in this country. Three girls go to a rock concert on the outskirts of Delhi — the de facto badlands in current Hindi cinema — and find themselves in a situation with three boys. We aren’t shown what happened. The film adroitly opens on a black screen with the voices of a pleasant situation in the background — a male voice protests the very idea of a last drink, and so on — before things go awry.

We see the girls run home and the boys run to hospital. One of them has been struck and could lose an eye. The girls are nervous, skittish, fearing for their lives and, tellingly, apologetic about the incident. The fear is real on both sides. Flatmates housed in a quieter Delhi suburb, the girls close the blinds and conversation between them is highly stilted, till the three declare it time to smile and attempt to tickle themselves into normalcy. But normalcy, as we see, isn’t as easily amused.

The film is remarkably well-cast. Taapsee Pannu is Meenal, the one who seems to have impulsively caused it all and keeps blubbering sorry. Kirti Kulhari is Falak, the reasonable, mature one who wants to avoid trouble at all cost. Andrea Tariang is Andrea, a sweet girl frequently and realistically described as ‘North-Eastern,’ as if that is all that counts. There is nothing unusual or exaggerated in these girls or the bond they share, and as the opposing lawyer (played by an arch Piyush Mishra) continues to brand them ‘women of low character,’ you see them crumble, not rise. It’s devastating.

The reason it hits so hard is because the film is made with a fair bit of restraint, and all the detailing appears free of gimmickry. 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.

Pink puts the girls — and, by extension, the audience — through the wringer. There is nothing pleasant about the way we see them broken down by the patriarchy, threatened by a lout who wasn’t even there at the rock show, but, desperate to prove his ballsiness, wants to take charge to terrorise and punish the girls. How dare they.

This is when the old man steps up. Amitabh Bachchan, a retired lawyer suffering from bipolar disorder, takes up cudgels on behalf of the girls, delivering courtroom blows with pugilistic grace. Like we know from Prakash Mehra movies, into each life some Bachchan must fall. The girls hang on to him with incredulous desperation, and he bats for them with all he has. At one point Meenal hangs by Bachchan’s elbow, words entirely unnecessary.

Bachchan towers through Pink — the way he bellows “et cetera” is alone worth having the heavy-hitter at play — but there are softer moments like one where he appears to have dozed off in court, or where he lays his head by his convalescent wife’s bedside and needs his hair ruffled and his conviction validated. It is a role that goes from saying nothing to talking too much, and that gear-shift is managed impressively by the actor, even though the film dismisses his mental condition quite conveniently as it goes on.

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Other hiccups include Pannu’s freshly painted collarbone tattoo that gleams wetly throughout the proceedings even as the boy’s injuries fade away, and Bachchan’s law-library made up of books with comically unlabelled spines, yet these — like the poorly chosen name of the film — are but niggles. This is a solid, terse film that makes its points in mainstream fashion with an appropriate lack of subtlety. Pink is a barnstormer — and it doesn’t pull its punches.

All three girls, as said, are excellent. Pannu has the film on her shoulders and she is consistently, impressively credible, Kulhari is marvellous especially when — belatedly exploding — she shockingly changes the ‘what if’ question to a ‘so what if’ argument, and Tariang doesn’t hit a false note, grounding the film in both reality and vulnerability. Angad Bedi is spot-on as the entitled, injured scoundrel, and Vijay Varma is scene-stealingly brilliant at expressing the casually misogynistic ruthlessness we now tragically but inevitably associate with the Delhi mindset. Vinod Nagpal is, as always, terrific as a trembling but brave landlord, and Mamta Malik makes her Haryanvi cop memorable.

The entire film is hard to shake off, and Chowdhury must be applauded for his creative choices. At one point an objection is made and Bachchan — not unlike many of us — accepts it by saying “fair enough,” instead of taking it head on. When was the last time you saw a reasonable lawyer? But after scaring the bejeezus out of us — out of even Meenal, who doesn’t realise or remember just how far from sorry she should be — the film abandons realism and reaches out for hope.

Pink eventually goes from a nightmare to a film of wish-fulfilment, because not just do we have Bachchan as a stupefyingly articulate orator scolding witnesses with panache — “I object… to this awkward performance. He is overacting.” — but we have Dhritiman Chatterjee playing a judge who understands rhetoric.

If that entire courtroom drama feels too good to be true, that’s because, soberingly enough, it is. Amitabh Bachchan isn’t around to stand by our women. We should be.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published, Rediff, September 16, 2016

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Review: Nitya Mehra’s Baar Baar Dekho

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I wonder if Katrina Kaif is good at poker.

In Baar Baar Dekho, Kaif wears an all-encompassing blankness, looking like a striking but not altogether realistic waxwork. She’s a vision, albeit one whose accent-soaked Hindi — more unbearable than ever — gets in the way of possible appreciation, and I wager she’d be an unnerving opponent on a card table, one both stealthy and distracting.

Cast in a film, however, her blessings are less obvious. Particularly with a co-star not known for any acting talent either, in a film where a feeble script is built on constant, relentless revelations with artlessly expository dialogues. Characters consistently point out the obvious, labelling things for the audience: one points to a Hanuman statue and calls it Hanuman, while a woman at a Thailand resort points out a Welcome To Thailand sign when a guest — who may well be asking which floor he’s on — asks where he is. Siddharth Malhotra, who plays protagonist Jai Verma, stands around at a lavish pre-wedding party and tells his bride-to-be that he could have spent all this money on vedic mathematics research instead.

Right. That is a creative decision in the same league as Chitrangada Singh teaching Economics at Oxford in the execrable Desi Boyz. Worse, perhaps, since Jai is a real piece of work.

The most imbecilic hero I remember in awhile, Jai is a math professor perpetually wondering what is going on. A slackjawed dullard, he walks around in a duh state, asking silly questions trying to keep up with his surroundings. Granted, director Nitya Mehra frequently (and inexplicably) pulls the rug out from under his feet, with a half-baked plot which is two parts A Christmas Carol and one part Groundhog Day, but there is no excuse for a hero this dismal and lunkheaded in any romantic film.

We have to believe that this guy is a math-obsessed academic, and that his lady Diya (Kaif) is turned on by hearing numbers multiplied quickly, the way Jamie Lee Curtis melted for the Italian tongue in A Fish Called Wanda. Nothing in this movie adds up, but the gist is that Jai — annoyingly tentative and indecisive about marriage, in-laws and the woman in his life — keeps getting jolted ahead into the future where things change and he remains the same stupid self, struggling to catch up. It is all rather excruciating, despite the glossy settings and the casually futuristic detailing, largely because Mehra labours her point endlessly and her tubelight hero never seems to learn a thing.

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. This is a hero who calls his pregnant wife fat and then proceeds to make the car drive to hospital all about himself, later preferring to accost a pandit in a corridor rather than be there to hold his hand.

And then… he calls himself a genius.

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Geniuses are in entirely short supply when it comes to this production, with a boisterous Ram Kapoor proving the least objectionable element. Comedian Rohan Joshi is around — carrying a briefcase into a hospital only because he wants people to think he’s a banker — and, without the slightest chance to try out his comic chops, looks incredulous at the film he’s in. Perhaps he’s distracted by the music, by songs like Kho Gaye Hum Kahan which sound shamelessly like Karen O’s The Moon Song played through an Amit Trivedi filter. Characters go through a lot in this film — the Groundhog Day section of the script is the most tedious and the most contrived — but none more than the audience.

Diya, portrayed by Katrina as high-strung and shrill, is — by my reckoning — the most patient and understanding wife in the world. Married to an utter idiot, her outbursts are entirely justified, and come what may, she does put up with him and consents to loving him. Poor thing. And yet, even at the end of this unbearable film when things are finally, belatedly being set right, the fool husband complains about her impossible temper. As if it’s her fault. Poor show, Ms Mehra. If you could go back in time to set this film right, make something else instead.

Rating: 1 star

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First published Rediff, 9 September, 2016

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Review: Remo D’Souza’s A Flying Jatt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 26, 2016

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Review: Rohit Dhawan’s Dishoom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, July 29, 2016

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

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

The Good

The Top Films

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

The Top Performers

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

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

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

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

Finally, some sensitivity

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

All hail the new dude

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

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The Bad

The worst films

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

The Sunny Leone situation

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

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

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

A year of awful makeup.

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

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First published Rediff, June 2930, 2016

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