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Review: Pa Ranjith’s Kabali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, July 22, 2016

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

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

The Good

The Top Films

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

The Top Performers

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

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

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

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

Finally, some sensitivity

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

All hail the new dude

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

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The Bad

The worst films

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

The Sunny Leone situation

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

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

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

A year of awful makeup.

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

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First published Rediff, June 2930, 2016

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Review: Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, June 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published Rediff, June 15, 2016

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Review: Duncan Jones’ Warcraft

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War? Check. Craft? Check.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 1 star

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First published Rediff, June 10, 2016

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Review: Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

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The Nice Guys reminded me of a terrific Playboy joke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Four stars

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First published Rediff, June 3, 2016

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Review: Ram Gopal Varma’s Veerappan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, May 27, 2016

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