Sunday, July 31, 2016

36. Dishoom

There are some actor combos that become just dynamite when they come together. One of the best examples of this is what Beth Watkins calls Shashitabh. Of course, these two people were huge stars and great actors but their on-screen chemistry was just magical. They presented such a fine balance of acting that even bad scripts became watchable.
Of course, the combos need not only consist of stars. In Hollywood, Bud Spencer and Terence Hill come to mind. They started as non-entities and even the peak of their stardom was nothing in the greater context of Hollywood but their films were definitely greater than the sum of their parts.
When I talk about star combos, I think stars have to be equal (or at least, similar) in stature for the chemistry to be effective. For example, Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi can form a great hero-sidekick pair (as did Aamir Khan and Raj Zutshi in a few films) but the star status of the two were just too far away to be perceived as a 'duo'. Basically, Aamir-Salman is a duo in my book but not Govinda-Shakti Kapoor.
In Bollywood, star egos and salaries have effectively put paid to the hopes of having two big stars in the same film, as equals. Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan did a few films in the 1990s, playing disparate characters, showing some good comic timing and an enjoyable chemistry but they never became a franchise or even close to the number of films - say - Shashitabh did.

Anyway, the point is that John Abraham and Varun Dhawan show promise to become an unlikely but effective 'actor duo' in Dishoom. They have similar star statuses and opposing images. John plays the khadoos police officer well (because it fully utilises that one expression he has). And Varun is perfect as the lovable rogue, smiling a little too much and not going out of the slapstick character ever.
Dishoom is one of those crazy-ass plots of Bollywood where every twist is just an excuse to show the actor flex something or the actress to drop something. "Two policemen rescue an Indian cricketer in 36 hours before a final against Pakistan" is all that you need to know and no, nothing is a spoiler in this one. You didn't expect the Virat Kohli equivalent to get killed by terrorists and India bringing Sachin back from retirement, did you?
David Dhawan's two sons - Rohit as director and Varun as actor - prove that the apples haven't fallen far from the tree as they pull out every trick from the Dhawan playbook and give it a modern twist. Cricketers Mohinder Amarnath, Rameez Raja and Atul Wassan make brief appearances. A Sushma Swaraj-lookalike is the political figurehead who give the carte blanche for the mayhem. Item numbers are thrown here and there. Non-sequiturs abound and old favourites (like Satish Kaushik) pop up every now and then.
Varun Dhawan is hilarious as the bumbling cop. Be it uttering inane lines with aplomb ("Arre Bradman, tu toh Byomkesh ban gaya!") or doing extreme physical comedy (standing on two bikes a la Ajay Devgn as his crotch gets whipped repeatedly - don't ask!), he looks good for a string of such outrageous roles. Dishoom itself looks good to become a long-standing franchise. Which is great because it will keep John and Varun away from films like No Smoking and Badlapur.

[Frivolous Footnote: Wonder why it took so long for a Hindi film to be named after its signature audi effect. Maybe, the sequel of Dishoom will be called Tarantara!]

[Frivolous Explanation: Why did I use a picture of Nargis Fakhri after going on and on about John-Varun? To appeal to the 61% of Indian internet users, who are male. #sexist #sorry]

35. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

In one scene of the movie - taking place in an Indian Maharaja's place - a sumptuous banquet is laid out. The first course is a coiled python, with a surprise. As you cut open the snake, smaller snakes (snakelets?) slither out and Indian royals greedily put them in their mouths. This is followed by some sort of caramelised bugs and the dessert is chilled money brains served in what looks like monkey heads. When the American heroine asks for something simple like soup, bloody eyeballs stare back from the pink liquid.
As I understand, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was banned in India at the time of release and even during the shooting, the then government refused permission unless they read the script and/or the right to censor scenes shot in India. After seeing the banquet scene described above, I could see why. Nothing justifies a ban of a book or movie but this scene comes as close to justifying a ban as any.

Even if we discount the blithe stereotyping, Temple of Doom is a rather slow and boring film by Indiana Jones standards.
The opening sequence is chaotic (as it should be) but not thrilling. And it is completely devoid of reason, which is different from all the other films because they lay down a suitably outlandish reason for the archaeologist to get involved into the mayhem in the first place.
The thrills can be seen from a mile away and the usual gross-out-with-creepy-crawlies technique is so badly overdone that it grates after a point. The climax is way too long and, except for a collapsing bridge sequence, seems rather boring.

The one bright spot in the film is Amrish Puri.
Amrish-ji brings the best of Bollywood OTT dramatics into play and reduces Harrison Ford into a sweaty wimp. His Mola Ram is deliciously evil and when he bulges his eyes and utters the cult "Kaali, mujhe shakti de... tere aage bali chadhaoon..." lines, you cannot but cheer him on.
Amrish Puri is tall - but only by Indian standards - but in most scenes, he seems like a hulking presence eminently capable of ripping everyone's hearts out with his bare hands. It just shows how a good actor can lift a mediocre script and get all eyes to be trained on him despite the presence of bigger stars.
After the film, Spielberg said, "Amrish is my favorite villain—the best the world has ever produced and ever will!” I concur wholeheartedly and can only wonder why he didn't manage to get a thriving career as a villain in Hollywood.

Frivolous Footnote: Mola Ram's headgear seems to have been reused by Kabir Bedi in Mohenjo Daro while his red vat of acid/fire was later borrowed by Mogambo! You could say Temple of Doom has contributed a fair bit to Indian cinema.

For more trivia on the film, check this out

34. Gone Baby Gone

A little girl is kidnapped. The police swing into action, led by an officer who lost his own daughter a few years back. The girl's family hires a detective team of two to boost the search efforts. The police grudgingly accept the interloping investigators after they provide some vital clues (thanks to one of them growing up in the neighbourhood and cultivated some shady contacts during his earlier police career).
Sounds like a standard issue kidnapping/mystery thriller, emotional investment increased due to the little girl at the centre of it. Gone Baby Gone starts exactly like hundreds of films of the genre, improved significantly by the crackling dialogues and the fast buildup of events. As it hurtles towards a climax, twists and turns abound.
Still firmly in the same genre.

Where Gone Baby Gone breaks away is the final twist and the decision Casey Affleck takes at that point. Anything more I write here could spoil the ending and I will desist. I would urge everybody to watch the film - especially if you are a parent.
And come back to answer (in a simple yes or no) this question: If faced with a similar situation as Affleck, would you do the same? 

33. O Kadhal Kanmani

We have seen this format so many times... a modern couple don't believe in marriage and just want to live together and be 'friends with benefits' before they go on their separate paths to successful careers. They promise to have no attachments to each other, never to nag like married people do, never to put heart above head. You know this is not going to work... right from the beginning. And it doesn't. It could get damn boring, you know?

O Kadhal Kanmani is living, thriving proof of what a master storyteller brings to the table.
Beyond the brilliant music of AR Rahman, beyond the non-cliched Bombay as setting, beyond the love art direction and even beyond the natural acting of all concerned is the wonderful script of OK Kanmani. The sequence of events and the dialogues are both wonderful, both done by Mani Ratnam.
I am somewhat familiar with Tamil and I could catch the crackle of the banter in Tamil more than a few times and felt the subtitles - though competent and error-free - did not quite match up.
I loved the casual way in which the lead couple talked about sex and living together, how their work (video game design and architecture) smoothly became a part of the flow and how the old-new conflicts played out without filmi cliches.
Even in Mani Ratnam's earlier films - Saathiya and Yuva, for example - these themes have been explored but they seem fresh every time. The train rides of Saathiya and bike rides of Yuva come back here, like playful nods to the earlier avatars.  

Dulqer Salman has a strong screen presence and Nithya Menon out-bubbles Preity Zinta in her prime in the bubbly game. But I'd be shortchanging her if I kept it at that as she is very good in the emotional scenes too. Prakash Raj - as the bank manager turned landlord - is amazing as the devoted husband to a wife (Leela Samson) who is slowly slipping into Alzheimer's. He gets the character - with all its tics - perfectly.

You cannot review OK Kanmani without mentioning the songs. They are brilliant, bursting with energy at one level and slowing down at another. AR Rahman is the only composer who gives me earworms in languages I don't understand. OK Kanmani's Mental manathil is one such. For several days at a stretch, I listened to this song on loop.
Here... you do too!

Frivolous Footnote: Shaad Ali (who made Mani-sir's Alai Payuthey into Saathiya) is remaking this one too. Produced by Karan Johar, the official remake will star Siddharth Roy Kapur and Shraddha Kapoor and seems like a huge hit on the way. Except I am not able to get myself excited over a film called OK Jaanu. Ugh.   

32. Main Aur Charles

Charles Sobhraj was this charming Frenchman whose victims were charmed by him before they got conned or killed. After a killing spree in Southeast Asia (remember Bikini killer?), he came to and was arrested in India. He made himself a cosy nook in Tihar jail (through across the board bribery) and was passing his sentence in peace when he broke into national consciousness with a daring jailbreak. He drugged pretty much the entire jail staff and literally walked out of jail free. Even before the nation could pick up their collective jaw from the floor, he was recaptured and brought back to prison, where he spent an extended sentence for the jailbreak.

I remember reading about his jailbreak and past escapades with breathless excitement when it happened in 1986. I still remember the name of the police officer who arrested him (Madhukar Zende) and an approximation of the caputre (he walked up to Sobhraj and said "Hello, Charles"). This was our generation's first brush with a glamourous criminal, the kind we'd soon encounter in Sidney Sheldon's books. That he killed, a string of innocent tourists for their money in SE Asia and was attempting to do the same in India, seemed inconsequential to the cruel teenage mind.

Main Aur Charles, therefore, sounded like a very interesting premise to me. A smooth operator silently killing through the swinging 1970s and 1980s was mouthwatering, to say the least. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't redeem its promise and plods slowly - or maybe, uneventfully - through the sequence of events.
His escape from Thailand was far from dramatic and his jailbreak even less so. There are sexy women falling all over him and yet, there is no erotic charge in any of the scenes. It's a shame because the period is meticulously created through the clothes, cars, music, locations and so on. Randeep Hooda delivers a great performance both in looks (where his eyes and skin tone are altered) and diction (where he puts on a French accent). Despite all that, I was dropping off every once in a while during the movie.
The only thing that worked was the remix of Jab chhaye mera jadoo (the Lootmaar song) that becomes one of the rare RD Burman compositions that improved on remixing. Here, listen to both the original and the remix.

31. Pancham Unmixed

This documentary has been around for some time and any RD fan worth his salt has seen at least bits and pieces, if not the whole thing. The magic of RD - his near-parental love for his musicians, his friendships, his inspirations, his highs, his lows, his fan base and most important, his genius - is brought out brilliantly.

What I loved most is that the film took a particular song/film/era and went to a wide range of people to explore it. A star talked about their reactions when they performed or first heard the song. His musicians talked about how a lazy guitar strumming became the leitmotif. A producer talked about how the song fit the brief. A lyricist talked about finding the right word or how a long drive led to the final song. A close friend recounted his emotions at the life stage when the song was composed. And then, a fan talked about how the song changed his life.
And the fan base not only comprised of the homesick NRI listening to a CD on his car stereo. It also had people like Vishal Bharadwaj, Shantanu Moitra and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.

I always feel a good documentary works like a fictional film... there is a rise, there is a peak and there is a fall before our protagonist wins in the end.
Pancham Unmixed brings out this story of RD's life where he started off as the half-panted pipsqueak son of SD Burman to a top composer before his music and health both took their toll and brought him down with a thud. RD Burman didn't go out quietly into the night and signed off with a bang. Maybe a bit too early because he wasn't proclaimed a genius in his lifetime. Probably all the new instruments and strange sounds confused that generation.
As a famous song goes, "Duniya mein logon ko, dhokha kabhi ho jaata hai..." 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

30. Brahman Naman

A team of four quizzers have booze only to puke, approach girls only to get rejected, try for sex only to end up masturbating. This is as accurate and non-judgemental a description of Brahman Naman as I could manage.
One of them is the clear leader of the pack – Naman – who is also a Brahmin supremacist and an absolute jerk to boot. He is crass, rude, ungrateful, pretentious and incorrigibly horny. Nothing wrong with any of these as traits of a movie’s central character. 
Except that each of these traits are so grotesquely exaggerated that they don’t make sense after a point. And the film – one I was looking forward to, as an ex-quizzer – just didn’t work for me. I felt repulsed at some of the scenes but I will ignore that as a personal reaction to something I don’t agree with.

Quizzers – or geeks of any persuasion – are supposed to be obsessed with alcohol and sex. Their interactions with women are supposed to be fraught with nervousness and/or aggression. Misogyny is rampant in quizzing circles. Snobbery is common and meritocracy sometimes reaches absurd levels. Investing a band of quizzers with these characteristics is a natural thing to do but I can’t imagine how horribly wrong they have got the characters and the milieu despite going for the stereotypes.
A quizmaster will never debar a team from a quiz because they ate and drank too much at a previous quiz. It’s a different matter he wouldn’t have the authority either.
No quizzer would ever admit to be “preparing for quizzes” as Naman does. Not even while joking, not even to avoid the worst kind of chipku. You just don’t.
They get the facts right. For example, Royal Challenge is mentioned as an aspirational drink of the mid-1980s. But not the mood. A random student (played by standup comic Biswa Kalyan Rath) describes his sex fantasies in front of a group of random classmates, one of whom happens to be a girl he doesn’t know. Bit of a stretch in the 1980s, no?

So, is this the biggest grouse I have with Brahman Naman? That they get the mood/setting completely wrong and show quizzers – a species I am quite fond of – as horny assholes?
Well, no.
My biggest grouse is that the questions used in the film’s quizzes are alarmingly easy.
The last two questions in the opening quiz – that propels Naman’s Bangalore University team to join the national finals of a quiz – are so easy that Neil O’Brien wouldn’t include them in his prelims. I am commenting on only them since they are the two questions in the film that had a shred of workoutability in them. The overwhelming majority of the questions asked in the film were just of the “Who was…” and “What is…” kinds. To indicate quizzing proficiency, the characters indulge in pseudo-intellectual banter (where one quotes a poet and the other names the source) and lose points because they pronounce answers wrong.

And at the end of it, we get a film that is ‘of little or no value’.


Frivolous Footnote: In a sequence completely unrelated to the film, Sid Mallya plays himself – a spoilt brat hosting booze parties at his mansion in Bangalore. Or since this was set in the 1980s, he was probably playing his father. 

Complimentary Footnote: Netflix has done a great job of making this their first Original offering in India. The demographic who will be interested in this genre is 'bang-on' the demographic who will also be interested in Netflix. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

29. Raman Raghav 2.0

From the moment Nawazuddin Siddiqui appears on the screen with a deep scar coming from the top of his forehead all the way down to his nose, he owns Raman Raghav 2.0. The man’s presence as the serial killer – no, that’s not a spoiler – is as magnetic as it is repulsive. Anurag Kashyap seems to have constructed him as the embodiment of everything that is despicable in human nature. Physical, mental and sexual violence come to him naturally and the police are no match for him. In fact, the police force is shown either as deviant (Vicky Kaushal as the drug-addict police officer) or benign (soft spoken, roly poly officers unable to give chase to a criminal).

The first half of RR2.0 is like a Dementor's kiss. It squeezes out all hope and fear runs through like a slithering snake in the grass. You have no control over it, you know it is around and you resignedly wait for it to strike. The second half is somewhat of a relief as the hunter and the hunted circle each other to an unexpected climax. While it is a relief from the viewer’s perspective, I felt the storytelling weakened a bit. Thank God for that!
Broken up into eight episodes, RR2.0 is a masterclass in the making of thrillers. In the first half, The Sister episode is twenty two minutes of pure terror. You don’t know what is going to happen. After a point, you don’t know what to feel. Sickening violence – both physical and mental – hit you in stomach, even inconsequential sequences building towards the climax.

In a way, RR2.0 is a classic chase thriller. A serial killer is on the loose and a cop is after him. How it plays out is where it makes a departure.
The hero is not like regular heroes. He is a misogynistic, drug addicted, commitment-phobic asshole with whom women can't but fall in love. The serial killer (seemingly) has none of the intellectual method of a Hannibal Lecter or the smoothness that we see in American TV shows. The cop snorts cocaine at a crime scene, with dead bodies lying around. The criminal kills a woman and sings Sheila ki jawaani as a lullaby to her child. The grungy, dirty, shady parts of Mumbai form an unusual backdrop where we flit between nightclubs, dance bars, slums, sweatshops, claustrophobic 2BHKs and even cramped lifts as unlikely scenes of action.

Raman Raghav is an iconic figure in Indian popular culture. By putting that name in the title, a certain kind of expectation is raised and RR2.0 uses that expectation very cleverly to create suspense and the eventual denouement. It helps all the departments – art, makeup, casting, music and above all, writing – perform magnificently and absolutely to the brief. And in the end, RR2.0 doesn’t just kick ass. It kicks you in the balls.

Interesting tidbit: The promos for RR2.0 are different in a way because they have scenes that don't feature in the final film but give glimpses into the two main characters' psyche. Check out this, this, this and this in which the serial killer is finishing off people and this one in which the police officer recounts his life of crime.

Frivolous Footnote: Mukesh Chhabra, Anurag Kashyap’s regular casting director, plays the loan shark who provides a vital lead to reach Raman.

Slight Spoiler Question: Why did the sister not call in the police when she came out of the house?

28. Udta Punjab

Within the first few minutes of Udta Punjab, it becomes quite clear as to why a section of the political class wanted the film banned. And why their opponents wanted it released. In the course of one headily written and performed song when the titles appear, the drug menace of Punjab becomes crystal clear. And the rather absurd attempts to censor/ban the film start making sense. But even without the political angle – that surely peaked curiosity in the film – Udta Punjab is a sometimes soaring, mostly gut-wrenching film.

Four stories come together. A cop (Diljit Dosanjh) on the payrolls of the drug mafia, for whom the menace hits home suddenly. A lady doctor (Kareena Kapoor Khan) fighting a losing battle to treat and rehabilitate addicts. A Bihari migrant labourer (Alia Bhatt) who gets sucked into the cesspool through a coincidence. And a popstar (Shahid Kapur) who can’t compose or perform without the highs.
Alia is brilliant in her performance that has a fairly radical physical transformation as well. Shahid plays the over-the-top buffoon with aplomb, replicating some of the raw physical energy we saw in Haider. Diljit Dosanjh doesn’t have scope for too much of a performance but his looks and poise indicate why he is a major star in Punjab. Kareena has a somewhat angelic, moral-high-ground kind of role and comes across as the only unreal character in the mix.
The character actors – Diljit’s brother Balli, his ruthless boss, Satish Kaushik as Shahid’s manager/uncle, Shahid’s cousin – are all superb, getting the accent, body language and sensibilities down pat.

What works for Udta Punjab is the complete absence of sugarcoating in showing the scary lives of the protagonists. The brutality of the mafia is unnerving and the jovial Sikhs we see in cliché-ridden Hindi cinema are suddenly doing alarmingly cruel stuff. The yellow mustard fields give way to grungy rooms, crowded jail cells and ruins where addicts are digging hypodermic syringes in their veins. That, with the added impact of raw dialogues, just kills you.

One thing I found very interesting was the angle of freedom of speech in the film where the popstar is jailed specifically for hosting a drug-addled party and generally for misleading the youth by glamourizing drugs. I wondered if this is against FoE of a creative person, exactly what the film was accused of doing. Shahid’s Tommy Singh wrote odes to acid trips and white powders, which the youth lapped up and he was accused of promoting drug usage. He could, of course, claim that he was merely warning the people against drugs. Even the CBFC and assorted political netas justified their cuts by claiming that film promoted/glamourized drug usage.
The other thing is the misguided notion of the cultural police that filmstars and music stars ‘mislead’ the gullible youth – showing them the path of substance abuse, sexual crimes etc. In one scene, this myth is debunked where Tommy Singh’s fans turn against him when he starts saying things he doesn’t want to hear.

Overall, one of the better films of the year. Like an acid trip, Udta Punjab takes you to unimaginable highs and plunges you to depressing lows – after which you end up wanting more but are scared of it as well. There couldn’t have been a better anti-drugs film than this one.

[Frivolous Footnote: Hindi films on the drug menace have mostly shown a sanitized version of it.
Sridevi in Jaanbaaz was turned into an addict by the villains and finally killed by an overdose, though her chubby frame and made up face betrayed none of the ravages brought about by drug abuse. Priyanka Chopra in Fashion was supposed to be dabbling in recreational drugs as was Kangana Ranaut but that track was never the focus of the film. Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 does a bloody good job of showing what casual and sustained drug abuse means.]

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

27. Balak Palak

Produced by Riteish Deshmukh (of all people!), Balak Palak is a sweet exploration of growing up in the 1980s seen through the eyes of four teenagers in small-town Maharshatra. The initials (BP) allude to the central enterprise of the kids in the film – that of watching a BP (blue picture), after being egged on by a slightly older friend.
The film reminds you of those clumsy days when you smuggled in cassettes of recommended movies, in school bags and under t-shirts having managed to discreetly rent it from a video parlour, averting the stares of aunties and their kids. It brings a smile to your face when you remember an enterprising soul who had smuggled out an entire VCR from his home (wrapped in a slightly damp yellow towel) for a group screening. The consequent ‘awakening’ that often made girlfriends and boyfriends out of mere friends is done quite well and is very real. You start noticing newly married couples quietly excusing themselves from social functions and now have a fair sense of what they are doing.
The film skews a little towards the reactions of the boys, one of whom falls in love with a buxom older neighbor and even professes his love for her. His awkward attempts to impress his crush seem to have happened to someone in your immediate vicinity, if not you directly. It would have been interesting if the film had tried to trace the fantasies and thoughts of the girls too. After they ‘get to know things’, the boys start chasing girls and the girls develop a revulsion for the ‘thing’. Various versions of this theme have come in films and BP follows the same template. They could have done it from the girls’ POV and broken fresh ground.
However, instead of wishing what BP could have been, it would be better to laud BP for what it is. The four lead players act brilliantly, with maturity and restraint. The awkwardness, the innocence, the frustration and the awakening are brought out superbly for which a lot of credit must go to the director (and writer) Ravi Jadhav.
What didn’t work for me at all is the rather preachy ending – a veritable moral science class – where a sermonizing uncle makes a long-winded attempt to make children bond with their parents. The cluelessness of parents in understanding their children is well depicted in the film and one wishes this last bit of unreal ‘lecturing’ could have been left out.
At the end of the day, Balak Palak is a very good film on the growing up years and how they shape the rest of our relationships. Hormones do get in the way of friendships. Sometimes, they end up in a mess. And sometimes, it is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.