Monday, December 25, 2017

Moments from the movies: 2017

In Avinash Das’ Anaarkali Of Aarah, Hiraman (Ishtiyak Khan) recognizes stage singer Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar) in a dhaba and shows her the first real kindness she’s seen in a long time. He shoos off a few insistent fans, introduces himself, insists that she eat something. I’m not hungry, she lies. His reply is weird and beautiful: “Hamaare liye na sahi, desh ke liye kha lijiye (if not for my sake, have something for the sake of the country).”

Saurabh Shukla, the judge in Jolly LLB 2, telling the lawyers in his court: "I know you all call me teddy bear."

Dance as apology (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan), as vengeance (Anaarkali of Aarah), as false hope (Meri Pyaari Bindu).

A bomb-maker goes about his work, tying stone with string, his arms around the trunk of a tree. His explanation: “If this explodes right now, only my hands would be damaged. Or else my face and everything else will be wrecked.” Violence refracted through the prism of the comic and the everyday: a typical scene from Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Angamaly Diaries.

In Jagga Jasoos, the simple pleasures of the which-phone-is-ringing gag.

The most infuriating scene of the year, in Shashank Khaitan’s Badrinath Ki Dulhania. After Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt) runs out on Badri (Varun Dhawan) on their wedding day, he tracks her down in Singapore. As she’s walking alone one night, he comes up from behind, puts a hand over her mouth, picks her up with the help of a friend, throws her in the trunk of his car and drives off. It’s hard to imagine Vaidehi not thinking that she’s going to be raped or killed. Turns out Badri is just another male protagonist acting out, and it’s Vaidehi who has to say sorry and apparently be grateful that Badri isn’t planning to murder her, as his father sent him there to do. Badri may be a product of his toxic environment but to minimize the seriousness of his actions—he’s soon forgiven, and moves into her apartment—is to endorse the film’s view that a little abduction here, a little death threat there, is understandable.

A moment of grace orchestrated by the angriest character of the year. When the titular hothead of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Arjun Reddy finds out his grandmother has died, he comes home, coaxes his father out of grief-induced inaction and plays her favourite record, Louis Armstrong’s "What a Wonderful World". In the same film, the story about the mattress on the floor—a happy memory recounted with great sadness.

Cake stolen off a grave. A dead father. A séance. A moth pressed between the pages of a book. The possible off-screen murder of a frog. “Eulogy.” A bug burnt under a magnifying glass. Om Puri, who didn’t live to see the release of the film, saying, “Nothing gets better at this age.” Blood dripping off a tree trunk. Mortality in Konkona Sensharma’s A Death In the Gunj.

Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana—responsible for about half the worthwhile Hindi cinema in 2017 between them—share a scene in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Bareilly Ki Barfi. Rao gets the best line. “Aao, tuning kar dete hain (come, let me tune you up),” he tells the neck-brace-wearing Tripathi. Hindi film has grown scarily adept at this sort of tossed-off scene—defiantly middle class, ensemble cast, one-liners tossed between family members like sped-up Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

A portrait, an argument, a well-placed sign: three clues to Newton's Dalit protagonist.

In Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s documentary An Insignificant Man, Arvind Kejriwal watches with great seriousness as a fictionalized version of his activist life—Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha—unfolds on screen.

Tired of the needling of wedding photographer Arshad (Vikrant Massey)—who’s also her uncaring lover—Leela (Aahana Kumra) plants a kiss on her shy fiancé’s mouth. A rare outright win before the collective fall in Alankrita Shrivastva’s Lipstick Under My Burkha.

“Show me one husband in Lucknow who makes a drink for his wife with his own hands”—Akshay Kumar setting low standards in Subhash Kapoor’s Jolly LLB 2. On the other hand, Saurabh Shukla, sashaying down the hall, earplugs in place, sets almost impossible standards for dancing judges.

Some of the funniest, most progressive gender politics of 2017 came in the unassuming form of a sexual dysfunction comedy, R.S. Prasanna’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. After she has a meltdown in front of her parents, Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar) is given a birds-and-bees talk by her mother (Seema Pahwa), who begins with some light erotic poetry and goes on to describe her own wedding night (“Your father was very gentle. Perhaps a little too gentle”). But when she compares a woman’s body to a treasure cave which opens only for Ali Baba (and not the 40 thieves), Sugandha has had enough. “Ali Baba needs this education, not the cave,” she snaps.

Rajkummar Rao saying "Bhaiyya, rangbaaz log dekhte hi nahi hain (colourful characters don't turn around)" in Bareilly Ki Barfi. Transformation complete.

In an abandoned trench, the sexiest scene of the year. Silent-film star Julia (Kangana Ranaut), slightly tipsy, runs rings around officer Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), who has no idea how to fight off this sort of attack. “Why are you blushing? You saw me naked,” she purrs, as the camera swoons and sways. They end up rolling in the mud, the debris of World War II around them. A moment from Rangoon that’s pure Vishal Bhardwaj.

Early on in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped, Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao) makes a rushed, distracted exit from his flat—putting on his shoes as he talks on the phone, saying a quick prayer, pulling the door behind him. Nothing out of the ordinary and yet, this is a clever bit of foreshadowing, and an indication of how minutely planned the film is. These same actions, repeated with the same level of distraction a little later in the film, almost prove fatal.

Sohum Shah, very much in love and over his head, telling Kangana Ranaut in Simran: "Tumhe saans lete dekhna bhi ek tarah ki kamyabi hai (it's some kind of achievement to watch you breathe)."

Pankaj Tripathi’s great hangdog performance in Amit Masurkar’s Newton reaches its apogee in the scene where the titular election officer (Rajkummar Rao) pulls a gun on him and his men. Shaken out of his customary calm at first, Aatma Singh’s instincts kick in. He makes an exaggerated show of how relaxed he is, folding his arms, leaning against a tree, telling the agitated Newton to take his time. We see, for the first and only time in the film, why Singh is in charge of a platoon in an area this volatile.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Tiger Zinda Hai: Review

Screenwriting can’t be easy, but surely it isn’t as difficult as Tiger Zinda Hai makes it out to be. Here’s a sparkling exchange from late in the film. The CIA director calls RAW officer Shenoy (Girish Karnad) and tells him: “You have 30 minutes.” “I need more time,” Shenoy protests. “I can only give you 30 minutes.” A stop-clock is set up in the RAW office, counting down from 30. Shenoy calls his men in Ikrit, Iraq. “You have 30 minutes.” “Only 30 minutes?” they ask. “Yes, only 30 minutes.”

Ali Abbas Zafar’s film is five times 30 minutes long, and you aren’t getting any of that back. This is a sequel to Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (2012), which starred Salman Khan as a RAW agent who goes by Tiger (he got the name, he explains in this film, because wounded tigers are dangerous) and Katrina Kaif as Pakistani ISI operative Zoya. When a group of Indian and Pakistani nurses are taken hostage by ISC (a stand-in for ISIS) in Ikrit, there’s only one man for the job. That man is hiding out in the Austrian Alps, living the retired-superspy life with Zoya and a cub. By way of reintroduction, Tiger fights off a pack of wolves with a stick because his son asks him not to kill them. Touching scene, given Khan’s historical fondness for wildlife.

With only seven days to evacuate the nurses before the Americans bomb the city, Tiger puts a team together: sniper (Paresh Pahuja), bomb disposal expert (Angad Bedi), tech wiz (Kumud Mishra). They’re joined – this really shouldn’t come as a surprise – by Zoya and two ISI agents. Tiger has to get India and Pakistan to work together: a story strand with some potential, wasted on a film only interested in the broad and the bland. Soon, we’re hurtling from one long, unpersuasive action sequence to another, all of it slathered with throbbing techno and sprinkled with more incisive writing (“Do you have a backup plan? A plan B?” Shenoy is asked, as if they’re different things).

Tiger Zinda Hai plays like a cut-rate version of Airlift. Though it lacks the relative realism and superior craftsmanship of the 2016 Akshay Kumar-starrer (also about the evacuation of Indians in the Middle East), Zafar’s film has the same hyper-patriotic bent. Tiger refuses to eat anything other than Indian food in Austria; he reads Bhagat Singh bedtime stories to his son; he’s sent off to serve by Zoya, who says, “Everyone thinks you love me most in this world, but I know you love your country more.” Later in the film, when there’s a suggestion that the Pakistani nurses aren’t Tiger’s responsibility, we get a lecture about the values this nation is founded on. There’s also the running story of the sniper and the India flag he’s determined to fly once the mission is complete.

In Sultan, Zafar’s last film, Salman Khan cut an intriguingly weak figure. Tiger Zinda Hai has no room for imperfections: Khan’s chiselled torso, displayed in an action sequence, might be one of the better uses of CGI in the film. After the image-softening of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan and Tubelight, he’s back in two-fisted hero mode – and his fans were there, even at 8 in the morning, to show their appreciation. One viewer, a couple of seats behind me, was especially appreciative. “Woohoo,” he went when Khan mowed down a few dozen ISC soldiers with a machine gun. The unfurling of the Indian flag got a woohoo as well. But I could sense his hesitation when, seconds later, the Pakistani flag was raised.

In that split second, one could only imagine the questions that ran through his mind. Can one cheer for a Pakistani flag? Is it a test? Would Bhai approve? The tension was palpable. Then, “Woohoo!” And so ended 2017.

This review appeared in Mint.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Review

When the Star Wars franchise returned to cinema screens in 2015 with The Force Awakens, there was work to be done—or undone, the prequel trilogy being one of the more spectacular prolonged acts of self-sabotage in popular art. Old fans had to be placated without alienating the younger viewers who’d ultimately determine whether the film was a success or not. Disney reached out to the man who’d done exactly this with the 2009 Star Trek reboot: JJ Abrams. And, without a doubt, The Force Awakens was an expert bit of fan service, happily indulging the nostalgia of the earlier films even as it introduced a 21st century springiness to the franchise.

Over the years, it’s become a marker of good taste to declare a preference for The Empire Strikes Back over the first Star Wars film. I’m about equally fond of both, but it’s fair to say that Irvin Kershner’s 1980 sequel is more persuasively directed and richer—mostly due to its surprising darkness—than George Lucas’s 1977 film. The same is true of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which has fewer winks and nudges and, it must be said, fewer soaring moments than JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, but more emotional heft.

At the end of the last film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) had tracked down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a deserted island, leaving a comatose Finn (John Boyega) with the rag-tag Resistance, headed by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and reliant to an unhealthy degree on the flying skills of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance ship under attack from the First Order, where things are pretty much as they always are: Snoke (Andy Serkis) is still Supreme Leader, Kylo Ren is still mopey (he’s earned the right, having killed his father and let Rey best him in a lightsaber duel), and Hux is still either a brilliant parody of an evil villain type or a brave continuation of baffling choices that Domnhall Gleeson made in the first film.

Having finally found Luke, Rey wants to extract every bit of Jedi knowledge she can from him. Only, he isn’t interested; there’s a reason, he reminds Rey testily, that he moved to an undiscoverable island. But Rey’s as persistent as Luke himself was as a young man, and when he finally agrees to teach her a little something, there’s a brief, pleasing echo of Yoda’s training of young Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. As she grows into her Jedi powers, Rey also discovers that she’s developed—possibly after their battle at the end of the last film—a disturbing connection with Kylo Ren, a sort of video conversation of the mind where they can be light-years apart and still see each other and converse.

Despite a running time of 140 minutes, there are only a handful of subplots. Finn, who shakes off his coma early, remains this trilogy’s most engaging character, and his search for a master coder with new pal Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is a badly planned adventure in the best Star Wars tradition. For the most part, though, Johnson keeps the narrative focused on two fronts: the increasingly desperate situation of the Resistance ship, and Rey’s discovery of self. There’s a lot of build-up, but to a purpose: when the two storylines collide, they do so with a satisfying crunch.

In the past Johnson has made faux-noir (Brick), screwball comedy (The Brothers Bloom) and head-spinning sci-fi (Looper), in addition to directing some of the finer episodes of Breaking Bad. Though he’s clearly unfazed by the expanded canvas of a franchise film, his imprint isn’t always visible. His off-kilter humour, for instance, is tempered down to staple Hollywood gag-writing (the hold-on-bad-connection shtick that Poe does to Hux would have fit snugly in any recent Marvel movie). My favourite moments in the film are when Johnson throws his weight behind the visual: the final battle, with the red clay under white salt exposed like giant gashes in the desert; the classic samurai framing of Hamill’s silhouette; Snoke’s command room, done up in deep reds and blacks like a set from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

It’s disconcerting, when all is done, to look around and see that we’re pretty much where we started. The Resistance is now an even smaller group on the run, Rey still doesn’t know the names of her parents, Kylo continues to experience Internal Conflict. This stasis isn’t limited to the narrative. The post-Lucas trilogy now has two above-average films, but remains incapable of providing the shock of the new (beyond the vital introduction of commanding female characters). In one of his more animated moments, Kylo tells Rey that she must “kill the past”. She doesn’t, and neither does the film.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Fukrey Returns: Review

In Mrighdeep Singh Lamba’s Fukrey, the absurd dreams of school-goer Choocha (Varun Sharma) are mined for clues to the winning number in a Delhi lottery by his friends Hunny (Pulkit Samrat), Zafar (Ali Fazal) and Lali (Manjot Singh). In their effort to hack the lottery, the quartet gets entangled with fiery tracksuit-wearing gangster Bholi Punjaban (Richa Chadha). After watching Fukrey Returns, Lamba’s sequel, I went home and revisited the 2013 film, to remind myself why I liked these characters in the first place, and to wash off two hours and 20 minutes of high-energy, low-impact comedy.

It’s been a year since the events of the previous film. The boys have been cleaning up at the lottery, but once Bholi gets out of jail by indebting herself to politician Babulal Bhatia (Rajiv Gupta), they’re once again scrambling to keep life and limb intact. To pay off her debt of Rs10 crore, they start a company that capitalizes on Choocha’s unique gift by placing lottery bets for the public (why anyone would give their money—lakhs!—to a firm founded on interpreting dreams isn’t explained). It all goes south, of course, which leads to a second half of unrelenting silliness.

It’s hard to see a film that seemed as casually tossed off as Fukrey gain a follow-up that’s so labored. It isn’t just that the events in Fukrey Returns defy logic – that was true of the original, and in itself is hardly a disqualification of any film. It’s also the deathly pacing, the writing that leans too hard on easy gags, the timid approach to character development. Choocha, endearingly stupid in the first film, is unbearably stupid here. Chadha was a genuine delight as Bholi the first time around; her reprisal feels like agitated leftovers. Not a single character is deepened—we know them about as well at the end of this film as we did in the last one.

Fukrey was rooted in the everyday: the comedy seemed to arise naturally from the slackers’ surroundings. The sequel, though, has the desperation and unfocussed energy of a work that’s not sure why it exists. Any film that begins with someone sucking snake venom out of someone else’s behind is clearly lacking for ideas.

Providing some relief is Pankaj Tripathi as Pandit, timid-voiced supporter of the fukreys. He’s had a stellar year: Anaarkali of Arah, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Gurgaon, Newton. Over the course of this film, he wrings laughs from a fixed stare, a costume change, words like “arrogance” and “slippery”. In a graceless film like Fukrey Returns, he’s a welcome grace note.

This review appeared in Mint.

The refugees of ‘Casablanca’

On 26 November 1942—just over 75 years ago—Warner Bros released a film based on Everybody Comes To Rick’s, an unproduced script for the stage that novelist James Agee judged “one of the world’s worst plays”. In the lead were Humphrey Bogart, then just escaping the gangster straitjacket he had been in for half a decade, and Swedish actor Ingrid Bergman. The production was chaotic, with four writers frantically churning out pages to be shot the next day, and everybody from the actors to producer Hal Wallis pitching lines. No great hopes were pinned on it, but three-quarters of a century later we’re still talking about Casablanca.

The film, an allegory for the US’ initial detachment from, and eventual involvement in, World War II, is set in December 1941 (the time of Pearl Harbor), in Casablanca, Morocco, then under Vichy French rule. Most of the action takes place in a bar run by American Rick Blaine (Bogart), a gathering point for revolutionaries looking for a glorious fight and expats desperately seeking the first plane out. There’s a famous scene in which the room, led by Resistance fighter Victor László (Paul Henreid), drowns out the officers singing in German with a thundering rendition of "La Marseillaise", the French national anthem. Actor Dan Seymour, who played the doorman, saw several actors crying during the scene: “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees.”

Casablanca is full of people who escaped actual Nazi persecution. Headliner Paul Henreid, an Austrian Jew, was labelled an enemy of the Nazi party and left England for fear of being deported. S.Z. Sakall (Carl the waiter), also Jewish, left Hungary. Conrad Veidt—cast, ironically, as dastardly SS officer Strasser—was a staunch anti-Nazi who once wrote “jude” on a race identity card even though he wasn’t Jewish (his wife was). Madeleine Lebeau (Yvonne), whose eyes well up with tears during the song, fled Paris with her husband Marcel Dalio (Emil the croupier) ahead of the German occupation in 1940. The man playing the German officer she shares a scene with earlier in the film, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, was homosexual, and escaped Germany in 1933.

Almost everyone associated with the production, with the exception of Bogart, was an immigrant. Bergman (Ilsa) was from Sweden, Peter Lorre (Ugarte) from Germany via Austria-Hungary. Claude Rains (Renault) and Sydney Greenstreet (Ferrari) were English. Michael Curtiz, one of the most versatile directors ever to work in Hollywood, was Hungarian; his thick accent resulted in the memorable substitution of a poodle for a puddle. Composer Max Steiner was Austrian. Writers Philip and Julius Epstein, sons of a Russian immigrant, were asked to work in specific vignettes about refugees into the screenplay. The legend goes that while shooting the Paris flashback, an extra burst into tears; it turned out she'd lived there and had seen the Germans march in.

“Superimposed over this map are scenes of refugees fleeing from all sections of Europe by foot, wagon, auto, and boat.” Casablanca’s screenplay begins with this potent image, though it goes on to detail the refugee life only in passing—most memorably in a scene where an elderly couple bound for the US try out their shaky English on Carl. But the uncertainty that hangs in the air is emblematic of the immigration experience at the time. So is the desperation. They may sing hard-luck songs with Dooley Wilson (Who’s got nothing?/We got nothing/How much nothing?/Too much nothing) but everyone, from Rick down to the last uncredited extra, takes those letters of transit seriously.

In those days, Hollywood had both the wherewithal and the moral authority to make a film about refugees. As David Denby, writing about Casablanca in 2012, put it: “In real life, the place that everybody came to was Hollywood in the thirties and forties.” Los Angeles was a haven both for artists fleeing fascism and a wide variety of general émigrés. The roster of foreign talent in that town was breathtaking: Greta Garbo, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich, Max Ophuls, Fred Zinnemann, Dimitri Tiomkin, Otto Preminger. Directors like Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fritz Lang melded German expression with American hard-boiled literature and created film noir. Ernst Lubitsch brought a knowing sophistication to comedy, Douglas Sirk to melodrama. Steiner, Franz Waxman and Miklós Rózsa between them invented the classic Hollywood score.

The fundamental things apply, as time goes by. Casablanca’s 75th is happening at a time when refugee crises are as much a part of the news and political discourse as they were in 1942 (the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees places the total at 65 million worldwide today). Unsurprisingly, these upheavals are finding their way into films, as they did in films like Casablanca, Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant (1917) and Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back The Dawn (1941).

At the Mumbai Film Festival in October, three films offered differing takes on the immigrant experience. The Other Side Of Hope had the unmistakable deadpan stamp of Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki, but there was an unexpected sweetness to the story of a crusty Helsinki restaurateur who helps out a Syrian refugee that was both inspiring and heartbreaking. The Turkish film Daha, directed by Onur Saylak, was more straightforwardly devastating. A shy teenager helps his brutish father transport, house (in a badly ventilated basement) and smuggle into Europe escapees from war-torn Middle East—a nightmare mirror image of the unfortunate “others” in Casablanca who “wait...and wait...and wait”. And there was Nicole van Kilsdonk’s children’s film The Day My Father Became A Bush, in which the refugee is a 10-year-old girl escaping an unspecified war zone.

The dull gold sparkle of cellophane-like material worn by shivering figures on a boat is an image that links last year’s Fire At Sea—a non-fiction account of the life of a young boy on an Italian island and the immigrants who routinely wash up there—and Human Flow, a new documentary on the refugee crisis. The film, by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, was shot over a year in 23 countries, and had a limited release in the US in October; it will hopefully be available to stream in India at some point in the near future. There is one film, though, that did release here in 2017, and which alluded to the plight of refugees while cleaning up the box office (to the tune of Rs76 crore). I speak, of course, of Thor: Ragnarok.

Perhaps because the rest of it is so determinedly irreverent, Thor’s ending has an added poignancy. Throughout the film, we’re shown characters stuck in the wrong place, longing to return home, but the idea isn’t driven home until the final moments, when the citizens of Asgard watch from a spaceship as their home is destroyed in a three-way fight between Thor, Hela and Surtur. The point isn’t laboured, but showing a once-legendary city reduced to a bedraggled group on a ship is an unexpected acknowledgement of the countless actual people who, finding themselves without a home, cram into rickety vessels and set off towards an uncertain future, because that’s all that’s left to do.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Behind the insignificant man

The team behind An Insignificant Man made, to my mind, two tremendous calculations. The first was a glorious stab in the dark: the decision to follow Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign for the 2013 Delhi assembly election from when it was barely an idea, hoping that it might turn into something. The second was to identify—perhaps during the edit—that while Kejriwal would be the motive force of the narrative, the audience might need someone more conciliatory to take them along. That counterbalance is Yogendra Yadav.

Directors Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla filmed An Insignificant Man over two years, tracing Kejriwal’s journey from the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), its grass-roots campaign in Delhi and its unprecedented success in the 2013 state elections, where they finished second after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and ended up forming the government. The access the directors wrangled is unprecedented and thrilling—the camera is a fly on the wall at party meetings, campaign stops, even finding the optimum bird’s eye position to capture party member Kumar Vishwas shout election results down from a window to an ecstatic crowd.

Kejriwal remains a fascinating figure, but a film with just him would have been exhausting. There’s a telling scene where he watches Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha, loosely based on his own journey; his party members are laughing and enjoying themselves, but Kejriwal is dead serious, perhaps already thinking about what he’ll tell the press later. As the film progresses Kejriwal seems to harden, and simultaneously, it feels like Yadav, with his lightly impassioned voice and earnest manner, is brought forward more prominently. Ranka and Shukla subtly convey the tensions between the two: Yadav running his hands over his face, usually after his leader has done something ill-advised, becomes a motif of sorts. He’s Eduardo Saverin to Kejriwal’s ruthless Mark Zuckerberg: a key supporting character in a revolution and, ultimately, a tragic figure (he was expelled from the party in 2015; he later called Kejriwal’s methods “dictatorial”).

Viewers will have their own grouses with the film, depending on where they sit on the political spectrum: not enough BJP, too much Sheila Dikshit (then in her third term as Delhi chief minister), AAP co-founder Prashant Bhushan reduced to a bit player. I wish the editing (Abhinav Tyagi and Manan Bhatt), which reaches a beautiful crescendo as the voting begins, was accompanied by more than a generic droning score. It’s nevertheless quite an achievement to have, running in theatres with Justice League and Qarib Qarib Singlle, a documentary which details how a party goes about trying to get elected in India. The past few weeks have provided more than a few reasons as to why there’s little explicitly political film-making in India. That’s good enough reason to catch the ones that break through.

This piece appeared in Mint. 

Ajji: Review

I’m curious to know why Ajji, Devashish Makhija’s take on the rape-revenge drama, begins with the disclaimer: “We neither encourage nor condone taking the law into your hands.” If it was foisted on him by the censors or some government body, it would at least explain why a film which clearly has no problems with the right people taking the law into their hands is claiming to be averse to it. But if the line came from Ajji’s makers, it would seem to point to wilful self-deception about what the film stands for, or an attempt to have one’s liberal-minded cake and eat it too.

Ajji is the fifth Hindi film centered on rape and revenge to release in theatres this year, and the third—after Mom and Maatr—with a female protagonist. The film is grimly artistic where Mom and Maatr have a more mainstream aesthetic; it’s set in a chawl, while the other two are upper-middle-class narratives. In terms of world-view, though, there’s little that separates these films. It’s the same convenient argument we’ve been hearing for years—if the system can’t bring rapists to justice, it’s understandable if they’re hunted down and castrated or killed by the victims.

A young girl is raped, her body discovered in a garbage heap by her grandmother (Sushama Deshpande), whom everyone calls Ajji, and Leela (Sadiya Siddiqui), a sex worker. She’s badly bruised and traumatized, and won’t talk at first when a brusque police officer (Vikas Kumar) comes to their home. Finally, she reveals that her attacker wore dark glasses—an indication that it’s a man named Dhavle (Abhishek Banerjee), the son of a local politician. The cop, in the pay of Dhavle and his father, intimidates the family into not filing charges, and everyone agrees to move on. Everyone, that is, except Ajji.

Having an arthritis-ridden granny as a righteous avenger is a gimmick—it’s hard not to see it as one—but a promising one nevertheless. Ajji sets about her task systematically, confirming the identity of the attacker, spying on him, taking meat-chopping lessons from her butcher friend. If the crime was less heinous, these preparations might have been fun to watch, but the film is deliberately harsh and discomfiting. We’re constantly updated on the little girl’s condition—one recurring detail is Ajji’s search for a medicine that’ll stop her bleeding—lest we forget how brutal the crime was (and, by extension, why it deserves a brutal response). Cinematographer Jishnu Bhattacharjee trains a hard lens on the dirty, dangerous neighbourhood: everything is decay and collapse, from a faltering light bulb to the flies buzzing around the butcher’s meat.

The film pushes the case for vigilantism even further with its characterization of Dhavle as a psychotic mess of sexual hysteria so reprehensible that—in theory at least—it would seem strange to insist on due process in his case. There’s a scene in which he’s presented with a mannequin by one of his friends. The sight of an available, mute female figure that won’t fight back seems to drive him mad with lust—but before throwing it on the ground and humping it, he tears it from limb to limb. All the hatred he bears women comes through in this action. It’s a horrifying scene. And the implicit point it makes is: if anyone deserves to be killed, it’s this guy.

Makhija has spoken in interviews of his desire to subvert the rape-revenge narrative. To my mind, true subversion would be getting the audience to feel some empathy for a child rapist. Making the villain more villainous and the avenger more unlikely isn’t subversion, it’s just pushing the formula to its extremes. This year, two other rape-revenge films besides Ajji have had unlikely avengers—the victim’s mother, a schoolteacher, in Mom, and in Kaabil, a blind man.

What are we left with? Anger, mostly, and a desire to jolt the viewer out of supposed complacency. This is a film that’s frequently well-directed (the long scene where the officer interrogates the family, the false flashback, Ajji’s visits to the butcher shop) but has trouble reigning itself in (the distractingly weird choreography of the meeting between Dhavle and the cop, the excessiveness of Banerjee’s performance). Ajji is one of the most unsettling experiences you’ll have at the movies this year. Whether it adds up to much more than exploitation-art is another question.

This review appeared in Mint.

Justice League: Review

A lot of heartache might be avoided if DCU screenwriters would just read their lines out loud and ask themselves if they sound sensible. I never imagined things could get worse than the “Save Martha... Martha? Why did you say that name?... It’s his mother’s name” exchange in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But Justice League pushes language past mere unmusicality (“We have to light the ancient warning fire”) into something approaching a humourless Dr Suess (“Kryptonian ship has an amniotic chamber”). It’s almost a relief, after the clanging construction of “primordial landscape of Steppenwolf’s birth wound”, to hear something as simple and unexpected as “You smell nice.”

The landscape’s still primordial – director Zack Snyder likes his scenery charred – but Justice League smells nicer than Batman V Superman. That, admittedly, isn’t saying much: Snyder’s last was as dull and daft a superhero movie as DC detractors could have hoped for. The sequel isn’t that much of a departure, but it does have a kind of grim momentum. The Avengers took 143 minutes to put together its all-star team; Snyder manages the same in an economical 120 minutes. The focus on the primary narrative – the battle between the League and Steppenwolf, destroyer of worlds (Ciarán Hinds) – is near-absolute, the individual narratives of the team members only allowed in brief interludes.

As promised in Dawn of Justice, Batman (Ben Affleck) is on a recruitment drive following the death of Superman. Spurred by attacks by winged parademons – minions of Steppenwolf – he seeks out Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). Since Batman’s introductions to all (except Cyborg) were teased months in advance, there’s no surprise left in these scenes, only the feeling of being the first rung in that familiar ladder that takes any super-group from mistrust to grudging respect to team spirit.

It may have been suggested to Snyder after Dawn of Justice, to lighten up a little in his next outing. This, presumably, is why The Flash is a little too eager to crack wise (not wise enough – after rescuing a Russian family, his parting zinger is “Dostoevsky”). The pressure of being the designated joker does Miller no favours; Momoa, playing a hip merman, manages more laughs simply by looking relaxed. Fisher struggles to give his human-turned-robot personality, and Affleck looks like the Bat-life’s getting him down. Gadot alone looks poised and ready for sequels.

Whether these films to come should be helmed by Snyder is another matter. His scorched-earth aesthetic could be seen as having a certain apocalyptic grandeur, though I’ve never found it anything but dark, violent and confusing. This is matched by a tone that’s unpleasant and emotionally stunted. Had Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman not been so successful earlier this year, I wonder if Diana would have been treated with as much respect as she is here, given the fetishist trappings of previous Snyder productions. There’s a revealing moment when Aquaman, listing the abilities of his teammates, comes to Diana and says “You’re gorgeous”, before adding “strong and fierce” as an afterthought. This should come as no surprise. A film which reduces the rest of the world to a few panicky Russians would have no problem reducing a legendary immortal warrior to her looks.

This review appeared in Mint.

Qarib Qarib Singlle: Review

The last time Irrfan took a road trip with a woman he liked was Piku in 2015. He was so likeable in the film, so clearly the reason that acidic narrative didn’t curdle, that a retread of some sort was always on the cards. And sure enough, two years later, we get Qarib Qarib Singlle, which has nothing to do with Piku except that the actor’s once again travelling with a woman in need of some cheering up. Tanuja Chandra’s film removes the extra baggage of a third passenger, offering in its place Irrfan and Parvathy (Bangalore Days, Take Off), with a side helping of Irrfan.

At the receiving end of this charm offensive is Jaya (Parvathy), a 35-year-old manager in an insurance firm. Her husband died a decade ago; since then, she’s stayed away from romantic relationships, spending her free time video-chatting with her younger brother and baby- and cat-sitting for unappreciative friends. This changes when she comes across a man named Yogi (Irrfan) on a dating website. His hobbies are “poetry, poetry, poetry”, the triplicate assertion a warning that this isn’t someone who believes in using one word when you can easily use three.

Yogi arrives for their first meeting, in a coffee shop, wearing a bright red jacket and dark glasses. His conversation is, if anything, even less abashed than his sartorial style – he babbles on about lattes, poetry, jogging and the ugliness of the Indian male. Jaya barely gets a few words in edgeways, but she’s intrigued enough to meet this odd man again. He’s just as overwhelming on their next date, and on the one after that, but he clearly likes Jaya, and she’s starting to show signs of liking him too. Yogi then suggests something outrageous: trips to Rishikesh, Alwar and Gangtok to visit his three significant exes and see how they’ve fared since he last saw them. Even by romantic comedy standards, this a monumentally flimsy suggestion, but cautious, sensible Jaya – who hasn’t been in a serious relationship after her husband and still uses his name as her laptop password – somehow agrees.

Despite its preposterous premise, Qarib Qarib Singlle is often funny and sometimes rather touching. Both Jaya and Yogi are bent out of shape; she’s kept the world at a distance, while he can’t seem to let go of this image of himself as a dashing young poet. But as he keeps yammering away, she gradually opens up, even as they drop in unannounced on his former (now married) girlfriends, who, surprisingly, still have strong feelings for this cartoonish man.

Irrfan and Parvathy are an enjoyable pair, addressing each other as “Mister Yogi” and “Miss Jaya” (which gives it the sound of a Hrishikesh Mukherjee comedy), making half-exasperated, half-amused attempts to loosen up or quieten down the other. Parvathy’s slow relaxation is lovely to watch, though I wish the writers (Tanuja Chandra, Kamna Chandra, Gazal Dhaliwal) hadn’t included an extended comic sequence where she’s high on sleep meds. I also had an issue with a device that Chandra uses through the film: Parvathy looking straight at the camera and delivering asides to the audience. I’m not against a little fourth-wall breaking but its deployment here doesn’t match the straightforward tone of the film, and when it’s used for dramatic effect towards the end there’s no corresponding emotional tug.

Unlike Bareilly Ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Savdhan, two of the brighter comedies this year, Qarib doesn’t pack its final moments with incident. Instead, after taking the trouble of going to the mountains and finding someone for Jaya to meet, it just ends, pretty much the way you’d expect it to, as if the writers had run out of plot. As the credits rolled I realised this is probably the last we’ll see of Jaya and Yogi. Pity. It’s not just flawless films that have fascinating characters.

This review appeared in Mint.

Thor: Ragnarok: Review

For a Hollywood franchise film, Thor: Ragnarok has a welcome amount of diversity in the accent department. Headlining for the third time as the hammer-wielding Thor (not counting his appearances in the Avengers movies), Chris Hemsworth’s Aussie twang is more pronounced. Cate Blanchett, master of dialects from German to Kate Hepburn, plays Thor’s evil sister, Hela, and also allows her Australian roots to inform her speech. There’s Jeff Goldblum doing his Jeff Goldblum thing. Anthony Hopkins (as Odin) and Tom Hiddleston (as Loki) sound like the Brits they are; so does Tessa Thompson, though she’s American. Best of all, there’s the light, bouncing Kiwi tones of director Taika Waititi, who supplies the voice for Korg, a surprisingly endearing walking pile of rocks.

Marvel makes good films and bad, but even the good ones give the feeling of having been designed by committee. Intriguingly—especially for one who hasn’t read the comics and is looking for signs of filmic personality in MCU films—Thor: Ragnarok carries the unmistakable stamp of its director. The New Zealand-born Waititi became famous after the release of his mockumentary-style vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014). His Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) was similarly distinctive and warm. Now, he’s brought his eccentric sense of humour to enliven the Avenger franchise most in need of it.

Already saddled with one supervillain sibling (semi-villain now because of Loki’s popularity with MCU fans), Thor gains another with the appearance of the antler-sporting Hela (Blanchett), who’s been Norsing a grudge ever since Odin banished her years ago. Turns out she’s powerful enough to defeat Thor and Loki without stretching herself; they tumble off the grid into space, landing on the planet Sakaar. There, Thor is captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, thrilling), a former defender of Asgard, now a hard-drinking mercenary. He’s brought to The Grandmaster (Goldblum, in all his glorious weirdness), ruler of Sakaar, who orders him to fight his champion in a gladiator death match. This opponent turns out to be… but you’ve probably seen the trailers.

There’s a recognisably Waititi sense of humour that shines through on Thor: Ragnarok. This is true not just of the writing, but also of the whacky, day-glo look of the film. This might be the first comic book film in a long time that actually looks like a comic book. As I left the hall I heard a fan complain about how much they’d deviated from the general tone of the source material. But Waititi has achieved something special: he’s given hope that bright indie film directors snapped up by giant franchises might yet be able to inject their personality into tentpole studio releases.

Hemsworth has become looser with each successive film he’s played Thor in, and he’s never been more appealing than he is here, his long hair shorn, carrying on a lover’s tiff with Hulk/Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Blanchett has a blast as the melodramatic Hela and Hiddleston’s always a delight, though I must admit that after a point I had eyes only for Thompson, who has a most un-Marvel-like (that is to say, palpable) chemistry with both Banner and Thor. I know better than to ask for more comic book films than are already being slated, but I’d queue up for an intergalactic mercenary buddy flick with Valkyrie and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy.

As with the non-MCU Deadpool and the second Guardians film, there’s a tendency here to use humour to undercut every emotional scene or big speech—a tactic the audience will eventually become wise to, like a horror film that uses a jump scare one time too many. There is one detail, though, that isn’t overwhelmed by the overall good cheer. Thor: Ragnarok is full of individuals stranded in foreign lands —Thor, Loki and Banner on Sakaar, Hela in a prison somewhere, and, eventually, an entire population without a home. You don’t expect a nod to the global refugee crisis in a film this entertaining, but there it is.

This review appeared in Mint.

Stephanie Zacharek: "Criticism has become a kind of boutique interest"

As befits someone who grew up idolizing the legendary late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, Stephanie Zacharek doesn’t suffer geniuses gladly. Here she is on Christopher Nolan: “Even the dirt in Interstellar looks spectacularly art-directed.” And on Terrence Malick: “Watching Knight Of Cups is like seeing a guy go to a strip club and tip the dancers with Zen koans instead of singles.” She would much rather watch Channing Tatum, whom she describes, in her review of Logan Lucky, as “alive to the molecules around him”.

Zacharek has been the film critic at Time since 2015. Before that, she worked with The Village Voice, Movieline and, for over a decade, Salon. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015, she is one of the foremost film critics in the US, her writing at once accessible, wry and evocative. Having been part of the India Gold jury at the Mumbai Film Festival last year, she was back for the latest edition, mentoring the Young Critics Lab. We spoke to her about Blade Runner 2049, Rotten Tomatoes, and why it’s tougher than ever to be a critic today. Edited excerpts:

I was reading your review of ‘Blade Runner 2049’, and it reminded me of something strange that happened at the press screening—a message from the director was read out asking us not to mention the plot in our reviews.
We got the same thing. The publicist said something like, please preserve the sense of wonder for the audiences who are about to see the film.

It strikes me as a particularly mistrustful attitude. Have directors and critics grown further apart in recent times?
I never know how much directors care about what we say—or how much they should care. Sometimes the studios do care—when I write a review that’s mostly negative but is somewhat positive, and it gets a “rotten” rating, sometimes the publicist will go to Rotten Tomatoes and ask, don’t you think this review is actually positive? So those guys will come to me and say, we think you meant this to be negative. And I’ll say, yes.

Is there such a thing as a critic-proof film?
I think there is, from the box-office standpoint. I mean, most films really don’t need us. A film like The Big Sick, a smaller, independent film, can really benefit from what critics say, but big studio films, not really. Look at something like Blade Runner 2049, which got pretty good reviews and it just didn’t do well. I feel kind of bad about it—I was mixed on the film, but it’s trying for something a little bit more adult than most of what’s out there.

Do you have a reader in mind when you’re writing, and has your image of this reader changed as you’ve moved from one publication to another?
It has changed a little bit, I think. Time has a worldwide audience, and a different kind of reader from Village Voice, which is supposedly hip young people, though I don’t know how true that still is. And Salon was something else again, a kind of crazy experiment that worked out great.
I don’t know if there’s a specific kind of Time reader I write for. I just want to engage people. I’m not interested in writing for other critics—I see some of them jockeying for attention from their peers rather than really trying to communicate. So the central thing is to reach people and not bore them, hopefully.

What are the pitfalls of a weekly review gig?
The job does get harder the longer you do it. You fall into certain patterns, even something as specific as certain words you overuse. But even beyond that...every week you go to the well.
Also, there are a lot of films that are just mediocre. Sometimes people ask me, is it easier to write about a film you really love or a film you really hate? I always say, those two are the easiest. It’s the ones in the middle, which are kind of okay—which is 90% of them—those, to me, are the challenge. Usually there’s one good performance, and that’s the thing that saves me, because I love looking at actors and trying to describe what they do.

You concentrate on performers much more than other critics— how they look, how they move…
It’s the thing I love most about the movies. It’s not that I’m not interested in movies technically, but it’s always about faces for me. That really is the essential thing in cinema, going back to silent films.
Movement is hard to capture—it’s like writing about dance, which I don’t really have the vocabulary to write about because I don’t understand it technically.

You’ve had a rough time with fans who’ve gotten upset when you’ve criticized their favourite film. Did this start with ‘The Dark Knight’?
I think so. I didn’t like the film and I was straightforward about that. But the things that people said…it was my first experience with people thinking they can say anything because they’re anonymous. It was sexist, misogynist, just unbelievable stuff. Then it happened again with Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Do female critics have it worse there?
I’m really reluctant to play the victim card but…(laughs) yeah. My ex-husband, who is also a film critic, he would see the stuff and say, I can’t imagine people saying these things to me.

You preferred ‘Premium Rush’ to ‘The Master’, and wrote a much happier piece when P.T. Anderson returned with ‘Inherent Vice’. One thing that seems to turn you off is a kind of deliberate artistry.
These are things I don’t articulate for myself, but yes. I don’t want to be close-minded about anybody’s technique or style but I don’t like that obvious showing off. P.T. Anderson was an example until he came back to us, thank god. Wes Anderson is a film-maker I will probably never love, though I adored Fantastic Mr Fox, which is one of my favourite films of all time. When I saw that I thought, maybe from now I’ll like everything he does, and proceeded to hate Moonrise Kingdom. That sort of mannered, adorable, corduroy-sy thing—I just can’t…

What was it like judging the Indian films at last year’s Mumbai Film Festival?
It was fun and they were interesting, even the ones that were not polished. These film-makers had a lot to say about society and restrictions—some of those films felt really radical to me, even by the standards of things I’m used to seeing at home. They felt daring, just in terms of the way they dealt with sexuality or restrictions on women.

You grew up reading Pauline Kael and got to know her later on. Do you get a sense of how young people today are reacting to her writing?
Students are still reading her in certain circles. I’ve gotten feedback from people who have taught certain essays like “Fear Of Movies”—students have a tough time with them. Sometimes they think that her voice is very dictatorial, like she’s telling them what to think. I always thought that’s how a writer needs to be, but that’s one criticism of her work I’ve heard from young people. It alarms me a little bit, that they feel they shouldn’t be that specific and definitive in their opinions.

Do you think criticism is losing its ability to influence the cultural conversation?
It has already become a kind of boutique interest. There are still people who are interested in reading it but the thing that alarms me—I don’t know if it’s the case here in India—is that writing has become so undervalued as a skill and people get paid less for it rather than more. When I was in journalism school, they’d say, as a freelance writer, if you get paid a dollar a word, that’s good. That was in 1983! And now, if you’re paid a dollar a word, that’s really amazing. You can’t make a living like that. For me to realize that young people can’t have the same opportunities I had, it breaks my heart.

This interview appeared in Mint Lounge.

Secret Superstar: Review

One of the immutable laws of recent Hindi cinema is that if Aamir Khan is acting in a film that really isn’t about his character, he will be all over the second half. It happened in Taare Zameen Par (2007), and again in Dangal (2016), unusual films that he helped build and which he probably felt the responsibility to see through to financial safety. In both cases, his presence somewhat hijacked the narrative, and I braced myself for the same happening in Secret Superstar.

Advait Chandan’s film, his first as writer-director, does have a lot more post-interval Aamir than in the first half, but this time it wasn’t unwelcome. It’s not that Khan’s performance is particularly good (he plays as a randy film composer, Shakti Kumarr, in a broad comic register) but that this is a film in some need of hijacking. Of all the accusations one can level at a narrative, I’m loath to use “slow”, an unhelpful, vague descriptor whose import differs wildly from one viewer to another. I’ll say instead that Secret Superstar, in its initial 75-odd minutes, feels repetitive and sluggish, circling back to situations and character traits that have already been defined.

Insiya (Zaira Wasim) is a 15-year-old from Vadodara with dreams of becoming a famous singer. She’s encouraged by her mother, Najma (Meher Vij), who bought her her first guitar and later sells her jewellery to buy her a laptop, which Insiya uses to upload a video of herself singing on YouTube. She performs wearing a burqa, in order to keep her hot-tempered father (Raj Arun) from finding out. This makes Secret Superstar the second Hindi film this year in which a teenage girl dons a burqa for a specific purpose; in Lipstick Under My Burkha, the garment is used to facilitate shoplifting and is presented as a symbol of oppression, something Chandan also suggests, though in a less equivocal manner.

It seems to me far-fetched that a father wouldn’t recognise his own daughter even if she’s in a burqa. Still, Insiya’s decision—and the video’s viral success—sets up the film’s primary conflict, which echoes the strained relationship at the heart of a film from 2010, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, where Ronit Roy played a nightmare of a dad who won’t let his dreamy, creative son be happy. It’s interesting to see a similarly hateful patriarch in a mainstream narrative like this, and credit must be given to Arun for playing him as a scary, unredeemed jerk. But Udaan was gritty and unsentimental, whereas Secret Superstar compensates for the unpleasantness of the father with the excessive sweetness of Chintan (Tirth Sharma), Insiya’s besotted classmate, her regulation-adorable kid brother, Guddu, the frequently overwrought writing, and Amit Trivedi’s cloying music.

Though Wasim and Vij are a believable, affecting mother-daughter pair, Secret Superstar, like so many other Aamir Khan joints, feels micro-engineered for emotional impact, down to the last sad violin on the soundtrack. One can imagine Wasim’s Geeta from Dangal rolling her eyes if her mother said: “There are so many things I haven’t been able to give you in life, so don’t take away my chance to see you laugh.” Secret Superstar is, in a sense, a more empowering film than Dangal: a young girl fighting her father to achieve her dream, rather than fighting for his. It’s also considerably less exciting, the 150-minute running time padded with unnecessary scenes involving Chintan—in his own dutiful way as much a caricature as Shakti—and made sluggish by the weight of virtue. Chandan, once Khan’s manager, worked with the star on his well-meaning TV show Satyamev Jayate. It shows.

This review appeared in Mint.

Blade Runner 2049: Review

It’s been 24 hours since I saw Blade Runner 2049 and, while I’m not sure I can accurately describe the beast, I know what it isn’t. It’s not a retread. Neither is it an exercise in fan service, like Jurassic World or The Force Awakens. It’s miles away from the popular idea of a Hollywood blockbuster, though it’s been marketed as one: it lacks the predictable rhythms of one, and the clean through-line. It is, recognizably, a Denis Villeneuve film, with the same mixture of unease and beauty that he conjured up in Arrival.

Thirty years have passed since the events of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which had imagined a shadowy, neon-lit Los Angeles of 2019. The Replicants—bioengineered humans with enhanced strength—of the first film have been replaced by superior models developed by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), an inventor with a mild case of god complex. One of the new models is K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner, cops tasked with hunting down and “retiring” older, rogue models. Replicants are now part of society, and though they are discriminated against, their needs are catered to by corporations like those of any human; K returns home every night to Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram companion, Siri with a face and—could it be?—feelings.

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner at the heart of the first film, is long gone, presumed dead. But there’s worrying news of a child born to a Replicant, a rumour that, if true, could threaten the existing world order. K, whose world-weary, task-fulling nature is established in the film’s extended, excellent opening sequence, is sent to investigate and, if need be, eliminate this child. This takes him to a lab where the electric sheep and everything else androids dream of are created, to a sweatshop run with child labour, and to the offices of Wallace, where he meets Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a Replicant assistant whose remorselessness puts K’s into perspective.

Villeneuve’s eye for startling imagery was clear in Arrival, and here he has Roger Deakins, a magician of light and landscape, to help him expand on Ridley Scott’s noir-influenced visions of the future. The result is closer to something like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert than anything Hollywood has done in years: a tentpole film that resembles an art installation. The unrelenting picturesqueness had an odd effect—I felt strangely obliged to admire the hell out of everything that was being placed before me. Even as it filled me with wonder, it kept me at a distance.

It seems fair to say that Blade Runner 2049 needed Gosling the star more than Gosling the actor. His charm nullified by the demands of playing an emotionally withdrawn partially sentient being, Gosling is as beautiful and arid as some of the environments he’s placed in. The women, though, are intriguing: the tight-faced Robin Wright as K’s boss; Hoeks, a lethal blank slate; Armas, very touching as the barely-there Joi.

This is a more contemplative sci-fi offering than audiences may be prepared for. I was reminded of the unsettling cadences and unstable created worlds of George Lucas’ THX 1138 and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but filtered through what one might call the Bogart prism: a tough dude discovering his humanity. There are some astonishing moments in Blade Runner 2049, and more than a couple when I longed for the pulpier, messier pleasures of Scott’s 1982 film. One thing, though, is clear: if Villeneuve keeps getting to make films on this scale, he’s as likely as anyone to change Hollywood’s idea of the big-budget blockbuster.

This review appeared in Mint.

PT Anderson’s Valentine

“Are we rolling? Sorry, I was waiting for Action.”

So begins the 14-minute music video/short film Valentine, featuring the sibling pop group Haim and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s understandable that one of the Haim sisters (Este, Danielle, Alana) is looking for a formal cue for action at the start—this video is, after all, being directed by perhaps the greatest American film-maker of his generation.

Valentine is the opposite of a high-concept video; Anderson simply shoots the band recording Right Now, Something To Tell You and Nothing’s Wrong in the studio. Yet, it’s executed with the sort of unobtrusive mastery that could make a neophyte weep.

Just as he matched the jittery hand-held camera to the raw sound of Junun, his 2015 music documentary with Jonny Greenwood, Anderson now finds the appropriate visual metaphor for a band recording live. Almost the whole of Right Now is shot in an unbroken take that goes on for over 4 minutes, snaking around the studio as the Haim sisters play various instruments while simultaneously singing lead or back-up (it’s thrilling to watch Alana and Este put down guitar and bass and launch into the drums at the end). In Something To Tell You, a similar shot goes on for almost two-and-a-half minutes. The uptempo Nothing’s Wrong is more conventionally shot, with short glimpses of each band member. Throughout, the studio glints with a hard blue light that seems intuitively right for Haim’s Fleetwood Mac-like pop-rock sound.

Anderson has been directing music videos intermittently since 1997. In 2016, he collaborated on three lovely bare-bones videos with Radiohead. The year before that, he directed two videos for Joanna Newsom and made Junun, essentially an hour-long music video shot in Rajasthan. He has also collaborated with Fiona Apple (experimenting with slow-motion in Across The Universe), Jon Brion (Here We Go, using out-takes from his film Punch-Drunk Love) and Michael Penn (Try, a complicated single take).

Ad films, shorts, videos: These are useful ways for directors to try out new techniques between film projects. Some start with music videos, and have continued to dabble in the form: Spike Jonze (R.E.M.’s Crush With Eyeliner, Beastie Boys’ Sabotage), Michel Gondry (The White Stripes’ Fell In Love With A Girl), David Fincher (Madonna’s Express Yourself). Gondry and Jonze could conceivably vie for the title of greatest video-turned-feature director. Even they would be hard-pressed, though, to come up with something as effortlessly striking as Valentine.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Chef: Review

Chef is about trying to find some semblance of meaning in life after discovering your ex is dating Milind Soman. In the case of Michelin-starred chef Roshan Kalra (Saif Ali Khan), this potentially debilitating realisation leads him to start a food truck business with his son. Not the worst choice of meltdown, though perhaps the full extent of the horror will hit home later.

Any non-Indian film whose typical scene breakdown is “food, food, life lesson, food, snappy musical montage, food” is begging for a Bollywood do-over. Director Raja Krishna Menon takes the warm vibes of Jon Favreau’s 2014 Chef (this is an official Hindi version) and makes them warmer. It helps that there are actual actors on hand this time: Padmapriya does beautifully by Radha, Roshan’s ex-wife (the character’s been fleshed out from the bit part Sofia Vergara played in the original) and Favreau’s strangely offhand attitude towards his son is replaced by a much more convivial relationship between Roshan and Armaan (Svar Kamble).

Considering it spends most of its running time in a leisurely canter, Chef’s initial scenes are taken at a somewhat undignified gallop. Within the first 15 minutes, Roshan has punched a customer for telling him his food isn’t what it used to be, landed in jail, and been fired from the New York restaurant he’s head chef at. After receiving some solid Hindi film advice from a colleague (“If you don’t have a relationship with your son, even three Michelin stars are no use”), he heads to Kochi, where he’s greeted by excited child and sceptical ex-wife. He bonds with Armaan, fights with and takes advice from Radha, frets about the new guy, Biju (there’s a funny scene where he visits his house and is intimidated by the art books, the Gaitonde on the wall, and the elephant in the driveway), and generally mills about without a purpose until Biju (Soman) gives him one.

That purpose comes in the unlikely form of a dilapidated truck, which Biju suggests Roshan run as a mobile food van. Roshan rejects the idea at first (who could blame him?) but, given he’s finally spending quality time with his son, eventually agrees. Cue restoration work and moral instruction; Armaan’s “I’m not used to learning anything from you” after Roshan throws a righteous fit is delivered sadly, but could have been the film’s best joke. Soon, the truck has a gleaming kitchen and father and son are on the road, joined by Nazrul (Chandan Roy Sanyal), a former assistant of Roshan’s, and laconic driver Alex (Dinesh Nair).

This is a considerable change of pace for Menon after last year’s Airlift, but he does as well with genial inaction as he did with urgent action. The film’s a bit too audience-pleasing to take seriously—the checklist includes, but doesn’t stop at: amiable lead, perky kid, bright colours, food in almost every scene, hummable music by Raghu Dixit. But there’s a good deal of charm in Saif’s performance, and in Padmapriya’s (even if her character ends up shaking her head indulgently too often), and Sanyal and Nair are terrific support. Like the original, it’s a film that’s easily consumed, even if, like the original, the emotional beats being stressed are amusingly obvious.

There is one moment that quickens the heart instead of just warming it. Driving from Kochi to Delhi, the food truckers take a detour and head to Goa. There, out of nowhere, Roshan tells Nazrul, “Twenty years ago, I was in Goa with two friends…” The reference seems to be to Dil Chahta Hai, in which Saif holidayed with Aamir Khan and Akshaye Khanna in Goa and ended getting mugged. A lovely little nod, on par with the Abhimaan-referencing cameos of Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri in the otherwise insipid Ki & Ka. It’s pleasing not just because Chef isn’t the sort of film (as opposed to, say, a Bhardwaj or a Raghavan) where you’d expect a filmic nod, but also because films like this—snappy, bright, urbane—owe everything to Dil Chahta Hai. So it’s nice to see a floppy white hat tip.

This review appeared in Mint.

Judwaa 2: Review

Judwaa 2 is unbelievably shoddy filmmaking but, really, who’s surprised? Even in his ‘90s heyday, it wasn’t like David Dhawan was making better films. In my (admittedly unenamoured) recollection, they were all unapologetically silly and blithely sexist, saved by the motormouth charm of Govinda (and sometimes by the goofiness of Salman Khan, back when he had comic timing). Sure, they were popular, but that was the ‘90s, when our directors still thought of lisping as hilarious.

Dhawan still finds lisping hilarious: Nandu (Rajpal Yadav), the hero’s best friend, turns R’s into L’s and nearly everything into indecipherable mush. Here are some other things the director finds funny: backsides being slapped, crotches being pummeled, a British cop saying “kutte kameene”, characters named Pappu Passport, lines like “door se dekha toh Alia Bhatt, paas aa kar dekha toh Mahesh Bhatt”. Again, this is no surprise. Dhawan has always sold the public on juvenile humour. But to everything, there is a season.

In Judwaa 2 (a reboot of Dhawan’s 1997 film Judwaa, which starred Salman Khan), Varun Dhawan plays twins separated at birth, both physically and geographically. Because they were born conjoined, the brothers have a unique connection that kicks in whenever they’re near each other—they experience the same sensations, to the extent of mimicking each other’s actions. Mild-mannered Prem grows up in London, the brash Raja in Mumbai. But when Raja seriously injures a bully who picks on Nandu, he’s packed off to London by well-wishers.

While still on the plane, Raja finds himself fondling passengers, his actions dictated by his proximity to Prem (who’s playing piano). If this is your idea of Good Old-fashioned Entertainment, there’s a happy two hours ahead of you, with punches and kisses executed by one twin and repeated by the other. The female leads, Jacqueline Fernandez and Taapsee Pannu, are there to play dumb and be grabbed at. It’s not worth getting steamed up about the sexual politics of such a straightforwardly unthinking production, though it must take a fair amount of self-delusion on the part of the makers to have Raja beat up a group of molesters when he’s pretty much one himself.

I usually give films with dialogue by Sajid-Farhad a wide berth, preferring instead to visit the dentist, where the pain at least has a point. Their work in Judwaa 2 (the screenplay’s by Yunus Sajawal) is even less appealing when you compare it to some of the sparkling comic writing we’ve seen this year, in Meri Pyari Bindu and Bareilly Ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, films that have the courtesy to not treat the viewer like a child. Leave your brain at the door, they used to say about Dhawan’s films. I did that today, and when I picked it up on the way out, it thanked me.

This review appeared in Mint.

Newton: Review

What would Satyapriya Acharya, the inflexible moral centre of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam, have thought of Newton Kumar? He might not have been too impressed by his changing his name from Nutan, but apart from that it’s likely he would have seen the young man as a kindred spirit: wedded to the rulebook, consumed by a sense of duty. Released in 1969—not long before another young man suggested righteous anger as a viable response—Satyakam functioned as an elegy for the betrayed hopes of independence, then only two decades in the past. No such pathos exists in Amit Masurkar’s Newton. The idea of letting down the nation now seems quaint—the system was broken so many generations ago that questioning it seems not only unwise but outrageous, even anti-national.

Newton, an office clerk volunteering for election duty, is sent to conduct polls in a village in the Maoist-influenced forest region of Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh. He’s palpably upright, so much so that an instructor (Sanjay Mishra) warns him in their first meeting that his problem isn’t that he’s honest, but that he’s so proud to be that way. “Imandari se dil halka hona chahiye (honesty should make the heart light),” he says, correctly sensing that Newton carries his virtue around like a heavy burden.

From the moment Newton and his fellow officers Loknath (Raghubir Yadav) and Shambhoo (Mukesh Prajapati) land in Dandakaranya there’s friction. On the way to the CRPF camp, one of the soldiers refers to a nearby area as “Pakistan”. When Newton presses him, he shrugs and says that it’s enemy territory, but that the Naxals don’t control it any more. At the camp, the officer in charge, Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), suggests that they don’t need to venture out, that his men can conduct the elections themselves. It’s only when Newton insists that he sign a declaration to this effect that they’re outfitted with bullet-proof vests—all except booth-level officer Malko (Anjali Patil), a local, who insists she’s safer without one—and escorted by the platoon to the polling venue, an abandoned school in a compound that’s been burnt down, in all likelihood by the paramilitary forces.

If Newton’s honesty hangs heavy, there’s another weight—equal and opposite, as it were—that creates the film’s central conflict. Aatma Singh, who’s tired of the upright Newton from the minute he sets eyes on him, eventually hands him his rifle and asks him if it’s heavy. “Yeh desh ka bhaar hai (This is the weight of the nation),” he tells him. A beat later: “Aur hamaare kandhe par hai (And it’s on our shoulders).” The film’s sympathies are certainly with Newton, but the acute screenplay (by Masurkar and Mayank Tewari) refuses to turn Singh into a simple antagonist. Like Newton, he’s doing what he feels is his duty—keeping the polling officials safe while allowing for the appearance of an election. Does it really matter if actual voting takes place? Why bother, when the locals don’t know how to use a voting machine and have never heard of the candidates before?

Against the active opposition of Singh and the skepticism of Loknath and Malko, Newton soldiers on. He isn’t blazingly intelligent—the film is full of instances of people educating him or telling him he’s missed the point—but he’s unusually determined. This makes him a great fit for Rao, who’s at his best playing mid-level strivers in over their heads. The clipped tone and stiff manner he adopts here makes for an amusing contrast with Tripathi’s unhurried, slightly cracked voice and perpetual hangdog expression, which lend an unexpected poignancy to Aatma Singh as he bats off Newton’s bursts of outrage with inconvenient truths and bald lies.

If Newton and Aatma seem to embody radically opposed ideas of India, Malko and Loknath—wonderfully played by Yadav and the quietly effective Patil—are the adjusting, ever-practical public. “Saalon lag jaate hain jungle banne mein (it takes years to make a jungle),” Malko tells the dejected Newton. But she also realizes the worth of his stubborn idealism, and hands him a lifeline. Loknath, reading Newton’s future in a pack of cards, pulls a five of spades, and dismisses it as useless. But Malko knows better. “Five,” she says, and makes a fist. She does a quick clenched salute which, given the region and her ancestry, could mean everything or nothing. “Six” – she points to her head. Newton, so trussed up in what ought to be taking place, is being encouraged to trust his senses and see what’s really happening.

This is Masurkar’s second film, an impressive leap after the low-rent movie-biz comedy Sulemani Keeda (2014). The only significant drawback that struck me in two viewings is the blurry image in several scenes—even assuming that some of this was deliberate, there does seem to have been a recurring problem with the camera focus. I could also have done without the image of villagers holding up their voter-ink-marked fingers for the camera—the sequence has a music video triteness that is far removed from the un-didactic approach of the rest of the film.

In a seemingly throwaway scene, Loknath tells Malko and Newton about the mythological significance of the forest they’re in. Dandakaranya, he says, is where Sita was whisked away in a flying chariot by Raavan. “This makes Raavan India’s first pilot,” he concludes. “Sri Lanka’s,” Newton corrects him. He’s joking, but this exchange strikes me as a perfect example of the film’s sly deflation of national pride, and a foreshadowing of Malko’s advice: think things through. I’ve done that, and can say with confidence that Newton thrilled me like no other Hindi film this year.

This review appeared in Mint.

Simran: Review

In the three years since Queen, Kangana Ranaut has become Hindi cinema’s leading actress. This rapid ascent is made even more remarkable by her seemingly using this opportunity not to perpetuate her stardom but to bring as many indelible characters to the screen as she can before public favour shifts. It speaks volumes about someone who’s fought hard to attain this standing in the industry that she’d seek not to consolidate but to explore. In all her films since 2014 (save Ungli and I Love NY, both of which were signed in leaner times), she’s unquestionably been the driving force of the narrative; her character’s name, or nickname, is in the title of four of the films. If you don’t think that’s unprecedented, name another female actor working in mainstream Hindi cinema who’s on a similar streak.

Unlike Alia Bhatt, whose performances often transcend the material she’s given, Ranaut’s characters of late have been as memorable as her interpretation of them. Rani in Queen and Julia in Rangoon are the kind of roles Hindi film heroines are supposed to get once in five years as a reward for fluttering their eyes in terrible films starring significantly older heroes. Ranaut’s gone and added a third: Praful Patel, a 30-year-old hotel staff employee in Atlanta, divorced, living with her Gujarati parents, saving up to buy her own house. And along the way, she becomes Simran, the Lipstick Bandit, robber of banks.

Praful’s troubles begin with a spectacularly successful night of gambling in Las Vegas. Instead of quitting while she’s ahead, she returns, loses her winnings, then her deposit on the house. Drunk and desperate—not an unusual state for a Kangana character—she borrows $32,000 from a Hindi film version of a Vegas loan shark (he chews on a toothpick and says “babygirl” a fair bit). Unsurprisingly, she loses that too. Her dream house sold to someone else, with no savings to dip into and her sourpuss father refusing to help out, Praful finds herself having a breakdown in a convenience store.

You have to appreciate the patience of director Hansal Mehta for not rushing this moment. We’re almost at the halfway mark when Praful commits her first robbery, an unpremeditated grab at the cash register. Even when this quickly escalates to robbing banks, we know enough about the impetuosity and fly-by-seat nature of this character by then that it doesn’t seem like a stretch. Her approach is remarkably simple—she just hands over a note written in lipstick that says she has a bomb strapped to her—but each robbery throws up a new wrinkle, like the teller who has a stroke when he’s handed the note, or Praful’s little improvisations with her fake bomb.

I’d lost interest in the sniping between writer and editor Apurva Asrani and Ranaut in the run-up to the film’s release, but having watched Simran I can understand why they’d squabble over the writing credits (officially, he’s story, screenplay and dialogue; she’s additional story and dialogue). Praful is a fantastically etched character, all quirks and hard edges and nervous energy, like a ’40s screwball comedienne crossed with Gena Rowlands. But she can also drop her guard and be playful, like when she teases Sameer (Sohum Shah), a straight ace her parents are trying to get her married to, for being a perpetual “good boy”.

Not all of Simran is as persuasive as Simran herself. The loan sharks seem to have wandered in from another, very different kind of movie; Praful’s parents aren’t appealing enough to merit the amount of screen time they have; and a generic, slushy score is poured over everything, as if this were some big Bollywood romance instead of a splintery indie. The “How to rob a bank” video that Praful looks up on YouTube is, in theory, a promising gag, but not in practice. There’s also a frankly awful car chase—further proof that Hindi films are at their most self-sabotaging in the last 10 minutes. The Sameer interludes are welcome, and beautifully played by Ranaut and Shah, but there’s a particularly long one with a mawkish song that slows down the narrative just when it’s speeding up.

Placed against these quibbles are small delights: Praful’s robbery kit—purple wig, shades, hoodie and track pants; her inability to resist standing up for herself even when staying quiet might result in a loan from her father; Sameer saying, “Tumhe saans lete dekhna bhi ek tarah ki kamyabi hai (it’s a minor achievement even to watch you breathe)”. And a large one: watching Ranaut flick emotions on and off like a light switch, using that intuitive, offbeat style of hers to find humour, a little heartbreak, and zero sentimentality in the story of a stickup artist. After all the drama of the last month, it’s nice to be reminded that offscreen Ranaut, no matter how entertaining or scandalous, cannot hold a candle to onscreen Ranaut.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Daddy: Review

If you’re worried that Ashim Ahluwalia, one of the more stubbornly independent directors in the country, might have strayed too far mainstream with Daddy, you can scratch that thought. More straightforward at a surface level than his last feature, Miss Lovely, this is nevertheless a genre film turned on its head. All the usual gangster tropes are summoned, then subverted. The one item number is a disco pastiche so period-accurate you’ll cringe. Gunbattles abound, but are too fast and chaotic for any heroics to register. There’s no punch dialogue—the closest we come is Arun Gawli (Arjun Rampal) saying “Mere haath gande hain (my hands are dirty)” to his rival over dinner.

You only have to look at Raees to appreciate how far Daddy is from Bollywood’s idea of a mainstream gangster film. Both films are built around a real-life don-turned-public-figure, and both contrast the misdeeds of their titular character with the love the public bears them and their devotion to their families. But Raees is devoted to the Grand Gesture (as are most Indian gangster films), from the kohl under Shah Rukh Khan’s eyes to the baroque action sequences. Daddy, on the other hand, can barely get more than a few mumbles out of Gawli, and is driven not by craftiness but by desperation, greed and fear.

Daddy tracks the rise of Gawli from a minor hood in Mumbai’s Dagdi Chawl to the head of a crime family in the late 1980s and 1990s. He starts out with Babu Reshim (Anand Ingale) and Raja Naik (Rajesh Shringarpure), and they display enough drive to attract the attention of Maqsood (a Dawood Ibrahim stand-in played by Farhan Akhtar, the film’s one piece of miscasting). In Ahluwalia’s telling (made with the consent of its subject), Gawli is a most reluctant criminal: there are at least two scenes in which he’s faced with a clear choice between crime and a normal life. He chooses the latter both times, but is swept away by events just beyond his control.

As Gawli breaks away from Maqsood, becomes a leading gang boss, goes to jail and enters politics, we’re told his story from various perspectives: his mother, his wife(Aishwarya Rajesh), a gang member named Pamphlet (a gloriously nervy Deepak Damle). The connecting thread is a cop, Vijaykar, who’s been on Gawli’s case for decades. Excellently played by actor and director Nishikant Kamat, Vijaykar is a Gawli who grew on the right side of the tracks—so unsympathetic, in fact, that Gawli starts looking less monstrous by comparison (Rampal’s face has become somewhat gaunt in recent times, which gives him a haunted look that suits this film well).

The film takes care to implicate society in the creation of Gawli the criminal, but sometimes these moments are too broad—”Uski sabse badi buraai gareebi thi (his greatest fault was poverty)” belongs in a ’70s Bachchan film. Through Daddy’s 130 minutes, Gawli remains elusive, his story obscured by multiple timelines and narrators, and his own reticence. Daddy reminded me of Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo, another film about a sphinx-like public figure situated at the intersection of politics and crime. As with Giulio Andreotti in that film, the more we learn about Gawli the less sure about him we become. Is he a reformed public servant trying to atone for past sins, or a gangster running an elaborate con? The film makes no attempt to pin him down, resulting in a narrative that, for all its close shadowing of Gawli, keeps the viewer at arm’s length.

There’s another angle to Gawli’s story: he was a Hindu gangster in a city dominated by Muslim crime bosses. This is an important wrinkle, and Ahluwalia addresses it as best he can without getting his film banned or censored. We’re offered the fascinating detail that, in the heyday of Mumbai gang warfare, Eid was the one day on which rivals could sit together and work out differences (the scene where Gawli meets Maqsood is scored, amusingly, with an overwrought qawwali pretty much spelling this out). Later, there’s a shootout in a mosque, followed immediately by an attack during a Hindu festival. Intriguingly, Daddy ultimately positions the overtly religious Gawli as someone concerned with the welfare of both Hindus and Muslims in his area—the gangster as secular leader, something seen in Raees as well.

Working with cinematographers Jessica Lee Gagné and Pankaj Kumar, Ahluwalia brings immediacy and telling detail to almost every scene. After his first kill, Gawli runs across a tiled roof and stows his shirt in a chimney-like young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II. Later on, he holds in his arms, at the same time, a baby, a rattle and a revolver. It feels like an extension of the idea of the Mumbai gangster as family man that Bheeku Mhatre introduced some 20 years ago, just as Daddy seems to build on the legacy of Satya while pushing the Indian gangster film into darker, more ambiguous territory.

This review appeared in Mint.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan: Review

In 2015’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha, the consummation of a newlywed couple’s marriage becomes the subject of family discussion. Two years later, the actors from that film, Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar, find themselves in a similar situation in RS Prasanna’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. In this Hindi remake of Prasanna’s own 2013 Tamil film, Kalyana Samayal Saadham, they play a young couple on the verge of marriage faced with the problem of sexual dysfunction and the meddling of family members who won’t leave them alone to sort it out.

The scene that sets up the central conflict is a comic beauty. Mudit and Sugandha have met in person, seen each other’s families online, gotten engaged, and are now growing fond of each other—in that strange but not uncommon order. One night, after he drops her home, they lean in for a first kiss. His motorcycle helmet visor is in the way—an early warning of the trickier interruptus to follow. Once inside, they begin to make out, until he abruptly excuses himself. Sugandha waits for him on the bed; he panics in the bathroom. A voice on the radio describes a romantic situation gone south. Eventually Mudit emerges and, over tea, with the illustrative help of a limp biscuit, mutters something about a “gents problem”.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan might not be hailed as boundary-pushing cinema—and yet, in its own unassuming way, it is. Like Vicky Donor, which kicked a hole in the middle-class-morality wall simply by saying “sperm” some 500 times, this bright, unembarrassed film discusses a somewhat taboo subject loudly and sensibly. The dysfunction may be on Mudit’s end but Sugandha makes it clear—over the sound of his self-flagellation—that this is a problem for them to solve together. It’s also made clear as the film progresses that there are insecurities on both sides. One surprising scene in a Delhi park starts out comic, with Sugandha inexpertly attempting to seduce Mudit, and ends with her crying and being comforted by him. Mudit describes their impending marriage as “love-cum-arranged-cum-love”, and even though their relationship walks over its share of hot coals, this seems about right.

There’s been a notable resurgence of middle cinema in the last few years, from Ankhon Dekhi to Bareilly Ki Barfi. Shubh Mangal Saavdhan fits snugly into this very Indian subgenre: its comedy is rooted in the everyday, its conflicts life-size. Hitesh Kewalya contributes a sparkling screenplay—one sublime moment occurs when Sugandha’s father and uncle each yank a slipper off to beat her younger brother, but then become sentimental when this reminds them of their late father (the uncle’s parting shot: “Use mariyega zaroor (Do hit him, though).” Khurrana has shown more inclination than perhaps any of his contemporaries to explore the idea of fragile masculinity in his work; Mudit can be seen as the flipside to his Prem in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, as insecure but less bitter. He’s well-matched with Pednekar, who takes her almost-too-understanding character and gives her just enough of an edge.

With so much going for it, it’s disappointing when Shubh Mangal Saavdhan doesn’t come close to sticking the landing. The film’s final 20 minutes includes an elaborate, less-than-sensible gag, a spot of screenwriting panic, an on-the-nose sermon, and a deus ex machina when none was required. But this doesn’t erase what’s come before: a funny, hopeful film, with enough dry wit and generosity of spirit to allow it to circumvent the farcical pitfalls of its subject matter.

This review appeared in Mint.