Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jolly LLB 2: Review

It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to sit back and enjoy a Saurabh Shukla performance. The quintessential supporting actor, his roles are, all too often, supporting actor length. Not that he can’t do great things with 10 minutes of screen time— Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi is testament to this—but when he gets some width, Shukla is a joy to watch. Subhash Kapoor must recognize this; he gave Shukla one of his most fleshed-out roles, that of Judge Sundar Lal Tripathi, in 2013’s Jolly LLB. Shukla responded by stealing the film from under Arshad Warsi and Boman Irani’s noses.

Shukla is also the only actor carried forward to the somewhat-sequel, Kapoor’s Jolly LLB 2. Warsi has had to make to way for Akshay Kumar; “Jolly” now refers Jagdishwar Mishra, not Jagdish Tyagi. The premise, though, is much the same: unrefined newbie lawyer goes up against smooth-talking big city player, grows a conscience, takes on the system. This Jolly is tasked with proving the innocence of Iqbal (Manav Kaul), falsely branded a terrorist and shot by the police in a fake encounter. Arguing for the defence is Pramod Mathur (Annu Kapoor), a Lucknow attorney who’s friends with the inspector who killed Iqbal.

Some of the underdog scrappiness of the 2013 film survives, but casting Kumar in the lead means an abundance of what, for lack of a better word, one might call “hero moments”. When Warsi in the earlier film threatened to slap someone silly in court, it was both funny and revealing of a streetwise character up against something much larger than himself. When Kumar threatens to do the same (thrice), it’s what the audience already expects from him. This is not to say that Kumar isn’t an effective Jolly—there’s a comforting solidity to his performance—but when you bring in a huge star to replace a minor one, there are beats that have to be hit.

Jolly LLB 2 has a busy plot, but the film’s real triumph is the wealth of detail that informs the scenes. Kapoor, who’s also written the film, has a good eye and ear for the blackly comic and the mildly surreal: a suhaag raat scene with the groom in handcuffs, a cricket match between burqa- and sari-clad teams. His visual style is unobtrusive but notice how the background is forever busy, whether it’s policemen chuckling or Jolly’s wife, Pushpa (Huma Qureshi), wiping their kid’s nose. Kapoor also has a knack for efficiently sketched side characters. Kumar, Annu Kapoor (very droll) and Shukla get the best lines, but Kaul as Iqbal, Rajiv Gupta as Jolly’s sidekick, and Inaamulhaq (in a late cameo) all have brief, memorable turns.

Not for the first time, I found myself wishing Kapoor would find the women in his films something to do. Pushpa is introduced as the kind of person who throws a fit because her hardworking husband won’t buy her a Gucci dress, and ends up as a cheerleader for him. Iqbal’s wife, Hina, played with some fire by Sayani Gupta, is little more than a device to help Jolly access his conscience. There’s also a disconcerting amount of screen-time dedicated to teary lectures about patriotism and duty. This has become somewhat of an Akshay Kumar staple in recent years: a dispiriting sidebar to his evolution as an actor.

There’s little doubt about what kind of film Jolly LLB 2 wants to be: broad, accessible and successful. Sometimes, this results in scenes more perplexing than stirring, like when Mathur stages a sit-down in court and an exasperated Tripathi joins him in opposition. Yet, even in the more bombastic moments, there’s often poignancy to be found. Towards the end, the judge gives a speech about the virtues of the Indian legal system. As he speaks, the camera pans back slowly to reveal stacks and stacks of case files—justice delayed, perhaps denied.

This review appeared in Mint.

The dying of the light

In December 2015, critic and film-maker Khalid Mohamed wrote a short piece for The Quint on the steady decline of DVD rentals in Mumbai. He mentioned the closing down of the long-running Shemaroo library on Napean Sea Road in 2014, and of the Teenage Library in Colaba, and the general lack of “romance” associated with DVDs in India. “Only a scant few dial-a-DVD outlets plod on,” Mohamed wrote. “But for how long?”

Ask the remaining outlets and they’ll tell you, not long at all. Everyone seems to agree that streaming services and downloads—legal and otherwise—have effectively ended the rental business. “On Hotstar and Netflix, you can get the films almost for free,” B.K. Ramesha of Movie Empire says. “Even the downloaded prints have become better. I don’t think DVDs have any future beyond two-three years.” “It won’t be that long,” the store’s other manager, Izaz Sheikh, chimes in. “This will be the last year.” As if to confirm this, during the 40-odd minutes I spent at Movie Empire, the phone rang only once, and there were no walk-ins.

Movie Empire was started in 2003 by Arun Goenka. Over the years the ownership has changed, as has the location; after eight years on Carter Road, it moved to Pali Naka in 2011, and to its present location on 16th Road, Bandra-West, four months ago. The day-to-day management, though, has remained in the hands of Sheikh and Ramesha since the start. Ramesha speaks often and with authority; Sheikh is more circumspect. Sheikh’s preference runs to classic Hindi and English films; Ramesha drops auteur names like Roman Polanski and Yasujirō Ozu and confides towards the end of our chat that he’s trying to make it as a director.

Though they have some 11,000 members in their database, Ramesha admits that the current numbers are “extremely down”. “With difficulty, we get about 100 customers a month,” he says. A decade ago, however, the library would receive around 200 calls and lend a hundred DVDs on average every day. Hollywood films comprised the bulk of their trade but what set them apart from all but a few rental stores was their world cinema collection. Even today, the selection is broad and eclectic, covering the familiar (Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Almodóvar) and the obscure (the short films of D.W. Griffith).

I should mention my own debt of gratitude to Movie Empire. Ten years ago, on a two-month training programme in Mumbai, I visited their store on Carter Road and fell in love, not just with world cinema (which I had recently started devouring) but with the beatific vision of shelves stacked with DVDs. For someone who had read of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir but had never seen them, as it were, in the flesh, this was close to a religious experience. Even today, I remember the titles I rented: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

Ten minutes from Movie Empire, the Sarvodaya Video Centre is an even more venerated haunt for foreign film fans. It opened in the pre-DVD era, when Manish Chandaria, after converting part of his father’s general store, began renting out VHS tapes in 1982 (his younger brother, Bakul, managed the business with him from 1990 to 2015). Today, the store sells phones and electronics in addition to lending DVDs and Blu-rays. The ground floor has mostly English and Hindi films and TV series, but go up a winding staircase and you’ll find yourself in a low-roofed attic chock full of world cinema.

Chandaria sources all the DVDs himself. He estimates that there are some 12,000 titles now. Each DVD has an old-fashioned library card at the back. “The aim is to have each one borrowed 20 times,” he says. “If it goes 20 times then I’ve made back my money.”

He runs me through some of the titles in the attic. “There are such amazing films here,” he murmurs. “Makes me feel proud.” He looks at a pile of Tartan releases of Ingmar Bergman films, calls them zabardast. Also zabardast are the Artificial Eye DVDs on the nearby shelf. I notice a copy of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff and mention that the film’s lead actor, Jerzy Stuhr, had been at the Pune International Film Festival a week ago. “Really?” he asks, face creasing into a smile. “This man? And where did you find the DVD?”

This might be the greatest contribution of these rental libraries—making a broad selection of foreign-language films available to cinephiles (variable quality notwithstanding, pirated DVD sellers might have had an even more profound effect). Unsurprisingly, both the Bandra-Khar outlets have well-known directors, producers, writers and actors among their clientele. Ramesha mentioned Sujoy Ghosh, Anurag Kashyap, Amole Gupte and Siddharth Roy Kapur, while Chandaria listed Ranbir Kapoor, David Dhawan and Aamir Khan as old customers, and spoke of his friendships with Ram Gopal Varma and A.R. Rahman.

It wasn’t just the films. Libraries such as these were places to browse and unwind, to talk cinema with like-minded people. Over the phone, Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh recalled how he started off borrowing laserdiscs from Sarvodaya in 1998. “Even if wasn’t a filmmaker I would still visit both Sarvodaya and Movie Empire with equal enthusiasm,” he said. “It’s the pleasure of shopping. You flick through the DVDs, read the back covers, discover so many things you didn’t know.”    

Sarvodaya is marginally better off than Movie Empire—Chandaria owns the store and thus saves on rent. Yet, he too admits that the era of the DVD, and of DVD rentals, is almost over. “Everything has its time,” he says, fatalistically. Barring a major crackdown on illegal downloading, he sees little chance of the business recovering. He has no immediate plans to close down, though; he feels an obligation to his old clients, some of whom have been coming in since they were children, or have brought their own children in.

“Across Bombay you see that it’s shut down—DVD sales, rentals,” Sheikh says. “Everyone’s changing their business. No one wants to take the risk.” I ask what they’ll do with their stock if they have to close down. “Who knows?” Ramesha says, “It’ll end up in personal collections. Or we’ll keep it in a flat somewhere...”

With the closing of Shemaroo and Teenage libraries, Casablanca, on Carmichael Road, is the only significant rental store supplying the southern parts of south Mumbai. It was started in 1999 by Kalpesh Kerawala, who had joined Shemaroo as a 17-year-old and worked there for five years. Casablanca initially operated out of a bungalow on Altamount Road belonging to Kerawala’s friend and then-partner Nikhil Gupta. Kerawala claims they were the “first exclusive DVD library in Mumbai, maybe in India”—other stores were still selling VHS tapes and laser-discs when he decided to concentrate only on DVDs, he says.

Most of Casablanca’s customers live in the arc from Shivaji Park to Cuffe Parade, and from Bombay Central to Agripada. There are still a few drop-ins every day—a 60-something woman comes in looking for new releases, and is recommended Akan Satayev’s Anonymous by Kerawala—but the business runs primarily on deliveries. The store differs from its Bandra counterparts in that there’s a predominance of Hollywood films, old and new, and little foreign-language cinema. Kerawala is well aware of this, explaining that the clientele for world cinema consists of “filmi people”, who live mostly in Bandra and Andheri (“They want to watch all these foreign films, basically, to get ideas,” he says).

Casablanca has some 3,000 customers in its database, but Kerawala says only a couple of hundred are still active. He remembers how, at their peak, they would average 150 rentals a day. Now, he says, it’s a struggle to break even every month. There are customers who have stuck with him from the beginning, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to convince people to continue their memberships, he says. “Customers ask me, why should I renew?”

Casablanca, like Movie Empire, is a rented property, and the high cost of keeping a business running on Carmichael Road is forcing Kerawala to consider closing down the store and operating out of a garage. Like everyone else, he speaks of the near-impossibility of running a DVD rental business in the age of streaming services and illegal downloads. His few remaining regulars are mostly over the age of 50: the sort who couldn’t be bothered to get a Netflix account or learn how to work a torrent.

Our conversation seemingly over, I reach to switch off the recorder. At this point, Kerawala, under the misconception that I am a screenwriter, mentions that he had always hoped to write a movie himself. I ask if he has any unpublished drafts lying around. “There used to be,” he replies, speaking very softly, as if trying not to wake slumbering memories. “I didn’t write down stuff, but I had a voice recorder, which had short stories, many things. And one day, I left the recorder in a cab. So it’s all gone.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Raees: Review

If you’re an Indian director making a gangster film, is there some kind of form you must sign promising to make your anti-hero altruistic? Of all the rules handed down by The Godfather, the idea of don as benevolent patriarch is what filmmakers here seem to have taken most to heart over the years (not that directors abroad are immune). Your central character could be the most cold-blooded of killers, but it’s somehow palatable if he’s shown helping an old woman out with her rent.

This idea of the social-minded don was taken to ridiculous heights in last year’s Kabali, and now it’s back again, in the form of Raees (Shah Rukh Khan): bootlegger, murderer and community hero. This isn’t to say that criminals can’t, or don’t, become leaders in their neighbourhoods. It’s just that this sort of audience manipulation is too easy—even for a mainstream, extra-masala film like Rahul Dholakia’s Raees.

Throughout the film, Raees’ mother’s advice is repeated: no work is too small; there’s no religion above work; do whatever work you want as long as you don’t harm innocent people. It’s a convenient loophole—the people Raees kills are criminals, and therefore not innocent—one which the film has no interest in exploring. Towards the end, Raees’ wife, Asiya (Mahira Khan), calls him bekasoor (innocent), a description so laughably inaccurate that it could be dismissed as her delusion if one didn’t get the feeling the film believed it as well.

Raees unfolds in Fatehpura, Gujarat—then, as it still is, a dry state. Prohibition means bootleggers, and we see young Raees finding a foothold in the trade, ferrying alcohol bottles past policemen in his schoolbag for local supplier Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni). The film then jumps forward to the 1980s, with a grown-up Raees working as a strongman for Jairaj. Eventually, he starts his own distribution chain, and, through guile and blunt force, captures the bootleg alcohol market in Gujarat. This brings him to the attention of the authorities, in particular police officer Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

As he did with another Khan vehicle, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Siddiqui jumpstarts the film as soon he appears onscreen. There isn’t another actor in Hindi cinema right now with such a direct connection to the audience. We’ve seen incorruptible cops before, but they tend to be humourless and violent, like Om Puri in Ardh Satya or Manoj Bajpayee in Shool. But Siddiqui’s Majmudar is a hoot, driving a steamroller over rows of confiscated bottles and repeatedly asking for orders in writing from his corrupt superiors. The sheer pleasure of watching him and Raees banter like hero and villain in a 1970s’ drama made my hopes rise—though I soon dialled down my expectations after two exceedingly shoddy action sequences (the fights and chases are almost as ludicrous— and less fun—as those in a Rohit Shetty film).

Raees is clearly intended as a piece of popular entertainment, which means that its politics—when in evidence at all—remain muted. In one notable sequence, a Hindu politician has taken out a yatra, and despite warnings from Raees, has decided to pass through his (Muslim) neighbourhood. Raees and his followers end up attacking the procession. Swords are grabbed, people are set on fire. The political implications of what is, in all but name, a communal riot in Gujarat aren’t addressed; the incident is presented simply as a businessman protecting his turf. Later in the film, when Raees is distributing food during a curfew, one of his people suggests not sending supplies to Hindu neighbourhoods until their finances are sorted out. He’s scolded by Raees, who asks why he’s bringing up religion now when he never thought of it while doing business with them.

Eyes lined with kohl, his body strangely stiff, Shah Rukh Khan plays Raees warily—or is it that Raees is wary? Khan isn’t as bold here as he was in Fan, but this isn’t a greatest-hits package either, like his turn in Dear Zindagi. Perhaps realising that audiences would expect him to do Tony Montana, he gives them his version of Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel: ingenious, unflappable. Yet, because Khan holds so much in reserve, Raees remains a cipher. To borrow an old theatrical aphorism, he plays the king as if afraid someone else might play the ace.

Siddiqui plays that ace, then plays it again. Several hands go the way of Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, quietly intense as Raees’ friend and second-in-command, Sadiq. Mahira Khan, breaking into Gujarati from time to time, looks like she’s in the wrong card game. And Dholakia has a tell; ever so often, he has someone repeat the “baniye ka dimaag aur miyanbhai ki daring” line. I stopped counting after the third time. It’s a good line, but it’s not that good.

This review appeared in Mint.

Divines & Aquarius: Review

Divines is a reminder that the French are the ones to beat when it comes to empathetic studies of the lives of teenagers and children. The film, which centres on the combative, ambitious Dounia, a 15-year-old living on the outskirts of Paris, won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by French-Moroccan Houda Benyamina, it’s a lit fuse from start to finish.

Over the opening credits, Dounia addresses the camera as Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver—“You talking to me?”—much like Vincent Cassel did in La Haine over 20 years ago. It’s a combative start, and the hoodie-wearing Dounia doesn’t let up, crashing out of school spectacularly, then brazening her way into a job as a drug dealer (“You’ve got clitoris,” her fearsome supplier, Rebecca, says admiringly). Though it’s frequently comic, the film doesn’t disguise the harshness of its heroine’s surroundings or the dangers of her trade; her first drug sale results in a brutal beating.

Like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), which it resembles in spirit and look, Divines alternates between grittiness and diamond-hard stylization. Benyamina barrels through one set-piece after another: a shoplifting in a supermarket; an escalating classroom scene (modern French film-makers have a thing for kids arguing in classrooms); Dounia confronting the dancer Djigui, a sequence every bit as charged as the near-standoff with riot police that comes later.

In an interview with The Guardian, Benyamina, who grew up poor in the Parisian suburbs, mentioned that she channelled the anger she felt during the 2005 riots into this project. “Better to make a film than a bomb,” she said. That anger is palpable, as is a deep empathy for the flailing, fighting characters. “There’s no soul, I don’t feel the soul,” Dounia’s friend mock-critiques a dance performance. Divines is all soul.

There was a quietly brilliant double bill hidden within the programming of the 2016 Mumbai Film Festival: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Both films are built around a figure rarely seen in mainstream cinema: an independent older woman making her own way in the world. Like Hansen-Løve’s film, or Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria some years ago, Aquarius has better things to do than dwell on the supposed loneliness of a single 50-something woman, presenting instead a complex, wonderfully real protagonist.

Like Filho’s first film, Neighbouring Sounds, Aquarius is set in the Brazilian beach town of Recife. Clara (Sônia Braga) has lived there for years, in an flat in an apartment complex by the sea. She stays alone—her husband is dead, and her children have lives of their own—though she has plenty of company, a revolving door of friends, hired help and extended family. She’s a retired music critic, author of a monograph on Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, though she seems to derive equal pleasure from her 1970s rock vinyls, singing along to Queen’s "Fat Bottomed Girls" in one memorable scene.

Clara is the last remaining resident in her apartment complex; the developers, who intend to replace it with a new structure, have bought out the others. They approach Clara, suggesting that she leave too, but she refuses. Filho doesn’t reduce her decision to either stubbornness or sentiment, thus allowing Clara to seem like an inflexible old woman one minute and a courageous holdout opposing big business the next. Braga, a veteran of Brazilian cinema, embraces Clara in all her wilfulness and determination, the two-and-a-half-hour running time giving her (and the viewer) a chance to really get under the character’s skin.

Filho’s style is largely undemonstrative, though careful viewers will notice little tricks of camera and editing. The main thrust is political; you can sense the simmering anger towards the corrupt business elite. A protest staged at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival by cast and crew against the suspension of president Dilma Rousseff likely scuttled the film’s chances of becoming Brazil’s entry for the Oscars. It’s a pity: We would have loved to see Isabelle Huppert (for Things To Come or Elle) and Braga nominated for Best Actress, even if the chances of that happening were slim to none.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge, along with a third write-up on 'Under the Shadow' by Zico Ghosh.

The Founder: Review

The Founder is as remorselessly efficient and bland as the institution it celebrates. There isn’t a wasted frame in this telling of the Ray Kroc story—a seller of milkshake machines becoming the head of the largest fast food chain in the world—which is a pity. The film might have benefitted had it taken a breath from time to time and considered its surroundings. When this does happen, like the scene where Kroc (Michael Keaton) joins a client’s wife (Linda Cardellini) at a piano for a rendition of Pennies from Heaven, the film comes alive.

If you’re familiar with the McDonald’s story, you’ll know that Kroc didn’t start the enterprise, much as he’d prefer that people think he did. It began, instead, as a burger-fries-and-shakes joint in San Bernardino, California. The owners were brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald; they, not Kroc, were the ones who devised the time-efficient way of delivering food that set McDonald’s apart from other drive-in joints in the 1950s. In the film, Kroc, intrigued by their unusually large order of milkshake machines, pays them a visit. Recognizing the uncommon efficiency and replicability of their idea, he gnaws away at them until they enter into a partnership agreement with him. Almost immediately, he starts opening franchises.

If you didn’t already know that Kroc’s ambitions soon outstripped those of the McDonald brothers, you’ll see it coming from a mile off. It’s not just the spot-on casting: Keaton with his hawk-like stare, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch—both excellent—as the sad-sack siblings. This isn’t a film given to subtlety of any kind, signaling its intentions and underlining its primary themes with wearying tenacity. Kroc’s long-suffering wife (Laura Dern) actually asks him “When’s enough going to be enough for you?”, a line that ought to be made unavailable to biopic screenwriters everywhere.

John Lee Hancock’s film is tougher on its subject than I expected it to be; Kroc is shown neglecting his wife, dumping her once he’s successful, manoeuvring the franchise out of the hands of the hapless Mac and Dick. Yet, even this hard-nosed opportunism is presented as a kind of ode to capitalism and straight-talking American gumption. When Kroc first lays eyes on the golden arches, he gazes up at them in awe. We get the McVision, without the McIrony.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World: Review

In Westworld, probably the most discussed TV series last year, the robots in a Wild West-themed amusement park have inbuilt dreams—reveries, as their creator describes them. This word pops up in the title of Werner Herzog’s new documentary about the Internet, Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World. This is a curious little coincidence, not only because “reverie” isn’t a word you hear much nowadays, but also because these two projects, utterly different at first glance, share an all-pervasive pessimism about our dependence on technology.

Of course, technology isn’t the only thing Herzog is gloomy about. One of the great pleasures of his non-fiction films is his voice-overs, which discuss with seeming relish impending doom by volcano, climate change or more prosaic means. In this film, it’s a solar flare. When there’s a flare strong enough, he learns, the Internet could be damaged permanently, which in turn will probably derail human life. There are 10 segments in Lo And Behold, and it’s clear from some of the titles—“The Dark Side”, “Life Without The Internet”, “The End Of The Net”—that the German film-maker is no Web evangelist.

Herzog is one of the great chroniclers of the untamed wild, both in his fiction (Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Fitzcarraldo) and his documentary work (Grizzly Man, Encounters At The End Of The World). Though he’s made documentaries that hew closer to the urban experience, the Internet nevertheless seems like a step out of his comfort zone; that zone being somewhere near the edge of an active volcano. The segments in Lo And Behold don’t tell a cohesive story, and they probably aren’t meant to. What begins as a history of the Internet turns into a cautionary tale about cyberbullying, Web addiction and online security, before dedicating its last few segments to speculation about the future (Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, makes an appearance).

As always, Herzog is at his best when he zeroes in on compelling eccentrics. The interviews with guests at an Internet rehab facility are fascinating, as is the strange story of the woman who found she was allergic to electronic signals of all kinds and lived in a Faraday cage for years. There’s the young scientist who programmes robots to play football and says, without visible irony, “We do love Robot 8.” And there’s Herzog himself, posing, in that instantly familiar voice, the kind of questions no other documentarian will. “Could it be that the Internet starts to dream of itself?” he asks two clearly delighted brain researchers. These are the moments Herzog fans treasure, when the doomiest of modern film-makers reveals himself as one of the most romantic.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Film Review: Haraamkhor

I first saw Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2015. I remember being moved at the time by Shweta Tripathi’s brave performance, but also put off by the jocular treatment of the b-plot and the empty bombast of the ending. A second viewing earlier this week reinforced these feelings. Haraamkhor is both uncompromising and compromised, unflinching and outrageous. Chances are, even if it ends rubbing you the wrong way, you’ll feel something.

Tripathi, 26 when the film was shot, plays the lonely 15-year-old Sandhya, the daughter of a police officer posted in a small unidentified town in central India. Kept at arm’s length by her morose father, she develops an intense, destabilizing crush on Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a teacher in the local school. Driven half-desperate by sexual curiosity and the desire for adult approval, she’s easy pickings for Shyam, who has preyed on young women before (we find this out through when Shyam’s wife says she doesn’t like Sandhya, then reminds him that she used to be his student too).

When the film isn’t concentrating on Shyam and Sandhya, the focus shifts to two local schoolchildren, Mintu (Mohd Samad) and Kamal (Irfan Khan). Kamal has his own romantic feelings for Sandhya, which the film treats mainly as slapstick. Whenever the two kids appear onscreen, they’re accompanied by a comic musical theme. Samad gets up to impish fun and Khan has a sadness to him that’s touching, but by treating their subplot with very little seriousness, writer-director Sharma places all the weight on his main story.

By the time Haraamkhor begins, Sandhya’s already in neck deep. Because we never see the beginnings of her infatuation, it’s impossible to say if Shyam was more charming in the initial days of the seduction. The man we see is crude, rough-spoken, cowardly – not someone you’d expect a girl, even one as insecure as Sandhya, to fall for, though teenage urges are rarely sensible and often self-defeating. Only marginally more appealing than Shyam is Sandhya’s father, distant when he isn’t drunk, and harboring a secret.

As if to match the subject matter, the visual aesthetic is specifically, intensely anti-beauty. The surroundings, all rocky ground and howling wind, are spare and unlovely. From time to time, and for no conceivable reason, the camera gets a major case of the shakes. Out of this spare sternness, some formidable scenes emerge: Sandhya and Shyam circling each other like matador and bull on a windy outcrop; Shyam throwing the emotional kitchen sink at his wife to stop her from leaving him. Siddiqui – never one to paper over a character’s failings – plays Shyam as weak and despicable, but the emotional centre of the film is rightly claimed by Tripathi, who is by turn fiercely passionate, needy, desperate and devastated.

Though it’s been cut short by the censor board, the ending is still as perplexing as when I first saw it. The last 10 minutes play out like a writer’s attempt at a big, thudding climax rather than a natural culmination of events. It’s undeniably dramatic – all that rain and mud, sound and fury – but compare it to the last scene of Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry and you’ll see the difference between shock deployed for shock’s sake and something that’s disturbing but inevitable. Nevertheless, with its unadorned treatment of an uncomfortable situation, Haraamkhor is a difficult film to shake off.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

OK Jaanu: Review

Now that it’s in a film title, does that mean it’s acceptable to call someone jaanu in public? This term of endearment has always struck me as the sort of thing one would mutter, in a suitably embarrassed fashion, under one’s breath. Kanmani is a beautiful word, tripping off the tongue, affectionate and warm and fun. Jaanu, on the other hand, sounds like something people who wear friendship bands are liable to call each other.

After working as an assistant director on Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se.., Shaad Ali made his directorial debut in 2002 with Saathiya, a Hindi remake of Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey. Having since assisted Ratnam on two features, and directing three of his own (Bunty Aur Babli being the most notable), Ali has returned to reworking his mentor’s hits with OK Jaanu, an adaptation of OK Kanmani, a 2015 Ratnam film. I haven’t seen the original, which is probably for the better; Saathiya was fine, but only if you weren’t comparing it to Alaipayuthey.

For better or worse, OK Jaanu is one of the most uncluttered films in recent memory. The entire running time is given to the exploration of one simple idea: that a boy and girl can forge a deep emotional connection and yet be ready to snap ties when the time comes to advance their careers. Adi (Aditya Roy Kapur) and Tara (Shraddha Kapoor) first lay eyes on each other at a railway station. They then bump into each other at a church wedding, which results in a whimsically lovely scene, with a phone conversation conducted across the aisle. Soon, they’re flirting and doing Mumbai things like scaring pigeons and lip-synching on the steps of the Asiatic Society library.

It’s when they decide to move in together that the film, ever so slightly, raises the emotional stakes. We already know that Tara, an architect, wants to move to Paris, while game creator Adi is eyeing fame and fortune in the US. They’re on borrowed time—something that Ali and dialogue writer Gulzar underline through the example of the elderly couple subletting a room to Adi. Charu (Leela Samson) has Alzheimer’s; she’s hesitant but still mentally present, except for worrying episodes in which she wanders off alone. Her husband, Gopi (Naseeruddin Shah), knows she’ll be lost to him soon, but puts on a brave face. It’s a reasonable, if somewhat pat, parallel: an imposed expiry date for one relationship, a self-imposed one for the other.

For a film about people who’d rather move up in the world than make the kind of compromises relationships require, there’s one significant stumbling block: no viewer with a grip on reality would mistake either Adi or Tara for the career-obsessed sort. What will the millions of young people who actually have to juggle relationships and their careers make of these two, barely breaking a sweat, receiving nothing but congratulations from their bosses, with nothing as prosaic as a late night in office to disturb their pursuit of fun?

OK Jaanu is more froth than coffee— sweet and diverting, but lacking the kick of emotion. Apart from Baadshah’s version of "Humma Humma"—a remake within a remake, and a crime against nature—the soundtrack, with A.R. Rahman reworking his OK Kanmani tunes, screeches and thrums beautifully. Kapoor gives what might be her best performance (though there isn't much to choose from), the conflicting emotions on her face in the latter stages hinting at a complexity the film just doesn’t possess (Kapur prefers to submit one emotion at a time). All in all, a film that fits snugly into a category coined by critic Andrew Sarris: lightly likeable.

This review appeared in Mint.

The best Hindi films of 2016

If we’re being honest, 2016 wasn’t a great year for Hindi cinema. Last year, a list of noteworthy films might have stretched to 10, maybe even 15. Pickings were a lot slimmer this time around, though the predominance of mid-budget titles on the list is, perhaps, cause for some cheer. Here are our top eight films that released in theatres this year.

8. Jugni
In another year, Jugni would have placed amongst the also-rans: a modest film, with individuality and charm and some evident flaws. First-time director Shefali Bhushan drew from her own life to tell the story of Vibhavari (Sugandha Garg), a music producer who travels to Punjab to record a local artist, Bibi Saroop (Sadhana Singh), and ends up being fascinated by—and fascinating—her son, a singer named Mastana (Siddhant Behl). The city-dwellers aren’t as well-etched as their small-town counterparts, and the film’s third act, which unfolds in Mumbai, is a bit of a mess, but as long as the film is in rural Punjab, Jugni is a blast, full of salty dialogue, Clinton Cerejo’s crackling Sufi music and a star-making turn from Behl as the motormouth Mastana.

7. Phobia
Pawan Kripalani’s Phobia uses the refractive lens of genre to explore ideas of consent, women’s navigation of urban spaces and the weight of societal judgement—issues tackled much more bluntly in one of the year’s most talked-about films, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink. Pink had little time for genre, or frills, or for anything that distracted from the task at hand. Phobia, on the other hand, addresses issues, but at a remove—you could watch it as a straight-ahead horror film and come away satisfied. Not everything adds up, but the psychological grounding of the central character’s agoraphobia is fascinating, and Radhika Apte is compellingly frayed.

6. Dangal
The first hour and a half of Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal is as close to perfect as mainstream Hindi film-making got in 2016. After that, the film’s attempts to keep its lead actor central to the story hamper the narrative, but there’s still plenty to enjoy: juicy comic performances from the young actors and Aamir Khan, observant, witty writing and direction, and some blistering fights. A fitting coda to a year in which Indian women athletes, including a Haryana wrestler, shone at the Olympics.

5. Aligarh
Professor S.R. Siras, dismissed by Aligarh Muslim University after a video of him in bed with a man surfaced, was the public face of a movement, and a most reluctant figurehead. This dichotomy is at the heart of Aligarh, which is at its best when sticking close to the retiring academic. The lopsided scenes in court and in the TV studio cannot compare with the quiet power of the conversations between Siras and Deepu Sebastian, the reporter who becomes his friend. The film derives much of its power from Manoj Bajpayee’s extraordinarily delicate portrayal of Siras, and from Rajkummar Rao’s sympathetic supporting turn.

4. Udta Punjab
The film no one could agree on. Did it go too far, or not far enough? Did you go in expecting Trainspotting and get Traffic, or vice versa? Like Abhishek Chaubey’s previous films, Udta Punjab was profane, eccentric and ramshackle, jaundiced in its view of humanity but also capable of bursts of unexpected warmth. As a look at a society ravaged by drugs, it was harrowing, and the contrasting styles of the film’s lead actors generated its own tension. Controversy seemed to dog the project, from the Central Board of Film Certification asking for an unprecedented number of cuts to reports that the plot was very likely inspired by Ben Elton’s novel High Society.

3. Neerja
If you liked Airlift well enough but felt that the film worked too hard to sanctify its central character, Neerja is the antidote. After a soft-focus opening (necessary, in the larger scheme of things), Ram Madhvani’s film becomes a lean, largely unsentimental Paul Greengrass-like thriller. Sonam Kapoor plays Neerja, a character based on flight purser Neerja Bhanot, whose quick thinking saved the lives of 359 passengers aboard a Pan Am plane stormed by hijackers at Karachi airport on 5 September 1986. As the hijacking unfolds, the film interjects scenes from Neerja’s abusive marriage, which she eventually walked out of. It’s a moving tribute, illuminating not one, but two, moments in an otherwise ordinary life when courage sprang up, unbidden.

2. Waiting
Anu Menon’s film, about a young wife and an old husband whose spouses are comatose in a Kochi hospital, could easily have been soppy or morbid. Instead, it’s funny and sharp, eschewing the high drama of sickness and hospitals and exploring their tedium instead. Naseeruddin Shah’s Shiv has tended to his comatose wife for so long that he has almost turned into an amateur physician himself, to the profound irritation of her actual doctor. Once Kalki Koechlin’s spiky Tara turns up, he becomes a sort of hospital coach for her, while she gets him to loosen up. Life lessons are learnt by all, but Menon’s tart script (co-written with James Ruzicka and Atika Chohan) and low-key directorial style, and a beautifully fractured performance by Koechlin, steer the film clear of TV drama cliché and towards a clear-eyed empathy.

1. Kapoor & Sons (since 1921)
The dysfunctional family drama is a subgenre most commonly associated with American indie cinema. Yet, given the complexity of our family structures, it’s ideally suited for adaptation here. In recent years, various film-makers have responded to it in different ways: Piku, Dil Dhadakne Do, Titli. Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons doesn’t cast the genre in a new light, but it might be the most satisfying exploration, in recent Hindi cinema, of a family held together by duct tape and hope. Long-standing resentments surface and assorted neuroses brush up against each other, but Batra avoids the preciousness of genre staples like Little Miss Sunshine, finding a brittle, bright tone of his own. A wonderful ensemble–Alia Bhatt, Rajat Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Fawad Khan, Sidharth Malhotra, Ratna Pathak Shah—brings it all back home; the scenes where everyone’s yelling at each other are more propulsive and thrilling than anything

While this hasn't been a particularly fruitful year for Hindi cinema, it has yielded moments and characters that'll stick: the collective sigh that greeted Fawad Khan's first scene in Kapoor & Sons; Kumud Mishra's bureaucrat in Airlift; Salman Khan (!) looking disgustedly at his reflection in Sultan; the determination of Swara Bhaskar and Sonam Kapoor, the nervous energy of Radhika Apte and Kalki Koechlin, Alia Bhatt's calm interiority; Nawazuddin Siddiqui crying wolf in Raman Raghav 2.0; "Tum hote kaun ho mere liye kuch bhi karnewale" (Fan); the lyrics to Haanikaarak Bapu; the way Kanika Kapoor sings "Khabardaar rahiyo rahiyo ve"; the 'Purushottam' segment in Island City; Anuritta K Jha screaming at Siddhant Behl in Jugni: "X-ray kar liya tha uss chudail ka"; the humanity in the comedy tracks of Pankaj Tripathi (Nil Battey Sannata) and Rajeev Ravindranathan (Waiting); Jimmy Shergill in Happy Bhag Jayegi, never funnier than when he's not getting the girl.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Dangal: Review

During one key moment in Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal, the national anthem plays. Not the full thing, maybe three-quarters, but enough to get the theatre audience I saw it with thinking. Were they supposed to stand? Were they bound to? What would happen if they didn’t? Writing this now, I’m still conflicted. If I mention that I didn’t stand, could that be used by someone to have me arrested?

I probably wouldn’t have mentioned this burst of national feeling (the anthem was followed by a “Bharat mata ki jai”, coming, thankfully, from the screen) if it had felt in some way integral—or at least in tune with—the film. But Dangal has little use for country before this juncture. The moment feels shoehorned in, like an item number or a comedy track. It makes you wonder: is this the price of making movies in hyper-patriotic times?

Until well into the film, Geeta and Babita Phogat don’t want to win medals for their country, or for themselves. They don’t want anything, really, except their childhood back. But this has been whisked away by their father, a former grappler named Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan), who’s got it into his head that his two older daughters will be champion wrestlers—all because they beat up a couple of schoolboys who were teasing them. And so he wakes them up at five every morning and runs them ragged. He monitors their diet, rations their leisure time. When they protest, he cuts their hair. Eventually, he begins to teach them how to wrestle, also enlisting his hapless nephew in the cause.

There’s a grim, Foxcatcher-like film somewhere inside Dangal, about a father who ruins the lives of his girls by pushing them to make good on his own unfulfilled dreams. But Dangal’s attitude towards Mahavir’s regime is light-hearted—even if he is a tyrant, the film seems to argue, he’s the right sort. The film can afford to paint Mahavir as unyielding and cruel because we know what’s to come: Geeta and Babita will go on to become professional wrestlers as that’s what happened with their real-life counterparts, both national champions and Commonwealth Games gold medal winners.

Because there are no women wrestlers to compete against, Geeta and Babita are pitted against boys in the local dangal (tournament). The build-up to Geeta’s first fight is leisurely, and I found myself wondering if the film—charming as hell up to this point— was going to squander its gains by not being able to make a convincing show of wrestling. Most Bollywood sports films slow down the action, cut it up, use close-ups to hide the actor as much as possible. Dangal, however, observes large portions of its bouts at a distance, enough for the viewer to realise that they aren’t faking the entire thing. The choreography is tremendous, arms hitting bodies and bodies hitting mats with satisfying thwacks and thuds.

As long as it stays in the Phogats’ village of Balali in Harayana, picking up on little details and wisecracks, Dangal is near perfect. In time, however, the older Geeta must move to the National Sports Academy in Patiala to continue her training. At first, this lends the film some useful friction, as the freedom she finds there clashes with her father’s set ideas. But then Dangal loses its nerve and becomes another Bollywood film that won’t allow its lead actor to slip into a supporting role.

The film nearly hobbles itself in its efforts to keep Mahavir relevant. Geeta’s new coach (played by Girish Kulkarni, memorable as the police officer in Ugly) turns out to be incompetent and vindictive, all so her father can swoop in and save the day. (One particular act of villainy committed towards the end belongs in a Tom and Jerry skit.) It might have been more intriguing to see Geeta try and reconcile the techniques she learnt growing up with the demands of the international arena. But the film doesn’t trust the audience to handle any complexity; old good, new bad—end of discussion.

Luckily, even as the Mahavir track becomes increasingly desperate, Dangal never loses interest in the girls. Tiwari, who made the charming Chillar Party, has a knack for getting younger actors to relax on-screen, and the four leads—Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar as the younger Geeta and Babita, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra as the older versions—respond beautifully to the physical and emotional demands of their parts. Apart from a few flashbacks in which he’s implausibly muscled up, Khan lumbers around a huge gut and an expression of supreme disgust. He’s never been the most natural of comic actors, but Dangal reveals something undeniable: he’s the perfect straight man.

This review appeared in Mint.

Rogue One: Review

How fitting it would be for Gareth Edwards were hired to direct a DC movie. He loves the dark. He hasn’t any particular sense of humour. His ear for dialogue is about as finely tuned as Christopher Nolan’s: exposition, clunky stirring line, repeat. After his no-budget breakthrough Monsters, he made Godzilla—occasionally spectacular, but lacking in wit and rather a slog to get through. The same is the case with Rogue One, the first Star Wars spinoff, of which DC’s favourite villain might reasonably ask, “Why so serious?”

Rogue One begins with a sequence that’s reminiscent of the protracted opening of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. This is not a useful comparison for Rogue One to bring upon itself: Tarantino has penned few better things than that initial pas de deux, while the writing in Edwards’ film has, at best, a meat-and-potatoes solidity. Perhaps there were too many writers involved—the screenplay is credited to Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, the story to John Knoll and Gary Whitta. Then again, Casablanca had a roomful of writers and that worked out fine.

Rogue One is set in the period preceding the events of A New Hope. The film is built around a solid kernel of an idea: the Death Star is being conceived and for that, the Empire needs a former employee, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who’s hiding out on a deserted planet with his wife and daughter, Jyn. An Imperial squad, headed by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), tracks him down, but Jyn manages to escape. Years later, she’s tracked down by the Rebel Alliance, a ragtag group battling the Empire. An Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) has defected and is carrying a message from her father concerning the Death Star. Jyn (Felicity Jones) is sent to track him down with the help of Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna).

Anyone who’s seen A New Hope will have an idea where this story must end. This makes Rogue One more of a ‘how’, rather than a ‘what’, film—nothing new for the franchise, which includes George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, the longest ‘how’ in cinema history. We know that the Death Star was eventually constructed, and that details of its weakness were eventually smuggled to the Jedi. The only questions left are mundane ones. Will Jyn ever crack a smile? Can you fell multiple Stormtroopers with a stick, as Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) does so spectacularly? Is Moody Cassian the new Emo Kylo Ren?

It’s rare for Hollywood franchises to sport genuinely multiethnic casts (the Fast and Furious films are exceptions), so all credit to Rogue One for including British Asian (Riz Ahmed), Mexican (Diego Luna), Danish (Mads Mikkelsen), Australian (Ben Mendelsohn), Chinese (Jiang Wen) and Hong Kong (Donnie Yen) actors in key roles. Yet, very little comes of all this. Luna and Jones are fine dramatic actors, but they can’t seem to access the lightness of touch necessary to power a film like this; the charm of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in The Force Awakens is sorely missed. Mikkelsen is too subdued; Whittaker could do with some subduing.

I did enjoy Yen, one of Asia’s biggest action stars, as a blind man who wields a mean stick—his character seems to be a tribute to Zatoichi, the classic blind swordsman of Japanese cinema, though it also returns the Force to its zen-wuxia roots. There are also a couple of city- and planet-levelling explosions that are incongruously beautiful. But moments like these, when the screen comes alive, are rare. Maybe fans of the franchise will appreciate Edwards’ attempts to add to Lucas’ universe without playing spot-the-reference, as J.J. Abrams did shamelessly but entertainingly in The Force Awakens. Speaking for myself, by the time the galaxy was done being saved, I’d drifted far, far away.

This review appeared in Mint.

China girls and future nostalgists

In film lab parlance, a “China girl” was the image of a woman that appeared in the countdown leader of a reel. It was used by technicians to match skin tone and colour density. No one is sure how the term came about, but the most widely accepted origin theory is that, sometimes, instead of women, porcelain figures (hence “china”) were used as models.

In his documentary Electric Shadows: Journeys In Image-making, Avijit Mukul Kishore juxtaposes one China girl with another: Helen dancing to "Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu" in Shakti Samanta’s 1958 Hindi film Howrah Bridge. Clothed in a cheongsam, eyebrows arched, Helen is a delightful Orientalist cliché, no more Chinese than the women on the film leaders. It’s a potent comparison, one that uses film history and technique to point to the medium’s capacity for deception.

In 2011, a film festival called You Don’t Belong: Pasts and Futures of Indian Cinema was organized by West Heavens Project, a cultural exchange programme. Kishore, whose Snapshots From A Family Album was part of the line-up, travelled to Beijing and Shanghai. The plan was for him and the other film-makers from India to make a film on the festival. That film never materialized, but Kishore was sufficiently intrigued to return in December 2014 to shoot a documentary of his own. Along with architect Rohan Shivkumar, he travelled to Beijing, Shanghai and Kunming, interviewing a range of people, from film curators to Mao-era memorabilia shop owners. This became Electric Shadows, whose title is the literal English translation of the Chinese word for cinema—dianying.

Even with its slight running time of 40- odd minutes, the film manages to touch upon Bruce Lee, Mani Kaul, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, state censorship, 1920s Shanghai and Jawaharlal Nehru and still find time for a sequence in which Kishore flies over fields and cities dressed like a warrior out of a Zhang Yimou film. When I met him and Shivkumar, Kishore told me that he’d set out to explore how image-making and propaganda affects culture. The film also shows easily we can reduce a culture to its most popular export, like the scene in which Shivkumar gets requested for photographs by a series of young girls who either believe he’s Shah Rukh Khan or feel he looks close enough for it not to matter.

Electric Shadows suggests that the long-standing embargo on culture during the Party years left the Chinese people somewhat unmoored. Johnson Chang, director of the West Heavens Project, speaks of his frustration with what he sees as a loss of contact with Chinese history. “Because of that we get indigestion from what is coming in from the outside,” he says. “The way the Chinese consume images, it’s like the image has no history at all,” Shivkumar says. As a young man from Shanghai puts it: “It’s a nostalgia only for the present.”

This statement seems to be the jumping-off point for the other Kishore film screening this month. Nostalgia For The Future, co-directed with Shivkumar, is a meditation on home and belonging, architecture and the nation—themes Kishore has explored previously in documentaries like Vertical City and Snapshots From A Family Album. It explores various houses, from the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara to B.R. Ambedkar’s modest dwellings in Mumbai, and through these, various ideas of “home”: as raw communion with nature (Le Corbusier’s designs), as pure spirit (Gandhi), as engineering (government housing in Delhi).

As Kishore points out, the film has something else in common with his previous work: it’s exploration of film form. Kishore is a cinematographer; he majored in the discipline at the Film and Television Institute of India and has shot, apart from his own films, Ashim Ahluwalia’s John & Jane, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s The Immortals and several others. In Nostalgia For The Future, he mixes digital with 16mm footage and clips from Hindi films and old Films Division documentaries. The 16mm interludes, in black and white and colour, tie in with the title of the film: they’re present-day scenes, but the hazy images and the rounded corners of the screen impose a nostalgia of their own.

Nostalgia For The Future isn’t a difficult film, but it’s definitely a thoughtful one. Though he’s used a voiceover for the first time, Kishore refrains from imposing any definitive conclusions. You could get happily lost—as I did at times—in the beautifully precise images, or you can try and unpack the ideas about architecture, philosophy, nation-building, city planning, class and caste that keep coming at you. Sometimes, you may find the film triggering a personal response. As I heard Nehru defend the architecture of Chandigarh by saying that sometimes India needs to be hit on the head in order for it to think, it struck me that I’d heard similar sentiments voiced in the last few weeks by supporters of the demonetization drive.

If you live in Mumbai and are interested in documentary, chances are you’d have run into Kishore and Shivkumar. They frequently take on curatorial work: for the Movies at the Museum sessions at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum and, in the past, for the Mumbai Film Festival and Films Division’s happily revived weekly programme, FD Zone. I ask them whether they agree with something Chang says, that to be a film curator you have to be optimistic. “You have to be an optimist, period,” Shivkumar says, laughing. Kishore agrees, adding, “There are so many films that will never make it to the market. What is possible to do is more important than what you might not be able to.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Befikre: Review

Befikre begins with "Labon Ka Karobaar" – literally, the business of lips – a musical number that would appear to double the number of kisses that have ever taken place in Hindi cinema. It’s a Benetton advertisement’s-worth of making out: kisses cutting across race, age, sex. And there’s more kissing to come in the film – chaste pecks, fairly carnivorous attacks, sloppy ones that make you want to avert your eyes – most of it accompanied by swoony camera movements. A kiss, no matter how much Aditya Chopra would want you to believe, isn’t just a kiss, it’s an event.

Having introduced one major theme (in France, people kiss a lot), the film immediately sets about establishing another (relationships are messy). Dharam (Ranveer Singh) and Shyra (Vaani Kapoor) are having a knock-down-drag-out fight that ends not with her throwing a TV out of the window, surprisingly, but with him calling her a “French slut”. She leaves, and the film jumps back a year to show us how they got together in the first place. You know how it goes: two Indians meet in a European city, hook up/make out, decide later that they’ll just be friends. Cocktail had the carnal version, Tamasha the chaste one. More worryingly for Befikre, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil explored similar territory little over a month ago.

While the copious smooching (and a split-second shot of a bare behind) will probably be cited as evidence of Befikre’s progressive outlook, there’s more substance in Dharam unexpectedly apologizing for his slut remark. It was my inadequacy that made me judge you, he tells Shyra. You expect such a sentiment from Ranbir Kapoor, a star with an unusual propensity for exploring weakness, not so much from the cocksure Singh.

For the first hour, Befikre goes back and forth in time, tracking the pair’s progress from hook-up to live-in couple, and returning periodically to their uneasy present. Watching Singh and Kapoor try and out-brazen each other is amusing at first (there’s a whimsical scene, built around a cornflake, which takes place in a department store) but eventually, I began to wonder when the stakes would be raised, if there were to be stakes at all. Complications do surface, but Dharam and Shyra, with their dares and their rebellion and their annoying energy, are more t-shirt slogans than characters in whom one can emotionally invest. For a film about relationships, there’s little insight offered into why we behave the way we do in love and lust, just a reiteration of that old chestnut: former lovers can’t be friends.

Befikre is set entirely in France, and doesn’t seem to have any qualms about resembling a glossy travel ad, building scenes around the Eiffel Tower and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont Bridge. At one point, it’s announced that the characters are headed to the “exclusive region of Picardy”. This love of all things French is matched by the film’s disdain for all things Delhi. Whenever Dharam says something unfortunate, Shyra retorts with “Kar di na Dilli waali baat (There’s that Delhi thinking again)”. I’m surprised that a film with such a monumentally shoddy (and casually cruel) final set-piece can afford to point fingers at anyone else’s thought process.

When the Befikre trailer released, a friend told me she was worried Kapoor would be playing a version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She isn’t, and there’s a directness to her gaze and her speaking voice that suits the forthright Shyra. If there’s a manic pixie in the film, it’s Singh, who preens and struts around like he’s on uppers. They’re well-matched, these two actors, and it’s unfortunate that the material they’ve been handed is so slight. A parting plea: could Bollywood directors reign in the self-referencing? There are three explicit nods to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which only serves to remind those who aren’t charmed by self-homage that Chopra’s reputation as a director rests almost exclusively on a film made 21 years ago.

This review appeared in Mint.

Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh: Review

Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh isn’t a sequel to Kahaani, but it may as well be. I’m not talking about the shared setting (West Bengal) or lead actor (Vidya Balan, playing Vidyas in both) or genre (urban thriller). Instead, the films are inextricably linked because the narrative tricks of the first colour the viewing experience of the second. The 2012 film hinged on a lying flashback: protagonist Vidya Baghchi’s memories turned out to be deliberately—and significantly—misleading. The film was a success, but from point on, Ghosh had been put on notice: he’d cried wolf once.

If someone has lied to you before – and a false flashback, no matter how clever, is a cinematic lie – it’s difficult to put the thought out of your mind that they might do it again. This, at least, was how I made my way through Kahaani 2: two hours and ten minutes of second-guessing and waiting for the other shoe to drop. I actually spent the intermission trying to convince my friends that Jugal Hansraj’s blatantly obvious villainy was a smokescreen, that his hamming was a subtle hint that we were dealing with an unreliable narrator. I won’t tell you if my guess was right, but if one of Ghosh’s goals as an artist is to mess with his viewer’s heads, then he’s totally succeeded with me.

In a film that’s essentially one twist after another, it’s difficult to separate the spoilers from the bare bones of the plot. Here is my attempt at parsing. Vidya Sinha (Balan) is living with her wheelchair-bound daughter, Mini (Tunisha Sharma), in the small West Bengal town of Chandannagar. They’re almost set to leave for the US, where Mini has been slotted for an operation that could restore the use of her legs. But the girl is kidnapped and Vidya, running frantically to reach the address texted to her by the abductor, is hit by a car.

Things become even knottier when Inderjit (Arjun Rampal), the cop assigned to Vidya’s case, recognises her as someone he knew named Durga; fitting, considering Balan was a figurative Durga by the end of Kahaani. Soon, we’re in a flashback derived from Vidya’s diary entries— a perfectly reasonable storytelling device, but one that set off a series of unreliable narrator alarm bells in my mind. The film cuts between the two storylines, adding characters along the way: Inderjit’s comical boss (Kharaj Mukherjee), Jugal Hansraj and Amba Sanyal as Mini’s relatives, and a female assassin who isn’t a patch on Bob Biswas, the sad sack killer of Kahaani.

At times, Kahaani 2 is a little too reminiscent of Kahaani for its own good. It’s almost as if Ghosh is convinced that these films (and perhaps Te3n, which he produced, and which has plenty in common with Kahaani 2) constitute a franchise, and that he has to live up to the expectations of fans who’d be disappointed if the new film didn’t have an assassin, two cops (one straight ace, the other morally compromised), and a moment of high drama that turned out to be visual deception. It’s not that Ghosh doesn’t have a fresh story to tell — some of the subplots in this film could sustain a whole feature by themselves. Still, by the time the (fairly shaky) denouement arrives, you can feel the narrative strain to top Kahaani’s final reveal.

Ghosh’s eye is just as keen as it was four years ago. There’s a wealth of visual detail scattered across the film; one of my favourite throwaway moments is when Inderjit chases a fake-passport supplier through his workplace and we catch a split-second glimpse of art forgeries stacked in a room. You can’t fault the pace either: editor Namrata Rao, a Kahaani alum, hurries the scenes along. You can fault some of the acting: Hansraj is very broad, as is the actor playing the assassin. Balan is convincingly harried, but the spark of a few years ago is somewhat dimmed. Rampal’s low-wattage performance, though, might be his best.

Compared to the vivid Kahaani, this film has a blanched look, perhaps in keeping with its dark subject matter. It’s a frenetic 130 minutes, but I never really felt for Vidya Sinha the way I did for Vidya Bagchi. Perhaps I was just too caught up waiting for Ghosh to fool me twice.