Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pink: Review

The most memorable image in Pink is that of Deepak (Amitabh Bachchan) walking from his Delhi home to a nearby park, wearing a gas mask and breathing heavily. As Darth Vader imitations go, it’s a commendable 6/10. Yet, as a repeated detail, it’s also empty, an impressive-looking trick that signifies nothing. This is the only bit of compulsive behaviour—if that’s what this is—that Deepak displays. There are brief mentions of mental health problems, but wandering around Delhi with a gas mask is hardly an indication of an unstable mind.

This isn’t the only story strand that Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink introduces and then forgets about. Minal (Taapsee Pannu) is abducted and sexually assaulted by men who want to teach her a lesson for injuring their friend and speaking to the police. Whether the film needed this incident at all is debatable, but once it happens, one would expect it to be at least a minor part of the ensuing narrative. This, however, doesn’t happen. I wouldn’t want to suggest that rape—like Deepak’s mental health, or his dying wife—is being used as colourful detail, but it certainly feels that way.

This is unfortunate, because Pink is earnestly, vocally in the corner of its female characters. The film begins with Minal and her roommates, Falak (Kirti Kulhari) and Andrea (Andrea Tariang), in a cab, panicked and desperate to reach home. In another cab, Rajveer (Angad Bedi) holds a bloodied cloth over his eye while his friends assure him that they won’t let “those women” get away with it. We find out that it was Minal who’d hit Rajveer with a bottle after he wouldn’t stop touching her. It also transpires that he’s the nephew of a powerful politician—a cliché, really, given he’s the bad guy in a Delhi-set Hindi film.

Rajveer’s friends stalk and threaten the women, who live in a rented South Delhi flat and don’t have anyone to turn to. After Minal’s abduction and assault, they register a case with the police, upon which Rajveer files counter charges, including attempt to murder. It’s at this point that Deepak, who’s been glowering and acting weird on the edges of the narrative, is revealed to be an attorney. He agrees to take on Minal’s case, though why her roommates, even in their desperate state, would think that a retired lawyer with mental health issues would be a good bet is less than clear.

After the pregnant pauses, careful framing and unbearably tasteful background music—all of which suggest a Bengali film that happens to be unfolding in Delhi—of the first half, it’s a relief when Pink morphs into a charged courtroom drama. It’s not that the proceedings aren’t gimmicky; Deepak begins his arguments with single-word phrases like “superwoman” and “no”, and his attacking his own client on the stand is so transparent a strategy that the makers put it in the trailer. But at least the film begins to execute what seems to have been its plan from the start: to have Bachchan lecture viewers on how the dice is always loaded against women in India. There’s a bit of moral greyness introduced towards the end, but on the whole, Pink has all the righteousness and simplicity of a PSA.

Pannu, in her first worthwhile role in a Hindi film (most of her work has been in Telugu and Tamil cinema), manages to suggest someone who’s been drained of everything but a small sliver of resistance. Her unwavering determination is the moral centre of the film, even though it was Bachchan’s bluster that the audience I saw the film with responded to. Pink has its heart in the right place, but there’s very little joy to be derived from its sermons. In Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, James Stewart comes out of retirement to defend a man whose wife has been raped. It’s one of the least sanctimonious, most absorbing courtroom films ever. I don’t know if Bachchan’s Deepak Sehgal is a tribute to Stewart’s Paul Biegler, but Pink could have done with a dose of Preminger complexity.

Baar Baar Dekho: Review

If there’s one thing Hindi films have become increasingly adept at in the past few years, it’s the use of musical montage to collapse time and convey information. Baar Baar Dekho opens with two babies being born: a girl in England, a boy in India. Then, accompanied by the low-key singing voices of Jasleen Royal and Prateek Kuhad, we’re given a whistle-stop tour of Jai and Diya’s childhood and adolescence. We see them become friends, comfort each other, fall in love. By the time the song is over, they’re grown up and in a relationship.

It’s no coincidence that Baar Baar Dekho begins this way. The idea that life is made up of a few key moments—as opposed to a multitude of largely mundane ones—is at the heart of Nitya Mehra’s film. When Diya (Katrina Kaif) proposes marriage, Jai (Sidharth Malhotra) agrees but is soon overwhelmed by the build-up to the wedding. He tells Diya he needs to concentrate on his academic career, breaks off the engagement and drinks himself to sleep.

When he wakes up, he’s somehow been transported 10 days into the future, with no memory of the intervening time. He’s married, on his honeymoon in Thailand with Diya. The next morning, it’s a jump of two years. They’ve moved to England; he’s a mathematics professor at Cambridge, and the two of them are having a baby. Their marriage also seems to be cracking apart. The next jump takes him 16 years ahead. His son picks him up, takes him to court. Jai assumes the boy is getting married but eventually realizes that he and Diya are there to finalize their divorce.

Like Adam Sandler in Click—a film Baar Baar Dekho bears some resemblance to— Jai attempts to alter his destiny by changing his behaviour: making more time for his kids, being a more attentive husband. Whether or not you find the film resonant might depend on whether you buy the idea that a life’s course can be altered by a dramatic change in attitude on one important day, or whether it’s the accumulation of years of hurt or joy that ultimately decides our trajectories. Personally, I found the film’s admonitions of Jai rather simplistic—especially the repeated suggestion that being a gifted mathematician (he’s solved Fermat’s last theorem!) and a good family man are somehow incompatible.

In her first film as director, Mehra moves everything along briskly but is unable to add her own visual touch to the impossibly bright and beautiful Dharma house style (the other producer is Excel Entertainment). She collaborated with comic Anuvab Pal—who may have had a hand in some of the more outlandish gags, like the weird throat-clearing doctor or the grain of rice inscribed with the Hanuman Chalisa—and Sri Rao on the screenplay, which builds to an emotional crescendo that’s pat but satisfying. Anvita Dutt’s dialogue-writing is another matter, mostly fortune-cookie trite (“The answer to the future lies in the past”) and sometimes, just plain silly (“I’m not useless. I’m Jai Verma”).

It’s only taken 13 years but Kaif has finally delivered something resembling a credible performance. She’s still an impossibly studied actor, unable to relax or save a bad line (“Maine tumhare dreams ko hamesha support kiya hai”) the way Kangana Ranaut or Alia Bhatt might. Yet, her feeling for Diya—who keeps putting her dreams on hold until she no longer can—is so palpable that it’s touching. Malhotra—so striking that there are multiple scenes with students gazing moony-eyed at him—doesn’t quite have the comic chops to enliven Jai’s disorientation. With that soulful, lost expression as his default mode, he does just enough; Kaif goes a little deeper.

Sully: Review

A theme Clint Eastwood has returned to time and again over the course of his career is heroism, whether through his roles as outlaws and lawmen who cling to an idea of frontier justice, or through films which dissect what it means to be heroic. Sully might appear to be another exploration of conflicted heroism in the vein of Unforgiven and Flags of Our Fathers. Yet, this film doth protest too much. The more Chesley Sullenberger shrugs off praise, the more Eastwood seems to want to shower him with it.

In 2009, Sullenberger, a commercial pilot with US Airways, landed a plane with two malfunctioning engines on the Hudson River in New York City. By all accounts, it was an enormously skilful bit of flying, backed up by a whole lot of luck and the timely response of the authorities, who reached the passengers before the cold or the water claimed any lives. Eastwood does an efficient, tense rendering of the flight, malfunction and landing, but once the passengers are out on the water and we’re being taken through every detail of the rescue, there’s a sense that the film has run out of ideas.

The film uses as a framing device an official investigation into the circumstances of the crash. Sully (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles are brought before a committee headed by a man so needling and lacking in worshipfulness that it’s all too clear where this is headed. Even then, Eastwood can’t resist having someone tell Sully every five minutes or so that he’s a true hero. The director of Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby—films in which minor gestures carried tremendous weight—appears to have lost confidence in his audience. The shot of a man in a high-rise watching the plane fly dangerously low over New York brings to mind the 9/11 attacks, but the effect is ruined when Sully is later told that there hasn’t been much to cheer about in the city, especially where planes are involved.

The problem with Sully is that nothing apart from the incident at its centre is particularly interesting: not the good captain’s financial problems, or the flashback to another tricky landing he made, or the committee hearings. By the time we’re shown the entire flight and landing for the second time—and for no good reason—it’s clear that Eastwood is so enamored of his subject that he assumes the audience is as well. Hanks does all he can, but there are few nuances in the writing for him to explore. He’s trying to play a human being, while Eastwood is attempting to film a legend.

Island City: Review

One of the great themes of the modern Mumbai-set indie is loneliness. It runs through films as disparate as Dhobi Ghat, That Girl In Yellow Boots and The Lunchbox, driving the narrative, forcing characters to take emotional risks. The adage that you’re never more alone than when you’re in a crowd finds its purest expression in Mumbai, where it’s almost impossible to not be in a crowd. The architecture reinforces the idea of a diminished self. Island City begins with two contrasting images of high-rises: a gleaming corporate tower and a plain residential building. The implication is simple and crushing: Every day, at work and at home, you’re one lonely window among hundreds, gazing out at a city that’s too busy to care.

Another consistent theme in Mumbai-centric cinema is the dehumanizing effect of big-city life. Ever since Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote “Milta hai yahan sab kuchh, ek milta nahin dil, insaan ka nahin kahin naam-o-nishaan” in C.I.D. in 1956, Hindi film viewers have repeatedly been warned about the soullessness that accompanies progress in Mumbai, even as they’ve been simultaneously sold on its glamour and energy. Updating Sultanpuri’s “buildings, trams, motorcars and mills” for the digital age, Island City gives us a vision of Mumbai in which human feeling has been reduced to meaningless tag lines and computer code.

In Ruchika Oberoi’s film, it’s as if the machines have taken over but everyone is yet to realize that. People take orders from disembodied voices, consult fortune-telling robots, treat TV melodramas as more real than real life. In the first of the film’s three stories, Suyash Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak) is a dedicated white-collar employee in a company whose motto—orderliness, organization, obedience—is at odds with the message its human resource team is trying to convey (fun, frolic, festivity). “You people are not having enough fun,” his boss yells. “Why!?” No wonder, then, that Suyash treats his selection for a company-sponsored outing at a mall as just another task to be completed.

Oberoi, who also wrote the film, captures the inane emptiness of corporate-speak—those voluntary salary cuts and employee-motivation schemes. This kind of darkly comic, satirical tone isn’t seen much in Hindi cinema; it hews closer to the plausible science fiction of TV shows like Black Mirror or films like Her and Ex Machina. Still, it’s only in the third—and least satisfying—segment, about a desperately unhappy woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) who begins to receive letters from a secret admirer, that something resembling sci-fi is attempted. The denouement is a bit too clever, though, and it doesn’t work as well as the shock of the first story’s climax, which makes emotional, if not logical, sense.

The middle segment is close to perfection. It begins with a doctor telling Sarita Joshi (Amruta Subhash) that her husband is in a coma. She doesn’t seem too upset, and we learn in a series of flashbacks that the husband was a horrible person, berating her and her mother and their two children. With him out of the house, they’re actually getting to enjoy life. They buy a new TV and become addicted to a kitschy melodrama called "Purushottam" (that this show could as easily be a parody of Indian prime-time TV 10 years ago as today’s programming is a dispiriting thought). Things take a delightfully dark turn when the show’s paragon of a protagonist goes into a coma, and the Joshis end up more concerned about his fate than that of their own husband and father.

There are inspired touches throughout the film, like when Sarita’s mother, sprinkling holy water around the house, sees the comatose body on screen and showers a few drops on the TV, or Suyash’s employers and an altogether more sinister organization having the same motto. Oberoi’s scenario-writing is so good that one wishes her ear for dialogue was as sparkling; there are too many clichés (“Kitni baar kaha hai ki apni akal mat lagao”; “Honi ko kaun taal sakta hai?”) floating around, even for a satire. Also, apart from Pathak, Subhash and Ashwin Mushran, the performances are somewhat heavy-handed and lacking in wit. But what Island City achieves is far more important than where it trips up. As a tonally tricky, slyly subversive mood piece, it finds itself in a very small group of Hindi films. It’s also an intriguing new entry in the long tradition of films that explore the spiritual heartache of living in Mumbai.

This review appeared in Mint.

Goodbye, Gene Wilder

There’s a scene in Blazing Saddles where Cleavon Little’s Bart watches the Waco Kid, played by Gene Wilder, drink from the bottle. “A man drink like that and he don’t eat, he is going to die,” Bart says. Wilder looks at Bart with his blues eyes, half-sighs and asks, “When?” This is a Mel Brooks film, so a wisecrack is right around the corner (“Well, my name is Jim, but most people call me... Jim”), but it’s impossible not to be struck by the absolute pathos Wilder lends this one word.

Wilder died last Sunday in his home in Stamford, Connecticut, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was one of the great comic actors, capable of inspired hysteria and uncanny poise. From his first onscreen appearance as one half of a couple taken hostage in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), he seemed to be less in a hurry than other comic actors to get to the punchline. Of particular beauty was his voice, which would range up and down and sideways while his features, more often than not, remained impassive.

He had an electric start to his career: The brief role in Bonnie and Clyde was followed by his first starring role, as Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967). He was exquisitely funny as the sheep-loving doctor in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), and very sensible casting as the titular chocolatier in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). He made two more films with Brooks: Blazing Saddles (1974) and the brilliant Young Frankenstein (1974) (which he co-wrote). He acted with Richard Pryor—Brooks’ original choice for Bart in Blazing Saddles—in 1976’s Silver Streak; the pair would go on to star in three more films.

From the late ‘70s onwards, the roles weren’t as memorable, though Wilder still found ways to be funny and empathetic. I have vivid recollections, from the early days of Indian cable TV, of Wilder spoofing Rudolph Valentino in The World’s Greatest Lover (1977). After 1991, he quit the movies, preferring to act on TV, write and paint.

One could say that Wilder never achieved as much as he seemed to promise. Yet, another way of looking at his career is that he had one of the hottest extended streaks in the history of film comedy. Between 1967 and 1974, he acted in five films that’ll go down as major or minor classics, and others that were merely very good. He may have faded from the public memory somewhat, but his death will hopefully rekindle memories of Willy Wonka and the Waco Kid, Dr Frankenstein and Leo Bloom.

This piece appeared in Mint.

A Flying Jatt: Review

A Flying Jatt gives viewers a modern-day superhero in the mould of Sikh warriors. It’s a neat idea, but I couldn’t help feeling like the makers had missed out on a few ready possibilities. Superman ruined the kachera for all future crime-fighters, but where’s the Jatt’s magic kirpan? Tiger Shroff’s kesh are already magical, but imagine the comic potential in a special superhero kanga. It’s an indication of the film’s increasingly bizarre decision-making that they would take the least cinematic of the five articles of faith—the kada—and fashion an explosive moment around it.

Still, credit must be given where credit is due: director Remo D’Souza and screenwriter Tushar Hiranandani manage to situate their hero in a believable (if outrightly comic) local context, something that previous Hindi films in this genre have generally failed to do. Aman (Shroff) is a martial arts instructor who wakes up one morning after being pummelled in a dream by a large bald man to find that he has acquired superpowers. There are some delightful touches once his family realizes he can do just about anything physically imaginable. His mother lovingly fashions a suit for him on her sewing machine; later on, Aman (who assumes the moniker of “Flying Jatt”) is told to pick up lauki on his flight back home.

To begin a superhero film with a plaintive song about the environment may seem like an unusual choice, but pollution isn’t just a major theme in A Flying Jatt, it’s literally the villain. The bald brawler who appears in Aman’s nightmare is buried under toxic waste. In comic book tradition, what doesn’t kill you makes you a supervillain; in this case, one who grows stronger with every sniff of exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke (for once, that painful “smoking kills” warning seemed justified). Raka (former wrestler Nathan Jones) is resurrected and employed by crooked businessman Malhotra (Kay Kay Menon)—who’s been trying to acquire the land owned by Aman’s family—to kill the Jatt.

All this might suggest that D’Souza and Hiranandani have created a fairly original superhero. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most obvious powers of Flying Jatt—enhanced strength, speed and flight—are the same as Superman’s. He can hear the voices of faraway people in distress, again like Superman, but also like Daredevil. The climactic fight between Raka and Flying Jatt is very likely inspired by the battle in Superman IV. Raka levitates like Magneto and, though he looks more like an evil Sabu, he shares a name with the villain in the Chacha Chaudhary comic series. And the scene in which our hero seemingly stops time during a tense stand-off and zips around rearranging things is a shameless lift from the Quicksilver scenes in the two most recent X-Men movies.

Thievery is par for the course in big-budget Indian action films, but A Flying Jatt commits a bigger offence: It runs out of ideas and—rather fittingly for an environmentally conscious film—begins to recycle. The first half of the film is silly but quite watchable, with Shroff happy to play both clown and masked saviour. After the interval, though, the repetitions begin. We’ve already seen Aman’s brother, Rohit (Gaurav Pandey), put on the suit and pretend to be the Jatt; it’s funny the first time, but then we’re given the same routine again, and again. It’s established early on, then reiterated, that Aman’s love, Kirti, is a bit of a character, which is perfect for Jacqueline Fernandez, whose ability to play anything more than bits of characters has always been in doubt. We understand that Raka feeds on fumes; those pollution montages that look like the world’s worst grunge video are entirely unnecessary.

Amrita Singh is funny as Aman’s mother; her utter Punjabi-ness throws into sharp relief how un-Punjabi Shroff is. Still, I doubt authenticity will matter much to Shroff fans, who will likely be thrilled to see all his regular tricks—martial arts, dancing, slapstick—incorporated in the superhero narrative. A Flying Jatt is derivative, sloppily structured and, especially in its later stages, tacky beyond belief. That it might also be the best Indian superhero film ever (barring Mr India, if that qualifies) is an indication of how low the bar is set.

This review appeared in Mint.

The year of Akshay Kumar

If one were laying bets on which of the 15 August weekend releases would be the bigger hit, smart money would have been on the Rs 100 crore epic with the famous director and composer, not the one about the 1959 court case. And yet, by the time the weekend was over, it was clear that Rustom, starring Akshay Kumar, was easily outperforming Mohenjo Daro, starring Hrithik Roshan.

It’s kind of surprising Rustom was a hit at all. The film looked like it had been shot on a studio back lot. The soundtrack was unmemorable, the performances wildly variable, the direction competent at best (and, often, not even that). Estimates put its budget at half of Mohenjo Daro’s. But there’s one thing Rustom had that Mohenjo Daro didn’t: a star on the upswing. It opened big, and ended up crossing the 100 crore-mark in nine days.

Rustom wasn’t the only Kumar film to breach this barrier at the box office in 2016. In fact, the three films in which he’s starred this year—Airlift, Housefull 3 and Rustom—have each made over 100 crore. This is a pretty remarkable achievement, especially when you consider that none of the three belong to the genre that Kumar’s most commonly associated with: the action film. Sure, Housefull 3 is as mainstream as Bollywood comedy gets, but Airlift (based on the 1990 evacuation of Indians from Kuwait) and Rustom (a thinly veiled account of the 1959 Nanavati scandal) were, by Kumar’s standards, risky ventures, made by lesser-known directors, with the actor carrying the weight of the production.

The highest grosser so far this year is the Salman Khan-starrer Sultan. Numbers two, three and four are Airlift, Rustom and Housefull 3, followed by the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Fan. There are a couple of months to go, but we’re calling it now: 2016 is the year of Akshay Kumar.

A hundred crore at the box office isn’t the UFO sighting it used to be, but it still takes some doing. Sleeper hits (like Sairat) apart, the only way to achieve these numbers is to have a star who’ll guarantee a huge opening. After the three Khans, Kumar has become the actor whose films are most likely to open big. What’s even more impressive is that the Khans work with the top directors, have co-stars who are box office draws in their own right. Kumar, very often, is the lone draw in the films he’s in, taking fluff like Singh is Bliing and pulpy nonsense like Gabbar is Back to the bank.

Kumar’s bread and butter has always been the action comedy. He’s the genre’s most watchable star: easier on the eyes than Salman and with a lighter comic touch than Ajay Devgn. But Kumar has also been adding subtler shades to his acting of late. In Brothers last year, he was moving as the grizzled fighter who enters a MMA tournament to be able to pay his daughter’s medical bills. And this year, he did his most sustained bit of acting—no action, no comedy—in Airlift, his naturally relaxed speech patterns a good fit with his character’s considered decisiveness. He also flirted with greyness in Rustom, before the film gave up and turned him into a patriot.

Yet, of all his onscreen appearances this year, it’s his cameo in Dishoom that showed how comfortable Kumar is in his own skin. He turns up 30 minutes into Rohit Shetty’s film, sporting a kilt and a man bun and hitting on John Abraham and Varun Dhawan. It’s quite something to see a big star—an action star, no less—camp it up in a Hindi film (usually, this role would go to a comedian). In an interview to DNA, Kumar said he’d had no qualms about how the scene might affect his image. “I’m fully aware I’ve been a gay icon in India for many years now,” he said. “If I can be loved by the gay fraternity, why shouldn’t I portray one in good faith for all their love and support over the years?”

It’s difficult to imagine a statement like this coming from another actor of Kumar’s generation (it’s easier to imagine Ranbir Kapoor or Ranveer Singh saying it). It’s even more fascinating when you consider that this example of uncluttered thinking comes from an actor whose roles of late have tended towards overt nationalism. Add to this his increased willingness to act, rather than fight, his way out of a scene, and it seems fair to suggest that Kumar’s career will be one to watch with great interest over the next couple of years.

This piece appeared in Mint.