Saturday, July 27, 2013

Bajatey Raho: Review

Most great directors will tell you that the trick is to assume the audience is a step ahead. Of course, those of us fed on a steady diet of Bollywood have more realistic expectations. We’ll settle for not being viewed as ten-year-olds with short attention spans, which is how the makers of Bajatey Raho obviously see us. Maybe they aren’t that far off. Midway through the film, as plot holes filled with the steady rain of logical inconsistency and forced humour, we had the very childish urge to get up and say, “No more. We don’t like.”

What's an easy way to negate a dependable comic cast headed by Dolly Ahluwalia, Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak? Add a palpably confused Tusshar Kapoor to the mix. The foursome is out to get Sabharwal (Ravi Kishan), a crooked businessman whose ponzi scheme Ahluwalia’s husband inadvertently ran, and who died shortly after he was arrested for it. For some reason, the court orders Mummyji (Ahluwalia) and her son Sukhi (Kapoor) to pay the investors back their money. We expected a copy of Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less to turn up on screen at some point, but apparently the writers weren’t done consulting it.

We could forgive director Shashant Shah (Dasvidaniya, Chalo Dilli) if the cons pulled were inventive or unexpected, but Bajatey Raho’s plot twists can be seen from space. An uninspired script makes matters worse, forcing the actors to work hard and sell laughs that just aren’t there. Like so many Hindi movies nowadays, this one has half its dialogue in Punjabi, Bollywood’s new shorthand for insight into Delhi living. Yet, no one with the slightest feel for the city would ever use the drab Ansal Plaza as a shooting location. Our advice: stay home, re-watch Khosla Ka Ghosla and Special 26, and pray that Bajatey Raho was an attempt to rip these off and not Tower Heist.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

End of Watch: DVD Review

After The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans, The Shield, Rampart and a dozen other such dramas featuring morally compromised law enforcers, it’s a relief to finally see a film about cops who are relatively law-abiding and sane. Brian and Miguel are LAPD patrol officers, played with bromantic ardour by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Neither is excessively bright, but they’re good company, and good at their job. Director David Ayer (who wrote Training Day and directed Street Kings, both about crooked cops) takes his time, allowing us to observe their banter and bursts of action. Then, just when we're wrapped up in their lives, things turn tense.

End of Watch is an entertaining cop flick, but it isn’t above pretension. The shaky, odd-angled images look like they’ve been captured on spy cam. This is attributed to Brian making a video for a film class he’s joined, but the conceit isn’t followed through (the deliberately amateurish visuals aren’t limited to his point-of-view). Though this may have been intended as a comment on reality shows such as Cops, it’s more of a distraction than anything else.

Anna Kendrick brings humour and warmth to an underwritten role. Her willingness to goof off onscreen makes her a good fit for the amiable Gyllenhaal. Their chemistry notwithstanding, the real love story is of the two brothers in arms. The film acknowledges this, but stops short of puncturing this cliché of clichés. Still, while we continue to wait for a film about cops who aren’t crazy and/or in love with each other, End of Watch is a good interim option. No special features.

This uninspired review appeared in Time Out Delhi. 

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag: Review

Milkha Singh’s life has been so dramatic that you’d get a pretty remarkable film out of it just by sticking to the facts. A child of Partition, he rose from almost nothing to become India’s greatest sprinter. He also became a national sporting icon in a country that, till then, had reserved its veneration for cricket and hockey players. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag takes these facts and heightens them, gives them the old Bollywood shine. Whether or not you care about an embellishment here, a liberty taken there will probably end up determining how you react to this film.

Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra starts off on a curious note, with Milkha’s most famous error of judgment. After a strong start in the 400m at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Milkha turned while running and lost momentum. He ended up fourth by a whisker and retired without ever winning an Olympic medal. Among the many theories as to why he looked back, Mehra’s is probably the most inventive. He suggests the runner was distracted by the ghosts of Partition, an excuse wrapped in a personal tragedy.

After this perplexing opening, the story unfolds in flashback. We see Milkha as a happy, mischievous kid in Multan, telling his lame father (metaphor!) that he wants to become a fauji; later, his parents are killed before his eyes and he escapes across the border with his sister. There, he becomes a knife-wielding thief, before deciding to join the army to make something of himself and win the love of Biroo (Sonam Kapoor). There, he’s helped by a triumvirate of mentors (Prakash Raj, Pavan Malhotra, Yograj Singh) and gradually transforms himself into the legend we know.

Rakeysh Mehra’s term papers must have been hell to grade because he’s never made a point that he didn’t immediately underline. We know that Milkha became a national-level runner against some odds. But did he really break the national record after having had shoe spikes driven into his legs by jealous rivals the night before? Or take, for instance, the reasonable assertion that Milkha was a natural athlete. Mehra isn’t content with indicating this, or even having several people say it in different ways. No, he’ll take us into a long and unnecessary flashback, with schoolboy Milkha running across the burning sand.

When it isn’t off chasing phantoms, Bhaag Milkha is a solid sports film. The races – and there are a lot of them – are fast and convincing. Farhan Akhtar must have worked hard to acquire that whippet-like physique, but he also very successfully conveys the self-belief and mulish determination at the heart of Milkha’s success. Raj and Singh supply the tough love, and Malhotra is outstanding as the coach who first spots potential in the callow young recruit who runs simply for extra rations.

If that last bit reminds you of Paan Singh Tomar, you probably won’t be the only one. Yet, despite the many themes it shares with Tigmanshu Dhulia’s 2012 semi-indie, Bhaag Milkha is unapologetic about being a Bollywood biopic. Everything is larger than life: Milkha’s idea of making a point about corruption to a policeman is to drink two cans of ghee and do dozens of push-ups. Also very Bollywood is the relegation of all female characters to ceremonial roles. Divya Dutta is appropriately tearful as Milkha’s elder sister, Kapoor’s Punjabi accent remains untested, and Meesha Shafi – playing a national-level swimmer – might not have minded having little to do in a film that indulges in a fair amount of Pak-bashing.

Binod Pradhan, veteran cinematographer, indulges Mehra’s penchant for varied visual palettes in the same film. The soundtrack is by those masters of the generic, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, and the lyrics and dialogue by Prasoon Joshi. Go into it knowing that this race isn’t to the swift, and that you’ll be there for three hours.

This review appeared in Time Out.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Lootera: Review

O Henry’s short story “The Last Leaf”, published in 1907, is about a young artist with pneumonia who’s convinced she’s dying. What’s more, she believes that her final breath will coincide with the falling of the last leaf from the tree outside her window. Her downstairs neighbour, a painter, finds out about this and engineers a solution at once simple and brilliant. It is, as one might expect, a sad tale, though not a morbid one.
Vikramaditya Motwane takes more than this one leaf out of O Henry’s book. Not only does he subtly weave this story into the fabric of his second film, Lootera, he also manages that very O Henry-esque trick of making the actions of his characters, however misguided they might be, seem inevitable. And because the characters cannot help themselves, we do not judge them for it. Their missteps become ours.
The film opens in Manikpur, a village in West Bengal. It is 1953: Dev Anand is the big draw at the box-office, electricity is still making its way to the countryside, and the practice of zamindari is on its way out. This last development will soon make life difficult for a local zamindar (Barun Chanda). As of now, however, his only worry is the well-being of his daughter Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha), prone to extreme shortness of breath. And even her future seems secure when Varun (Ranveer Singh), a polite young archaeologist who’s been digging on the outskirts of the zamindar’s land, asks for her hand in marriage.
The first half of Lootera passes like a dream. In the three years since his debut Udaan, Motwane has become a remarkably assured filmmaker. He elects to show the steady infatuation of Varun and Pakhi not as a scored montage – Bollywood’s favourite new cheat code – but as a series of short scenes that seem to melt into each other. (The editor, Dipika Kalra, also worked on Udaan.) Yet, as the two fall for each other in halting, reserved, ’50s style, there are little hints that things might unravel. Varun’s friend reminds him of a certain cold-hearted uncle. The zamindar’s family heirlooms are taken away abruptly by a government official. And there’s that title – lootera, thief.
It isn’t much of a surprise – though you can skip to the next paragraph now if your tolerance for spoilers is low – when it’s revealed that Varun and his friend are conmen. Once they make away with the zamindar’s riches, the scene shifts to Dalhousie, where Pakhi is now wasting away, her father dead, her cough diagnosed as tuberculosis. Motwane then plays his one “Of all the gin joints” card and throws Varun back into her life. He’s there on a job again; this time, however, police officer KN Singh (Adil Hussain) is on his tail. The dream is over – the visuals are stark now, the colours muted, the stately progression punctured by bursts of action and drops of blood.
If casting Ranveer Singh and Sonakshi Sinha in a period drama seemed like a bold move initially, it’s unlikely anyone will question that decision now. Singh, best known for playing loud, sarcastic rakes, finds a Ripley-like mixture of shyness and cruelty in Varun. And Sinha – on nobody’s radar as a serious actress – is a revelation as the wilful Pakhi. Motwane finds poetry in their small and large gestures, and layers these with Amit Trivedi’s music, Mahendra Shetty’s rich cinematography and Anurag Kashyap’s dialogue. Everything comes together beautifully. It’s only halfway through 2013, but Lootera’s going to be the one to beat.
A version of this review is on the Time Out Delhi website.