Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Labour Of Love: Review

It’s been an unprecedentedly good year as far as theatrical screenings of non-mainstream Indian films are concerned. Court and Kaaka Muttai have already had brief, intense runs. Next month, audiences will get a first look at Masaan, which was screened in the Un Certain Regard category at last month’s Cannes film festival. And this week, there’s the rare opportunity to do an arthouse double bill, with the twin releases of Killa and Labour Of Love.

If Killa resists the art film label, Labour Of Love (Bengali title: Asha Jaoar Majhe) embraces it. This is an experimental film—so far off the beaten path that, despite Aditya Vikram Sengupta winning the best debut director prize at Venice Days (an independent event on the fringes of the Venice International Film Festival) last year, distributors fought shy of picking it up. One can imagine their reluctance to release a wordless drama about a Bengali couple in which the most dramatic thing that happens is the cooking of a fish curry. Eventually, Sengupta decided to release the film, in select metros, through his company, For Films. The film also won the best first film and best audiography at the National Film Awards this March.

Labour Of Love is a sensuous, detailed tribute to the daily rhythms of life in Kolkata. We start out knowing nothing about the couple—whether they are, indeed, a couple at all. Sengupta drops little hints—a bindi on a mirror, a common snack—that the woman (Basabdatta Chatterjee), who’s going about her factory job, and the man (Ritwick Chakraborty), who’s pottering around the house, are in some way connected. We find out they’re living together halfway through the film, but little else is revealed besides the fact that she works during the day, he at night, and the only time they get together is a brief interlude in the morning. The focus shifts from one to the other as they complete the mundane tasks that get them through their day.

Sengupta has said that the film is influenced by Bengali masters like Satyajit Ray and Tarun Majumdar, but Labour Of Love is also reminiscent of detail-obsessed European films like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Sengupta knows how to blend image and sound in a way that makes the most commonplace objects arresting. In the absence of dialogue and plot and and other familiar comforts, we’re forced to concentrate on the minutiae of life: a fish on a slab, ready to be cut open, eyes still blinking; water sizzling on the surface of a pan; grains being poured into a container; the sun slowly disappearing below the horizon. We’re made to notice textures, colours, hear sounds that we would normally ignore. At times, the bustle of life is replaced by musical selections—shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan’s rendering of raga Tilak Khamod, Geeta Dutt singing "Tumi Je Amar"—and then the image slows down, stretches out and unwinds like something out of a Wong Kar-wai film (the brilliantly tactile cinematography is by Sengupta and Mahendra Shetty (Udaan; Lootera); the equally impressive sound design is by Anish John).

Labour Of Love is one of the most visually and aurally striking films in recent years, but you have to wonder whether there’s enough going on within scenes to justify all that it chooses to leave out. The film makes it clear that there’s a recession going on, but we don’t know how this is affecting our couple—whether they’re both working because they have to pay the bills, or if that’s the way they prefer it. Apart from a beautiful, surreal 5 minutes at the end, the film seems content to expertly record everyday life than tell anything approaching a story. Still, I'd highly recommend you watch it and see if you can find a way in.

Killa: Review

It’s not surprising that the opening shots of Killa are a slow glide down a forest road, a diminutive figure sitting on the beach after sunset, and a young boy coming in from the rain. Nature registers with astonishing force in Avinash Arun’s film. It never just rains, it barrels down. Winds howl. Waves crash. And when the sun shines, the light is clear and touched by something other-worldly. It’s visually impressive, yet it also serves a higher purpose. In a film that’s so focused on childhood and memory, the fierceness of the elements prevents the narrative from slipping into sepia-tinted nostalgia.

Eleven-year-old Chinmay (Archit Deodhar) and his mother (Amruta Subhash) have just moved to a tiny seaside town in the Konkan region. His father died recently, and that’s obviously on his mind, but his biggest problem at the moment is adjusting to life in a small town (his mother requested a transfer from her government job in Pune because she thought the change would do them good). His school life gets off to a rough start: introducing him to the class, the teacher announces that he’s a scholarship-winner, an announcement that does nothing for his street cred. Still, he eventually falls in with charismatic, authoritative Yuvraj (Gaurish Gawade), class clown Bandya (Parth Bhalerao) and their gang.

Killa’s central scene—the clearest example of Arun pitting human drama against the backdrop of nature—takes place when the boys cycle down to an old fort. Chinmay has just beaten the highly competitive Yuvraj and the others in a race. While they’re fooling around, he wanders off to explore the fort. There’s a sudden storm, and he’s forced to take shelter. When he emerges, he realizes that the others have left him and gone. We see him screaming their names, but the wind is so strong we can’t hear the sound.

Was the abandonment intentional? Did Yuvraj have a hand in it? Or was it just bad luck that Chinmay disappeared from view? We’re never fully certain. At any rate, Chinmay reaches home, physically unharmed but emotionally dented. The betrayal seems to unlock the sadness and rage in this hitherto placid boy—he acts out, accuses his mother, who’s dealing with work troubles of her own. For a while, things are stormy. Then the seasons change. The sea becomes calmer. There’s a healing incident involving a drunkard and a boat trip. There are apologies all round. And there’s another upheaval, met with grace and acceptance.

Arun based this, his first film as a director, on childhood memories of living on the Konkan coast. His previous work has been as a cinematographer, and he took the decision—rare for directors—to shoot Killa himself. He has an eye for little details: a crab scuttling across the sand; the spiral of a staircase; a pencil box with compartments that pop out. Killa takes its cue from recent Marathi films about children (Shala, Vihir, Fandry) by resisting sentimentality and instead looking at childhood as a time of great uncertainty and flux. Yet, for all the turmoil, the film has charm to spare. The young cast is wonderful, especially Deodhar and the scene-stealing Bhalerao, and Tushar Paranjape and Upendra Sidhaye’s writing has a relaxed humour to it.

Even as a first-time director, Arun has the good sense not to push scenes into revealing their meaning. Early on, Chinmay and his mother visit a lighthouse, and a guide explains how its light guides ships home. Much later, Chinmay reads aloud a poem about a sailor surviving a storm and finds courage in the image of his mother. The film could have spelt things out at this point but Chinmay just smiles and says to his mom, “Deep, isn’t it?” It’s moments like these, which leaven emotion with humour, that make Killa such a pleasure to watch.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

ABCD 2: Review

Anybody can dance. But not everyone can direct. Or, to be more specific, not everyone can direct an actual movie. It is possible to direct a series of music videos, glue them together with dead mothers and missing fathers, and call it a movie, as Remo D’Souza does with this loose sequel to his 2013 film ABCD: Any Body Can Dance. It’s the curse of the modern dance movie—the Step Up formula of stock characters and sweet moves. We may have entered that dark age when sensible storytelling and krumping can no longer exist in the same frame.

ABCD 2 is based on the real-life exploits of Mumbai’s Fictitious Dance Group, which became the first Indian troupe to qualify for the World Hip Hop Championship in Las Vegas. In the movie, the group, renamed Mumbai Stunners, is led by Suresh (Varun Dhawan), who is driven by the memory of his deceased mother (“She died with her ghungroos on,” someone reminds him—a line that, for better or worse, is the most memorable one in the film). With the help of ace choreographer Vishnu (Prabhudeva)—the central character in ABCD—he starts putting together a team to help them achieve their shared dream of competing in Vegas.

This is dance porn at its most basic: there are audition dances and rehearsal dances, qualification dances and competition dances. In between all this, some approximation of an underdog tale unfolds, but in a most distracted manner. Plot strands are planted and then forgotten: for example, we’re never sure if the Stunners’ disqualification from a local competition for stealing another group’s steps—something that happened to the Fictitious troupe as well—is an actual case of cheating or just bad luck. There’s virtually no effort made to come up with inventive story solutions: when around Rs.20 lakh are needed, someone just turns up with the money at the last moment; when the film is three-quarters through, its female lead, Shraddha Kapoor, who hasn’t had anything to do yet besides dancing, suddenly finds herself in love with Dhawan’s character.

When people aren’t in motion on screen, ABCD 2 is a snooze. Luckily, that’s only 20% of the time. D’Souza, who worked for years as one of Bollywood’s most successful choreographers, packs the screen with writhing, seizing, arching, flying bodies. It’s thrilling stuff, all those flashy moves, rendered even flashier in 3D by Vijay Arora’s roving camera, accompanied by Sachin-Jigar’s EDM-heavy score. It is also choreographed to a T, and after a while I found myself wishing for something more free-flowing, with less precision and more personality. “We dance to express, not to impress,” says Suresh at one point. Their act struck me as the exact opposite.

But what do I know? Anybody with two left feet can write a review.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Spy: Review

Say what you want about Hollywood, it had the eventual sense to pluck Melissa McCarthy from the small screen and put her in movies, not as a best friend or comic relief, but as a lead actor. One should especially credit Paul Feig and Judd Apatow for realizing that McCarthy’s personality was too outsized and outré for TV. They cast her in Bridesmaids, where she shone as part of a very bright ensemble. Feig then directed her in The Heat, where she was the trash-talking yang to Sandra Bullock’s yin. And now comes Feig’s Spy, which confirms—if, indeed, confirmation was needed—that McCarthy is a bona-fide movie star.

When Spy is cooking, it’s terrific. And when the jokes don’t land—which is fairly often—McCarthy is there to keep us interested. This is her most satisfying role till date because she’s been allowed to expand on her roughhouse comic persona. Audiences used to the foul-mouthed characters McCarthy’s played in the past will get a kick out of Susan Cooper, the straight-laced CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) analyst wallflower who’s “in the ear” of the James Bond-like agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is killed on a mission to retrieve a suitcase bomb, Susan—with the sort of reverse logic that’s fuelled comedy since the days of Chaplin—is sent to complete the task because she’s the least likely person for the job.

The joke within the joke is that Susan is a terrific agent, just under-confident and cowed by the ebullience of Fine, whom she had a debilitating crush on. But once she finds herself in the field—first in Paris, then Rome, and Budapest—she starts knocking off bad guys like a diminutive Jason Bourne. There are three terrific comic foils—Susan’s fellow-analyst friend Nancy (British actor Miranda Hart), Jason Statham as an agent prone to outlandish boasts, and Rose Byrne (McCarthy’s co-star from Bridesmaids) as a supremely bored villain. But this is indisputably McCarthy’s film: it’s not only tailored to her personality, but also plays on the audience’s relationship with her (part of the pleasure of Spy is waiting for her to flip out, something which Feig cannily withholds for a long time).

Feig, who created the cult TV classic Freaks And Geeks back in 1999, has a knack for locating moments of sweetness in the midst of exceptionally crude humour. He’s also a rare Hollywood director who puts female friendships front and centre in his films. Spy is another triumph for him and McCarthy, though I have to say that nothing in the film made me laugh as hard as Statham. May their golden run extend to 2016 and the all-female Ghostbusters remake.

This review appeared in Mint.

The boy in the well

It was November 2013, and Avinash Arun was in Goa with a rough cut of Killa. The film, his first as director, had been selected for the National Film Development Corporation’s Work-in-Progress Labs, in which directors are advised on how to see their films through to fruition. One of the advisers was British film critic and long-time supporter of Indian cinema, Derek Malcolm. “People said different things; it’s a little long, it’s beautifully shot, there’s nothing in the film,” Arun recalled. “Derek, on the other hand, just said: ‘It will be very cold in Berlin in February’”.

It was very hot in Mumbai in mid-May when Arun told me this story. We were sitting in the Andheri office of Jar Pictures, the film’s producers. As Arun was to find out, it was indeed cold when he travelled to Germany to attend the Berlinale, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. The film had entered in the Generation Kplus category, which is dedicated to children’s films. It won the top prize, the Crystal Bear, awarded by a jury of 11-14-year-olds. Earlier this year, a considerably older panel declared Killa the Best Marathi Film at the National Film Awards.

A young boy (Archit Deodhar) and his mother (Amruta Subhash) arrive in this small seaside town. Still coming to terms with the death of his father, he has had to leave friends and family behind in Pune. Not unnaturally, he blames his mother for getting transferred. Yet, as the narrative quietly unwinds, we see him embrace his new surroundings and find a group of friends. There’s a sub-plot involving the mother that gives us a clue to why she keeps getting transferred, but Killa mostly sticks close to young Chinmay as he explores, fights, makes up, acts out; in short, behaves like any normal child.

Like many first-time film-makers before him, Arun mined his childhood for memories. His father had a government job, which meant that the family would relocate whenever he got a new posting. One particular stint early on in Arun’s life had a profound influence. When he was 3, his family moved to Murud, on the Konkan coast, for three years. “The film is about this introvert child who’s out of his comfort zone. It rains all the time, he has no friends. This was my experience.”

The film started to form in Arun’s head while he was studying at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. “Images from the time I was in Konkan would keep coming to me. After some time, I had to ask myself, why are all these things, I saw when I was very young, still following me? It was in trying to answer this question that Killa started taking shape.”

After graduating from FTII, Arun started working as a cameraperson on Hindi and Marathi films. His plan was “to work for a few years as a cinematographer, and if someone likes my idea and I find a producer, I can make my film.” While assisting Anil Mehta on Cocktail, Arun sought out a screenwriter named Tushar Paranjape, whom he knew from his FTII days. He narrated the idea that would become Killa, and asked him if he’d write the screenplay. When Paranjape agreed, Arun asked him to write a 40-page treatment and—sans producer or financier—wrote him a cheque for Rs.10,000.

The next piece fell into place on the shoot for Kai Po Che!, which Arun was again assisting on. The executive producer on that film was Ajay G. Rai of Jar Pictures, who happened to see Arun’s work on a short film by Gul Dharmani called Friday Night. The two of them got talking, and Rai mentioned that he was looking to produce a regional language film. He asked Arun if he knew of anyone with a promising idea. “Mere kaan khade ho gaye,” Arun said. He told Rai that he had this idea that kept haunting him, and began narrating an outline of Killa. Rai stopped him after 10 minutes, called his partner, Alan McAlex, and asked Arun to start again. Two days later, he got a call. He was going to be a director.

Arun decided to shoot the film himself (in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts), despite nearly everyone advising him against it. He wasn’t sure anyone else would be able to get the images in his head on to film. He was also convinced of the necessity of a protracted shooting schedule. Though the film took only 28 days to shoot, the production was stretched out over five months. “I wanted to wait for the right light, the right weather,” he says. “I wanted to have that difference. I wanted to have that feeling that time has passed.” The result is one of those rare films where changes in wind, light and scenery register with the force of emotions.

A curious and rewarding trend in modern Marathi cinema is the number of films about (though not always geared towards) children. Killa follows in the tradition of Shala, Balak-Palak and Fandry: its vision of childhood is clear-eyed and unsentimental, and there’s a darkness that offsets the charm of its young players (in particular, the irrepressible Parth Bhalerao as Chinmay’s friend Bandya). Arun didn’t include one of his darkest memories from the time, of being pushed into a well by another child. He was unhurt, but it triggered a fear of water in him, as well as a sense of betrayal that took a while to get over. This incident is transformed into the tremendous sequence at the fort (the titular killa), where Chinmay is left alone in a dark space, looking up at the light, the same way Arun must have been.

If you’re the kind who pays attention to film credits, you’ll see Arun’s name on screen a lot in the coming months. Killa will release in theatres on 26 June. The following month will see the release of two films he shot: Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, which recently picked up two awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and his biggest project till date, the Tabu and Ajay Devgn-starrer Drishyam. “I didn’t plan all this,” he said. “If I’d thought about it, I don’t think I’d have been able to do it.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jurassic World: Review

There’s a legendary argument that took place between Steven Spielberg and Paul Schrader during the writing of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Spielberg wanted the hero of his film to be a regular guy. Schrader, the original screenwriter had imagined the protagonist as an air force officer and told Spielberg that he wasn’t interested in sending, as Earth’s representative to another world, someone who would go and open a McDonald’s franchise there. “That’s exactly the kind of guy I want to send,” Spielberg replied.

Spielberg is only the executive producer on Jurassic World, but the film, directed by Colin Trevorrow, is the logical extension of the position he’d taken all those years ago. If his Jurassic Park represented an exciting new world, this film shows how that world has been commoditized, packaged and served up as a McDino. Nothing says this more than the first big reveal. Two children run into a room as John Williams’ heart-stirring score from the original movie begins to swell. One of them pulls the curtains aside to reveal…a dinosaur? No, we’re gazing out at something that looks like a very green Disneyland. The sight is so unappetizing that the child turns away from the window before the soundtrack settles down.

Jurassic World takes place 22 years after the events of Jurassic Park, which is the actual amount of time that’s elapsed since the movie released. The park, which has passed into the hands of one Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), has become a lot more interactive—a sort of prehistoric petting zoo. The film’s conceit is that dinos have become commonplace in the intervening years, and that newer, scarier hybrids are now being genetically engineered to boost sales. There’s a scene early on when Masrani sees the new hybrid T-Rex for the first time, along with his second-in-command, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Will it scare the children, she wonders? It will give the parents nightmares, he replies.

That focus on nightmares, perhaps, is what limits Jurassic World. The original film was appropriately frightening—I remember having raptor-filled nightmares afterwards—but it was also suffused with a sense of wonder. This time around, there are plenty of shocks, but the awe is missing. What do you expect, really, when the dinos are so accessible they’re practically tame? One amphibious dino is made to leap for his supper, like a whale in SeaWorld. And though Gray (Ty Simpkins) watches this trick with delight, his elder brother Zach (Nick Robinson) couldn’t care less—he’s busy checking his phone.

Zach and Gray are supposed to be with their aunt Claire, but she’s fobbed them off on to an assistant. Just as you’re wondering whether the soulless career woman cliché might be a big broad, along comes a rugged alpha male. Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) dresses like Indiana Jones, struts around like John Wayne, and communicates with raptors: a hybrid hero to match the film’s giant hybrid villain, which inevitably gets free of its compound and goes on a killing spree. There’s a human villain too, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, the park’s head of security as well as some kind of weapon’s manufacturer. He talks about sending trained dinosaurs to the Middle-East, which is both the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard and the best movie pitch ever.

Trevorrow does well enough with the action scenes, which are brutal, fast and satisfying. But everything between these scenes is marred by stock characters, woeful writing and sentimentality of the worst kind (Spielberg, I’m willing to bet, would never go so far as to include an extended scene with Owen comforting a dying Brontosaurus). At one point, the boys stumble upon a room from the original Jurassic Park, long abandoned and covered in weeds. They shine a light on the wall, which has a crude drawing of a dinosaur on it. It’s like a cave painting. In a film that’s sorely missing a little magic, that’s the one image I’d like to retain.

This review appeared in Mint.

Hamari Adhuri Kahani: Review

After watching Hamari Adhuri Kahani I went home and wrote a long letter to an old flame. Then I tore it up. I opened Freud’s The Ego And The Id and read a page at random. I stalked an ex on Facebook. I punched the wall thrice. Only then did I find myself in the right frame of mind to review a Mohit Suri film.

Suri is Bollywood’s top purveyor of twisted, pathological romances. He directed the violent and ludicrous Ek Villain last year, and before that Aashiqui 2, Woh Lamhe and other gloomy tales of passion. Love’s labour is, more often than not, lost in Suri’s films, either through bad fortune or bad choices or some combination of the two. Hamari Adhuri Kahani doesn’t mess with the formula: the three central characters are emotionally damaged, have the worst of luck, and do their best to make things even harder for themselves.

The first 15 minutes are pure Suri: a death, a visit to the psychiatrist, and a man making off with his dead wife’s ashes in the middle of the night. The rest of the film unfolds via one of the least thought-through flashbacks I’ve ever seen: we kind of see things from the husband’s perspective, even though he couldn’t possibly have knowledge of the events being described. We learn that Vasudha (Vidya Balan) was married to Hari (Rajkummar Rao) against her will. He disappears after a year, leaving her to fend for herself and their infant son. Five years later, she’s working as a florist when Aarav (Emraan Hashmi), a rich hotelier, falls for her. They become lovers; soon, he’s asking her to divorce her husband, who may or may not have become a terrorist. And then Hari comes back.

If that doesn’t sound so bad, know that I’ve omitted about a dozen flashbacks, pointless trips to Shimla and Dubai, and enough self-pity and self-destructive behaviour to fuel a Devdas remake. However, even if I wrote out the entire plot, I doubt it would give you an accurate picture of how laughably bad Hamari Adhuri Kahani is. The film is staggeringly literal-minded: when a song talks of sookhi zameen, we’re actually shown a desert; when the lyrics mention lips, there’s a helpful close-up of the same. The writing, by Suri’s uncle Mahesh Bhatt, is florid beyond belief, and inadvertently funny. Aarav’s first words to Vasudha, as she’s arranging flowers, are “Beautiful. Main inke liye jaan de sakta hoon (I could die for them).”

The film delays Hari’s return far too long: Aarav and Vasudha’s love story isn’t remotely interesting, and Hari’s crazy-lover routine, though distasteful, does bring some much-needed tension. The actors are left out to dry, though Rao manages to escape with some of his dignity intact. The same cannot be said of Hashmi (who gets the worst lines) or Balan (who looks like she’s trying too hard). At one point, overcome by gratitude, Vasudha touches Aarav’s feet. I don’t think I’ve laughed more at a movie that wanted me to be crying along with it.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Kaaka Muttai: Review

The opening shot in Kaaka Muttai is of a sleeping boy wetting his pants. It’s as if the director (also writer and cinematographer) M. Manikandan is giving viewers fair warning, showing them that he isn’t one to prettify things. This is the great strength of the movie. Manikandan’s first, the film finds joy and humour in its protagonists’ lives without airbrushing over the desperation and squalor.

When a pizza place opens up near their slum, two brothers who go by Periya Kaaka Muttai (Big Crow’s Egg) and Chinna Kaaka Muttai (Small Crow’s Egg), become obsessed with the idea of trying this strange new food for themselves. Their mother (the excellent Iyshwarya Rajesh) will have none of it; her husband’s in jail and she can barely run the household on her salary. And so the boys set about collecting coal, selling it by the kilo, trying to scrounge together the Rs 300 required to buy a pizza. Yet, even after they gather the money, they find other barriers standing between them and the world of the affluent.

All this might sound a little maudlin, but Kaaka Muttai is a largely unsentimental look at hopes and dreams in miniature. Whether they’re eating raw crow’s eggs, bribing a pair of rich children for their clothes, or returning drunk to their homes (for a fee), the film invites us to admire the resourcefulness of the two siblings without turning them into objects of pity or sentiment. It’s the strangest feel-good film you’ll see this year: two children in rags, happily walking past piles of garbage, their heads full of pizza.

Both the leads are, in a sense, playing themselves—like their characters, they also live in a Chennai slum. Though they’ve never acted before, you’d never be able to tell, such is the ease of their onscreen manner. J Vignesh, playing the elder brother, reminded me at times of Shafiq Syed’s Chaipau in Salaam Bombay!, another young boy forced to make grown-up decisions. Ramesh Thilaganathan, the younger brother, is a more straightforward charmer, flashing the kind of smile that would make a mother forgive bed-wetting. The two were jointly awarded Best Child Artist at this year’s National Awards (the movie, along with Elizabeth Ekadashi, won the Best Children’s Film award). You’d do well to catch it while it’s still in theatres.

This piece appeared in Mint.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Dil Dhadakne Do: Review

Four years ago, Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara suggested that there was no deep-seated emotional problem that a good Eurotrip couldn’t solve. Apart from a deep sea diving episode that left Hrithik Roshan crying big, manly tears, that film mostly took place on land. Akhtar’s new film heads into deeper waters, but is just as shallow as its predecessor.

Dil Dhadakne Do concerns itself with the assorted issues of the Mehra clan, and expects us to be concerned as well. Patriarch Kamal (Anil Kapoor), a self-proclaimed ‘self-made man’, is trying to keep his business afloat. His marriage to Neelam (Shefali Shah) has come apart at the seams, though they can’t summon up the will to leave each other. Son Kabir (Ranveer Singh) is unhappy that his plane is being sold. Daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) is upset her parents didn’t put her name on an invitation card announcing a pleasure cruise to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary (to be fair, she has larger emotional fish to fry). Will her resentment bubble up during the cruise, along with a dozen other grudges? Will everyone forget their troubles from time to time and dance? Will there be a voice-over supplied by an animal? You bet.

There’s a good bedroom farce buried somewhere here. Ayesha is married to Manav (Rahul Bose) but is carrying a torch for Sunny (Farhan Akhtar), her ex. Kabir is engaged to Nuri (Ridhima Sud) — his father basically pimps him out, since she’s the daughter of a potential investor — but he’s rapidly falling for Farah (Anushka Sharma), a dancer on the ship, while his betrothed only has eyes for another. But the film is only intermittently farcical; it keeps slipping either into melodrama, with characters threatening to slash their wrists and jump overboard, or into the corniest of romantic moods.

To see how safe and self-satisfied an exercise Dil Dhadakne Do is, one need only compare it to Tanu Weds Manu: Returns. On a technical level, Anand Rai’s film is no match for Akhtar’s: it has no visual aesthetic to speak of, and it’s unlikely that Rai will ever feel the need to do a musical number in one take, as Akhtar does here. Yet, Tanu Weds Manu: Returns takes genuine narrative risks, and while some of these hairpin turns make little sense, there’s a genuine look-Ma-no-hands feel to that film. Dil Dhadakne Do, on the other hand, does very little that’s unexpected or exciting in its 169 minutes, unless you count a Javed Akhtar-scripted voiceover by Pluto the mastiff.

The performances aren’t bad, but none of the actors — with the possible exception of Shefali Shah — seem to get under the skin of their characters. Kapoor, his Punjabi accent off and on like a faulty switch, hams his way extravagantly through the film, something his fans are unlikely to mind. Ranveer Singh gets the most out of the comic scenes; his reactions to his parents’ crazy suggestions are very well-judged. Chopra almost makes you feel for her character but is too mannered for it to really work. Farhan Akhtar is hardly here.

Dil Dhadakne Do may be superficial and emotionally unengaging, but so was Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and that was a huge hit. Zindagi had people leaping out of planes and running from bulls, which helped distract from the blandness of the drama. This time, apart from the one-take song, the screen refuses to come alive, no matter what Akhtar and cinematographer Carlos Catalan throw at it. (I’ve never seen so much slo-mo deployed to so little effect.) Still, I’m sure there will be plenty of viewers happy enough to see beautiful people visit beautiful places and engage with problems that they think are earth-shattering but are actually depressingly commonplace.

All this would seem to suggest that I loathed the film, which isn’t the case. I just didn’t care whether the Mehras sank, swam or floated through life, clutching at each other like bits of emotional flotsam. Pretty but never dazzling, busy but never riveting, glib but never wise, Dil Dhadakne Do never does find its sea legs.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Girlhood: Review

There’s a certain kind of film about children that the French do better than anyone else. From Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows to more recent efforts like Laurent Cantet’s The Class, French directors have a knack for capturing not just the exhilaration but also the confusion and self-doubt that’s such a big part of being young.

Céline Sciamma is a recent and worthy addition to this list. Each of her spiky, intimate films till date is built around the small and large battles of childhood and adolescence: Water Lilies dealt with the sexual awakening of three 15-years-olds, while Tomboy explored with great sensitivity the practical difficulties of being a boy trapped in a girl’s body.

Girlhood, Sciamma’s third feature, is set in the banlieues of Paris, the low-cost, minority-populated, crime-ridden suburbs brilliantly brought to life 20 years ago by Mathieu Kassovitz in La Haine. Girlhood is a more naturalistic film than La Haine, and less overtly political (even though it has a white director and an all-black cast, something that caused quite a stir in France). Yet, both these films have the same bleak view of life in the banlieues and one’s chances of making it out of there. Early on in the film, Marieme (Karidja Touré), a young girl who lives with a largely absent mother, a violent elder brother and two younger sisters, is told that her grades aren’t good enough for her to move to the next class. The counsellor suggests vocational courses instead, saying, “They’ll help you find a job faster. You’ll be able to leave home.”

Frustrated, Marieme falls in with Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Mariétou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), members of a local girl gang. In the beginning, it’s difficult to imagine the diffident Marieme taking to this life, but she does, extracting cash from rich children and graduating to fighting girls from other gangs. Yet she remains a sympathetic character, which is testament to the combination of toughness and rectitude that Karidja Touré brings to the part, and to Sciamma’s unsentimental gaze. We never see the girls commit any major crimes; they mostly just want enough cash to be able to book a hotel room, dress up and dance to Rihanna’s "Diamonds", as they do in the film’s showiest sequence (as those who have seen her earlier films will know, Sciamma enjoys sprinkling her narratives with musical numbers).

Like the transgendered lead of Tomboy, Marieme and her friends are playing a role, trying to appear tougher and more grown-up than they really are. But the film keeps reminding us that they’re teenagers. When Adiatou makes fun of Fily’s mini-golf technique, only to see her sink a putt, she starts crying—a touchingly childish response to an embarrassing situation. Marieme too ends the film with a child’s impulse: to go home. Yet, when she arrives at the front door, she hesitates. In the past 24 hours, she’s turned her back, at least temporarily, on her gang, drug dealing and marriage. Now she has to decide whether she is going to return home, or close the door on her childhood forever.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Welcome 2 Karachi: Review

Arshad Warsi might be the hardest-working actor in Bollywood. Since Tere Mere Sapne in 1996, he’s averaged over two films a year. Most of what he is offered is in the vein of Circuit, his breakthrough role in the two Munna Bhai films: second lead, funny, street-smart. Whenever he has had something to work with—Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II, Kabul Express, Sehar, Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya—he’s been excellent. But even when the material’s been bad (which is most of the time), Warsi is rarely less than watchable.

Welcome 2 Karachi is just the sort of awful derivative comic slop Warsi’s had to wade through his entire career. He plays Shammi Thakur, a former naval officer who takes a yacht out to sea with his friend, Kedar Patel. Along comes a storm—or rather, along comes some of the shoddiest VFX I’ve seen in my life. The boat capsizes, and the two of them wash up on a beach. A bomb detonates near them—more embarrassing VFX. They wake up in a hospital and realize that they’re in Karachi. The rest of the film has them running from the ISI, the CIA, the Taliban and local hoods.

Welcome 2 Karachi was originally supposed to star Irrfan Khan along with Warsi, but he had to drop out. He was replaced by producer Vashu Bhagnani’s son. For those who haven’t seen his work, Jackky Bhagnani is the anti-Arshad Warsi. He’s only ever appeared in films produced by his father. Unlike Warsi, who can save a bad line like few others, he actually detracts from his surroundings, robbing scenes of energy and humour. Each time Warsi builds up a scene, he knocks it down with his whiny-ness and his put-on Gujarati accent. He’s like a less interesting Riteish Deshmukh.

Had Welcome 2 Karachi been shot in Pakistan, it might have retained some interest despite itself. I’m not sure whether this was ever the plan, but at any rate, the Pakistan of the film was recreated—unconvincingly, as it turns out—in parts of England and India (Tere Bin Laden, shot in Allahabad and Mumbai, gave us a far more convincing Karachi). Still, what use is production design if half your Pakistani TV reporters are speaking in Hindi? I could tell you more about the plot, the stretched-out gags, about American dancer and (somewhat) actor Lauren Gottlieb as the most improbable ISI agent ever, but what’s the point? All you really need to know is that this is the kind of film in which there’s a running joke about two characters named Ittefaq and Watthefaq.

Three years ago, director Ashish R. Mohan made the not-all-that-bad Khiladi 786, an Akshay Kumar action movie that was really more of a comedy. At the time, I was curious to see what he’d do with straight-out comic material. I know now. Bhagnani and he can go ahead and make “Welcome 3 Karachi”. But for God’s sake, leave Warsi out of it.

This review appeared in Mint.

Chaar Cutting: Review

When the Ramones started out, they used to get asked why their songs were so short. They’re actually normal-length songs, the progenitors of punk said, we just play them fast. Those who think the same principle applies to short films—long films played fast—are mistaken. Short films have their own rules and rhythms and physics. Un Chien Andalou doesn’t need more than 16 minutes to decimate all that is holy, while the 32 minutes of Night And Fog contain an eternity of pain.

Happily, of the four shorts in Chaar Cutting, a portmanteau film assembled by Jamuura Talkies and featuring largely unknown directors, only one—Vivek Soni’s Rajasthan-set Bawdi—seems to be auditioning for a chance to be a longer film. Though it’s the best-looking of the four films by some distance, the emotions served up are overheated and unearned. Village boy Vishnu (Priyanshu Painyuli) loves Tulsi (Sonal Joshi), who’s about to be married off to another man; he’d ask for her hand but that would involve leaving his village and working for the soft drink company his aged father is protesting against. All this might have been worked out over the length of a feature—crammed into 20-odd minutes, it’s beautiful but unconvincing.

Anuj Gulati’s Manila Running has the outward appearance of a thriller, with a Frenchman running from machete-wielding, pistol-packing toughs in Manila. His reason for being there is the big comic reveal—which is funny enough, though the film really should have ended there. Equally strange but more involving is Skin Deep, written by Vikramaditya Motwane and directed by his assistant on Lootera, Hardik Mehta. It begins audaciously, with sounds of lovemaking interrupted by protestations—by a male voice—that it hurts too much. Later, the young man, who is planning to elope with the girl in a few days, decides to go in for a circumcision. Things go wrong, but Mehta defies expectations by not playing up the comic elements in his material. His melancholy approach is complemented by affecting performances by Naveen Kasturia and Aditi Vasudev, who played opposite each other in last year’s stoner indie Sulemani Keeda.

The final short, Vijayeta Kumar’s Blouse, has a sweetness which is at odds with its ribald premise. A wife asks her schoolteacher husband, who’s leaving home for a while, to bring her back a blouse as a present (the village he’s visiting has a famous tailor). He agrees, but forgets to carry a sample with him. The tailor, however, offers a solution: look around, find a woman who resembles your wife bust-wise, and leave the rest to me. The teacher reluctantly agrees and ends up picking a candidate who turns out to be the tailor’s wife. The two female characters are disappointing, but Sumeet Vyas is an appealingly abashed Masterji and Imran Rasheed is very funny as the tailor.

As portmanteau films go, Chaar Cutting isn’t bad. None of the four shorts is an outright dud, which is more than one can say for the high-profile Bombay Talkies experiment two years ago. Yet, I was left feeling slightly disappointed, not so much by the films but by the apparent lack of ambition. These are young film-makers at the start of their careers, unencumbered by expectations and industry pressures. Did none of them feel like experimenting a little, messing with the format? There’s very little of the excitement and risk that one associates with great short films. In its place is a less thrilling—but possibly more employable—quality: competence. None of these directors let themselves down, but it would have been nice if they’d aimed higher.

This review appeared in Mint.