Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

December 31, 2007

On the wrong foot

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:21 pm

December 31, 2007

Cast: Madhuri Dixit, Konkona Sensharma, Ranvir Sheorey, Kunal Kapoor, Vinay Pathak, Akshaye Khanna

Director: Anil Mehta

It’s the film every Madhuri Dixit fan has been waiting for and I say this with authority because I’m leading the pack. Her first film in five years, Aaja Nachle stars Madhuri as a divorced NRI woman who returns to the small town she grew up in, eleven years after she took off with an American boyfriend against her parents’ wishes.

Once here, she learns that the local theatre she’s so emotionally attached to faces the threat of being demolished. It’s where she spent the best years of her life, learning dance from her guru. Determined to stop local political authorities from turning what was once a cultural space into a shopping mall, she sets out to prove that the people of that town still possess a strong love for the arts, and promises to stage an ambitious musical with local talent at that very venue.

Turns out, she may have bitten off more than she can chew, as the townsfolk aren’t exactly tripping over each other to sign up for the show. When she does manage to assemble a team, it’s a bunch of oddballs who come together, and it’s up to her now to show them all the right moves.

A simple, old-fashioned, feel-good drama, Aaja Nachle has its heart in the right place – it is in many ways that classic tale of rebellion, regret and redemption. It’s also an inherently noble premise – too idealistic, some might say – but sincere nevertheless.

What fails the promising plot is its plodding screenplay. In complete contrast to his work on Chak De India, writer Jaideep Sahni’s drama here unfolds at a leisurely pace and is fairly predictable for the most part, resorting to clichés, cinematic liberties and happy coincidences every time the story hits a rough spot.

Take for example, Madhuri’s sense of loyalty and obligation to the place she grew up in – it comes off looking too contrived when you consider she hasn’t once checked in on her home, her folks or her friends since she left over a decade ago.

Or that stereotypical portrayal of an NRI kid making her first trip to India – commenting on the cows in the middle of the road, grumbling about the mosquitoes, and enquiring if the local water is safe to drink. Fair to say, it’s not the kind of writing you’ve come to expect from Sahni who’s given us such gems as Khosla Ka Ghosla and Chak De India recently.

To a large degree the holes in this screenplay are covered up by the excellent characters Sahni creates, and the actors who pump life into those roles. As the tomboyish town bully who’ll do anything to win the affection of the man she loves, Konkona Sensharma is nothing short of fantastic. Her greatest strength is that she isn’t afraid of making a fool of herself and she doesn’t worry about being laughed at. As a result, her performance in Aaja Nachle is fearless and uninhibited.

Vinay Pathak, playing Madhuri’s dull, stodgy middle-class landlord makes his every minute on screen so memorable. Just watch him bring to life that scene where he approaches Madhuri for a part in the troupe so he can prove to his wife that he isn’t a bore. And then there’s Ranvir Shorey, who strikes all the right chords as Madhuri’s devoted admirer – he invests in his part just the perfect dose of vulnerability, creating in the end a character that’s so lovable.

Directed by Anil Mehta, the brilliant cinematographer of such films as Hum Dil De Chuke SanamLagaanand SaathiyaAaja Nachle reminds you more than once of that heart-warming Juliette Binoche starrerChocolat in which a spirited woman transforms a conservative, religious town into a community of open-minded, fun-loving people. The protagonist of that film uses chocolate to win over her detractors, in Aaja Nachle, Madhuri uses dance.

Sadly, for a film about dance, this one has only one reasonably memorable dance piece, and even that pales in comparison to the actress’ superhit item numbers of the past. The 20-minute-plus climatic dance opera is a tad long, and fails to hold your interest because Madhuri Dixit’s hardly in it.

If there’s another reason Aaja Nachle doesn’t quite hit the mark, it’s because Anil Mehta’s direction seems to lack an individualistic style – it’s fairly flat, straight-out storytelling. In a day and age when we’re hearing so many distinct voices from new directors, this one is just a murmur.

But if there’s really one reason and one reason alone to watch this film, then expectedly that reason isMadhuri Dixit. It’s hard to take your eyes off the screen when she’s up there, dazzling you with her spontaneity, her easy charm and her 100-watt smile. Because she’s such an intuitive, fantastic actress, she doesn’t once stick out making faces into the camera, rattling off ridiculous lines, or even lacing her words with that American twang. Watching her move gracefully to the film’s dance numbers is a treat for die-hard Dixit fans like myself.

So even if Aaja Nachle doesn’t quite deliver on all its promises, go watch it because Madhuri Dixit is spectacular in it. I’m going with two out of five and an average rating for director Anil Mehta’s Aaja Nachle. It’s what I’d call a slow dance, so go armed with lots of patience.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

December 21, 2007

To sir, with love

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:31 pm

December 21, 2007

Cast: Darsheel Safary, Aamir Khan, Tisca Chopra, Vipin Sharma

Director: Aamir Khan

Don’t sign off on your list of the Best Films of 2007 just yet, because ladies and gentlemen, the year’s most honourable film has arrived. Taare Zameen Par, directed by Aamir Khan and written by Amole Gupte is the one film you have to watch, even if you haven’t watched anything else this year because it’s a film with a big heart, an important message, but mostly because it’s a film that could change your life.

Who can’t relate with Taare Zameen Par’s eight-year-old protagonist Ishaan Awasthi who can’t seem to get his head around his studies? Be it words or numbers, he struggles to make sense of them, falling way behind his classmates, much to the frustration of his teachers and his parents.

Naturally, it doesn’t help that his elder brother is a class topper and a tennis champ to boot. Ishaan meanwhile, is a dreamer who’s fascinated with little fish, and spends most days punished outside class letting his imagination run riot. At home, he’s mixing colours, painting away instead of doing his homework.

Convinced that some strict discipline will straighten him out, Ishaan’s father packs him off to a boarding school, much against both his wife and Ishaan’s wishes. Unable to deal with this betrayal, Ishaan goes into a shell at his new school, not only failing to show any improvement in his academics, but also no longer inspired to paint. When substitute art teacher, Ram Shankar Nikumbh, recognizes in him all the symptoms of dyslexia, he takes it upon himself to help Ishaan.

First educating his parents about his condition, then urging the school’s principal to give the boy more time to catch up, Nikumbh devises unconventional methods to teach the boy, and succeeds eventually in changing his life forever.

There should be no doubt whatsoever in anybody’s mind after watching Taare Zameen Par that the real hero of this film is its remarkable, rooted, rock-solid script which provides the landscape for such an emotionally engaging, heart-warming experience.

Between the writer and director, they construct some of the most memorable moments you’re likely to come across on screen. Take that simple one that illustrates the everydayness of a schoolboy’s life – the one in which we see Ishaan biding his time, punished outside class, moon-walking in the corridor and burping away enthusiastically. Or that heart-wrenching scene in which Ishaan’s mother discovers a flip-book he made which reveals just how vulnerable he’s been feeling.

It’s not just the little moments that stay with you, but also the film’s crucial scenes, which are handled with such rare maturity. Like the one in which Aamir, playing art teacher Nikumbh, recognizes that Ishaan has dyslexia when he takes a closer look at the boy’s notebooks and identifies such obvious symptoms as poor handwriting, inconsistent spelling and mirror-image writing – it’s a big revelation scene and it’s filmed in such an inclusive manner that we as the audience make that discovery with Nikumbh.

And then there’s that other scene which I consider the most important in the film – the one in which Nikumbh visits Ishaan’s home and explains to his parents what exactly is the problem with their son, and how they may have damaged his confidence even further – it’s a poignant and delicate scene because Nikumbh is at once confrontational, admonishing, comforting and hopeful, and it works also because it’s performed so instinctively by Aamir and the actor playing Ishaan’s father.

Lest you be mistaken, let me make it clear that although it’s centred around a dyslexic protagonist, Taare Zameen Par is not a film about dyslexia. Nor is it a film about any disease or disorder. It’s a film about parents and children, about the pressures we put on our kids, about how we push them into becoming assembly-line products instead of encouraging them to find their own unique strengths. It’s also about finding our heroes.

In that, it is a noble film. It’s well-intended and sincere, and it goes about its business with utmost earnestness. Of course Taare Zameen Par has its fair share of hiccups, but then which film doesn’t. At times snail-paced and repetitive, it takes its own sweet time to unfold. It also rushes through Ishaan’s whole “learning process” in the end, a portion where a little more patience and detail might have helped.

But such nitpicking aside, Taare Zameen Par is an accomplished effort – it’s that rare film that carries an important message and tells a sensitive story, all within the Bollywood-movie format. Yes don’t for a moment forget that this is no niche film, it’s a film meant for all, and hence the commercial trappings.

Few films have innate goodness within them and Taare Zameen Par is one such film. It tugs at your heartstrings, it urges you to introspect, it makes you look at children differently. How many Bollywood films achieve all that? Simple in the truest sense of the word, it’s a film that wins your heart because it’s such a relatable story – Ishaan could be your friend, your child, who knows he could be you.

You’ll recognize the other characters too, they’re all flesh and blood people you know only too well, even though the actors who play them are mostly anonymous faces. Vipin Sharma and Tisca Chopra who play Ishaan’s father and mother respectively, make their characters instantly relatable by approaching their roles instinctively.

As Ram Shankar Nikumbh, Ishaan’s well-meaning teacher, Aamir Khan is expectedly brilliant, delivering a mature, sensitive performance, adding those little touches that make a difference. It is to his credit as an actor and director that he never once over-shadows the real star performer – Darsheel Safary, who steals your heart as Ishaan Awasthi. Darsheel is a revelation as an actor, he’s spontaneous and lovable and carries this film completely on his shoulders.

Taare Zameen Par benefits enormously from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s inspired score, which is original and unconventional, and complements Prasoon Joshi’s lyrics perfectly. As a director, Aamir Khan makes a solid debut, turning a fantastic script into a fantastic film.

Never once falling into that trap that most debutant directors cannot escape, Aamir doesn’t feel the need to show off with fancy camera angles and stylish storytelling tools. He lets the drama take its own course, keeping a simplistic, accessible style at all times.

When he does use ingenious tools, it’s in keeping with the scenes’ requirements – like those excellent animation and claymation portions used to convey Ishaan’s wildly imaginative thoughts. With no hesitation at all, I’m going with four out of five and two big thumbs up for Taare Zameen Par, it’s easily one of the finest films you’ll see in a long time.

The film’s success is the result of both Amole Gupte’s tremendous script, and Aamir Khan’s nurturing supervision. Neither could have achieved this without the other. Be prepared to shed tears, not because it’s always a sad story, but because it’s such an overwhelming experience.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Enter the madhouse

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:25 pm

December 21, 2007

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif, Feroz Khan, Nana Patekar, Anil Kapoor, Mallika Sherawat

Director: Anees Bazmee

Now, just in case you’d forgotten what it’s like to have someone slowly drill a nail into your head for three long hours, director Anees Bazmee’s Welcome checks into the cinemas to remind you. Let me start by telling you I have no problem with comedy. I thought Jab We Met had some sparkling humour, and I even enjoyed bits of Partner to be quite honest.

But I do have a problem with stupidity, which isn’t the same thing as funny in my book. The problem withWelcome is that it’s highly idiotic, it’s not particularly well-written, and most of all, it’s a film that completely disregards one’s intelligence.

Don’t give me April Fool jokes that my three-year-old nephew can see through, and really what do you expect to make of a film whose very first scene is a cheap sex joke? Loosely inspired by the Hugh Grant hit Mickey Blue Eyes, Anees Bazmee’s latest is a film involving a much-in-love couple, a triumvirate of underworld dons and a gaggle of random family members and side-players.

It’s futile to even attempt to explain the plot, and you can’t really blame me, considering even the director hasn’t been able to do that in his film.

Welcome, if you ask me, is a series of not-very-funny scenes strung together rather than a cohesive, coherent story. The screenplay – or rather the lack of it – can be blamed for the complete failure of this enterprise, which is amateurishly directed and for the most part, indifferently performed.

For some strange reason the “screwball comedy” genre ends up being misunderstood for “brainless entertainment”. Screwball comedy would mean films like It’s a Mad Mad Mad World which is slapstick yes, but well-written nonetheless.

Welcome is just brainless because nobody associated with the film seems to have used judgement, intelligence or even basic common sense while working on this picture.

As Uday Shetty, the underworld don with acting ambitions, Nana Patekar manages to raise a few laughs, but that’s mostly because he’s a terrific actor who can pull off poker-faced humour like few others can. Watch him in that scene in which he ends up doing over 50 takes for a horse-riding scene, or then that one in which he meets the heroine of his film for the first time – they’re two genuinely hilarious scenes, perhaps the only ones in this film.

Despite an ensemble cast that includes Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif, Mallika Sherawat, Anil Kapoor, Nana Patekar, Feroz Khan and Paresh Rawal. Welcome doesn’t have very much going for it because the gags have been done to death, and the actors don’t seem particularly inspired either. Very often, even an average comedy works because watching one with a group of friends turns out to be an enjoyable shared experience.

The same sadly cannot be said of Welcome – the only thing you share with your friends is disappointment because so many talented actors have been wasted in this film that doesn’t even have its basic plot in place.

Barring a few laughs here and there – most involving Nana Patekar and Anil Kapoor’s characters – there’s little to appreciate in Welcome, not least that ridiculous climax in which some 20 characters are stuck in a house that’s tipping off a mountain. I wasn’t a big fan of the director’s last blockbuster comedyNo Entry, but even I have to admit that was marginally better than this one.

For the few stray moments of humour in this otherwise banal film, I’ll go with one out of five and a thumbs down for Anees Bazmee’s Welcome, there’s absolutely no reason you should torture yourself through this one. If you do end up enjoying it, I’ll pay your psychiatrist’s bill.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

December 7, 2007

Short, not sweet

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:03 pm

December 07, 2007

Cast: Sanjay Dutt, Sunil Shetty, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Jimmy Shergill, Amrita Singh, Aftab Shivdasani

Directors: Sanjay Gupta, Hansal Mehta, Meghna Gulzar, Rohit Roy & more

The most basic problem with Dus Kahaniyaan, the omnibus film featuring ten short stories, is that there is no common theme, nothing at all really, that merits these ten stories to be slapped together as one collection.

Unlike Ramgopal Varma’s Darna Mana Hai or its follow-up Darna Zaroori Hai which were both omnibus films whose short stories centred around one common premise — fear, there is no logical explanation or criteria for the ten shorts in this film to be assembled together.

Now you’re probably wondering why that matters — why should there be a common take-off point for all stories as long as they’re all interesting stories, right?

Well, that’s just it — with nothing at all to rein them in, no boundaries whatsoever to work within, several of the stories turn out bizarre, abstract and pretty much pointless, if you ask me. Had every one of them at least come with a twist ending, you’d have something to look forward to, but barring a handful that do, the rest are either predictable or plain boring.

Let’s talk first about the stories that work. Matrimony, directed by Sanjay Gupta, featuring Arbaaz Khan and Mandira Bedi as a married couple in a tale about faith and betrayal is an enjoyable watch, and comes with a surprise in the end that’s both clever and obvious in retrospect.

Meghna Gulzar’s Pooranmaashi starring Amrita Singh and Minnisha Lamba as mother and daughter in a story about unconditional love, is my favourite of the ten shorts, because it’s such a heartbreaking tale with such a real and solid dilemma at its core.

And Sanjay Gupta’s Manoj Bajpai-Dia Mirza starrer Zahir works because it’s a relatable story, it’s remarkably well shot, but most of all because of that shock ending. Three good stories out of ten, is hardly a report card to be proud of, and honestly it’s not enough to keep your interest alive in Dus Kahaniyaan.

Of the stories that don’t quite cut it is Hansal Mehta’s High on the Highway, a wildly indulgent and completely incohesive tale of two drugged-out lovers starring Jimmy Shergill and Masumeh Makhija, both performing way off-key.

Also Sanjay Gupta’s Neha Dhupia-Mahesh Manjrekar starrer Strangers in the Night, a cheap gimmick of a story that’s even more stupid when you go back and think about it, because if you ask me, the twist in that story is an offensive idea that’s disguised as a noble thought.

Lovedale directed by Jasmeet Dodhi, and starring Aftab Shivdasani and Neha Oberoi is a convenient and predictable story about destiny and divine intervention.

Apoorva Lakhia’s Sex on the Beach starring Dino Morea as the young stud who encounters a mysterious woman promising some guilty pleasure is a tasteless and contrived story that comes off as a cheap shot at skin-show.

Sanjay Gupta’s Gubbare features a heartwarming performance by Nana Patekar, but it’s also an unabashedly manipulative piece that unsuccessfully tries to tug at your heartstrings.

The most ridiculous of the ten stories however, is Rise and Fall starring Sanjay Dutt and Sunil Shetty in the kind of stereotypical roles you’ve seen them play in so many films before. They rattle off lines so indifferently, you can barely hear them as you struggle to make sense of this absurd film that’s all style and no substance.

Wide-angle lenses, sepia-toned photography, sharp cuts. But what the hell is going on? A fair question, I think, to Sanjay Gupta and Hansal Mehta, the two directors it took to come up with this nonsensical short. With six out of ten stories that sorely disappoint, Dus Kahaniyaan isn’t exactly pleasurable viewing.

And then there’s Rice Plate which is an easy watch purely on the strength of its performances. Shamelessly plagiarized from the celebrated short film Lunch Date which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1990 for best short, also an Academy Award the following year, Rice Plate stars Shabana Azmi as a bigoted Tamilian Brahmin woman in a story about prejudices and fear.

Shabana delivers an incredible performance, and is complemented perfectly by Naseeruddin Shah who only appears in two scenes, but it’s the film’s director Rohit Roy who proves that even the finest material in the hands of an incompetent filmmaker can be reduced to nothing much.

He rips off the entire premise of that thought-provoking short film, replacing that film’s classic element — silence — with unnecessary spoon-feeding. The subtlety, the little nuances, the easy charm of the original film is lost under Rohit Roy’s third-class direction where everything must be spelled out.

In the end, how do you judge a film like Dus Kahaniyaan? It’s an interesting experiment, no doubt, but by no stretch of the imagination a successful one.

Look at the delightful portmanteau film Paris Je t’aime, a collection of some 18 shorts centred around the themes of love and Paris, directed by some of the most acclaimed directors from across the world — that film works because you enjoy each director’s individual interpretation of the same theme.

By the same yardstick, Dus Kahaniyaan is dull and boring because for one, there is no common premise, and also because barring maybe two films, there’s very little difference in the shooting or editing of most stories.

All things aside, judged very simply for the entertainment it’s able to provide, I’ll go with one out of five forDus Kahaniyaan; watch it only because it’s a new format and enjoy the handful of stories that do entertain. For the most part though, prepare to be seriously bored.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:44 pm

December 07, 2007

Cast: Soha Ali Khan, Shiney Ahuja, Rajat Kapoor, Sonia Jehan, Sushmita Mukherjee, Vinay Pathak, Saurabh Shukla

Director: Sudhir Mishra

Set against the backdrop of 50s and 60s Bollywood, director Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand is about the journey of young hopeful Nikhat Bano, played by Soha Ali Khan, from showbiz starlet to celebrated leading lady of her times.

A character inspired by no one single heroine, Nikhat Bano is in fact, a character derived from so many legendary heroines – you’ll find parallels to Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman.

Exploited since she was 14, thrust under the nose of sleazy producers by an over-ambitious mother, Nikhat gets her big break when the industry’s leading male star, played by Rajat Kapoor, takes a fancy to her.

Her personal and professional tryst with him does bring her success, but not happiness. The superstar gets married to a suitable, non-filmi bride, and Nikhat finds herself falling for the aspiring writer-director Zafar, played by Shiney Ahuja, who’s been hired to polish a few scripts and to help Nikhat get her dialogue delivery right.

From this point, the film tracks the rocky romance between Nikhat and Zafar whose love is put to test many times as egos clash and ambitions soar.

Few films succeed in transporting you to another place another time, the way Khoya Khoya Chand does. Sitting in that darkened hall you can literally smell the paint on those studio walls because the director makes time, spaces and people come alive with his striking visual treatment.

For the most part, you are happy to play voyeur and peep into the lives of these emotionally tortured souls, but by the time the film crosses the half-way mark, the upheaval in their lives begins to weigh just as heavily on yours.

Sincere and noble and almost reverentially filmed, Khoya Khoya Chand ends up too long, and alas, too boring. The flaw is not in the tale, it’s in the telling – long silences, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, conversations going nowhere, and dare I say it, self-indulgent shot-taking.

Despite its many strengths — a soul-stirring music score, eye-watering cinematography, and remarkable production design — Khoya Khoya Chand is not what you’d call riveting storytelling because it struggles to pack in so much at the same time.

Mishra is full of little stories and interesting anecdotes from those golden years, and he tries to put them all in. Take those references to Guru Dutt – first in that scene in which Zafar finds himself weeping while directing a poignant scene and forgetting to say cut, and then in that other scene in which the director sits silently in the cinema watching the audience reject his labour of love. They’re tender moments all, but indulgent to say the least.

And there lies the real problem — director Sudhir Mishra falls so hopelessly in love with the era he’s recreating that he can’t seem to distance himself from the world he’s created.

It doesn’t help that leading lady Soha Ali Khan seems ill-equipped to tackle such a layered role, failing in the end to arouse sympathy for such an anguished soul, and Shiney Ahuja shines, but only when he’s brooding.

The film then, belongs to the supporting cast – Saurabh Shukla is first-rate as the producer with all the best lines, and Vinay Pathak hits all the right notes playing the assistant director who goes on to become Nikhat’s possessive manager.

Three cheers also to Sushmita Mukherjee, superbly cast as Nikhat’s surrogate mom in this big, bad filmiworld, and a loud round of applause for Sonia Jehan, who simply dazzles as the reigning diva of the silver screen.

There’s so much to admire about Khoya Khoya Chand, not least the director’s heartfelt homage to those glorious years of black-and-white movie-making. If only someone told him when to stop.

I’m going with two out of five for director Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand , it’s an experiment, yes, from a filmmaker who’d found his groove with his previous film, but still dares to dream. Even if it’s not his best work, it’s a brave effort.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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