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

February 27, 2009

Life imprisonment

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:37 pm

February 27, 2009

Cast: Rajat Kapoor, Sachin Nayak, Pradeep Kabra, Pradip Sagar

Director: Pryas Gupta

Siddharth The Prisoner is a film with a half-decent premise, but it’s so agonisingly snail-paced, you can’t be blamed for nodding off to sleep in your seat.

Rajat Kapoor plays Siddharth Roy, a published author who’s just released from prison after serving time for some crime the film’s director doesn’t bother to tell us about. All we know is he narrowly missed winning the Booker Prize; that his wife has left him because she hasn’t been able to forgive him for something — probably the very crime he was imprisoned for; and that he’s hoping she might consider reconciling with him after she reads his latest manuscript.

As luck would have it, the briefcase containing that manuscript gets exchanged inadvertently with another briefcase containing an awful lot of mob money. Now the mob wants their cash back and Roy wants his book back. But it’s also a handsome sum of money to return so easily…

At a running time of 90 minutes, Siddharth The Prisoner feels like a short film that’s been stretched into a feature, and yet the movie leaves so many questions unanswered.

That’s a pity because the film’s shot well, mostly on location in the dark underbelly of the city; and because Sachin Nayak who plays the film’s second lead — the guy who must return Roy’s manuscript and collect the money from him instead — has an interesting presence. What’s more, there’s a message in this movie that makes sense. But director Pryas Gupta kills much of the suspense and drama in the plot with its lethargic pace, and what might have been a watchable film is ultimately a test of your endurance.

I’m going with one out of five for director Pryas Gupta’s Siddharth The Prisoner. I could use the obvious pun about the audience being the prisoner here, but let’s face it, 90 minutes in prison might probably be less boring in comparison.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

February 20, 2009

Heart of the city

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:43 pm

February 20, 2009

Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, Rishi Kapoor, Om Puri, Pavan Malhotra

Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

That director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra feels genuine affection for his characters is evident in every scene of Delhi 6. He knows them well, he’s familiar with their lives, and he embraces their quirks and their contradictions. Delhi 6, is indeed a film about its characters.

A series of patched-together vignettes from the lives of these colorful souls who baffle our protagonist Roshan (played by Abhishek Bachchan), a half-Hindu half-Muslim NRI boy who arrives from New York to deposit his grandmother (played by Waheeda Rehman) to the family home in Old Delhi.

Before he knows it, Roshan finds himself getting involved in the lives of his new friends and neighbors. The two sparring brothers who can’t see eye to eye (played by Om Puri and Pavan Malhotra), but whose wives and kids operate as a perfectly functional familial unit who exchange pakoras and gossip through the loose brick in the wall that separates their homes. Or the sixty-something Laalaji (played by Prem Chopra) whose trophy wife invites her lover home through the balcony window for passionate afternoon romps. Or the affable streetside jalebi-wala (played by Omkara’s Deepak Dobriyal), the local bully cop (played by Vijay Raaz), the dim but earnest temple worker (Atul Kulkarni), and the low-caste sweeper girl (Divya Dutta).

From Ram Leelas and jaagrans to cows who stop traffic because they give birth in the middle of the road, Roshan’s Dilli-darshan is an eye-opening experience, one he takes in sportingly, armed with a camera-phone and the liberal use of the word ‘cool’ in his wobbly American accent. There’s also the matter of his growing friendship with his neighbor’s daughter Bittu, the 20-something Indian Idol-wannabe (played by Sonam Kapoor).

Repeatedly through the film we are reminded of an ambiguous monkey-man scare that has gripped the city, and towards the film’s final act that hysteria leads to an unfortunate Hindu-Muslim confrontation that threatens to divide friends and shatter long-standing relationships.

Working perfectly well as an ensemble piece, even a journey of Roshan’s self-discovery, Delhi 6 slips in its last half hour when Mehra decides to suddenly turn this into a message movie. Problem is the message itself is so simplistic, and yet it’s hammered home with preachy dialogue and scenes that make you cringe. It’s a far cry from Mehra’s Rang De Basanti whose message came woven subtly in the film’s narrative, and didn’t jump out at you in the end like it does here.

Delhi 6 also delivers a disappointing climax, not least because it betrays the filmmaker’s otherwise fearless spirit, and sees him instead pandering to what one assumes must be commercial diktats. As for the ridiculous cameo in the end, it’s unnecessary and the entire scene in fact is such a shameful cop-out in what might have otherwise been a brave, personal film.

Despite its flaws there is inherent beauty in Delhi 6 that cannot be ignored. There is warmth at its centre, and much of that warmth is provided by AR Rahman’s spellbinding music which is used liberally in the film, and contributes to some of the film’s finest, finest moments including the seemingly spontaneous choreography of the Genda Phool song, and the sheer visual delight of the Masakalli song picturisation.

The film also benefits enormously from Binod Pradhan’s remarkable cinematography, his camera alternating between its role as silent spectator when the characters go about their daily duties amidst the hustle-bustle of Chandni Chowk’s crowded by-lanes; then lavishly and breathtakingly capturing the city’s gorgeous topography in all its splendor.

At the core of Delhi 6, however, are its real heroes, its characters. Played magnificently by an ensemble of some of the finest actors you’re likely to come across, it’s difficult to point out who is better than whom.

The names that come to mind immediately are Pavan Malhotra, Deepak Dobriyal, Vijay Raaz, Divya Dutta, Sheeba Chaddha and luminious new discovery Aditi Rao Hydari who stars as the gentle Rama bua. As an old friend of Roshan’s father, Rishi Kapoor brings such depth to what is really a small character role; and to see actors like Prem Chopra and Supriya Pathak on screen in significant parts after what seems like years brings a smile to your face. Then you have Waheeda Rehman who is the portrait of quiet dignity even in scenes where she has little to do.

Of the leads, Abhishek Bachchan jars in the early bits because of that labored accent, but warms up to you eventually. He does well with minimal dialogue, relying on his eyes and his expressions to do the communicating, especially in those scenes with Sonam where he’s expected to strum up romance and chemistry in between looks of sheer bewilderment at her constant yapping. But it’s Sonam Kapoor, his co-star who is the revelation in Delhi 6. She’s a firecracker performer, instinctive and uninhibited in what isn’t even a conventional female lead.

In the end Delhi 6 isn’t great cinema like Mehra’s Rang De Basanti but it’s a pleasing tapestry of tender moments and of diverse characters who engage you in their lives. It’s a very watchable film and for that I’m going with three out of five for director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi 6. The muddled message and the frustrating climax aside, it’s a film with heart.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

February 13, 2009


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:53 pm

February 13, 2009

Cast: Irrfan Khan, Lara Dutta, Shah Rukh Khan

Director: Priyadarshan

Billu has its heart in the right place, but you wish it didn’t have its eye focused so firmly on the box-office.

A simple story set in the fictional village of Budbuda in Uttar Pradesh, Billu is a modern-day Krishna-Sudama story of a poor man reluctant to claim any ties with his rich friend, partly because he thinks the friend may have forgotten him, and partly because he’s embarrassed of his own humble status.

This remake of the Malayalam film Katha Parayumbol stars Irrfan Khan as Billu, a pretty much penniless barber who nevertheless goes through his days with a smile, until a film unit shows up in the village and turns his life upside down. The arrival of mega-star Sahir Khan (played by Shah Rukh Khan) sends the entire village into a tizzy, and when word gets around that Billu and Sahir are childhood friends, the poor barber finds himself fobbing off requests from all and sundry for just one meeting with his movie-star buddy.

The key problem in director Priyadarshan’s Hindi remake is that he uses Shah Rukh excessively, and in a manner that ultimately hurts this simple film. By portraying Sahir as a larger-than-life star who flies around in a helicopter and is surrounded by a battery of beefy bodyguards everywhere he goes, the director succeeds in establishing that Billu and Sahir belong to completely different worlds, but in giving Sahir so much screen-time he also distracts your attention from Billu’s now-disrupted life, which is really the film’s central story.

In contrast, in the original Malayalam film, the superstar played by Mammooty gets very limited time on screen, and unlike Sahir Khan, his unattainability is reflected in the fact that you see such little of him.

As is the problem with most films Priyadarshan helms, Billu too suffers from what can be described as the ‘hurried’ effect. You never get a sense of the geography of Budbuda village or its colorful inhabitants. Interesting comic characters – like those played by Om Puri, Rajpal Yadav and Asrani – are introduced to us, but never fully exploited. The screenplay is choppy, jumping from a Sahir Khan item-number, to an emotional moment between Billu and his wife, to a comic scene involving a junior artiste on Sahir’s film set. It’s all done without much thought and as a result the film doesn’t achieve the emotional tone that is so desperately required.

Not to say there aren’t engaging moments in Billu. The relationship between Billu and his two kids is both comical and believable; and the scenes in which Billu’s wife (played by Lara Dutta) confesses she’s enjoying the overnight attention directed at them ring so true. In the Sahir Khan track, it’s just a delight watching Shah Rukh address the Khan vs Khan war, and even his self-directed digs will leave you smiling. Billu saves its best cards for the last 20 minutes, when it goes straight for the tear ducts. It’s an ending you’ve guessed early on in the film, but one that still leaves you with a lump in your throat.

The star of this film – no questions asked – is the abundantly gifted Irrfan Khan who invests such sincerity in the character of Billu, that you can’t take your eyes off him. Even in scenes without dialogue, he is a presence hard to ignore, and even when the script wobbles it’s only Irrfan who holds it all together with an extraordinary portrayal of everydayness. Watch him in that scene in which he reprimands his kids for spreading stories of his friendship with Sahir; or in the film’s final scene when he comes face to face with his childhood friend. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else but Irrfan play Billu so convincingly.

Lara Dutta slips effortlessly into the role of Billu’s wife Bindya, and the film gives her some wonderful moments to own. Like the scene under the waterfall when she makes up a story about Billu and Sahir’s friendship to impress her neighbours. Or that scene in which she tenderly asks Billu if indeed he ever knew Sahir at all.

In the end, Billu works smoothly as a simple, moral tale, its charm interrupted every time the director goes for broader, more ‘commercial’ appeal. But it’s enjoyable and heart-felt too, and for that reason deserves to be watched. I’ll go with two out of five for director Priyadarshan’s Billu, it’s an average entertainer. And to Shah Rukh Khan, the film’s star-producer, here’s deep-felt gratitude for giving Irrfan Khan a role to shine in.

(This review was first aired on CNN-IBN)


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:47 pm

February 13, 2009

Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Arbaaz Khan

Director: Manish Gupta

The Stoneman Murders is an engaging thriller based on the unsolved serial killings of pavement dwellers in Mumbai in 1983. Taking its premise from those incidents and referring to media coverage of the case, writer-director Manish Gupta constructs a screenplay that is derived from hard facts where available, and imagination to fill in the gaps.

When night after night pavement dwellers are found clobbered to death, a suspended police officer (played by Kay Kay Menon) takes it upon himself to trace the killer so he can impress his superiors into re-admitting him into the force. Combing the streets in the wee hours of the night, he gets closer to uncovering the identity of the killer, until he clashes with the investigating officer on the case (played by Arbaaz Khan).

Filmed on location instead of sets, and doused in the eeriness that comes from knowing that these gruesome killings did indeed take place, the film keeps you hooked during its best bits. Like those nail-biting scenes involving Kay Kay’s pursuit of the shrouded killer, and a handful of terrific moments in which you see the killer lurking about in dark alleys.

But it’s when the film compromises its intentions by resorting to a tacky item song and unnecessary titillation that it veers off course. There is also the problem of a hurried, ill-conceived ending, and pointless portions in the early half that slacken its pace. Lapses like these hurt what could have been a truly taut thriller.

As it is, The Stoneman Murders is not entirely a waste of time, and it’s helped enormously by an inspired performance from Kay Kay Menon. I’ll go with two out of five, and a recommendation to catch it at a late evening show with a bucket of popcorn. At an hour and forty minutes in running time, it’s a pretty painless watch.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

February 6, 2009

Whiskey business

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 7:01 pm

February 06, 2009

Cast: Abhay Deol, Kalki Koechlin, Mahie Gill

Director: Anurag Kashyap

Not every film is required to entertain its audience, but every film must engage its viewers.

Now that’s a tall order when the film in question centers around the most boring, uni-dimensional character Indian literature could have possibly produced – the alcoholic, self-destructive romantic, Devdas. Add to that the fact that at least three Hindi films have already transported Devdas’ tragic story to the screen.

Still, director Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, is a fresh, original take on the subject and the characters, but it’s also a long and tiresome film that is not for the fainthearted.

Rooted in the real and the contemporary, Kashyap’s film stars Abhay Deol as Dev, an aimless Benjamin Braddock-like drifter who returns home to Punjab after a graduation abroad, but has little in terms of future plans, except for getting into the sack with his childhood friend Paro, with whom he’s spent many a long night talking dirty on the phone. On learning that she might have had a promiscuous past, Dev rejects Paro and her advances, driving her to marry a man she doesn’t love, and landing himself in a downward spiral of booze and drugs and whores.

Kashyap takes the basic structure of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s original story, but in setting it in the now, updates much of the film’s narrative, and makes the characters’ actions and motivations more relatable. So you get a back-story to the Chanda character, the hooker Dev hooks up with in his desperate, despondent phase; and sex itself becomes the invisible but omnipresent motivation that drives many an important plot-point.

In its first forty odd minutes Dev D sucks you into its drama, shocking you with its brazenness, and more specifically with Kashyap’s audacious re-imagination of the plot and its characters.

Take that scene in which Paro (played by newcomer Mahie Gill) sends for Dev to join her in a dense field so they can get down to doing what they’ve been unsuccessfully trying to do for some days. Watch the manner in which she virtually attacks a reluctant Dev into submission; and then the following scene in which she heads back home, mattress folded and tied on her cycle, after Dev spurns her overtures.

Watch also the fantastic song Yeh meri zindagi hai and the inventive manner in which Kashyap uses it to introduce Lenny (played by newcomer Kalki Koechlin), the character who goes on to become Chanda.

But from the moment Dev’s descent into despair begins, the audience too plunges into what seems like a never-ending roller-coaster ride of loud clanging music, neon lights and head-spinning camera moves. Using music instead of dialogue is a unique and interesting narrative tool, but song-after-song-after-song-after-song your patience wears thin.

The film’s second half is indulgent and repetitive to the point of being excessive, as it focuses much of its attention on Chanda; and let down by a disappointing performance and stilted dialogue delivery by Koechlin, it never really regains the momentum or the sheer bravura of its early parts.

In comparison to Koechlin, Mahie Gill makes a more assured debut as Paro, investing both vulnerability and a cocksure attitude into her character. But it’s Abhay Deol who’s the real scene-stealer, holding together the film with a fearless performance that is so rare to find.

Despite the clever new approach and its stylish telling, the flaw that hurts the film ultimately, is the fact that Devdas is never an engaging enough character and his story lacks soul. Speaking purely for myself, I was bored watching him repeatedly drown himself in drink and drugs. Self destruction is never an attractive quality.

I’m going with two out of five and an average rating for director Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D. It’s one of those films that’s likely to either dazzle you or drain you. There is no middle option. Watch it, and decide for yourself.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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