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

December 25, 2009

Playing to the gallery

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 2:44 am

December 25, 2009

Cast: Aamir Khan, R Madhavan, Sharman Joshi, Kareena Kapoor, Boman Irani

Director: Rajkumar Hirani

Going home after watching 3 Idiots I felt like I’d just been to my favorite restaurant only to be a tad under-whelmed by their signature dish. It was a satisfying meal, don’t get me wrong, but not the best meal I’d been expecting.

3 Idiots, starring Aamir Khan, produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and written and directed by Rajkumar Hirani, is a film of impeccable pedigree. It’s a breezy entertainer and it’s got its heart in the right place, but it appears to be lacking in the naiive idealism and old-fashioned sincerity that propelled Hirani’s two Munnabhai films to cult status.

Loosely based on Chetan Bhagat’s pulpy bestseller Five Point Someone3 Idiots takes light-hearted but pointed jabs at the Indian education system, raising pertinent questions about the relevance of learning by rote, the obsession with high grades, and the dangerous repercussions of parental pressure to pursue traditional streams.

Set on an engineering campus in Delhi modeled after the IIT, the film features Aamir Khan as free-spirited student Rancho who dishes out important life lessons to his roommates Farhan and Raju (played by R Madhavan and Sharman Joshi), even as Naziesque campus director Viru Sahastrabuddhe (played by Boman Irani) clashes with him for brazenly rejecting conventional wisdom.

Rancho, as it turns out, can do just about anything. From empowering Farhan to convince his family he wants to be a photographer not an engineer, to nursing another friend back to health after a failed suicide attempt, Rancho even helps an unsuspecting girl open her eyes to the superficial jerk she’s about to marry, and believe it or not, at one point he even delivers a baby on the college ping-pong table taking instructions from a doctor on webcam.

But soon after teaching them these valuable lessons and touching their lives in some way or the other, Rancho vanishes. The film is told mostly in flashback, with Farhan and Raju setting off to find their buddy a few years later.

And because no Hindi film can be complete without a romance, Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi also manage to squeeze in a love track between Rancho and the college director’s daughter Pia (played by Kareena Kapoor).

The film’s first half breezes by effortlessly between Hirani’s trademark comic flourishes including a hilarious ragging scene, two witty confrontations with teachers, and even an uproarious Farrelly Brothers-style gag involving a rolling pin and a paralysed man. Expectedly, the humor is alternated with moments of poignancy like that delicate scene in which the group first discovers a fellow student’s suicide.

Problem is, the genuine lump-in-your-throat moments are few and far between, the screenplay populated instead by a batch of scenes calling for push-button emotions. Where the Munnabhai films cunningly tricked you into shedding an unexpected tear, 3 Idiots goes for full-throttle melodrama.

The film’s second half in particular, is a tiring mess of ridiculous back-stories, convenient coincidences and sappy sentimentality.

Despite these hiccups, the film still works to a fair extent because of the inherent optimism in the plot and the sheer good-naturedness of its characters. It’s hard to resist Rancho’s cheery “All izz well” chant even if Hirani does push it a little too far when he ties it to a baby’s first in-womb kick, and the scene I mentioned earlier involving a delivery on a ping-pong table.

Of the cast, Sharman Joshi has a meatier role than R Madhavan, hence succeeds in fleshing him out more competently. Kareena Kapoor makes her presence felt despite the small role, and Boman Irani – although he’s trapped in a caricature – inspires hearty laughs.

But for me, the performance that stood out in this film belongs to lesser-known LA-based actor Omi Vaidya who stars as the Hindi-challenged Chatur Ramalingam, who deserves credit for turning an old childish gag into what is one of the film’s funniest scenes on the strength of his pitch-perfect expressions and delivery.

And then of course, there’s Aamir Khan as Rancho. Who never quite passes off as a 20-something-year-old, but remains the heart and soul of 3 Idiots with his spot-on comedy, his measured histrionics, and his immense likeability.

The film, in the end, is a broad entertainer that plays to the gallery, well-intentioned but sadly muddled. However it’s warmer than any other comedy this year – think Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, All The Best or De Dana Dan – and hence it’s unquestionably an enjoyable watch.

From the man behind those decade-defining Munnabhai films, however, it is far from his best work. I’m going with three out of five for director Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots, an earnest but calculated effort that runs, but never flies. Watch it anyway, because it’s the season to be jolly, and good laughs are guaranteed.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

December 18, 2009

A whole new world

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 2:50 am

December 18, 2009

Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver

Director: James Cameron

Why do we fall in love with the Star Wars films? What makes us embrace the inhabitants of Middle Earth, and relish The Lord of the Rings saga? Why do our hearts beat so fast when those dinosaurs chase the humans in Jurassic Park?

We know those worlds don’t really exist, we’re aware that what we’re seeing is just hokum. And yet we go along for the ride anyway, because – let’s face it – it allows us to have such fun.

Every once in a while comes a film that grabs you by the gut and throws you into an experience so profound that nothing else really matters. These are films that stay with us our entire lives; films that touch both heart and mind; films that make you surrender completely to the power of the experience.

James Cameron’s decade-in-the-making sci-fi dream project Avatar is not only a groundbreaking film it’s also the definitive cinematic event of this generation.

As every film geek in the world already knows Avatar, set in the year 2154, involves a mission by US Armed Forces to the planet Pandora, light years away from Earth. The fearsomely well-equipped army of former Marines has arrived on Pandora to mine a rare mineral named “unobtainium” in order to solve a devastating energy crisis back home.

The mineral cannot be obtained without the cooperation of Pandora’s native population, the Na’vi, a tribe of tall, blue-skinned, nature-loving forest dwellers who pose no threat to Earthlings. Since humans cannot breathe on Pandora, they must use avatars, or genetically engineered Na’vi look-alikes that are mind-controlled by them while they’re wired up in an unconscious state on the space-craft.

Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) is an ex-Marine who has lost the use of his legs, but signs up for the program because his avatar allows him to walk again.

Sully finds himself caught between two camps: the well-meaning scientists led by Dr Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver) who wants to connect with the Na’vi and persuade them to move from their traditional land to make way for the mining; and the mercenaries led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang) who is happy to use brutal force and explosives to wipe out the natives.

Sully is a changed man once he tastes Na’vi life and falls in love with lissome warrior princess Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) who teaches him to shoot arrows, to tame and fly stubborn psychedelic creatures, and to fight off scary jungle beasts. Thanks to his deepening relationship with Neytiri, he begins to question the legitimacy of the mission he signed up for, and eventually joins the Na’vi side to help them win a battle against the greedy humans.

With Avatar, director James Cameron doesn’t just deliver solid fan-boy entertainment, he pushes the boundaries of technology in a manner that seems to bridge the gap between imagination and the practical limitations of the day. From looking at the film, it is clear that almost anything that can be imagined and illustrated can be realized on screen now. There’s evidence of that too – the lush forests of Pandora, lit up by fluorescent plants and luminous insects; the floating mountains; the snarling six-legged dog-like creatures, the hammer-headed rhino beast. Virtually all of this is created on the computer, using a new generation of special effects and CGI. Even the Na’vi characters are brought to life by actors wearing sensors and performing on an empty stage while motion capture techniques turn them into those absolutely realistic blue-skinned natives.

The 3D technology Cameron’s been developing for years has finally allowed him to create a gorgeous, mind-boggling, dangerous, alternative reality that has never before been seen on screen. Even Peter Jackson had to fly his actors all the way out to those gorgeous New Zealand landscapes to create Middle Earth. Cameron merely filmed his actors on empty soundstages, and the computer turned the blank walls into Pandora.

Among the most breathtaking scenes in Avatar is a thrilling sequence in which Sully captures and tames a dragon-like beast on a mountaintop, and of course the film’s climatic battle between humans and the Na’vi.

Much like his last film, Titanic, the basic plot of Avatar is simple and predictable even, but look out for the various allusions and messages that Cameron sneaks in. You cannot miss the film’s obvious reference to America’s wrongful invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, or America’s callous treatment towards its indigenous races. The warning bells about the repercussions of destroying nature are also too loud to ignore.

Because Cameron paints in broad strokes, Avatar doesn’t connect emotionally in a manner that Titanic did, but only the stone-hearted will be unmoved when innocent Na’vis are shot or brutally killed in the final battle scene.

Ultimately however, Avatar belongs to one man and one man alone. The man who dreamt it all up in his head, spent years creating the technology it would require to translate his dream onto celluloid, the man who convinced an army of cast and crew to participate in this ambitious dream, the man who never let his fans down.

You may argue that you’ve seen better films than Avatar recently, but try remembering the last time you enjoyed the movie-going experience so much.

I’m going with an unprecedented five out of five and two big thumbs up for James Cameron’s Avatar. Watch it in glorious 3D; that’s how he intended for it to be seen. It’s films like this that make going to the cinema an out-of-the-world experience.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

December 11, 2009

Singh is king!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 3:02 am

December 11, 2009

Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Prem Chopra, Gauhar Khan, Naveen Kaushik

Direction: Shimit Amin

Like Swades and Lage Raho Munnabhai which came before it, Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year is a film about the importance of basic goodness.

In an industry driven by opening weekends and bumper collections, it’s that oddball film that seldom compromises on its intentions for the sake of becoming more box-office friendly. As a result the film feels too long, indulgent even, and ever-so-often it appears uncinematic.

That’s hardly surprising, considering much of the film is shot in basic office spaces and features long conversations between its characters. But don’t be fooled by its appearance; Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year is a film with all heart.

Ranbir Kapoor plays Harpreet Singh Bedi, an idealistic young graduate who lands a sales job in a computer firm run by a boss who sets unrealistic targets for his team. His rose-tinted glasses come off early in the day as he watches receptionists being wooed for prompt appointments with busy managers, and security guards being bribed for information on rivals. For his own part, he stays strictly upright, going so far as to file a complaint against a client who wants his palm greased. That act of honesty, however, is rewarded with a demotion.

Convinced that a business can be run clean, Harpreet sets up his own company within the one he works for, roping in a handful of fellow colleagues as partners. Operating honestly and diligently, this team discreetly sets up a thriving business that eventually rivals the one they work for.

Meticulously written by Jaideep Sahni, the genius behind such gems as Khosla Ka Ghosla and Chak De India, the script of Rocket Singh is its real star. Seeking inspiration in real life and real people, the film avoids stereotypes and goes for characters and situations that are refreshingly familiar – the team-leader who fudges conveyance vouchers, the cut-throat competitive co-workers, the porn-surfing maintenance guy, even the promotion-seeking receptionist.

Taking the cue from Sahni’s script, director Shimit Amin bravely resists any temptation to glamorise the world they’ve set the film in, by rooting the drama in a space that is basic and without frills. An office party scene is filmed with colleagues drinking out of plastic cups, loosening their ties and dancing to songs being played out of a computer. Even the film’s opening credits sequence in which the camera lovingly floats over a middle-class home’s bric-a-brac is evidence of the makers’ commitment to authenticity.

But Rocket Singh touches a chord because it’s that rare film that urges us to examine our lives and to question the rules by which we live it. It has a life-affirming quality that will appeal to every one of us who has ever hesitated before taking the easy way over the right way.

The film isn’t without hiccups, though. Overly long, especially in its first half, Rocket Singh suffers on account of sluggish pacing, and occasional indulgences like that unduly stretched-out confession monologue by Harpreet’s boss in the film’s climax.

Remarkable casting has resulted in some fine performances by key players, although even the bit parts are filled out convincingly. D Santosh as the affable maintenance guy, Mukesh Bhatt as the tea-man with computer-repair skills, Naveen Kaushik as the oddly sideburned team head, and Gauhar Khan as the cutting receptionist pitch in commendable performances.

Of course it’s topped off by Ranbir Kapoor’s compelling, effortless portrayal of Harpreet Singh Bedi. Ranbir adds the little touches that make all the difference: combing the beard, tucking in the turban, lifting the ‘kada’ further up his arm before dipping his hand into a bucket of wet clothes. He’s an actor you can’t take your eyes off.

In the end, Rocket Singh is a clean, honest film with noble intentions. It requires patience to appreciate it fully, but deserves a viewing because films like this are hard to find. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five and a thumbs up for director Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year; whatever else you do this weekend, don’t miss this film.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)


Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 2:58 am

December 11, 2009

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner

Direction: Chris Weitz

There’s way too much tortured acting going on in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, even for those like me who enjoyed the earlier film.

Picking up where Twilight left off, this film follows moody teenager Bella Swan as she’s dumped by her vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen for fear of hurting her. She spends months on end moping in her bedroom, before another boy falls in love with her. But Bella isn’t destined to have a normal relationship. Turns out her new guy, the hunky Jacob Black is a werewolf.

What bogs down this second film that’s been adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling novels, is the morose nature of Bella and Edward’s romance. Robert Pattinson, who became an overnight heartthrob since appearing in Twilight, plays Edward Cullen as a brooding, humorless fellow with almost no personality at all. Doesn’t help that Kristen Stewart’s Bella is a bland and passive character who remains sullen and self-absorbed throughout the film, pleading Edward to “change her” and then going into some sort of blue funk each time he turns her down.

While the first film and its director Catherine Hardwicke successfully managed to capture the virginal yearning in Bella, New Moon directed by Chris Weitz, only gets the action portions right. The scene in which Jacob (played by Taylor Lautner) first morphs into a CGI werewolf and leaps onto another of his species is nothing short of stunning, and the same can be said for a musical sequence in which a pack of werewolves chase a female vampire through a thick forest.

But these are small consolations in what is otherwise a painfully long, uniformly boring melodrama with affected performances from each of its three leads.

It’s an ordeal to endure mostly for its maudlin, morose tone. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five for The Twilight Saga: New Moon; it made a ton of money when it released internationally, but that doesn’t make it any good. Watch it entirely at your own risk

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

December 4, 2009

Radio ramblings

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 3:27 am

December 04, 2009

Cast: Himesh Reshammiya, Sonal Sehgal, Shenaz Treasurywala

Director: Ishan Trivedi

Trying too hard to be cool, the Himesh Reshammiya-starrer Radio is a misguided film about modern relationships.

Starring the singer-turned-actor as popular radio jockey Vivaan, who decides he’s done with relationships after the failure of his marriage, this movie sets up an unlikely scenario where Himesh is pursued by not one but two reasonably beautiful, intelligent women. His ex-wife Pooja (played by Sonal Sehgal) is clearly still in love with him. And from the look of it, he’s confused about his feelings for her too. Which is why it doesn’t help that he’s simultaneously finding himself drawn to Shanaya, a new friend he’s recently made (played by Shenaz Treasurywala), who evidently has romantic feelings for him. To complicate things further, the two girls become acquainted and get on rather well. Each loves him so much they try to set him up with the other.

Radio, written and directed by Ishan Trivedi, is an unintentionally hilarious film that unsuccessfully tries to tap the youth and its preoccupation with current fads – from social networking sites like Facebook, to idle chats in coffee-shops.

What the film lacks in story, it tries to make up in screenplay gimmicks. Hence the film’s divided into chapters with intriguing titles, and you have comic scenes featuring Paresh Rawal as a fellow radio jockey sprinkled throughout the narrative.

To add insult to injury, Radio features the worst possible performance by an ensemble cast. Sonal Sehgal and Shenaz Treasurywala don’t have one acting bone in their body, and the same sadly applies to Himesh too, who clearly seems to have worked on his physique, his hair, his appearance even, but can’t seem to do much in the acting department.

To some extent, Himesh’s music is the saving grace of Radio, but that’s only because everything else about it is so seriously flawed. The dialogue includes absolute gems that will leave you howling in your seat.

I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five for director Ishan Trivedi’s Radio. The protagonists in this film repeatedly smash crockery on the floor insisting it’s good luck. I wonder whose luck they mean. Not the audience’s, I can assure you!

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Baap of all performances!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 3:19 am

December 4, 2009

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Vidya Balan

Director: R Balki

Like most kids his age, Auro doesn’t want his friends to see his mum dropping him off at school. He’s not very fond of girls, and most of his jokes involve the potty and what you place on it. In fact, he seems so obsessed with that particular body part he’s nicknamed his grandma ‘Bum’, because she’s got a big one.

Auro, of course, is the protagonist of director R Balki’s Paa. He’s your average mischievous 12-year-old, except for the fact that he has progeria, a rare medical condition that accelerates the ageing process. So although he’s only stepping into his teens, Auro has the body of a 65-year-old.

In what can be best described as a casting masterstroke, Amitabh Bachchan steps into the (relatively) small shoes of Auro. Contrary to what the film’s marketing conveys, Paa is actually a mother-son story. Vidya Balan plays single-mum Vidya, who raises Auro with some help from her mother, after dumping her selfish boyfriend in college, when he suggests an abortion. Amol (played by Abhishek Bachchan) is not ready for marriage; he is keen to follow his father into politics.

Years later, Amol, who is now a Member of Parliament, accidentally meets Auro at a school event, both oblivious to the fact that they are father and son.

Much in the same vein as the director’s previous film Cheeni Kum, the first half of Paa unfolds breezily, with witty dialogue and clever scenes used effectively to establish the characters and their relationships. Steering clear of pity, even in delicate scenes, Balki avoids the obvious pitfalls that come with stories about characters suffering from grim conditions.

There is however, one major speed-bump before intermission, a track in which the young politician Amol launches into a verbal attack on the media. It sticks out in the film because that scenario is so amateurishly scripted and comes off looking embarrassingly self-righteous.

There are more problems in the film’s second half when the tone suddenly turns exceedingly manipulative, and several scenes are stretched unnecessarily like the one in a Delhi metro where Auro questions Amol about the futility of having bodyguards.

Despite these hiccups, Paa is ultimately an engaging film because of its largely original writing. One of the best scenes in the film is a hilarious telephone conversation between Auro and a classmate of his, in which the latter explains just how frustrated he is with his father. Most scenes, in fact, between Auro and his buddies at school are a pleasure to watch because of the natural performances Balki is able to derive from his child actors.

Of the cast Arundhati Naag is endearingly warm as Auro’s feisty grandmum, and Pratik Katare gets his timing spot-on as Auro’s best friend Vishnu. Abhishek Bachchan is a tad smug as the new-gen politician, and tries a little too hard to force the ‘coolness’ down our throats.

In the end, Paa belongs to mother and son. Vidya Balan delivers her best work since Parineeta, emerging the emotional soul of this film with a graceful, restrained performance that she constructs with minimal help from the script. She strikes up a warm maternal chemistry with Auro and her scenes with him are the film’s most heart-felt.

The centerpiece of the action, of course, is Amitabh Bachchan. Under that excellent prosthetic make-up, his baritone replaced by a childish squeaky voice, Bachchan becomes Auro. There is no trace of the legendary 68-year-old star; what you get is a pitch-perfect performance as a gawky but spirited teenager.

PC Sreeram’s dazzling cinematography and Illayraja’s soothing score help make up for many of the script’s flaws, and ultimately contribute to making Paa an easy, enjoyable watch.

I’m going with three out of five for director R Balki’s Paa. Few filmmakers stick their necks out to tell difficult and different stories in these days of mindless entertainers making potloads of money. For their intentions alone, the makers of Paa deserve a thumbs-up.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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