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

July 28, 2017

Past imperfect

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:57 pm

July 28, 2017

Cast: Kirti Kulhari, Tota Roy Chowdhury, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Anupam Kher, Sheeba Chaddha, Ankur Vikal, Parvin Dabbas, Supriya Vinod

Director: Madhur Bhandarkar

The smartest thing about Madhur Bhandarkar’s new film is its title. Subtlety has never one of his strengths, but Indu Sarkar is a nice play on words. It is both the name of the film’s protagonist, and also, as you may have guessed, refers to late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s ruling government.

Set during the Emergency ordered by Mrs Gandhi in 1975, the film is committed to raking up the atrocities and the violations of freedom inflicted on the people of India during this 21-month period. Yet the film never identifies Mrs Gandhi by name, or her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, widely believed to be the architect of many bad decisions of the time. This is odd because the actors playing these parts are dead ringers for the real people, particularly Neil Nitin Mukesh sporting a receding hairline and thick-rimmed spectacles in the role of Sanjay.

But you know how it is. Making political films is tricky business in India. Parties and their people are invariably offended, the censors inevitably rob the film of its bite, and legal troubles threaten to swallow you whole. Given that reality of the landscape, you might say it’s a minor victory that Indu Sarkar still made it to the screen. Or am I just being too naïve?

Whatever the case, Bhandarkar tries to hide his agendas, if any, behind the appearance of a humanist plot. His protagonist is an orphan named Indu whom we watch being rejected repeatedly because of her stutter – as a child by potential parents doing the rounds of the adoption home, and later as a young woman by potential grooms and their dismissive mothers.

When Indu (Kirti Kulhari) is married to an ambitious civil servant in the Congress administration (Tota Roy Chowdhury), her sudden exposure to the horrors of the Emergency leads to her social and political awakening. It begins with her refusal to abandon two little children orphaned in a slum demolition drive, and leads to her taking up full-fledged activism at the cost of her marriage.

But to be honest, there is very little in this film that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Indian history might be unfamiliar with. From the mass sterilization campaign implemented at the time, to the Turkman Gate massacre, down to the muzzling of the press, everything has been extensively documented over the years. Which is not to say that Bhandarkar shouldn’t make a film about the Emergency. The problem is, the film’s uneven tone makes it hard to take any of it too seriously. The caricaturish portrayal of key figures, especially Neil Nitin Mukesh’s all-out-villain approach to playing Sanjay Gandhi makes this feel like an old-school Bollywood movie instead of a sharp political drama. Doesn’t help that he’s made to deliver punch-lines instead of dialogue. “Sarkaren challenge se nahin, chabuk se chalti hain.” Cringe.

On the upside, Kirti Kulhari is in good form, imbuing the central character with both vulnerability and strength when required. Her transformation feels a bit rushed, but her performance is measured and sincere.

Indu Sarkar is at best an average movie. It’s the cinematic equivalent to one of those training manuals…think ‘The Emergency for Dummies’. I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Twin troubles

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:36 pm

July 28, 2017

Cast: Arjun Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Ratna Pathak Shah, Pavan Malhotra, Ileana D’cruz, Athiya Shetty, Neha Sharma, Karan Kundra, Rahul Dev

Director: Anees Bazmee

Mubarakan starts with a deadly car crash. And many would argue that it ends leaving you feeling like you were in it.

Okay, maybe that’s too harsh. Because I’ll admit this movie is not as bad as a lot of Anees Bazmee’s previous films. But hey, that’s like saying getting kicked in the testicles is better than losing your right thumb. It’s not a lot of fun.

But what do you expect? Arjun Kapoor stars in a double role as Karan and Charan, twin brothers, one raised in London the other in Chandigarh after becoming orphaned as babies. A series of harebrained plot twists and the involvement of their buffoonish uncle Kartar Singh (Anil Kapoor) leads to the twins ending up engaged to each other’s sweethearts.

It’s not the most original premise, but to be fair there is some semblance of a plot, however puerile. Yet, the film is pitched too loud, chunks of it just aren’t funny, and it’s excruciatingly long at 2 hours and 36 minutes. Bazmee spends too much time on set up, and as a result the film’s first half is a slog.

Despite the excessive melodrama, the film really takes flight when the spotlight is on the senior cast, which includes a feisty Ratna Pathak Shah playing the aunt that raised one of the twins, and a terrific Pavan Malhotra as the uncle who adopted the other. Their time on screen, along with a scenery-chewing Anil Kapoor, are the film’s strongest bits. It’s a joy to watch these three actors flex their comic chops and nail even the smallest throwaway moments. The simple act of gargling one’s throat in the background while others are engaged in conversation is mined for laughs in one of the film’s funnier scenes.

But the problem is that much of the humor in Mubarakan is low-IQ, pedestrian stuff that never feels fresh. Just how many times will Bazmee recycle the same scenes in which multiple characters coincidentally land up at a common place and end up trying to hide from each other? Even the dialogue is only occasionally clever; the punning feels labored – “Jatt ko jet-lag kabse hone laga?”

The film’s leading ladies range from spunky (Ileana D’cruz) to merely ornamental (Athiya Shetty), while a track involving a third (Neha Sharma) is underdeveloped and frankly offensive. Arjun Kapoor’s distinct physicality and limited range of expressions make it hard to buy into the double role conceit, although he gamely works towards creating fully realized characters out of slick Karan and mild-mannered Charan. He tries, but he needed to try harder.

In the end the film is the same old comedy of errors that we’ve seen so many times before. Anil Kapoor is the secret sauce of Mubarakan whose incredible timing uplifts many a dull patch. But the film is unmistakably indulgent and over-long, and could’ve done with some serious pruning. Right now it works only in fits and starts. You’ll laugh, but not throughout. Let’s just say it falls somewhere in the middle on a scale of Ready to No Entry.

I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18) 

July 21, 2017

Women on top

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:02 pm

July 21, 2017

Cast: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak Shah, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur, Sushant Singh, Vikrant Massey, Shashank Arora

Director: Alankrita Shrivastava

Just moments before intermission, one of the principal characters in Lipstick Under My Burkha, a young woman in Bhopal desperate to flee the arranged marriage and banal life awaiting her, crisply sums up the root cause of their ongoing disappointments to a friend who’s equally miserable in her life: “Our problem is that we dare to dream.”

Nursing dreams is a crime that all four women at the centre of this film are guilty of. Dreams of leading the life they want to, of taking ownership of their bodies, of breaking free from the shackles of their controlling families and from a sexist, prejudiced society that insists they must toe the line. How ironic that even the Censors refused to certify the film, objecting that “the story is lady-oriented, their fantasy about life”.

Co-written and directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, Lipstick Under My Burkha casts an honest, unsparing look at what it means to be a woman in small-town India. This is a city on the cusp of modernisation, where shiny new malls jostle for space with centuries-old apartment blocks, but where mindsets have remained as narrow as the bylanes.

Shirin, a Muslim woman (Konkona Sen Sharma), has been discreetly working as a door-to-door saleswoman, but hides this fact from her conservative, Saudi-returned husband. As far as he’s concerned, her only job is to raise their three children, and to satisfy his frequent and frankly selfish sexual needs.

Leela, a feisty young Hindu woman (Aahana Kumra), works at a local beauty parlour although she has a business plan with her Muslim lover whom she frequently enjoys sex with, and with whom she’s plotting her escape from the arranged marriage her widowed mother is forcing her into.

For Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), who goes to great lengths to hide her Miley Cyrus hangover and pop star ambitions from her strict Muslim parents, the burkha is many-layered. It’s the armor that protects her when she shoplifts at malls. And at college, she stuffs it into her backpack so she can fit in with the other students, agitating in their distressed denims for the right to wear jeans on campus.

Then there’s 55-year-old widow Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak Shah), the respected ‘Buaji’ who runs the family business, but who covertly reads Hindi erotic fiction at night. When she falls for a strapping swimming instructor, her repressed desires find an outlet in steamy phone sex. As Buaji reads out the fantasies of Rosy, the protagonist of her pulpy romance novels, the character becomes a symbol for everything that the four women long for.

This is an engaging story, and the makers narrate it with gentleness, pathos, sexual frankness, and a king sized helping of humour. The four women are loosely connected; they’re neighbours in a dilapidated housing complex, and they also share an unspoken sisterhood of sorts. These are women fighting to express themselves, yet they’re virtually invisible to those around them.

Shrivastava navigates sensitive areas like female desire, the sexuality of older women, and religious conservatism, but she does so without titillation or cheap sensationalism. It helps that she’s got a first-rate cast. Newer actors like Plabita Borthakur and particularly Aahana Kumra earn their place alongside seasoned performers like Ratna Pathak Shah and Konkona Sen Sharma, who are in excellent form both in the film’s dramatic and laugh-out-loud scenes.

On the flip side, the male characters are almost all dominating and unsympathetic, thereby perpetuating the popular feminist stereotype of men. The film’s ending too comes off as contrived and clunky, one of the only bits that doesn’t ring true. But these are minor hiccups in a bold, honest film that hits the right notes. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Lipstick Under My Burkha. It’s accessible and entertaining; that rare film about empowerment that delivers plenty laughs. Make sure not to miss it.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Into the heart of war

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:49 pm

July 21, 2017


Director: Christopher Nolan

Watching Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is an experience that I’d imagine feels a lot like watching a ticking bomb from close quarters. This is a suspenseful film about a chapter in World War II history whose outcome is no secret. Yet Nolan, aided by Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score, conjures a relentless sense of dread and jeopardy that creeps into your bones.

This is the story of the evacuation of Allied troops – more than 300,000 soldiers, mostly British – who were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France, desperate to make it across the English Channel, while being bombarded by the Nazis.

It’s a story that unfolds on land, on the sea, and in the air, and Nolan, who wrote the script himself, weaves the three narrative threads together seamlessly. On the ground, amidst the falling bombs and chaos, we follow a young, scared British soldier named Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) as he struggles to stay alive until he can be rescued. Up above, a handful of Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots, including Farrier (Tom Hardy), engage in dogfights against German bomber and fighter planes to keep the men on the ground safe. There’s also the track involving a civilian English sailor, Dawson (Mark Rylance), and his teenage son who head out in his small leisure yacht across the Channel to bring home as many of the stranded soldiers as they can.

One of the film’s big, bold moves is Nolan’s decision to intercut between these three related but distinct narratives, each of which has its own timeline and duration. The evacuation on the beach lasted over a week, the air battle a little over an hour, while Dawson’s crossing of the Channel takes all of one day. Merging the three tracks to appear as if all the action is taking place simultaneously helps escalate the sense of immediacy and urgency that the film relies on.

Unlike Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (widely considered the best war film in recent times) which traded in stomach-turning images of disembodied corpses to convey the horrors of war, there is virtually no sight of blood in Dunkirk. Instead, this is a film that throws you front and centre into the action to experience the terror first-hand. The aerial scenes are especially hair-raising, and add to the overall effect of a race against time. The terrific camerawork, sound design, and propulsive score work together to deliver an intense immersive experience that is best enjoyed on an IMAX screen. There was a pin-drop silence throughout the screening I attended; you couldn’t even hear the sound of popcorn being munched. Fitting, perhaps, for a film with barely any dialogue.

This is that rare war film without the rousing speeches. There is no big victory in the end; this is a film about a desperate struggle for survival. The cast of mostly unknown actors does a good job of portraying the terror of the situation, while familiar faces – like One Direction’s Harry Styles in the role of a soldier trying to make his way back home, Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier rescued from a sinking ship, and Kenneth Branagh as an honourable naval commander – lend heft to the proceedings.

Dunkirk is robust filmmaking, and sits nicely with Nolan’s impressive body of work. It’s a riveting, overwhelming piece of cinema, and another reminder of how skilfully he marries affecting character drama with sheer spectacle. I’m going with four-and-a-half out of five. It’s one of the year’s best films.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)


July 14, 2017

Out on a whim

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:02 pm

July 14, 2017

Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Saswata Chatterjee, Saurabh Shukla

Director: Anurag Basu

The simple story of a young man’s search for his missing father is served up with a large dollop of whimsy in “Jagga Jasoos”, Anurag Basu’s ambitious but exhausting musical starring Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif.

Ranbir is Jagga, a young fellow with a pronounced stutter who has learnt to communicate by singing his words. That idea was suggested to him by a goodhearted man (played by an excellent Saswata Chatterjee), who mentored him in his youth then vanished without warning. Jagga, who has grown into an intrepid boy detective, enlists the help of Shruti, a clumsy journalist played by Katrina, to help him search for his foster father.

This is a film that begins in West Bengal in the mid-nineties, opening with the infamous Puralia arms-drop incident that made headlines at the time. From there “Jagga Jasoos” evolves into a rollicking adventure through Manipur, taking a pit stop in Kolkata, before moving to picturesque locations in Africa.

The vision is admirable but the execution is indulgent. Basu stuffs the narrative with too many ideas and as a result the film is an overlong mess.

After opening nicely with charming scenes between a young Jagga and the father figure he knows as ‘Tutti Futti’, the film piles on the pounds. A track in which Jagga solves the mystery of a school teacher’s death plays on far too long, and the continuing subplot about spies and arms dealers is convoluted and distracting. There’s a rogue intelligence officer (Saurabh Shukla), bumbling cops, and even a reference to Subhash Chandra Bose and the Independence struggle. Basu also throws in a two-headed villain for good measure, by which point I suppose it’s fair to make the joke that just one focused head would’ve been enough to fix the problems with this film’s script.

But it’s not as if nothing works. Ranbir Kapoor is expectedly in very good form, endearing himself to the viewer with a lovable performance, revealing the sort of solid comic chops that he hasn’t had to flex since Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani. Katrina too, comfortably pulls off the comedic bits, but lets her leading man do most of the heavy lifting.

Pritam’s music is inventive and infectious; and the film’s format really gives the composer an opportunity to fly. Ravi Varman’s camerawork also deserves special mention; the film is exceptionally shot. This is a movies made with passion, powered by some great ideas and an experimental spirit. A scene at a birthday party in which a stray line of dialogue becomes the chorus of a musical number is just one of the best bits in the movie. There are others too, rare moments of genuine feeling.

But it’s a shame “Jagga Jasoos” is never more than the sum of its parts. The film’s heart – the moving father-son dynamic – is buried somewhere under all the manic Tintin-like adventure and the sensory overload it triggers. Clocking in at 2 hours and 49 minutes, much of what’s good in the film is lost amidst the many indulgences.

I’m going with two out of five. It’s a disappointment, no question about it, from a team capable of so much more.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Hail Caesar!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:00 pm

July 14, 2017

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller

Director: Matt Reeves

In War for the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis, reprising his role as honourable ape-leader Caesar, once again brings incredible depth, pathos, and, ironically, humanity to a character whose presence is created entirely in motion-capture. Having mastered this cutting-edge breakthrough technology playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, Serkis skilfully uses his voice, facial expressions and body language to ‘become’ Caesar in the Apes franchise. Three films in, and its hard to find a false note in his performance.

The new film opens in a world that is at the cusp of war. A war between humans and apes, triggered by a deadly virus that is rapidly claiming the lives of humans while making the simians more intelligent and vocal. Caesar makes every effort to maintain peace between both factions, but a cruel Army colonel (Woody Harrelson) is determined to eradicate the apes.

This is easily the darkest film in the trilogy following 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But it’s also the strongest in terms of both technical and emotional impact. This is that rare film that merges blockbuster thrills with compelling, intelligent character drama.

Writer-director Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback weave relevant political themes into the plot that especially resonates in these divisive times. There are echoes of other films too, including, most obviously Apocalypse Now. There is Biblical imagery as well, in a sequence where Caesar is flogged and crucified as he attempts to lead his tribe to a place far away from the atrocities of men.

The movie feels flabby in its middle portion, which unfolds in a concentration camp where the Colonel has enslaved the apes. There are occasional moments of humour, most of which are provided by Bad Ape, a new character, played by a terrific Steve Zahn. Reeves boldly gives us a film with no more than a handful of human characters, and where much of the communication between the apes is conveyed through subtitles.

The glue that binds the film in the end is Caesar, or the lifelike portrayal by Serkis. It’s a deeply affecting performance that is rich in emotion. The actor somehow manages to imbue the animal with a multitude of feelings and a distinct personality. It’s impossible that you won’t be moved.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s a rock solid thriller with a big beating heart at its center. Definitely worth your time.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)


July 7, 2017


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:40 pm

July 07, 2017

Cast: Sridevi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Akshaye Khanna, Sajal Ali, Abhimanyu Singh, Adnan Siddiqui

Director: Ravi Udyawar

In Mom, her first Hindi film since 2012’s English Vinglish, Sridevi isn’t merely expected to do the bulk of dramatic heavylifting, she’s required to pretty much distract you from noticing the film’s many problems, including the gaping script holes, the flawed ideology, and the fact that you’ve seen this movie before. Many times actually.

Arya (Sajal Ali), a teenage student, is savagely raped, but the perpetrators get off the hook. Seething with righteous rage, determined to deliver justice to the offenders, her mother Devki (Sridevi) takes matters into her own hands.

Wait, wasn’t this exactly the plot of the recent Raveena Tandon starrer Maatr?

Well in the hands of advertising filmmaker Ravi Udyawar who’s making his feature debut, Mom is a stylish revenge thriller and relatively less shrill than most films in this genre tend to be. The grotesque crime that triggers the plot takes place off screen, but the director never spares you the discomfort. In the film’s most chilling scene, we get an aerial view of a black SUV into which four men have forcibly trapped the victim, as it courses through empty roads in the dead of the night, an ominous background score filling the air. Shudder.

But stylistic choices aside the screenplay faithfully sticks to the genre template. Devki tracks down each of the men and delivers brutal payback for their misdeeds. She is helped in this by a pushy private eye (a virtually unrecognizable Nawazuddin Siddiqui), even as a suspicious cop (Akshaye Khanna) is on to her.

The ease with which Devki executes her revenge plan is unconvincing, and presumably the big idea here – that she gets away with a lot of it because who would suspect a woman, a mother? – is interesting, but never adequately exploited. A bigger problem with the film is its tendency to focus squarely on Sridevi, often at the cost of the story. Mom, as its title clearly suggests, traces Devki’s arc, and as a result Arya and her plight get relegated to the background.

Having said that, it’s also true that a deeply emotional but superbly controlled performance by Sridevi elevates Mom from its standard revenge fantasy leanings. The actress uses body language and her eyes to communicate complex emotions, and makes it impossible not to root for her despite the popular but frankly dangerous sentiment – of vigilantism – that the film is peddling.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui somehow creates a fully realized character despite an underdeveloped part, and he is riveting when he’s on screen. Akshaye Khanna, unfortunately, gets very little to work with, which is a shame given his talent. The rest of the cast too is in good form, particularly Sajal Ali as Arya, and Abhimanyu Singh as one of the offenders. But make no mistake, this is the Sridevi show and everything is expressly designed to add to her legend.

Mom is a far from perfect film, but it’s never boring. Sridevi’s terrific turn makes up for many of the script problems. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)


Just another teen movie!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:39 pm

July 07, 2017

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Robert Downey Jr, Jon Favreau

Director: Jon Watts

So it turns out that the masterstroke in Spider-Man Homecoming is taking the protagonist back to class and treating the whole thing like a high school movie. This is the third time in 15 years that they’re taking a stab at the web-slinging superhero, and after Tobey Maguire got too old to keep playing the part, and the Andrew Garfield films failed to hit the sweet spot, we’re discovering that the key to re-energize the franchise lies in two simple words: Go young.

Enter 21-year-old Tom Holland, who was first introduced as Spidey in last year’s Captain America: Civil War where he held his own alongside Marvel’s Avengers. Holland has just the boyish enthusiasm and earnestness required to play Peter Parker as a fresh-faced 15-year-old, and mercifully director Jon Watts and the writers spare us the backstory. There’s no bite from a radioactive spider; all that’s taken care of in a single line of dialogue. As is the death of wise Uncle Ben. (We get no speech on power and responsibility.) What we get is a kid trying to figure out how to master the powers he’s already acquired.

Holland brings goofiness to the part, which makes the character genuinely likable. This is a novice Spider-Man, and many of the laughs come from watching him rough and tumble his way through the action.

Speaking of action, this is your not your average Marvel film where the superhero must save the world from a power-hungry villain hell-bent on flattening entire cities.  The film’s baddie, a blue-collar worker-turned-arms manufacturer, played by Michael Keaton, has no ambitions of world-domination; he’s just a guy chasing a fast buck to feed his family. This is a much more intimate story, and the action set pieces are befitting the relatively modest scale of the plot. Which is not to say that they aren’t thrilling. It’s just that they aren’t an orgy of explosions and special effects where you can’t make out who’s doing what to whom. A sequence involving an attack on the Staten Island Ferry is particularly well executed.

But Spider-Man Homecoming is ultimately stronger as a character-driven coming-of-age comedy. Watts surrounds his leading man with an ensemble of characters who’re key to Peter’s life: his worrying Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and of course his mentor figure, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), who’s too busy to actually mentor him but shows up to dispense tough love each time the kid screws up.

The film doesn’t get everything right. Some of the supporting players – particularly Keaton’s villain – are underdeveloped. The climatic face-off is also a little overstretched. But these are minor quibbles in a movie that’s both brimming with humor and invested with a lot of heart. A movie that’s fresh and entertaining, and one that marks a welcome return for a superhero we’ve all missed.

I’m going with four out of five for Spider-Man Homecoming. It’s light and breezy and so much fun.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Powered by WordPress