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

August 31, 2018

That’s the spirit!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:06 pm

August 31, 2018

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Aparshakti Khurrana, Abhishek Banerjee, Vijay Raaz

Director: Amar Kaushik

Stree, starring Rajkummar Rao and Shraddha Kapoor, is a very unusual film. It marries elements of horror, broad comedy, dark humor, and social satire to create a cocktail that – believe it or not – mostly crackles. I say ‘mostly’ because the film isn’t perfect. But then what film is?

Scripted by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, the creative pair behind that bonkers zombie comedy Go Goa Gone, the film opens with a title card that says it’s based on “a ridiculous phenomenon”. That would be accurate.

Each year during a religious festival that lasts four days, a female spirit referred to simply as ‘stree’ descends upon Chanderi, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, and abducts men in the dead of the night, only leaving behind their clothes. Men are at their most vulnerable, advised by their women to return home early, to not venture out alone, and to not talk to strangers. It’s a fresh spin on the traditional Bollywood horror movie trope as per which ghosts and spirits preyed more or less exclusively on the fairer sex.

Rajkummar Rao plays Vicky, best tailor in town; so skilled he can gauge a woman’s measurements by merely looking at her. He’s gone all gooey-eyed for a pretty girl, played by Shraddha Kapoor, who requests him to stitch her a lehenga urgently.

When young men around him become victims of the feared spirit, Vicky’s friends force him to consider that there might be something fishy about this mysterious girl he’s been hanging out with whom no one else has seen, whose name he doesn’t know, and who’s given him a strange shopping list that includes cat hair, and a lizard’s tail among other things.

Director Amar Kaushik mines this bizarre but refreshingly original premise for both laughs and jump scares. The ‘horror’ in Stree is pretty tame, standard stuff, but the foolproof combination of screeching background score and sudden visual cues yields a handful of good jump-in-your-seat moments.

The laughs, on the other hand, are well earned. Dialogue writer Sumit Arora’s conversational humor is one of the film’s biggest strengths, and the film has a roster of terrific actors who make every joke land. A consistently disarming Pankaj Tripathi, in particular, playing local expert Rudra Bhaiyya, is a complete hoot, delivering what’s on the page with such deadpan wit, he steals practically every scene he’s in. Aparshakti Khurrana and Abhishek Banerjee as Vicky’s best friends also get some great moments to shine.

Frequently miscast or even misdirected in other films, Shraddha Kapoor blends in nicely as the alluring out-of-towner with an air of mystery around her. And then there’s Rajkummar Rao, who it appears can do no wrong. He invests Vicky with a sweet small-town simplicity, giving us another Everyman character that feels entirely real. Watch how he listens keenly as his father sits him down for an awkward birds-and-bees talk, or his reaction to the discovery of his true parentage. Or a scene late in the film in which he can’t fake romantic interest when he’s meant to. Each played to evoke different emotions, he never puts a foot out of place.

Tucked away beneath the scares and the laughs – but never buried out of sight completely – is the film’s feminist subtext. In some instances the case is made expressly, like Tripathi’s character pointing out that the spirit in question is a “naye Bharat ki chudail”, who, unlike men, doesn’t believe in “zabardasti” and understands the concept of consent. After all she calls out the man’s name first, waits till he turns and looks into her eyes before claiming her victim. Mostly though the message about how our society treats women is cleverly subverted through scenes like the one in which men across town are terrified to go out at night.

It’s a shame then that the film perpetuates some of the same prejudices that it so earnestly knocks. The female characters in Stree are largely ornamental, and an item song featuring a heaving-jiggling starlet seems like a bad choice here. The songs, in fact, are nothing but an impediment in the narrative, and a big reason why the film feels overlong at a little over two hours.

These problems aside, Stree is especially entertaining, packed with laugh aloud moments and a cast that’s on top of their game. It’s one of the most original films this year, and I recommend that you make the time for it.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Screen best

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:52 pm

August 31. 2018

Cast: John Cho, Michelle La, Debra Messing, Sara Sohn, Joseph Lee

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Searching, directed by Aneesh Chaganty, is basically Taken without guns, without fight scenes, and without Liam Neeson. That probably sounds like the worst movie pitch ever, but oddly it’s accurate.

The film is about a desperate father’s tireless search for his missing daughter. But instead of trawling through an underground sex trafficking ring in Paris, the rabbit hole that the dad in this movie must navigate is the Internet.

When his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) doesn’t return home from study group one night, and isn’t at school the next day either, single parent David Kim (John Cho) begins combing through her online footprint for leads. Think emails, Facebook, chatrooms, live streams, and bank statements.

It’s a fascinating premise and one that lends itself seamlessly to Chaganty’s choice of narrative device. The film unfolds entirely on screens – computers, mobile phones, television, CCTV cameras, hidden cameras, you name it. Even when the case is handed over to the cops and is being investigated by a compassionate detective (Debra Messing), the plot still unravels on screens.

To be fair this isn’t the first film to employ this idea. The 2014 horror film Unfriended – about a supernatural entity that penetrates an online chat group – also played out largely on computer screens and smartphones, although that premise felt gimmicky and contrived. The same isn’t true of Searching which seldom gets tiresome or boring during its 100-minute runtime, a testament to the sharp skills of Indian-American Chaganty, who’s co-written the script with Sev Ohanian.

But it’s difficult to talk about the plot in any detail for fear of ruining the tension and its multiple twists. What’s worth noting is a keen eye for detail, and how passage of time is reflected through technology and interface upgrade. You’ll chuckle at the memory of those pixelated Windows XP screens that are replaced by sleek Apple OS designs. It’s worth mentioning also that John Cho (who you might remember from the Harold & Kumar movies) conveys a growing sense of anguish as the distressed father, and that no part of his affecting performance is diluted by the film’s unique narrative format.

For the most part I was genuinely intrigued and at the edge of my seat as the suspense unfolded. Chaganty has elevated a standard missing-person drama into something quite extraordinary on the strength of his inventive storytelling.

Searching works as a cautionary tale about the possible horrors of technology and the Internet. But it is as much about unconditional, unreasonable parental love. It’s also one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Don’t miss it. I’m going with four out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

August 24, 2018

Pursuit of Happyness

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 5:58 pm

August 24, 2018

Cast: Sonakshi Sinha, Jimmy Shergill, Piyush Mishra, Jassie Gill, Diana Penty, Ali Fazal, Aparshakti Khurrana, Denzil Smith, Jason Tham

Director: Mudassar Aziz

The simple premise of a runaway Punjabi bride who accidentally lands up in Pakistan, with a string of men in hot pursuit, yielded hilarious results in 2016’s Happy Bhag Jayegi. That film’s sequel – Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi – has a bigger cast, a longer runtime, and a new playground for its humour to unfold. But there’s so much going on this time around that you’ll frequently need to pause, gather your wits, and try to keep up with its manic pace and ‘anything goes’ spirit.

Relocating the action from Pakistan to China, the plot is kicked into motion when a different Happy, a horticulture professor (Sonakshi Sinha), is mistaken for the earlier Happy (Diana Penty) and kidnapped moments after she arrives in Shanghai by a bunch of Chinese goons led by the Hindi-speaking Chang (Jason Tham). When she manages to run away, as anyone named Happy in these films is prone to do, she encounters a Sardar named Khushwant (Jassie Gill), who works at the Indian embassy and who promises to help her sort out the mess.

A handful of characters from the earlier film return for this second outing, including boorish Punjabi corporator Daman Singh Bagga (Jimmy Shergill), whose marriage is again thwarted at the eleventh hour, this time after climbing the ceremonial horse; a point he repeats with great frustration over and over again. Joining him is bumbling Pakistani police officer Usman Afridi (Piyush Mishra), who is also drawn into the plot presumably because he was such a hoot in the previous film.

Bagga and Afridi are the secret sauce of this sequel, both played by skilled actors with sharp comic timing. The back and forth between Jimmy Shergill and Piyush Mishra is the source of plenty laughs, even if many of the film’s best jokes are simply rehashed from the previous film.

As it turns out, the bulk of humour in Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi is decidedly juvenile. Chinese characters have names like Makaju and Fa-Q, and the film trades in every cliché you can think of from noodles and cheap duplicate goods to naughty massages and Jackie Chan references. Taking a leaf out of Sajid Khan’s book, the film is also guilty of a kind of ‘casual’ racism in suggesting that all Chinese people look the same, or in bunching all Asian people – irrespective of their nationalities – as Chinese. But the puerile humour isn’t limited to them exclusively. Multiple potshots are aimed at Pakistan and Pakistanis, evidently to mine cheap laughs. Even the references to the politics between Pakistan, China, and India are so facile, they seldom hit their mark.

Crucially, the new film is missing the freshness of the earlier one, and fails to give us characters that are especially interesting in any way. Writer-director Mudassar Aziz can’t seem to ground the film emotionally, or raise the stakes in a way that makes us care for any of these folks. Instead of coherent plotting we get a sense the filmmakers decided to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. How else do you explain a ridiculous gay subplot that feels like it belongs in a different film? They even bring back Diana Penty, the first Happy, and Guddu (Ali Fazal) from the previous film, but they have precious little to do.

The only character that genuinely flies in this overlong, overstuffed sequel is Jimmy Shergill’s Bagga, who comes out on top as the toughie who never gets the girl – he’s fast cornering the market on that role. Sonakshi Sinha plays Happy as a loud, irritable, one-note protagonist whose eyes seem to light up only when she has to say: “Chup kar varna ek chappet doongi”, which she says about a dozen times in this film. It’s such a dull, uninvolving performance that in response to the film’s title, Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi, you can only say – Toh bhaagne de yaar! ((pause))

I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

August 3, 2018

Daddy’s dreams

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:20 pm

August 03, 2018

Cast: Anil Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai, Rajkummar Rao, Divya Dutta, Girish Kulkarni, Pihu Sand

Director: Atul Manjrekar

There’s just no polite way to say this – the combined talent and experience of Anil Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai, Rajkummar Rao, and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who’s one of the producers here, has resulted in a mediocre film with muddled messaging. Yes, Fanney Khan, is a major misfire.

Without pausing to consider whether it’s healthy for a father to burden his child with his own unfulfilled dreams – think Dangal – the film asks us to celebrate its protagonist Prashant Sharma aka Fanney Khan (Anil Kapoor), a former orchestra singer-turned-factory worker who will go to any length to turn his teenage daughter into a music sensation. The young girl in question, Lata (Pihu Sand), is an overweight Plain Jane with a promising voice. A far cry from the glamorous pop star she idolizes, Baby Singh (Aishwarya Rai).

The film briefly flirts with relevant questions about body shaming, the price one must pay for celebrity, and a superficial culture where appearance is everything. Lata is routinely humiliated for her weight, and those scenes are genuinely heartbreaking. But don’t be fooled; the film has no interest in exploring these themes. It just puts them out there, and moves along.

Fanney Khan is adapted from the Belgian film “Everybody’s Famous”, in which the father commits a major kidnapping in his desperation to see his daughter succeed. If you’ve watched the trailer of Fanney Khan you already know who will be kidnapped. Prashant recruits his mild-mannered friend Adhir (Rajkummar Rao) to help him with the job, so he can demand a ransom that’ll fund Lata’s album. Predictably things don’t go according to plan, but you’ll never guess how progressively implausible the film becomes. The ending, which involves a live reality show is especially idiotic.

One of the crucial problems with the film is that it focuses too much on Prashant, and not enough on his daughter. As a result you never really feel like you know her, or become fully invested in what she wants. Why, for one, is Lata always so rude to her loving father? First-time director Atul Manjrekar, who has also co-written the screenplay, fails to answer these questions.

There is also the matter of Baby Singh and Adhir, and Aishwarya and Rajkummar play out those scenes with real feeling. They have a chemistry that’s genuinely sparkling, and I’d have liked to spend more time with them, but that track ends too abruptly.

Instead the film gives too much screen time to a track involving a betrayal by Baby Singh’s cunning manager, played by Girish Kulkarni, the extraordinary Marathi actor who’s wasted here. He has an especially creepy scene with Lata that made me cringe.

For a film with music as one of its central themes, the songs in Fanney Khan are underwhelming, except for the rousing climatic ballad Tere jaisa tu hai. Pihu Sand lipsyncs to the number with such gusto, you’ll be easily fooled into thinking she’s actually singing it herself.

Fanney Khan squanders so much potential, it practically breaks your heart. Only Anil Kapoor succeeds in leaving his stamp all over the film, making your heart go out to this ‘selfless’ man on a mission.

But it’s the words of his wife, played by a lovely Divya Dutta, that stick with you in the end. “Kya star banna zaroori hai?” she asks, as if predicting the price they will have to pay to achieve his dream for Lata. That’s a question worth pondering. A question this film completely disregards.

I’m going with a generous two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

One for the road

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:00 pm

August 03, 2018

Cast: Irrfan Khan, Dulquer Salmaan, Mithila Palkar, Kriti Kharbanda, Akash Khurana, Amala Akkineni

Director: Akarsh Khurana

When two dead bodies are accidentally delivered to opposite addresses, it triggers the road trip that’s at the center of Karwaan. So technically death sets this journey into motion, but, like every other road-movie ever made, the focus is on the bittersweet unpredictability of life…the forging of new friendships, the repairing of old ones, and, inevitably, ‘discovering oneself’ along the way.

Avinash, an inherently decent fellow stuck in an IT job that he hates, is nursing unresolved anger towards his father for making him give up on his dream of becoming a professional photographer. Malayalam star Dulquer Salmaan invests Avinash with an Everyman quality, nicely conveying his lack of fulfillment without the crutch of big, explosive moments.

When Avinash’s father dies in a road accident, a mix-up results in him receiving the body of an old woman, whose family has been sent his father’s corpse.

Irrfan Khan is Shaukat, a local garage owner and Avinash’s former neighbor, who offers his van and himself, when Avinash must make the journey from Bangalore to Kochi to exchange the bodies. The third traveler on this road trip is a flighty college student named Tanya (Mithila Palkar), the granddaughter of the dead woman who’s in the coffin in the back of their van.

Director and co-writer Akarsh Khurana sticks to familiar beats, and the film takes a while to find its tone. The first thirty minutes or so feel especially contrived as the ‘black comedy’ aspect of the script strains to hit the mark. It’s also true that the characters aren’t adequately fleshed out, and as a result each of them feels like a personality type more than a living, breathing person.

If Avinash is the ‘silent, uptight type’, then Tanya is the ‘free-spirited, rebellious type’. Only Shaukat is something of a riddle; conservative, always ready with a quip, but hiding something perhaps deeper. Thankfully each of the three principal actors is in good form, and they make up for the wishy-washy writing. A scene, not long after intermission, in which the three of them, while on a brief stop for coconut water, talk about their lives only to discover that they have more in common than they thought, is especially moving.

The film really hits its stride post intermission when a detour puts Avinash in contact with an old friend, and Shaukat becomes romantically invested in a woman he meets. It must be said that even the smallest characters serve a very specific purpose in the story, and the film benefits from fresh, original casting.

There’s also something refreshing about watching a road-trip through South India. Too many Bollywood films (yes Imtiaz Ali, I’m looking at you!) have traversed the North Indian landscape, so the sights and sounds of Kerala are a welcome relief, especially when you consider that cinematographer Avinash Arun gives us tourism brochure images of God’s Own Country.

Nothing in Karwaan will grab you by the gut, but despite its shortcomings it’s a perfectly enjoyable film elevated considerably by its charming cast. Into Tanya, the young girl who’s clearly still a work in progress, Mithila Palkar imbues a messiness and imperfection that makes the character relatable and endearing. Dulquer Salmaan has a nice, easygoing presence that serves Avinash well. He switches without any trouble when more is required. A scene in the film’s final act where he delivers an emotional speech at a gathering will likely tear you up. Another scene, much earlier in the film, in his building elevator, is evidence of how effortlessly he can turn on the charm.

But it’s Irrfan Khan who truly makes the acting invisible. His Shaukat is a man who unravels slowly, and Irrfan plays him with just the right touch of humor and closely guarded pain.

Karwaan isn’t perfect, but I enjoyed the film’s laidback, unhurried vibe, and it’s terrific music. Some of it – like a pit-stop at a called-off wedding, and run-ins between the protagonists and a bunch of goondas – feels silly and gratuitous. But for the most part, these are characters you’ll be happy to stay with. I recommend that you give it a chance. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Powered by WordPress