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

September 21, 2018

Message in a throttle!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:56 pm

September 21, 2018

Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Divyendu Sharma, Yami Gautam, Sushmita Mukherjee

Director: Shree Narayan Singh

Batti Gul Meter Chalu is cut from the same cloth as director Shree Narayan Singh’s last film, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. It’s a well-intentioned ‘message movie’ that works despite its simplistic, broad strokes writing becuase it isn’t hard to relate to its David v Goliath premise.

Set in a small town in Uttarakhand that’s routinely plunged into darkness on account of power shortages, the villain here is a private electricity company whose faulty meters and overpriced billing drives Sundar, a young entrepreneur played by Divyendu Sharma, to the brink. His childhood friend, a crooked lawyer, Sushil (Shahid Kapoor), develops a conscience and decides to go after the mighty corporation.

The script spends way too much time on set up before it gets to the meat of the story. Because this is a masala Bollywood film, a love triangle powers much of the drama, but the film hits its stride when the action moves to the courtroom. Sushil plays to the gallery with clever clap-trap lines, and ‘cringey’ sexist jokes aimed at the defense lawyer (Yami Gautam) that got big laughs during the screening I attended. The bit that really its home though is an impassioned plea for delivering on the promise of ‘achche din’, and righteous rage over the fact that so many Indians still don’t have access to basic electricity.

Subtlety is not one of the film’s strengths, so there’s a lot of posturing and grandstanding by Shahid Kapoor, especially in the courtroom scenes. But it’s part of the film’s larger design. He’s playing the ‘hero’, complete with slow motion walking-into-camera scenes – and to be fair, he’s in good form. He makes you ‘feel’ the character’s transformation, and he’s consistent with the dialect, as is Shraddha Kapoor who deserves a word of praise for sportingly and convincingly pulling off the part of a small-town designer with questionable taste but big ambitions. The usually reliable Divyendu Sharma also gets enough screen time and scope to hold his own.

For the most part, Batti Gul Meter Chalu keeps you engaged because the story has enough to chew on. The film is crippled however by excess. Clocking in at nearly three hours, someone clearly left the meter chalu too long.

Still I’m going with three out of five. This is one of those mainstream movies that delivers its message coated with a thick layer of melodrama. And it works.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

September 14, 2018

In the mood for love

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:30 pm

September 14, 2018

Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Tapsee Pannu, Abhishek Bachchan

Director: Anurag Kashyap

A love story isn’t typically the genre that comes to mind when you think of Anurag Kashyap, who has, over the years, revealed an unrelenting fascination for themes of greed, revenge, and crime while exploring the dark hearts and minds of society’s bottom-feeders. But when you consider how niftily he upended an early-20th century literary classic to give us Dev D, a love triangle on acid (literally), or the deftness with which he executed the romance at the core of his boxing drama Mukkabaaz, it becomes clear that he’s been all primped up and ready to tackle a full-blown romantic film for a while now.

With Manmarziyaan, which is cut from the same cloth as films like Woh Saat Din and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Kashyap and writer Kanika Dhillon take the shopworn premise of a woman having to choose between two suitors, and they inject a shot of adrenaline in it.

The setting is a relatively middle-class neighborhood in Amritsar. Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) and Rumi (Tapsee Pannu) are a pair of passionate lovers who can barely keep their hands off each other. They romance and bicker with equal intensity. Their relationship is volatile and heady. There is love, but there’s also immaturity, impulsiveness, pride, and ego. They’re young, they’re reckless; they’re a car crash waiting to happen.

Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan) is the third wheel in this scenario. Robbie represents stability. You can’t imagine he’d pose any real threat to Rumi and Vicky’s relationship, until you realize he brings what neither of them can – a willingness to put himself second.

Kanika Dhillon’s script, which packs some crackling dialogue, ruminates on the complexity and the messiness of modern romance. In one of the film’s best scenes, Rumi and Vicky who’re eloping in his jeep, get into an argument about what exactly they’re escaping to. The film explores what we’re seeking in a romantic relationship, and what we’re willing to settle for. It contemplates the concept of arranged marriage in the present day, and questions the notion of eternal love. On the surface it’s about that familiar dilemma that women are frequently confronted with – to choose between a man who offers excitement and one who guarantees security.

Manmarziyaan‘s thoughtful reflection on love and companionship is powered by an inventive use of music. Amit Trivedi’s terrific songs (hands down the best film album this year) are the secret sauce of the film, cleverly woven into the narrative to wondrous effect. The film also benefits enormously from alert, winning performances by its leads.

As an indecisive slacker navigating the choppy waters of love, Vicky Kaushal is in excellent form. Despite his character’s many follies the actor never reduces him to a cad, never once making you doubt the depth of his feelings for Rumi. Abhishek Bachchan, playing the strong, silent one, is mindful not to reduce Robbie to a stereotype. Much of his performance is through his eyes, and the actor does a good job of conveying bottled up angst. Watch how he holds it in during a scene in which he eavesdrop on a conversation that leads to a heartbreaking discovery.

The film though belongs unquestionably to Tapsee Pannu, entirely convincing as the fiery, headstrong Rumi who knows what she wants…or thinks she does anyway. Sharp-tongued, selfish, yet vulnerable, she gives us a flesh and blood, complex woman who feels instantly real.

But it’s also true that a lot of the film’s best bits rest in its first half. Post intermission the drama becomes repetitive and unwieldy. Robbie is never as flashy as Vicky, and his relationship with Rumi never as charged. As a result there’s a definite change of pace that feels abrupt. That’s not to say there aren’t some lovely moments here. A scene between Rumi and Robbie in which he’s trying to have a conversation with her while she’s watching a wildlife documentary on television is especially charming. But clocking in at a little over two hours and thirty minutes there’s no question is film is way too long.

Manmarziyaan may not be perfect but it gets some things perfectly right. I left the theatre in appreciation of the sheer craft on display. This is a film where virtually every technical department seamlessly delivers, enabling and empowering Kashyap to have made what may well be his most popular film since Gangs of Wasseypur.

It’s also his big ‘f**k you’ to every naysayer who dismissed his work as inaccessible and ‘not commercial’. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Lives less ordinary

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:10 pm

September 14, 2018

Cast: Mrunal Thakur, Adil Hussain, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha, Freida Pinto, Sai Tamhankar, Anupam Kher, Rajkummar Rao, Riya Sisodiya, Demi Moore, Mark Duplass

Director: Tabrez Noorani

A film about the horrors of sex trafficking is unlikely to be an easy watch, but in Love Sonia one scene more than others left me especially rattled. An apathetic pimp who has just come into possession of a helpless teenage girl trades her for a cigarette. That’s right, a cigarette. It’s a particularly ugly moment in a film that’s relentlessly grim.

Now the thing about movies that depict great suffering or exploitation is that they’re frequently guilty of being exploitative themselves. I could name a few Madhur Bhandarkar films to illustrate my point. Love Sonia, directed by Tabrez Noorani, treads that fine line carefully. Having worked with NGOs and victims of trafficking, Noorani is mindful in his pursuit of authenticity over shock value.

The film is the harrowing account of two sisters robbed of their innocence when one is sold by her debt-ridden father, and the other follows after her in the hope of rescuing her but becomes trapped in the flesh trade herself.

Mrunal Thakur is excellent as Sonia whose single-minded search for her sibling Preeti (Riya Sisodiya) exposes her to all manner of unspeakable horrors. This is a world where sex and drugs are intricately linked, and physical abuse is par for the course. In one scene a raid ordered at the brothel she’s been sold into reveals the shocking, inhuman conditions that victims must work in. Girls are practically shoved into a dark, dingy duct in the wall to escape the hands of the law. It’ll break your heart.

The brothel is also where our protagonist encounters an assortment of ‘colorful’ characters like Manoj Bajpai’s cold-hearted pimp Faisal, and Richa Chadha’s toughened madam Madhuri, who might be hiding a compassionate heart. Both actors play their parts fearlessly, unafraid to walk on the dark side. The same is true of Freida Pinto who reveals no affectations at all as she nicely disappears into the role of Rashmi, a cynical sex worker incapable of sympathy owing to her own tragic backstory.

Strong performances from this ensemble – plus Adil Hussain as Sonia’s father, Anupam Kher as the local moneylender whom he sells Preeti to, Sai Tamhankar who whisks away the girl to Mumbai, and Rajkummar Rao as an earnest social worker – bring heft to the film.

The narrative loses some steam as the plot moves beyond India to show how far-reaching the tentacles of this network are. Scenes in which the girls are transported like objects in containers are heartbreaking, but the bits in Hong Kong and especially Los Angeles don’t deliver the same emotional wallop. Cameos by American actors Demi Moore and Mark Duplass feel gratuitous, and the resolution isn’t entirely convincing.

But even when some parts don’t work, the film seldom loses its grip on your attention. It’s held together by a deeply affecting performance from Mrunal Thakur who reveals an unusual combination of strength and vulnerability in the role of Sonia.

Ultimately Noorani has crafted a powerful film that you won’t be able to shake off immediately. It puts the horrors of confinement and abuse front and center, and compels you to feel everything from sympathy to shame. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

September 7, 2018

Battle cry

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:51 pm

September 07, 2018

Cast: Jackie Shroff, Arjun Rampal, Sonu Sood, Harshvardhan Rane, Gurmeet Choudhary, Siddhant Kapoor, Luv Sinha, Esha Gupta

Director: JP Dutta

It isn’t especially hard to point out what ails JP Dutta’s Paltan. The veteran filmmaker who relied on a shrewd combination of chest-thumping patriotism and genuine heartfelt emotion to deliver a stirring message on the futility of war in 1997’s “Border”, fails to reinvent the wheel in his latest outing.

Based on a 1967 skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops near the Sikkim border, Paltan is a by-the-numbers exercise with neither well-etched characters nor charismatic actors playing them. It’s a two-and-a-half hour slog in fact with few redeeming features.

Early on in the film, an unintentionally comical Jackie Shroff, playing a Major General with the sort of English accent that is neither Cambridge nor Kirori Mal College, tasks Arjun Rampal’s Lieutenant Colonal with protecting the Nathu La Pass from possible Chinese penetration. Rampal’s battalion comprises an assortment of bravehearts and hotheads who speak exclusively in slogans (Sonu Sood), or exercise shirtless in the snow, rubbing it on their waxed chests (Harshvardhan Rane, Gurmeet Choudhary). I swear I’m not making this up.

Typically, each of the men get emotional flashback scenes involving elderly parents, loving partners, or innocent children, to drive home the point about the number of lives invested in each soldier’s well-being. This is a valid and thoughtful idea, but these portions are treated exactly in the same way that the filmmaker used to treat them 20 years ago, and hence feel predictable and obligatory even.

The enemy – whether it was Pakistan in Border and in LOC Kargil, or China in this film – is always sneaky and unfailingly resorts to dishonorable actions. There is very little shading in Dutta’s films, but Paltan features possibly the most comical villains in any seemingly serious war film ever. Chinese soldiers here are basically portrayed as hecklers or childish irritants, and the conflict between the men on either side is treated and filmed so clunkily it reduces a key moment in our history to what resembles a minor squabble.

In the end Paltan is way too long and also frequently boring. The big war scene – all sound and fury – is saved for the film’s climax, and Dutta sticks to his tried-and-tested formula of ending the film with a soulful Sonu Nigam track over images that convey the real casualties of war. But it’s no Sandese aate hain, and although you do choke up it’s unlikely that the film or its characters will stay with you even until you reach your car.

I’m going with a generous two out of five for Paltan. It’s got a tired, recycled feel to it, and fails to hold up to Dutta’s better films.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Man in the maze

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:33 pm

September 07, 2018

Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Neeraj Kabi, Shahana Goswami, Om Singh, Ranvir Shorey

Director: Dipesh Jain

You’d be hard-pressed to think of another film whose story is as intrinsically linked to its setting in the way that Gali Guleiyan is. The claustrophobic maze of Old Delhi – its narrow, crisscrossing lanes and alleys, dusty, crumbling blocks of shops and establishments, and noisy homes with paper-thin walls pressed cheek to jowl against each other – is one of two things closing in our protagonist. The other is his mind.

Written and directed by Dipesh Jain, the film stars Manoj Bajpayee as Khuddoos, a loner who barely leaves his home, obsessed instead with spying on his neighbors through strategically placed cameras. But this is not about sexual perversion. Khuddoos watches as the folks around him go about their empty, miserable lives. At one point he becomes fixated with saving a young boy, the son of a local butcher, from daily abuse.

This track involving the boy, Idu, runs parallel to Khudoos’ own story. Bit by bit both narratives unravel. But saying any more about the plot would risk giving away its twist, which, to be honest, you might guess quite early on. Even if you’ve figured it out, the haunting performance by Manoj Bajpayee at the center of this film will keep you invested in the story.

Manoj conveys Khuddoos’ growing paranoia and his deteriorating mental condition with great sensitivity. This is a performance with virtually no trace of artifice or showboating. Slowly and skillfully he constructs a convincing portrait of a man retracting from the world, trapped in his own mind. A terrific scene in which Khuddoos steps out of the maze of purani Dilli, only to be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the ‘real world’, is especially heartbreaking.

The rest of the cast is also strong. Neeraj Kabi plays a brutal father, but brings layers to the character that help you somehow understand him even if it’s hard to forgive his actions. Shahana Goswami delivers an empathetic turn as Idu’s loving mother, and Om Singh in the role of Idu, nicely conveys the vulnerability and complexity of a boy exposed to way more than he should be at his age. In a small role as Khuddoos’ only friend, Ranvir Shorey brings respite in an otherwise intense track.

The film’s excellent camerawork, sound design, and production design complement the storytelling to give the feeling of a world impossible to escape from. Gali Guleiyan demands patience, and a stomach for its unrelenting grimness and claustrophobia. It isn’t always an easy film to watch given its meditative pace, and the overarching message is important but feels a tad simplistic.

Nevertheless the film’s merits far outnumber its hiccups. For Manoj Bajpayee’s performance alone, unforgettable as a man hanging on to his sanity by a thread, the film deserves to be seen.

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

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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