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

December 27, 2019

Who’s baby is it anyway?

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:52 pm

December 27, 2019

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor, Diljit Dosanjh, Kiara Advani, Adil Hussain, Tisca Chopra

Director: Raj Mehta

Good Newwz, starring Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor, is not the most flattering endorsement of the medical profession. The film rests on the horrifying possibility that a reputed fertility clinic would mix up the sperm samples of two men, while each is undergoing IVF with his respective wife.

It’s an improbable but original premise, and with Akshay Kumar attached as star and producer it plays out as a farcical comedy of errors. If you think about it, currently it would appear that there are only two kinds of Akshay Kumar films – the nationalistic/patriotic film, and the lowbrow comedy. Good Newwz has fart jokes, short people jokes, old people jokes, masturbation jokes, sex jokes, and jokes on every low hanging fruit in plain sight. And yet this is no Housefull 5. The truth is that a lot of it is genuinely funny.
Akshay and Kareena play Varun and Deepti Batra, a swish Mumbai couple who’ve been trying to get pregnant for a while. She is desperate to have a baby, and treats it as a sort of mission for the couple to accomplish. He doesn’t have much of a paternal instinct, and likens the pressure in the bedroom to launching a surgical strike.

They’re referred to a specialist doctor couple, the Joshis (Adil Hussain and Tisca Chopra), who recommend in vitro fertilisation as a potential solution. But they’re not the only couple having trouble in the baby-making department. The doctors are also treating another pair of Batras from Chandigarh, Honey (Diljit Dosanjh) and Monika (Kiara Advani). You already know what happens next.

The film asks you to suspend disbelief, and rewards you when you do. The scenes between the two couples are crackling, much of the humour stemming from how different they are, and from the issue of the oncoming babies’ ‘ownership’ in this kind of situation. I don’t know about you but I’m bored of watching Akshay Kumar play different versions of the honourable patriot or the conscience keeper of the nation in every other film, so it’s especially refreshing to see him play this elitist jerk who, like his wife, wants to have nothing to do with the loud, unsophisticated Batras. Playing into that stereotype of the over-the-top Punjabis, Diljit and Kiara ham it up sportingly as the fashion challenged couple whose mangling of English words is a source of great amusement to the admittedly shallow Varun.

The film’s first hour coasts along breezily, benefitting from sharp dialogue and winning performances. It’s admirable that the writers take a grown up approach when it comes to talking about bodily functions and biological needs. But it also reveals a deeply conservative and frankly regressive worldview observed in its complete rejection of adoption. “Apna khoon toh aakhir apna khoon hota hai,” I heard uttered at least twice, and cringed as this outdated notion of lineage and legacy continue to be perpetuated. Not surprisingly, the conservatism extends also to the issue of abortion, and troublingly in one scene a female doctor no less, makes a point about childbearing being essential to the female experience.

In the second hour as the humour dries up, the film slips into full-blown melodrama and sentimentality. We watch the thawing of Varun, triggered by an impassioned speech by his wife on the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of childbirth and motherhood on a woman. I think the film lets him off too easily.

There is no question that the humour works better than the emotion in Good Newwz, but director Raj Mehta and his writers do make room to raise pertinent questions about whether men can truly understand and empathise what women go through with regards to pregnancy and childbirth. It asks us also to ponder the very meaning of what makes a parent. These are progressive ideas, and they’re frequently in conflict with the film’s otherwise conservative outlook.

If Good Newwz doesn’t go off the rails when the tone shifts, it’s because the actors stay sincere and committed as the narrative evolves. The heart of the film is its cast anyway. Akshay Kumar is in good form, serving up a reminder of just how funny he can be. There isn’t much heavy lifting expected from Kiara Advani, but she matches the comic timing of her co-stars without trouble. It’s Kareena Kapoor who deserves special mention for rooting her character in believability. Looking like she’s walked straight out a fashion glossy, her Deepti is nevertheless grounded, real, and provides the most honest insight into why it’s so important for her to be a mother. I also think Diljit Dosanjh is terrific as Honey Batra, whose loud exterior hides an unmistakably sensitive core. He’s also not far behind Akshay when it comes to comic timing.

I’m going with three out of five for Good Newwz. There’s a lot to enjoy in the film despite its bumps. I haven’t laughed this hard in weeks. Not a bad way to end the year.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 20, 2019

No bang, no buck!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:23 pm

December 20, 2019

Cast: Salman Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Saiee Manjrekar, Kiccha Sudeep, Arbaaz Khan, Dimple Kapadia

Director: Prabhudeva

Watching Dabangg 3 it’s clear that the law of diminishing returns has caught up with this franchise. There is just no polite way to say this – the new film is an excruciating, exhausting bore.

In 2010 under the direction of Abhinav Kashyap, it seemed like Salman Khan had found his superhero alter ego. Charming rogue cop Chulbul Pandey, with his cheeky one-liners, oddball quirks, and cartoonish but effective fight moves was the actor’s best realised character in years. Even 2012’s decidedly mediocre sequel Dabangg 2, directed by Arbaaz Khan, had stray moments of inspired lunacy that suggested some promise. But this third instalment, directed by Prabhudeva and scripted by Salman Khan himself, is irredeemable.

To apply common superhero parlance, the new film tells the origin story of Chulbul Pandey. We learn what his real name is, what led to him become a police officer, and where he swiped his signature line from – the one that goes: “Hum tum mein itne chhed karenge ki confuse ho jaoge ki saans kahan se le aur paadein kahan se.” We also learn about a doomed romance of his with a young girl named Khushi (Saiee Manjrekar), before he met and married Rajjo (Sonakshi Sinha).

Now I don’t know about you but watching a 54-year-old Salman Khan romance the baby-faced 21-year-old newcomer on screen is exactly the reminder we need about Bollywood’s double standards when it comes to gender and age. It’s as if the filmmakers decided Sonakshi Sinha at 32 is already too old to be the film’s sole leading lady, so let’s bring in another one that’s even younger. Salman, meanwhile, thanks to some nifty computer effects, is made to look a tad younger himself in these portions.

I’m only really bringing this up because it’s too much of an irony that the film positions its hero as a poster-child for gender equality and women empowerment. Pandeyji is a model feminist who offers dowry instead of asking for it, who does not recommend that women take their husbands’ surnames after marriage, and who actively encourages Khushi to pursue and complete her education before they can marry.

Chulbul may have a progressive outlook when it comes to women, but the same can’t be said about the film’s unmistakably sexist gaze. It’s in the manner that Prabhudeva frames his women: the camera lingering a little too long on a heroine’s bosom, repeated shots of her bare midriff. You only have to watch some of the earlier films Prabhudeva has directed to spot the pattern. There’s also the matter of the female characters reduced to simpering becharis. In one of the ugliest moments in the film, the villain decides he’s going to kill the girl he loves because it’s no point killing her lover; she’ll continue to pine for him after he’s dead and he still won’t have a shot with her. The women are that dispensable.

Even if you don’t have a problem with these things – and you should – Dabangg 3 is still a slog. The film feels like a string of unimaginative, repetitive action scenes unfolding one after another, pausing every few minutes for an underwhelming song. At 2 hours and 42 minutes, the relentless action gets tiring. How many punches and blows can you watch before your eyes begin to glaze over?

It must also be said that the camera moves rapidly in the action scenes, and the editing is breakneck so that it’s hard to tell who is doing what to whom. At other times there is an over-reliance on slow motion to highlight specific moves and stunts. The makers can try to hide it as much as they want but it’s clear for anyone who cares to notice that age is catching up with our leading man. No shame in that.

What’s genuinely disappointing is that the irreverence, the lightness of touch that was the hallmark of the first film can be spotted but only in flashes. Chulbul Pandey appears to have become a caricature of himself, and Salman Khan makes very little effort to pump fresh oxygen into the part. Sonakshi Sinha, Saiee Manjrekar, and Dimple Kapadia as the protagonist’s mother, show up and go through the motions. The film’s villain, Kichha Sudeep, gets a few moments to make his presence felt. But it’s all in service of a story that’s so outdated you have to wonder how no one associated with the film called it out.

I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five for Dabangg 3. I left the cinema with a pounding headache and a moment of silence for a promising character that they all but buried. Chulbul Pandey, Rest in Peace.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

End of an affair

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:13 pm

December 20, 2019

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams

Director: J J Abrams

How do you wrap up a saga 42 years in the making? How do you deliver a finale that does justice to eight films before it? What film could satisfy both younger fans that latched on to recent instalments in the franchise, and those that have stayed faithful since first watching the Rebels destroy the Death Star when Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977?

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is intended as the answer to all those questions.

Directed by JJ Abrams, who kicked off the third trilogy with The Force Awakens in 2015, the new film ticks off all the things that we’ve come to love about this series – epic space battles and thrilling lightsaber duels, numerous hat-tips to previous episodes, a clutch of unexpected cameos, and some genuinely emotional moments involving key characters. Still there’s no way that the film will make all Star Wars fans happy. It’s just the nature of the beast…and a long tradition of nitpicking.

Because Star Wars to the true fan is more than a series of films. It’s a feeling, a collection of memories; it represents belonging to something bigger. There’s a sense of genuine ownership.

Speaking as one, I suspect that fan is unlikely to suffer convulsions over The Rise of Skywalker. This film never goes anywhere near the kind of bold swings that Rian Johnson admirably dared to take in 2017’s The Last Jedi. No, Abrams relies on nostalgia and big emotions to deliver the film’s most crowd-pleasing moments. If anything, The Rise of Skywalker is an exercise in pandering. The strain to cram in everything in the hope of pleasing everyone results in an especially bloated first hour.

Having said that the film is also a genuinely exhilarating adventure. Aided by the most sophisticated visual effects and by John Williams’ anthem score, Abrams stages truly stunning action scenes – there are laser-gun battles, speeder chases, inter-galactic dogfights, and one particular sequence in the second hour whose sheer scale and sweep makes your jaw drop. These set pieces are in service of a frankly standard issue plot.

The film opens with the discovery that the despicable Emperor Palpatine, who we thought was killed in Return of the Jedi, is somehow back and is threatening to resurrect the Sith and wipe out the Resistance. He dispatches Kylo Ren to kill Rey, the last Jedi Knight who he perceives as a threat. So Rey, along with Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and BB-8 set out to locate Palpatine’s hideout in order to stop the attack before it begins. Bring out the Millennium Falcon, please!

Some of the film’s best moments are the confrontations between Rey and Kylo Ren, particularly a sensational lightsaber match that takes place on the wreckage of the Death Star in the middle of a raging sea. One doesn’t exactly think of Star Wars as a ‘performance’ film, but Adam Driver brings the sort of commitment, consistency, and layering to Kylo as if he were making another Noah Baumbach film. It’s true of Daisy Ridley too, fully committed to the character of Rey as she finally comes into her own in terms of strength and spirit, even as a major sub-plot in the film concerns the revelation of her true identity and parentage.

Other pleasures include the moments spent with General Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher through unused footage from the first film. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio shrewdly tweak the script to fit pre-existing material featuring the actress into the narrative. It’s also no spoiler to reveal that Billy Dee Williams, now 83, returns as Lando Calrissian, who we last saw in Return of the Jedi.

Packed wall to wall with old and new characters, plus a handful of cameos thrown in expressly for the purpose of getting you all moist-eyed, the film also asks philosophical questions familiar to any Star Wars fans. Questions about lineage and legacy, about good and evil, about which side we belong to and whether that’s determined by one’s fate or one’s will.

Clocking in at 155 minutes, the film left me feeling exhilarated from its sheer energy, but also a tad melancholic for characters – no, make that friends – that one may potentially never see again. It’s a bittersweet takeaway as the curtains come down on what has been, for some of us, a significant part of our lives. The Rise of Skywalker may not be an extraordinary film. But it gets the job done respectably and respectfully. It’s a perfectly satisfying way to say goodbye.

I’m going with three and a half out of five. Even if you’re not a hardcore fan, there’s enough visual wizardry to keep you entertained for the duration of its running time.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 13, 2019

Crime files

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:48 pm

December 13, 2019

Cast: Rani Mukerji, Vishal Jethwa, Rajesh Sharma

Director: Gopi Puthran

Mardaani 2 wastes no time in getting straight to the point. In its very opening minutes a young man in a monster’s mask (or the other way around, you might argue) commits a crime so heinous, it makes your skin crawl just taking in the extent of his depravity. No-nonsense, tough-as-nails cop Shivani Shivaji Roy, played by Rani Mukerji, is tasked with ferreting out the perpetrator.

Over a crisp 105 minutes, writer-director Gopi Puthran stages an elaborate cat and mouse chase that is both thrilling, and frequently unconvincing. Sunny, the young fellow Shivani is pursuing is a serial rapist and murderer whose staggering misogyny and propensity for brutal violence, we later learn, is rooted in his own dark past. Vishal Jethwa plays Sunny as a sadistic, unhinged villain who wants to put women in their place, reminding them repeatedly not to rise above their ‘aukaat’.

Like in 2014’s Mardaani, Shivani relies on her gut, her experience, and her intelligence to figure out the villain’s moves and the way that he tends to think. In that film she was pitted against a child trafficker, and Tahir Bhasin played him as educated, smooth, and crafty. The villain here is considerably younger in age and blinded by hate. Somehow Shivani’s gut seems to penetrate the minds of all men.

The film is intended, no doubt, as a wish fulfilment fantasy. It holds up a mirror to our times when crimes against women are an unfortunate reality. Shivani delivers on screen the justice that has proved hard to come by in real life. I’ll leave you to decide how you feel about that messaging – it’s complicated.

Ultimately Mardaani 2 benefits from the strong performances of both Rani Mukerji and her young co-star Vishal Jethwa. It’s brisk, slickly shot, and plays to the gallery. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 6, 2019

Cheat male

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:54 pm

December 06, 2019

Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Bhumi Pednekar, Ananya Pandey, Aparshakti Khurrana, Shubham Kumar

Director: Mudassar Aziz

Any film that’s titled Pati Patni aur Woh is pretty much laying all its cards on the table. How much nuance can you expect from a comedy about a married man who’s carrying on an affair behind his wife’s back?

Kartik Aaryan is Chintu Tyagi, a PWD officer in Kanpur, who falls for a beautiful young girl and lies about his wife to get close to her. In the original film of the same name, directed by BR Chopra in 1978, Sanjeev Kumar played a man who begins an affair with his secretary after winning her sympathy when he concocts a story about his wife having terminal cancer. That film took the position that men will be men; that monogamy just isn’t in their DNA. So even after the hero is confronted by both women, and promises never to stray again, that film ended with a new secretary showing up and the hero feeling a fresh tingle in his groin.

But the makers of the new film seem to recognise that they can’t get away with taking the same position today. So monotony and boredom are cited as the reasons for the man to stray. He’s also not a player; for what it’s worth he’s awkward at the wooing game, and appears genuinely shamefaced when he’s busted. But the most significant update in the remake is giving the female characters more agency, never portraying them as ‘lachaar’ or ‘bechari’. Transporting the story from big metros to the Lucknow-Kanpur belt in Uttar Pradesh gives writer-director Mudassar Aziz an opportunity to bring texture and local flavour to the dialogues and the humour, while also hinting at the sexual revolution taking place in small-town India.

The film’s best realised character is the ‘patni’, Vedika, a part than benefits considerably from Bhumi Pednekar’s spirited performance. At her very first meeting with him, before they’re married, Vedika speaks candidly to Chintu about her ex-boyfriend, about sex, and the fact that she’s ‘settling’ in agreeing to marry him. When she moves from Lucknow to Kanpur after marriage, she’s a partner to her husband in the true sense of the word. She takes a teaching job, and goads him to aim higher so they can move to a big city. Bhumi invests Vedika with a woman-of-the-world realness and intelligence. Refreshingly, there’s no shrieking melodrama when she learns of her husband’s unfaithfulness, or even when she confronts him.

Ananya Pandey does justice to the role of Tapasya, the big-city girl who catches the hero’s fancy. She’s naïve and innocent without being ditzy, and the filmmakers give her character the respect of having a profession and ambition.

In the hero’s part, Kartik Aaryan sporting a thick moustache and Everyman attire, blends into the small-town surroundings. Bullied by his controlling father who made every important life decision for him, Chintu has grown into your classic Average Joe. Kartik plays the part sincerely and resists any temptation to showboat. Chintu is so vanilla, you have to wonder what it is that attracts these women to him.

One of the film’s winning performances comes from Aparshakti Khurrana in the role of Chintu’s best friend Faheem Rizvi. The actor is in terrific form, and the cheeky dialogues roll off his tongue as if he came up with them in the moment. A word also for Shubham Kumar who is crackling in the role of Vedika’s student and admirer Rakesh Yadav.

Pati Patni aur Woh is too slight and too simplistic to make any deep observations about marriage or companionship. In fact it reveals very old-fashioned notions of what actually constitutes infidelity. But it’s also true that the film sparkles with humour and cleverly timed dialogue. Most of the punch lines are hilarious, and unlike other films of this genre the jokes aren’t just your standard visual gags of the cheating husband repeatedly coming close to being caught. Those gags are there too, but the sharp lines and spunky performances frequently elevate even ordinary scenes.

I’m going with three out of five for Pati Patni aur Woh. In a very roundabout, over-simplistic way, the film is actually progressive. Thank you for small mercies. Plenty laughs are guaranteed.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

War wounds

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:43 pm

December 06, 2019

Cast: Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Kriti Sanon

Director: Ashutosh Gowariker

Every few years it takes an Ashutosh Gowariker film to appreciate the concept and the existence of the interval in Hindi cinema. Gowariker’s track record with the success of his films has been uneven, but what’s been consistent is his inability to pare them down to a reasonable length. His latest, Panipat, could well be among his shortest at a bladder-bursting 2 hours and 53 minutes.

This film focuses on the third battle of Panipat waged between the Marathas and the Afghans, in which thousands of soldiers are believed to have died. It is significant also because it’s one of those films about a war in which we’re on the side of the vanquished.

Few Hindi filmmakers are as fascinated with the past as Gowariker, and his passion for the subject at hand is ever so visible. But Panipat is also a lumbering epic. The script is dense, packed with too much information, too much research, and too many details. Every alliance, every betrayal, every strategy is dutifully and painstakingly documented…with an emphasis on pain.

Arjun Kapoor stars as Sadashivrao Bhau who leads the Marathas into battle against the marauding Afghans, who in turn are led by Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt). It is the story of great valour and courage, of strategy, and ultimately of sacrifice. The film’s agenda is clear – to celebrate the spirit of the great Marathas – and there are plenty rousing speeches to highlight that. But despite the unmistakable hyper-nationalistic tonality, Panipat doesn’t have the slickness of a film like 300, or the kinetic energy of Uri: The Surgical Strike. In fact it has all the excitement of a history lesson from your school textbook.

Scripted from a combination of research and imagination, the film takes many creative liberties, one of which deserves special mention. There’s very little in history about Parvati Bai, Sadashivrao’s wife, played in the film by Kriti Sanon. Gowariker and his co-writers take the decision to flesh her out as a woman with agency. So Parvati Bai accompanies her husband and the troops on the road, she offers to initiate talks with a reluctant ruler whose support the Marathas need, she is her husband’s bouncing board, and a true ally. Kriti realises the character nicely, even if her styling appears a bit modern for those times.

The men are let down by the stilted writing. You don’t get a sense of what’s going on in their heads or hearts beyond the obvious, so they never feel like fully carved out characters. Arjun Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt fill out their costumes, and deliver their lines, but we’re never able to pierce beyond their armour to get a glimpse of the vulnerability of these stony faced men going into battle.

There is no doubt over the commitment and the effort that’s gone into crafting this film. Everywhere you look there are handsome sets, elaborate costumes, busy CGI battle scenes, and immaculate detail. The problem is they’re all in service of a plodding script that seldom rises above its own shortcomings. The film’s first half feels especially dry, but it gathers momentum post interval. The war scenes are impressive but never spectacular.

Panipat ultimately is overlong and unwieldly. It may have its heart in the right place but its other organs are all over the place. Gowariker, who kept us engaged and invested through 3 hours and 40 minutes of Lagaan, or even through the genteel romance of Jodhaa Akbar, can’t seem to recreate the magic of his finest films. I’m going with a generous two out of five for Panipat. You come out feeling like you’ve survived war…just about.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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