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

January 31, 2020


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:27 pm

January 31, 2020

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Aleya F, Tabu, Kubbra Sait, Kumud Mishra, Farida Jalal, Chunky Pandey

Director: Nitin Kakkar

Three things we can safely agree on: that Saif Ali Khan has been a consistently competent (if somewhat undervalued) actor who especially tends to shine in comedies; that no actor currently working in Bollywood has done as many versions of the emotionally-stunted-boy-trapped-in-an-adult-body than Saif Ali Khan; and that a great performance by Saif Ali Khan isn’t merely enough to salvage an ordinary film – the material needs to work.

In Jawaani Jaaneman, Saif is in good form once again, but saddled with the kind of material he knows inside out. He stars as Jazz, a single, forty-something, responsibility-shirking party boy in London who has a bit of Nick in him from Salaam Namaste, a dollop of Jai from Love Aaj Kal, a sizeable helping of Gautam from Cocktail, and a dash of Yudi from Happy Ending.

Jazz is an ageing playboy who is complete denial of the very fact that he’s ageing. He gets his hair dyed secretly, and needs glasses to read, but he dresses in tight rock band T-shirts and spends his evenings at his best friend’s club downing shots, grooving on the dance floor, and picking up any woman who’s willing to go home with him for the night.

Then one day Jazz discovers that he has a 21-year-old daughter who happens to be pregnant. In a single moment he goes from carefree bachelor to father and impending grandpa.

It’s an interesting premise for an enjoyable comedy. And there are moments of inspired humour. A scene in which his old parents visit him at his flat and think his grown-up daughter might be his elder brother’s secret lover is very funny, especially since the reliable Farida Jalal plays his harrowed mother, and Kumud Mishra his straight-laced older sibling.

But there aren’t enough good laughs to go around. Director Nitin Kakkar and his writers give us scene after scene set in the same nightclub, making the same point over and over again. In one, Jazz tries to outdrink a much younger guy…but it isn’t particularly funny. Emotionally too, the film hits familiar beats, so much so that you can predict exactly how every scene is going to end.

Jawaani Jaaneman picks up briefly with the arrival of Tabu as the mother of his pregnant daughter. She’s a mumbo jumbo-spouting hippie who gets a few killer moments, but the actress deserved more to work with.

The real surprise in the film is debutant Alaya F, who plays Tia, the daughter Jazz never knew he had. She’s unmistakably confident, and has a likeable presence. The film gives her none of the special treatment usually accorded to second-generation industry kids, which works in her favour. She has an understated charm, and her scenes with Saif, especially in the film’s second hour have real warmth.

But there is a lot in Jawaani Jaaneman that feels contrived. A subplot involving a housing redevelopment deal that Jazz wants to close feels shoehorned into the screenplay for the sole purpose of creating a final act conflict between father and daughter, and to give Jazz a shot at redemption. Chunky Pandey plays his hard-drinking, skirt-chasing club owner buddy, but his purpose in the script is strictly as a stereotype for the cautionary tale. The same is true of Kubbra Sait’s character, Rhea, who cuts and styles Jazz’s hair, but in the script she represents the kind of girl who’s not his type: she’s smart, she’s as old as him, and she’s looking for meaningful companionship.

Much of the film’s strength is Saif’s sharp timing, and his ability to mature convincingly when the time comes. Early on in the film he shakes a leg to an old chartbuster of his, Ole ole from a film that came out 25 years ago. He’s still got the moves, and he’s definitely got the charm. Too bad the movies he makes frequently don’t match up to what he’s willing to bring.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Jawaani Jaaneman. It’s funny, but only in spurts. You’ll feel like you’ve seen this movie many times already.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Top class!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:16 pm

January 31, 2020

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong

Director: Bong Joon-ho

It may be best to go into Parasite knowing as little as possible about the film while settling into your seat. Allow its slow burning brilliance to creep up on you, and thou shall be handsomely rewarded.

Ever since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May where it won the top prize, the prestigious Palme D’Or, this staggeringly original offering from Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has dazzled critics and cinephiles with its sheer storytelling artistry. What begins as a dark satire about the class divide in contemporary South Korea segues masterfully into a cunning thriller with endless twists and surprises.

The film is primarily about two families. The first, the Kims, are dead broke and live in a dingy basement apartment, barely scraping by folding pizza boxes, and desperately trying to connect to whatever free WiFi they can steal. The other family, the Parks, are a wealthy lot who live in a sprawling home, immaculately maintained, with an overlooking lawn.

You could say that both families inhabit entirely different worlds; it’s hard to imagine their orbits intersecting. But then the son of the poor family somehow lands a job tutoring the teenage daughter of the rich folks. Before long his sister, employing similarly questionable methods, gets hired by the Parks as an art teacher for their young son.

That’s about all you need to know as far as the film’s plot is concerned. What I will tell you is that there’s an unsettling uneasiness that hangs over the film throughout…as if you know something bad is about to happen anytime. The suspense builds dramatically even as the layers are peeled one by one to reveal the sly heart of this extraordinary film and the messy humanity of its characters. Bong carefully and stingily parses out information about the characters, forcing you to stay alert to the tiniest details.

Although set in South Korea the film’s themes feel unmistakably universal – economic inequality, the resentment over the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and the privileged class’ apathy towards the less fortunate. There are moments that bristle with discomfort. Particularly a scene in which the wealthy couple discuss how the poor smell. “Like a rag that has been boiled,” Mr Park coolly tells his wife. It also asks you to consider who the ‘parasite’ of the film’s title actually refers to.

I found myself thinking about the film long after it was over. Bong, who made his name with cult favourites like Memories of Murder and The Host, has tackled class conflict previously in his English-language film Snowpiercer. But the elegance and the ensuing unforgettable horror of Parasite is in a league of its own. Hardly surprising that it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and is up for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

In his acceptance speech at the Globes, the filmmaker declared: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Take his advice. If you’ve never watched a foreign film before, start with Parasite. It’ll blow your mind.

I’m going with a full five out of five. It’s the best film I’ve watched recently.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 24, 2020

Move it!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:35 pm

January 24, 2020

Cast: Varun Dhawan, Shraddha Kapoor, Nora Fatehi, Prabhu Deva, Aparshakti Khurrana

Director: Remo D’Souza

Street Dancer 3D is like a very long episode of India’s Got Talent. A verrrrrrrrry long episode. Without the ad breaks, and with unnecessary hare-brained plot squeezed in between its wall-to-wall dance numbers. It’s also in 3D, which means that all manner of props are hurled at you – from hats to donuts – while you sit helplessly waiting for some respite.

I haven’t been an especially big fan of the ABCD franchise, but to give credit where its due these films have given visibility to, and brought to the forefront some talented dancers who are forever relegated to the background in other films. These movies put them front and centre of the action, even giving them speaking roles despite their limited acting skills. But the problem with this franchise is that for some reason the makers think these films need to be about something more than the dancing. Something ‘important’, something ‘serious’. They couldn’t be more wrong.

In Street Dancer 3D, which is the third instalment in the ABCD franchise, the story unfolds in London. Two dance troupes, one Indian and one Pakistani, are constantly at each other’s throats. Varun Dhawan plays Sahej, who heads the Indian troupe. Shraddha Kapoor is Inayat, who is with the Pakistani side. Both teams hang out at a restaurant run by Prabhu Deva, and spend their time exchanging barbs, squabbling over India vs Pakistan cricket matches, or challenging each other to dance-offs. Then the ‘important plot’ kicks in.

It concerns a bunch of illegal immigrants who arrived in London with big dreams but are hiding out in a tunnel, hungry, homeless, unable to make ends meet. Inayat wants to help them, and Sahej is carrying around guilt of his own. So both their teams enter a coveted dance competition.

I promise I’m not making this up.

The dance numbers in the film are slick, colourful, energetic and frequently awe-inspiring. There is real talent on display here, and that cannot be denied. But the truth is that these dance numbers are also completely interchangeable. Replace one with another from an entirely different situation in the film and it makes no difference whatsoever. One of the big ‘items’ is a performance by Prabhu Deva to his own classic number Muqabla, which makes you wistful about a time when dancing in Hindi films was about fluidity and joy and abandon, and not just back-to-back over-choreographed set-pieces.

Returning director Remo D’Souza saves the best performance for the last when – spoiler alert – the Indian and Pakistani teams unite, and the film decides to turn the British dance troupe into the villains. It’s all set to the tune of Mile sur mera tumhara, and to be fair the energy of the performers coupled with the sheer rousing nature of the track make this act the film’s big highlight.

Alas it’s too little too late. For nearly two and a half hours we’ve been subjected to corny plotting and hammy performances. Nora Fatehi is most nimble on the dance floor, but her permanent deer-in-the-headlights expression does not amount to acting. The usually dependable Aparshakti Khurrana is reduced to a slobbering mess as a down-on-his-luck immigrant desperate to return to his watan. Shraddha Kapoor does what she can with the slim material, Varun Dhawan over-compensates by overacting.

Street Dancer 3D left me feeling exhausted, and the 3D, although not bad at all, felt entirely unnecessary. Please god, let them not go in for 4D when they decide to make Street Dancer 4. The thought of sitting in a seat that’ll move and shake and vibrate to the music is already giving me a queasy feeling in my stomach.

I’m going with two out of five for Street Dancer 3D. Next time make it shorter, keep the plot simple, and just stick to the dancing, will you?

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Best foot forward

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:25 pm

January 24, 2020

Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Jassie Gill, Richa Chada, Neena Gupta, Yagya Bhasin

Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

Panga, which is titled after the Hindi word for seeking out a confrontation, opens with a scene that – if this were real life and not a film – might have led to exactly that. In the middle of the night a woman kicks her husband repeatedly in her sleep. Her good-natured mister makes a throwaway joke the next morning, and quietly tucks a hot-water bag under his bum at the breakfast table. No arguments, no confrontation. He understands that his wife may have given up kabaddi, but kabaddi isn’t quite out of her system.

On the surface Panga is the inspiring story of a woman who returns to the sport she abandoned in exchange for domestic bliss. You only have to look closer to recognise that it’s actually a charming, feel-good film about unconditional love and the true meaning of family.

Directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, this thoughtful film asks us to celebrate not only those resilient women who refuse to be restricted by marriage and motherhood in the pursuit of their dreams, but also the supportive husbands and children that are the wind beneath their wings.

32-year-old Jaya Nigam once a national level athlete, seems content with an adoring husband, a cheeky but affectionate son, and a job as a ticket clerk at Bhopal Railway Station. Aside from the nightly ‘kicking’ ritual, and the occasional nostalgia, kabaddi seems firmly in her past as she commits her energies to home and hearth.

Kangana Ranaut is extraordinary as Jaya. There isn’t one false note in her beautiful, lived-in portrayal of a selfless wife and mother. She loves her family more than anything, but knowing that she could have achieved more haunts her ever so often, and Kangana conveys that feeling astutely, mostly without words. When Jaya’s seven-year-old son Adi learns about the sacrifice she made for their family he recruits his father’s help in convincing her to attempt a comeback. Overcoming her initial reluctance Jaya throws herself into the challenge.

Above everything else the writing in Panga is powered by humour and positivity. This is an endlessly optimistic film with generally kind-spirited characters that enable and empower Jaya to pursue her goal and to realise her potential. Her greatest cheerleader is her husband Prashant, played by an impossibly charming Jassie Gill, who encourages her to fly, steps up to shoulder her domestic duties, and does it all with a smile. Prashant is the partner every Indian woman dreams of, and the partner every Indian man will be measured against henceforth.

Her other allies include her precious son Adi, played by Yagya Bhasin, who gets some of the best lines and walks away with every scene that he’s in. Richa Chadha is terrific as Jaya’s best friend and old teammate Meenu whose droll humour and tough love yields some of the film’s funniest moments. A scene in which she draws parallels between specific kabaddi moves and responding to a marriage proposal had me in splits.

A word also for the lovely Neena Gupta who, in only a handful of scenes, makes her presence count. I had a lump in my throat watching the scene in which she asks Jaya to make sure she mentions her in interviews.

Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, who has co-written the film with Nikhil Mehrotra and Nitesh Tiwari, creates an entirely believable world – from the rhythms of life in a small town, to the flesh-and-blood characters playing the tiniest roles. Even in its cheery optimism, and the entirely predictable arc of its sports portions, Panga seldom feels contrived. It does feel overlong in its second hour as the screenplay goes through all the usual sporting clichés, rivalries, and underdog tropes. You know exactly how things will pan out.

Having said that, you’re as invested in Jaya’s journey as her family that’s cheering from the stands. This is a result of the mostly smart writing, and a winning performance from the film’s leading lady. Kangana imbues Jaya with both vulnerability and determination. She conveys the guilt that mothers frequently feel over nursing a personal dream, but she also drives home the message that it’s 2020 and we can’t still be debating whether marriage and motherhood must signal a full stop to a woman’s goals.

The film’s big success is in delivering its message without making a big noise about it. Panga is all about its little moments. It’s a film about love disguised as a sports-movie. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five. It fills you with hope and warmth. We could all do with that in these times.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 17, 2020

At the heart of war!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:42 pm

January 17, 2019

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong

Director: Sam Mendes

The protagonists of Sam Mendes’ World War I film 1917 are two young British soldiers who’re assigned an important mission that will require courage, grit, and sheer physical resilience. Yet the film’s hero is as much its cinematographer Roger Deakins who pulls off the brilliant and audacious trick of shooting the entire two-hour film as if it were one continuous, unbroken shot.

The ‘one-shot film’ and the ‘made-to-look-like-a-one-shot-film’ have been successfully done before, several times in fact. Most notably the Oscar-winning film Birdman which, barring one exception, gives the impression of having been filmed in a single shot. None of these films, however, have the scale or the ambition of 1917.

Blake and Schofield, two young soldiers, are sent by a general across enemy lines to deliver an urgent message warning a British battalion about walking into an enemy trap. If they fail, or don’t get to the troops in time, 1600 soldiers could lose their lives, including Blake’s brother. So off they go, through eerily abandoned trenches, war-torn villages, past empty fields and farmhouses, into raging rivers, and between weaving lines of countless soldiers, even as they encounter traps, piles of corpses, German soldiers, fighter planes, and bombs.

The camera follows them throughout, seemingly in real time, giving us an intimate experience as they’re worn down by stress, exhaustion, hunger and thirst, fear, and death. In staying so close to the two soldiers for the entire duration of their mission, and in listening to them talk about food, and rats, and winning medals, the film feels personal and ‘small’. You realise that the story of these two boys is one of many stories involving those affected by this enormous tragedy. It helps that the boys in question are played by relatively lesser-known actors. Dean Charles-Chapman as Blake, and George MacKay as Schofield vanish into their roles. Drawing us into the story, their faces evocatively convey the futility of war, the horrors of combat, and the fear of death.

But the truth is that the story is slim, as if stripped down to aide the single-shot visual approach. As a result there are times when the film feels like an obstacle race, or a game with challenges to overcome on every level in order to move on to the next. It’s hard to explain but it feels simplistic in its depiction of war.

Having said that it’s still a visually wondrous experience. What Deakins and Mendes have pulled off is incredible by any measure; this is the kind of film that the big screen was invented for. It’s also emotional and moving in parts. Mendes dedicates the film to his grandfather, who fought in the war, as we learn from a closing slate. How can you not appreciate why this episode from history means so much to him?

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for 1917. There is a lot to admire and be awed by in this almost war classic.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 10, 2020

His-tory, whose story?

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:55 pm

January 10, 2020

Cast: Ajay Devgan, Saif Ali Khan, Sharad Kelkar, Kajol, Luke Kenny

Director: Om Raut

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior stars Ajay Devgan as the valorous hero of the film’s title, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s trusted lieutenant Subedar Tanhaji Malasure, who, according to legend, never backed away from a fight. Yet it’s Saif Ali Khan, playing the film’s villain, who appears to be having more fun.

Saif plays Udaybhan, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s Rajput general, who sports black robes, a thick beard, a deceptive smile, and an unending appetite for cruelty. Let’s just say he’s cut from the same cloth as Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji.

The film, directed by Om Raut, is set in the year 1670, and focuses on the Battle of Sinhagad between the Marathas and the Mughals. History has it that Tanhaji abandoned his son’s wedding to defend the Kondhana Fort near Pune from Udaybhan and his troops.

The filmmakers stick to the broad strokes of the story, but details appear to be cheerfully exaggerated and fictionalised. Characters, communities, and empires are reduced to archetypes. The Marathas are all noble, swaraj-worshipping warriors; the Mughals are opportunistic, deceitful, invaders.

Over nearly two hours and fifteen minutes the stage is set for a sprawling epic that is frankly less historical and more action saga. It is also the best way to enjoy this film. Tanhaji is first introduced in the film swooping down on the enemy in a ravine, his men and him vanquishing them with strategy and sheer daring. It’s a stunning entry.

The film is mounted on an extravagant scale, with massive sets, big action set pieces, booming background music, and elaborate costumes. There is more than a whiff of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and particularly Padmaavat in the film’s lighting and colour tones. The cinematography by Keiko Nakahara is sweeping, very much in keeping with the overall brief of aesthetics.

The action scenes are especially effective, and further enhanced if you choose to watch the film in 3D. Sequences depicting the guerilla tactics employed by the Marathas to scale the fort are excellently executed, and the final battle between Tanhaji and Udaybhan is nothing short of spectacular. With a deadly cannon aimed in the direction of Shivaji’s Rajgad Fort, the two men face off in a bloody fight to the finish.

Of the cast, Kajol shows up in the role of Tahaji’s wife Savitri, and the scenes between them benefit from the actors’ easy chemistry. Sharad Kelkar nicely channels Chhatrapati Shivaji’s nobility, and Luke Kenny is an inspired casting choice for the role of Aurangzeb.

Ajay Devgan brings unmistakable earnestness to the role of the honourable warrior. It is to his credit that even while mouthing heavy dialogues loaded with repeated use of words like “bhagwaa dhwaj”, he roots the hero in a kind of relatable humanity. The scene-stealer, however, is Saif Ali Khan who sinks his teeth into the role of Udaybhan. His sadistic general is a man who throws cold water on sleeping prisoners, and in one scene sends a poor guard falling to his death after screaming in his face.

It must also be said that Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior speaks directly to our hyper-nationalistic climate. The history is dubious, the politics problematic. It feeds into what seems to have become Bollywood’s preferred stereotype of the enemy: all savage, brutal, ruthless ‘outsiders’.

If you can look beyond that, you’ll appreciate the robust filmmaking, the visceral battle scenes, and a delicious performance by an actor who’s seldom got his due. For some that will be enough. I’m going with three out of five for Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Face and foremost

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:46 pm

January 10, 2020

Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey, Madhurjeet Sarghi, Ankit Bisht, Anand Tiwari, Vishal Dahiya

Director: Meghna Gulzar

Chhapaak, directed by Meghna Gulzar, gets its title from the sound of a splash. Sadly this is no splash from children jumping into puddles of rain, or the splash of coloured water when squirted on friends during Holi. You already know that the splash in question is the sound and the force of acid flung to the face.

Co-written by Meghna and Atika Chohan, the film is based on the true story of Laxmi Agarwal, who in 2005 at the age of 15 became the victim of an acid attack…one of over 200 women in India each year who are at the receiving end of this heinous crime, a closing slate tells us. But it takes the deeply evocative lyrics of the film’s title song, written by Meghna’s father Gulzar, to grasp the complete magnitude and implication of the crime: “Koi chehra mita ke aur aankh se hata ke chandd chheente uda ke jo gaya, chhapaak se pehchaan le gaya.” Indeed it’s not just about disfiguring someone or erasing their face; it’s about destroying their very soul.

Laxmi, however, refused to let the incident crush her. She underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries, she fought the case against her attacker over years, filed a PIL against the sale of acid, and worked with an NGO dedicated to helping acid attack survivors. Chhapaak not only celebrates Laxmi’s will to survive and overcome the tragedy, it also asks important questions. Why doesn’t our legal system treat acid attacks as gravely as rape? Is 10 years of imprisonment an adequate punishment for scarring someone’s face and life permanently? Why is acid so easily available across the counter?

The film sticks closely to Laxmi’s story but changes the names of characters and minor details, presumably for legal reasons. Deepika Padukone plays the protagonist Malti, a 19-year-old from a working class family in Delhi, whose perfectly ordinary life comes undone when a family friend whose romantic overtures she ignored decides to teach her a lesson.

Deepika brings a quiet dignity to the role. She doesn’t merely apply the prosthetic to her face, she slips under it to become the character. This is not one of those actor-sheds-her-beauty-for-street-cred projects; this is a fully realised performance. Watch as she lets out that visceral scream after looking at her face in the mirror for the first time since the attack. Her performance reveals both vulnerability and determination as Malti goes through painful medical treatment, or struggles to find a job, or deals with social rejection.

Admirably Meghna treats these scenes with great sensitivity, but without ever soft-peddling the gravity of Malti’s experience. Melodrama is minimal here. A longer-than-usual stare, a mother diverting her child’s face on a bus, a casual comment about the need for beauty in a beauty parlour when she shows up seeking a job. The point is made.

The thoughtful, unflashy writing extends also to the character of Amol (Vikrant Massey), who is the head of the NGO where Malti finally gets a job. Their relationship is handled nicely, and Vikrant, who is a wonderful actor, conveys the frustrations and the despair of a committed activist with piercing honesty. He has no time to celebrate small victories; he has his eye on the big picture. In one lovely scene after an irritable outburst on his part Malti reminds him that acid was thrown on her, not him.

The film benefits from casting relatively unknown actors in key supporting roles. It helps ground the film in realism. It’s fitting also that Malti’s attacker doesn’t dominate the story, because it’s really not important who he is. What is important is why he did it. Meghna also doesn’t make a big deal about his religion. That’s not important either.

The weak spot here is the sluggish screenplay. There isn’t a lot going on when Malti isn’t on screen, and the back and forth nature of its narrative only gives it an episodic feel. Good thing then that the film is only two hours in duration, so that feeling that it’s running out of steam doesn’t last too long.

The filmmakers deserve credit for never seeking our pity. They have too much respect for the women who’ve survived these horrible attacks that they don’t manipulate us into shedding tears. If you’re choked it’s because the reality of what it depicts is frequently overwhelming.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Chhapaak. Its strength is in its quietude. It goes about its business with minimal fuss. The film is both moving and important. And its leading lady is in very fine form.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Powered by WordPress