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

March 13, 2020

Papa knows best

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:00 am

March 13, 2020

Cast: Irrfan Khan, Radhika Madan, Deepak Dobriyal, Kareena Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, Kiku Sharda, Ranvir Shorey

Director: Homi Adajania

Angrezi Medium opens with a slate that defines a parent as “a strange creature with the profound ability to love its offspring irrationally”. It’s a fitting description, as pretty much anyone who’s raised a child will tell you, and an especially accurate one in the case of this film’s protagonist.

Irrfan Khan plays a sweet-shop owner in Udaipur named Champak Bansal, a single parent committed to raising his only daughter Tarika (Radhika Madan). Theirs is an affectionate, endearing relationship; the scenes between the two actors are charming and feel authentic. Tarika, who is just shy of 18, has wanted to go abroad since she was little, but Champak has somehow always managed to put it off. When she works hard to land a scholarship to a top London university, he finally relents. But he also unintentionally causes her scholarship to be revoked. Consumed by guilt over potentially shattering his daughter’s dream Champak vows to send Tarika to university, although he can ill afford the cost of a seat.

As many as four writers are credited with developing the story, and yet the script of Angrezi Medium is largely a mess of meandering subplots and contrived conflicts. Directed by Homi Adajania, the film’s first hour is especially a slog. Champak and his brother Gopi (Deepak Dobriyal), who runs a rival sweet-shop across from his, are at loggerheads over the rightful use of the family name for their respective businesses. Their acrimony spills into a legal battle that has little bearing on the film’s main plot, and hence feels needless and distracting even if it is played out strictly for laughs.

The incident that leads to the film’s pre-interval cliffhanger is also a stretch. The writers choose convenience over logic to create one obstacle after another in Champak’s way, and by the time the lights come on at intermission Angrezi Medium feels like it has fully lost its way. But then something surprising happens in the film’s second half – it’s the reason film critics don’t give up on films mid way – the humour becomes sharper, the dialogues start to crackle, the Irrfan-Deepak chemistry hits its stride, and despite the still sloppy screenplay the rock solid ensemble of actors vastly improves this average film.

Pankaj Tripathi shines even in a single-scene cameo as a Dubai fixer tasked with helping Champak and Gopi to enter England illegally. When they balk at each of his risky suggestions, he says to them, exasperatedly: “Yeh koi saree shop nahi hai, ‘Koi aur option dikhao!’” Radhika Madan has a natural presence on screen, and Kareena Kapoor plays a perennially angry London cop whose first encounter with Champak and Gopi is flat-out hilarious. In smaller roles, Kiku Sharda, Ranvir Shorey, and Dimple Kapadia round out the cast nicely.

However the heavy lifting is up to Irrfan Khan and Deepak Dobriyal, who play off each other so well it’s like watching a perfectly synchronised dance. Deepak, who is supremely talented but vastly underrated, brings little moments of physical humour to complement the rat-a-tat verbal exchanges; he is one of the film’s big strengths.

And yet it’s impossible to overlook the script’s old-fashioned, and frankly outdated worldview when it comes to parent-child politics. We’re in 2020 and Indian parents – certainly according to this film – will continue to emotionally blackmail and guilt their kids into doing exactly what they want. Indian kids don’t fly the nest; independence is frowned upon. Somewhere in this mix the writers even find room for some ‘mera bharat mahaan’ messaging.

If you can overlook those problems there are some pleasures to be had, chief among them the joy of taking in Irrfan’s performance. It’s an effortless job – ‘makkhan’ as they say in Hindi – a performance so light on its feet, it never feels like acting. He invests Champak with genuine humanity, despite the uneven script. You can’t help feeling especially appreciative knowing that he made the film while critically unwell.

In the end I feel like Angrezi Medium is one part clunky, and one part enjoyable. It’s not a perfect film – far from it – but I will admit I came out with a smile. I’m going with a generous three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 6, 2020

Syria-ously?

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:59 pm

March 06, 2020

Cast: Tiger Shroff, Shraddha Kapoor, Ritesh Deshmukh, Ankita Lokhande, Vijay Varma, Jaideep Ahlawat, Jackie Shroff

Director: Ahmed Khan

Even by the abysmally low standards of the first two films in the franchise, Baaghi 3 is a shit show. It’s a film whose plot is so far removed from common sense and basic logic that you have to wonder what little regard the filmmakers must have for the audience.

Tiger Shroff, who is the star attraction of the Baaghi films, is in reliably good form, playing for the nth time a one-man-weapon-of-mass-destruction. At different points in the film he outruns helicopters that are on his tail, he lobs grenades at his enemies while dangling from a wire, and narrowly escapes being mowed down by oncoming tanks. Although there is some fun to be had watching him single-handedly take on an entire country, you can’t help thinking that a smarter director would have no trouble marrying Tiger’s sheer prowess in the action department with a script that knows how to better utilize it.

In the hands of Ahmed Khan, however, Baaghi 3 is a bloated mess. As many as five writers are credited with banging out the script, which stays largely faithful to the Tamil film of which it is an official remake. Tiger plays Ronnie, who has spent the bulk of his years protecting his timid elder brother Vikram (Ritesh Deshmukh) from bullies and all manner of harm.

 Vikram, who is a police officer, is dispatched to Syria on an assignment, where he is attacked and kidnapped by an Islamic terrorist organisation. When Ronnie shows up to save his sibling he unleashes such havoc it prompts the terror leader to enquire who is responsible for the upheaval: “America? Russia? Mossad?”

It’s a harebrained premise; there is zero understanding or sensitivity for the politics of the region. Accents are clunky and all over the place. Presumably the film is set in Syria for its ravaged landscape, although it has been shot in Serbia. Baaghi 3 is executed with such lack of self-awareness it doesn’t even cut it as one of those Chuck Norris-saves-the-world entertainers.

Actors like Vijay Varma and Jaideep Ahlawat are wasted in roles that do no justice to their talent. Ritesh Deshmukh cheerily hams it up as the mild-mannered, darpok older brother prone to calling out for his younger sibling each time he’s in trouble. Shraddha Kapoor strictly provides comic relief, then possibly as an afterthought on the part of the makers gets into action mode. To put it simply, none of the actors besides the film’s leading man leaves any mark.

Baaghi 3 is the Tiger Shroff show all the way, and the actor – frequently shirtless and bronzed – looks happy to do the heavy lifting. Despite the clunky script, he is utterly and entirely convincing even in the most preposterous action scenarios; yes even when he’s perched atop three crashed helicopters, preening satisfactorily. Tiger is all muscle neck down, and largely wooden up north. There’s not a lot of range or emotion on that face, and yet it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer artistry of what he does with the rest of that body.

Like the tattered shirt that barely hangs off his ripped frame, Baaghi 3 hangs by a thread off its leading man’s strong shoulders. Tiger is the only reason the film isn’t completely unwatchable. I’m going with a generous two out of five, strictly for the cub who deserves the kind of material that’ll let him grow into the wildcat he’s clearly poised to be.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

February 27, 2020

Slap trap!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 7:35 pm

February 28, 2020

Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Dia Mirza, Maya Sarao, Tanvi Azmi, Ratna Pathak Shah, Kumud Mishra, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan

Director: Anubhav Sinha

Thappad, as the film’s title so unambiguously suggests, is about a slap. A slap that an otherwise amiable, good-natured man lands on his wife’s face in a moment of misdirected anger. In his defense, it is the first time he has raised his hand on her. In his defense, he has just found out that the professional goal he had nurtured, toiled hard for, and achieved, has been unfairly snatched away from him. In his defense, it happened in the heat of the moment. For his wife, no defense can justify the slap. It changes everything. It practically dismantles her life.

In setting up this premise, director Anubhav Sinha, who has co-written the film with Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul, asks us repeatedly to consider whether Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) should, like everyone around her suggests, let it go and move on. It shouldn’t have happened, but “ab ho gaya na?” her husband Vikram (Pavail Gulati) laments. Her mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi), with whom she has a loving relationship, says: “Thoda bardaasht karna seekhna chahiye auraton ko.” Her own mother (Ratna Pathak Shah) is distraught that she is considering divorce. Her brother describes it as “one small episode”, and thinks “it’s silly” that she’s taking it so far. Her neighbor, a widow (Dia Mirza), delivers that ultimate guilt trap: “Rishte banane mein utni effort nahin lagti jitna nibhane mein lagti hai.” Even her lawyer (Maya Sarao) advises her to go back and make it work.

The film, and the slap at the centre of it, is not about domestic violence. It’s about entitlement. It’s about decades of conditioning. It’s about flawed social structures and outdated gender expectations. In Robert Altman-esque fashion, the film opens with a charming sequence in which an orange ice lolly is used as a motif to introduce several characters, before we learn how each fits into the protagonist’s orbit. Patriarchy and entitlement run deep; Amrita is hardly the only victim.

There is the poor domestic help who suffers beatings from her husband routinely. There is the older woman, resentful that her loving husband never encouraged her to pursue her love for singing after marriage. There is the soon-to-be-married young couple, seemingly equal in their relationship until a tense interaction reveals otherwise. There is also the accomplished professional whose husband repeatedly credits her success to his family’s powerful connections. When Vikram slaps Amrita, every one of these relationships unravels.

Shrewdly the very premise of the film and Amrita’s escalating reaction to the slap is plotted in such a way that you’re frequently compelled to ask: “Isn’t she taking it too far?” or “Surely she doesn’t need to make such a big deal of it?” The answer to those questions may be found in Vikram’s unmistakably selfish handling of the situation.

But the thing is – and this is key – there are no easy answers here. The husband is no villain. Vikram is selfish, entitled, conditioned to put himself and his own pride before his wife, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just every other Indian man. Knowing that, you’re confronted with the same question again: “Isn’t she overdoing it?” Don’t be embarrassed if you’re leaning dangerously close to answering yes; it’s exactly the position Sinha wants you to take. In fact, in a scripting masterstroke he raises the stakes at the halfway mark, putting the couple in such a situation that now you’re thinking: “Okay, this is too much. She must let it go.”

But Thappad isn’t a film about a wife teaching her husband not to take her for granted. It’s about a woman rediscovering her sense of self, contemplating what is fair and what isn’t. It’s about no longer disregarding the deep-rooted sexism and selfishness, and the casual insensitivity that women contend with everyday. If any of this sounds like activism or social-message disguised to look like a movie, it’s honestly not. You’re very much invested in Amrita’s story. She is the fulcrum of Vikram’s uppercrust home in Delhi; she’s a supportive wife and a caring daughter-in-law. In one bristling moment she points out that the sacrifice of every woman who chooses to be a homemaker can be understood from the simple fact that no little girl when asked what she wants to grow up to be says ‘housewife’.

In a film so well-made, minor quibbles stand out. The second hour feels stretched. The estrangement of Vikram and his mother from his uber rich father and brother is confusing. But these are minor quibbles. Sinha pulls off a complex story and extracts remarkable performances from his ensemble.

Of the main cast, Maya Sarao brings a sharp edge to the role of Amrita’s conflicted lawyer, and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan is terrific as her garrulous house help. Dia Mirza is nicely understated as her neighbor, and both Ratna Pathak Shah and Tanvi Azmi are expectedly in fine form. Kumud Mishra stands out as Amrita’s supportive father, hitting all the right notes, and aided by some of the film’s most loaded lines. Pavail Gulati, in the difficult role of the husband, effectively plays him as clueless to his own shortcomings.

Which brings us to the film’s axis, Taapsee Pannu. In a refreshing change of image, her Amrita is not the fierce, woman-on-the-warpath that she frequently tends to play. She’s a woman torn, she has both strength and fragility; it’s a beautifully realized performance. The script gives her some great moments to shine, and she seizes them. I was a mess by the time Amrita has that honest, wounding conversation with her mother-in-law towards the end of the film.

I’m going with four out of five for Thappad. It’s a hard subject to pull off, but Anubhav Sinha achieves it with first-rate storytelling. The best films inspire dialogue, they set you thinking; they can even lead to change. This one made me uncomfortable; it made me question myself and I think it will make you too. It’s essential viewing.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

February 21, 2020

Sons and lovers

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:00 am

February 20, 2020

Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar, Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta, Manu Rishi, Maanvi Gagroo

Director: Hitesh Kewalya

Smack in the middle of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Ayushmann Khurana’s character Kartik says to his boyfriend’s homophobic father that gay people have to fight every day, but there is no fight harder than the one with your family.

There is unmistakable dignity in the way that the same-sex relationship at the centre of this film has been treated. When we meet the flamboyantly filmi Kartik and his boyfriend Aman (Jitendra Kumar), they are already in love and living together in Delhi. It’s just that Aman hasn’t come out to his family back home in Allahabad. Considering the theme, the dialogues are sensitive and the repartee between the characters frequently crackling. When Aman does open up about his love for Kartik to his scientist father (Gajraj Rao) and his straight-talking mother (Neena Gupta), he talks of dopamine, oxytocin, and of his hypothalamus. Aman explains his feelings in chemical terms, but it nicely captures the sheer splendour of love.

Admirably, writer-director Hitesh Kewalya doesn’t mine laughs from stereotyping gay characters in the way that mainstream Hindi films have done for as long as one can remember. Aside from an innocuous nose-ring that Ayushmann wears, there are no obvious markers of femininity. What’s especially refreshing is that the lovers or their relationship is never the source of comedy, it’s the extreme reactions by those around them to their relationship that is treated with humor. In that, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is not so much about homosexuality as it is about homophobia.

But the humour, as it turns out, is hit and miss. 2017’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan cleverly and amusingly beefed up the role of the extended family in what was essentially the story of a soon-to-be-married couple and the ‘problem’ they’re confronted with. This film too puts the family centrestage, but that overcomplicates the story. There’s a trying-too-hard quest for laughs that starts wearing thin. Aman’s folks argue incessantly and blame each other while trying to deal with the ‘situation’, until the story feels stretched and silly. The bullying relationship between Gajraj’s character Shankar Tripathi and his brother Chaman (Manu Rishi) is funny initially, but it works strictly as a side act and loses steam when it becomes the film’s main source of drama and laughs. A portion in which Tripathi stages a religious ‘rebirth’ ceremony to ‘normalise’ his son doesn’t land, and a subplot involving his invention of black cauliflower is a contrived metaphor.

The immensely likeable Gajraj Rao, trapped in a not-so-likeable character, is both one of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. In a very funny scene, Tripathi has a violent physical reaction when he spots his son in a clinch with his lover while the family is heading by train for a wedding. Tripathi is a real hoot when he’s nervous and vulnerable – like in his impromptu dance-off with Kartik – but there is little joy in the bits where he’s the standard-issue villain-dad.

Even the pairing of Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta as Aman’s parents, inspired no doubt by their wonderful chemistry in Badhaai Ho, is largely underutilised. There’s a naughty joke snuck in there about how she relieves her husband’s anxiety, but for the most part the bickering gets tiresome. Aman’s chacha and his hysterical chachi, played by Manu Rishi and Sunita Rajwar, are funnier. In one scene, to underplay the PDA that Aman and Kartik indulge in at their daughter’s wedding, the couple comes up with an explanation so far-fetched, it’s hard to hold back the laughs.

It’s interesting that Kewalya uses the classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge blueprint to stage this story of parental opposition in the face of true love and a couple’s longing for acceptance from the stubborn family. It’s a smart approach to push out the message that gay relationships are the same as straight ones; the conflicts are all too familiar. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan also ticks the boxes of an ‘Ayushman Khurrana social message movie’. The gay characters are self-respecting men dead against the idea of marrying a woman out of convenience. Parental denial is also addressed head-on, and frowned upon using clap-trap dialogues.

There are many zingers in the film, delivered with flair and timing by Kewalya’s cast. As Kartik, who wears his heart on his sleeve, ready to go to war for love, Ayushmann Khurrana gets the lion’s share of winning one-liners. He plays Kartik as confident and comfortable in his skin, but also a tad hyper. The film is respectful but never shy of depicting affection between its protagonists, and that’s especially worthy of praise in a famously squeamish, homophobic cinema. So many actors – Sanjay Suri in My Brother Nikhil, Manoj Bajpai in Aligarh, Fawad Khan in Kapoor & Sons, Shabana Azmi in Fire, Kalki Koechlin in Margarita with a Straw, and others – paved the way so Ayushmann and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan could take the baton and run. The film’s ‘normal’ treatment of the gay character, and Ayushmann’s assertive performance is a victory in itself.

But while all the slow-motion entries and exits go to Ayushmann, the film’s secret weapon is Jitendra Kumar whose Everyman portrayal of Aman is one of the film’s big strengths. The actor, who has appeared in many web series including Kota Factory, has a warm, grounded presence that makes the character’s vulnerability all too authentic. Jitendra and Ayushmann have real chemistry; their little moments together bring depth to the film.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan isn’t consistent. The script spends too much time focused on the infighting within Aman’s family instead of staying with the leads. Despite that there is enough to enjoy and appreciate here. It takes a difficult subject and executes it with some flair. For that, I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

February 14, 2020

Labored love!

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

February 14, 2020

Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Sara Ali Khan, Randeep Hooda, Arushi Sharma

Director: Imtiaz Ali

With Love Aaj Kal starring Kartik Aaryan and Sara Ali Khan, which is a sort-of remake of his own film of the same name from eleven years ago, Imtiaz Ali has done what few believed was even possible – he’s made a love story that might be more indulgent, contrived, and incoherent than When Harry Met Sejal. And that’s saying something.

Ever since his filmmaking debut in 2005 with the charming Socha Na Tha, you could say that Imtiaz has, within his cinematic universe, been fascinated by the rhythms and the vagaries of love. He’s been committed to telling stories about the redemptive, transformative nature of true love. Occasionally it’s yielded extraordinary results – like it did with Jab We Met, which remains his finest film. Other times it’s been hit or miss.

Like the earlier Love Aaj Kal the new film straddles two love stories across two time zones to make the point that one only has to look to the past to resolve romantic conundrums of the present. In that film Saif Ali Khan’s Jai realised the depth of his feelings for Deepika Padukone’s Meera after listening to Rishi Kapoor’s Veer recount how he found and fought for love as a young man. In an inspired casting choice, Saif also played the younger version of Rishi Kapoor’s character Veer.

I should say here I wasn’t a big fan of the earlier film. Compared to the new one though it’s Gone with the Wind. In present day Delhi, Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) and Veer (Kartik Aaryan) are struggling with the familiar ‘relationship vs career’ dilemma. The update here is that it’s the girl who’s torn between these choices; the guy stands by patiently. Another story, narrated in flashback, becomes the compass that informs the course of this one.

In 1990 Udaipur a young fellow, Raghu (also played by Kartik Aaryan), is smitten by Leena (Arushi Sharma). Theirs is a delicate romance potentially thwarted by objecting parents and a judgmental society. There are some nice bits here, like a scene during a school event where the pair dances awkwardly. But this segment is sweet at best; it’s also mostly inert.

The real problem with the film, however, is the present day track, and particularly the character of Zoe. Between the way she’s rendered on paper and the way that Sara plays her, Zoe is pretty much insufferable. One can appreciate her ambition and her single-minded focus on her event-planner career, but using a feminist argument to justify unbuttoning her blouse while going into a job interview is far-fetched. The work-love conflict that she makes a big deal about isn’t fleshed out enough to feel convincing. Practically nothing about her situation suggests that her relationship with Veer could come in the way of her achieving her professional potential. If anything Veer is supportive and devoted to the point of being a pushover.

Sara plays Zoe as high-strung, shrill, and prone to unprovoked outbursts. Zoe is meant to be complicated and confused, but she comes off as self-important and infuriating. Kartik, meanwhile, fares better. He brings a boyish innocence and goofiness to Raghu, who is experiencing love for the first time. As Veer, his body language is awkward initially, but he grows into the role of the idealistic romantic. Arushi Sharma, in the role of Leena, has a nice, likeable presence. But it’s Randeep Hooda who grounds the film in some modicum of believability. As a man looking back at his life, reflecting on his choices, Randeep brings a lived-in quality that this film is sorely missing.

Love Aaj Kal 2.0, if you like, is largely contrived and superficial. It’s a love story in search of a conflict. In that, it reminded me of Imtiaz’s other film, the polarising Tamasha. Like that film, it doesn’t have a lot to say yet pretends to be deep and profound. The filmmaker’s opinion of the millennial generation and their take on love, sex, and commitment is unmistakably patronising. The film claims to hold a mirror to modern love, yet it judges that very thing.

There is no polite way to say this – Love Aaj Kal is pretty awful and dreadfully boring. It’s also overlong and hammy. The pursuit of romantic fulfilment has seldom felt so banal. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

February 7, 2020

Goa gone!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 12:53 pm

February 07, 2020

Cast: Aditya Roy Kapur, Disha Patani, Anil Kapoor, Kunal Kemmu, Amruta Khanvilkar

Director: Mohit Suri

In two of his most successful films Aashiqui 2 and Ek Villain, director Mohit Suri gave the audience a love story to root for, and songs that one couldn’t stop humming. That irresistible cocktail somehow powered those frankly average films.

There is both a love story and some good songs in his new thriller Malang. There are also, to be fair, some interesting ideas floating around. But those ideas never come together coherently; they’re lost in a film that is more interested in surface-level stuff.

Advait (Aditya Roy Kapur) and Sara (Disha Patani) meet in Goa. They’re young, they’re good-looking, they’re in pursuit of freedom and adventure. How long before they’re bumping bodies? Those bodies, by the way, are in great shape and Vikas Sivaraman’s camera worships every curve, every bicep with the same love that it reserves for Goa’s scenic beaches.

The film however isn’t likely to do much for Goa tourism. The world of Malang is dark and twisted, and Suri depicts the beach state as a Wasseypur-like badlands with rampant drug use, frequent brutal killings, and widespread corruption in the police force. Think of it as the anti-Dil Chahta Hai.

Advait and Sara’s beach-swept romance is a prelude to a string of bad things that take place. When the body count rises the onus to sniff out the killer and bring him in falls on Agashe (Anil Kapoor), a cocaine-snorting, trigger-happy senior cop with little regard for rules, and Michael (Kunal Kemmu), a righteous officer who prefers to do things by the book.

The twists in Malang are either predictable or far-fetched. One major reveal is given away in the film’s trailer so you can see it coming from a distance. The other is what one would describe as “a bit much”. Suri is interested in themes of revenge, redemption, and especially in the notion of masculinity. That leads to an interesting and bold character reveal, but Malang has little room for complexity so this idea is ultimately squandered.

The film leans on its cast to do what they do best. Aditya Roy Kapur, flaunting a chest that refuses to be contained in shirts, gets multiple opportunities to flex his chiseled pecs. Disha Patani sportingly shows off her perfect toned figure. Kunal Kemmu has some interesting moments, especially the scenes with his wife, played by the reliable Amruta Khanvilkar. But expectedly it’s Anil Kapoor who’s having the most fun. As Agashe, who’s always on edge, the actor is deliciously unpredictable, while also effectively conveying his inner pain when required.

Malang is far too long at nearly 2 hours and 15 minutes. The unconvincing plot simply doesn’t justify the indulgence. There are some moments that work, but by the end, I was wishing I’d stayed home sleeping on my palang rather than waste my time on Malang. I’m going with two out of five.

(This interview first aired on CNN News18)

January 31, 2020

Dad-beat!

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)

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