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

March 30, 2007

Height of patience!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:27 pm

March 30, 2007

Cast: Jimmy Shergill, Neha Dhupia, Om Puri, Rohit Roy, Simone Singh, Vivek Shauq, Kamini Khanna

Director: Anand Kumar

Delhii Heights is a slice-of-life drama about the residents of an upscale building complex in the Capital. The film focuses on the personal ups-and-downs of the families that comprise this motley group. Leading the pack are Jimmy Shergill and Neha Dhupia who play a married couple working in rival advertising companies. They’re a couple that must deal with professional rivalry and trust issues just months into their marriage. The other characters in this story include a philandering husband and his long-suffering wife, a middle-aged couple planning their daughter’s wedding, a jovial neighbour who’s been operating as a bookie, and a group of teenage boys who spend all their time chasing pretty young girls in their neighbourhood.

Now there’s no real plot to this film, evidently it’s positioned itself as a character-driven picture, but in that respect it falls flat on its face because the rule for any character-driven film is that its characters be interesting enough to be able to pull the film purely on their strength, but the characters in Delhii Heights are dull, uni-dimensional and have no personality at all.

The script is a gross miscalculation on the part of the film’s director and its writers as it fails to establish the sense of community that it’s going for. Delhii Heights struggles to set itself up as an ensemble piece about a close-knit group of neighbours and friends, but dancing together at a neighbour’s wedding or gathering at one of their homes to watch a cricket match is just too superficial, and sadly it’s not enough to suggest that sense of kinship. The issues and concerns that the protagonists of Delhii Heights are confronted with seem so trivial and domestic that you’re tempted to dismiss it as a television serial in the guise of a feature film. But truth is, even soaps today have begun to go beyond those traditional themes of domestic squabbles and cheating spouses. What’s worse about this film is the carelessness in its execution.

Random scenes are slapped together one after another, with obvious disregard to the viewer’s attention or intelligence. The film’s editing is choppy to say the least, and its camerawork so arbitrary and amateurish that your head hurts each time the camera zooms in unnecessarily into Neha Dhupia’s nostrils, or Jimmy Shergill’s golden-dyed hair.

The film’s soundtrack by Punjabi artiste Rabbi is average at best, except for his immensely popular Tere Bin number in which he appears himself as a ghostly figure in white strumming a guitar.

Delhii Heights fails because very little thought seems to have gone into its making. If it’s trying to fit in among the new breed of realistic, non-formula films, then someone please tell me why Jimmy Shergill does the full-throttle Bollywood number, dramatizing every sigh and pause, and delivering his lines so theatrically that you suspect he’s going for an Oscar nomination. Case in point is that climax scene in which he begs his wife to return home — I can’t remember a performance in recent weeks that has made me cringe with embarrassment like this one did.

As for capturing a taste of Delhi life, forget it, because barring a few moments here and there — like that scene in which a neighbour planning his daughter’s wedding insists he wants a discount on soft-drinks, or that other scene where two neighbours sit guzzling Scotch and munching farsaan in a car in their parking lot — which distinctly bear the Dilli chhaap, this could be a film set anywhere in the world really — Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore or Southall.

I’m going to go with one out of five and a thumbs down for director Anand Kumar’s Delhii Heights, it’s a mangled mess of a film that can really come of only one good use — therapists could use it as a test of patience for people working on their anger management. If you can sit through a whole screening of this film without tearing out your seat, then I salute you, my friend… And if you really want to see a good film that’s inherently Delhi, then go watch that incredible comedy Khosla Ka Ghosla all over again.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

March 23, 2007

Been there, seen that!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:39 pm

March 23, 2007

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif, Rishi Kapoor, Upen Patel

Director: Vipul Shah

In director Vipul Shah’s Namastey London, Katrina Kaif plays an Indian girl born and raised in the UK, who’s turned out to be something of an enfant terrible who guzzles vodka like it’s water, dresses in micro-minis under her salwar-kameez, and frightens away prospective grooms by telling them false stories about her promiscuity. But worse than all of this, and the reason her dad’s having sleepless nights actually, is because she’s seriously considering a marriage proposal from her white boyfriend, a cad who’s already been married thrice in the past.

No wonder daddy dearest Rishi Kapoor whisks her off to good ol’ Bharat where after several failed attempts to find a suitable groom for his daughter, he finally coaxes her to tie the knot with the son of an old friend, a sort of small-town bumpkin Akshay Kumar, who’s already fallen head over heels in love with his peaches-and-cream complexioned wife.

Promising to consummate their marriage back in London, Katrina brings Akshay home, but only to reveal to him and to her parents that this shaadi was all a sham, and her heart still beats only for her gora boyfriend. Shaken, but not entirely defeated, Akshay decides he’s going to stay on and win her back with love.

I can bet my last pay-cheque that the one thought that came to your head while you heard me narrate the film’s plot is: ‘Hey, haven’t I heard this story before?’ Well, yes, you have and several times over actually. It’s clear, straight off the bat, that Namastey Londonis a been-there-seen-that story inspired from a variety of films including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam to name just two.

Look, the one thing that a film must have in order to hold your interest, is unpredictability. It’s very unlikely that you’re going to enjoy a film if you know exactly how it’s going to turn out in the end. But let’s face it, unpredictability of plot is something that very few Hindi films can boast of. In which case, when you do know what direction a film is going in, when you do know what’s going to happen at the end of the film, the only thing that is likely to keep you entertained, is the manner in which the filmmaker or the writers arrive at that ending. You know the beginning, you know the end — now can they make the middle so interesting and so unique that you’re willing to stay with the film even though you know where it’s all leading upto?

The same is true of Namastey London. It’s a Hindi film. You know Akshay Kumar is going to melt Katrina’s heart in the end. Now we just need to know how he does it.

Vipul Shah and his writers use the old-fashioned approach – true love conquers all. Some of you may find that archaic and outdated, but once in a while I think earnestness, sincerity and some old-fashioned simplicity can do the trick. Namastey London certainly has its heart in the right place. But sadly it goes about making its point in the stupidest manner. Why is it essential to portray every white person as a racist bigot in order to convey what a desh-bhakt our hero is? That party scene in which a white man makes Indian jokes only to be put in his place by Akshay is so over-the-top and so blatantly manipulative, it makes you cringe.

Ditto for that scene at the mosque where Akshay drives sense into Upen Patel’s head by explaining to him why nothing and no one’s worth changing one’s name and religion for – it’s a scene that’s screaming out for a pat on the back – “Look at all the good values we’re trying to propagate.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a cynic, I’m just saying this film is so caught up being self-congratulatory that it doesn’t even realize where its slipping up. Like the humour for example, which is so juvenile at most times. Or all the stereotypes that the film tends to reinforce.

By the time the lights finally come on and the end credits begin to roll, you feel like you’ve been in that hall for what seems like an eternity. Namastey London is too long for a story that’s too familiar to begin with. It’s not a bad film, but it’s often dull and you can pretty much predict its every next step.

Of the actors Upen Patel turns in a surprisingly decent piece as a British-Asian boy confronted with cultural dilemmas. Now if only he’d work on his dialogue delivery and accent, they wouldn’t have to dub his voice. And someone please ask him to keep his shirt on, we’ve seen enough of his shaved torso already. As the patient and hopeful romantic, Akshay Kumar plays his most restrained role yet, and he’s not bad at all, it’s just that his character seems so ludicrous; you’re unable to take him too seriously. For Katrina Kaif, playing the rebellious protagonist of this film, it’s a part that fits her like a glove. Her acting’s also considerably improved since the last time she was on screen.

But for me, the only actor really worth mentioning in this film is Rishi Kapoor. Both in his comic scenes and his dramatic portions, he brings a degree of naturalness that none of the other actors can serve up. He is easily the emotional anchor of this film and his performance it’s only real strength.

I’m going to go with two out of five for Vipul Shah’s Namastey London. In many ways it’s modeled after those well-meaning 70s films – one part Dev Anand romance, one part Manoj Kumar patriotic saga. It’s sweet and it’s simple but that’s just the question — Do you still have an appetite for steamed rice when everyone else is eating biryani?

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 6:36 pm

March 23, 2007

Cast: Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kal Pen

Director: Mira Nair

Director Mira Nair’s new film, The Namesake is adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel about an immigrant Bengali family in America and more specifically about the American-born son’s search for identity.

Nair’s film stars Irrfan Khan as Ashoke Ganguli, a young Indian academic in New York in the late 70s, who returns to Calcutta for a bride. His parents arrange his marriage to a gifted singer Ashima – played by Tabu – who leaves behind her home, her family, and her country to live with her husband in the Big Apple. From a modest apartment in Queens, the Gangulis move to a house in the New York suburbs, where they raise their two children. Their son Gogol fits in nowhere – not in America, not in Calcutta on his visits back home, and not with his outlandish name. In fact he fosters a sort of lifelong resentment towards this name, and opts instead for the more eloquent-sounding Nikhil when he goes to college, where in fact his white girlfriend shortens it to Nick. The film then traces Gogol’s coming-of-age story as he struggles with his identity, forming a love-hate, push-pull relationship with his heritage and his roots.

First things first, let’s understand and appreciate that there are far too many challenges involved in adapting a book to the screen, and doubly so in the case of a book like this, which spans over 40 years. But Mira Nair and screenplay writer Sooni Taraporevala do a commendable job packing in all the essential details, every significant event and incident, and pretty much the entire mood of Jhumpa Lahiri’s book.

It’s clear that the film’s central theme is alienation from other cultures and one’s own, and it’s remarkable how the director hits the right note from the very start. Take that scene in which Ashima drags a suitcase of dirty clothes to the Laundromat in the biting New York winter, her husband’s oversized coat wrapped around her own Dhaka saree. It’s a telling scene, and only one of many such beautiful memories that stay in your head long after you’ve watched the film.

But it’s important for me to say here that despite all its beauty and despite the fact that it’s a warm, poignant and a relatable story, The Namesake does not dig as deep as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding did. Compared to that film, The Namesake only skims the surface and isn’t quite able to get under the skin of its characters. While there’s no denying that the film raises significant issues about the second-generation immigrant experience, it’s also true that it fails to explore these issues thoroughly.

Yet, if this film works and keeps you engaged till the very end, it’s because of the landmark performances of its principal cast. American-Indian actor Kal Pen plays Gogol as a sulking, irritable, rebellious brat, then suddenly he shows another side which is conflicted, complexed and unexpectedly insightful. Tabu, meanwhile uses incredible subtlety as she ages Ashima from period to period, going from a playful girl in her 20s to a 40-something devoted mother. It’s a performance that’s so rivetting, you want to stand up and cheer for her because you can see why she’s truly one of a kind. But the real star of The Namesake, the actor who lends the film a quiet dignity, a silent grace, is Irrfan Khan. He plays Ashok Ganguli with an angelic gentleness that permeates through the film and stays on even when his character doesn’t.

I’m going to go with three out of five for Mira Nair’s The Namesake. It’s a deeply moving film about love and belonging, about parents and children, about why they clash and why they finally come together. It’s also about grief and loss and that’s something we can all relate to.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

March 9, 2007

Much water under the bridge

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 6:50 pm

March 09, 2007

Cast: John Abraham, Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, Sarala

Director: Deepa Mehta

Two weeks after the Oscars and a good one year after it was released in the West, Deepa Mehta’s Water arrives in India! It’s the third in her elements trilogy, the one Mehta was forced to film in Sri Lanka after Hindu fundamentalists destroyed her sets in Banaras seven years ago.

The film, as you probably know, is set in the thirties and focuses on a group of Hindu widows who’ve been condemned by law to spend the rest of their lives in an ashram on the banks of the Ganga, exiled from the outside world. The film’s plot unfolds from the perspective of eight-year-old Chuiya, played by Sri Lankan newcomer Sarala as an innocent but playful child who comes to live in the ashram after the death of her husband, a man she hardly recognises, a marriage she does not even remember.

Chuiya’s arrival at this widow home is really the catalyst for what happens next. Bolstered by this child’s free spirit and inspired by her boundless energy, some of the women living here begin to question their fidelity to a religion and a tradition that turns helpless widows into penniless outcasts.

What’s upsetting about Water is the fact that it reinforces every stereotype you can think of. It’s clearly a film that’s pandering to the West, serving up a romanticised, exoticised India – are you surprised it was nominated for an Oscar?

But in all fairness, it’s also a cinematic achievement, this film, particularly the luscious cinematography by Giles Nuttgens and the haunting score by A R Rahman. John Abraham as the staunch Gandhian who falls for a widow despite parental opposition delivers an adequate performance, as does Lisa Ray playing the rebellious widow who finds an escape from her shameful life in the form of love.

But the stars of the show are undeniably Sarala the little dynamo of talent, and Seema Biswas who underplays for the most part, but brings to life her role as a middle-aged widow who’s embraced the way of life that’s been selected for her. It is their scenes together that are film’s most engaging moments, the ones you remember long after you’ve left the cinema.

Mehta’s direction cannot be faulted, she understands her characters intricately. Even bit players like the mithai-lusting bua touches your heart because it’s a character written and directed so sensitively. Sadly, it’s the sluggish pace of the film that gets to you eventually. Scenes unfold so leisurely that you cannot be blamed for losing your interest before the end credits roll. All things considered, I’m still going to go with three out of five for Deepa Mehta’s Water. It’s got more depth than Fire but it’s still not a patch on1947: Earth which was a far more compelling story. Water is poetic and painstakingly beautiful but that’s also exactly what’s wrong with it.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Patriot games

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:46 pm

March 09, 2007

Cast: Manoj Bajpai, Deepak Dobriyal, Manav Kaul, Ravi Kissen

Director: Amrit Sagar

1971, directed by debutant Amrit Sagar, is a film centered on a group of six Indian prisoners of war (POW) who make a courageous and daring escape from a camp in Pakistan where they’ve been held for six years after the Indo-Pak war of 1971.

A well-intended film that’s held together by a solid screenplay by Piyush Mishra, the problem with 1971 is its amateurish direction. The film’s got its heart in the right place and that’s made abundantly clear 10 minutes into the story but for the longest time it’s impossible to figure out exactly what is going on because it’s so carelessly directed and so loosely edited.

The film’s first half, actually, is a test of your patience considering you’re expected to make sense of so many random scenes that have been slapped together arbitrarily without point or purpose. It’s about halfway through the picture that you begin to settle comfortably into your seat because that’s how long it takes to suck you into the plot.

When a group of six POWs figure out that Pakistan’s military is hiding them without the knowledge of the Red Cross or the Human Rights Commission, they decide to make a dash for it, encountering innumerable obstacles on their journey back to the other side of the LOC. Despite the outcome of their mission, in many ways 1971 is about the triumph of the human spirit, it’s about courage and determination, about brotherhood and unity. The point is driven home, but it’s a pity the director adopts a jingoistic approach to do his job.

Performing their scenes and delivering their dialogues with that heightened sense of drama, several actors give the impression there’s a cash prize for the most theatrical performance. If there was one, it would be divided between the two actors who play the sparring Pakistani military officers who give the term ‘hysterical’ a whole new meaning.

But in all fairness, there are three performances that stand out from among the crowd because they’re so inspired and applause-worthy. Manoj Bajpai playing Major Suraj Singh is in great form, he holds back mostly and in the process, constructs a character that says more with his eyes than with words. Delivering equally magnificent performances in this film are two newer actors, Omkara’s Deepak Dobriyal and relative unknown Manav Kaul who play Flight Lieutenants Gurtu and Ram respectively. Both infuse rare spontaneity and rawness into their characters which resonate in every scene that they’re in.

With a sharper eye looking over the film, 1971 could have turned out a gut-wrenching drama that questions our apathy towards a still-very-relevant issue. But because it only half-achieves the potential of a promising script, I’m going to give it two out of five for its noble intentions but its average achievement. For its last 30 minutes alone, 1971 may just be worth a watch after all.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Dead boring

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:43 pm

March 09, 2007

Cast: Aftab Shivdasani, Celina Jaitley, Amrita Arora

Director: Vikram Bhatt

Some films should never be made and Vikram Bhatt’s Red is exactly that kind of film. Disguised as a thriller, Red is the most predictable film you’ve possibly seen, even a four-year-old can correctly guess where it’s all leading up to. What’s worse, you can make that guess 10 minutes into the film.

The sorry excuse for a plot centres around Aftab Shivdasani who’s saved from imminent death by a heart transplant. The heart in question belonged to a man who just died in a car accident. This man happens to be Celina Jaitley’s husband and less than 10 minutes since he’s discharged from hospital Aftab starts stalking Celina. Before you know it, the two of them are chewing each others lips off and making out like a pair of rabbits. As the affair continues, Aftab learns from Celina that her husband had been having an affair with her best friend Amrita Arora, who’s responsible for her husband’s death. When Celina complains she’s being harrassed by the person who killed her husband on Amrita’s instructions, Aftab kills the guy to protect his lady. But it all becomes an ugly mess when the police discover enough clues that are traced back to Aftab.

It doesn’t take an expert to point out the root cause for why this film doesn’t work – it’s got a plot that’s as flimsy as Celina Jaitley’s nightgown. Believe me, I’ve read class five essays that are better written. What amazes me is the fact that nobody who worked on this film realised that something as basic as common sense was so badly missing in the script. As a result, every minute of this film is sheer torture to endure.

When you don’t have a story to tell, why make a film at all? That’s the question I’d like to ask the producer, the director and the writer of Red who have wasted both money and time in bringing this nonsense to screen.

Vikram Bhatt once made some half-way decent Hollywood rip-offs, remember Kasoor and Raaz? – they weren’t too bad. Red as far as I can see, is not a direct copy of a Hollywood film – which makes perfect sense because even Hollywood wouldn’t be so stupid to make such a rubbish film.

I must add here that throwing in a generous dollop of love-making can’t salvage a film as lame as this. So, all the heaving and sighing, all the grunting and moaning, all the bumping and grinding between Aftab and Celina, does nothing for Red.

Of the principal cast, it’s a miracle Amrita Arora manages to show what a lousy actress she is in barely five minutes of screentime. Celina Jaitley, for her part, has close to two hours to display her incompetence. Doused in make-up, even while doing a wet, shower scene, she simpers and whimpers and plays the damsel in distress so unconvincingly, you’re willing to pay her admission fee to a good acting class. By virtue of the fact that the other two perform so badly, Aftab Shivdasani comes off looking just marginally better, although this is hardly the kind of work to be proud of.

There are very few films that have no merits at all, usually you’ll like at least something in every film. But Red is a picture that’s devoid of any artistic credibility at all. And that’s why I’m left with no choice but to go with a zero out of five for Vikram Bhatt’s Red.

I still don’t know what’s the significance of the title. Did they call it Red because they anticipated the colour of anger that you’ll be consumed with after seeing the film? Or is it because Red rhymes with “dead” which is how you feel when you leave the cinema?

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

March 2, 2007

Lolita longings

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:55 pm

March 02, 2007

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Jiah Khan, Revathi, Aftab Shivdasani

Director: Ram Gopal Varma

In director Ram Gopal Varma’s Nishabd, newcomer Jiah Khan plays an 18-year-old temptress who initiates and entices her classmate’s 60-year-old father into a complex, inexplicable relationship while she’s staying with the family at their hill-station home one summer.

Amitabh Bachchan plays the man in question, who finds himself falling for this brash, spoilt teenager who’s showering him with the kind of attention he hasn’t experienced before.

Despite working off a script that borrows generously from the Drew Barrymore thriller Poison Ivy, Ram Gopal Varma makes it very clear he’s back in form as he sinks his teeth into what is perhaps his first all-out emotional, character drama. Varma casts a mood of gloominess, a sense of impending doom all over this film, which is reminiscent of the manner in which he’d treated Bhoot.

What I like about Nishabd is Varma’s conscious attempt to avoid clichés and stereotypes. The affair takes place not sneakily and surreptitiously, but right under the nose of Bachchan’s wife and daughter who are just too naïve to read all the signs. When the affair is finally discovered, there’s none of that typical filmi-style screaming and shouting, instead Varma treats the moment realistically using shock and silence to convey the sense of feeling betrayed.

Admirably, the director’s decided not to spoon-feed his audience by explaining every character’s every motivation. While it’s more or less clear why Jiah falls for Bachchan, you are yourself expected to interpret his reason for responding to her affections.

It could be the thrill of physical intimacy with a nubile, young girl. It could stem from a sense of responsibility he feels towards her. It could be a momentary lapse of judgement on his part, or then the result of suppressed apathy he feels towards his frumpy wife. I suspect it’s everything put together.

Because much of Nishabd is shot in real time — the entire second half to be specific — it does seem too long and too stretched out, especially since there isn’t very much happening. But don’t be fooled, that’s exactly the mood Varma’s going for. Remember, Nishabd is essentially about loneliness, and this leisurely pace that Varma creates for the film only contributes to that feeling of loneliness.

I suspect most people, women particularly are going to have a problem with the film’s ending. As much as I’d like to elaborate, I won’t because saying any more here will give away too much. I must confess I had a problem with the film’s ending myself, but for another reason completely — I feel it’s a cop-out! A compromise ending to a bold, brave story. I could have predicted the ending, and it’s no fun when that happens. How I wish Varma had pushed the envelope all the way and gone with a truly bold ending that us regular Hindi-film junkies would never have predicted and would have been totally surprised by!

For the most part, Nishabd is watchable because it’s held together by a truly awe-inspiring performance by Amitabh Bachchan. Unlike other clearly defined roles that are like a road map for actors while constructing their performance, his role in Nishabd is one that has no reference point. It’s a performance that Bachchan creates out of thin air, based on his own understanding of the character. Remember the toughest roles to play are the ones that are too simple, too normal. It’s not easy playing an Average Joe, but Bachchan does it marvelously. Watch him in the scene where he breaks into a laugh in the middle of the night, or watch him in that pre-intermission scene where Jiah confronts him with her feelings, or even that scene where he’s singing to himself much to his wife’s surprise — everything from his expressions, his dialogue delivery, even the movement of his eyes! It’s difficult to imagine any other actor doing justice to a part so simple and therefore so difficult to play.

His co-star Jiah Khan is perfectly cast as the troubled girl who’s very aware of her effect on this man. Wearing her sexuality on her sleeve, Jiah sashays in and out of scenes, showing so much thigh, you feel like you’re in a mutton shop. Also is it just me or did you also notice that Jiah seems to be suffering from a Sharon Stone complex, she’s constantly uncrossing her legs — when she’s standing, when she’s sitting, when she’s lying around on the floor — everywhere. I don’t think there’s a single scene in the film where she’s got her legs together.

All said and considered, Nishabd is bold even though it doesn’t overstep the invisible moral line. It is, nonetheless, an experiment on Varma’s part because it’s unconventional in every sense — the narrative isn’t linear, the pace is leisurely and the plot itself is brave.

For these reasons I suspect there will be many who will not embrace it. Which is fine. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll go with three out of five for Ram Gopal Varma’s Nishabd. It makes you uncomfortable and shifty and even restless at times. It’s everything that makes for a good character study. Give it a shot.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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