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

March 27, 2009

Snake charmer

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 5:37 pm

March 27, 2009

Cast: Preity Zinta, Vansh Bhardwaj, Balinder Johal

Director: Deepa Mehta

It’s difficult to describe just how good Preity Zinta is in her role as a battered young bride in director Deepa Mehta’s Videsh. So good in fact, you’re almost willing to overlook the film’s lapses.

Zinta stars as Chand, a cheery Punjabi girl who travels from her home in India to Toronto for an arranged marriage. Met at the airport by her husband-to-be and his family, she’s driven through the wintry expanse of stone-cold grey and welcomed into the matchbox-sized home he shares with his parents, his sister, his brother-in-law and their two kids.

More than likely coerced into this marriage by his domineering mother, Rocky (played by Vansh Bhardwaj) has little affection or sympathy for his new bride, and lets his fists do the talking when Chand stands up against her mother-in-law’s manipulative ways. Thus begins a cycle of unhampered abuse, met with an embarrassed silence from the rest of the family, until Chand herself finds solace in hopeful hallucination which ultimately gives her the strength to make a change.

A layered drama that touches upon a handful of relevant issues including the reality of the NRI dream, the politics of physical abuse, and the power of the imagination, Videsh is ultimately the story of a woman’s struggle for her identity and self-confidence in the face of domestic violence. Yet, director Deepa Mehta suggests everyone’s a victim here, including Chand’s tormentor Rocky, an immigrant living the hard life, the only significant earning member in a household bursting at the seams.

Videsh is engaging for the most part, till it interweaves folklore into this modern-day immigrant story. Inspired by Girish Karnad’s celebrated play, Naagmandala, Mehta throws in an element of magic realism for Chand to hold on to. A cobra shows up in the backyard, and takes human shape in Chand’s hallucinations, assuming an affectionate and loving form of her husband Rocky. This track is wobbly, and appears contrived too; it’s here that Videsh loses some of its steam.

The irregular and inexplicable shifts to grainy black-and-white seem to serve little purpose, and Chand’s constant muttering to herself is a tad overdone. But if you’re willing to overlook these faults and immerse yourself in the kitchen-sink drama, you’ll find it’s a satisfying watch.

Of the cast, Vansh Bhardwaj playing Rocky has a simmering intensity, and Balinder Johal is just perfect as his insecure mother who competes for Rocky’s attention, turning him against his wife. But Videsh belongs to Preity Zinta who delivers a career-best performance as Chand, using her eyes alone to convey shock and horror, bringing depth to a character that could so easily become a stereotype.

A thought-provoking film unquestionably, Videsh is slow in parts and indulgent too. You could argue also that like Water, Mehta’s last film, this one too serves up an image of India and the immigrant lifestyle that the West is happy to lap up.

Two out of five for director Deepa Mehta’s Videsh. It’s hardly perfect, but watch it nevertheless for Preity Zinta’s earnest performance; that is unquestionably this film’s biggest strength.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Picture imperfect

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 5:30 pm

March 27, 2009

Cast: Neil Nitin Mukesh, Bipasha Basu

Director: Jehangir Surti

In Aa Dekhen Zara, Neil Nitin Mukesh plays a photographer whose deceased grandpa leaves him a camera that can take photographs of future events. At least someone associated with this film should have had the good sense to use this camera to foresee how this film was shaping up. Had they done that, they might have saved this movie from turning into the complete train-wreck that it is!

Like pretty much anyone in his place would have done, Neil uses the camera to make a killing at lotteries, the races and the stock exchange. His girlfriend’s role is played by Bipasha Basu wearing a permanent scowl – perhaps she did use the camera to determine the film’s fate after all. Anyway, when everyone from a dishonest cop to a greedy thug discovers the secret of the camera and wants to get a hold of it, Neil and Bipasha must flee the scene, landing up in Bangkok where they find the time to break into an item song at a Thai watering hole in between dodging bullets from their nemeses. The catch in this situation is thus – they may outrun their pursuers but can they overcome the fate that the camera has predicted for them?

Loosely scripted and full of inconsistencies, Aa Dekhen Zara may have an interesting premise as its starting point, but the film’s writers fail to flesh out a foolproof screenplay, and don’t even stay true to the film’s own absurd logic. At the start we’re told the camera only takes pictures 24 hours into the future, then suddenly it’s taking photographs of events five days away! A photo warns Neil he will be stalked by his enemy on a flight, and yet a day later when that actually happens, Neil seems entirely unprepared. By the way these are just two instances that come immediately to mind.

Just when you thought the film couldn’t get any worse, Sophie Chaudhary shows up with too much pancake, a plunging neckline and dialogues that could have only been written by a fourth-grader. Turns out she isn’t who she’s meant to be, and when you learn who she really is, you realize the writers have pretty much exhausted all their ideas.

For a thriller, Aa Dekhen Zara is awfully snail-paced, and every moment in that dark-room waiting for photographs to develop feels like real time. Neil Nitin Mukesh is stiff for the most part and fails to leave much of an impression. Bipasha Basu, saddled with a thankless role, can’t do much to help either.

First-time director Jehangir Surti fails to inject that edge-of-the-seat excitement into this thriller, making it a long, tedious affair. I’ll go with one out of five for Aa Dekhen Zara; believe me the future has never looked so bleak.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

March 20, 2009

A slice of harsh reality

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:08 pm

March 20, 2009

Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, Paresh Rawal, Sanjay Suri, Tisca Chopra, Shahana Goswami

Director: Nandita Das

From its very opening scene of a truck dumping dozens of corpses at a graveyard site for mass burial,Nandita Das makes it clear that her directorial debut, Firaaq is not going to be an easy watch. A fictionalised account of true stories set one month after the horrific communal riots of Gujarat in 2002,Firaaq focuses on a handful of ordinary characters whose lives are changed irreparably by the riots.

There’s an affluent mixed-religion couple (played by Tisca Chopra and Sanjay Suri) who prepares to shift to Delhi because the Muslim husband is afraid of what might happen next. An auto-rickshaw driver whose house is burned down, and his wife (played by Shahana Goswami) who suspects her Hindu friend’s husband did it. An optimistic elderly Muslim musician (played by Naseeruddin Shah) who ultimately resigns himself to the fact that no music can hope to calm this rage. A passive, abused wife of a bigoted Hindu (played by Deepti Naval) who is haunted by guilt for not opening her door to save a woman running from the mob. And a little Muslim boy in search of his father, unaware that he’s been orphaned in the carnage.

These stories interconnect occasionally in a manner that makes it clear that victims, perpetrators and silent observes are all connected somehow. Director Nandita Das steers away from political overtones, choosing instead to tell a dramatic story about everyday people and the repercussions of violence. Interestingly, you don’t actually see any incidents of violence in Firaaq, but its aftermath can be felt throughout the film, in the fear, anguish, loss and anger felt by those left in its wake.

Firaaq is an important film because Das never shies away from showing the ugly side of her characters. I’m reminded of a disturbing scene in the film in which Paresh Rawal’s character gleefully asks his younger brother if he enjoyed a gangrape he’d participated in. Barely moments later, his brother turns to watch a TV news report in which a Muslim woman is seen complaining that they were robbed of their dignity during the riots, to which he spitefully comments that they had little dignity to begin with.

It’s scenes like these that deliver the full impact of this powerful film, and Das assembles an ensemble of some of the finest actors who bring her characters to life.

If there’s a problem with Firaaq, it’s the fact that despite her best intentions, Das fails to bridge the gap between the audience and her characters. It’s unquestionably sad what happens to these people, you know their lives have changed forever, yet there’s a certain unexplained distance that never lets you “feel” the pain yourself.

Remember, the most compelling films are the ones that transport you to the centre of the drama, and make you a participant in the action. Firaaq is a noble film, an admirable debut, but you don’t feel the pain.

There is also the issue of the affected English dialogues in the Sanjay Suri-Tisca Chopra track, and the somewhat meandering nature of the Naseeruddin Shah track.

Overlook these faults, however, and make it a point to watch Firaaq. It’s an unsettling film, one that throws up difficult questions and demands urgent responses. I’m going with three out of five for Nandita Das’ Firaaq; perfect it isn’t, but significantly better than anything else you’re likely to have watched recently.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Small time crooks

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 5:51 pm

March 20, 2009

Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Vijay Raaz, Arjun Mathur, Tannistha Chatterjee

Director: Raja Menon

In Barah Aana, a slice-of-life drama of three friends in blue-collar jobs, Vijay Raaz plays a building watchman who accidentally stumbles into a crime, and then finds a clever way to profit from it. Frustrated over the futility of his empty existence and seduced by the lure of easy money, he decides to carry out such sinister operations more frequently, and convinces his friends – a driver (played by Naseeruddin Shah) and a restaurant waiter (played by Arjun Mathur) – to partner with him.

A sharp character study of people and the choices they make under challenging circumstances, Barah Aana directed by Raja Menon, spends its first half hour or so establishing each of its characters, introducing us to their worlds, and showing us what drives and motivates them.

Grounding them in the reality of their lower-class surroundings, a Mumbai slum, the film’s director succeeds in creating flesh-and-blood characters out of each of his three leads. The security guard stuck in a dead-end job who can’t raise a few thousands for medical treatment of his ailing child. The driver, a victim of everyday verbal abuse from his employer’s impatient, intolerant wife. And the broke young waiter, swayed by the attention of a polite customer.

It’s easy to empathise with these characters because their concerns are real, and because the actors in these roles deliver credible, engaging performances. But from this point on, the film falls into a slump of sorts, moving at an agonising pace as drama and action make way for lengthy talkie scenes that never seem to end. Vijay Raaz pontificates on their two-penny existence, and it’s difficult to hold back your yawns during his incessant jabber-jabber-jabber.

Baraah Aana starts off as a charming tale of ordinary characters changed by extraordinary circumstances, but it loses direction mid-way. In the end, it’s a promising film that delivers only part of what it promises. Which is a shame because it could have easily been so much more.

Watch it anyway for the exemplary performances of its leads. Vijay Raaz sinks his teeth into a role that finally does justice to his immense talent, and Naseeruddin Shah is pitch-perfect as the silently suffering chauffeur. But it’s Arjun Mathur who leaves a lasting impression as the street-smart fellow blinded by his infatuation for a white customer.

Mathur, who you might remember from his role in Luck By Chance, has an endearing presence and manages to hold his own against seasoned performers – this boy deserves starring roles! A mention here also of Tannistha Chatterjee who grabs your attention as the phone-booth operator who has eyes for Arjun’s character.

I’m going with two out of five and an average rating for director Raja Menon’s Barah Aana; it’s a film with many merits, but alas it fails to hold it all together. One hour and thirty five minutes have never felt longer.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Dazed and confused

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 5:44 pm

March 20, 2009

Cast: Vinay Pathak, Gul Panag, Anuj Choudhary

Director: Parvati Balagopalan

Straight, directed by Parvati Balagopalan, is a confused film. More confused in fact than its protagonist Pinu Patel, a thirty-something virgin who can’t tell if he’s gay or straight.

Vinay Pathak plays Pinu, a restaurant owner in London who isn’t having much luck in the arranged marriage market. When a male friend of his lands an excited kiss on him after winning a lottery, Pinu begins to wonder if he might be gay after all.

In Vinay Pathak , Hindi cinema has found a brave uninhibited actor who isn’t afraid of playing tricky parts. In Straight, Vinay goes where few leading men have gone before – he plays a sexually confused man who thinks he might be gay because he has an erotic fantasy about a male friend; he also can’t ‘rise to the occasion’ when he’s in the company of at least two very willing women. I can’t imagine any Bollywood star accepting such a role. Which is why Vinay Pathak  is something of an endangered species. Which is why he deserves good films to showcase his smarts.

Straight, by the way, is not a very good film.

There is a germ of an interesting idea there, but the script fails to exploit it effectively, and the director clearly lacks the skills required to turn that idea into an engaging film.

The gay angle, for example, is abandoned prematurely without tying up loose ends, and the film swiftly moves into broad comedy mode and subsequently into predictable romance.

As it stands, Straight is not an unwatchable movie. But what could have been a fearless, edgy film, is ultimately only a half-decent enterprise because it shies away from taking a stand, and cops out with an all-to-safe ending.

Gul Panag is endearing as Pinu Patel’s accountant Renu, even though she has little enough to work with; and newcomer Anuj Choudhary who plays the new cook at Pinu’s restaurant has an easy presence. But it’s Vinay Pathak who’s easily the best thing about this film, often rising above the problems in the script and never turning his character into a stereotype.

Despite the occasionally pretentious dialogue and the low brow comedy, Straight does have a few enjoyable moments. If that’s enough for you, then perhaps you’ll give this film a chance. I’ll go with an average rating at best, and two out of five for director Parvati Balagopalan’s Straight. It’s an opportunity lost. A confused film with no clear end in sight.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

March 13, 2009

Shrewd politicking

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:22 pm

March 13, 2009

Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Mahi Gill, Raja Singh Chaudhary, Abhimanyu Singh, Piyush Mishra

Director: Anurag Kashyap

Gulaal, directed by Anurag Kashyap is an endlessly fascinating movie about politics and the youth, about love and betrayal, about reform and revenge. It’s a film with many layers, and one with solid drama at its core, which makes it such an engaging watch. Kashyap knows the world he’s showing us in this film and takes us through it with an assuredness that I found missing in his last picture, Dev D.

He serves up a palette of diverse characters and flirts with interesting issues like campus ragging, student activism, caste biases and the thirst for legitimacy. Set in Rajasthan, Gulaal‘s central premise involves the efforts of the erstwhile royal community to claim back their Rajputana province from the democratic government.

The film follows meek law student Dileep Singh (played by newcomer Raja Singh Chaudhary) who arrives on campus to pursue graduation and falls into the company of an older student and royal sprog Rananjay Singh (played by Abhimanyu Singh) which changes the course of his life completely. When the local kingpin Dukey Bana (played by Kay Kay Menon) convinces Rananjay to contest college elections on behalf of his Rajputana party, little does our protagonist Dileep realize he too will get sucked into a world of corrupt politics and crime.

Without going into too many details, let’s just say Dileep ends up standing for and winning the college elections in place of his friend and roommate Rananjay, and discovers subsequently he’s just a pawn in Dukey Bana’s larger plans.

There is also the matter of a girl; in this case the ambitious, illegitimate daughter of a royal who loses the campus election to Dileep, but finds another more deceitful way to realize her ambitions. Much of the charm of Gulaal lies in its setting; Rajasthan’s varied landscape – a clash between tradition and modernity, becomes as intriguing a character as any, and Kashyap shoots this terrain realistically, rough around the edges even, sucking us into his dark, brooding drama from the word go. Rich with characters and sub-plots, Kashyap opts for a straightforward narration, making this film his most accessible since “Black Friday”.

Gulaal is remarkable also for the brave manner in which it mirrors the dangerous political scenario in Mumbai by using the Dukey Bana character played by Kay Kay Menon as a metaphor for fundamentalist leader Raj Thackeray and his MNS party. The masterstroke in Gulaal however, is its music. Piyush Mishra, as the eccentric poet Prithvi Bana – an outsider in this violent world – delivers evocative numbers that are hard to get out of your head for the sheer honesty and brutality of their lyrics.

By way of indulgences, there is the unexplained character of the Ardh Narishwar, and also the film’s sluggish pace. At two-and-a-half long hours, Gulaal is loose and meanders in places which is a pity because it has the potential to be a taut thriller. Nevertheless it’s eminently watchable for its characters and the actors who play them. Of the ensemble, it’s Kay Kay Menon as Dukey Bana and particularly Abhimanyu Singh as Rananjay who stand out with powerful performances that remain etched in your memory. I was a little unconvinced by Raja Singh Chaudhary’s performance as Dileep, who plays his part adequately but fails to internalise the catharsis he goes through in order to reach upto the film’s horrific end. Similarly underdeveloped was Jesse Randhawa’s track as the young teacher whose life changes permanently after a shocking incident of ragging.

These are, however, mere nitpickings in a competent, compelling film that is in equal parts humorous and courageous. Unlike No Smoking and even Dev D to an extent which alienated some audiences because of their indulgent storytelling style, this one is not a difficult watch.

I’m going with three out five and a thumbs up for director Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal; it’s provocative yet poignant, and that rare kind of film that transports you bang in the middle of its action. Watch it to understand why Anurag Kashyap is one of the most exciting voices in Hindi cinema today.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

The Parsi connection

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:13 pm

March 13, 2009

Cast: Boman Irani, Imaad Shah, Jehan Batiwala, Sohrab Ardeshir

Director: Sooni Taraporevala

A light-hearted comedy that looks inwards at the Parsi community in Mumbai, Little Zizou – written and directed by Sooni Taraporevala – is for audiences with broad tastes. The director’s own son Jehan Batiwala playes Xerxes, a 10-year-old football fanatic who dreams that his dead mother will bring Zenedine Zidane to Mumbai. His brother Art (played by Imaad Shah) is a cartoon-sketching teenager who spends his days trying to construct a flight simulator with his friends. Both boys share a strained relationship with their father Cyrus Khodaji II (played by Sohrab Ardeshir), a self-proclaimed protector of the Parsi faith, whose hunger for power earns him brickbats in the free thinking community newspaper run by liberal-leaning editor-publisher Boman Pressvala (played by Boman Irani).

Using the clash between Khodaji and Pressvala, the film addresses the issue of religious fundamentalism, and writer-director Taraporevala makes gentle jabs at the intolerant attitude of conservative Parsis unwilling to accept outsiders into their faith.

The film also focuses on the Khodaji boys, who enjoy hanging out at Pressvala’s house. Art, you see, burns with unrequited love for Pressvala’s older daughter, while Xerxes incurs the wrath of the younger daughter who resents the attention her family showers on the motherless kid.

Little Zizou is filled with warm little moments that are born out of the director’s sharp understanding of the Parsi community, and her ability to bring their quirks and charms to the screen. But it’s also true that much of the film drags on indulgently, with little regard for the viewer’s attention. Too much time is spent on the track involving the flight simulator, although the very point it’s meant to make – about following one’s dream – is an important one. Similarly, there is the matter of the Russian invasion, which takes a while to fully understand. Even the Khodaji vs Pressvala conflict which is really intended as the heart of the film, because of what it stands for, is cinematically limp because Sohrab Ardeshir’s Khodaji character is too much of a caricature to take seriously.

Of the cast, it’s Boman Irani as the affable, tango-loving Pressvala who delivers the film’s most credible performance. Also engaging are the little ones who turn in inspired, honest performances that are completely lacking in any pretence.

Little Zizou is not a bad film, but alas it does get boring. If there were points for intentions, this film would score big. But because in the end it’s about the experience, I must admit it is at best an average film. So two out of five for Sooni Taraporevala’s Little Zizou; it’s a respectable first film, and one that captures the lazy charm of Mumbai’s Parsi community. In terms of drama, however, it falls very short.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Naseeruddin Shah on Bollywood awards, and losing ‘Gandhi’

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 5:45 pm

In this interview, Naseeruddin Shah discusses the redundancy of Bollywood awards, and reveals how he almost landed – and subsequently lost – the title role in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

March 6, 2009

Bad karma

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:26 pm

March 06, 2009

Cast: Sushmita Sen, Randeep Hooda, Suchitra Krishnamoorthy, Suresh Oberoi, Rati Agnihotri, Deepal Shaw, Naomi Campbell

Director: Manish Gupta

Karma Aur Holi is a film devoid of any artistic merit. It’s a bad film in every sense of the word, and it’s bad in so many ways, it’s difficult to even explain.

Directed in English by Manish Gupta, Karma Aur Holi stars Sushmita Sen and Randeep Hooda as an NRI couple who invite a bunch of their friends to celebrate Holi at their sprawling home in suburban New York. The premise itself is unoriginal and boring – take a bunch of varied characters, throw them into a room, and pretty soon the masks come off and their secrets come tumbling out.

There’s a chance this film might have been half-interesting if the characters weren’t such stereotypes. An over-protective mother, a push-over wife, a horny teenager – you name it, you’ll find them in the film.

To make matters worse, the acting is so poor, you’re convinced the cast was made to work at half-price. Featuring a mixed bag ensemble including Rati Agnihotri, Suresh Oberoi, Suchitra Krishnamoorthy, Naomi Campbell, Deepal Shaw and a smattering of white and black unknowns, Karma Aur Holi earns the dubious distinction of ‘Worst Performance Ever By An Ensemble Cast’.

Their accents are all over the place, the dialogue is unintentionally hilarious, and not one single actor in this lot seems convinced by his role. With its amateurish attempts to address racism and cultural stereotyping, the film comes off looking pretentious and misguided too.

There are some films that are so bad, they’re actually great fun. Karma Aur Holi is exactly that kind of film. Take a big group of friends and head to the multiplex, a good laugh is guaranteed.

One out of five for director Manish Gupta’s Karma Aur Holi. It’s an unholy mess and I’m amazed Sushmita and the other actors didn’t have the good sense to chuck this script into the bin.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

House of horrors

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 1:13 am

March 06, 2009

Cast: R Madhavan, Neetu Chandra, Poonam Dhillon

Director: Vikram Kumar

The ominously titled supernatural film 13B has a smart premise involving a joint family of eight moving into a plush new apartment where strange, inexplicable things begin to happen to its residents, pretty much duplicating the events and dramatics of a new television soap that the ladies of this house are addicted to. So if a character on the show is involved in a mishap, you can be sure a similar accident will occur with a family member at home.

Oddly enough, only one member of the family – the character played by R Madhavan – seems to notice this striking coincidence even though it’s staring them all in the face. When these incidents become more and more fatal, Madhavan enlists the help of his police officer buddy and immerses himself into finding the truth.

Right away 13B sucks you into its drama because it’s set in an urban, middle-class neighborhood, and is treated like the kind of tragedy that could happen to just about anyone. Unlike your typical Bollywood horror film, there are no abandoned mansions here, none of that tantric mumbo-jumbo we’ve come to associate with paranormal stories.

Cleverly, director Vikram Kumar uses everyday appliances like mobile phones and television sets and even the automatic elevator as tools to spook you. And yet, although it’s appropriately chilling in its early set-up scenes, 13B doesn’t deliver more than a few good scares. The film trudges on and on lethargically for as long as two-hours-and-thirty-minutes, fracturing the narrative with unnecessary songs and even some pointless melodrama in its second half.

What could have been a nerve-racking suspense turns out to be a predictable thriller ultimately.

Of course, what separates a good thriller film from an ordinary one is sharp writing. When you’ve finished watching a thriller and you go over it in your mind retracing every step with the suspense now revealed, you should be able to see how cleverly the surprise ending was withheld from the audience. Try The Sixth Sense, for example.

13B, however, is the kind of convenient thriller where you do get a twist ending, but the kind in which anything goes. The logic behind the twist and the back-story to the supernatural premise is so convoluted, it’s hardly clever.

PC Sreeram’s photography lends an eerie chill, and he does it without resorting to the excess use of darkness. There’s also some credible acting from Madhavan and Neetu Chandra who plays his unsuspecting wife.

Still, the film is at best an average thriller, not least because it leaves a dozen questions unanswered and the viewer overcome with fatigue. Two out of five for director Vikram Kumar’s 13B. Sadly it tires you more than it scares you; it’s hardly what I’d call a must-watch.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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