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

January 25, 2017

Gangsta rap

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:33 pm

January 25, 2017

Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mahira Khan, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub, Atul Kulkarni, Narendra Jha

Director: Rahul Dholakia

Raees, directed by Rahul Dholakia and starring Shah Rukh Khan, is the fascinating story of the rise and rise of a smalltime bootlegger into one of Gujarat’s most notorious liquor barons and also, ironically, into a revered Robin Hood-like figure. If you’ve ever wondered what the love child of a staunchly realistic filmmaker and Bollywood’s most unabashedly populist star might resemble, you’re looking at it.

Dholakia, who wrote and directed the deeply affecting film Parzania, about a Parsi family caught in the midst of the Godhra riots of 2002, brings a thorough understanding of the times and the landscape the film is set in. Shah Rukh, meanwhile, who is also a co-producer on this project, seems clear about the tone he wants to take. The result is a mostly compelling drama that is fast paced, despite feeling over-plotted and bloated at times.

We’re first introduced to our protagonist, Raees, as a young boy in Fatehpura in the 1970s. He is poor but industrious, and works as a runner to a local bootlegger. The signs are all there. He has a short temper, he holds on to grudges, and resents being referred to as ‘Battery’ although he wears oversized spectacles. By the time he’s older and has had some practice on the field smuggling alcohol in and out of the Prohibition state, he branches out to set up his own business, emboldened by his mother’s teaching that “no job is too small” and reassured by a mentor that he’s got a “baniye ka dimaag aur Miya bhai ki daring”.

The film’s first half is riveting stuff as we watch our anti-hero expand his enterprise on the strength of his quick thinking and sheer ruthlessness. It is precisely these qualities that make him such a magnetic figure, but post interval it feels as if the writers decided to trade his grey shades and blunt his edges to make him more likeable. By now Raees has become a messiah for his people, the mobster with a heart of gold, a staunchly secular humanist. The plot too slips into repetition and predictability, and characters like the corrupt chief minister and other venal politicians come off as caricatures.

It is the presence of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as Majmudar, an incorruptible police officer obsessed with taking Raees down, and the thrilling interplay between both men that keeps you invested despite these bumps. Exploiting his relationship with powerful political figures, Raees routinely thwarts Majmudar’s plans, but the cop remains steadfast in his resolve. The scenes between both actors, featuring some terrific clap-trap repartee, are easily the best bits in the film. Nawazuddin, who appears to be having a blast, cast against type and allowed to really sink his teeth into the part, once again reveals his gift for vastly improving a film by merely being in it.

The other supporting cast doesn’t have it as good. Mahira Khan is confident as Raees’ love interest, but it’s not a role that requires any heavy lifting. Meanwhile, a consistently reliable Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub suffers on account of an underwritten role, reduced to a sidekick in the part of Raees’ loyal friend.

The film, expectedly, is powered by the star wattage of Shah Rukh Khan himself, as most of his films usually are. From his introduction scene, lacerating his back during a Moharram gathering, to a Scarface-like shootout, all guns blazing, to his many moments simmering with rage, Shah Rukh commands your attention. In more pensive moments, and a quiet breakdown scene, he reveals the actor behind the star.

Evidently inspired by the true-life story of Abdul Latif, the illegal liquor kingpin of Gujarat who was charged for his involvement in the 1993 blasts, Raees shrewdly steers clear of naming names and only hints at true events. Still, it’s a well-made film that benefits from Dholakia’s keen eye for period and atmospheric detail. Although crammed with too much plot, and overlong on account of a screenplay that could’ve done with further tightening, the film nevertheless offers enough to enjoy.

As a throwback to those thrilling gangster films from the 70s, many starring Amitabh Bachchan and scripted by Salim-Javed, Raees delivers ample bang for your buck. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:32 pm

January 25, 2017

Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Yami Gautam, Rohit Roy, Ronit Roy, Girish Kulkarni, Narendra Jha, Suresh Menon

Director: Sanjay Gupta

How do you not root for Hrithik Roshan in director Sanjay Gupta’s Kaabil? He plays a visually impaired young man who systematically plots revenge on those who brutally violated his blind wife. It’s an author-backed role for the actor, and he puts in a committed performance. But the film is weighed down by its many contrivances.

Chief among those is the glaring dichotomy at its core. Gupta gives us protagonists that refuse to be pitied because of their disability. They have jobs, they’re independent, and they’re seeking companionship and happiness. They may be blind, but they aren’t becharas. It’s a refreshing upgrade from the old cliché where handicapped was usually shorthand for helpless in the movies. But then the script places these characters in a landscape straight out of 80s Bollywood; one that’s dominated by smutty eve-teasers, nostril-flaring, teeth-gnashing political baddies, and corrupt cops who’re on the payroll of the villain. This is the kind of film that plays out at deserted warehouses and under-construction building sites, and whose characters don’t deliver dialogues but punchlines. It’s all so outdated, you can’t help but groan.

The plot sees Hrithik’s character Rohan Bhatnagar and Supriya (Yami Gautam) fall in love and tie the knot shortly after they are set up on a date. The script doesn’t bother with any back-story for how they became blind, or why neither has any family in their lives. But I’m nitpicking.

If you’ve watched the film’s trailer, you know what happens next. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that a barbaric incident shatters the happy life the couple has made together, and Rohan sets out to deliver payback to the perpetrators, namely the neighborhood bad apple (Rohit Roy) and his corporator brother (Ronit Roy), who are protected by a pair of thuggish cops (Girish Kulkarni and Narendra Jha).

There are some smart surprises in the manner that Gupta executes Rohan’s elaborate revenge plan and shrewd twists built around seemingly innocuous clues. But the novelty wears off when the same tricks are employed over and over again. Plus the film is ridden with plot holes the size of craters.

Some of these might have been easy to overlook if the film had anything new to offer. But Kaabil is a B-movie from the 80s with neither subtext nor nuance. Yami Gautam has a nice presence, but Ronit and Rohit Roy are characters plucked straight out of the Handbook of Bollywood Cliches. The film then is redeemed – to some degree – by the sincerity and the conviction of its leading man. Hrithik makes you care, and keeps you invested in his pain. Even when the film becomes increasingly violent and practically implausible, his commitment doesn’t waver.

He is the sole reason Kaabil doesn’t completely derail, and frankly the only reason to give the film a chance. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)


January 13, 2017

Flat out!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:33 pm

January 13, 2017

Cast: Aditya Roy Kapur, Shraddha Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah, Leela Samson, Kitu Gidwani

Director: Shaad Ali

What are the chances that Ok Jaanu is a strictly okay film; nothing more, nothing less? Well pretty strong I’d say, considering that director Shaad Ali doesn’t bring much freshness to the cutesy but clichéd love story Ok Kanmani that Mani Ratnam wrote and directed two years ago.

It’s also a theme that was explored just last month in Befikre, in which a young couple decides to live in without making any commitments to each other. Expectedly, before you can stifle that yawn, the two have fallen in love. Ok Jaanu is the sort of film where the audience knows better than the clueless leads that this will end with a golden sherwani, a red lehenga, and those saat pheras, but we have to wait it out until the couple finds their way there.

The love-struck duo here is Adi (Aditya Roy Kapur) and Tara (Shraddha Kapoor), both newbies in Mumbai. An architect, she wants to go to Paris to further her career, while he, a videogame developer, is headed to Silicon Valley. The two want to make their limited time together count – so no fighting, no possessiveness, no commitments; just a relationship with “less drama”.

Unfortunately this also means barely any drama in the plot, a conflict that never feels urgent enough, and way too many montages of Adi and Tara goofing around on the streets and at nightclubs, set to A R Rahman’s refreshing tunes.

The more interesting love story here is that of their landlord Gopi Srivastava (a terrific Naseeruddin Shah), a retired judge devoted to his wife Charu (Leela Samson), a Carnatic singer who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. This couple grounds the flighty younger ones, so they finally get the deeper meaning of love.

The crackling chemistry that Aditya Roy Kapur and Shraddha Kapoor shared in their last outing Aashiqui 2 is still there, and Aditya in particular plays it charming and lighthearted as the carefree Adi. But Shaad Ali drags the film on for too long – there’s not a lot to be said here, and very little that’s compelling.

I’m going with two out of five for Ok Jaanu – it’s a bit like flat soda. Palatable, but lacking any fizz.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Sad state of affair

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:00 pm

January 13, 2017

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Shweta Tripathi, Mohammad Samad, Irrfan Khan, Trimala Adhikari

Director: Shlok Sharma

If you had even the tiniest doubt or uncertainty about Nawazauddin Siddiqui’s place in the pantheon of great Indian actors, you only have to watch him in Haraamkhor. He plays a selfish, manipulative teacher who begins a relationship with an underage female student, and it’s a performance steeped in subtlety and complexity.

The film is set in a North Indian village where Siddiqui’s character, a married schoolteacher named Shyam, tutors young boys and girls in his tiny home. Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi), a motherless girl whose police officer father is mostly drunk or too disconnected to notice, develops a crush on Shyam.

She’s not the only one with love on her mind though. Kamal (Irrfan Khan), a scraggly fellow three years her junior, is infatuated with Sandhya. But having broken both his arms, he must rely on his best friend Mintu (Mohammad Samad) for help in trying to win her heart. Their efforts towards this end involve all manner of harebrained plotting, including a plan to trick Sandhya into seeing Kamal naked after he’s spied on her in the shower.

Director Shlok Sharma creates a vivid portrait of life in small-town India. He has both an eye and an ear for detail, giving us characters that look and talk like real people in these parts. There are fathers who’re hiding secrets, and wives nursing suspicion. But the film is ultimately an examination of adolescents and their understanding of romantic and sexual relationships. Kamal and Mintu are the only ones in the village who’ve caught on to the affair between Shyam and Sandhya, and we witness much of it through their immature eyes.

Although perceptive and surprisingly humorous despite the sordid relationship at its center, too often Haraamkhor feels disjointed and choppy. There are blanks you’ll need to fill in yourself, and questions that remain unanswered. At times you will wish there was more depth to the writing.

These hiccups notwithstanding, the film benefits enormously from the convincing performances at its heart. Shweta Tripathi is in good form as the confused, ignored young teenager who can’t help making all the wrong choices, and young ‘uns Irrfan Khan and particularly Mohammed Samad provide non-stop laughs as Kamal and Mintu respectively. But it’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui whose brilliant, mostly understated portrayal of a violent predator is the film’s biggest strength. A scene in which he’s begging his wife not to leave him while trying to put on his trousers at the same time is one of the film’s best bits and a testament to his incredible talent.

I’m going three out of five for Haraamkhor. It’s a compelling story and for the most part it’s well told.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Fight lite

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:48 pm

January 13, 2016

Cast: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Tony Jaa, Ruby Rose, Michael Bisping, Toni Colette, Samuel L Jackson

Director: DJ Caruso

Deepika Padukone’s instinct for picking the right films has served her well lately, and there’s a good chance that’ll extend to her first Hollywood film too, namely xXx: Return of Xander Cage.

Frankly the film isn’t great, or even particularly memorable. But it’s a terrific showcase for Deepika’s captivating presence, her agility in demanding action scenes, and above all, her blazing confidence. What about her performance, you ask? Well, to be fair, she could pull this off with her eyes closed.

Which is why it’s heartening to note that she doesn’t. From the bumper sticker dialogue to the stray moments of emotion, Deepika approaches the job with schoolgirl sincerity and a seriousness that you don’t usually find in this kind of film.

Mercifully you needn’t remember what happened in the last two xXx outings to follow the plot of this one. Vin Diesel returns in the role of Xander Cage, extreme sports enthusiast-turned-government operative who was presumed dead in an earlier mission but is conveniently discovered to be alive and promptly recruited by a CIA big-shot (Toni Colette) to recover a coveted weapon of mass destruction that’s been stolen by a gang of highly skilled troublemakers. Deepika plays Serena, a member of that fearless gang, who tangles with Xander.

It’s a simplistic plot, and one that shrewdly allows for a diverse cast, presumably so the film can appeal to a global audience. But only a few – particularly Chinese actor Donnie Yen, and Deepika – are rewarded with anything resembling a real character. The rest are all reduced to stereotypes: Thai action star Tony Jaa is the Asian comic, Australian actress Ruby Rose the tough chick, Bulgaria-born Nina Dobrev the pretty nerd.

Curiously, the film recycles many of the same themes from Diesel’s more popular Fast and Furious franchise: a distrust of authority figures, the murky motives of government agencies, and the idea that one’s team is one’s family. But the parallels don’t end there. Like those films, the plot of xXx 3 takes the characters on a globe-hopping tour, plus there’s an endless buffet of next-to-naked women permanently throwing themselves at Diesel, and hey, even some of the stunts look familiar – chief among those, a daring freefall from an airplane.

Hardcore action fans are unlikely to complain however. There’s a nice scrappy feel to the chase sequences, particularly one in which Diesel pursues Yen in the direction of oncoming traffic and on the roofs of speeding cars and buses. But director DJ Caruso doesn’t restrict the heavy lifting to the men, giving the girls equal opportunity to fire heavy artillery, deliver kicks and punches, and chase after their rivals. Occasionally the shaky camera shooting style might set off a migraine, and it’s a shame the film doesn’t give us much by way of a solid villain.

What it does offer is a leading man who is evidently enjoying himself. Diesel plays Xander with a lightness of touch, despite all the wall-to-wall fight scenes. It’s a casual, throwaway performance, more relaxed than his turn as Dom Toretto in the Fast and Furious movies. But the real pleasure of this film is Deepika Padukone. Whether landing a perfect split in her very first moment on screen, or delivering her lines without a hint of affectation or accent, she makes a lasting impression.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is only moderately entertaining. But for the sheer pride of watching our girl add another feather to her cap, it’s worth a watch. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 6, 2017

Space jam!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:47 pm

January 06, 2017

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Morten Tyldum

The Oxford English Dictionary defines luminosity as “the intrinsic brightness of a celestial object”. Think stars. Big, shining stars.

As it turns out, stars don’t come much bigger and brighter than Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, two of Hollywood’s most charismatic young actors who radiate that glow, that luminosity in abundance. Both have a magnetic quality on screen, and they’re immediately likeable. Whoever thought of casting them together – it’s a masterstroke.

In Passengers, directed by Morten Tyldum, a sci-fi romance that unfolds on a luxurious intergalactic cruise ship, Pratt plays Jim, a mechanical engineer, and Lawrence is Aurora, a journalist, who emerge from their hibernation pods some 90 years before their ship is scheduled to reach the colonial planet Homestead II. Barring an android bartender (Michael Sheen), they’re the only ones up and about from among 5,000 passengers on board who remain in deep sleep.

Frankly as much as the film is about these two characters meeting and connecting under such extraordinary circumstances, there is a big moral dilemma that drives the conflict of this story. It’s a crucial plot point, a terrific one that should have been handled better. The problem with Passengers is that it doesn’t follow that dilemma through to the end. The script (by John Spaihts) chooses instead to focus on the romance, and, in borrowing from James Cameron’s Titanic, on an impending disaster that has been set up early on in the film. As a result, it all gets too sappy and conventional in its final act. The daring heroics and race against time seem entirely predictable, and the promise of raising relevant questions about human nature remains unfulfilled.

It is then a testament to the sheer talent and the irresistible appeal of both Lawrence and Pratt that Passengers doesn’t derail despite these hiccups. There is enough chemistry between them for you to invest in their relationship, the sets are gorgeous and elaborate, and the special effects create a sense of spectacle.

Although the film is often corny, I enjoyed the company of these two charmers. I’m going with three out of five for Passengers. Give it a chance, you might enjoy it.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

About a boy!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:33 pm

January 06, 2017

Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, Tobey Kebbell

Director: JA Bayona

A Monster Calls is the deeply affecting story of a 12-year-old boy trying to come to terms with the fact that his mother is dying.

It’s a somber premise, and all the more heartbreaking when you consider that our protagonist, young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), is facing more than his fair share of troubles. He’s bullied at school, hounded by nightmares, hates his overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and has been more or less abandoned by his father (Tobey Kebbell) who has remarried and relocated.

In the depths of his despair, Conor is visited by a giant, tree-shaped monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who arises every night from a churchyard nearby and proceeds to tell him stories that help him cope with his situation.

In the hands of a less skillful filmmaker, this could’ve well turned out an incomprehensible mess. But Spanish-born director JA Bayona, who revealed a gift for marrying spectacle with emotion in the Naomi Watts-starring tsunami drama The Impossible, knows exactly how to interweave the fantastical with the everyday, therein tapping into the story’s extraordinary power.

The ‘big’ scenes featuring Connor and the monster tree are full blooded and very well realized with the help of slick special effects and animation. But what really makes these sequences work is the fact that they’re grounded in reality. The VFX don’t overwhelm or in any way diminish the intimacy of the personal story that is being told.

A chunk of the credit for that must also go to the excellent ensemble of actors who deliver moving, heartfelt performances. Felicity Jones is particularly strong as Conor’s dying mother, and Liam Neeson brings gravitas to the part of the tree. But it’s Lewis MacDougall who hits his stride as our troubled protagonist.

Inevitably, the film does become over sentimental, which is a shame because it’s genuinely moving without all the obvious button-pushing. And yet, I must admit that the last scene between mother and son had me struggling to hold back my tears.

I’m going with three out of five for A Monster Calls. It’s an imaginative, intelligent fairytale with as much heart as magic.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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