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

February 25, 2017

Love & war

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 2:37 am

February 24, 2017

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Shahid Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, Richard McCabe, Atul Kumar, Saharsh Shukla, Satoru Kawaguchi

Director: Vishal Bhardwaj

In Rangoon, Vishal Bhardwaj strives to pull off what may well be his most ambitious film yet. He places a bold love triangle against the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle, but it’s layered with all the sly nods, delicious dialogue, and rollicking music that one has come to associate with his cinema.

The film is marvellous to look at too, powered by evocative photography from Pankaj Kumar, a clutch of Broadway-style music numbers, and those pitch-perfect locations (never sets!) that serve as a fitting landscape for the drama to unfold. Problem is that the plot itself is dense and overcrowded with multiple storylines. The first hour is pure set-up, and it’s set-up at a leaden pace.

Thankfully, we get compelling protagonists in Julia, a Fearless Nadia-style action heroine who is the mistress of a top producer Russi Billimoria, himself a former star who gave up the arclights after a crippling accident. Then there is the man in fatigues, Jamadar Nawab Malik, a soldier in the Indian army whom Julia falls for when he is assigned as her military escort on her visit to the Indo-Burma border to entertain the troops.

Because this is a Vishal Bhardwaj film, there is more to these characters than what is immediately visible on the surface. Julia (Kangana Ranaut) is a swashbuckling femme fatale, but she’s putty in the hands of her mentor. Russi (Saif Ali Khan), who is a British sympathiser, spouts love and affection for Julia, but never for a moment lets her forget that he practically owns her, having ‘bought’ her from her mother at the age of 14 for a thousand bucks. Nawab (Shahid Kapoor) is hiding secrets of his own; dangerous secrets that must be fiercely guarded.

All three actors inhabiting these roles are in particularly good form. Saif imbues Russi with the swagger and the arrogance of an aristocrat from the forties. Shahid plays the righteous patriot with remarkable maturity, and his understated approach to the part is a joy to watch. But the scene-stealer is Kangana in the role of Julia, a woman who loves as fiercely as she spars. For evidence of her incredible range just watch how she goes from playful and comic to deeply emotional in that terrific pre-intermission drunken scene in the mud with Shahid. It’s hard to take your eyes off her each time she’s on the screen.

But Rangoon is overlong at 167 minutes, and indulgent to the point of exhaustion. The writing is occasionally clunky, particularly the overwrought climax on a suspension bridge between India and Burma. The film’s most crippling blow, however, is the caricaturish antagonist, an Urdu-spouting British major (Richard McCabe) who inspires unintentional laughs instead of genuine menace.

In the end, the film is neither entirely satisfying as a compelling romance, nor as a stirring patriotic drama about the role of the Indian National Army in India’s freedom struggle. Vishal makes an ambitious attempt to deliver a sweeping epic, but on a scale of Saat Khoon Maaf to Maqbool, this one sits somewhere in between. I’m going with two and a half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Home and away

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 2:20 am

February 24, 2017

Cast: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Priyanka Bose, Sunny Pawar, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Director: Garth Davis

There is a portion in Lion, the Oscar-nominated drama starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, that stands out more than others. It’s a scene in which Saroo, a five-year-old boy separated from his family, finds himself at Calcutta Railway Terminus, nearly a thousand miles away from his home. Shunted by strangers who have no patience to hear him out, he climbs a pole hoping to spot a familiar face in the crowd. The sight that awaits him – and us – is chilling. For as far as the eye can reach, there is a swarm of busy commuters, a jungle of unknown adults. The cinematic depiction of that knee-high child lost in the big world is overwhelming to say the least. It is in that moment that the reality of his situation truly sinks in.

Lion, as you probably know, is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, who was adopted by a loving couple in Australia after he lost his way and became estranged from his mother and his home in a small village in Madhya Pradesh.

Dev Patel plays the grown up Saroo, and it’s a genuinely affecting performance. In fact, it’s Dev Patel’s most mature performance. In his late twenties, Saroo became obsessed with finding his real family, and those portions that show us the internal conflict he is wrestling with are very effectively conveyed by the actor.

But to be fair, Dev Patel and everyone else in the film – which includes Nicole Kidman as Saroo’s adoptive mother and Rooney Mara as his supportive girlfriend – are completely overshadowed by Sunny Pawar, the child actor who plays the young Saroo. He’s a real find, and it completely breaks your heart to see him go through those harrowing experiences when he’s first lost on the mean streets of Calcutta.

The middle portion of the film certainly feels a little bit flabby and repetitive, especially Saroo’s obsessive search – using Google Earth – to find the one train station out of thousands in India that will match with a childhood memory. It’s a fascinating process, although not as visually or emotionally compelling as everything that comes before…and after.

As an Indian, watching Lion there are bound to be a few things that will rankle you. Uncomfortable truths that cut close to the bone – the depiction of a general apathy towards the poor, the ugly reality of child abuse, and that ‘white saviour’ element to the story. But it is to director Garth Davis’ credit that even in its bleakest moments the film seldom feels exploitative or gratuitous. Unlike so many Hollywood films or foreign films set in India, it is attentive to poverty and destitution without fetishising it.

What it doesn’t hold back on is wringing every available drop of emotion from the big pay-off in the end. Because it’s a true story you know where things are heading, but in no way does that lessen the impact of this film that so effectively addresses themes of loss, love, and our understanding of family.

I was sobbing by the end, and I think you will be too. I’m going with three and a half out of five for Lion.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Run out!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 2:13 am

February 17, 2017

Cast: Amit Sadh, Tapsee Pannu, Arsh Bajwa, Brijendra Kala

Director: Amit Roy

Running Shaadi opens with so much promise. Amit Sadh, playing Ram Bharose, a Bihari migrant employed at a garments shop in Amritsar, has been silently carrying a torch for his boss’ daughter Nimmi (Tapsee Pannu). This feisty young girl, aware of Bharose’s feelings for her, has made it a habit to rely on him for everything, including, on this occasion, help with an unwanted pregnancy.

But Running Shaadi has very little interest in negotiating the complicated dynamics of their relationship. The film is fashioned as a romantic comedy, and humor is mined out of scenarios that arise after Bharose and his friend Cyberjeet (Arsh Bajwa) set up a company that helps couples in love to elope and marry.

It’s another interesting idea, but the film’s director Amit Roy and writer Navjot Gulati never let a good thing be. The stakes are raised again when Nimmi and the two young men find themselves hotfooting it all the way from Amritsar to Dalhousie and then to Patna, although by now the script has become unnecessarily convoluted. To be fair, the Patna portions are the best in the film, thanks in no small part to the excellent Brijendra Kala who plays Bharose’s uncle, a small-time local videographer who has committed his nephew’s hand in marriage to the daughter of a Doordarshan official. The idea being that the father of the bride will pass his pilot when the couple is married.

There are several moments of ingenuity and laugh-out-loud humour in Running Shaadi, including one in which the family of a bride-to-be urges their daughter to demonstrate her singing skills to the groom’s family who have come visiting. Another is a scene in which a pair of lovers disguised in burkhas, is spied upon by our protagonists, who’re also disguised in burkhas. In addition to the comedy, Roy captures the texture of small town India with a sharp eye. Tapsee Pannu makes a big impression as a young woman who knows what she wants, and isn’t shy of making a play for it.

But the film is ultimately weighed down by its choppy editing and inconsistent screenplay. The very conceit of the ‘eloping business’ set up by Bharose and his friend is quickly abandoned, never to be mentioned again. Also, much of the film is in impenetrable Punjabi which needs subtitles to be understood. And Bharose’s sidekick, the tech-genius sardar with the Facebook logo on his turban, gets way more screen time than he deserves.

In the end Running Shaadi is amusing, but only in fits and starts. Frankly the only ones running will be you towards the exit door when the lights come back on in the end. I’m going with a generous two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

About a boy

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 2:04 am

February 17, 2017

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, André Holland, Alex R Hibbert,

Director: Barry Jenkins

Anyone who’s felt even a little bit like an outsider should have no trouble connecting with Moonlight. This is an intimate and profound coming-of-age story of an introverted African-American boy growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Miami, as he struggles with his sexuality and what it means to be a man. It’s about a sensitive boy trying to find his place in a hostile world, and in that it feels both deeply personal and universal.

Our protagonist is Chiron, and the film is broken into three chapters that together span roughly 20 years in his life. We first meet him as a ten-year-old with frightened eyes, living with his crack addict mother (an excellent Naomie Harris). Bullied at school and taunted as a “faggot”, a word he doesn’t even understand, he’s taken in by a man, a local drug dealer ironically (Mahershala Ali), who becomes something of a surrogate father to him.

When we catch up with Chiron again, he’s a skinny teenager, but little else has changed. His mother is still drugged out permanently, and he still attracts bullies. He’s also grappling with desires that he doesn’t quite know how to act on.

Years later, virtually unrecognisable under all the muscle and the gold grill in his mouth, he’s now a hardened drug dealer himself, working the same streets he once seemed destined to escape.

Director Barry Jenkins casts a different actor to play Chiron at each respective stage, and it’s remarkable how seamlessly their performances seem to create a unified portrait of a man desperately seeking happiness and trying to find his place and identity in the world. A special mention here for Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron, who seems to speak volumes by staying mostly silent.

The film touches upon themes of race, sexuality, and isolation, but in ways rarely depicted on screen. This is a deeply moving character study of a young man who doesn’t quite know who he is, a man struggling to comprehend his first sexual experience, a man who ultimately fails in building a wall around his heart.

Frankly Moonlight is the kind of film one is drawn to ‘feel’ rather than merely ‘watch’. It is experiential as much as it is engaging, complemented by an evocative music score and exquisite photography. By the end, you’ll be holding back tears.

I’m going with four out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

February 3, 2017

No Chan do

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:30 pm

February 03, 2017

Cast: Jackie Chan, Sonu Sood, Disha Patani, Amyra Dastur, Aarif Rahim

Director: Stanley Tong

There’s no word better than lazy to accurately describe Jackie Chan’s new film Kung Fu Yoga, in which the Hong Kong action star plays an Indiana Jones-like figure on a quest to unearth long-buried treasure of an ancient Indian kingdom.

From fire-eaters and exotic magicians who perform rope tricks, to multiple cameos by snakes and modern-day princesses in Maganlal Dresswala costumes, the film shamelessly panders to all manner of stereotypes. Yet none of that hurts as bad as the realization that the now-62-year-old martial arts legend may no longer be up to the giddy, death-defying stunts that were the hallmark of his earlier films.

Barring a few scenarios that rely on his trademark slapstick humor and nifty acrobatics, Chan leaves most of the physical exertion to his younger co-stars, a motley mix of Asian and Indian actors who, sadly, have none of his charisma.

Memorable – but only for its sheer silliness – is a scene in which he speeds his way through the crowded streets of Dubai while attempting to pacify an angry lion in the backseat. Sonu Sood, who sports a multitude of gaudy jackets but only one expression, is the villain of the piece, while Disha Patani and Amyra Dastur are the film’s pretty but entirely vapid leading ladies. There’s some pleasure to be had when the gang lets their fancy fight moves do the talking, particularly a sequence in which they’re trapped with a pack of hungry hyenas.

Directed by Stanley Tong, who helmed some of Chan’s most popular hits, including Supercop and Rumble in the Bronx, this film has an unmistakably calculated feel to it, as if scripted and designed specifically to expand the star’s Indian fan base. From throwing in much mythological mumbo jumbo to blatant Hinduism references, the makers of Kung Fu Yoga can be accused of many things but subtlety isn’t one of them.

Sadly for us Jackie Chan himself, whose winning cocktail of go-for-broke physical comedy and life-risking stunt work turned him from a local Chinese star into a beloved Hollywood action hero, appears to be in autopilot mode here. His once impeccable timing is no longer split-second, and gone is that scrappy underdog charm that endeared him to the fans.

The only time I had a good laugh was watching his expressions fly as he sportingly shook a leg in the film’s big Bollywood-style dance number. Kung Fu Yoga is a disappointment for Jackie Chan fans. The actor deserves better, and so do we. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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