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

January 25, 2019

Tiger tiger, burning light

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:41 pm

January 25, 2019

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Amrita Rao

Director: Abhijit Panse

A personality like Bal Thackeray cannot be contained in one film – he requires a sequel. That is what the makers of Thackeray allude to, as the film ends on a ‘to be continued…’ footnote. This is an account of the Shiv Sena supremo’s life, produced by the party’s MP Sanjay Raut, so you have a fair idea what to expect. Thackeray is a superhero here, painted to the demi-god status that his supporters gave him, his words frequently punctuated by a tiger’s roar. This is a glowing tribute, with no room for any greys in its protagonist. So it ends up as a one-sided, distorted, saffron-hued take on Thackeray’s political rise and clout over Maharashtra.

To be fair the film, directed by Abhijit Panse, is engaging in parts, chiefly because it’s powered by a carefully-calibrated performance from Nawazuddin Siddiqui who breathes life, and fire, into the character of the controversial Hindutva leader. The irony of watching Nawaz mouth Thackeray’s incendiary speeches against Muslims, and against outsiders taking away jobs from the Marathi manoos, will not be lost.

The film begins with Thackeray’s appearance in court before the Srikrishna Commission, when he was accused of inciting violence against Muslims in the 1992-93 Bombay riots. It sets the tone for this hagiography – Thackeray’s journey from a cartoonist in the 1960s to an iconic political figure is repeatedly intercut with these court scenes during which he expresses his extremist views and reveals his razor-wit.

The over-two-hour biopic depicts the Shiv Sena’s history of violence, but it is always defended by Thackeray’s fiery rhetoric. It’s the ‘eye for an eye’, ‘reaction to action’ justifications for strong-arm tactics, violence, and even murder that make this film difficult to stomach. Often, the politico is seen sneering at even the idea of democracy. At one point, a jailed Thackeray tells George Fernandes how the nation needs a Hitler, and Fernandes wryly remarks, “There is a dictator, born in you.”

Nawaz has big shoes to fill but he slips into Thackeray’s skin – impassive, impenetrable at times, walking fearlessly into situations, capturing the magnetism and mannerisms of Thackeray, from his love for cricket, his beer-swilling, cigar-smoking, satin-kurta persona to the indulgent family man. It’s a gripping performance, and the film stands on his shoulders. Amrita Rao plays his wife Meenatai with all heart, especially in one scene as she breaks down while reading his letter from jail.

What hampers the film is, naturally, the bias. Here is a man without flaws, and this results in a one-note propaganda project. It’s a shame because there’s some genuine craft on screen. The film is shot skilfully by Sudeep Chatterjee, and early scenes of Thackeray’s cartoons popping from the page are nicely done. But it’s all in service of a skewed narrative.

I’m going with two out of five for Thackeray. If there must be a sequel, it calls for more honesty, less halo.

(This review first aired on CNN News18) 

Battle weary

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:27 pm

January 25, 2019

Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Danny Denzongpa, Atul Kulkarni, Ankita Lokhande, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub, Kulbushan Kharbanda, Jisshu Sengupta

Director: Krish Jagarlamudi & Kangana Ranaut

A biopic of Rani Lakshmibai, one of the earliest patriots of our freedom struggle, ought to be a special thing. Hers is the inspiring story of a brave young queen who refused to cede control of her kingdom to the British following her husband’s death; who fought alongside her troops on the battlefield; and, who in 1858 at the age of 29, lost her life in service of the land. That icon deserves a crackling film.

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is first and foremost powered by the passion of its leading lady. Kangana Ranaut is unwavering in her portrayal of Rani Lakshmibai. There’s a hard-to-miss intensity in her eyes, and tenacity in her voice. She commands the screen with a fiery, arresting presence, never letting your attention wander away from her. In the battle scenes too, galloping on a steed, charging into rows of enemy soldiers, slashing and tearing into their flesh, practically leaping onto an elephant, her valour is so convincing, even the gravity-defying stuff looks real.

Frankly, the legend of the brave queen is served well by K Vijayendra Prasad’s mythos-building screenplay, but the filmmakers don’t seem especially interested in seeking out the woman beyond the legend. Much of the information we gather during the course of the film – that Rani Lakshmibai spoke fluent English, had a love for reading, cared deeply for animals, and was fearless in battle but a compassionate mother – is released expressly for the purpose of highlighting her brilliance. Given that the filmmakers declare upfront in an opening slate that they’ve taken liberties with facts, there’s no way to know how much of it is even historically accurate.

Yet a handful of scenes spring to life. When informed that her army pales in size compared to the enemy’s, Rani Lakshmibai delivers a rousing feminist monologue, inspiring the women of her kingdom to join the men in battle. I call it a ‘full gooseflesh moment’. Equally stirring is the song Bharat composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.

The battle scenes are impressive, and the film is lacking neither in vision nor scale. The problem is the single-track narrative and its unwillingness to explore anyone or anything other than the Rani Lakshmibai-worshipping angle. I wasn’t so bothered about the fact that the film has little room for other characters to shine, as I was by the sheer clunkiness on display. I know this is the Bollywood version of a historical, but Rani Lakshmibai breaking into a dance with the locals takes creative liberties to a whole new level. I was also dismayed by some of the hackneyed dialogue. A British officer declares in mangled Hindi after being humiliated by the queen: “Iss bezzati ka jawaab main khoon se loonga.” We’re still making our characters talk like that?

There isn’t a quiet moment or a subtle note in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. This is a deliberately simplistic film; an old-fashioned patriotic saga told in the broadest of strokes, and with full nationalist fervor. Kangana Ranaut’s extraordinary performance is the film’s biggest strength, playing the woman for whom they said: “Khoob ladi mardani woh toh Jhansi wali rani thi.”

That unforgettable line and the image of a female warrior on horseback, a sword raised in one hand, a baby strapped to her back, is, for many, the first thing that comes to mind when one mentions Rani Lakshmibai. As it turns out, this film, directed by Krish Jagarlamudi and Kangana herself, doesn’t expand your understanding of the iconic warrior queen much more.

I’m going with two-and-half out of five for the film, and an extra half for Kangana Ranaut’s terrific performance. Which makes it three out of five for Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 21, 2019

Brute force

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 2:53 pm

The 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure might have been snubbed by the Oscars, but that was a poor call by the Academy. This is an intelligent film that treats you intelligently, asking you to decide how you feel about its characters and their actions.

The film is about a middle-class couple Tomas and Ebba who’re on a skiing holiday with their two young children at a luxury resort in the French Alps. Tomas is a workaholic, and the vacation is an opportunity for the family to spend quality time together. On the second day, while enjoying lunch on the outdoor terrace of a restaurant, a controlled avalanche goes a little out of control.

What happens next is crucial. No one is hurt, but in that moment something changes fundamentally. When the snow comes down in a massive force, threatening to engulf the terrace, Tomas panics, grabs his mobile phone and makes a run for it, leaving his family behind.

Understandably, Ebba is disturbed by the implications of his actions and becomes consumed with resentment. Tomas, who denies any wrongdoing, must nevertheless confront his cowardice, even as his wife begins telling people about his callous behaviour in the face of danger. The whole episode creates cracks in the relationship of another holidaying couple who is forced to take sides.

It’s a delicious little firecracker of a film that casts a sharp, unforgiving gaze on a marriage at its most fragile. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund urges us to confront notions of masculinity and pride, and puts these characters under a microscope to show us things about human nature – and ourselves – that we’d rather not see.

I should warn you that the film is excessively ‘talkie’ and requires both your attention patience. It unfolds at an unhurried pace, but stick with it and I promise you’ll be rewarded.

(Force Majeure is currently streaming on Hotstar)


January 20, 2019

Meet the ‘new Queens’

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 11:52 am

From painting the sets with tea bags to catching up over lunch in Nice, Tamannaah, Parul Yadav, and Kajal Aggarwal reveal what went on behind the scenes while shooting the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam remakes of the Kangana Ranaut starrer Queen.

January 18, 2019

Scam central

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:14 pm

January 18, 2019

Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Shreya Dhanwanthary, Snighadeep Chatterjee, Manuj Sharma

Director: Soumik Sen

Just days before it was to be released the Censors demanded that the makers of Cheat India attach the word ‘Why’ to its title, presumably because the original title sounded a lot like a call to action, a command. And come on, you can’t have a film actively encouraging the populace to swindle our great nation, can you?

Why Cheat India, on the other hand, sounds too generic, and punctuation wise it’s off. Is it asking a question – as in why do we, Indians, tend to cheat? That’s a tricky one; we could be here all day. No, I suspect, that like movie critics, the Censors too might have been bored out of their skull watching this film. The new title, therefore, could be an expression of frustration – as if questioning the need for this film – “Why, Cheat India???”

But jokes aside, the movie, directed by Soumik Sen, has an interesting premise. Emraan Hashmi, who has had some practice playing all manner of cheaters and fradusters, stars as Rakesh Singh aka Rocky, a shrewd fellow who runs a scam helping wealthy candidates land seats in medical and engineering colleges by recruiting smarter students to take their entrance exams for them. He’s a messiah for desperate parents and students who know that a medical or engineering degree is a shot at a better life, and a Robin Hood-like figure for the brilliant but poor toppers who have loans to be paid off, parents to support, and sisters to be wed. Everybody wins in Rocky’s unique business plan.

Everybody but the audience. Why Cheat India fast becomes a slog. The themes are relevant, but the writing is flat; the screenplay lacks urgency. The film opens in the 90s and to be honest it feels like it was made then. There is melodrama, dialoguebaazi, and old-school plotting. None of that would’ve been a problem if it wasn’t so darn unremarkable. The supporting players – there are many – aren’t especially memorable, and a last minute twist feels unconvincing. The second half moves more briskly but the plot becomes especially harebrained when Rocky widens his net to crack the MBA entrance exam.

It’s a shame you leave the cinema bored and underwhelmed because there was potential here to make a smart film about our flawed education system – one that encourages mugging and rote learning over understanding; one that values a degree over real aptitude. A system that drives students and their parents to seek dangerous, unhealthy shortcuts. Some of that is addressed but it’s not really what the film is about.

Hashmi, who is also one of the producers, plays his part with required flair. He’s very good in anti-hero roles, but this film can’t seem to decide how to peg him. He spends the bulk of his time on screen exploiting the education system, but also gets to deliver an impassioned monologue skewering the corruption within that very system. Of the remaining ensemble, only Snighadeep Chatterjee as Sattu, one of the bright young students who falls under Rocky’s spell, and Shreya Dhanwanthary as Sattu’s sister Nupur, make an impression.

 I was also never fully convinced about the ease with which Rocky repeatedly pulled off these big scams. But I suppose that’s creative liberty. This fim takes a lot of those. I’m going with two out of five for Why Cheat India. If anyone’s having trouble sleeping, we might have found a cure.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 11, 2019

Strike big!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:40 pm

January 11, 2019

Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Paresh Rawal, Yami Gautam, Mohit Raina, Kirti Kulhari, Rajit Kapoor

Director: Aditya Dhar

One of the most powerful scenes in the Oscar-winning war film The Hurt Locker sees Jeremy Renner’s character, a bomb-disposal expert who has returned to civilian life after an intense combat experience, standing in front of a supermarket aisle that’s stocked with dozens of different breakfast cereals, lost, confused, unable to make a choice. Not long after, he returns to Iraq, embracing all the precarious challenges of the job because evidently nothing else gives him the same sense of purpose. That is where he belongs.

In Uri: The Surgical Strike a Special Forces para commando who has retired from the frontline and taken a desk job finds himself similarly conflicted. This is not what he was made for. He jumps back into the action after he loses a family member in a terrorist strike. Revenge is the trigger.

Broadly speaking, Hindi films are about emotion and not nuance. It’s just their grammar, and not necessarily a shortcoming. But Uri: The Surgical Strike is fashioned as a different kind of Bollywood war film, one whose ambitions are closer to Zero Dark Thirty than Border. The film recalls the retaliatory strikes undertaken by the Indian Army on terrorist launch pads in Pakistan, and if pruned judiciously it might’ve worked as a crisp, gritty procedural.

Crucially the first hour is a slog. After an action-packed prologue establishes the leadership capabilities and derring-do of Major Vihaan Shergill, the filmmakers spend too much time focusing on his life beyond the uniform. All the usual tropes are at play: ailing parent, widowed sister, orphaned niece.

Vicky Kaushal is in especially good form as the protagonist, looking every bit the army man. He brings both the bulked-up physicality and the sort of steely determination that the part requires. Because this is a Bollywood film, it’s not merely enough that Major Shergill has the tactical skills to execute these sensitive operations. No! He must also get down for some gool ol’ fashioned herogiri, crunching bones and crushing limbs with his bare hands.

Sadly no other character in the film is deemed worthy of respectable screen time or even to be adequately developed. Yami Gautam plays an intelligence officer, and Kirti Kulhari a skilled pilot. The casting of female actors in these parts amounts to mere tokenism, given how little they have to do. Mohit Raina, also playing a para military commando, gets a few moments to shine.

For the most part the film avoids the chest-thumping jingoism that is the hallmark of our patriotic films, but it cannot resist the occasional rousing dialogue. Writer-director Aditya Dhar knows what buttons to push. “Unhe Kashmir chahiye, aur hume unka sar,” a soldier bellows to his troops. When Major Shergill seeks retirement from active field duty so he can be closer to his sick mother, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Rajit Kapoor), no less, reminds him that “desh bhi toh maa hai”. In another instance, Paresh Rawal, playing a character clearly modeled on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval declares: “Yeh Hindustan ab chup nahin baithega. Yeh naya Hindustan hai. Yeh ghar main ghusega bhi aur maarega bhi.”

The film hits its stride when it focuses on process – the planning and the execution of the surgical strike. Scenes of interrogation, waterboarding, war-room deliberations, and the recruitment of a young tech nerd with a breakthrough invention build up nicely to the actual strike. As soldiers in night-vision goggles penetrate safe houses and terror targets, you can feel a growing sense of suspense and tension, despite already knowing the outcome. This is largely a result of the terrific cinematography by Mitesh Mirchandani.

Ultimately there’s a lot to admire here, but because it can’t shake off its unmistakably filmi sensibility – which is inherently at odds with the no-nonsense tone it aspires for – it proves thrilling only in parts. The film is too long at nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes and as a result it runs but never flies.

I’m going with three out of five for Uri: The Surgical Strike.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Hatchet job!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:39 pm

January 11, 2018

Cast: Anupam Kher, Akshaye Khanna, Suzanne Bernert, Arjun Mathur, Divya Seth, Aahana Kumra, Vipin Sharma,

Director: Vijay Ratnakar Gutte

It’s hard to say what is more embarrassing in the film The Accidental Prime Minister – its content or its craft. Based on a book by Sanjaya Baru, a newspaper journalist before he was appointed as media advisor to former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, the film, directed by Vijay Ratnakar Gutte, is undisguised, shrewdly timed propaganda in an election year.

Its screenplay cobbled together from convenient selections of Baru’s book, the film depicts Dr Singh as noble but naïve; a victim of the political machinations of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. He’s painted as an honourable man who had the nation’s best interests at heart, but also as a weak, spineless figure who failed to stop rampant corruption within his party.

Anupam Kher is a fine, dependable actor but his performance as Dr Singh amounts to imitation, without capturing the spirit of the man. Anupam mimics the swinging arms, the awkward walking style, the high-pitched voice, but turns it into caricature. There is no sign of the sharp mind, or of the world-class economist in this one-note approach.

Then there’s Baru, as played by Akshaye Khanna, who, let’s just call The Smirker. Like Frank Underwood in House of Cards, he breaks the fourth wall to address us directly and smugly, sharing his insights on the PMO and its key players, and describing Indian politics as the Mahabharata, with Dr Singh as Bhishma. Akshaye conveys Baru’s fondness for the Prime Minister with sincerity and also his frustration at watching the elderly statesman get played. He never holds back from portraying Baru as someone that is ambitious, arrogant, and capable of getting into the snake pit if he has to.

Four writers are credited with penning the screenplay, yet there is no coherent story to speak of. It feels as if the makers cherry picked instances that show the Gandhis in a poor light or perpetuate a convenient narrative around the PM, and decided to string them together in the name of a script. The nuclear deal, the 2G scam, Coalgate – they’re all referenced.

The problem also is that none of this is done with any flair, or even a cursory eye for detail. The film is a hatchet job that looks like a hatchet job. It’s all so incompetently staged there were times I felt I was watching an MTV spoof. Although he appears only briefly, President APJ Kalam is played by a junior artiste in a bad wig and assigned a costume budget that couldn’t afford him a pair of trousers that reach all the way to his feet. Grainy news footage is interspersed into the film clumsily, and the many audio cuts (likely enforced by the censors) are jarring. There is virtually no element of drama or urgency, and the background score is deafening.

Some chuckles are to be had over the casting. In Suzanne Bernert the filmmakers find a dead-ringer for Sonia Gandhi, and Arjun Mathur and Aahana Kumra channel Rahul and Priyanka convincingly. If you’re a news junkie you could play ‘spot the politico’ as the frame fills up with actors playing Ahmed Patel, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Amar Singh and others.

Alas that’s not enough to keep you engaged in this nearly-two-hour film whose agenda and very reason to exist is transparent from the word go. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five for The Accidental Prime Minister.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 4, 2019

Bee plus!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:12 pm

January 04, 2019

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Pamela Adlon, Voices of Justin Theroux and Angela Bassett

Director: Travis Knight

I didn’t think there’d be a day the words ‘charming’ and ‘Transformers’ could appear in the same sentence, but lo and behold it’s happened! Bumblebee, a spinoff film and the origin story of the yellow shape-shifting Transformer, is, for the most part, yes, a charming affair.

It’s a very different film from the overlong metal-on-metal CGI orgies that Michael Bay has inflicted upon us since 2007. In the hands of director Travis Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson Bumblebee is essentially E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial but with a robot-automobile hybrid at the centre of the story.

Disguised as a rundown Volkswagen Beetle, hiding out in a junkyard, former Cybertron citizen B-127 is discovered by Charlie, a teenage girl with a love of old cars. The bonding scenes between girl and Autobot are fleshed out with great feeling. He’s like a scared puppy crouching in her garage; she comforts him, gives him a name, hides him from her folks and the big bad world out there.

The beats are familiar, but Hailee Steinfeld brings warmth and a touch of comedy as Charlie, and the giant robot has a cuddly pet-like quality that makes the whole relationship undeniably endearing in a Spielbergian sort of way. It’s all soaked in 80s nostalgia complete with Walkmans and Cyndi Lauper tunes. There’s also that distinct sense of an adventure away from the gaze of pesky adults.

But I hope I didn’t lead you into thinking there’s none of that crash-bang-boom mayhem that is the staple of the Transformers franchise. Two Decepticon assassins are hot on Bumblebee’s trail, following him all the way from his battle-ravaged planet, so that should give you an idea of what ensues. There’s also John Cena as a not-particularly-happy army man who has unresolved issues with our metal hero.

Nevertheless this is the most ‘family friendly’ film in the Transformers universe, and unlike the earlier instalments the action here is thankfully coherent. At its core it’s really a coming of age movie – the story of a troubled teenager whose life is changed by an unexpected visitor.

I was pleasantly surprised. I think you might enjoy it too. I’m going with three out of five for Bumblebee.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Pop goes the nanny!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:52 pm

January 04, 2019

Cast: Emily Blunt, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh

Director: Rob Marshall

Even if you’ve never watched Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, chances are that you would’ve heard (and probably hummed) A Spoonful of Sugar at some point. The image of a nanny floating down from the sky, holding her parrot-headed umbrella aloft, an oversized carpetbag in the other hand, brought incredible joy to multiple generations of moviegoers. Of course Disney was going to bring her back, even if it took more than half a century to do it.

I think you will find that how you feel about Mary Poppins Returns may be related directly to how attached you were to the original 1964 film. I’m a big fan; I still know the words to most of the songs. Perhaps for that reason this sequel – as slick as it is – doesn’t quite measure up. There are plenty songs but none of them are instant classics. The new film isn’t so much about Mary Poppins in the first place; frankly she isn’t on screen a lot. But crucially the problem is that despite sticking closely to the beats of the earlier film – too closely, some might say – this movie feels heavy-handed and overtly manipulative. It doesn’t have the same lightness of touch that was its predecessor’s hallmark.

It’s true. Mary Poppins Returns is a relatively ‘higher stakes’ affair and frequently overwrought. Set some 20 years or so after the events of the original film, it focuses again on the Banks family residing at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Michael and Jane Banks, the kids from that film, are adults now. But a pall of gloom hangs over the home – there’s the grief of losing a loved one, there are children who’re expected to be more mature than their years, and there’s the threat of homelessness looming over the family’s head. Mary Poppins, when she does arrive, has her work cut out for her.

Speaking of the magical, mystical nanny, Emily Blunt is a great choice as Mary Poppins; she’s an inherently charismatic actress with great screen presence. But it’s a tricky character: Mary Poppins is strict yet also warm, she expects discipline but she’s mischievous too. Julie Andrews somehow succeeded in embracing the many paradoxes and making the character her own. Blunt tries, very hard too, singing and dancing and delivering snappy rejoinders aplenty, but she can’t seem to lift the part off the page.

To be honest, the film spends more time on the Banks family than on their nanny anyway. Ben Whishaw as grown up Michael Banks gets some moving moments, and Emily Mortimer is pleasant enough as his sister Jane. It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda who’s especially charming as Jack, a cheery lamplighter, and an obvious hat-tip to Dick Van Dyke’s memorable chimney sweeper Bert from the earlier film.

At the cost of repeating myself, one of the key reasons the new film doesn’t hold a candle to the earlier film is its underwhelming score. Director Rob Marshall (also credited as one of the film’s choreographers) stages some eye-watering set pieces like a tub bath that turns into an underwater adventure, and a stunning blend of live action and animation inspired from the earlier film. But alas the songs don’t have a particularly memorable quality to them. The only one with earworm potential is Trip a Little Light Fantastic featuring Miranda and a troupe of his buddies.

If the old Mary Poppins means a lot to you, I suspect the new one might come up short. The uplifting tone gets suffocating at some point, the messaging hammered into your head throughout. It’s terrific to look at and there are some charming cameos too, but ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ is not a word I’d use to describe it.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Mary Poppins Returns.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Powered by WordPress