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

March 29, 2019

Grumble in the jungle

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:53 pm

Cast: Vidyut Jammwal, Atul Kulkarni, Makarand Deshpande, Akshay Oberoi, Pooja Sawant, Asha Bhat

Director: Chuck Russell

Junglee, which stars Vidyut Jammwal and a herd of elephants, left me with the same feeling I had after I’d watched Blue, the Akshay Kumar ‘shark movie’ that was shot in the Bahamas: I was more interested in observing the creatures than tracking what the human characters were up to.

The elephants in Junglee are majestic, sensitive, and sharp. Which is more than one can say about the humans in the film.

Vidyut plays Raj, a vet in Mumbai, who returns home to the elephant sanctuary run by his father in Orissa after ten years. Here he is united both with the folks and the beasts he befriended while growing up. The merriment is short lived, however. Recruited by a gora businessman, a deadly hunter (Atul Kulkarni) has penetrated the sanctuary to capture a tusker for its precious ivory.

This is a standard issue revenge plot with an anti-poaching message, and as many as eight writers are credited with banging out the story, screenplay, additional screenplay, and dialogues of this kindergarten-level film. Yes, you heard that correct – eight writers! Still somehow virtually every scene they come up with is flat and inert.

The characters are even less compelling. Atul Kulkarni thinks of himself as a poacher with principles. “Main jaanwaron ko yunhi nahin maarta. Unka muqabla karta hoon, kyonki unki izzat karta hoon,” he declares, insisting that he kills not for the wealth but for the thrill. There are two women in the film – a mahout (Pooja Sawant), and a journalist (Asha Bhat) – and although they have decent screen time, their roles amount to precious little. Akshay Oberoi plays our protagonist’s childhood friend and forest ranger, and there’s also Makarand Deshpande as the grizzled Gaja Guru, a wise teacher of the ancient martial arts form kalaripayattu, who spouts corny lines and is permanently sozzled.

But the film, of course is intended as a showcase for the impressive action skills of its leading man Vidyut Jammwal, who makes leaping and gliding and dangling look like child’s play. In one bit he mounts an elephant, standing tall on its back. In another scene he vanquishes a bunch of men while chained to a table. He even repeats that stunt from Commando 2 in which he slides out of a room through a slim opening in the wall. It’s impressive stuff, even if the acting is still clunky.

Directed by Chuck Russell, who helmed The Mask, one of Jim Carrey’s early hits, Junglee is ultimately underwhelming except when it stays focused on the animals. A pre-intermission massacre scene is the only genuinely emotional bit in the film, but that wooden acting I just told you about, robs the moment of its full impact.

For its finale, the film suddenly shifts from the forest to an abandoned warehouse and it becomes your standard action movie climax with cartoonish Chinese bad guys, a villain’s blonde moll, and a dozen or so henchmen who drop like flies when the hero kicks, punches, and pummels away at them. Yawn! Been there seen that!

Frankly the animals deserved better, and so did we. I’m going with two out of five for Junglee.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 21, 2019

Battle weary

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:50 pm

March 21, 2019

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Singh, Rakesh Chaturvedi, Edward Sonnenblick, Vansh Bharadwaj, Pritpal Pali

Director: Anurag Singh

In 2006, Zack Snyder made 300, the highly stylised blockbuster about 300 Spartans valiantly taking on 300,000 Persian soldiers in war. Kesari, which stars Akshay Kumar, calls to mind that film because the stakes are similar.

Here, 21 Sikh soldiers fought against more than 10,000 Afghans in the famous Battle of Saragarhi of 1897. The film is titled Kesari after the saffron turban that the film’s protagonist Havaldar Ishar Singh sports as he goes to war – it’s the colour of his martyrdom, and of his fierce sacrifice, we’re told.

But while Kesari has some heart-tugging moments, a few thrilling battle scenes, and is powered by the sincerity of its leading man, the film rests on a sluggish screenplay that is guilty of too much sermonising and caricaturish characterisation. Part of the problem is that it’s a one-man show for Akshay Kumar. The writers have very little interest in developing or shading other characters, whether they’re the Sikh soldiers, the British officers, or the Afghani villains. The drama is predictable, some action scenes go on too long, and as a result the film is unmistakably tiring.

Director Anurag Singh, whose National Award-winning film Punjab 1984, told the story of a mother and her missing son, set against the Punjab insurgency, does a fictional, ‘Bollywood’ retelling of the Saragarhi battle that is commemorated even today. He builds a narrative around the bravehearts of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Army who earned the Order of Merit from the British government for their valour. The premise has enough meat to it, but the film’s plotting is weak.

The first half especially drags, despite a strong opening that reveals Ishar Singh’s nobility and heroics as he saves an Afghan woman from a beheading. A fundamentalist cleric is enraged and declares war, drumming up support from other Afghan chieftains in the name of religion and jihad.

Meanwhile, Singh is banished by his sneering British army superiors (is there any other kind in the movies these days?). He’s now posted at the fort of Saragarhi, where he finds the 36th Sikh Regiment in a mess. The soldiers don’t wear their uniforms, they while away their time in rooster fights. Borrowing a page from Chak De India, Singh straightens out and instils discipline in his regiment, priming them so that they can fight as a united team in the film’s second half.

To be fair, some of the humour is mildly entertaining. What’s dull are the scenes between Singh and his wife (Parineeti Chopra) who he has left behind, and with whom he has imaginary conversations. Even though these scenes are few, they deaden the pace of the film, which in fact, is at least 30 minutes too long.

Soon the conflict becomes between two religions. The Islamic soldiers are portrayed as savage, backstabbing marauders who steal what they can find from the corpses of their enemy, while the honourable Sikhs benevolently help Afghan villagers build a mosque and offer water to their dying soldiers. A random distraction is the star gunsman in the Afghan army; a campy character in heavy makeup and scarlet nail polish who seems to appear out of nowhere to take perfect aim at the enemy.

But what especially surprised me is the film’s U/A rating. This is a film in which bodies are routinely impaled on swords and spears, limbs are severed, blood is generously splattered, and in one scene Akshay drives a sword through four soldiers as if they were kebabs on a skewer.

What works is the bond between the men, especially Singh’s empathy for the youngest soldier, a 19-year-old who freezes when he faces armed conflict for the first time. There is an overall sincerity in the enterprise, and some genuine skill on display. The camerawork is particularly impressive.

Akshay Kumar, his face sandwiched between an oversized turban and an oversized beard, nevertheless conveys the single-minded motivation of Ishar Singh, convincingly pulling off the rousing dialogue and visceral action scenes.

However the film, on the whole, is well-intentioned but bloated. It’s a two-and-a-half hour battlefield bluster that could have done with sharper writing and judicious editing. When the lights come back on in the end, you can’t shake off the feeling of having survived war yourself. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Kesari.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Pain relief

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:49 pm

March 21, 2019

Cast: Abhimanyu Dassani, Radhika Madan, Gulshan Devaiah, Mahesh Manjrekar

Director: Vasan Bala

From early on in Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota you can spot the nods to films and genres that director Vasan Bala evidently loves. When we’re introduced to our hero Surya, he’s ready to karate chop a bunch of bad guys. “Why do they always run at you yelling?” he wonders aloud in a voiceover. Surya is wearing a maroon tracksuit and blue sneakers, in what is clearly a hat-tip to Uma Thurman’s unforgettable yolk-yellow ensemble as The Bride from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill…itself a tribute to Bruce Lee’s iconic 1972 film The Game of Death.

There are so many references here – and so varied – that it’s hard to keep count. From chopsocky Hong Kong martial arts movies to campy Bollywood of the 70s and 80s, Bala pours his adoration for the cinema he grew up on into this irreverent tribute. In spirit though, Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota most closely borrows the tone of martial arts star and director Stephen Chow’s films, especially Kung-Fu Hustle whose unique cocktail of action, fantasy, and laugh-out loud, silly humour Bala wants to evoke.

Surya (played with winning earnestness by newcomer Abhimanyu Dassani) is an ordinary guy from Matunga, but one who has an extraordinary affliction: a “congenital insensitivity to pain”, which means he doesn’t feel pain. Brought up by his eccentric grandfather (Mahesh Manjrekar), Surya learns martial arts from scratchy VHS tapes, but also how to fake pain to hide his ‘gift’. The only catch is that he must never be dehydrated, so he’s always sipping water to stay in the game.

Surya finds a karate guru in Master Mani, and finds his nemesis in Mani’s evil twin Jimmy. Yes I was thinking Austin Powers, and the superbly funny Gulshan Devaiah plays both characters here with a manic energy and flair reminiscent of Mike Myers.

Surya, meanwhile, has an affable, nerdy personality except when he’s gliding in slow motion and landing kicks. The real firecracker here is his one true love Supri (a spirited Radhika Madan). The screen crackles with energy as she beats baddies to a pulp, her long hair and limbs flying about, as if in dance. Both leads surrender to the unusual material, moulding themselves to their roles and performing with heart.

The film, which some might describe as a revenge saga with kung-fu sequences, while others view as a stylised, adrenaline-filled roller-coaster ride, is really an irreverent comic-book style action-comedy not unlike, say, Deadpool. It’s goofy, camp, stylish and funny; the sort of head-rush that’s caused by taking a giant sip of an iced slushie. The problem, however, is that once the novelty wears off you realise the film doesn’t quite have a robust plot, or anything of much significance to say. It’s also exhaustingly repetitive.

Bala delivers amazingly on the action and the spoofy humour, but the drama is flat. Some sequences pop, but the script doesn’t deliver in an entirely satisfying way. The film is overlong and overwritten, with several backstories and tracks that go nowhere. Surya’s childhood portions are especially indulgent.

What stays with you are some terrific moments and a bunch of inventive set pieces – like a long fight sequence interrupted by a senior citizen enquiring about cancelled cheques. This blend of action and humour yields mostly winning results. What the film needed was more of it, and consistently.

I’m going with three out of five for Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota. Vasan Bala hits the high notes frequently, even if the film doesn’t quite fall into a seamless symphony.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 15, 2019

Picture imperfect

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:01 pm

15 March, 2019

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Jim Sarbh, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Sachin Khedekar

Director: Ritesh Batra

One instant photograph – it’s what brings two strangers together in Ritesh Batra’s new film, that’s titled, simply, Photograph. The photograph in question may be instant, but this is a film that takes its time, leisurely setting up its story, taking us into the worlds and the lives of both its protagonists. There are captivating moments, winning dialogues, and little touches that bring a smile, but sadly the film never comes together to offer a fully satisfying experience.

Six years after his terrific debut The Lunchbox, Batra tells another Mumbai story about two unlikely strangers who are linked by a strange quirk of fate. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a photographer at the Gateway of India; a migrant from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, who sleeps in a cramped room with four other men. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a brilliant student preparing for her CA finals. She belongs to an upper middle class Gujarati family in Mumbai. Both are what you might describe as ‘lonely souls’; they’re surrounded by people, yet lost in a crowd. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more dissimilar, yet their orbits intersect when Rafi convinces her to let him take her picture. Miloni, who is introverted to a fault, disappears without paying him.

But serendipity, that beautiful thing, links the two together. Rafi uses Miloni’s photo to concoct a story for his grandmother, who is emotionally blackmailing him to get married. The girl in the picture is his fiancee, he lies. Her name? The strains of an old Lata Mangeshkar song float into Rafi’s room. “Her name is Noorie,” he writes.

Batra leans on nostalgia to draw us into the story. Old Hindi film songs waft in and out of the narrative, Miloni hankers for a soft drink from her childhood, there’s a scene set in a post office, single-screen cinemas are mined for romanticism, and we see Rafi shopping at a ‘kirana’ – the kind of small local establishment that’s hard to spot in big cities these days now dominated by supermarkets. Plot wise, Rafi’s feisty grandmother (a terrific Farrukh Jaffar) is delighted that he’s settling down and arrives in Mumbai to suss out the girl. Rafi, in turn, seeks out Miloni and persuades her to go along with his lie until Dadi is in town.

This could be the plot of a Bollywood potboiler, but Batra’s treatment, and his two central players, are different. Miloni is stifled by her family who have picked out her life path. Going along with Rafi’s charade – as improbable as it sounds – is an act of rebellion on her part.

As it turns out a chunk of the problem with Photograph is Miloni’s character. She is charmless, in a sweet sort of way. There’s a melancholic streak to her, but her impassive personality is hard to wrap one’s head around despite Sanya Malhotra’s earnest effort to mould herself into the role. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is more convincing, but the part barely stretches his acting muscles. The dynamic between Rafi and his cantankerous grandmother is more charming than the film’s ‘love story’, which makes it hard to stay invested in the journey as it unfolds slowly….very slowly.

That’s a shame because the film is shot lovingly and Batra traverses the city to distill its uniqueness: from its tiny hovels to its tea shops, the chatty cab-drivers and the rodent-infested cinemas. Trouble is, it’s all in service of a screenplay that feels too slight. The writing doesn’t pack the emotional urgency of The Lunchbox, and the characters aren’t as compelling. There is a delicate quality to the central relationship but it never takes flight. Batra keeps the story on slow-burn; how you wish he’d stirred things up from time to time.

In the end Photograph feels oddly out of focus. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 8, 2019

Twist in the tale

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:26 pm

March 08, 2019

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Taapsee Pannu, Amrita Singh, Tony Luke, Manav Kaul

Director: Sujoy Ghosh

“Pay attention to the details. The answer is in the details,” Amitabh Bachchan says over and over again to Taapsee Pannu in Badla, a lawyer imploring his client to look closer and harder at what’s in front of them in order to spot the clue that could prove her innocence. Frankly it’s good advice for viewers too who’re seeking to solve the suspense in this twisty thriller. Just look really close; it’s right there.

Directed by Kahaani’s Sujoy Ghosh, who evidently knows his way around stories that are hiding more than what’s on the surface, Badla is an official remake of the gripping Spanish whodunit The Invisible Guest. Wisely, Ghosh stays mostly faithful to the blueprint of the original film aside from swapping the genders of the principal characters.

Taapsee plays Naina Sethi, a married woman accused of murdering her lover in what seems like an open-and-shut case for the prosecution. Bachchan is Badal Gupta, a top lawyer hired to make sure there are no chinks in her defence. As he interrogates her in pursuit of the truth, we learn more and more about what might have actually happened the night her lover’s body was discovered in a hotel room that she was herself present in, and which shows no signs of anyone else having entered or exited.

Fashioned as a sort of verbal duel between client and lawyer, the film sees Naina making revelations and Badal challenging her claims. The narrative moves back and forth in time as the layers are peeled one by one. Naina insists she’s innocent, but is Naina telling the truth?

The film’s zig-zag plotting is its biggest strength although it’s not especially hard to figure out the ending. Yet Ghosh keeps the suspense at boiling point and the viewer invested in the outcome. You could put it down to the film’s crisp pace, or to the cast who work hard to pull off their roles convincingly.

Taapsee Pannu and Amitabh Bachchan do the bulk of heavy lifting, and they’re in good form as strangers who’re not sure if they can trust each other. Tony Luke, his accent notwithstanding, brings unpredictability to the proceedings as Naina’s murdered lover Arjun; and Manav Kaul is always a welcome presence, even in a small cameo as Naina’s legal counsel. But it’s Amrita Singh who leaves a lasting impression in a crucial role, her every expression conveying bottled up emotion and feeling. How wonderful to see her utilized beyond the typical roles Bollywood reserves for middle-aged actresses.

Badla is handsomely mounted, unfolding for the most part in atmospheric, gloomy, wintertime Glasgow. The film doesn’t pack the wallop that Kahaani delivered, but it’s a respectable enough thriller that seldom loses grip of its pace or your attention.

I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 1, 2019

Wedding daze!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:09 pm

March 01, 2019

Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Kriti Sanon, Pankaj Tripathi, Vinay Pathak, Aparshakti Khurrana

Director: Laxman Utekar

Luka Chuppi starring Kartik Aaryan and Kriti Sanon is a 2 hour 6 minute film that is 2 hours too long. I’m not joking. It’s a movie that starts off making no sense, and continues in the same vein for the bulk of its running time.

Guddu (Kartik) and Rashmi (Kriti) meet and fall in love when she’s interning at the cable news channel in Mathura where he is the star reporter. He proposes marriage, but she thinks they should live together to gauge their compatibility before taking the plunge. Seems about fair, except that her dad is a right-wing politician committed to ‘protecting Indian culture’. Which means he’s the sort of neta whose party workers routinely harass unmarried romancing couples.

It’s a good thing then that Guddu and Rashmi are dispatched to Gwalior for a work assignment, where they rent a flat in order to get a taste of what spending their lives together might feel like. Much of the film’s so-called humour hinges on the misunderstanding that the pair is married when they’re actually not. For reasons that never feel convincing or entirely plausible they make repeated attempts to sneak off and really get married.

It’s a slim premise; the script by Rohan Shankar feels stretched and many of the jokes are forced. Even the usually dependable Pankaj Tripathi strains for laughs as a ridiculously attired fellow with gold highlights in his sidelocks and handlebar moustache. There’s also a clutch of stereotypes including a midget sidekick, a precocious, blackmailing child, a token Muslim best friend, and a nosy neighbour determined to expose the couple’s secret. A running joke about Guddu’s elder brother who is frustrated about being left behind in the marriage rat race is the only genuinely inspired idea.

Through the character of Rashmi’s father Vishnu Trivedi (Vinay Pathak), who has fashioned himself as a guardian of Mathura’s morality, the film goes on and on about live-in relationships and how they’re against our culture. But frankly both his outrage and the eventually ‘progressive’ resolution feels outdated and misguided. It’s 2019, come on, wake up and look around! Luka Chuppi, which is directed by Laxman Utekar, is clearly positioned as one of those ‘small-town comedies’ that are all the rage currently. But there is very little of the flavour, texture, or authenticity that powered better films in the genre like Bareilly Ki Barfi or Stree.

The acting is serviceable. Kriti Sanon is expected to look pretty while looking exasperated and she achieves that. Kartik Aaryan delivers an assortment of facial gymnastics while his hair – that hair! – continues to be mildly distracting. A bigger letdown is watching talented actors like Vinay Pathak, Aparshakti Khurrana, and especially Pankaj Tripathi wasted in thankless, underwritten roles. One only hopes Tripathi was paid a huge fee in exchange for starring in this drivel, and for embarrassing himself in the role of Guddu’s buffoonish, troublemaking relative.

But all of these problems are second to the fact that the film is simply not funny for the most part. It’s allegedly a comedy but it delivers at best a handful of decent laughs, all in the second half. I was bored, often confused, and genuinely missing the low-IQ, puerile humour of last week’s Total Dhamaal.

Yes, Luka Chuppi is that lousy. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Powered by WordPress