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

September 20, 2019

Pitch imperfect

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:57 pm

September 20, 2019

Cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Sonam Kapoor, Angad Bedi, Manu Rishi, Sanjay Kapoor, Sikander Kher

Director: Abhishek Sharma

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the irony that The Zoya Factor, which makes a case for the merits of hard work over sheer good luck, features Sonam Kapoor, Sanjay Kapoor, and Sikander Kher in key roles.

Okay, snide potshot out of the way, this is a film that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it truly is – a silly, inoffensive romantic comedy…with an emphasis on silly. Sonam plays, for the nth time, the sort of ditzy, klutzy young woman who babbles like a second-grader and does dumb things that are meant to be cute. Her character Zoya Solanki is the sort of person who shows up for an important work meeting with her tongue numb from a visit to the dentist. You get my point.

Based on Anuja Chauhan’s 2008 bestseller about the push and pull of a freshly blossoming romance between an advertising rookie and a charming cricketer, the film’s plot kicks into gear after Zoya is packed off to Sri Lanka to shoot a campaign with the Indian cricket team, where she enters the orbit of skipper Nikhil Khoda (Dulquer Salmaan).

To be fair the film’s first hour is breezy even if the scenarios are highly improbable. Nikhil is a firm believer in the rigour of sport, and the dint of hard work. Zoya, who was born on the day that India won its first World Cup back in 1983, appears to be lucky for any team that she sits down for breakfast with. When the Indian team snaps out of its losing streak, she’s quickly anointed their lucky charm, much to Nikhil’s dismay.

It’s an interesting premise but the writing is never as surefooted as it needs to be. Sonam knows how to play the loveable ditz and she slips easily into the role of Zoya. But it’s hard to buy into the film’s flimsy conflict when, frankly, it could easily be resolved over a simple chat. Dulquer has a magnetic presence. Both in the film’s dramatic scenes, and in the bits where he’s clearly falling for Zoya, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. It’s a charming, fully realised performance and easily the film’s biggest strength.

Directed by Tere Bin Laden’s Abhishek Sharma, the film’s big problem isn’t the silliness – frankly it disarms you into laughing along with its pedestrian jokes. It’s that no other character is even remotely interesting, and that so much of what goes on feels so contrived. Sanjay Kapoor and Sikander Kher as Zoya’s dad and brother show up routinely but have little impact on the plot. Angad Bedi is nicely cast as Nikhil’s jealous, plotting teammate; Manu Rishi as a shady cricket official; and the actors playing some of the other superstitious teammates. But they’re all in service of a script that seldom rises above its clichés.

I didn’t hate The Zoya Factor, and it’s not an unwatchable film by any measure. But it squanders the opportunity to say something about the world we live in, and our reliance on luck as both a crutch and an excuse. The film comes to life in the lighthearted romantic portions between Zoya and Nikhil. I could’ve watched those two for longer…if they’d only shaved off the contrivances.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five. Sure it takes flight, but it never soars.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

September 13, 2019

Quote Martial

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:59 pm

September 13, 2019

Cast: Akshaye Khanna, Richa Chadha, Meera Chopra, Rahul Bhat, Kishore Kadam, Kruttika Desai, Sree Swara

Director: Ajay Bahl

Section 375, starring Akshaye Khanna and Richa Chadha, is either a deeply cynical, borderline misogynistic film that takes the MeToo movement back a few steps, or it is an uncomfortable but honest study of male privilege, the abuse of power, and the politics of consent. However you may choose to look at it, the film is an unmistakably compelling courtroom drama.

Bollywood director Rohan Khurana (Rahul Bhat) is arrested and convicted by a sessions court after assistant costume designer Anjali Dangle (Meera Chopra) accuses him of rape. In the High Court, hotshot criminal lawyer Tarun Saluja (Akshaye Khanna) works hard to punch holes in the accuser’s claims. Insisting that it’s a case of an affair gone sour, he points out that the law does not regard consensual physical relations as rape. The prosecutor, meanwhile, Hiral Gandhi (Richa Chadha), a fiery, idealistic lawyer fighting her first big case, refuses to call it anything but rape, demanding that justice be served.

The back and forth between the lawyers is thoroughly engaging, and it’s refreshing that we get judges that feel like real people, not the impenetrable stereotypes that Hindi films have repeatedly thrown at us. The timing of the film is especially interesting, coming on the heels of the MeToo movement. Is the film adding to the noise of those that believe rape laws are being misused by women? That’s something you must decide for yourself, depending on how you view the film.

But to be fair director Ajay Bahl and writer Manish Gupta have fashioned a sharp, thought-provoking drama that is very conscious of the times it’s set in. Public outrage, social media momentum, sensitivity towards rape survivors – the film ticks off all the boxes. Not all of it is easy to watch, though. There are close ups of body parts and wounds that feel exploitative and voyeuristic. The final twist too may throw you off, depending, again, on how you’ve been reading the film.

Through it all, the acting is consistently good. The film is cast well, from smaller roles like Kishore Kadam and Kruttika Desai as the two judges on the case, to Rahul Bhat who does well as the arrogant director. Richa Chadha goes all guns blazing despite an underwritten role, and Akshaye Khanna brings a wily charm to his role as the defence lawyer who puts the law above his own moral compass and everything else. The film gives him some of the best lines and the grandstanding moments, and he makes a meal of it.

Frankly I left the cinema not entirely sure how I felt about what the film was saying. It’s a well-made film with a persuasive argument that is nevertheless disturbing. I think you should decide for yourself. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Section 375.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

She’s got the voice!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:58 pm

September 13, 2019

Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Nushrat Bharucha, Annu Kapoor, Vijay Raaz, Abhishek Banerjee, Nidhi Bisht, Raj Bhansali, Manjot Singh

Director: Raaj Shaandilyaa

Ayushmann Khurrana has played a groom-to-be who discovers he’s suffering from erectile dysfunction, a young man whose middle-aged parents surprise him with the news that they’re having a baby, a recently married fellow who shuns his overweight wife, and a scheming romantic who watches the girl he loves become attracted to the obnoxious proxy he recruited to break her heart. With every one of these characters he’s challenged notions of masculinity and upended the classic image of the ideal Hindi film hero. Of course it was only a matter of time before he impersonated a woman.

In Dream Girl, co-written and directed by Raaj Shaandilyaa, he plays Karam, an unemployed young man in Gokul, Mathura, who takes a job at a call centre where women engage in flirtatious phone banter with lonely, desperate callers. It’s not a big stretch for Karam, whose gift for faking the perfect female voice has served him well since he was a boy, playing Sita in the local Ram Leela every year.

Karam ‘becomes’ Pooja once he’s on the phone, and he’s clearly very good at his job. Before long a string of admirers have lost their hearts to Pooja, including a shayiri spouting constable (Vijay Raaz), an obsessed Haryanvi teenager (Raj Bhansali), a virgin bumpkin (Abhishek Banerjee), and a woman whose bad experiences with men have turned her off the gender (Nidhi Bisht). It’s a premise that lends itself to much comedy, but the jokes in Dream Girl are of the broad kind. No problem with that, except that they fast begin to feel overlong, repetitive, and tiring. Also the effort to make the film ‘family friendly’ is very evident, and it robs the film of the adult, risqué humour that a theme like raunchy phone sex organically lends itself to.

The second hour, however, is decidedly more entertaining, not least because it entrusts some of the heavy lifting to Annu Kapoor, cast in the role of Karam’s father, who, in a hilarious twist, starts speaking in fluent Urdu. The senior actor shines, bringing flair to his scenes, although all the Muslim stereotypes that the film insists on perpetuating are troubling.

The film has moments of terrific, inspired comedy; there are scenes that fly. But compared to some of Ayushmann’s recent work – Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan or Badhaai Ho – this feels like a laboured effort. Director Raaj Shaandilyaa has nothing of any consequence to say about what makes some men (and women) seek refuge in phone friendships and sex. Twice in the film Karam mentions the loneliness of his callers, but the film doesn’t explore that thought even briefly.

The bigger irony, I suppose, is that a film whose subliminal message is about being comfortable embracing one’s feminine side, has little use for its female characters. Karam’s romantic interest, played by Nushrat Bharucha, has precious little to do. The other women are strictly caricatures: the ball-busting lesbian magazine editor, the booze-loving granny, and the poetry-loving policeman’s harridan wife.

Through all its hiccups if there’s one thing that glues the film’s bits together, it’s Ayushmann Khurrana’s uninhibited, confident performance as Karam aka Pooja. He brings grace and dignity to the kind of role that has been reduced to a drag cliché on so many of television’s reality and comedy shows. He makes the film work even when the script fails it repeatedly.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for the film, and an additional half star for Ayushmann’s performance, which makes it three out of five for Dream Girl. Go in with modest expectations and you may not be disappointed.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

September 6, 2019

Wonder years!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 1:00 am

September 06, 2019

Cast: Sushant Singh Rajput, Shraddha Kapoor, Varun Sharma, Tahir Bhasin, Navin Polishetty, Tushar Pandey, Saharsh Kumar Shukla, Prateik Babbar

Director: Nitesh Tiwari

In Dangal director Nitesh Tiwari’s new film Chhichhore, nostalgia is the sauce that brings flavour to a fairly straightforward story. A bunch of friends in their forties reunite some 20 years after they passed out of engineering college to help their own in the time of crisis.

But from its very opening scene in which a student, seeking a break from his books late at night, sets off a full-blown ‘water war’ in the hostel, you’re transported to the wonder years of these friends as they look back fondly at their best times.

Such is the tone and treatment of the film that it’ll trigger a flood of memories for anyone who’s lived on campus. For those that haven’t, it evokes an unmistakable feeling of having missed out on a life-shaping experience. But frankly anyone who’s been to college will have no trouble recognising friends, acquaintances, or even oneself among the film’s canvas of characters.

Surely we all knew a Sexa growing up – the porn-obsessed fella hiding a stash of nudie mags under his mattress, his mind preoccupied with one thing alone. Or the over-protected child-man struggling to adjust to a world beyond his home, who earns the nickname Mummy; the perennially pissed-off buddy with the acid tongue aka Acid; the genius with a drinking problem, Bewda; or Derek, the ‘stud’ who believes he was cut out for bigger things; Maya, the campus hottie desired by all, and Anni, the seemingly regular Joe who somehow fits perfectly into this circus.

Tiwari, who has co-written the film with Nikhil Mehrotra and Piyush Gupta, graduated from IIT Bombay himself, and he mines his student years for humour, emotion, and life lessons. The lines have an authentic, conversational quality to them, the language isn’t sanitised, and profanities, double meanings, and innuendo flow freely in the exchanges between friends. Many of the scenarios are outright hilarious – like one in which the alcoholic friend Bewda is thrashed during a train journey – but others are cheerfully silly. Like the ragging scenes in which seniors demand that a “freshy” perform a pole dance…with the catch being that one of the lanky guys will play the pole. Or the old favourite – an order to fetch the clothes of female students from the girls hostel. The truth is that these gags land too, because who can’t relate to doing dumb things at that age?

As if to underline an overarching message of this film – that failure doesn’t define you – Chhichhore becomes an underdog sports film in its final act. There’s more than a whiff of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander here, with the ‘losers’ going up against the undefeated champions. But it’s especially interesting that the loser gang from the ill-reputed Hostel 4 will do anything it takes to win, be it cheating, sledging, or faking injury on the football field so the opponent can be sent out on a red card.

It’s there that the film’s heart resides. In the fact that this isn’t a story of heroes. It’s merely a story about a group of friends who decided to savour life’s little moments instead of getting caught up in the rat race. It is in this tiny detail that the film is also different from 3 Idiots. That film encouraged you to pursue what you love. Chhichhore merely says take a beat, resist the pressure that academics and life will put on you, forge enduring friendships, make lasting memories.

As romantic as these notions may sound, Tiwari conveys them with sincerity. It’s why you’re willing to overlook many of the film’s shortcomings. Like the tacky make up for the characters’ older versions, many of whom appear to be balding in exactly the same way. Or the fact that the film is clearly sexist. It’s true that male students vastly outnumber females on engineering campuses, but there’s literally not a single other female character in sight – teacher or student – apart from Shraddha Kapoor’s Maya. The weakest link, however, are the regular cutaways to the present day emergency. They feel obligatory, as if to routinely remind us that this film is about more than just fun and games. The cautionary message about the pressure of high grades that we put on our children is well intentioned but might have felt less pat and preachy if delivered with some subtlety.

Chhichhore rises above these flaws. Because Tiwari gives us charming characters that are the glue in this film with a threadbare plot. Varun Sharma is especially terrific as Sexa, the boy with sex on his mind…constantly. Tahir Bhasin nicely channels Derek’s wounded pride, and Navin Polishetty as Acid and Tushar Pandey as Mummy are in solid form. Shraddha Kapoor matches the boys step for step, and is impressively restrained in the older portions. Sushant Singh Rajput brings a winning boyish quality to the younger Anni, transforming seamlessly into the older version of the character, whom we catch at a difficult time in his life.

The film is all about its characters, frankly, and the hoops they’re made to jump. In them you’ll likely find traces and memories of your own youth. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Chhichhore; it’s good, harmless fun. I had a big smile plastered on my face throughout, and I think you will too.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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