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

February 27, 2020

Slap trap!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 7:35 pm

February 28, 2020

Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Dia Mirza, Maya Sarao, Tanvi Azmi, Ratna Pathak Shah, Kumud Mishra, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan

Director: Anubhav Sinha

Thappad, as the film’s title so unambiguously suggests, is about a slap. A slap that an otherwise amiable, good-natured man lands on his wife’s face in a moment of misdirected anger. In his defense, it is the first time he has raised his hand on her. In his defense, he has just found out that the professional goal he had nurtured, toiled hard for, and achieved, has been unfairly snatched away from him. In his defense, it happened in the heat of the moment. For his wife, no defense can justify the slap. It changes everything. It practically dismantles her life.

In setting up this premise, director Anubhav Sinha, who has co-written the film with Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul, asks us repeatedly to consider whether Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) should, like everyone around her suggests, let it go and move on. It shouldn’t have happened, but “ab ho gaya na?” her husband Vikram (Pavail Gulati) laments. Her mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi), with whom she has a loving relationship, says: “Thoda bardaasht karna seekhna chahiye auraton ko.” Her own mother (Ratna Pathak Shah) is distraught that she is considering divorce. Her brother describes it as “one small episode”, and thinks “it’s silly” that she’s taking it so far. Her neighbor, a widow (Dia Mirza), delivers that ultimate guilt trap: “Rishte banane mein utni effort nahin lagti jitna nibhane mein lagti hai.” Even her lawyer (Maya Sarao) advises her to go back and make it work.

The film, and the slap at the centre of it, is not about domestic violence. It’s about entitlement. It’s about decades of conditioning. It’s about flawed social structures and outdated gender expectations. In Robert Altman-esque fashion, the film opens with a charming sequence in which an orange ice lolly is used as a motif to introduce several characters, before we learn how each fits into the protagonist’s orbit. Patriarchy and entitlement run deep; Amrita is hardly the only victim.

There is the poor domestic help who suffers beatings from her husband routinely. There is the older woman, resentful that her loving husband never encouraged her to pursue her love for singing after marriage. There is the soon-to-be-married young couple, seemingly equal in their relationship until a tense interaction reveals otherwise. There is also the accomplished professional whose husband repeatedly credits her success to his family’s powerful connections. When Vikram slaps Amrita, every one of these relationships unravels.

Shrewdly the very premise of the film and Amrita’s escalating reaction to the slap is plotted in such a way that you’re frequently compelled to ask: “Isn’t she taking it too far?” or “Surely she doesn’t need to make such a big deal of it?” The answer to those questions may be found in Vikram’s unmistakably selfish handling of the situation.

But the thing is – and this is key – there are no easy answers here. The husband is no villain. Vikram is selfish, entitled, conditioned to put himself and his own pride before his wife, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just every other Indian man. Knowing that, you’re confronted with the same question again: “Isn’t she overdoing it?” Don’t be embarrassed if you’re leaning dangerously close to answering yes; it’s exactly the position Sinha wants you to take. In fact, in a scripting masterstroke he raises the stakes at the halfway mark, putting the couple in such a situation that now you’re thinking: “Okay, this is too much. She must let it go.”

But Thappad isn’t a film about a wife teaching her husband not to take her for granted. It’s about a woman rediscovering her sense of self, contemplating what is fair and what isn’t. It’s about no longer disregarding the deep-rooted sexism and selfishness, and the casual insensitivity that women contend with everyday. If any of this sounds like activism or social-message disguised to look like a movie, it’s honestly not. You’re very much invested in Amrita’s story. She is the fulcrum of Vikram’s uppercrust home in Delhi; she’s a supportive wife and a caring daughter-in-law. In one bristling moment she points out that the sacrifice of every woman who chooses to be a homemaker can be understood from the simple fact that no little girl when asked what she wants to grow up to be says ‘housewife’.

In a film so well-made, minor quibbles stand out. The second hour feels stretched. The estrangement of Vikram and his mother from his uber rich father and brother is confusing. But these are minor quibbles. Sinha pulls off a complex story and extracts remarkable performances from his ensemble.

Of the main cast, Maya Sarao brings a sharp edge to the role of Amrita’s conflicted lawyer, and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan is terrific as her garrulous house help. Dia Mirza is nicely understated as her neighbor, and both Ratna Pathak Shah and Tanvi Azmi are expectedly in fine form. Kumud Mishra stands out as Amrita’s supportive father, hitting all the right notes, and aided by some of the film’s most loaded lines. Pavail Gulati, in the difficult role of the husband, effectively plays him as clueless to his own shortcomings.

Which brings us to the film’s axis, Taapsee Pannu. In a refreshing change of image, her Amrita is not the fierce, woman-on-the-warpath that she frequently tends to play. She’s a woman torn, she has both strength and fragility; it’s a beautifully realized performance. The script gives her some great moments to shine, and she seizes them. I was a mess by the time Amrita has that honest, wounding conversation with her mother-in-law towards the end of the film.

I’m going with four out of five for Thappad. It’s a hard subject to pull off, but Anubhav Sinha achieves it with first-rate storytelling. The best films inspire dialogue, they set you thinking; they can even lead to change. This one made me uncomfortable; it made me question myself and I think it will make you too. It’s essential viewing.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

February 21, 2020

Sons and lovers

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:00 am

February 20, 2020

Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar, Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta, Manu Rishi, Maanvi Gagroo

Director: Hitesh Kewalya

Smack in the middle of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Ayushmann Khurana’s character Kartik says to his boyfriend’s homophobic father that gay people have to fight every day, but there is no fight harder than the one with your family.

There is unmistakable dignity in the way that the same-sex relationship at the centre of this film has been treated. When we meet the flamboyantly filmi Kartik and his boyfriend Aman (Jitendra Kumar), they are already in love and living together in Delhi. It’s just that Aman hasn’t come out to his family back home in Allahabad. Considering the theme, the dialogues are sensitive and the repartee between the characters frequently crackling. When Aman does open up about his love for Kartik to his scientist father (Gajraj Rao) and his straight-talking mother (Neena Gupta), he talks of dopamine, oxytocin, and of his hypothalamus. Aman explains his feelings in chemical terms, but it nicely captures the sheer splendour of love.

Admirably, writer-director Hitesh Kewalya doesn’t mine laughs from stereotyping gay characters in the way that mainstream Hindi films have done for as long as one can remember. Aside from an innocuous nose-ring that Ayushmann wears, there are no obvious markers of femininity. What’s especially refreshing is that the lovers or their relationship is never the source of comedy, it’s the extreme reactions by those around them to their relationship that is treated with humor. In that, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is not so much about homosexuality as it is about homophobia.

But the humour, as it turns out, is hit and miss. 2017’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan cleverly and amusingly beefed up the role of the extended family in what was essentially the story of a soon-to-be-married couple and the ‘problem’ they’re confronted with. This film too puts the family centrestage, but that overcomplicates the story. There’s a trying-too-hard quest for laughs that starts wearing thin. Aman’s folks argue incessantly and blame each other while trying to deal with the ‘situation’, until the story feels stretched and silly. The bullying relationship between Gajraj’s character Shankar Tripathi and his brother Chaman (Manu Rishi) is funny initially, but it works strictly as a side act and loses steam when it becomes the film’s main source of drama and laughs. A portion in which Tripathi stages a religious ‘rebirth’ ceremony to ‘normalise’ his son doesn’t land, and a subplot involving his invention of black cauliflower is a contrived metaphor.

The immensely likeable Gajraj Rao, trapped in a not-so-likeable character, is both one of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. In a very funny scene, Tripathi has a violent physical reaction when he spots his son in a clinch with his lover while the family is heading by train for a wedding. Tripathi is a real hoot when he’s nervous and vulnerable – like in his impromptu dance-off with Kartik – but there is little joy in the bits where he’s the standard-issue villain-dad.

Even the pairing of Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta as Aman’s parents, inspired no doubt by their wonderful chemistry in Badhaai Ho, is largely underutilised. There’s a naughty joke snuck in there about how she relieves her husband’s anxiety, but for the most part the bickering gets tiresome. Aman’s chacha and his hysterical chachi, played by Manu Rishi and Sunita Rajwar, are funnier. In one scene, to underplay the PDA that Aman and Kartik indulge in at their daughter’s wedding, the couple comes up with an explanation so far-fetched, it’s hard to hold back the laughs.

It’s interesting that Kewalya uses the classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge blueprint to stage this story of parental opposition in the face of true love and a couple’s longing for acceptance from the stubborn family. It’s a smart approach to push out the message that gay relationships are the same as straight ones; the conflicts are all too familiar. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan also ticks the boxes of an ‘Ayushman Khurrana social message movie’. The gay characters are self-respecting men dead against the idea of marrying a woman out of convenience. Parental denial is also addressed head-on, and frowned upon using clap-trap dialogues.

There are many zingers in the film, delivered with flair and timing by Kewalya’s cast. As Kartik, who wears his heart on his sleeve, ready to go to war for love, Ayushmann Khurrana gets the lion’s share of winning one-liners. He plays Kartik as confident and comfortable in his skin, but also a tad hyper. The film is respectful but never shy of depicting affection between its protagonists, and that’s especially worthy of praise in a famously squeamish, homophobic cinema. So many actors – Sanjay Suri in My Brother Nikhil, Manoj Bajpai in Aligarh, Fawad Khan in Kapoor & Sons, Shabana Azmi in Fire, Kalki Koechlin in Margarita with a Straw, and others – paved the way so Ayushmann and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan could take the baton and run. The film’s ‘normal’ treatment of the gay character, and Ayushmann’s assertive performance is a victory in itself.

But while all the slow-motion entries and exits go to Ayushmann, the film’s secret weapon is Jitendra Kumar whose Everyman portrayal of Aman is one of the film’s big strengths. The actor, who has appeared in many web series including Kota Factory, has a warm, grounded presence that makes the character’s vulnerability all too authentic. Jitendra and Ayushmann have real chemistry; their little moments together bring depth to the film.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan isn’t consistent. The script spends too much time focused on the infighting within Aman’s family instead of staying with the leads. Despite that there is enough to enjoy and appreciate here. It takes a difficult subject and executes it with some flair. For that, I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

February 14, 2020

Labored love!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:30 pm

February 14, 2020

Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Sara Ali Khan, Randeep Hooda, Arushi Sharma

Director: Imtiaz Ali

With Love Aaj Kal starring Kartik Aaryan and Sara Ali Khan, which is a sort-of remake of his own film of the same name from eleven years ago, Imtiaz Ali has done what few believed was even possible – he’s made a love story that might be more indulgent, contrived, and incoherent than When Harry Met Sejal. And that’s saying something.

Ever since his filmmaking debut in 2005 with the charming Socha Na Tha, you could say that Imtiaz has, within his cinematic universe, been fascinated by the rhythms and the vagaries of love. He’s been committed to telling stories about the redemptive, transformative nature of true love. Occasionally it’s yielded extraordinary results – like it did with Jab We Met, which remains his finest film. Other times it’s been hit or miss.

Like the earlier Love Aaj Kal the new film straddles two love stories across two time zones to make the point that one only has to look to the past to resolve romantic conundrums of the present. In that film Saif Ali Khan’s Jai realised the depth of his feelings for Deepika Padukone’s Meera after listening to Rishi Kapoor’s Veer recount how he found and fought for love as a young man. In an inspired casting choice, Saif also played the younger version of Rishi Kapoor’s character Veer.

I should say here I wasn’t a big fan of the earlier film. Compared to the new one though it’s Gone with the Wind. In present day Delhi, Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) and Veer (Kartik Aaryan) are struggling with the familiar ‘relationship vs career’ dilemma. The update here is that it’s the girl who’s torn between these choices; the guy stands by patiently. Another story, narrated in flashback, becomes the compass that informs the course of this one.

In 1990 Udaipur a young fellow, Raghu (also played by Kartik Aaryan), is smitten by Leena (Arushi Sharma). Theirs is a delicate romance potentially thwarted by objecting parents and a judgmental society. There are some nice bits here, like a scene during a school event where the pair dances awkwardly. But this segment is sweet at best; it’s also mostly inert.

The real problem with the film, however, is the present day track, and particularly the character of Zoe. Between the way she’s rendered on paper and the way that Sara plays her, Zoe is pretty much insufferable. One can appreciate her ambition and her single-minded focus on her event-planner career, but using a feminist argument to justify unbuttoning her blouse while going into a job interview is far-fetched. The work-love conflict that she makes a big deal about isn’t fleshed out enough to feel convincing. Practically nothing about her situation suggests that her relationship with Veer could come in the way of her achieving her professional potential. If anything Veer is supportive and devoted to the point of being a pushover.

Sara plays Zoe as high-strung, shrill, and prone to unprovoked outbursts. Zoe is meant to be complicated and confused, but she comes off as self-important and infuriating. Kartik, meanwhile, fares better. He brings a boyish innocence and goofiness to Raghu, who is experiencing love for the first time. As Veer, his body language is awkward initially, but he grows into the role of the idealistic romantic. Arushi Sharma, in the role of Leena, has a nice, likeable presence. But it’s Randeep Hooda who grounds the film in some modicum of believability. As a man looking back at his life, reflecting on his choices, Randeep brings a lived-in quality that this film is sorely missing.

Love Aaj Kal 2.0, if you like, is largely contrived and superficial. It’s a love story in search of a conflict. In that, it reminded me of Imtiaz’s other film, the polarising Tamasha. Like that film, it doesn’t have a lot to say yet pretends to be deep and profound. The filmmaker’s opinion of the millennial generation and their take on love, sex, and commitment is unmistakably patronising. The film claims to hold a mirror to modern love, yet it judges that very thing.

There is no polite way to say this – Love Aaj Kal is pretty awful and dreadfully boring. It’s also overlong and hammy. The pursuit of romantic fulfilment has seldom felt so banal. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

February 9, 2020

Cut above the Best

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 3:15 pm

Why would a documentary on the legendary shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho be titled 78/52? Well, because Hitchcock shot the chilling murder sequence using 78 camera angles and 52 editing splices. Want another bit of trivia? To capture the sound of a knife stabbing a body, Hitchcock listened to different kinds of melons being pierced, finally settling on a casaba, intercut with the sound of a piece of steak being knifed.

That’s just some facts amongst the hundreds crammed into this fascinating docu on one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments. Directed by Alexandre O Philippe, 78/52 meticulously collates so many details about the scene, narrated by a host of voices.

There’s Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of actress Janet Leigh who played the murdered secretary Marion Crane. Anthony Perkins played the ‘psycho’ Norman Bates, and his son Osgood is interviewed here, as is Hitchcock’s own granddaughter Tere Carruba.  There’s also an account by Marli Renfro, who, as a 21-year-old model at the time, stood in as Leigh’s naked body double for seven days while Hitchcock filmed the shower scene. These interviews add insights along with those from a multitude of Psycho admirers like master editor Walter Murch and director Guillermo Del Toro.

The documentary is packed to the gills with details, but at 90 minutes it can sometimes get tedious. The true-blue cinephile, however, is unlikely to complain as one is treated to a thorough deconstruction of the edit and the score. Why, for example, that cut from the blood swirling in the drain, to Marion’s lifeless eye? Or the logic behind the haunting screeching violins echoing her screams.

78/52 is a tribute to the genius of Hitchcock – the director who killed off his leading lady in the first third of Psycho. Just listen to how critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich describes it in the documentary. Recounting how it felt to come out of the theatre after watching Psycho in 1960 when it released, he says, “I felt like I had been raped.”

78/52 brings alive that terrifying and voyeuristic shower scene, and this documentary is a worthy watch for every film lover.

(78/52 is currently streaming on Netflix)


February 7, 2020

Goa gone!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 12:53 pm

February 07, 2020

Cast: Aditya Roy Kapur, Disha Patani, Anil Kapoor, Kunal Kemmu, Amruta Khanvilkar

Director: Mohit Suri

In two of his most successful films Aashiqui 2 and Ek Villain, director Mohit Suri gave the audience a love story to root for, and songs that one couldn’t stop humming. That irresistible cocktail somehow powered those frankly average films.

There is both a love story and some good songs in his new thriller Malang. There are also, to be fair, some interesting ideas floating around. But those ideas never come together coherently; they’re lost in a film that is more interested in surface-level stuff.

Advait (Aditya Roy Kapur) and Sara (Disha Patani) meet in Goa. They’re young, they’re good-looking, they’re in pursuit of freedom and adventure. How long before they’re bumping bodies? Those bodies, by the way, are in great shape and Vikas Sivaraman’s camera worships every curve, every bicep with the same love that it reserves for Goa’s scenic beaches.

The film however isn’t likely to do much for Goa tourism. The world of Malang is dark and twisted, and Suri depicts the beach state as a Wasseypur-like badlands with rampant drug use, frequent brutal killings, and widespread corruption in the police force. Think of it as the anti-Dil Chahta Hai.

Advait and Sara’s beach-swept romance is a prelude to a string of bad things that take place. When the body count rises the onus to sniff out the killer and bring him in falls on Agashe (Anil Kapoor), a cocaine-snorting, trigger-happy senior cop with little regard for rules, and Michael (Kunal Kemmu), a righteous officer who prefers to do things by the book.

The twists in Malang are either predictable or far-fetched. One major reveal is given away in the film’s trailer so you can see it coming from a distance. The other is what one would describe as “a bit much”. Suri is interested in themes of revenge, redemption, and especially in the notion of masculinity. That leads to an interesting and bold character reveal, but Malang has little room for complexity so this idea is ultimately squandered.

The film leans on its cast to do what they do best. Aditya Roy Kapur, flaunting a chest that refuses to be contained in shirts, gets multiple opportunities to flex his chiseled pecs. Disha Patani sportingly shows off her perfect toned figure. Kunal Kemmu has some interesting moments, especially the scenes with his wife, played by the reliable Amruta Khanvilkar. But expectedly it’s Anil Kapoor who’s having the most fun. As Agashe, who’s always on edge, the actor is deliciously unpredictable, while also effectively conveying his inner pain when required.

Malang is far too long at nearly 2 hours and 15 minutes. The unconvincing plot simply doesn’t justify the indulgence. There are some moments that work, but by the end, I was wishing I’d stayed home sleeping on my palang rather than waste my time on Malang. I’m going with two out of five.

(This interview first aired on CNN News18)

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