Archive for December, 2009

Ajab Prem Ki Gazab Kahani

December 2, 2009

Ajab Prem Ki Gazab Kahani – Dir: Rajkumar Santoshi. *ing: Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif

Remember the fable about that lazy sod who is stupidly entrusted with the task of purchasing a great big hunk of cheese, which he is expected to lug home upon his back? Said lazy sod finds soon enough that carrying that smelly block of fromage is way too much hard work, and instead decides to set the thing rolling down the hill, figuring that it’ll find its way to the village on its own.

Well, think of APKGK as the cinematic equivalent of that wad of cheese, left to roll down the hill to find its own way to its destination. Or, in other words, apparently director Santoshi and co. threw together a mish-mash of ingredients of dubious quality and lobbed it against the wall to see what would stick. Or, to put it yet another way, APKGK is that proverbial chicken with its head cut off, running around in frenzied, pointless circles until it finally keels over dead.

Which is to say that the film, to use a desi figure of speech, is a film without head or foot (sar paer). It has only the shakiest semblance of a plot, a script that ricochets wildly between nerve-testing comedy and cold-as-gazpacho ‘family drama’, and characters and situations so improbable they belong in a Barbara Cartland novel, had the poodle-loving lady in pink ever tried her hand at cranking out a piece of farce, as opposed to her usual piece of… well let’s not be rude about the deceased.

But if you must know, the story revolves around one Prem Chopra (Kapoor) a no-good wastrel who whiles away his days being ‘precedent’ of the local losers’ ‘Happy Club’, and the bane of his father’s existence. Enter love interest Jenny (Kaif, reprising her cutie-pie bimbo act for, oh, only the umpteenth time) and suddenly Prem is forced to attempt to grow up and face his responsibilities if he is to win her heart. Really, what is so gazab about this oft-told kahani?

However, there is one thing that keeps APKGK from being an irredeemable waste of time, and that is – drum roll, please – the absolutely colossal charisma of Mr. Ranbir Kapoor! If ever a film has been carried entirely on a single set of shoulders, this is it folks. On paper the titular character is an annoying little twerp, like a hypo-maniac left off his tranquilisers for too long. But in Kapoor’s hands he is lovable, ridiculously charming, and, dare we say it, very nearly comparable to some of the most memorable personae created by dad Rishi (who, to the devotees among us, is the true Kapoor khaandan deity). There really must be something in that household’s water.

Mention must be made too of our wonder boy Atif Aslam, who’s in fine form, making quick work of the film’s only real stand-out song, ‘Tera honay laga hoon’. And surprisingly enough, his slim pitch makes for a good ghost-voice for the rather more bear-toned Kapoor.

There is little else to recommend the film, unless mindless comedy is your need of the day, which, admittedly, is a perfectly valid need, but there too lies a pitfall since the jokes aren’t all that hot. When pretty much the funniest line in the film (spoken by a statue, no less) is “Wipe the crow shit off my back”, there isn’t much room left to maneuver, is there?

Heaven On Earth

December 2, 2009

Heaven On Earth – Dir: Deepa Mehta; *ing: Preity Zinta, Vansh Bhardwaj, Ramanjit Kaur, Balinder Johal

As a director, Deepa Mehta has never exactly been the most nuanced of creatures; more often than not, her work has been derivative and riddled with clichés. Whether tackling homosexuality in Fire, Partition in Earth, widowhood in Water, or Lord-knows-what in Bollywood/Hollywood, her approach has come across as leaden as a copy of the Bahishti Zevar, and about as subtle. It has been her fortune though to have worked either with good actors (Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Aamir Khan) or good-looking actors (Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Rahul Khanna) who have gamely prevented interest in her work from going down the proverbial toilet.

So from this admittedly jaded vantage point, Heaven On Earth comes as more than a pleasant surprise, it is in fact a minor revelation. There seems to be a whole other Mehta at the helm here, one who has gotten around to the notion that you don’t have to club someone over the head with a point in order to drive it home. And for the most part, it is a success.

At first glance, the film seems to be going the ‘poor, pretty Indian girl suffering domestic abuse from rat-bastard husband in the diaspora’ route, last treaded in asinine Aishawriya Rai starrer Provoked. But Mehta wisely sidesteps this trap of all-too-easy chestnuts, by instead turning it into a quasi-treatise on the diaspora experience as a whole. Her protagonist Chand (Zinta) is the fish-out-of-water married into a conservative, migrant Punjabi family in Canada, but she is no shrinking violet quivering in a corner under the shadow of a raised rolling pin; she has a little more moxie than that. Neither – thankfully – is her husband Rocky (Bhardwaj) painted in irredeemable swathes of black. As Mehta herself explains: “The abuser in this case isn’t a mono-dimensional villain. He’s under a great deal of stress to live up to his role as the family patriarch, and to take care of everyone. I had no interest in simply pointing a finger at men and saying it’s all your fault! Things are far more complicated than that. There are cultural implications and family dynamics. Sometimes just a plain lack of personal privacy can set a cycle of violence in motion because couples don’t have the space to talk through their problems.” Indeed, more than the husband, it is the matriarch (Johal) that Mehta seems more critical of, for wanting to maintain a status quo in which traditional socio-familial roles must not be questioned or challenged.

So ultimately, and admirably, then, Heaven On Earth is not about wife-beating at all. Its concerns are the issues of identity, displacement, and above all, assimilation, or the lack thereof; the failure or perhaps unwillingness of a family to assimilate itself in its adoptive society and culture, and the inability of the ‘heroine’ to assimilate herself into her adoptive family. The element of pseudo-magical realism introduced some way into the film, concerning the legend of a sheesh naag, may not be to everyone’s taste, but it gets its point across, again without bludgeoning you with it.

Mehta also must be given bonus marks for tapping hitherto undetected reserves of subtlety and emotional power in Preity Zinta, who at long last overcomes entirely her grating ‘bubbly’ persona to deliver an enormously moving performance.

Here’s hoping this is a new beginning for both.

New York

December 2, 2009

New York – Dir: Kabir Khan, *ing: John Abraham, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Katrina Kaif, Irrfan Khan

Omar (Mukesh), an Indian living in the US, is framed by the FBI on a trumped-up weapons charge and then forced by Agent Roshan (Khan) to co-operate in bringing down old college buddy Sameer (Abraham) who has turned to terrorism after being illegally detained and tortured following the September 11 attacks. Matters are further complicated because Sameer’s wife is Omar’s old flame Maya (Kaif).

In various circles, New York has been accused of having a Khuda Ke Liye hangover, but that really is a non-starter of an issue so let’s dispense with it without another word. First the (admittedly meager) good news: it isn’t abysmal, the all-important ‘look’ is slick, Irrfan Khan is mesmerizing as always, Abraham and Mukesh are competent (and more than easy on the eyes), if inconsistent, Kaif dials downs the cutesy factor a tad to come off as less grating than usual, and there is a nice musical montage or two.

And yet…

The problem here is that as a piece of cinematic text, New York is so devoid of a political viewpoint, so lacking in narrative cojones, that it fails almost completely to stir up some sort of critical response, leaving one to shrug one’s shoulders and go, “Uh huh, well, okay.” Firstly, NY’s main characters are a cop-out; there is nothing faintly ‘Muslim’ or even South-Asian about them, other than the fact that they speak Hindi; all three are pretty and perfect and utterly ‘safe’, liberal, Westernised, non-threatening, fun-loving preppies, so that we are pretty much bullied into sympathizing with them – “see these nice, broad-minded, homogenized Indian-American Moslems being harassed by the nasty FBI, ain’t that a shame?” It would have made for a far more challenging and politically pertinent narrative had the protagonists at least remotely resembled a more archetypal ‘Muslim’ profile that has more typically been the target of ethnic profiling and resulting detentions. Perhaps the filmmaker deduced that the audience would more readily identify with and accept tequila-swilling, hottie-snogging Muslims, rather than ones sporting beards and hijabs – no, that would’ve made them just too hard to root for. Secondly, Sameer’s radicalization is also robbed of any ideological colouring; it comes off as mere personal vendetta rather than a response to the systematic persecution of a community, no matter how misplaced. His torture at the hands of the authorities may be brutal but it may as well be out of a Bond movie so drained of political substance is it (the verbal testimony of a minor character about torture of detainees is infinitely more compelling). There isn’t a whiff in the whole film of religion or even religious cultures. So much so that one is left with the distinct feeling that NY didn’t have to be about Muslims in a post-9/11 world at all – it could just as well have been any old little-man-against-the-big-bad-world revenge tale. A shame really, considering that there aren’t nearly enough films being made out there which examine the fallout of the so-called War on Terror on the countless innocent lives being racked up as collateral damage.

The makers of the film have reaped much publicity out of the tidbit that John Abraham studied the Quran in order to prepare for his part. After watching the film, one can only ask: what ever for?


December 2, 2009

Kaminey – Dir: Vishal Bhardwaj; *ing: Shahid Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra

There is an appropriate correlation between director/music composer Vishal Bhardwaj’s films and their musical soundtracks: Maqbool – quietly, intensely, ominous; Omkara – earthy, with lurking undertones of the evil that men do. And now the quirkily titled Kaminey, whose infectious clarion call of ‘Dhan Te Nan’ marks an altogether more brash and untethered tonal quality, with the violence that was more implied than vehemently stated in the earlier films now replaced by an edgier, grittier, flashier visceral sensibility that doesn’t flinch from the required rough ‘n tumble of its underworld setting.

That setting, of ‘navi’ Mumbai’s gangland arena, is hardly pristine ground, having been trampled many times over by the likes of Ram Gopal Verma and co. But Bhardwaj brings his own unique Bhardwaj flavour to it. As it is, the somewhat convoluted plot concerning a guitar case full of cocaine is hardly the point here. Kaminey is really the tale of two wildly differing paths – those taken by twin brothers Charlie and Guddu (Kapoor), the former a small-time gangster who dreams of becoming a bookie, and the latter an introverted, morally upstanding worker in an AIDS awareness NGO, who also romances Sweety (Chopra). However, contrary to Hindi movie conventions, the twin brothers scenario is neither the basis for any low-brow comedy, nor for sickeningly saccharine filmi lessons in brotherly love – Charlie and Guddu (both names also aptly denote each one’s life choices) can’t stand the sight of each other. Also, while one lisps, the other stutters, something that could easily have fallen into the unfortunate category of cheap gimmick, but actually turns out to be a singularly inspired device that serves to not only de-mystify the hitherto glamorized gangster and sanctified do-gooder stereotypes, but at the same time marks them as one-time social outcasts who manage to make their own unique places in their respective worlds.

Some might gripe that Kaminey suffers in comparison with Maqbool and Omkara, and they may be right to a degree. Certainly, script-wise those works were stronger and more nuanced, and many will prefer their more languid, classical pacing (they were, after all, Shakespearean adaptations while Kaminey isn’t) as opposed the more frenetic, kinetic one at play here. But that in no way makes Kaminey any less of a cinematic achievement, because with only his sixth film Bhardwaj has established his remarkable directorial style and vision. His command over and use of the filmic idiom is unparalleled in contemporary Hindi cinema – whether in terms of the cinematography, the masterful editing, the ingenious use of colour, or indeed in getting strong performances from his cast. He made a star out of Irrfan Khan in Maqbool, extracted a superb actor out of Saif Ali Khan in Omkara, and here he makes a force of nature out of baby-faced Kapoor, so far best known for his cocoa-flavoured parts in rom-coms. Bhardwaj revels in dirtying up that cuddly image and Kapoor seems only too happy to comply. While he clearly has fun playing Charlie, bringing a haunted quality to the more showy of the two parts, his Guddu is the more quietly revelatory creation – not a stuttering cookie-cutter saint but a complex, flawed individual.

While comparisons with Hollywood gangster films are inevitable, with Kaminey, Bhardwaj has pretty much created a sub-genre unto itself, one whose look, milieu and hallmarks are solidly and proudly ‘Bollywood’.

Dhan Te Nan indeed.

Dil Bole Hadippa!

December 2, 2009

Dil Bole Hadippa! – Dir: Anurag Singh; *ing: Rani Mukherjee, Shahid Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Rakhi Sawant, Sherlyn Chopra

A young woman disguises herself as a man in order to infiltrate and thereby challenge a traditionally masculine domain which women are thought too feeble to be allowed to enter, providing the background text for a treatise on issues of gender stereotypes, post-modern feminism, and sexual identities.

Oh hang on a minute, this isn’t a review of Yentl, is it? Well, in that case scratch the opening paragraph because Dil Bole Hadippa! isn’t concerned with all that hooey at all. Matter of fact, the problem is one is not quite sure WHAT said movie is concerned with other than supplying a painfully ‘colourful’ backdrop for its bunch of clichéd plot points to be played out against – with the term ‘plot’ applied in the roomiest of senses. For a film that is on one level supposedly about gender identity, it is, somewhat ironically, completely lacking an identity of its own. It is an oatmeal porridge of a movie – so utterly bland that it is too much of an effort to even dislike it properly, all you can do is shake your head in bewilderment at the non-necessity of its very existence. Hey Yashraj, what the barnacles is up with this big ol’ bowl of nothingness?

One is sure that on paper the premise must have seemed more than workable: Veera Kaur (Mukherjee) is the best batsman in the land but won’t be allowed on the local cricket team because, well, she isn’t the right shape, so to speak. So she does what any ultra-feminine, hour-glass-shaped Punjabi lass would do: borrows Spongebob’s square pants and slaps on a fake scraggly ‘stache-n-beard job, and hey presto! She’s now good to go as Veer Pa-ji, and nary a soul even suspects any fowl play, despite the obviously bumpy physique, the distinctly pre-pubescent voice pitch, and the fact that the ‘boy’ never seems to feel the urge to scratch himself in public. To complicate matters though, the team captain, ‘foreign-returned’ Rohan (Kapoor) falls in love with him, er… her – whatever. Then there is a Pakistan-India cricket diplomacy angle which doesn’t really go anywhere because, again, the film can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be about Pak-Hind dosti, or cricket, or equal opportunity in the world of sports, or boy/girl-as-boy shenanigans, or Sherlyn Chopra’s enviable mid-riff that saunters into the film and is then ushered out quite unceremoniously into oblivion, never to be heard from again.

In fact Chopra’s ephemeral belly button actually captures the tone of the whole film – things are introduced with a bang-and-a-half only to peter out with a pitiful whimper. The romance barely registers, the sport scenes are filmed in Dullsville, and the narrative possibilities of the stranger-in-a-strange-land premise are never explored beyond the usual, clichéd bathroom joke. As a result, the quasi-feminist speech that Veera makes at the end feels half-baked, with a severe case of too-little-too-late to boot.

One feels sorry for the actors. The undeniably talented Rani Mukherjee can play this caliber of role in her sleep, and indeed seems to be doing so here, so somnambulant is the script. In fact, considering that Bollywood fare doesn’t often lay much emphasis, either way, on scripts, it is impressive (in a bad, bad way) that DPH’s biggest offence can be singled out to be lazy scripting, with a put-together-with-spit narrative, and dialogue so un-fresh it needs to be banished to a landfill along with other non-recyclable waste.

Dil bole yawn…

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