Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara: A Review

September 14, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara – Dir: Zoya Akhtar; *ing: Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol, Katrina Kaif, Kalki Koechlin, Naseeruddin Shah

If you grew up in Pakistan in the 80s, you must surely remember this ad for a lemon-flavoured clear carbonated drink in which a cowboy encrusted with dirt staggers into an Old West-style tavern on a blazing hot day, and in a tortured voice asks the proprietor to give him a pack of potato chips. Then, as the proprietor looks on in amazement and horror, the cowboy starts chomping on those razor-like chips, his face screwed up in torment as the voice-over man tells him to “go ahead… build up that thirst until you can’t stand it anymore…” Finally, the cowboy whips open his leather bag, filled to the brim with chunks of ice and two bottles of the beverage in question, and proceeds to blow his thirst away.

Now imagine that those chips are the current circumstances in Pakistan, as well as all the depressing films you might’ve been watching lately, and that refreshing beverage which blows it all away is Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. It’s pretty simple really: if you want to exit the cinema wanting to plunge a dull knife into your skull, watch Bol or the like; if you want to come out humming ‘Take the world and paint it red’ and ready to book a flight to Spain (or Google Earth it, at least), go for ZNMD. For in these decidedly unpleasant times, the film is panacea, an unapologetically cheerful, optimistic, and, yes, uplifting diversion that, despite some well-spaced weighty moments, never takes itself seriously enough to become a bore.

The narrative structure is a familiar one, as is the story of three friends with unresolved issues in their lives taking a road trip together. As in Zoya Akhtar’s first directorial venture, the brilliant Luck By Chance, the characters are fairly broad ‘types’ – Arjun (Roshan) the ambitious workaholic, Imran (Akhtar) the jokester with hidden depth, and Kabir (Deol) the slightly geeky everyguy who also plays referee in any and all conflict – but somehow, yet again, she makes them work, as believable individuals to be identified with, instead of mere caricatures. And of course their journey (both the physical and the figurative one) offers up life-changing episodes. For Arjun it’s finding out that money isn’t everything when he meets diving instructor Laila (Kaif, finally relaxed and unselfconscious in a relatively brief but well-sketched role), while for Kabir it’s coming to the realization that in being the nice guy always trying to please everyone else but himself, he has perhaps painted himself into a corner with pixie-ish but compulsively jealous Natasha (Koechlin – superbly on-the-outer-edges-of-reason). And Imran has to decide whether he wants to risk putting his own sense of self into jeopardy by seeking out his long-absent father (Shah). Along the way, you can feast your eyes on some jaw-droppingly handsome Spanish landscapes.

But all the geographical eye-candy in the world would have come to naught if it had come accompanied by a trite script. Thankfully, that is far from the case here. The Akhtar siblings along with co-writer Reema Kagti keep it snappy with dialogue that is smart, fresh and engaging. It also helps that the three lead actors are so comfortable in their parts; Roshan mixes it up for himself by playing against type – Arjun is not an immediately likeable character. Deol and Akhtar are a delight, together and apart, whether going for laughs or tenderness.

Comparisons with Dil Chahta Hai are inevitable of course, and perhaps not unfairly so, both are essentially bromances, but ZNMD has actually added something to the narrative. If DCH was a coming of age story, then ZNMD takes a peek at what comes after, so don’t be surprised to see that becoming an adult doesn’t necessarily mean growing up.


Saat Khoon Maaf – A Review

September 14, 2011

Saat Khoon Maaf – Dir: Vishaal Bhardwaj; *ing: Priyanka Chopra, Vivaan Shah, John Abraham, Irrfan Khan, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Annu Kapoor, Aleksandr Dyachenko, & Naseeruddin Shah

Oh how the mighty have fallen! Actually, scratch that, it was a terrible way to begin. For that particular phrase carries in it more than a whiff of glee, a triumphal giggle-snort at witnessing a stumble from a heretofore infallible entity, like a pompous vicar passing wind during his fiery sermon on social etiquette. Let’s face it, we enjoy the air of embarrassment when a world renowned chef inexplicably serves up a turd frittata on live TV. But there is none of that vengeful mirth in one’s reception of Saat Khoon Maaf, the latest entry from Bollywoodwünderkind Vishaal Bhardwaj. After the director’s triple-whammy of MaqboolOmkara, and Kaminey, we the audience probably got a bit too fat-headed for our own good and superimposed on Bhardwaj a mantle of invincibility – he is film’s über mensch and he can do no wrong! And being so invested in his awesomeness, the feeling one is left with at the end, and indeed through much of SKM, is one of disappointment and helplessness – our hero let us down? How can that be? Does he not love us anymore? But perhaps we should be thinking of our own culpability in the scenario, maybe the guy was under too much darn pressure to keep beating himself at his own game; just how long can we keep flogging that prized horse to indefinitely maintain its maximum speed? At some point it WILL either a) drop from exhaustion, or b) kick us in the mouth – in this case, both. After all, pretty much every great artist in history has at one point or more, laid an egg that no mother could love.

Based on Ruskin Bond’s short story ‘Susanna’s Seven Husbands’, the film lays out its central premise pretty plainly: Susanna (Chopra) marries, and marries often, for love, duty, convenience, pity, but she is let down every time by her grooms who turn out to be psycho (Mukesh), junkie (Abraham), sado-masochist (Khan), bigamist (Dyachenko), annoyance (Kapoor), and gold digger (Shah Senior). Through her endless and fruitless quest to find amour parfait, Susanna is loved from afar by Arun (Shah Junior), a servant’s much younger son (who also tells the story through flashbacks), and aided in her romantic and murderous endeavours by a trio of domestics who presumably constitute a kind of Greek chorus to the proceedings, except they keep rather quiet for a chorus.

It’s not difficult to spell out what some of the problems with SKM are. It’s too episodic and, surprisingly enough, despite the subject matter, lacks that seductive, dark intensity that marked Bhardwaj’s earlier films. It has neither the haunting quality or characters of Maqbool, nor the discomforting menace of Omkara, and certainly not the frenetic allure of Kaminey. Where Susanna’s story could have been used to explore a subtext not only on questions of prescribed feminine roles but also notions of family, marriage and honour within a patriarchal construct, the film merely meanders on the surface, seemingly content to relate anecdotes that, beyond the initial appeal of the macabre, have little substance, and become less and less interesting as the film progresses. The final nail in the coffin is Susanna herself, a character so sketchy and ill-defined as to be rendered utterly implausible. In traditional grand guignol and théâtre macabre, improbable characters are still plausible because of the heightened stylization of their entire milieu. In SKM, that is not the case, and as a result, Susanna and her predicaments and her actions come off forced and lacking in both logic and cohesion.

Still, this is our man Bhardwaj we’re talking about, so let’s consider this cinematic hiccough a momentary lapse in judgement – as batting averages go, his is still near impeccable. It’s alright man, we still love ya. If nothing else, we’ll always have ‘Beedi’.


June 30, 2011

Thor – Dir: Kenneth Branagh; *ing: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston

It’s hammer time!

Have you ever noticed that a lot of comic book superheroes are associated in name with things often rather mundane? There are the creepy crawlies/stupid critters variety – spider, bat, panther, squirrel (yes, there is indeed a Squirrel Girl on Marvel’s ever burgeoning roster) – and there are also the household appliance variety – iron, lantern, torch, cable, and, umm, arrow. In other instances, the creators just seem to have named their heroes after the first words they encounter upon opening up their offspring’s second grade reader – doctor, fantastic, atom, THING. And then you have Thor, which puzzlingly sidesteps these easy categories, what with its Norse mumbo jumbo mythological pedigree and name that sounds like one of those text sound effects from the old Batman comics – Ka-pow! Zzzzwap! Thor! So the prospect of a movie version didn’t exactly feel like the greatest thing since sliced, toasted and buttered bread. At least not until I realized I was confusing the poor dear with Hagar the Horrible. That clarification helps somewhat, for Thor is just a teeny bit more super than the other superheroes, in that he isn’t, say, a laundromat mogul who likes to dress up as a rodent in order to fight street thugs; no, he’s a god, that’s right, a flipping god, who comes from a race of gods, and who has in his possession the super cool and crazy-powerful Mjollnir – the hammer of the gods. Of course with this sort of premise, there comes the inevitable faint whiff of cheese which you don’t necessarily want spread on your metaphorical cinematic cracker.

So fear not and rest assured, for Thor quite miraculously forgoes the allure of the fromage and instead delivers a rather sumptuous spread – of fast food, yes, but as prepared by a gourmet chef. The chef in question just happens to be celebrated Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh, who, not surprisingly, brings more than a touch of the Bard to this tale of battling brothers and banished would-be heroes. Half of the story takes place in the quasi-medieval parallel world of Asgard, where warrior-tastic King Odin (Hopkins) has defeated the race of creatures known as the Frost Giants (yes, they sound like something out of a Roald Dahl kiddie book, but scoff not, they’re fabulously conceived and rendered). Tapped to be his heir is brash, blond, hammer-happy babe fodder Thor (Hemsworth), while dark-haired son Loki (Hiddleston) broods on the sidelines. As it turns out though, Thor is just a tad too hung up on his own awesomeness and when his arrogance leads to a breach in Asgard’s defence against the sulking ice army, he is banished to Earth by Odin and stripped of the Mjollnir, having been told that only a suitably humble and truly heroic god is worthy of possessing it. Once stranded on the lonely planet, the anachronistic-sounding deity has to enlist the aid of breathless scientist Jane Foster (Portman) and friends, to find his way back, and that too before Loki-gone-loco ends up destroying his home world with his shenanigans.

Thor’s strength as a film lies in the fact that it is consistently entertaining and doesn’t flinch from deriving fun out of its main character’s Baywatch-ness; the stranger-in-a-strange-land flavour of Thor’s earthly exploits are bloody good fun and Hemsworth plays them terribly well – he is certainly a star in the making, if he isn’t one already that is. As director, Branagh wisely strikes a pleasing balance between the moments of levity and gravity, with Hiddleston’s Loki providing a wonderfully dark though strangely sympathetic counterpoint to the more broadly painted Thor. Visually, too, the film is a veritable feast. In today’s post-Avatar CGI/3D landscape, it can’t be easy to create something that still dazzles and intrigues, but Thor manages to do so, especially with Asgard’s wondrous Rainbow Bridge (okay, okay, so that too sounds more Sesame Street than God of War, but it’s still mightily impressive). Altogether, Thor does Marvel proud.

Squirrel Girl, your day is nigh.


June 30, 2011

Priest – Dir: Scott Stewart; *ing: Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Maggie Q, Lily Collins, Cam Gigandet, Stephen Moyer

Blade bummer…
Paul Bettany, you are an incredibly hot man and a terrific actor to boot, so why on earth are you slumming it in Scott Stewart’s pseudo-Blade Runner/Man With No Name post-apocalyptic crap fests like Legion and Priest?!?!

Pardon, I wasn’t supposed to begin with this angsty primal scream moment but it is teeth-gnashingly frustrating when some actors seem hell-bent on squandering their talent in material that is best left scraped off on the edge of a pavement. Nicolas Cage is guilty of it, and De Niro has been pulling it for years now, to name only two, but it never gets easier on a filmgoer’s soul to see a beloved thespian ham it up, chew scenery, and generally just sign over his 21 grams to Lucifer, without so much as a ‘I’m doing it for the cash, okay?’ With an actor like Bettany it is all the more mortifying because, unlike Cage and De Niro, he is not yet a star and so can scarcely afford to louse up his chances. And yet he goes ahead and does it. Again.

Here, he plays the titular man of the cloth whose job description involves more than just taking confession and dishing out penance; namely, he’s a preternaturally gifted assassin, one among an elite army, hand-picked by the church to seek out and vanquish the world’s feral vampire population whom, in this alternate universe, humanity has been battling for centuries. When the film picks up the story, the pale toothy ones have already been permanently disposed of, and the band of clerical warriors has been, well, disbanded, and sent into forced retirement to live out the rest of their days in obscurity. Yeah, that’s what you get for saving the world’s ass from a righteous amount of neck chewing. But when Priest’s niece (Collins) is abducted and his family slaughtered (including True Blood’s main vamp Stephen Moyer in a bit of hokey stunt-casting) by what appears to be a bunch of re-emerged, rogue vamps, led by the supposedly mysterious Black Hat (Urban), the raspy voiced one defies church orders in order to a) rescue the girl, b) kick some serious vampire behind, and c) blatantly eke out a set-up that pretty much screams ‘sequel’.

You can be forgiven for imagining that the religious vein of the scenario must mean that themes of faith – or the lack thereof – and loyalty and church vs. man are explored herein; however, it seems, that the minds behind Priest aren’t as interested in subtexts exploring crises of faith and morality, as they are in exploring, well, vampire innards, varieties of blood spatter formations, and all the ways in which the vicious-looking villains can still be made to look like meowing kittens in the face of Priest’s magnificent proficiency with a flying fist and furrowed brow. I mean really, those vamps don’t stand a chance if Black Hat is the best, most badass one they’ve got; Priest can out-glower that wimp with one eye tied behind his back. And that’s just one of the myriad problems with the film: you never get the feeling that there is anything really big at stake (no pun intended), Priest will take care of it, man, no sweat – read: yawn. Couple that with some of the most god-awful dialogue committed to film in recent memory, and you have the makings of what is surely destined to be a future classic of the ‘so bad it’s good variety’. And it really does not help matters that in an age when we the audience are used to seeing vampires as pasty-faced, brooding hunks of sex on legs, Priest gives us vamps that look like the unholy spawn of the creature from Alien and an uncooked chicken drumstick.

Mr. Bettany, you need to screen calls from Mr. Stewart.

Mr. Stewart, you need to say a thousand and one Hail Mary’s to atone for this colossal mess of stupidity.

Source Code – A Review

June 30, 2011

Source Code – Dir: Duncan Jones; *ing: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

Say ‘Sci-fi’ out loud. Go on, say it. What kind of images come to mind? Lumbering robots? Men in black kabukimono-style overcoats moving in bullet-time? A monumental spaceship cruising the final frontier, with perhaps the name ‘Enterprise’ emblazoned on its derriere? If so, then you’re very with it as far as sci-fi filmmaking in the last decade or so is concerned. (If, on the other hand, you pictured a black monolith and a red electronic eye singing ‘Daisy Bell’ in a distorted voice, then congratulations, you are a certifiable film geek stuck in a time warp, so welcome to my world). The genre has remained amazingly popular in the nearly-four decades since Star Wars, even though, it must be admitted, the ‘science’ aspect of it has become, for the most part, increasingly preposterous, while the ‘fiction’ part of it has more often than not sacrificed minor elements like character development and involving plot at the altar of ‘more mind-numbing explosions and cheesy punchlines, please’. So Source Code comes as a shockingly pleasant surprise, for it is an anomaly in these Michael Bay times – a sci-fi film with heart, brain, and, umm, those round things you play tennis with.

So okay, the science part of it is still fairly ludicrous, but by not dwelling on it interminably in order to justify its premise, Source Code acquits itself on that count pretty neatly. Army captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) awakens on a Chicago commuter train with no memory of how he got there and with no idea who the pretty woman sitting across from him (Monaghan) and talking to him in a familiar manner is. His confusion is cemented further when he stumbles into the loo and finds a stranger staring back at him in the mirror. There’s barely time to consider that, though, as in the very next moment, the train explodes into a fireball. Cut to Stevens strapped down inside a capsule, again completely disoriented until he is reminded on a closed circuit screen by Officer Goodwin (Farmiga) that he has been assigned the task of reliving the last eight minutes of the life of one of the victims on the train, through the nascent and top-secret technology of source code, in order to find the bomb that blew up the train and also to identify the bomber who has vowed to do worse very soon. Since Stevens was unable to complete the mission on the first go, he must go back again. And again. And again, over and over, as he adapts and changes strategy each time, all the while letting the mystery woman get further and further under his skin, and gradually realizing the enormity, as well as the inherent tragedy of his situation; source code is not time travel, as its creator (Wright) informs Stevens, it’s time re-assignment, which means that even if Stevens prevents the train bomb from going off in the source code timeline, in the ‘actual’ world, that would have no effect and the train would still have exploded, killing all on board, just as in the original event.

Director Jones, who earlier made the similarly mind bending Moon, creates that rarest of creatures here, the intelligent actioner which also takes admirable pains to not let the human angle of the story fall by the wayside; in fact, if anything, the film is more invested in its characters than its plot’s potential for bombast. So it helps that its three leads are played by such extraordinary and likeable actors. Monaghan’s is a guileless, unpretentious presence, while Farmiga is the goddess of the close-up, not only for her luminous beauty but, far more importantly, for her complete command over the instrument that is her delicately expressive face. And Gyllenhaal is the perfect fit as Stevens: manic, edgy, and tough, yet also the vulnerable everyman – it’s a complicated role to carry, but the G man does it with aplomb. Together, the three, along with their director, weave a smart, classy thriller with a soul that’ll leave with more than a few chills.

So the next time someone says sci-fi, think source code.

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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