Saturday, May 25, 2019

India's Most Wanted - Movie Review

One of the basic tenets of a spy is to be non-descript. Being undercover means being as normal as anyone else around them and blending into the crowd. Director – writer Raj Kumar Gupta’s latest release, India’s Most Wanted, starring Arjun Kapoor in the lead does not seem to believe in the basic tenets I spoke about and only wishes to concentrate on the so-called genius of his protagonist.

Using an all-male-cast, India’s Most Wanted is a fictional retelling of the covert operation undertaken by Indian security forces to nab the mastermind behind multiple blasts in India in late 2000s. The screenplay by Raj Kumar Gupta tries to keep the narrative crisp, by cutting down the chase and getting straight to the point from the word go. The movie begins with a glimpse of Pune blasts of 2008 and cuts to an IB officer in Bihar, Prabhat Kapoor (Arjun Kapoor), who wishes to pursue intelligence received from Nepal about the whereabouts of a dreaded terrorist. Red tape bureaucrats and the complacent North Block in Delhi does not pay heed to his credible information, yet, ‘desh ke liye jaan bhi de denge’ is their motto and wearing their nationalism on their sleeves, Prabhat and his team head to Pokhara in Nepal to validate the intelligence received and nab India’s Most Wanted terrorist!

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The movie is well-intended, but not well-executed. Raj Kumar Gupta made his debut with a crisp, edge-of-the-seat thriller, ‘Aamir’. The characters were layered, their conflicts seemed real and his narrative had an emotional connect. He followed it up with a decently watchable, ‘No One Killed Jessica’, which worked to a certain extent thanks to its brilliant leads. And then he spiralled into mediocrity. From ‘Ghanchakkar’ to ‘Raid’ to now, India’s Most Wanted. Nationalism and movies with a flavour of patriotism are always lapped up by the audiences, but Raj Kumar Gupta does not let his characters develop or build an emotional connect with us. The characters are one-tone, with a hurried family angle added to each of them to create sympathy. The writing also seems inept, because of the glaring loopholes. A terror suspect is identified based on CCTV footage and in an IB briefing, a character shows his picture and says, “Yousuf kaisa dikhta hai, yeh koi nahi janta”. Er, didn’t you just show a picture, apparently identifying him from a week-old CCTV footage? I laughed my heart out when Prabhat and his team climb on top of a water tank to make a discreet phone call, but his superior discusses the entire covert operation with a ministry official, running through the office lobby! By the same standards, he could have discussed it over a picnic! The opponents in the form of ISI are thankfully not shown as fools, yet, they are incapable and slow.

Much like Ajay Devgn in ‘Raid’, Arjun Kapoor is made to look larger than life, relegating the others to the backdrop. ‘Raid’ was made watchable by the thrills in the writing, complemented by a good actor like Ajay Devgn. But, when you have an inexpressive face carrying your film, the thrills fall flat. Agreed that the movie comes from a John Abraham school of nationalism and does not bear a Raazi-like nuanced craft, but using lofty statements without even slightest of expressions on your face is disheartening and plain sad. The supporting cast is passable, with the exception of the actor who plays their informer in Nepal. He is sorely annoying. Arjun Kapoor, hogging half the screen time and half the screen space (owing to his bulky size), carries a single, straight-faced expression throughout the film. As I said, an undercover agent needs to be non-descript. Here, Arjun stares into the oblivion and looks so morbid that any normal person would suspect him to be a terrorist! In a scene where he is on a phone call with his superior, an unemotive Prabhat says, “Sir, hum nervous hai”, with not even the slightest hint of anxiety. His boss (Rajesh Sharma) replies with a frown and between heavy breathes, “Hum bhi”. You can see the difference between a non-actor and an actor. I wish the director and the producers had also noticed this before signing on a log of wood to act as their protagonist!

While Arjun Kapoor is the biggest liability that this movie carries, it also has some assets which are major plus points. There are moments of suspense in the middle and a few clever moves by the undercover team in Nepal. Also, the cinematography by Dudley captures Nepal in all its scenic glory. Also, with a short run time of about 2 hours and no unnecessary song-and-dance routine, India’s Most Wanted thankfully cuts us some slack.  

The movie is billed as an action thriller, but there is not enough action and the thrills fall flat, thanks to Arjun Kapoor. Even the patronizing dialogues of deshbhakti evoke little emotions. A character in the end says to Prabhat, “Ab wapis bhi aaoge, ya sirf dialogue baazi karte rahoge?”. It almost felt like he was speaking for the audiences.

My Rating – 2/5

Friday, April 5, 2019

Majili - Movie Review

In 2017, Mani Ratnam directorial Katru Veliyidai (Cheliyaa in Telugu) opened at the box-office. A hardcore love story set against fighter jets and Kargil war, Katru Veliyidai, gave us a woman madly in love with an abusive and unappreciative lover. 2017 also gave us debutante director Shiva Nirvana’s, Nani-Nivetha Thomas-Aadi starrer, Ninnu Kori. The reason I bring these up while talking about Shiva Nirvana’s Majili, is for two reasons – unwavering love of the leads and the dichotomous narrative juggling between a love story and a parallel story of the hero. While Katru Veliyidai had the Indian Air Force punctuating the love story, Majili has cricket injected into its love story. And this dichotomy is the very problem of the movie.

Majili tracks the life of Poorna (Naga Chaitanya) from a teen aspiring to be a cricketer to an alcoholic Devdas. During his formative years as a regional cricketer, he falls for Anshu (Divyansha Kaushik), daughter of a Naval officer. Just like the unauthentic Navy household, the equation between a well-read North Indian Navy kid and an ITI student looks contrived. In the midst of making his way to the Railway cricket team and over the course of a song, they fall for each other. This is the binary nature of the story that I was talking about. The writing by Shiva Nirvana gets uneven – it straddles between a movie on cricket and a love story. This impacts the emotional intensity the love story requires. There are a few endearing moments, such as an excited young Poorna trying to get intimate with Anshu. But, such moments are far and apart, and so the love story feels half-baked.

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As expected, the lovers are separated leading to Poorna ruining his career and taking to vices. Years later, an alcoholic Poorna is married to his neighbor’s daughter, Sravani (Samantha Akkineni), who harbours a strong crush on Poorna since her childhood. Poorna’s strong love and longing for his long-forgotten girlfriend, Anshu, does not let him accept Sravani as his wife. Sravani is a spirited girl, who puts a brave and independent face to the world – she stands up for her husband and goes against her parents and father-in-law. As a girl besotted by Poorna from her school days, she continues to bear his tantrums and be his devoted wife. The writing helps the audiences sympathise with her and question her decision to continue in an unhappy marriage. For a girl who gushes over the sight of this young boy and whose feet she touches as a teen - like a typical Indian pativrata wife - it is believable that her one-sided love made her bear his tantrums. Like Dr. Leela Abraham (Aditi Rao Hydari) in Katru Veliyidai, Sravani displays unconditional love, but does not reduce herself to a slave at the hands of her unappreciative husband (though not abusive, thankfully). I just wish Sravani’s character was introduced earlier on in the narrative, which would have been more emotionally evocative. Again, just when this love story begins to simmer and the audience starts to question the unaffected Poorna, cricket makes a comeback! This time, thankfully, to unite the couple. Also, I found the timelines to be blurry – how old are they? The teenage romance is shown to be around the period when ‘Bhoot’ came out– implying it is set around 2003. But the events that follow make the timeline look slightly unclear.

Keeping the cricket versus love story aside, there are a few moments between the leads that are charming. The awkwardness between a platonic couple married for two years is endearing and one of my favourite scenes is the one with ‘Maata raani mounam idi’ song in the backdrop. Samantha shows restrain and maturity that the character demands, even while appearing to be meek. She complements the story and her husband well. Debutante Divyansha Kaushik is decent, but does not have an impactful role. Making her debut in a cliched girl-hates-guy-turns-into-love template, she gets a rather raw deal. Carrying the film entirely on his shoulder, Naga Chaitanya looks confident and delivers a rather impressive performance. Last year when he tried the formulaic, Sailaja Reddy Alludu, I had opined that he does not have a charismatic personality like NTR Jr or Ram Charan to carry a masala movie on his shoulders. But, Majili seems to be resting comfortably on his shoulders, even during certain unimpressive emotional scenes. This is a marked improvement over his last few movies.

Like Ninnu Kori, Majili also delivers well on the technical departments, especially the cinematography by Vishnu Sharma and the music by Gopi Sundar. Shiva Nirvana, writing and directing again, attempts a mature love story, but falls short of the craft that the likes of Gautam Vasudev Menon have. Like Ninnu Kori, his writing centres around a jilted, staunch lover but he does not let the love story brew enough, often diluting it with other elements (here it was cricket). Giving credit where it is due, his signature dialogues such as ‘Love Letter lo unna peru, wedding card lo radu’, are again in display.

Majili is certainly an enjoyable watch, especially if you are sucker for love stories. But it is not entirely engrossing and evocative.

My Rating – 3/5

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Badla - Movie Review

Before I talk about this week’s crime thriller, Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla, I want to jog your minds to the underwhelming murder mystery from 2017, Ittefaq. Starring Sonakshi Sinha, Siddharth Malhotra and Akshay Khanna, Ittefaq was a retelling of yesteryears film with the same title. The reason why I bring up Ittefaq now, is the similarity in the narrative with Badla – multiple narratives of the same crime. Also, much like Ittefaq, this Amitabh Bachchan – Taapsee Pannu starrer takes the route of complicated twists, just to appear smart. Does it succeed in appearing smart? Not really.

Naina Sethi (Taapsee Pannu) is a young businesswoman, married to a supportive husband and her work. In a mysterious turn of events, she is accused of murdering her paramour Arjun Mehta (Tony Luke). Though she pleads her innocence, she gets pulled into a criminal case thanks to various people with different motives - An Indo-British couple Nirmal Singh and Rani Kaur (Tanveer Ghani and Amrita Singh), looking for their missing son. A lawyer (Manav Kaul) who can go to any lengths to save his client. A powerful investigative lawyer, Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan), who has never lost a case in 40 years. I will refrain from talking about the plot since this is a suspense thriller. But I cannot keep myself from comparing the narrative style with Ittefaq. In my review as well, I had lauded the writing since it was cleverly written to oscillate between different sides of the same crime. Similarly, Badla takes us through multiple narratives of the murder in question – Naina’s story, Arjun’s perspective and Badal Gupta’s investigative analysis. Now, this is a very effective style of writing to keep the audiences hooked, but Badla falls slightly short of striking a chord.

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Sujoy Ghosh’s 2013 superhit Kahaani was also a suspense thriller. Kahaani, which was also written by Sujoy and won him a National Award, had an intriguing style, with the right amounts of chills and thrills. This is where the writing by Sujoy Ghosh and Raj Vasant suffers, with various tropes being deployed towards the climax. Though it is an official adaptation of 2017 Spanish film, The Invisible Guest, I cannot comment how true is it to its original. Another reason why it didn’t strike a chord with me, was due to the inconsistent tonality. The first-half was slower, simmering on the plot, while the second-half suddenly picks up pace, filled with multitudes of twists and turns. Having said that, the writing does not leave many loopholes and all the open ends are fastened well towards the end. (Though I could spot one anomaly. Saving that one for later) It makes for an interesting watch, but not as engrossing as it should have been.

The characters are written well, layering them enough to justify the things they do. Taapsee Pannu as a successful businesswoman, is shown to be powerful and unrepentant, though her demeanor in the opening sequence seemed inconsistent with that image. Nonetheless, she delivers what is expected of her. Amrita Singh, barring her silly banter with her husband Nirmal, is subdued and brings about a sense of mystery to her character. Amitabh Bachchan, as dynamic and captivating as ever, gets witty one-liners and uses his sharp tongue to deconstruct the mystery well. The camaraderie between Naina and Badal builds over the course of the film and adds a tinge of tension to the plot. Malayali actor Tony Luke makes a decent debut but does nothing much to write about. Though his accent seemed slightly off. Another interesting feature was the references to Mahabharat – many of which come up in the conversations between Naina and Badal. Also, Badal refers to the plot of the murder as a ‘Chakravyuh’ (another Mahabharat reference), which takes in Arjun (yes, a Mahabharat reference again). Ghosh seems to have a penchant for the Indian epic, since he used similar references in Kahaani as well.

Badla is a good thriller, with some strong performances and a crisp runtime. I just wish the twists in the second half were more convincing than convenient.

My Rating – 3/5

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Sonchiriya - Movie Review

When a movie opens with a close-up shot of a rotting snake, mauled by flies and ants, it is not only a disturbing scene but also sets the tone of the impending doom that is about to unfold. Director Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya, is a melancholic tale of the lives of the notorious rebels of Chambal, starring Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, Ashutosh Rana, Ranvir Shorey and Manoj Bajpayee in pivotal roles. Based in the late 1970s and as the same era as the award-winning Bandit Queen, Sonchiriya – golden bird – is a sad take on the conflicted lives of dacoits, who not just fight the Special Task Force (STF) but also fight against their conscience.

The movie tracks the life of a dreaded Chambal Baagi (rebel), Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), and his army of rebels, including a trusted deputy, Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey) and a smart younger lad, Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput). Even as they traverse the painfully dry terrains of the Chambal ravines – running away from STF officer, Virejnder Singh Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana) – they have inner conflicts that make them ill-tempered and confused in their pursuits of life. They say their Dharam is to live in the ravines and serve their community – the Thakurs. Justice for them is khoon ke badle khoon. While they appear to be ruthless killers, they really aren’t. Whether it is to offer a shagun ka tohfa to a bride they loot or chant mantra after laying a snake to rest, they are human and seem to have landed themselves in an unfortunate situation of doom. On the run from STF, they bump into a rifle-wielding young woman, Indumati Tomar (Bhumi Pednekar), found running away with a young girl who has been violated. On knowing that she belongs to their cast – Thakurs – they offer to help her reach the nearest hospital, which begins their cat-and-mouse chase through the rivers and ravines of Chambal.

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On the outset, Sonchiriya may seem like a tale about the fight of bandits against the cops. But the writers, Abhishek Chaubey and Sudip Sharma, deserve the credit for elevating it above the usual good versus evil fight. There is a well-established class and caste divide, that existed in the 1970s (perhaps, exists even today). There are references to untouchability and patriarchy. Neither the self-righteous bandits nor the government serving STF is above the caste divide – for instance, two constables loathe their Daroga (inspector), because they belong to a higher Thakur clan, while their boss belongs to an inferior Gujjar community. Or when a feisty Indumati is offered to be inducted into a band of bandits, she questions their offer since they belong to Mallah community, inferior to her Thakur community. It is such minor details that help them build a narrative which makes one wonder if the bandits and the cops are essentially peas of the same pod!

While it is good to see the problem being layered, it does not really come out well for the lack of empathy. The movie is set at a time, when the gang of dacoits is at the abyss of its survival – they are deranged, lost and dying in frequent encounters. But, to empathize with the characters, their back stories come much later in the film, reducing the ability of the audience to connect with them. The movie has a sad tone, but it is not completely evocative. Also, the movie feels a little too long – much like Abhishek Chaubey’s previous directorial ventures. The first half could have certainly been much shorter, since the movie simmers port-interval. But these aberrations are made up by the stellar performances and the stunning camerawork.  

All the actors in the pivotal roles shine in their performances. They are all rugged, dusty and ooze the right amount of dreadfulness. Manoj Bajpayee and Ranvir Shorey as the gang leaders are terrific. Sushant Singh Rajput and Bhumi Pednekar deliver a strong performance, also getting the dialect right. Sushant Singh Rajput is real and shows the sensible side of the confused bandits, with the ability to be agile and think straight. Playing a woman suppressed by patriarchy and fighting for justice for a young girl, she is the only woman stuck amid a bunch of men. One of the best sequences is the kidnapping scene in the second half, where her tact and Lakhna’s quick thinking save the day for them. Ashutosh Rana, as the man on the side of the law, is a tough cop in-charge to curb the bandit menace, but also has personal scores to settle. He is top-notch, as usual. The cinematography by Anuj Rakesh Dhawan captures the sad and miserable textures of the rivers and ravines of Chambal, adding to the depressing tone of the movie.

Sonchiriya is not perfect, nor is it an easy movie to watch. Also, the dialect may alienate a large section of the audience. Recently, Zoya Akhtar subtly touched a dozen odd issues in Gully Boy. Abhishek Chaubey tries the same with caste & class divide, patriarchy, untouchability and oppression of women. But, this leads to a drag in the narrative and the movie does not evoke enough empathy. In the end, it also becomes a cop versus goons chase film and as the movie says, ‘Choohe ko Saamp khata hai aur saamp ko gidd’ (Rat is eaten by snakes and snakes are eaten by vultures). That pretty much sums up what transpires in this two-an-a-half-hour journey through Chambal.  

My Rating – 3/5

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Women in Zoyaverse!

Currently, Gully Boy is the toast of the season. It struck a chord with the audiences and critics alike, for being an underdog story where every character had a strong part to play. Ignoring this week’s release, Total Dhamaal, I watched Gully Boy again and was left mesmerized yet again. Spectacular performances aside, the movie was strong technically – especially the script. Written by its director, Zoya Akhtar with her long-time collaborator, Reema Kagti, Gully Boy made me sit up and notice an interesting pattern in Zoya Akhtar’s filmmaking.

Apart from Ayan Mukerji and Shakun Batra, Zoya Akhtar is the only current mainstream Bollywood director, who explores human relations and emotions beautifully. But I noticed something unique to her voice in all the movies she has directed. I call it the Zoyaverse. Arguably, though the credit must be shared with her co-writer Reema Kagti, I decided to call it Zoyaverse as I feel it is her voice as a director that creates this world.

If you are wondering what I mean by Zoyaverse, I essentially mean the strong and well-written women that drive her stories, whether they are central characters or not. These may not always be perfect, positive characters, but are flawed, just as humans are. In all her six movies till date, the Zoyaverse is a beautiful aspect of her filmmaking.

1. Luck by Chance (2009): One of the underrated movies of that decade, Luck by Chance was Zoya Akhtar’s directorial debut. The movie gave us a glimpse into the glitz and glamour of Bollywood and how two outsiders (Farhan Akhtar and Konkona Sen Sharma) make their way into it. Zoya gives us the first glimpse into Zoyaverse – in the form of Neena Walia (Dimple Kapadia) and Sona Mishra (Konkona Sen Sharma). Neena is a fading yesteryear superstar – pushed into the trade in her dark childhood – she nudges her daughter into the same world. She acts as a strong catalyst to debutante Vikram Jaisingh (Farhan Akhtar). Sona Mishra is the other strong character, torn between her love for an ambitious boyfriend and her own urge to make it big. These are strong and independent women, burdened by their circumstances.

Dimple Kapadia and Konkona Sen Sharma

2. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011): Her second movie was branded as Dil Chahta hai - revisited and a free TVC for Spain Tourism! Interestingly, a movie headlined by three men with focus on their friendship and bromance, also had interesting female characters. Imran Qureshi (Farhan Akhtar) had internal battles with his mother (Deepti Naval) over the identity of his father. A spirited freelance Scuba instructor Laila (Katrina Kaif) helps a disciplined Arjun Saluja (Hrithik Roshan) break away from monotony. The dilemma of Kabir Dewan (Abhay Deol) created by his possessive and suspicious girlfriend, Natasha Arora (Kalki Koechlin). Now, even though the characters are smaller, Zoya does not let them get reduced to the backgrounds. They may be flawed but help in carving the path of the story.

 Clockwise: Kalki Koechlin, Deepti Naval, Katrina Kaif

3. Bombay Talkies – Sheila Ki Jawaani (2013): In her short in this anthology, Zoya Akhtar gives us a 10-year old Vicky (Naman Jain), who is chided by his parents for taking interest in hobbies which are deemed to be ‘girly’. An innocent Vicky is pushed by his father (Ranvir Shorey) into Football training, while he craved to dance. And dance to his idol, Katrina Kaif’s Sheila Ki Jawaani! Delicately handling a sensitive topic, Zoya makes the audience question the definitions of masculinity. She tries to explain how a boy longing to dance in skimpy clothes should not be treated as queer. With Vicky, she gave us a fleshed-out character of a boy, with effeminate qualities.

Naman Jain

4. Dil Dhadakne Do (2015): A movie which made her detractors label her stories as ‘only about the rich and elite’, DDD was much more than that. With a brilliantly cast ensemble, it was an engaging movie that touched various topics – infidelity, ambition, failing marriages and the fake facades families create. Among the four leads, Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shah) and Ayesha Mehra (Priyanka Chopra) stand out. Neelam is stuck in an unhappy marriage with a cheating husband. She portrays a happy face for the World but is shattered and helpless within. A scene where she gorges on a tray full of desserts, after her husband calls her fat, is one of the best scenes where her vulnerabilities are in full display. She puts up with a failing marriage and advises her ambitious daughter to do the same. But Ayesha is her alter-ego. She stands up for herself and decides to walk-out of an unhappy relationship. It is interesting to see how Zoya Akhtar layers her characters – they are never one tone. This makes them confused, flawed and real.

Shefali Shah in an angst-filled scene where she gorges on desserts 
Priyanka Chopra

5. Lust Stories (2018): In her short film, Zoya Akhtar presents a passionate affair between a housemaid Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar) and Ajit (Neil Bhoopalam). Sudha is a demure, young domestic help, who for a while assumes her boss’s sexual advances to be love for her. Zoya barely uses any dialogue, mostly letting Sudha’s eyes and the claustrophobic apartment do the talking. It is through her eyes and demeanor that one understands Sudha’s angst and her feeling of betrayal. It is a complex character, which could make one question her morality. But Zoya makes the audience empathize with her, instead. The most heart-warming moment is when Sudha eats a sweet in the end – signifying her acceptance of her fate!

Bhumi Pednekar

6. Gully Boy (2019): Amid MC Sher, Moeen and Murad, two women stand out in this Gully – Safeena Firdausi (Alia Bhatt) and Razia Ahmed (Amruta Subhash). The usual template in underdog stories - we see a supportive girlfriend, appearing sporadically in a scene or a song. But not in Zoyaverse. If Safeena is Murad’s backbone, he embodies freedom for her. If he calls himself a building with no watchman without her, she says her love for him is because he lets her be herself. Also, while Safeena is a ticking timebomb, Zoya does not leave her as an ill-tempered, possessive girlfriend. Her angst is driven by her own internal battles – against patriarchy, a conservative family and the need to break free. Just as Safeena finds refuge in Murad, his mother Razia pins her hopes on her son. Her son is her beacon of hope, after her abusive husband remarries. Another interesting feature of the two characters is their docile and petite frames, camouflaging their inner strength and willpower. Again, in a story about the rise of a boy against all odds, it is not common to see strong supporting characters. The last I saw such a strong female character in an underdog movie was Divya Dutta in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. But hey, it’s Zoyaverse!

Amruta Subhash and Alia Bhatt

Zoya Akhtar may not be the only gifted filmmaker of this generation. But, the ability to let her stories work with a woman standing behind the man, is an ability very few other filmmakers have.