Saturday, February 16, 2019

Gully Boy - Movie Review

In the current lot of mainstream Hindi directors, only Shakun Batra, Ayan Mukerjee and Zoya Akhtar know the art of balancing mainstream movies with a nuanced craft of film-making. With Ranveer Singh-Alia Bhatt starrer ‘Gully Boy’, director Zoya Akhtar takes her craft forward and shuts her detractors who slander her for movies about the urban rich. Not stopping at just that, in a movie centered around a male-rapper, she brilliantly questions a lot of social issues, especially for women.

The movie opens with a glimpse into the life of a Dharavi-bred undergrad student, Murad Sheikh (Ranveer Singh). His tiny house is in the infamous slums of Mumbai, which also doubles up as a tourist attraction for the foreigners. He lives with an overbearing father, a submissive mother, a bickering grandmother and a younger brother on one hand, and a bunch of thick friends and a smart & supportive girlfriend of 9 years, Safeena Ali (Alia Bhatt). What begins as a refuge from his unhappy life, soon turns into a passion for writing lyrics to rap on. The plot seems like any musical underdog story – which we have seen from Rock On to Rockstar – but Gully boy stands out for its beautiful subtext and authenticity. Writers Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti and Vijay Maurya (dialogues), create an authentic world set in Dharavi and get the aesthetics and dialect correct. Also, in a movie set around the journey of a rapper, it is pleasant to see it address issues ranging from misogyny, polygamy, patriarchy to something as obscure as the Indian love for fair skin – it touches them all! And the beauty lies in the subtle references to these issues, without being preachy or over-the-top. The world constructed around Murad explains the dichotomy in his life – a confident brat in the slum, who is awed yet intimidated by the glitzy Mumbai. His gradual transition from an under-confident underdog to a determined rapper, is also brilliantly explained by breaking the divide between both the worlds.

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With standards of Bollywood music falling by every passing day, thanks to the incessant raps and remixes, it is refreshing to see a movie introducing us to ‘asli hip-hop’! As Murad aptly puts it, rap does not mean a bunch of random rhyming words like ‘Teri chokri, meri gaadi, mera paisa’ put together. And the movie drives this point home, with the brilliantly written rap by a group of 52 artists, headlined by Divine and Naezy. All the songs and rap have been written colloquially and perfectly apt for the situation it is set to. Not sure if Ranveer Singh acquired this talent for the movie, but his rap is completely on-point, arising naturally from his character’s circumstances and experiences. The language has an authentic flavor of Mumbai – filled with punter log, kya bolreli hai public and hard hai bhaaaaiii.

One of the strongest points of a Zoya-Akhtar-film is her casting and she does not let us down here. While every actor plays their part well, Amruta Subhash as Murad’s mother Razia Sheikh, is a scene-stealer. One of the best scenes in the movie is when she goes from a submissive wife to an agitated woman against her husband. Another character that particularly stands out is that of Murad’s mentor-turned-friend MC Sher, played by Siddhanth Chaturvedi. Playing a young rapper who supports his family and counters misogyny with his rap, he makes a very strong debut. Alia Bhatt almost plays a dual role as the demure and feisty student of medicine, Safeena. As Murad refers to her, she is an unpredictable ‘Hateli’, reminiscent of the firecracker Sweety Bhope played by Priyanka Chopra in Kaminey. She is Murad’s backbone, that pounces on other women for her man, with no regret. While she supports him emotionally through his troubles, she also silently battles her conservative family for what she calls her ‘freedom’ (again, one of the social issues the movie touches upon). When he sings, she embodies his nervousness. Alia Bhatt, a gem of an actor, is lovely and draws your heart to her character.  

From a whacky and energetic personality, Ranveer Singh transforms into a reclusive and restrained Murad. He does complete justice to his well-written character that evolves from an under-confident son of a driver, to a confident rapper on the block! He plays his role with conviction, even in scenes where he is not central to the narrative. Not skipping a single beat, he shines the brightest, without over-shadowing the other characters. Again, the credit also goes to the writers and director, for giving every character a well-defined arc, which makes them stand out, not relegating them to the background.

The movie is technically very sound and keeps you invested, especially in the first half. The second half loses a bit of steam and could have been shorter by writing certain subplots better, like the ones with Kalki Koechlin. At two hours and thirty minutes, it feels long, but the writers let the plot simmer till it reaches its zenith in the climax, giving the viewers a major high!

In an industry where movie about the underdogs only aim to glorify him, it is a refreshing change to see how the movie lets its supporting cast gain prominence and, subtly nudge various issues that we see in our society. Kudos to the makers for this. As the rappers in the movie say, ‘yeh movie hard hai bhai’!

My Rating: 4/5

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga - Movie Review

In the middle of a play rehearsal at a non-descript theatre in Delhi, a young playwright, Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao) is disturbed by a young girl, Sweety Choudhary (Sonam K Ahuja), who stealthily sneaks into the hall. She watches the play and points out at the insipid nature of it. She says,” True love ke raaste mein siyappa na ho, toh love story mein feel kaise aaegi’. This dialogue pretty much explains the movie – which has enough siyappa (problems in punjabi) but less of love.

Mainstream Hindi cinema has always shied away from taboo topics such as homosexuality, mostly adding these references for comic relief. A decade ago, Dostana brought this topic out in the open, but ended up poking fun at gay relationships. This is where writer Gazal Dhaliwal and director Shelly Chopra Dhar deserve the credit for delicately handling such a sensitive topic in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (ELKDTAL). While the treatment is nuanced, and the message is conveyed rather subtly, do not expect the craftsmanship of Academy-award winning movies like Moonlight (2016) or Brokeback Mountain (2005), which dealt with LGBT themes. With LGBTs in India celebrating the recent strike down of the archaic Section 377, ELKDTAL sets the ball rolling and they need to be commended for bringing this subject to the attention of mainstream cinema audience.

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As credited by the makers, the plot of the story is inspired from P.G Wodehouse’s 'A Damsel in Distress'. A young girl, Sweety, bumps into a budding writer, Sahil Mirza at a theatre in Delhi. Besotted by her frankness and a whirlwind run through the bylanes of Delhi makes him fall for her. Along with his colleague, Chatro ji (Juhi Chawla), he reaches Moga in Punjab to look for her. He discovers that she is the daughter of a local garment manufacturer, Balbir Choudhary (Anil Kapoor), who makes Saree se le kar Kache tak, even as he dabbles in the kitchen, much to his Mother’s (Madhumalti Kapoor) disappointment. A case of confused identity ensures the lead characters meet, only to realize that one of them cannot reciprocate the other’s feelings, because they like people of their own sex. (Keeping it spoiler free :P )

The most endearing feature of the movie was the tone of the film. The cinematography and the art design successfully create a colorful Punjabi household, replete with fancy house parties, a henna-dyed maid (played superbly by Seema Pahwa) and a trademark SUV in the Punjabi household. The dialogues by Gazal Dhaliwal and Shelly Chopra Dhar are tongue-in-cheek in the first half and somber in the second. The movie also subtly, yet strongly, questions masculinity and feminity – why is cooking by a man seen to be effeminate and how is a Tomboy seen as masculine? The writers do not force their point but let the story and actors speak it through the performances. Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla are endearing as the older couple. Anil Kapoor is restrained and paternal when with Sweety, but child-like when around Chatro. Juhi Chawla reaffirms that she is one of the finest actors of her generation and plays a loud and gaudy Punjaban to the hilt. She reminds us of Minty Rolly that she played in Luck by Chance (2009). Using her catch-phrase for her – she is mind shattering! Rajkummar Rao plays the catalyst in the movie, who brings same-sex relationship out of the closet, but I wish the character had more layers. Sonam Kapoor, playing the central character, displays with conviction the pains and angst that her character goes through, but her acting skills appear to be weak, among the better actors she is surrounded with. She is good, but not great. The rest of the cast is fine and delivers a notice-worthy performance.

Going back to what I said initially, the movie has adequate siyappa but not enough love. The drama surrounding the acceptance of same-sex relationship has been portrayed well. For Indian audience, not accustomed to these, it may feel uncomfortable, but the makers keep the references at surface level, not delving deeper. But this reduces the impact of the love story being shown. A 2-hour long struggle of the protagonist to fight for her love cannot be summed up in a 5-minute long song. It does not look convincing enough. Also, some of the characters seemed one-tone. For instance, Chatro is a warm character but does not really have any layers apart from being the caterer at a theatre. Even Sahil Mirza, introduced as the son of a major film producer, is not given enough weight to understand him better. I suppose the focus was primarily on conveying the message for the acceptance of LGBT, which shrouded the development of other characters.

In 1996, when Deepa Mehta made a movie on homosexuality, Fire, it was met with widespread protests. It is a welcome change that we have evolved as a society. The conversation that this movie has begun has a long way ahead. And that is why, despite its flaws, it is a movie that is meant to be seen. And as they say, Let Love Be!

My Rating: 2.5 + 0.5 for speaking about a taboo topic

P.S: It was disappointing to see the insensitivity of some in the audience, including women, to the homosexual nature of the movie. The makers did not reveal the theme until recently, which many did not know. I hope word-of-mouth does not deter people from watching a movie that touches a ‘taboo’ topic!

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Manikarnika - Movie Review

As I watched this week’s big-ticket release, Manikarnika, I wondered how much of it is a Kangana Ranaut directorial and how much of it can be attributed to its first maker, Krish Jagarlamudi. Starring Kanagana Ranaut in the titular role as Manikarnika aka Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Manikarnika seemed like a half-cooked product, focusing on the valor and might of one of the biggest freedom-fighters of India, without delving enough into her emotional construct. (Note: small spoilers ahead)

Most of us have read about Jhansi ki Rani in school and hence, know the premise. Therefore, it becomes even more pertinent to develop the characters with required emotions, rather than just blood and flesh. This is where the story by Vijayendra Prasad, dialogues by Prasoon Joshi and direction by both its directors ends up disappointing us. Right from the onset, we are shown of a brave and strong girl, Manikarnika (played by Kangana Ranaut), being raised amid books and swords in Marathwada. But, instead of letting the audience develop a bond with the character, the makers blatantly try to push their point. There are no subtle nuances, but everything is over-the-top. For instance, when a na├»ve Manikarnika expresses her inhibitions about getting married, the Peshwa (played by Suresh Oberoi) replies, “Har cheez seekhi nahi jaati mani, matrubhoomi se prem ho, toh sab ho ajega” and this is followed by a patriotic song. Not exactly the way you would allay a girl’s apprehensions before her wedding! As I said, the makers go overboard in establishing Manikarnika as the bravest woman on the planet. All I wished was revering Manikarnika in moderation, with better dialogues. That would have helped connecting with the character.

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It was not just excessive praise for Manikarnika that was problematic, much like Krish’s other movies, Manikarnika went overboard in making a point. Like loads of melodrama to show the atrocities by the British. Or the fact that a submissive King is shown to be wearing ‘choodi’ – symbolizing his inability to go against the British. And the choodi are referred to quite often – in case the audience forgets how incapable the King is. Or my favorite – an English officer dreams of Manikarnika in Kaali avtaar – does he even know Indian Goddess Kaali?! Having seen some of Krish’s previous works, including the recent NTR Kathanayukudu, Manikarnika seemed to bear his stamp in certain parts – inconsistencies in the narrative, beautiful canvas yet lack of connect and a climax fight scene reminiscent of Krish’s Gautamiputra Satakarani. Similarly, Vijayendra Prasad leaves a few trademark motifs of his – exaggerated common-man scenes, a people’s queen (like people’s king Bahubali) or an out-of-the-blue item song! As I said, it is difficult to point out which part of it was directed by Kangana Ranaut, but she can certainly share the onus for the incoherence.

All things aside, some of the things that worked in favor of the movie were the art design, the costumes and the lead! Kangana Ranaut is feisty and digs her teeth into the character. She is a delight to watch, especially in combat sequences in the second half. She may not have a regal aura like Aishwarya Rai in Jodhaa Akbar or Deepika Padukone in Padmaavat, but she is believable as the people’s queen. A fine actor that she is, she does not disappoint, except in delivering her dialogues which I felt were not powerful enough. Two of my favorite scenes were her confrontation with her mother-in-law and her sword-fight scene with a bunch of British soldiers in front of a Kaali statue. The music felt more contemporary than belonging to that era and the graphics felt like cheap videogames. The rest of the cast was fine, but were over-shadowed by the tall performance by Kangana Ranaut. Though I would like to mention that Zeeshan Ayub was the most underutilized actor in the movie!

In the end, Manikarnika feels largely like a lifeless canvas, painted with rich colors. Kangana Ranaut has been shouldering her movies single-handedly in her last few outings. And much like them, despite a stellar Kangana Ranaut, the movie does not really work.

My Rating – 2/5

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Petta - Movie Review

When the trailer and the chartbusting number ’Marana Mass’ were released, it was evident that this was going to be a Rajini show all the way. A director with an interesting filmography like Karthik Subbaraj helming this project, Petta could have been yet another movie in the recent list of experimental flops starring Rajini. But, as Karthik Subbaraj rightly words it in the beginning, this is an ode to the cult of Thalaivar and he succeeds in revering this demigod we know as Superstar Rajinikanth.

In a lackluster decade, Rajinikanth gave us glimpses of his much-loved style and mass appeal in Kabali and Kaala. But the former failed and the latter only managed to sail through decently. But Petta brings back the trademark Rajinikanth that his ardent fans have been craving for. The sheer amount of frenzy, the gooseflesh inducing entry, his slick and stylish gait – it all finally fell in place in Petta.

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Kaali (played by Rajinikanth) joins a residential college set in a picturesque hill station as the hostel warden. He flexes his muscles against the domineering seniors as well as wields a ladle to stir up delicious food in the hostel. His charm and style make him an instant hit among the students, especially Anwar (played by Sanath Reddy) who request Kaali to convince his girlfriend’s pretty mother (played by Simran) about their relationship. The movie then takes a violent turn when Kaali’s past as Petta is revealed, where he is embroiled in a long-standing enmity with Singaaram AKA Singaar Singh (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). The rest of the plot is the high-voltage action drama between Petta, Singaar Singh and his son-cum-henchman, Jitu (played by Vijay Sethupathi).

The plot summary may seem like a usual Rajini fare – one man fighting a bunch of baddies. But it is the treatment that makes Petta more watchable. Karthik Subbaraj uses a breezy and light color scheme to develop the story in the first half, which essentially is worshipping Rajinikanth. He ticks all the points off a Rajini revering checklist– a massy opening song, a well styled lead character, suave and power that make a warden more powerful than the Principal, a high-octane fight sequence and generous loads of punchlines. It is everything a hardcore Rajinikanth fan wants and I thoroughly enjoyed this collective experience in a theatre filled with hoots and whistles.

Post interval, the movie shifts gears to a more action-filled environment, with Petta’s past in Madurai. Rural feuds escalated by an inter-caste marriage cause Petta to change his identity to Kaali. Years later, he is confronted by his past in the form of Singaaram and Jithu. This change in tonality from the first half to the second is not transitioned well. The movie changes from a light-hearted Rajini flick to a Rajini action drama rather swiftly. Though the transition was not smooth, Karthik Subbaraj and his DoP Tirru deserve the applause for creating frames in the hues of orange, red and yellow during the fight sequences. This adds a raw appeal to the suave Kaali and further enhanced the well-choreographed (though overdrawn) fight sequences. Having said that, the second half had a lot of unnecessary or stretched sequences which made this movie quite long (almost three hours). Not many, other than fans, can spare attention for such a long time.

Moving over the bumpy ride in the second half, the movie works for its great music by Anirudh as well. Much like the camerawork, the music adds to the cult of Rajinikanth. While the actors are decent in their parts, all of them are overshadowed by the mighty Thalaivar, who owns the screens. I did not quite understand the need to have Nawazuddin Siddiqui, since this was a role any Tamil actor could have played. Vijay Sethupathi, gets to display wry humor as the staunch Hindutva supporter and is a good match to Rajini. Simran and Bobby Simha get smaller roles and are limited to only serving their purpose. The eminence of Trisha in the movie is as much as it has been in this review. An interesting observation was the subtle political references of a Hindutva party, goons acting as Gau Rakshaks and forcefully getting people married on Valentine’s Day. Since they were shown as antagonists, it seemed like a veiled jibe by the actor-turned-politician at a leading political party.

Petta could have been much more nuanced and refined. It deserved better writing in the second half. But when it comes to celebrating the cult of Rajinikanth, I guess all that matters is to get the audience ‘Rajinified’! The bottom line is Petta is old wine in a new bottle. But hey, wine tastes better with age!

My Rating – 3/5

F2 - Fun and Frustration - Movie Review

Men versus women and husband versus wives are themes which have always been the masses’ favorite. Starting with the likes of ‘Kshemanga Velli Labamgarandi’ and ‘Sandade Sandadi’ in the 1990s, this has been a genre of madcap comedy, which had faded into the oblivion. Reviving it in 2019, director-writer Anil Ravipudi brings to the Telugu audiences an out-and-out comedy movie, F2 – Fun and Frustration, starring Venkatesh, Varun Tej, Tamannah and Mehreen Pirzada. For the audience, it is mostly fun but not without some frustration.

Unlike the usual blending of comedy with action, drama or horror, F2 starts with the sole motive of leaving its audiences in splits. As evident from its trailer, there is not much of a plot. Venky (played by Venkatesh) gets married to Harika (played by Tamannah). His initial days of ‘fun’ turn into ‘frustration’ with a cribbing and complaining wife and her family. His misogyny is fittingly answered by the feminist Harika, her younger sister, Honey (played by Mehreen Pirzada) and her family – a dominating mother, a ‘rubber-stamp’ father and two bickering grandmothers. In a first-half filled with moments of hilarity, Honey gets engaged to Varun (played by Varun Tej). History repeats itself and Varun’s ‘fun’ turns into ‘frustration’, which also moves the movie from a Seenu Vaitla style Indian comedy to a Sajid Khan style ‘Houseful’ set in Europe.

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I could not help but draw parallels to Seenu Vaitla – the flag-bearer of madcap comedies in the 2000s, until his recent flops. Much like Vaitla’s films and his previous hit ‘Raja- the Great’, Anil Ravipudi creates a make-belief world filled with comical characters. He is greatly benefitted by the comic timing of Venkatesh, who owns the scenes he is in. I also felt the second half was a lot like the Houseful series in Hindi – bikini clad heroines, foreign locales and heroes trying to get into Boman Irani’s household. Only difference being the Boman Irani here is Prakash Raj. What I also liked was the subtle nostalgic references to the 1990s – theme music from Venkatesh’s Raja playing in the background or the female leads breaking into a dance to the song, ‘Pelli Kala Vachesinde Bala’. It is also commendable that the ensemble cast also gets their comic timing right, including veterans like Annapurna and Y Vijaya.

As I said, it is mostly fun, but it also gets frustrating for the audiences. The songs lack a punch and come more as a hindrance to the narrative than add any value and are forgettable. Also, the story before the interval moves at a brisk pace and does work towards setting up the plot. But the second half feels overdrawn and repetitive, with the story turning into a man versus woman war. Even Vennela Kishore’s entry towards the end, does not add much to the story and could have been done away with (though he does evoke laughs as ‘Jon Snow from the North’). These anomalies make the two-and-a-half-hour-long runtime seem a little stretched. The length allows the makers to balance the misogyny and pseudo-feminism in the movie. Men and women are equally at fault or worthy of credit.

The fun moments are enhanced by pitch-perfect performances by the entire cast. It was surprising to see Mehreen Pirzada emote and don a role which required her to make fun of herself. Complimenting her well as her elder sister was Tamannah, who seemed to share a warm camaraderie with her sister and her husband, played by Venkatesh. Varun Tej, as the ‘Cobra’, gets a Telangana accent and shares a great bro-bond with Venkatesh. Despite his age, Venkatesh still shines in his comic scenes and is a delight to watch. Prakash Raj and Rajendra Prasad, among the others, support the narrative well.

It is great to see a madcap comedy after a long time, without the leads being shown as masculine ‘heroes’ with a bunch of comedian sidekicks. F2 is good fun, but with a little frustration.

My Rating – 3/5

Saturday, January 12, 2019

NTR Kathanayakudu - Movie Review

One of the luxuries that writer-director Krish enjoyed while making NTR Kathanayakudu was the freedom to stretch it as much as possible, since the biopic has been split into two parts. It is a luxury that he enjoys and ensures that his audience enjoys as well, albeit only to a certain extent. While Mahanati, based on actress Savitri’s life, was a crisper take on her life journey, NTR Kathanayakudu is a more exhaustive revisiting to the life and times of Nandamuri Tarakarama Rao, popularly known as NTR.

The movie traces the journey of a young Rama Rao (played by Balakrishna), a newly appointed sub-registrar in Bezawada, married to Basavatarakam (played by Vidya Balan) and father to a baby boy. The portions before the interval traverses through his struggles in the industry and how he turns it into his stronghold. This is where a whole lot of actors make cameos as film personalities of the yesteryears. Much like Mahanati, his initial struggle and commitment towards his work is shown well. But unlike Mahanati, the drama is not subtle and tends to become melodramatic, like the monologue on Andhra being different from Madras or the sequence around a death in his family. Also, the actors reprising yesteryear’s filmstars neither resemble the stars much nor try emulating them, which reduces the novelty. These are still minor aberrations and can be overlooked.

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It is post the interval, where the movie changes its gears and starts to add the flavors of public service and politics. It is evident that the makers have the upcoming elections on mind and hence, the benevolent and public friendly side of NTR is carefully highlighted. The legends and cults about NTR and his charisma are in full display, with special emphasis given to his illustrious mythological characters. Balakrishna has certainly worked hard to appear uncannily similar to his father and the prosthetics and VFX have also helped to a great extent. He also delivers powerful dialogues well, much like his father. But he lacks the expressive and handsome face that his father had in his youth. You cannot blame him much, since his age shows on the screen. While NTR’s iconic Lord Krishna character was mounted with equal grandeur, Balakrishna looked slightly old. The most uncomfortable reprisal was Balakrishna playing Bruhanalla from Nartansala – a transgender character immortalized beautifully by his father. Unlike Keerthy Suresh who transformed herself in the Maya Bazaar portions in Mahanati, Balakrishna falls short of being as expressive as his father was in Nartanasala.

The music by M.M Keeravani adds the right amount of grandeur to the aura of NTR. This is one of the most restrained and measured performances by Balakrishna, who seemed more believable as NTR in the second half during the later years of NTR’s life. Vidya Balan plays a warm and supportive wife but gets a smaller part in the scheme of things. The rest of the cast is also fine in their parts. I wish Jr. NTR had played NTR in the younger days, just as I wish Naga Chaitanya would have looked better as the younger ANR. Having said that, both Balakrishna and Sumanth looked their part in the second half, when the movie traces the life of NTR in his 60s. Another wish I had was for the length to be shorter. Many sequences, such as the one with Relangi (played by Brahmanandam) or the unnecessary sermon to Savitri (played by Nithya Menen), could have been done away with to reduce the length.

In the end, NTR Kathanayakudu left me content but not completely happy. It has its flaws and has an evident underlying agenda overshadowing other aspects of NTR’s life. Yet, it makes for an engaging watch. The political side in NTR Mahanayakudu and its counter-attack in the form of YSR biopic, Yatra, will clash next month and it will be interesting to see who comes out as the messiahs of the masses. Till then, NTR Kathanayakudu taking us through the acting career of NTR, certainly makes for a decent watch.

My Rating – 3/5