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.

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