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.

Image result for ek ladki ko dekha toh aisa laga

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!