Review: Cheeni Kum / Shootout at Lokhandwala

Posted on May 26, 2007


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Amitabh Bachchan falls for a much-younger Tabu in an entertaining romance. Plus, a brainless action movie that pretends to be more.

MAY 27, 2007 – WHAT MAKES A 64-year-old man fall in love with a 34-year-old woman? Or, perhaps more relevantly, why would a 34-year-old woman fall for a 64-year-old man? As you grow older, you get pickier even about the friends you want to hang out with, so what could possibly draw together a man and a woman who’ve just met, who are nowhere close in age, and who appear to be quite comfortable leading their single lives? With an increasing number of people choosing to stay single – or unmindful of waiting beyond an accepted marriageable age (whatever that is) to find a suitable partner – that’s a tough one to answer, and to its eternal credit, R Balki’s Cheeni Kum doesn’t try to explain the attraction between Buddhadev Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) and Nina Verma (Tabu). The reason is out there somewhere – tucked away between the way these characters are drawn and what they say (either as dialogue or in the form of the lyrics behind Ilayaraja’s bouncy tunes) – but there’s no defining “ah!â€? moment that tells us why.

But a movie critic wouldn’t be a movie critic if he didn’t get all deconstructionist and try to read between (sometimes, admittedly non-existent) lines, so here’s my take: Buddhadev owns and runs London’s finest Indian restaurant. He’s filled with contempt for those phony upstarts who think they have themselves an Indian-cuisine establishment just because they put up pictures of elephants and the Taj Mahal. He’s cussedly intolerant when his chefs goof up, and he is – more than anything – a creature of habit. (It’s been 22 years since he took a day off, and he always goes home for dinner, even though his mother – a marvellously batty Zohra Sehgal – is a terrible cook.) Everyone around seems mildly terrified of Buddhadev – and then in walks Nina, who not only has the gumption to send back his zafrani pulao (she orders it at the restaurant and declares it’s too sweet), she makes the dish the way it should be made and has it delivered to him. That, I think, is what starts it all – not the fact that she can whip up a mean pulao to his frighteningly-exacting standards, but that she can shove it in his face and coolly walk away. In other words, she has class and she has sass – and these are two qualities that Cheeni Kum shares abundantly with her.

It’s been a while since watching two people being in love was so exhilarating – and one of the reasons is that these two people are brought to life by a pair of star-actors at the peak of their considerable charm. I have to admit, when I first heard of Tabu opposite Amitabh Bachchan, I thought it was bad casting. (I just couldn’t see the two together.) But they are so wonderful – both on their own and, more importantly, as a couple – that even if that bit with the zafrani pulao hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have had a problem believing they were in love. Tabu has become so identified by roles that require her to do all that dramatic heavy-lifting, we tend to forget there are other shades to her too – like the classy, sassy woman of the world she portrays here, so light on her feet. (Plus, she looks absolutely ravishing. The entire film, really, looks ravishing – PC Sreeram fills his frames with so much light, it’s as if the screen had been freshly laundered.) And a relaxed, impish Bachchan plays off his co-star beautifully. (The moment that made the movie for me is when he says “ahamâ€? and pauses, and you think he’s clearing his throat, but he’s actually getting ready to toss off a thought about aham, as in ego.) Nothing much happens till interval point – they meet, they talk, they meet, they talk some more – but I wouldn’t have minded an entire second half that was exactly the same.

Unfortunately, Balki has other ideas. Perhaps realising that it’s not enough to have the ingredients, that he’s also got to toss them into the pot and set the stove to boil, he goes overboard with the drama around Buddhadev and Nina getting together. That wouldn’t be a problem in a regular movie, but in something so delicate and so remarkably restrained, it’s jarring to have to empathise with – among other things – a child-with-cancer subplot. Swini Khara is very good (as this child) and her early conversations with Bachchan are quite charming, but she’s made to mouth lines intended to make her seem wise beyond her age – and, after a point, her illness begins to feel shamelessly manipulative. Another subplot that feels absolutely wrong is the one about Nina’s father (Paresh Rawal) and his satyagraha (to protest against his daughter’s love life), which plays like something written by Rajkumar Hirani on crack. The brittle, down-to-earth tone of this film simply cannot accommodate such whimsy. Nina wonders – when she learns her father has been rushed to the hospital – why bad things happen when the going is so good, and there were times I felt like asking Balki the same thing, especially when he devises a breakdown moment for Buddhadev that’s so overblown and so out-of-nowhere, it ranks up there with Saif’s bringing down the wall during the climax of the otherwise genteel Parineeta.

But there’s no doubt Cheeni Kum marks the arrival of a fresh voice – if only for how much of it feels like the work of a writer-director (and not merely a director), beginning with the fact that Buddhadev is called Buddha for short. This isn’t merely ironic – a hothead like him named after one of the world’s great pacifists – it’s also indicative of his being an old man, a… buddha. But it’s not all wordplay, even the rhythms of the conversations are so delightfully different, so un-filmi. (Have you ever seen a movie where teary eyes are referred to as “Aansoo-behne-ke-liye-ready aankhen?â€?) And Balki really knows how to subvert your expectations of a scene. I rolled my eyes when Zohra Sehgal is shown enjoying a WWF-style show on TV, but this isn’t just another laugh-at-feisty-grandma bit; there’s a butter-smooth segue to the fitness levels of the beefcakes on the programme. She keeps nagging her son to go to the gym, and this is as good a time as any to reiterate her point. You laugh at this – and yet there’s more to this moment than mere fun. She knows her son isn’t young anymore, and asking him to exercise is her way of reminding him of the importance of fitness in the later stages of one’s life. This happy-sad (to borrow a phrase from the film) feel extends to the part where Nina informs her father that she’s going ahead with her marriage plans regardless of his threats to kill himself. I didn’t know whether to applaud her stance (for not buckling under emotional blackmail) or feel sad about why she wasn’t trying harder to look at the situation from the viewpoint of this diabetic who’s just returned from the hospital. For something that’s so cheerful on the surface, there’s a surprising amount of tartness in Cheeni Kum. It justifies its title.

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THE PROMOS FOR Shootout at Lokhandwala featured a most intriguing line: “What everyone saw was real. What no one saw was the truth.â€? And knowing that the story is about cops (Sanjay Dutt, Suniel Shetty, Arbaaz Khan) who surround a building occupied by criminals (Vivek Oberoi, Rohit Roy, a badly miscast Tusshar Kapoor) in order to flush them out, I thought I was in for something high-minded, a Rashomon-meets-Dog Day Afternoon. But that was just wishful thinking – for this is from Sanjay Gupta (he co-wrote and produced; Apoorva Lakhia directed), for whom moviemaking is merely another name for gunfire, lots and lots of it. It’s probably no accident that the film opens with a sweeper clearing bullet shells from the road – for those bullets are the star of this show, which is essentially one action set piece after another (scored to a relentlessly thumping soundtrack that makes you feel you’re either in a porn movie or at the disco). So I guess your tolerance for Shootout would depend on how long you can watch people firing at one another in a slick – yet utterly impersonal – manner.

Instead of narrating a straightforward story, Lakhia keeps cutting back and forth between the present (where the cops give their side of what happened to their lawyer, played by Amitabh Bachchan at his hammiest) and the past (the gangsters and their dealings). This results in a series of vignettes that do not tell us anything about these people, so it’s hard to care about who lives and who dies. Arbaaz Khan, for instance, is shown advising his son to try for better marks at school, and he says the reason he’s merely a police officer (and not a doctor or engineer) is that he didn’t do well at studies. But that one moment apart, we never see Arbaaz with any kind of self-doubt, which made me wonder why they bothered with that bit in the first place. I mean, what’s the point of a character detail if you’re not going to use it to detail the character later? There are too many songs and too much redundant information. (“Informers police-waale ke teesre kaan hote hain,â€? Sanjay Dutt intones, presumably for the benefit of anyone who’s never opened a newspaper or watched a gangster movie.) But most galling of all may be the ending, when a television reporter locks eyes with the camera – and therefore with the audience – and asks us to think about whether the means these cops used justified their ends. Is there anything phonier than a shoot-‘em-up that takes itself seriously enough to leave us with an existential conundrum?

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi