“Aurangzeb”… Games of thrones

Posted on May 19, 2013


Something’s happened to Rishi Kapoor as he’s grown older, fleshier. He’s become a really terrific actor. When he was younger, he was always a competent performer, and sometimes even a good one, but the roles he was typecast in and the assembly-line filmmaking of the time rarely let him break out and deliver anything radically new. Like any actor stuck with the “spontaneous performer” tag, he did the things that came spontaneously – everything was on the surface. Laughs and tears came a little too quickly. His lines burst out from the top of his head, as if he couldn’t wait to leave for the next schedule in the next studio. Now, though, he’s slowed down. There are pauses, silences. As DCP Ravikant in Atul Sabharwal’s Aurangzeb, he pops orange slices into his mouth while talking, stopping to spit out seeds. Or else he slurps loudly from a cup of tea. He’s relishing these roles, which come in various shades, some of which – as is the case here – become apparent only later. He’s given the film’s most shocking scene, and he doesn’t miss a beat.

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Aurangzeb, which should have been much better, plays like a mashup of Hindi cinema before it became Bollywood. Like Trishul, it is the story of corporate battles involving fathers and sons in Delhi. (We’re now in the shining new India of Gurgaon.) Like Deewar, it is the story of a well-heeled crook who lives with the equivalent of the prostitute with the heart of gold. Like Don, it is the story of twins – one good, one bad – who are swapped. Like Do Kaliyaan, it is the story of children who transfer their affections, in a manner of speaking, from the parent they grew up with to the parent they move in with. Like any of those older films, this is the story not just of lovey-dovey leads, but of families, with a large ensemble of characters, young and old. And like the films of the time – and indeed, like the India of the time – Aurangzeb  is a story about morality, the battle of philosophies between a character who believes that apnon ki keemat sapnon se zyada hoti hai, that family comes first, and another who, like the eponymous Mughal emperor, is willing to sacrifice kith and kin in the pursuit of his dreams.

Sabharwal knows those films well, and his flourishes are old-fashioned in the best sense. Befitting a story about twins – Ajay and Vishal (played by Arjun Kapoor) – the director, after the swap, mirrors the moment where Vishal drapes a blanket over the sleeping Ritu (Sashaa Agha) with one where Veera (Tanvi Azmi) drapes her dupatta over a sleeping Ajay, her long-lost son. And when Veera reveals, early on, that she gave birth to twins, Vishal turns to a mirror and we get a hint of Ajay in the reflection. Sabharwal knows his way around deliberately worded dialogue that goes with these deliberate visuals. The character played by Anupam Kher says that he chose to reside in the suburbs because he wanted to distance himself from the city, but “Ab yeh shehar badhte badhte mere ghar mein ghus aaya hai.” With development, the city has invaded his home. After this rant and a heated exchange with his son Arya (Prithiviraj Sukumaran), Sabharwal leaves us with a grace note. Kher picks up an empty beer bottle and blows over its neck, the hollow whistle echoing into the night.

This is a movie about men, with the women reduced mostly to props during festivities like Raksha Bandhan and Karwa Chauth, but the most beautifully shaped lines often come about in the presence of these women – when Veera tells Ajay why she chose to leave him with his father, when Arya’s wife (Swara Bhaskar) tells him she’s pregnant, or when Ravikant’s wife (Deepti Naval) incites her husband like Lady Macbeth. These emotional stretches work very well. There’s a MacGuffin that hinges on an expressway being planned on agricultural land, but the real purpose of these scenes is to show that Vishal is bonding with his father, the predatory industrialist Yashwardhan (an excellent Jackie Shroff). Yashwardhan wants the farmers to sign their land away, and so, like an unctuous politician, he courts them with charm, even staging an impromptu cricket match in the fields. Vishal drops a catch. Yashwardhan laughs good-naturedly. And we cut to a moment of silence, with Vishal probably thinking of all the dropped catches he missed out on while growing up with his mother.

The film could have used more visual flair, but where it really goes wrong is with its miscasting in some of the major roles. Sashaa Agha is fatally lightweight as Ajay’s girlfriend (she has a few secrets of her own), and Prithiviraj Sukumaran’s line readings are just that – he just reads out his lines, as if off a page, long chunks of exposition or conversation that sound over-rehearsed rather than lived-in. It’s one of the stiffest performances I’ve seen. (I kept wondering what Kay Kay Menon would have done with this part.) And Arjun Kapoor, at this admittedly early stage of his career, seems to subscribe to the school of acting where making faces constitutes character. As the animalistic Ajay, he recycles his Ishaqzaade character, and as Vishal, he is so muted that we wonder how Yashwardhan doesn’t sense that something’s wrong. Their scenes, together and apart, needed to detonate with dramatic charge, but Sabharwal is more comfortable with the quieter moments – like the one where Yashwardhan whips up an omelette – than the stormy confrontations. Sometimes, you just have to break a few eggs.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi