Readers Write In #536: My favourite Hindi films of 2022

Posted on December 31, 2022

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By Abhirup Mascharak

Badhaai Do.

Director: Harshvardhan Kulkarni.

Hindi cinema has been tackling LGBT stories for a while now, and most of these films have woven their narratives around certain issues pertinent to the queer community: moral policing (Aligarh), coming out (Dear Dad), living at the intersection of queerness and other marginalized identities (Margarita with a Straw), and so on. 2020’s ShubhMangalZyadaSaavdhanbroke that mould. With its colourful songs, funny one-liners, and scenes of melodramatic conflict between the older and younger members of a family, the film is, in many ways, your standard Bollywood romantic comedy, with one crucial difference – the characters at the centre of it all are two gay men. In other words, while the other recent Hindi LGBT films seek to enhance our awareness regarding the challenges queer people in India face, ShubhMangalZyadaSaavdhanwants to do that and deliver a good, old-fashioned entertainer, intertwining hoary rom-com tropes with coming out drama and the hardships of living under Section 377. You could say that Kapoor and Sons did this first, but the gay character there was part of an ensemble, not the lead. ShubhMangalZyadaSaavdhan, then, earns the distinction of being the first mainstream Hindi film with queer leads, and it seems to have encouraged other directors in the industry to make similar, mainstream films that put queer characters front and centre, like Chandigarh KareAashiqui, and now, Badhaai Do. The latter is the best of these recent Hindi ventures to mainstream LGBT issues. Remember Kissi Se Na Kehna, where a newlywed couple must hide from the husband’s father, who thinks that only rural, traditional girls make good wives, that the wife is an educated, working, city woman? Shardul and Suman in Badhaai Do must similarly hide from their nosy, overbearing families that theirs is a lavender marriage, that Shardul is a gay man and Suman a lesbian woman who each have same-sex lovers and who have tied the knot only so that their relatives would stop pestering them to get married. The spur-of-the-moment fibs and plans which Shardul and Suman must come up with to conceal the real nature of their relationship are often hilarious, and recall the situations not just in Kissi Se Na Kehnabut also in the other comedies helmed by its maker, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, where characters must constantly improvise to keep their secrets from being discovered. The queer romances in the film, whether between Suman and her paramour Rimjhim (played charmingly by debutant Chum Darang), or that between Shardul and his boyfriend Guru (the magnificent GulshanDevaiah, who, in the ten minutes or so that he is on the screen for, nearly walks away with the film), are likewise portrayed in the same manner that any heterosexual love story would be, complete with meet-cutes, the occasional disputes, and lilting romantic songs filmed in soft hues. Deftly entwined with these universalizing mainstream touches are issues that queer people, especially those living in India, must deal with – the dangers that online dating can pose to them, the fear of being hounded by the police (which Shardul, despite being a policeman himself, must live with), and of course, the hostility from family members when they come out. It is refreshing that this hostility, in Badhaai Do, comes mostly from the female members of Shardul and Suman’s families, be it their mothers or the gaggle of mausi-s and chachi-s; Suman’s mother says to her things that will make your ears burn, an aunt of Shardul cannot even bring herself to hear him speak of who he and Suman truly are, and even his mother seems to ‘accept’ him in the end only because he maintains a masquerade of heterosexuality with Suman for the sake of becoming parents (LGBT people in India do not yet have the right to parenthood, a point the film also poignantly touches upon). In a society, a film culture that has mindlessly venerated mothers and mother-figures for eons, this acknowledgment that motherhood is not synonymous with love and acceptance, as a lot of queer people have discovered to their lasting pain after coming out, was long overdue. (Suman’s father and younger brother, in contrast, are far more unequivocal in their eventual embracing of Suman). This balancing act – telling the story of LGBT people in a way that will resonate with the larger, non-LGBT viewership, of making itself accessible to the latter without in any way shortchanging or caricaturizing the former – is done so well for the most part that I would rather not carp over the film’s deficiencies, such as the odd joke that does not land or the somewhat lackluster performance of Bhumi Pednekar as Suman. Rajkummar Rao, however, knocks it out of the park as Shardul, the best role he has been handed since Shahid. In the first half, he is alternately amusing and moving as a man who is perpetually paranoid that somebody will discover he is gay. In the latter portions, he is just as good as the Shardul who, so to speak, earns his stripes in three key sequences where he comes out – to his family via a monologue that can melt the hardest of hearts, to the world during a vibrant song which plays out during apride march, and to his colleagues during a ceremony where the film beautifully subverts the heteronormative notion of the family in favour of something more inclusive. Watching these LGBT characters thus get their happy ending makes for one of the most pleasant visits to cinema this year.

Jhund.

Director: NagrajManjule.

Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Jhundis called Vijay, and a young man he meets and takes under his wing in the film calls himself Don. An iconic Bachchan film released more than forty years ago also had him playing characters called Don and Vijay. The older Vijay and Don, had they met, would have been sworn enemies. The ones in Jhund, on the other hand, are coach and player, mentor and mentee, even, in a way, father and son. These similarities and deviations are emblematic of how Jhundis and isn’t like the earlier films of Bachchan. Like the Vijay-s the actor has previously played, the Vijay in Jhundwants to combat the injustices and inequalities in society. But unlike those Vijay-s, he is not a larger-than-life hero in a masala universe but a life-sized, pragmatic, elderly man in what may be termed a docudrama, who knows that overcoming social divides (symbolized, fittingly, in the film through a wall that stands between a wealthy and a poor neighbourhood) is a slow, grinding process that will throw up challenges one has to brave through methods more realistic than a one-versus-many fight. Yes, Don and the other kids living in a slum near Vijay’s residence have the talent to become good football players. But how do you get those teenagers, who cope with crushing poverty and social ostracism through petty crimes, drug use and street fights, to take a sustained interest in sports? Vijay does so by giving them what they need most – money – in return for playing matches under his supervision, and keeps this up until, in one of the film’s many touching moments, they start loving the sport so much that they turn up even when there’s no money to be made. In a more conventional sports film, these kids’ win against mightier rivals shortly before the interval would have been the feel-good ending. Jhund, instead, follows it up with a sobering sequence where the youngsters tell Vijay of the hardships they have to deal with everyday, and the nearly blasé way they speak makes the point that their misfortunes have become such a regular phenomenon that even they have grown somewhat inured to it. This is what, I think, makes Vijay organize a nationwide Slum Soccer Tournament; not only does he want these particular kids to keep playing and not fall back into old ways, but he also wants the many other children and adolescents spread across other slums all over the country to find their way to a more dignified life through sports. As the film’s canvas broadens significantly in its portrayal of working-class youths from the unlikeliest corners of India making their way to this tournament, one may ask if football can really hold the solution to the complex problems of poverty in a nation as vast and unequal as ours. But the film does not make that claim anyway. It does not show Vijay as a magician and football as his magic wand (though, of course, we do know of famous players born into impoverished families who found a lifeline in sports) that can be waved to make those problems vanish. It can, however, make a man with suicide on his mind want to live again, and is that not quite an achievement? It’s also an achievement that the tournament is a success and the participants in it are invited to play in a similar tournament in Europe. But this is not where the film ends either. It now shows us, through a series of insightful sequences, how the system in our country works to hold the have-nots back. The police will not give Don passport clearance because they view him as nothing more than a delinquent. Monica, a Gondi girl from a remote village, does not have the documents needed to get a passport, and has to go through a rigmarole that is so ridiculous that it seems unreal. Rajiya does have the necessary documents, but her tyrannical mother-in-law won’t give them to her. Fighting their way through such impediments is such a draining struggle that one understands why the film’s climax comes not during a victory in a match played by these kids on foreign soil, but at an airport, as a metal detector representing our callous system is successfully crossed. The immediate circumstances which these characters have had to surmount are so challenging that getting on that plane is in itself a huge win for them; winning trophies for the country, like the protagonists in other sports films, can come later. It is to Jhund’s lasting credit that in chronicling these struggles, it is never pitying or patronizing towards the characters. When they turn up dressed in gaudy outfits for a match, it’s funny, but also moving: they have put on these clothes because they do not want to look poor next to the rich lads they have come to play against. And when they do something wrong, like littering the grounds on which they are playing, they realize their mistake and check themselves. These scenes negate the misguided yet prevalent notion that the lower classes are foolish and unclean and ill-mannered by nature. It is not just in terms of class that the characters in Jhund are subalterns, however, but also in terms of caste and religion, and again, the film must be praised for not glossing over the Dalit, tribal and Muslim identities of the characters – the Gondi people speak in their own language among themselves, an AmbedkarJayanti celebration is a centrepiece of the film, and Vijay’s own Dalit identity (his title is Borade) is underlined when he folds his hands before a large Ambedkar portrait. There is also a Dalit shopkeeper who initially views Don and his friends as good-for-nothings, but helps them out financially later when he sees the boys trying to better themselves. Touches like these bear testimony to the film’s humane core. Bachchan’s performance, meanwhile, bears testament to why he is one of the greatest star-actors ever. You have seen him steal the show through his peerless acting chops and overshadow everybody else in a film via his sheer presence often enough. Jhundshows that he can play it down as wonderfully as he can play it to the gallery. Everything, from his delight at seeing the slum kids making up for a mistake to his vexation at Don for making another mistake to his quiet determination to not fade into retirement but keep putting his coaching skills to good use, is subtly conveyed, through a smile or a stare or a slight raising of voice that’s masterfully done. More importantly, he blends in with rather than stand out among his much younger co-stars, many of whom are newcomers or non-professionals (the best of the lot are AnkushGedam, RinkuRajguru, and the knee-highKarthikUikey). In a film committed to the ideals of egalitarianism, that is a seemly gesture indeed.

Kaun Pravin Tambe?

Director: Jayprad Desai.

Cricket, they say, is a religion in India. Our cricket movies, consequently, tend to valourize the deities, real or fictional, of the game – the ones who win World Cups, or those who beat the British at it during the days of the Raj. Even a small-scale production like Iqbal codes its protagonist as the next Kapil Dev (that is, a deity-in-the-making). KaunPravinTambe? breaks away from this tradition by focusing on a man whose defining quality is his modesty. PravinTambe’s greatest ambition is playing in the Ranji Trophy tournament. Note that well: the Ranji team, not the national cricket team. But even this humble aspiration keeps running into roadblocks, for despite possessing the form and the fitness, Tambe is never selected. Why is this so? Tambe is asked the question in one scene, and he does not have an answer. The film, astutely, does not try to come up with one either. Maybe it’s just bad luck. Or maybe it’s Tambe’s tendency to speak plainly and directly, and his refusal to suck up to the powers that be, qualities we profess to like in a person but never reward. In any case, we all know that talent and hard work are seldom enough for sportspersons in India to get the deserved breaks, and the fault is not that of any individual but of an entire system that is rife with graft and favouritism and sundry other ills. This facelessly evil nature of the system is reflected in the film’s refusal to give us any one antagonist who deprives Tambe of his coveted Ranji cap, and his struggles register more strongly because of it. That is why it’s a mistake when the filmmakers introduce into the story a different type of villain: a sports reporter called Sanyal, who takes a sadistic pleasure in insulting Tambe whenever he can. This character is drawn in such broad strokes, and his antics grow so over-the-top, that he sticks out like a sore thumb in a film that otherwise maintains a low-key tenor and etches its characters very gently and intimately. You understand why Sanyal acts like this; like Tambe, he has faced dejections as well, and he chooses to vent his bitterness by stomping on Tambe. But the story did not need to give Tambe such a villain to fight, not when it has pitted him against an entity as mighty as time itself, which is hard on everyone but is especially unsparing to sportspersons, who start becoming persona non grata once they cross thirty. The people around Tambe – family, friends, colleagues – keep citing his age as a reason he should quit cricket, or at least, involve himself in it as a coach rather than a player. They do not mean to be cruel when they say it (they think they are just counseling him in a practical way), but the words are nevertheless like knives to Tambe’s cricket-loving heart. ShreyasTalpade is wonderful as this man whose first and greatest love is the game. Talpade’s own journey in Bollywood has been something like Tambe’s. We saw his talent in Iqbal, his debut (where he played another cricketer), but since then, he has been shunted by the industry into loud ensemble comedies (akin to the local tennis-ball cricket tournaments Tambe has to play in lieu of Ranji) instead of being given roles that would do him justice. Granted such a role here, he bites into it with the zeal of a hungry man savouring delicacies. He may not physically resemble the real Tambe much, but he excels at portraying the passion of a man who cannot imagine a life without cricket. As Tambe goes from a teen to an adult to a husband to a father, and does jobs as diverse as accounting and diamond-sorting and serving drinks at the bars and overseeing construction work to make ends meet, he never stops loving cricket: he will do only those jobs that also let him play, he sees cricket even in the movements of a dancer’s hands, he will tear open the cast on his broken leg to go see a match, and he shall not let any discouraging words interfere with his desire to bowl, whether medium pace or leg spin. It takes a degreeof madness to love the game this much, and Talpade embodies that madness well while also making Tambe, in many ways, an everyman, someone you may meet in your neighbourhood. The other actors – Ashish Vidyarthi as the quintessential sports movie coach who believes in tough love, Varoon Varma as Tambe’s loving elder brother (I wished the scenes spent on Sanyal had been used in fleshing out this sibling relationship a little more), Anjali Patil as the wife who is alternately infuriated and charmed by Tambe’s commitment to cricket over all else – also do well with their parts. Together, they create a lived-in world that is fascinating in its ordinariness. The chawl where Tambe lives with his family is bursting with activity (including cricket) and almost suffocating in the smallness of the apartments; the offices he works in are similarly quotidian; and the grounds he plays at are venues of grassroots cricket, far removed from the glitz and glamour of the large stadiums where star cricketers perform. You do not usually see such people and places in our sports films, which also rarely contain as much humour as this one does, etching even Tambe’s virtues like truthfulness and selflessness with comical touches. His transition to the big league of IPL (for which he is picked, felicitously, by Rahul Dravid, known, like Tambe, as a hard slogger rather than a venividi vici type), in contrast, is awkwardly depicted. It comes out of nowhere, with no build-up to it. I don’t know whether this is how it had been in the real Tambe’s case, but dramatically, it’s unsatisfying. It is, however, immensely gratifying when Tambe scores an IPL hat-trick, silencing the doubting Thomas commentators, or when he finally gets to play Ranji. Whatever its flaws, the film is clear in its answer to the question in its title – PravinTambe is the man who never gave up.

RK/RKay.

Director: Rajit Kapoor.

RK is an actor and a director shooting a film with himself in the lead role. The walls of his room are decorated with posters of ‘arty’ films like La Dolce Vita and M. So when you see him making something much more mainstream – a retro piece that looks like a conflation of the Muslim Socials and urban thrillers of yore (Mehboob Ki Mehndi meets Raj Khosla’s CID, if you will) – you are tempted to view him as a sellout, a filmmaker who has traded in his sophisticated sensibilities for money. But it’s not so simple. The other posters RK has put up are those of the 1933 The Invisible Man and The Mystery of Mr. X – popular, mainstream Hollywood films, products of the studio system era. Maybe, therefore, RK’s period romance/thriller is just the sort of film he wants to make, and not something he is helming because he has downgraded his earlier, purportedly superior tastes? His interactions with his producer, Goel (the winsome Manu Rishi Chadda) further challenges the idea that he has sold out. Despite Goel’s objections, RK has his characters speak in chaste Urdu and not everyday lingo, and he sticks to the tragic ending he has envisioned instead of replacing it with an upbeat, crowd-pleasing one. Most importantly, his constant fussing notwithstanding, he seems to have done a decent job making the film. As his assistant director tells RK, the latter’s movie is better than a lot of crap that passes for ‘independent’ (another term for ‘arty’) films nowadays. RK/RKay, then, becomes a curious outing – a film that is on the ‘arty’ side itself but questions the disdain which the ‘arty’ crowd hurls at the directors making something mainstream. One could say that in depicting RK as somebody who (as those posters indicate) likes various types of films, whose initials match that of this film’s director (known for making niche cinema) as well as Raj Kapoor (a doyen of mainstream Hindi movies, whose production company was called R.K. Films), the film is attempting to call a truce in the war between ‘arty’ and mainstream, suggesting that it is okay, even imperative, that we see and draw inspiration from all types of films. We tend to reserve the designation of an artist for those who make austere, avant-garde films. RK/RKay, in my reading, wants to expand that rigid definition and state that any variety of film made with conviction and sincerity should be enough to consider its maker an artist. The film’s principal conceit is that MehboobAlam, the main character in RK’s movie, comes to life and runs out of the film. You may interpret this as a metaphor for RK’s lack of control over his own project. Alternatively, it may be read, also, in this way – RK has poured enough passion, enough life into Mehboob for the latter to come alive the way he does. What buttresses this reading is that Mehboob is completely a product of RK’s mind. He behaves, even after leaping into the real world, in the way that he was to within the movie. He rushes to the same railway station that he was to go to in RK’s film, he speaks the same lines as those written for him by RK, his knowledge of his own self is limited to what RK has imagined for the character, and he keeps pining for the woman who is his paramour in the film. Is this not evidence of RK’s strength of vision in creating Mehboob? If Mehboob can prepare food that wows people, is it not because RK wrote him as a skilled khansama? When everybody who meets Mehboob comes to like him, does it not show, as RK’s wife observes, that RK has created an endearing character? Likewise, when the high-on-tantrums-but-low-on-talent heroine of RK’s film acquires a liveliness and elegance onscreen under his guidance, or when the villain, winkingly called K.N. Singh (and played by a fantastic RanvirShorey), lives up to RK’s conception of the character as a volatile, capricious man when he comes alive like Mehboob and causes mayhem in Mumbai, is it not valid to conclude that RK is good at directing and writing actors and characters? It is only after his prolonged stay in the world outside the reels, which he spends with crassly worldly men like Goel, that Mehboob stops being RK’s brainchild and yearns to become ‘real.’ In his attempts to do so, however, Mehboob ends up modelling himself on none other than his creator, shaving his moustache to look more like RK (Kapoor plays RK and Mehboob with a lot of wit and poise) and growing closer to the latter’s family. Where, then, does that leave RK? Mehboob springing to life and gaining popularity with all and sundry may demonstrate RK’s gift of creation, but with his hero coming out of his film and refusing to go back into it, RK the artist is left irate and helpless. There’s only one course left for him now to save his film, the thing he loves the most – he must become Mehboob just as Mehboob is becoming RK. It’s the ultimate portrait of an artist as a passionate man, willing, even, to subsume his self into his art to ensure its completion. The themes in the film, as you may have surmised, are heavy – the struggles of making art, the fraught relationship an artist may have with his creations (seen in the heated exchanges between RK and Mehboob, yes, but also in other scenes, like the one where Singh becomes a threat to RK’s son), the ductile nature of identity, and so on. But the film itself is surprisingly, wonderfully, consistently light on its feet (even if it would have done well to lose a few scenes – the ones with a fortune teller character serves no purpose that I can understand), treating these themes with levity and a whimsical touch. This whimsy is perhaps most evident in the film’s creation of a somewhat magic realist world, one where people get over their surprise at seeing a film’s characters exist outside the film rather quickly and treat it as something par for the course. Since an artist draws from life, the film seems to be saying, is it really odd if his creation gains life? Consequently, in the end, art imitates life and life imitates art in such striking tandem, there remains no doubt they are made for each other.

chup revenge of the artist

Chup.

Director: R. Balki.

I started reading film reviews on a regular basis circa 2003, and came rather quickly to the conclusion that most Indian film reviewers are not worth reading. Some write reviews that have prose so pedestrian and are so lacking in insight that essays by school kids seem erudite in comparison, some are trade analysts who evaluate a film solely on the basis of its commercial prospects (why does this lot need to write reviews? Can’t they just say how much money they feel a film will make, and then provide rejoinders on whether their predictions have come true?), some think that the worth of a film is to be measured in terms of how many boxes in the chart of wokeness it has ticked, some are so busy in making a show of their wit and knowledge of world cinema that they end up saying little that is of import on the film being reviewed, and some are guided by weird biases – such as a disregard for genre films, or a personal distaste for a particular star – that robs their writing of credibility. But I am glad I read these reviewers, because their shortcomings helped me formulate my own definition of what a good critic is – one who has a firm grasp of the language he is writing in, can explain through detailed and coherent analysis why a film did or did not work for him (instead of resorting to vague phrases like “the script is brilliant” or “the editing should have been tighter”), does not define a good film as one that has made a lot of money or one that wears its woke credentials on its sleeve, is clever and learned without being a condescending snoot, and keeps his writing free of prejudices pertaining to a film’s type or its makers. A tall order? One that I will not live up to myself? Sure. But if critics demand that a film be well-directed and well-written and well-acted and well-shot and well-edited to win their plaudits, surely it is fair to demand similarly high standards of film criticism in return? I guess what I am trying to say is that I find myself agreeing more than I would have liked with the serial killer in Chup, who goes around slaughtering film critics who he thinks are not doing their job right. No, I am not endorsing murder. I am, however, endorsing the idea, doled out in various scenes and conversations in the film, that writing on cinema is serious business, and critics should not act like pompous, self-declared arbiters of taste, or work as toadies of this or that movie producer, or treat films, especially those that try to do something novel, as pounds of flesh to stick their verbal razors into. Art is important, words have impact, and words spoken or written on art should therefore be chosen responsibly. The film does a good job of anticipating and answering the objections that may be raised to its thesis that bad film criticism is harmful and needs, well, criticism. When a man is asked if reviews can influence a film’s reception, he dismisses the idea; the word-of-mouth of the spectators decides a movie’s fate, he replies, not critics. But he is talking of a movie’s commercial fate, and since he is a producer, that will be his main concern. What of the directors (at least, any director who is not Rohit Shetty), who want to get something more out of making a film than money, such as respect? We get the answer when the same question is put to a director, and he says that the bad reviews he has received for his hatkefilm have left him depressed. This, Chup is saying, is why responsible criticism is important: the producers may not give a damn what critics say, but this director does, and critics who thrive on trashing films may stymy his future ventures. When a character wonders if professional reviews matter any more in an age when social media permits commoners to post their reviews in droves, another character points out that like the professionals in any field, critics do get looked up to – as people who are, or should be, more informed, more discerning viewers of cinema, who can help others become more informed and discerning viewers of cinema, so it follows that yes, they matter (and the unstated corollary is that they, therefore, have the responsibility to take their job seriously). We know this is right, for if professional reviews were totally unimportant, sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic would not exist, and the scores which films receive there would not keep getting cited as proof of their quality or lack thereof. The film is not saying that critics be silenced. No less a person than Amitabh Bachchan has a cameo where he stresses the importance of honest, unbiased, thoughtful film criticism. It’s when reviews do not possess these qualities that we have an issue. I can imagine unconvinced critics throwing up their arms and shouting, “So what are you saying? That you have the right to kill us if you don’t like our reviews?” To which the makers of the film will possibly reply, winking, “No, we are just saying that if we don’t like your reviews, we can tear into you as much as you tear into the films you denounce. It’s just that in our film, the ‘tearing into’ is literal because we are making our point through a serial killer thriller.” Which brings us to how it fares as a thriller. For the most part, quite well. It’s not a whodunit, so we know who the killer is early on. The thrill comes from deducing his motive and modus operandi, which are unique (the critics get killed as per the words they use in what the killer thinks are lousy reviews; one man who writes that a film should have been “ruthlessly cut,” for instance, has his body ruthlessly cut). The deductions are done by senior cop Arvind Mathur, played with charisma and restraint by Sunny Deol, who works with Pooja Bhatt’s Zenobia, a serial killer profiler, to solve the case. The latter is a largely unnecessary presence, seeing that Arvind does most of the detective work, and for someone who is an authority on killers, her observations are never more profound than “Inka logic bohot twisted hotahain.” In a parallel track, a romance develops between lonely florist Danny and aspiring movie critic Nila, who share a love for GuruDutt, Indian cinema’s ultimate example of a maverick whom critics misunderstood in his lifetime yet swoon over now. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the common link between the tracks is Danny, whose dark and dreamboat facets are realized beautifully in Dulquer Salmaan’s performance. You see why Nila (a charming Shreya Dhanwantary) would be drawn to him, and you also see why this love story will go nowhere, for Danny loves cinema more than anyone or anything else. The tracks converge quite credibly, with many entertaining touches (like policemen frantically reading movie reviews to determine the killer’s next target, or Danny gifting Nila literal kaagazkephool) dotting the journey. The only significant miscalculation in the film comes in the end, where the killer’s backstory is haphazardly squeezed into a flashback that would have worked better if it were given to us gradually, in parts, throughout the film. Until this misstep, though, it’s a – yes, I have to make the pun – killer film.

vikram vedha hindi

Vikram Vedha.

Director: Pushkar-Gayatri.

Comparisons have been drawn between VikramVedha– the Tamil original as well as the Hindi remake being discussed here – and Michael Mann’s Heat ever since the Tamil version released. Seeing that all of these films revolve around the battle of wits between a top cop and a tough crook, one understands the comparison, but it is not a particularly accurate one. Heat, for all its strengths, is a more straightforward film that wants us to root for the cop as he hunts down the crook; the former’s flaws and the humanizing touches lent to the latter do not really complicated the good-vs-bad paradigm of their conflict. VikramVedha, on the other hand, is a more ambitious work, one which questions the very notion that wearing a cop’s uniform makes you good or that a man from the underworld is an out-and-out villain. It posits that in life, we often find ourselves in situations where the choice is not a clear-cut one between good and evil, but between different forms of evil. What is one to do then? That question is posed here by Vedha, a dreaded mobster, played with tremendous relish by Hrithik Roshan in a performance matching that of Vijay Sethupathi in the original. Roshan’s incredibly good looks have, in my view, frequently gotten in the way of his duties as an actor. Because he looks so good, directors usually want him to pose rather than perform, to play not a character but the ‘Greek god’ which the media keeps describing him as. Here, though, with a scruffy visage, a deranged smile, and a manic look in his eyes, he brings to the role the requisite panache. Right from the moment he steps into a police station while munching on a samosa, the camera capturing his stroll in slow motion as the rousing background score builds to a crescendo, Roshan commands our attention as the blackguard whom everyone speaks of in hushed tones tinged with awe. Whether slicing his way through his enemies in the stylish action sequences (the best of which uses an old song from a Raj Kapoor film to marvellous effect) or speaking the lip-smackinglymasala-flavoured dialogues (“Maukabhihain, mausambhihain. Ekthokahanisunaye?”), he alone is reason enough to watch the film. Saif Ali Khan, handed the less flashy part of the policeman Vikram, also does well, delivering a more intense act than R. Madhavan’s in the original as a man whose simplistic notions of right and wrong are gradually dismantled through his conversations with Vedha. These conversations are, as the title indicates, mounted as a contemporary version of the exchanges between the king Vikramaditya and the vampire Vetal found in Hindu folkloric tales. Much as each of these tales has a moral conundrum at the centre which Vetal asks Vikramaditya to resolve, helping the king gain more wisdom in the process, Vedha tells Vikram stories that come with tricky questions, in trying to answer which Vikram’s belief that he and his unit of ‘encounter specialists’ are the good guys gets shaken. The screenplay, one could opine, uses the Vikram-Vetal template to produce a detective story of the hardboiled variety. In those, what seems like a simple case slowly unfurls into something far more sinister and complicated, so that by the end, the sleuth, even as he solves the mystery, is left with a sense if weariness over how much is wrong with the world. VikramVedhalikewise begins with what looks like a routine encounter by Vikram’s team, only for him to learn, with the inputs from Vedha that come disguised as stories, that there is more to this event, to his fellow cops, than what meets the eye, culminating in the realization that compared to the police force he works for, Vedha, who slashes throats and smashes heads without blinking, is the more upright man. As the extent of the venality among his coworkers becomes clear to Vikram, what simultaneously dawns on us is how cleverly the clues to the truth regarding the dirty cops had been planted by the screenplay – in Vedha’s yarns, yes, but also in what seemed like unimportant, throwaway bits of information, like one policeman buying a new motorcycle, another enunciating his desire to send his kid to a posh school, and a third’s propensity to visit sex workers. When these clues come together in the end to show us, and Vikram, the larger picture, it is done so masterfully that you can almost hear the sweet ‘click’ of things falling into place. The few missteps, such as the uninspired songs that are inserted here and there into the otherwise taut plot, do not matter next to the all the aforesaid accomplishments. And when you note that this tale of a police department’s unscrupulousness in which the sole conscientious policeman (apart from Vikram) is Muslim takes place in Uttar Pradesh, where unlawful activities of the police and mistreatment of Muslims have escalated in recent years, it lends to the film a subversive edge that was missing in its Tamil predecessor. I guess that is what makes a remake good – keeping what worked in the original while adding something new that gives it a spicierflavour.

Uunchai.

Director: SoorajBarjatya.

Until I saw Uunchai, I did not even realize how much I missed the buddy films that were once a staple of Hindi cinema. The relationship between the heroes in these films were as important, if not more important, than their romantic or familial ties, and they literally lived and died for each other. Amitabh Bachchan was usually a part of these films, partnering up, varyingly,with Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra,Shatrughan Sinha or Vinod Khanna. He is also a part of this film, which is a celebration of the friendship between his character, Amit, and three other senior citizens called Bhupen (Danny Denzongpa), Javed (BomanIrani) and Om (AnupamKher). With only a handful of adept strokes, the film clues us in to the esprit de corps among this group – Amit, a successful author, quickly wraps up a photoshoot to go to Bhupen’s birthday party, which Javed also attends ignoring his wife’s admonition, and Om turns up for even though he is somewhat upset with Bhupen. Later, as they sit around lazily, exchanging jokes, sharing future plans, even offering criticism, this quartet, courtesy the caliber of the actors playing them, demonstrate a chemistry, a candour around each other that bespeaks an amity which goes back years, and which has a distinct till-death-do-us-part feel to it. When death does strike, claiming Bhupen, the other three decide to undertake the arduous trek to the Mount Everest base camp and scatter Bhupen’s ashes there, for completing this trek was an unfulfilled aspiration of their deceased friend. The rest of the film takes the form of a road movie as these remaining friends journey to Nepal and then to the base camp, dealing with challenges posed by belligerent family members, the infirmities brought on by their age, and the rugged landscape and mercurial weather of the Himalayas. One obvious message of the film is that old people, including those with health problems, should not be expected to withdraw into a shell, that they have as much right as the young to live life to the fullest. In communicating this thought to the viewers, however, the film does not trip up like many of our films with old protagonists do and stereotype the younger generations as shallow, selfish jerks who disrespect and mistreat the elders. In fact, in a section involving Javed’s daughter and son-in-law, the film actually takes the side of these characters and states that respect is not a one-way street, that elders who want to be treated well by their children should give the latter their space and privacy. Where the film startles the most, though, is in its redefinition of the notion of family. What is commonly understood as filial ties are portrayed here as unfulfilling and restrictive. Amit is estranged from his wife. Om is on poor terms with his son as well as his sibling. Javed’s wife is jealous and controlling. Bhupen did not even get to start a family, as the woman he wanted to marry chose a more well-off man over him. Most of these conflicts are smoothed over by the end, some more convincingly than others, but it still leaves you with the lingering idea that family, as the word is conventionally defined, is not all that it is cracked up to be. In contrast, the fellowship between the four men at the centre of the plot remains warm and steady throughout, the occasional hiccup notwithstanding; this is the real family in the film, and the makers keep finding interesting ways to say as much. Think of the scene where the doctor, having ascertained that Bhupen is no more, asks his friends to inform Bhupen’s kin, to which Amit says Javed, Om and he are all that Bhupen had. The line is not spoken with pity. We are not meant to feel, “Oh, poor Bhupen, there’s no one to mourn him,” because that’s not true – Bhupen does have three genuine mourners, who go on to do for him something that most blood relations would baulk at. In another scene, Javed’s wife feeds him purias they are sitting on the back seat of a car, while Amit, who is driving, is similarly fed by Om. The idea is clear: the couple in the back is a family, and so are the men in front. At multiple junctures, friendship is the crutch the characters lean on when let down by their families, such as Javeddrawingsuccour from his pals as his wife refuses to understand or respect his wish to complete the trek, or Om finding solace in Amit’s company after a row with his insensitive older brother. I said earlier that yesteryear buddy films depicted friendship as something on par with or more important than biological family, but it was done somewhat tacitly. Here, that subtext becomes text, thanks to screenwriting that is simple, unobtrusive yet clear-eyed in making its point – at least for the better part of its duration. One wishes that a later development concerning the onset of a character’s Alzheimer’s disease had been handled less clumsily, and the trekking guide played by Parineeti Chopra should have been essayed, in the interest of ethno-cultural verisimilitude, by an actor local to the regions through which the trek takes place. But the film’s heartfelt sincerity goes a long way in making up for such stumbles. You will feel the rush that the three friends do as they move mountains to honour the fourth. 

monica, oh my darling

Monica, O My Darling.

Director: VasanBala.

A lot has been written on the easter eggs in Monica, O My Darling, but what is no less significant is the intelligent manner in which they have been employed in the film. It’s not just a case of a director declaring, “Look, I have seen these cool movies by these cool directors.” Sure, there is some of that, like the scene that includes nods to a whole host of filmmakers, from S. Sreenivasa Rao to Paul Thomas Anderson. But otherwise, the homages are put in the film for specific reasons. For instance, when the Monica of the film’s title is seen near a restaurant called Bates Motel, it’s not merely because VasanBala, the director, has seen and loves Psycho. Rather, it reflects the parallels between the characters and situations in the two films: like Marion Crane in Psycho, Monica has been laying her hands on money that is not hers to keep, and like Crane, she will not live to enjoy it. If a robot’s arm in the film resembles one of the metallic limbs of Doc Oc in Spiderman 2, it’s because each is the invention of a gifted scientist who shall end up using it for murderous purposes. When Jayant, the protagonist, is introduced to someone with the words “my cousin, Vinny”, it highlights the fact that like the central characters in My Cousin Vinny, Jayant is, at this point, in danger of being put behind the bars for a murder he has not committed. Likewise, the tributes to SriramRaghavan’s films EkHasinaThiand Johnny Gaddaarare included because the protagonists in those, like Jayant, end up in hot soup because of their own mistakes. I could go on, but let’s just say that most of the film’s nods to other releases are of this nature: the older films are invoked because they somehow mirror the people and their situations in this film. I have not read Heart of Brutus, the KeigoHigashino novel that Monica, O My Darling is an official adaptation of. But since it’s most unlikely that the book is so chock-full of movie references, credit must go to Bala and his screenwriters for having woven the movie tributes into the narrative in such meaningful ways. As for the story, well, it’s classic noir stuff – a ‘sucker’ is ensnared by a femme fatale and soon finds himself burdened with one, and then many corpses, as suspicious fiancées, cunning cops, lethal authority figures and scheming blackmailers make life hell for him until his desperation reaches a make-or-break point. Monica, O My Darling has all of these characters, brought to life by a spirited cast, the standouts among whom are Rajkummar Rao as the quintessential noir hero waging an unequal battle against forces both human and cosmic that seem determined to bring him down, SikanderKher as a spoiled brat who plans murder with the relaxed demeanour of somebody discussing the weather, and SukantGoel as a seemingly ordinary man who keeps reaching new highs (or lows) of nefariousness every time he comes onscreen. The only performer who strikes a false note is Radhika Apte, whose mannerisms as a ‘quirky’ cop look painfully forced. The plotting is confident, with the twists and turns coming at regular intervals, and the ending is in keeping with the ironic, grim tenor that characterizes any true blue noir. There are also flashes of delightfully dark humour in places you least expect. A fight scene where two characters are trying to kill each other, for instance, plays out almost like slapstick comedy, before turning serious and ending, surprisingly, in one of the few displays of humanity in a movie whose characters mostly lack that quality: the snakes and leopards in the film (a scene with a man facing a cobra is, by the way, another homage – to the moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones is similarly faced with a serpent) have nothing on the humans who populate it. Then there is the soundtrack, which enhances the film’s easter egg quotient. The most famous song from the 1971 film Caravan (which, like Bala’s film, is a crime thriller with murderous vamps; both films also have scenes where a man is thrown from a rooftop)gives Monica, O My Darling its title, and snatches of it are played at various points in the latter, but more strikingly, the newer film’s entire background score, including that of its opening musical sequence, has the brassy feel of R.D.’s finest compositions from the 1960s and 1970s. If one were to listen to it without knowing which film it belongs to, one could think that this is the soundtrack from a Vijay Anand thriller (likeJewel Thief, which is also cleverly alluded to here). I know I am making Monica, O My Darling sound like a giant showcase for its director’s cinephilia, and in a sense, it is just that. But when that showcasing is done in such a smartly curated manner and grafted onto an engaging plot, why complain? It makes for a supremely entertaining ride.

Bhediya.

Director: Amar Kaushik.

For reasons I will not go into here, I found Stree, the debut film of Amar Kaushik, a severely problematic movie, and his sophomore venture, Bala, only slightly less so. I was not, therefore, particularly hopeful that his third movie, Bhediya, will blow me away. Nevertheless, I knew I would watch it all the same, for it is a werewolf movie, and my interest in shapeshifters and wolves, drilled into my younger self by Mahesh Bhatt’s gloriously bad Junoonand the Hindi The Jungle Book shown on Doordarshan, will not let me stay away from the theaters when the film releases. Imagine my delight, then, when Bhediyamentions both of those childhood favourites at separate points in its runtime. What is more, these allusions, and all the other wolf-related ones in the film are, like the easter eggs in Monica, O My Darling, purposefully used. Not unlike the Rahul Roy character in Junoon, Bhaskar in Bhediyais an arrogant young man who becomes a shapeshifter when he ignores warnings and ends up getting bitten by a supernatural creature. But where Roy’s character morphs into a monster that must be killed, Bhaskar becomes a better person as he learns to embrace the wolf within him and care more for the jungles he now runs across, much as Mowgli becomes part of the wolf pack that raises him, and resides in the forest with them. A sly variation of the ‘Boy who Cried Wolf’ story is used to emphasize the frivolous, foolhardy nature of the pre-transformation Bhaskar. The film’s opening sequence nods at the fairy tales ‘Three Little Pigs’ and ‘Red Riding Hood’ while turning their contents upside down: the wolf in these stories is the villainous outsider, while the bhediyain this film is, Bhaskar rightly notes, the hero defending the environment from evil outsiders like himself. Protection of the environment, and the racial prejudice which the people of the north-eastern states of India – Bhediyais set in Arunachal Pradesh – face from the rest of the country are, in fact, the twin issues at the heart of the film, and if you are a lazy critic, you will find much to complain regarding the way these topics are handled. You may grumble, for example, that the jokes mouthed by Bhaskar’s cousin Janardan, though delivered with perfect comic timing by Abhishek Banerjee, rely on stereotypical humour that degrades the people of the north-east. To which I say: of course they do, and that is precisely why they are included in the film – to make the point that the jokes we find hilarious may be hurtful to others. In greeting every stupid remark of Janardan, including one on eating beef, with increasing irritation, Jomin (impressive newcomer PalinKabak), Bhaskar’sArunachali friend, makes it clear that we are to laugh at Janardan, not with him, and when Jomin finally explodes and rips into Bhaskar and Janardan for their continuous belittling and stereotyping of north-easterners, it makes for the most impactful moment in the film. You may likewise criticize the film for having a protagonist (Bhaskar) from the Hindi belt even when the story is set in the north-east. To which my reply would be: yes, and wouldn’t it be better if the making of films that deal directly with the lives of people from the north-east is left to filmmakers local to the region, while Hindi film directors like Kaushik contribute to the conversation on north-east through films like Bhediya, where the Hindi-speaking protagonist learns to treat the people and the environment of those parts with more respect? Make no mistake, Bhaskar may be the film’s ostensible ‘hero’, and may be played by a star like Varun Dhawan, but the film never goes easy on him when detailing the harm he had come to do, and the consequences he must suffer for it. Smartly, this is done by introducing him as a more banal variety of evil, a well-dressed, smooth-talking guy who thinks he is just doing his job when he uses every trick in the book, legal or otherwise, to make sure nobody poses a problem to his project of mowing down acres of forest to construct a road. He simply cannot see what harm this will do, and his words, such as that the youth today wants Starbucks more than blackbucks, are effective precisely because they are so casual in their perniciousness, so reflective of the things we have heardfrom those people around us who salivate at the very utterance of the word ‘development.’ That the wiser of the locals are not on board with his plans of deforestation, that Panda, a character who is not Arunachali yet understands the damage Bhaskar is going to inflict on the environment in the area (it’s perhaps not an accidental detail that Panda is from Nainital, a region that has itself borne the brunt of environmental degradation in recent years), that even the dimwitted Janardan understands that“prakritihain to pragatihain”, serves to further show Bhaskar in an unflattering light. And when he is bitten, it is nothing short of a retribution from nature, as he becomes, in a manner of speaking, a part of the animal kingdom whose home he had come to destroy. What ends up getting destroyed instead, though, is the old Bhaskar – where he was once a vegan who could not stand dogs, who said that the potted plants on the balcony are all the nature one needs and worked with crooked officials to annihilate the wilderness, he is now a meat-eating, part-canine creature who ensures the jungle’s safety by devouring those corrupt colleagues. At one point, Panda compares werewolves to the yakshain our mythologies. That word has many religious connotations, but in certain works of popular fiction I have read (and which the makers of Bhediyamay well have drawn upon), the yakshais the soul of a wicked person that must perform penance for his sins by eternally guarding something precious. Isn’t this what Bhaskar essentially becomes in the end? The film has been marketed as a horror comedy on the strength of the tactile VFX in the werewolf transformation scenes and the sidesplitting gags (the best of which involves HimeshReshammiya’s nasal vocals), but underneath it all, it’s a dark morality tale that retains a voice of its own even as it references a plethora works on werewolves, like An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen, even Dracula. Yes, the songs are unnecessary, and KritiSanon, as the heroine, Anika, remains stuck in a silly wig and an underwritten part. But at least what looked like the beginnings of a superfluous romance is averted in favour of the camaraderie and shenanigansof the main characters, with Dhawan, Deepak Dobriyal (as Panda), Banerjee and Palin forming the funniest foursome seen in Hindi films. If the sequel featuring this lot that is promised at the end gets made, I will watch it for sure.

An Action Hero.

Director: AnirudhIyer.

No matter what the title says, An Action Hero is not really an action film. Its three main action set-pieces – on a scaffolding, in a kitchen, and across the English countryside – are done proficiently enough, but they are not the highlights of the film. Its real draw is the way it explores an actor’s relationship with his audience and his craft. What, the film asks, does a star owe his adoring fans? The answer it provides is as refreshing as the question is relevant: not a damn thing, except maybe a polite wave of his hands. If, after a day’s hard work, a star decides to take his newly purchased car for a spin instead of posing for selfies with his fans, then he is well within his rights to do, and if a fan cannot accept this, that’s his problem, not the star’s. This is what Maanav, the titular action movie star, basically tells Vicky, a fan who will not leave Maanav alone, leading to an altercation that kills Vicky accidentally. As Maanav goes on the run, and is chased by Vicky’s brother Bhoora, a fearsome goon with political backing and aspirations, all the way to London, we get two fairly telling scenes. In the first, a police officer who is Bhoora’s lackey interrogates the cinematographer of Maanav’s latest film, and criticizes the latter by saying that he is not as “useful” to the society as a doctor or an engineer is. In the other, Bhoora, during a fight with Maanav, shouts that it is the public that has made Maanav a star, and hence, if a member of the public (like Vicky) wants him to come for a photo session, then Maanav will bloody well oblige. These toxic notions – that people in the film industry are not “productive” members of the society, and that stars must be deferential to the masses that buy the tickets to their movies – have grown unsettlingly common in India since the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput three years ago. This truly unfortunate incident was weaponized by the right-wing forces in the country, who have long castigated Bollywood for its promotion of secular (rather than Hindu) values, whether through its films or by accommodating several Muslim artistes, including some of our biggest stars, within its ranks. These right-wing trolls claimed that Rajput’s death was the fault of a “mafia” in Bollywood which is run by the aforementioned Muslim stars and their cronies, and which promotes nepotism, drug use and sundry other forms of debauchery; this nefarious system, it was said, ostracized a talented Hindu outsider like Rajput because his success, despite all odds, was showing the mafia up, until he was driven to suicide (the more sensational theories even said that he was murdered). This was all a potpourri of half-truths and unfounded charges, but a lot of people, shocked by the sudden death of a young, handsome, promising actor (which was likely caused by his mental health issues) and looking for somebody, anybody, to pin the blame for it on, found in the right-wing’s propaganda a fit candidate: Bollywood as a whole. Certain media outlets, which have brazenly championed right-wing bigotry, fanned the flames even more. Consequently, calls to shun Bollywood releases and ensure its financial ruin, and to keep doing so until it starts being more respectful of the “Hindu sentiments” of its viewers, have become the order of the day. An Action Hero  alludes to this ridiculous, dangerous phenomenon in the plight that befalls Maanav: much as the Hindi film industry was branded as Rajput’s “murderer” on the most spurious grounds, Maanav is called a killer by irresponsible mediapersons (who are lampooned through montages that are as funny as they are disquieting) who do not know the full details of the circumstances of Vicky’s demise but who nevertheless describe it as the murder of a poor common man by a rich, entitled celebrity. Bhoora, meanwhile, becomes the embodiment of the crazed mob that decries Maanav (and which decries Bollywood in real life) even as it has no clear reason to do so; as he tells Maanav later, he knows that Maanav is not really responsible for Vicky’s death, but he will kill Maanav nevertheless because he believes this is what is expected of him and will gain him respect (just as a lot of people these days think that shouting “Down with Bollywood” is the latest hot thing to make them look cool). And what does Maanav rely on when faced with this sort of madness that refuses to listen to logic? Why, his skills as an action film hero. You may scoff at the scenes where this man, who is only an actor, manages to fight off the cops and crooks on his trail, but think back to the scene where we first see him. He is neck deep in trouble, but he is still working out. Think, also, of the scenes where we see him shoot for an action sequence: he does his own stunts, and he insists on retakes until he does the action to perfection. It’s not that much of a stretch to assume that a man who takes his fitness and his vocation this seriously will have trained himself to acquire the fighting skills that his onscreen avatars possess, and these are the skills that help him, often though not always, in his battles against deadly enemies. In other words, it is precisely the profession he is decried for belonging to that stands him in good stead in his hour of need, thereby underscoring the point that an artist’s first loyalty should be to his art and not to the consumers who think they have some sort of claim on him. It all leads to the film’s concluding segment, involving a mobster modelled on Dawood Ibrahim, which is truly audacious in the way it makes a far-fetched scenario look credible and uses it to illustrate a point on the fickleness of the masses and the media, on how flimsy and dubious our understanding of patriotism can be. The other important accomplishment of An Action Hero is that it rescues AyushmannKhurrana from the rut of message movies he has been stuck in for a while, and which had been yielding increasingly diminishing returns of late. As Maanav, he is not required to convey any noble message. He just has to play a man with deadly fighting prowess who must outrun his ignoble pursuers – one part John Wick and one part Richard Kimble. And he has a blast with the role. He is complimented stupendously by JaideepAhlawat, who imbues every single expression and utterance of Bhoora with a sinister nonchalance that is a treat to watch. The other performers – NeerajMadhav, GautamJoglekar, Harsh Chhaya – don’t get as much scope (though Akshay Kumar’s cameois incredible), but that’s a small grouse. The film is, in many ways, the year’s most topical Hindi release.