“Dharam Sankat Mein”… A necessary film, though not a particularly good one

Spoilers ahead…

The cleverest thing about Dharam Sankat Mein, directed by Fuwad Khan, is that title. The plot kicks off when Dharam Pal (Paresh Rawal), a sacred thread-wearing Brahmin in Ahmedabad, discovers he’s really a Muslim. So the obvious meaning of the title is that Dharam is in a sankat, crisis. But reduce his name to a common noun, and it means religion. Hence the other dimension of the title: religion is in a crisis. The film, thus, riffs on the many ways in which both Dharam and dharam are in trouble. Along with Dharam’s attempts to get a grip on his situation, we are given lessons on the communal madness that surrounds us. We are given glimpses of the us-versus-them distrust that exists between Hindus and Muslims. We are told what it’s like to be a member of a minority community, especially whenever there’s a terrorist attack. On the flip side, we are shown how intolerant some Muslims are, how they try to convert people from other faiths. To succeed with all this within the framework of a broad-strokes, Censor Board-friendly comedy isn’t easy. At times, you may feel a more appropriate title would have been Fuwad Khan Sankat Mein.

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But first, it’s important to acknowledge the need – today, in an increasingly insane nation – for films like this one, or OMG: Oh My God! (whose DVD is visible in an early scene), or pk. These films use comic frameworks to push forward their sobering agenda – and this is the best approach. Ask Karan Johar, who mainstreamed homosexuality through comedy and did what more earnest-minded dramas like My Brother Nikhil couldn’t. Today, no one bats an eyelid when a gay character shows up on screen, and some of this acceptance has spilled over into real life too. If something similar happens with religion, thanks to these films, then more, please.

Dharam is, in the initial portions, this film’s Kantaben. Despite that sacred thread, he’s not really religious, and when his son falls for a girl whose father is a member of a godman’s cult, Dharam, discovers, like  Kantaben thought she did, what it’s like to get buggered by people from the same faith. Is there anyone better than Rawal at playing the lovable cynic? Even if he’s played this role before, he’s so good that he almost convinces us his lines are funny. But they aren’t. This film’s idea of a joke is to name a psychiatrist Dr. Choonawala. Fuwad Khan has no idea how to stage comedy. There’s an attempt at a slapstick chase in an orphanage. We get a man standing in his undies when his pants are pulled down. It’s painful. There’s a bit where Dharam’s wife suspects he’s gay. A director with better instincts would have made this a running gag, letting it build before letting it explode. Here, the whole thing is resolved with a couple of lines of dialogue. I wonder if The Infidel, the British film whose adaptation this is, made these gags work.

The worst scenes are the ones in which Naseeruddin Shah plays that godman. He makes an entry more suited to Rajinikanth – on a motorbike, to the cheering of thousands of fans. But game as Shah is, this is a terribly contrived part headed in the most obvious direction – and the resolution of this subplot is an embarrassment. This is what I don’t get, whether here or in pk.  Our godmen are already jokes. Every day you open the papers, and there’s some this-can’t-really-be-happening news about them. How can a movie expect to top this? How can you spoof something that already looks like a spoof?

And when it decides to get serious, Dharam Sankat Mein isn’t dramatic enough. A wonderful Annu Kapoor, who speaks as if rehearsing for a local production of Mughal-e-Azam, plays Mehmood, Dharam’s Muslim neighbour and eventual confidante. We are given the sense of a long-running feud between them, but when Dharam reveals to Mehmood that he is a Muslim, there is instant empathy. Perhaps the point is that Mehmood is so aware of what it is “to be a Muslim” that it doesn’t take much time for him to realise what it must be like for a Hindu “to be a Muslim.” Still, this doesn’t help the character, who ends up somewhat colourless, a little more than a comic sidekick, a lot less than what you’d expect from him as this film’s sole, sane Muslim.

But he does get the film’s funniest stretch, when he begins to school Dharam in the ways of his dharam. Dharam knows little about Islam, and he doesn’t know too much about Hinduism either, so he gets a Hindu tutor too. He keeps mixing up what he learns, which is just another way of saying that there’s not much difference, really, and it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – matter. That’s pretty wonderful coming from a movie whose leading man is a BJP MP.

KEY:

  • Choonawala = con man

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“Ek Paheli Leela”… A terrible reincarnation drama which may really be about Sunny Leone’s second avatar

Spoilers ahead…

Let’s face it. Sunny Leone isn’t being hired for her face. It’s a pretty face, but it isn’t what’s getting her hired. Neither is she being hired for her acting, which, to put it kindly, makes Katrina Kaif look like Smita Patil. No. Sunny Leone is being hired for her unswerving obedience to the directors of her films when they put her in the scantiest of tops and yell into their megaphones: “Now bend down and show us that W.” She’s a sport. She makes that W, by a rough count, about 26½ times in Bobby Khan’s Ek Paheli Leela. One of those times, she’s in a lacy bra, and the camera leans in on her from a height, the way you’d stand on tiptoe and stare down into a well to determine how deep the water is. The audience whistles. Another image is added to that great filing cabinet in the male mind. All is well.

But this isn’t some poor girl who came to Bollywood with stars in her eyes and ended up being exploited by lecherous men. In a way, she’s the one doing the exploiting. She’s a canny entrepreneur who knows what the market wants, and she’s exploiting that want. Early on in Leela, in a scene set at a party, she looks around at the men and tells her friend that they are “aankhon se rape karne wale perverts,” that they’re raping her with their eyes. You have to laugh because she’s simultaneously playing the victim card (within the film) and urging her fans to do the same thing those men at the party are doing (without). An unscientific web search told me that Leone’s net worth is $2.5 million. I’m surprised it isn’t more.

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So hooray for her and all that, but isn’t this kinda-sorta bad news for the Hindi film heroine? Leone, essentially, is undoing what Zeenat Aman did in the 1970s. In films like Heera Panna and Manoranjan – which look tame today, but must have been shocking then – Aman wrested female sexuality from the vamps and said it was okay if the heroine had a great body and thought nothing of flaunting that great body. With the rare exception of a Satyam Shivam Sundaram, where Aman was reduced to doing what Leone’s doing in these films now, she made it okay for the heroine to wear, say, a cleavage-baring top and made the men whistle in open appreciation, even admiration, rather than salivate in a corner with barely concealed lust. She seemed to say, “Let’s not make a big deal out of this, boys.” This is what has led to Deepika and Priyanka and Katrina wearing (and getting way with) dresses that, at one time, would have made Helen and Bindu blush. We see these girls in these clothes and we react to them the way we react to Hollywood actresses in a bikini – it’s simply not that big a deal anymore.

But Leone is making it a big deal again. Or perhaps she’s proving that, despite Zeenat Aman, despite Deepika and Priyanka and Katrina, there’s always a market for full-figured women who can and are more than willing to bend down and make W’s. Mallika Sherawat proved this for a brief while in the noughties. Now, it’s Leone.

Only, Bollywood seems intent on crafting for her a different kind of narrative, one that she, unapologetic adult-film star that she is, probably never cared for in the first place. Bollywood seems hell-bent on giving her a Purab Aur Paschim makeover, wiping off her “shameful, Western” past and situating her in the continuum of the traditional Hindi-film heroine. What else is one to make of scenes like the one where Leone’s Meera utters lines like “Woh mera suhaag hai” or “Main shaadishuda hoon”? She wipes away a tear after receiving a proposal of marriage. She even gets to participate in a puja. And like the traditional Hindi-film heroine, she wears W-making tops earlier, but once married, she slips into demure – at least, as demure as her sensibilities will allow – salwar kameezes. Heck, by this point Meera could have been played by Rani Mukerji, circa Baabul. Why denude an actress of her USP?

But even with Leone brandishing her USP in the early scenes – at times, the camera angles make the 2D screen almost look like a pop-up book – Leela is an awful film, awfully staged, written, acted. (The wooden cast includes Rajneesh Duggal, Rahul Dev, Mohit Ahlawat and Jay Bhanushali, who looks like a fifth-grader who stuck on a beard to play Joseph in the annual nativity play.) This is the kind of movie in which we learn Meera is claustrophobic and fears flying, so to get her on a plane, her friend tells her it’s an… airplane-themed party. That’s enough to get Meera aboard. I suppose this is the distaff equivalent of men doing crazy things because all the blood rushed from their brain to their you-know-what.

The painfully snail-paced story is about the search for a statue, and there’s a reincarnation angle that goes back 300 years, which seems to be about the time we started watching the movie. The laugh track is filled with abominable fellatio jokes, and at some point you may begin to wonder if Leone isn’t regretting leaving behind her past. At least, there’s a certain kind of purity in porn. Pizza delivery guy rings the door bell. Co-ed opens the door. Insert joke about sausage toppings. Instead, here, we have to suffer through plot, character development, twist ending, dialogue… I laughed exactly twice during the movie. First, when the villain throws at Leone a bejewelled bra and a loincloth and snarls, “Yeh vastra pehen lo.” If this is vastra, then the Mahabharat we watched on TV would have been enacted by an all-nude cast, which probably tells us why Gandhari really wore that blindfold. The second time was when Meera is introduced as a supermodel who’s come “all the way from Milan.” Alas, nothing in this film goes all the way.

KEY:

  •  “Woh mera suhaag hai”= He’s my husband.
  •  “Main shaadishuda hoon”= I am married.
  •  “Yeh vastra pehen lo.”= Wear these… clothes!

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“Detective Byomkesh Bakshy”… A tedious origins story

Spoilers ahead…

Some thirty minutes into Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshi!, based on the character created by Saradindu Bandopadhyay, I realised I still hadn’t gotten a lock on whatever was going on, and my mind began to drift to Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha. In that film, he made us believe we were watching a re-enactment of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. He even named the lovers Rahul and Shruti, so their initials would match those of Raj and Simran. And then he threw an axe-wielding (okay, hockey stick-wielding) psychopath into the mix. Forget happily ever after – they ended up in the hereafter. It was like biting into a bar of chocolate and discovering dead lizard. I wondered if Detective Byomkesh Bakshi! began as a similar act of subversion, if Banerjee made his backers (Yash Raj Studios) believe they were in for a re-enactment of, say, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. But? Another bar of chocolate. Another dead lizard.

Not since Sanjay Leela Bhansali made Saawariya, the film that was supposed to justify Sony Pictures’ investment in the Indian market, has a major filmmaker made something so… idiosyncratic for a major studio. Bhansali teased us with the prospect of a love story with star kids – we expected a heart-warming romance and got something with the temperature of Pluto. Banerjee, similarly, teases us with pulpy highlights. 500 kilos of opium. A book with porny illustrations. Gruesome murders. Strychnine poisoning. A corpse swarming with ants. Chinese gangsters. Sedition. Blackmail. We expect a thriller – a noir thriller, given the early sight of a looming Expressionistic shadow. What we get, instead, is… well, it’s hard to say what it is. Probably the only thing we can say for sure is that it is an origins story.

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It’s easy to see why, the matching initials apart, Dibakar Banerjee was drawn to Detective Bakshy (played by Sushant Singh Rajput). This director has always been sympathetic towards the upwardly mobile, the underdog – and that’s what Byomkesh is. For a while, he’s hopelessly out of his depth, but he soldiers on and gets where he wants to be, and like the classic Banerjee protagonist, he will achieve his aims through equal parts playacting and hoodwinking. In an early scene, he glimpses an actress named Angoori Devi (Swastika Mukherjee) discard her sari and plunge into the water in her swimsuit – he averts his eyes. Angoori Devi tells her assistant, “Dekhne do. Shaayad inhone pehle dekha nahin hai.” (Let him watch. He’s probably not seen anything like this.) She’s right. He’s inexperienced. After the swim, after getting dressed, she embarrasses him further by flashing a leg.

He has no social graces either – in that department too, he’s a virgin. In the scene in which he meets his to-be sidekick (Ajit, played by Anand Tiwari), the latter is worried about his missing father. Byomkesh proposes a few theories in a clinical, multiple-choice format – (D) your father has run away with another woman. Ajit, unsurprisingly, slaps Byomkesh. Rajput, sporting a unibrow, plays Byomkesh like a benign robot that’s learning the ways of humankind. I laughed seeing him on a chair, his spine erect, one leg crossed over the other. I kept waiting to see if he’d slouch. His philosophy is equally rigid: Is duniya mein ‘aise hi’ kuch nahin hota. Everything is logical, everything comes with a reason.

The setting is Calcutta, caught between the British on one side, the Japanese on the other. It’s 1943. This gives Banerjee and his team to indulge in some characteristically brilliant detailing – even if everything is reminiscent of Hollywood. Angoori Devi is styled like a Clara Bow type. The posters on the streets scream out Shadow of a Doubt and The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943 releases both. But the biggest blockbuster in India at the time was Ashok Kumar’s Kismat, our first one-crore grosser. That doesn’t seem to be playing anywhere. Or maybe that’s not cool enough to be part of the immaculate production design. After all, Banerjee does take a lot of his cues from Hollywood and other foreign cinema.

On a moment-by-moment basis, Banerjee’s cinema is sensual, fulfilling and, more than anything else, precise. He’s Indian cinema’s answer to a Swiss watchmaker – everything’s just so. And in wanting everything to be just so, he sometimes drains all the juice from his material. The anachronistic score (Sneha Khanwalkar and others) is a relief, because it shakes things up. Suddenly, there’s life. And then the score dies down. We’re back to long stretches of silence – it begins to feel like an eternity inside the theatre. There’s no doubt about Banerjee’s talent. If you’re the kind, you could dine on the images alone. Byomkesh sitting opposite Dr. Guha (Neeraj Kabi), a lantern between them casting the most gorgeous shadows. Angoori Devi marinating in a bathtub and the upside-down heart of her face as she leans back and Byomkesh places a cigarette between her heavily lipsticked lips. The extraordinary wide shot as Byomkesh and Angoori Devi enter a dining hall, where a man at the head of the table is having some soup. The shot takes in so much, it conjures up, in an instant, an entire way of life.

But shots alone cannot sustain a movie. There needs to be some energy as well. After the tenth or so deliberately composed image – you can practically hear Banerjee behind the scenes, scratching his chin thoughtfully – I began to wish the camera would sneak into one of those cinema halls screening Shadow of a Doubt instead. At least Hitchcock did not think he was above mere “entertainment.” Detective Byomkesh Bakshi! suffers from the high-mindedness that suffocated Shanghai as well. We aren’t just making a movie. We’re sculpting a masterpiece. The result? A sluggish pace. This wouldn’t be a problem if the characters were well-drawn, interesting, or if the plot was gripping. But no and no. And in the midst of all this supreme good taste, the pulpy elements (“villain laughs maniacally;” “femme fatale stares seductively”) come off looking ridiculous. Towards the end, we get, out of nowhere, a Tarantinoesque bloodbath that looks like something the studio ordered after seeing the rushes and panicking. You can hear Aditya Chopra screaming: Enough with the lizards already. Gimme some fucking chocolate.

KEY:

  • Is duniya mein ‘aise hi’ kuch nahin hota. = Nothing happens ‘just like that’.

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Shakespeare (plus Bollywood) Wallah

Reflections on Shashi Kapoor, recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke award for 2014.

I’m not getting into the whole “does he deserve it?” debate, but the news about the Phalke filled me with a vague kind of happiness. There’s always been something wholesome, something nice about Shashi Kapoor. You probably remember the Friends episode that was about the crush-worthy celebrities you were allowed to sleep with – in theory; no questions asked – if the opportunity presented itself, and no, the spouse/significant other wasn’t allowed to get mad, because she or he had to understand. For a lot of women of a certain generation, that celebrity was… not Shashi Kapoor. It was Rajesh Khanna. Every female friend or relation of a certain age will admit to a crush on Shashi Kapoor – “soooo cute, yaar,” followed by a liquid sigh – but things never really got out of hand. Or below the belt. The Rajesh Khanna mania, at least the way we hear about it today, carried an A-rated vibe. There was something dangerously hormonal there. With Shashi Kapoor, you imagine a photograph, the face outlined with a lipstick heart, tucked into a Chemistry textbook.

I’ve sometimes wondered why. A slightly older woman friend I was discussing this piece with dismissed Shashi Kapoor as an “ornamental presence.” She added that his “good looks came in the way of his being taken seriously.” I asked her if she preferred the more macho kind of leading man. Her reply, her exact words: “Women always do.” But Rajesh Khanna wasn’t exactly macho either – unless you consider the eye crinkle a muscle movement.

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But I’m not going to dwell on this. The ways of stardom and fandom are mysterious – as mysterious as Shashi Kapoor’s career. He was an actor who liked to internalise things, and yet he ended up working in Hindi cinema in an age where everything was externalised. He never really was leading-man material – in the way we talk of, say, Amitabh Bachchan as a leading man, the kind who appears on screen and causes everything and everyone else to disappear – and yet he was one of the most successful leading men of his time. His solo hit ratio wasn’t great, and yet he just kept making movie after movie after movie, a few worth remembering, many hard to even recall the names of. A random selection of his mid-seventies’ films: Jai Bajrang Bali, Naach Uthe Sansaar, Farishta Ya Qatil, Hira Aur Patthar. Shashi Kapoor’s career is one of the things that justifies the existence of Wikipedia.

It’s easier to understand the “classy” part of his career – the Merchant-Ivory films, the art-house movies he produced (Junoon, 36 Chowringhee Lane, Kalyug, Vijeta, Utsav). He just seemed like that kind of guy, a Western kind of guy, with their sensibilities. Wasn’t that why he married Jennifer? (Hey, maybe that explains the relatively chaste nature of the Shashi Kapoor crush; he was a happily married man. You could look, but you couldn’t touch.)

It’s easy to understand, too, the films like New Delhi Times and In Custody, which came from a relatively “naturalistic” mould. He did solid work in these films – but maybe “solid” isn’t quite the word for Shashi Kapoor. A measure of his talent is his ability to disappear and let the co-star walk away with the scene, the song, the movie. That’s surely a reason we think of Shashi Kapoor and think second fiddle – which he played to Bachchan, most famously, but also to his heroines and to his oftentimes mediocre material. The flip side? His bad movies were really bad – he was probably too much of an actor to do the things a star can do to save a bad movie. Think about it, and you’ll find it easier to recall a few dozen bad movies that Shashi’s brother Shammi or nephew Rishi Kapoor were in than the bad ones Shashi was in. But a lot of the money he made from all these bad movies went into producing good movies, or movies that sounded good at least on paper. If you didn’t end up actually watching Ajooba, you’d have thought it’s a pretty cool movie.

What’s surprising is how comfortable Shashi Kapoor seemed in the cheerfully loud and large-hearted Hindi films of the sixties and seventies, something you’d associate more with Shammi Kapoor. The latter was born with springs in his soles and a small-sized nuclear reactor in his heart; he was energy incarnate, made for bouncing around our screens. Had he been cast opposite the beauteous Leela Naidu in The Householder, he’d have blinked twice, leapt into a lorry, and burst into Subhan Allah, haseen chehra

Ek raasta hai zindagi, from Kaala Paththar, is really a Shammi Kapoor song. But see how marvellously Shashi Kapoor coaxes out his inner ham, almost convincing us that he doesn’t look ridiculous in that beret and that floral scarf knotted at the neck, that with his getup he shouldn’t actually be in another film, a Western film where he’s named René and is staring thoughtfully at a canvas, paintbrush in hand. Is there another actor who has worked so hard to convince us that he isn’t doing something ridiculous? Kapoor’s greatest challenge probably came in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, where he was entrusted with the task of making us believe he was attracted to Zeenat Aman because of her voice.

But watch him in Kaise kahen hum, from Sharmilee, and you’ll see how he can also dial it down. The SD Burman number is almost ridiculously gorgeous, and Kishore Kumar sings it so magnificently, with such feeling, the actor on screen is practically irrelevant – Mukri could have been cast and we’d have felt a twinge. But Shashi puts the actor at the centre of this number. He does that thing where he’s really sad but putting on a brave face for his friends but even as he’s smiling he’s unable to forget how he’s been screwed in love. Happy-face, sad-face, happy-face, sad-face – not many actors can do this convincingly. And of course, those looks don’t hurt. You can imagine the women going: Oh you poor thing. With a face like that, you’re still a one-woman man.

The same film has Khilte hain gul yahan. During the prelude, Shashi plucks a rose from a woman’s hair, and when he says bikharne ko, he does a little hand toss. It may be the most blithely existential hand toss in Hindi film history. And then he smiles that crooked-teeth smile. He’s not just going through the motions, mouthing the words, looking for things to do as the interlude comes on. He’s enjoying the song. It’s coursing through him. We get the sense he believes in it, in this faintly ridiculous situation that has him singing someone else’s words in someone else’s voice to a tune someone else has composed. This is also some kind of good acting.

Even in his “bad movies,” by which I refer to your garden variety Hindi film without any great pedigree, you can find snatches of good acting – though maybe a different kind of good acting from the good acting we talk about in the context of New Delhi Times and In Custody. I’m talking about melodramas like Abhinetri and Baseraa – Shashi Kapoor played a beleaguered husband in both. Watch him in the scene in Abhinetri where he drops Hema Malini home and they have a small conversation about mothers. Her mother is now a portrait on a wall, and she tells him that she “speaks” to her mother constantly. He seems to genuinely like this trait of hers. His reaction is lovely, just the wee-est bit animated – the screenplay instruction must have read “He gushes without actually gushing.” And then she asks him about his mother. He smiles, as if anticipating a future in which every time he’s spoken about it’ll be to the accompaniment of a line that has him declaring that he has his mother with him. He’s charming (to us) and awkward (with her) and innocent (the way young men were, generally, then). Had Rajesh Khanna played this scene, we’d have seen Rajesh Khanna in the scene. Here, at least to the extent that we can do these things, we see the character, we see Shekhar Babu.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“NH10.”… An unsatisfying thriller with too much on its plate

Spoilers ahead…

When a smart, talented filmmaker takes on genre material, there’s often the tendency to inflate it, to make it mean something – and sometimes the material just buckles under this baggage. The visceral thrills, the purity, of the genre get blunted by the efforts to make things “classy.” Something like this happened when Neil Jordan made The Brave One, with Jodie Foster. It was the story of an upper-class woman whose fiancé (Naveen Andrews) is killed in a vicious mugging; she becomes a vigilante, tracking down the killers, taking them down one by one. Dirty Harriet. It should have been cathartic entertainment. After all, there’s a social function these films perform, and that’s allowing us to see people on screen do what we’re too gutless to do in real life. It’s vicarious wish-fulfilment. For a couple of hours, we feel as though we went about getting rid of the punks in our neighbourhood.

But The Brave One was a disaster. I wrote in my review: “[The film] can’t decide whether to condone vigilantism, explore its consequences, or celebrate it. And as long as we’re talking tripartite confusion, neither can the film decide whether to aspire to the violence-is-inside-every-one-of-us thesis of Straw Dogs, the psychological and moral dimensions of the avenging angel in Taxi Driver, or simply the audience-pleasing revenge-fantasia elements of Death Wish.”

Navdeep Singh’s second outing, NH10, isn’t quite a disaster, but it’s a confused film, one that makes the mistake of having too much on its plate. On the surface, here, Singh wants to do with the Deliverance-type yuppies-trapped-in-the-redneck-backwoods thriller what he did with Chinatown in his excellent first feature, Manorama: 6 Feet Under. The yuppies are Gurgaon-based Meera (a very effective Anushka Sharma) and her husband Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam). (Something about these names must sound terribly urban to filmmakers. In Yuva too, the yuppie pair was Arjun/Meera.)

The film opens with night-time visuals of what could be any city in the developed world, filled with tall buildings, cranes putting up more of those tall buildings, and street lights painting posh cars a dreamy neon yellow. Arjun and Meera are in one of those cars. A little later, Arjun decides to take Meera to a resort in Haryana for her birthday, and soon, we see the other India, and the people of the other India. Like the grinning, special-needs child in Deliverance, we have here an adult with the childlike name of Chhote, who looks and acts like he’s not quite all there. He mumbles. He chomps on a marigold.

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And – surprise! – the change in landscape seems to have changed Arjun as well. The hitherto metrosexual-seeming chap discovers a caveman side to him. He won’t ask for directions. And when he’s slapped while trying to break up a brawl, he takes it personally. He broods about it and goes about avenging himself. He becomes the hunter. But things don’t go as planned, and soon Arjun and Meera find themselves being hunted by Satbir (Darshan Kumar) and his cohorts. A little later – no surprise! – Arjun is injured, and Meera has to carry on without him. (When actors like Naveen Andrews or Neil Bhoopalam are cast opposite female co-stars who burn with a higher wattage, it stands to reason that they will, at some point, end up powerless and hand the reins of the story to their women.) So what seemed to be Deliverance is now Deliverance-meets-The Brave One.

And Navdeep Singh adds another element to the mix. In Deliverance, the villains were pure evil, literally demons unleashed from the city-dweller’s id, but Satbir and Co. are more complicated characters. They’re emblematic – or symptomatic – of the India that believes in honour killings, and they want to hunt down Arjun and Meera because they think these outsiders are journalists who’ve witnessed one such honour killing. At this point, a remarkable thing happens. Arjun ends up killing Chhote. It’s an accident, of course – but Satbir and Co. don’t see it that way. And now, Arjun has given up the idea of revenge – he’s too frightened by Satbir and Co. (their brutality is truly horrifying) – but Satbir wants to avenge Chhote’s death. Not every vigilante movie gives the villain a reason to hate and hound the protagonists.

In the midst of all this, or maybe we should say running along in a parallel track, is a “women’s picture.” Meera is in marketing, and she could be shown dealing with any product – but we see her making a presentation on a new brand of sanitary napkins, adding a few lines about how rural women find it difficult to buy this product. After the presentation, we’re reminded that it isn’t all that easy for urban women either. A male colleague smirks to another that women employees have it easy with the  boss. Then, during the drive to the resort in Haryana, when Meera steps into a toilet, she finds scribbled on the door the word randi. And on top of these women-oriented issues, we are exposed to how the caste system still thrives in these parts of India, which is really why those honour killings happen.

The point isn’t that a film shouldn’t aim to transcend its genre. The point isn’t that a film shouldn’t preach. But when there’s all this other stuff and it isn’t integrated organically into the genre framework, it begins to stick out. It begins to feel didactic, like in the scene where a cop gives Meera a mini-lecture about the caste system and Manu and Ambedkar. Suddenly, we feel we’re in one of those movies where the bitter pill of socially relevant messages is wrapped in the sugar shell of a story. Manorama: 6 Feet Under, too, stepped out of its ambit. We didn’t just see a noir mystery unfold in parched land; we also saw, through the characters played by Abhay Deol and Gul Panag, a social class that we rarely see in Hindi cinema, people resigned to their circumstances and yet constantly seeking to make things better. But all this was folded neatly into the overarching narrative. NH10 feels like several issues and themes hastily tossed into a pot and set to boil.

The problem is perhaps the realistic nature of the storytelling. This genre is rife with coincidences and things we shouldn’t think about too much, and if NH10 had been just a simple vigilante thriller we wouldn’t be asking: But when did Meera learn how to fire a gun? How come all the victims fall so easily, so conveniently, after a single shot or blow? Why doesn’t anyone “return from the dead” and scare the crap out of us? How does Meera just run into Arjun, Manmohan Desai-style, after their long separation in the wilderness? For that matter, how does Meera seem to know this alien land like the back of her hand, never having the slightest doubt about where she’s headed, where to find this person or that village? And does the first house in the village she visits have to be the one that belongs to… you know?

At some point, I was reminded of the Nana Patekar-Karisma Kapoor starrer Shakti: The Power, which was also the story of First World Indians who get trapped amidst Third World Indians. (In fact, it would make an interesting case study to compare that film with NH10.) That was a melodrama, and the sensory overload barely gave us time to think about the ludicrousness. But here, everything is stark, rooted, real – and the contrivances begin to look ridiculous. The too-neat echoes in the end – Satbir getting hurt in the thigh the way Arjun was; Satbir being battered the way he battered someone earlier – are an insult. They belong in Shakti: The Power.

But I did like a few things. I liked the image of the Deepti Naval character erasing memories of her runaway daughter by scraping away the stickers on a cupboard. I liked the scene where Meera flags down a jeep and backs off when she realises it’s filled with “dangerous-looking” men. In one sharp moment, with no words, we see what it’s like to have to make a decision about whether the prospect of rescue is worth the risk of rape. I liked the way Meera, when in a car, automatically reaches for the seatbelt. That’s the kind of person she is, and while I didn’t look too closely, I’d bet the men in that car weren’t wearing seatbelts. Such a thing would probably never occur to them. I liked the visual of Meera and Satbir’s wife locked up together in a room. Looking at them, they seem to be from different worlds. Meera’s from a world where a woman can do the things a man can – she’s in jeans; she’s wearing the pants. Satbir’s wife, demure in her salwar kameez and dupatta, is from a world where women are women, nothing more. And yet, here they both are: imprisoned. Again, a picture letting slip a few thousand words. I liked the contrivance where a distraught wife asks Meera to help her, and Meera waves her off the way we’d wave off an annoying beggar; and later, karma comes and bites Meera in her shapely behind – when she’s the distraught wife, and she’s the one who needs help. I liked the overall atmosphere, which is so skilfully created that at a few places I found myself scrunching up my eyes the way I would in a horror film. If only NH10 had been that horror film.

KEY:

  • randi = whore

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Retracing a father’s footsteps

Dissuaded by his father from joining the family shoe-trading business, Atul Sabharwal turned filmmaker. Now, in a documentary titled ‘In Their Shoes’, he looks at the shoe trade in Agra – how it began, and what it is today.

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After Aurangzeb, a big, fat mainstream movie for Yash Raj studios, what made you decide on a documentary?

I get drawn to the project based on what I am feeling at that moment, the inner crisis that I am facing. Aurangzeb was about three sons who leave their respective homes and their fathers in the physical sense or in a meta sense, by leaving their ideologies only to return home all battered and bruised and open to those ideologies. In Their Shoes is about sons who returned and those who didn’t and won’t. Fathers make sons and In Their Shoes goes on to inspect what makes fathers, the history that they lived through.

I guess Aurangzeb, in a way, left these emotions incomplete in me, and I thankfully found an avenue in In Their Shoes to dig deeper into them and hopefully exorcise myself.

In India, only a few “art film” makers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan have consistently alternated between features and documentaries. Given your interest in mainstream cinema, could being known as a “documentary guy” affect the kind of films you are offered?

I would like to believe that it won’t. I am not the first one to do this. Shyam Benegal, Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese have made great fiction and documentaries. You somehow have to slip through the fingers of the people who are trying to put a label on you. That’s one of the givens for a film director, I believe. Then, somehow, find a way back. So I guess I’ll be fine whenever I want to make a mainstream film again.

When I made Aurangzeb, I was often asked: “You have done Powder; will you do more television?” I’ll keep doing whatever I get drawn to if I can raise or have at my disposal enough means to invest into the emotion that is attracting me.

The narrative begins with intimate, first-person accounts about how people came into this business and slowly grows into an “India story,” about manufacturing shoes for the export market. Did you have this in mind while you began shooting or did you discover the scope of this story as you went along?

Most of it was a discovery as I went along. But having said that, my grandfather was a great storyteller and his favourite backdrop was the Partition. He used to tell us personal stories from pre-Partition India. And as I grew up to be a storyteller of sorts, I always recollected my grandfather’s narratives and felt that there was something very The Grapes of Wrath-ish about the immigrants and refugees who came from what is now Pakistan. I also had recollection from my childhood about a classmate who was known to be the son of one of the richest men in town. And then suddenly one day they lost their fortune. Where did their wealth go? It was a mystery to us kids in school. It went with the collapse of the USSR, I learnt later, when we grew up a bit. So I had a vague memory of USSR’s collapse and its impact on the shoe market in Agra. Then by the time I was in 9th or 10th grade there was this euphoria in my father’s voice about a magical scheme called VDIS (Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme) that was introduced by Manmohan Singh. It seemed to be the answer to all my father’s prayers. These stories and incidents were somewhere in my subconscious and I discovered these within me as much as I discovered new things that I had no clue of at all.

What made you choose to show the actual process of information gathering (the way we hear your voice here asking questions, and the subjects responding) versus doing the whole thing “invisibly,” with an omniscient narration?

I did not want to have an alien voice in the film. That much I was clear about from the start. A commentary from a dubbing artist who is not a character in the film was something I resisted from the beginning. It was just one of those stubborn decisions that you make, a rule that you devise for yourself and then stick by.

The electronic music is an interesting choice. Given the Agra setting and all the talk about the past, one would have expected a more traditional-sounding score. What made you go for this?

The soundscape of a film does not have to be in tandem with the visual-scape. The music is more for the mood of the story, for the subtext. I hope I am not intellectualising the choices. These things sometimes happen and they turn out to be “right decisions” because they feel right in the final film. That’s the extent of my articulating it.

Early on, in Agra, we see a sound guy with boom mike. Then we see you in a dubbing room in Mumbai, with scenes from this very documentary playing on a screen in front of you. Why did you opt for this distancing framing device?

Call it some kind of confluence of the worlds of filmmaking and shoemaking: a collision of my world and my father’s world. There were very few ways of suggesting visually that “this man’s son didn’t join the shoe business and is now a professional film director”. People who have heard of me or who have read about me would know, but what about others? I am directing this documentary, fine. But how would anyone who hasn’t heard of me know that directing films is my day job? That thought led to this approach. I don’t know yet if the technique works.

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A hypothetical question. How would you have treated this “journey” had you made it part of a mainstream film, with your character being the protagonist?

I don’t know. How can I ever tell? At least not for the time being.

This is obviously a very personal story. Was making this documentary a form of catharsis, especially as your father is in the film too?

It was somewhat. Nothing can be fully cathartic though.

There are times one gets the feeling you almost yearn to be a part of all this, and that some part of you is resentful of your father for stopping you from entering this business that has your – to borrow a phrase from the film – “buzurgon ka khoon” (blood of your ancestors).

I am not resentful at all, in fact. I am happy to be a part of Dadasaheb Phalke’s legacy in our country. I always dreamt of being a filmmaker, and when I was in Agra I didn’t know how to turn this dream into a profession. I never told anyone in my family about this dream, this secret love. So my lazy choice was to join my father’s business. And it was my father’s foresight, heroism or sheer coincidence that he wanted his children to seek broader horizons. For him, that meant that I become a Chartered Accountant or get an MBA degree. So he nudged me in one direction, life pulled me in other, and eventually I just gave in to the urge of my secret love for making movies. It’s just wishful thinking that one could gain this without losing out on the legacy of the shoe business of one’s ancestors. I just acted on that wishful thinking and gave it a tangible shape in the form of a film.

You stop the shoe story at one point and get into a sentimental Hindi film dialogue about the love between a father and his son. Your father wanted you out because he felt this wasn’t an easy business to be in. He wanted you to do something “safe.” And yet, here you are, a filmmaker – it’s as unsafe a profession as can be. What does your father feel about this?

I think he’s fine with it. He’s made his peace with it. Some of our relatives have often told me to make a blockbuster of Rohit Shetty proportions, as if it was as easy as just deciding on it and doing it. Their logic is that a money spinner or two will make you secure, firm your feet in the industry. I don’t know if my father is part of that brigade in our family.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“Coffee Bloom”… A well-acted drama about how the past never leaves us

Spoilers ahead…

Dev Anand (Arjun Mathur) is a coffee expert in Bangalore, but his heart is probably in the Himalayas – he wants to get away from it all, become a sanyasi. He keeps listening to spiritual discourses on his earphones, and his only friend appears to be Sondha (the charming Ishwari Bose-Bhattacharya), a cheerful Bengali neighbour who has no qualms admitting that she’s a “kept woman.” When she playfully makes the moves on Dev – though we’re never sure if she’s playing or serious – he declares, “I won’t dance your sansarik disco.” Sondha shrugs and backs off. After all, that’s the way (aha, aha) he likes it. But there’s no movie there. So Dev goes to Coorg on business, to source coffee from an estate. And he runs into his ex Anika (Sugandha Garg). Soon, he’s barely stayin’ alive.

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Manu Warrier’s Coffee Bloom begins with gorgeous shots of landscapes – the sunlight looks like gold dust falling from the heavens. But the film is about interiors – of the mind, of the heart. Dev’s predicament is essentially that of Humphrey Bogart’s bar owner in Casablanca, who memorably summed up the ridiculousness of the situation thus: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Of all the coffee estates in all of Coorg, Anika happens to be in the one Dev walks into. She owns it, actually. With her husband, Srinivas (Mohan Kapoor). How do you say ouch! in Coorgi?

For most of its running time, Coffee Bloom is like one of those Alice Munro stories where we’re aware of cataclysms in the past but very little seems to be happening in the present. I say this as a good thing, for in the absence of minute-to-minute plot contrivances, the emphasis shifts to mood and character. And the actors, all of whom are terrific. When Dev first sees Anika, he steps away the way people do when they see someone they don’t have the wherewithal to handle right then – but she sees him too, and she comes up to him and begins to talk. Mathur portrays Dev’s agony exquisitely. His mind won’t function. The right words won’t come to him. His hands and face won’t stop betraying his uneasiness, the fact that he’d rather be anyplace but here. And Srinivas is his opposite. Kapoor plays him as an exuberant bear of a man, the kind dreaded by sensitive souls like Dev, who just can’t stand to be reminded that there are people out there laughing, squeezing every drop out of life and still thirsting for more. Dev finds that even his earphones won’t keep life away, as it begins to happen to him anew.

After a gentle two-thirds or so, the plot picks up and the film becomes hurried and less satisfying. An early gunshot finds an echo later. An early mention that “bhoomi Coorgi logon ke liye maa hai” turns heavy with portent later. We get the sense of the tidiness of screenplay-writing school. But the mess inside the characters is very real. The scene where Anika asks Sondha to leave (Sondha has come to visit Dev on the estate) rings false as it plays out, but there’s no denying Anika’s possessiveness about Dev. She knows she can’t be with him, but she also knows she doesn’t want him to be with Sondha, who, with her earth-mother sexiness, is as much the opposite of Anika as Srinivas is of Dev. As for Dev, he’s stuck with the resentment that Anika has moved on (and, apparently, happily so) while he’s marooned in a limbo. Coffee Bloom is about the bad things that good people cannot help doing sometimes, things that would make even Amrish Puri blanch.

KEY:

  • sanyasi = ascetic
  • sansarik = wordly
  • bhoomi Coorgi logon ke liye maa hai = The Coorgi people consider the earth their mother.

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“Dum Laga Ke Haisha”… An enchanting rom-com with a surprisingly dysfunctional core

Spoilers ahead…

Sharat Katariya likes to take familiar stories and set them in places you don’t expect. In his first feature, 10ml Love, he relocated A Midsummer Night’s Dream to modern-day Mumbai. In Dum Laga Ke Haisha, he transports the rom-com – a traditionally urbane genre – to Haridwar of the 1990s. The era is lovingly recreated. Mile sur mera tumhara wafts out of television sets, but Bhimsen Joshi has nothing on Kumar Sanu, who’s everywhere. The film’s heart, though, is from the 1970s. Within his rom-com template, Katariya resurrects the Piya Ka Ghar-type drama, filled with large, tradition-bound families whose members couldn’t take a step without everyone else voicing an opinion. The frames buzz with life – someone is always flitting in and out. This may be the only rom-com where the leads – Prem (an effectively subdued Ayushmann Khurrana) and Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar) – meet in a temple, surrounded by their families. Boy Meets Girl… and the In-Laws. They’re soon married.

That’s the first of a series of surprises. Sandhya is a sweet-looking woman, a little on the heavier side – but she isn’t terribly conscious about it. She’s no Bridget Jones, determined to knock off the kilos in order to gain self-esteem. Sandhya’s self-esteem is fine, thank you very much. She knows her weight is a function of her body’s “metabolism” – her use of this word when mocked lightly about her size by Prem’s aunt (Sheeba Chaddha) is one of the film’s most delightful moments. In other words, the people around her (including her bratty younger brother) may be fat-shaming her, but she’s not fat-shaming herself, which is – to use the appropriate word here – huge. Plus, she’s no wallflower. We see her dancing with others at weddings, full-on jhatkas that find fruition in the adorably tacky ‘90s-style song over the closing credits.

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It would have been easy to make Sandhya the (big) butt of jokes, like Guddi Maruti was in the films of the period. But Katariya treats her with respect. The “comedy” scenes are beautifully low-key, like the one in which she goes to a neighbourhood store to buy lingerie because Prem doesn’t seem terribly interested in discharging his husbandly duties. The result of this purchase made me laugh my head off. Prem yields to her overtures, and the next morning, he says to the head of the RSS-like organisation he’s a part of that he succumbed to his senses. Main indriyon se haar gaya. Every now and then, it’s nice to be reminded that there are filmmakers who don’t think in English and write in Hindi.

Sandhya is ambitious. She’s done her B.Ed. (Fittingly, the first fight between Prem and Sandhya occurs in a library; like a stern schoolteacher, she asks him to lower his voice.) She’s got guts too. When she gets a posting in Meerut, she doesn’t hesitate to accept the job, despite never having lived alone. Above all, she’s practical. When things don’t work out between her and Prem, she simply says that she doesn’t need him and he doesn’t need her. She weeps a little, but she bounces back. It’s a good thing that Kataria didn’t get an established actress to play this part, having her put on weight like Vidya Balan did in The Dirty Picture. We respond to Pednekar’s freshness and her lack of actressy tics. She just seems to belong to this place, to this period. She looks real.

Amazingly, it’s Prem who has the complex – and this is where the film becomes a little more than your empty-headed rom-com. Scratch the fun surface and there’s serious dysfunction. Prem has a complex about not having cleared Class X. He has a complex about not having stepped out of his domineering father’s (Sanjay Mishra) shadow. Kataria respects Prem too. We aren’t invited to hate him – not even when he insults Sandhya while with his friends. We know the man’s got serious issues, and we aren’t even sure if his problem with Sandhya is that he doesn’t like plus-size women in general or if Sandhya’s arrival in his life has caused another complex, that he’ll not just be known as the guy who couldn’t clear Class X, the guy who gets bossed around by his father, the guy who gets emotionally manipulated by his mother (Alka Amin) and aunt, but also as the guy who couldn’t get a svelte, conventionally pretty girl to marry him.

The minor miracle of Dum Laga Ke Haisha is that, unlike English Vinglish, we don’t follow the journey of the person with the perceived problem. By the end, Sandhya isn’t asked to transform the way the Sridevi character did in that film. She makes no effort to change. Prem learns to accept her the way she is – and the film is really about Prem’s journey. In an early scene, his father relegates him to the back seat of their car, and later, he says he’ll sit in front – that’s his character arc in a nutshell. At the end, he enters a competition – this film keeps reminding us of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi – in which husbands carry wives on their backs and run a race on an obstacle course. This is, of course, a metaphor for marriage. Prem has starting trouble, then he picks up speed, negotiates ups and downs, and reaches the finish line. While watching the film, I felt this was a little sexist. The man has to do all the heavy lifting in marriage and the woman just hangs on. But because this is Prem’s journey, we accept the conceit. Besides, the awww-factor in these portions is off the charts. I couldn’t stop smiling.

The film could have used more romance. There’s a nice scene where Prem and Sandhya walk and talk, but I wished more had been done with the recording studio that Prem runs. (If you are of a certain vintage, his stacks of cassettes may remind you of your hostel room in college.) His passion for film music – and our passion for film music, which seeps into the fabric of our lives – is spoofed in a hilarious antakshari-type sequence, where Prem and Sandhya keep playing songs that reflect their moods. (She: Woh meri neend, mera chain mujhe lauta do. He: Samjhauta ghamon se kar lo.) When we are led into the plot point where Sandhya asks Prem to record songs for her, I thought this would lead up a big moment. But the payoff is disappointingly muted.

But in general, this film knows its music. A soothing Italian-sounding score fills the soundtrack – it’s as laidback as these environs – and the lovely Yeh moh moh ke dhaage is used to underline the physical nature of the central relationship in unexpected ways. The first time the song plays, Prem is driving his scooter and Sandhya is holding on to him from behind. The second time, he’s carrying her in that race.

A few small things didn’t work for me. I didn’t care for the aunt’s sudden transformation to the catalyst in the Prem-Sandhya marriage. I wasn’t too convinced about the way Sandhya allowed herself to be roped back into a life with Prem after walking away and initiating divorce proceedings. And the business about a rival recording studio doesn’t play well. But Kataria always has a trick or two to smoothen out these wrinkles. Prem’s argument with the man who threatens to open the recording studio – both men are surrounded by their families, naturally – ends with the distribution of cake. It’s someone’s birthday. And at the divorce court, Prem and Sandhya are practically sidelined – their wailing families occupy centre stage. Dum Laga Ke Haisha reminds us of a time when family was such an important part of India – and Indian cinema. It’s a rom-com about kith and make up.

KEY:

  • jhatkas = see here

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“Ab Tak Chhappan 2.”… A needless sequel that feels like a relic from another age

Spoilers ahead…

News is just out that they’re planning a sequel to Blade Runner, which was released in 1982. So as belated follow-ups go, Ab Tak Chhappan 2 isn’t all that belated. Still, the decision to add another chapter to Shimit Amin’s 2004 film (this one is directed by Aejaz Gulab) is a curious one. It was neither a blockbuster, not a cult film – so why bother? Especially now, when the gangster genre that Ram Gopal Varma birthed is all but dead. Those stories about straight cops, crooked politicians and ruthless gangsters were fresh then – but no longer. Why didn’t they simply cash in on the first film’s success a few years later, when the protagonist, the encounter cop Sadhu Agashe (Nana Patekar), was still relatively young and would have been able to unleash more mayhem, with a bigger body count? They could have called it Ab Tak 112.

But this long wait has given us a slightly different Sadhu Agashe. The encounter cop in his prime is now a retired man in a village in Goa. And what a retired life it is, filled with fishing on calm waters, an endless supply of coconut water, games with the local kids, and the sounds of son Aman (Tanmay Jahagirdar) playing the piano. Sadhu asks Aman about the words he’s going to fit into a new tune. Aman says he hasn’t thought about the lyrics yet. Sadhu says the words should come first, then the tune. Clearly, he has no experience with the way songs are composed for films.

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But this idyll must come to an end – otherwise there’s no movie. After some very generic exposition about the underworld, the big shots in Mumbai decide that Sadhu needs to be brought back to clean up crime. He refuses at first. He only cares about himself, his son, the people around him – he doesn’t care what happens outside. But of course he does. Aman reminds him that there’s still a cop under this man pretending to be at peace fishing and sipping coconut water. And thus we’re whisked back into the territory of the earlier film, where cops shoot first and ask questions later.

Ab Tak Chhappan 2 is perfectly serviceable, but that’s about it. We get several action sequences – in a cowshed, in a public toilet, outside a brothel – but we don’t know who’s being shot, how important they are in the overall scheme of the underworld. The only gangster who’s detailed to some extent is Rawle (Raj Zutshi), who putters about in a motorized wheelchair and has the kind of conversations with Sadhu that another gangster did in the first film. As for the good guys, they’re delineated in a few quick strokes. One cop in Sadhu’s team is overweight. Another is celebrating his wedding anniversary. In these films, it’s always some cop’s wedding anniversary.

But it is nice to see Nana Patekar again. The best scenes in the film involve his conversations with Aman – while making an omelet; while chopping vegetables – and with Shalu (Gul Panag), a crime reporter who’s trying to complete a book on encounter cops that her father started writing. I wish this had been the movie – the story of how a former encounter cop is now transformed into an ordinary “middle-class baap,” worrying about his son’s decision to make a profession out of his passion. Patekar’s performing style is so often about heavy-duty histrionics that it’s a pleasure to be reminded how good he can be even at low volumes. When his superior remarks about his physical fitness at this age, Sadhu says, “Goli umar nahin dekhti. Pata nahin kab zaroorat pade.” (Bullets don’t care how old you are. You never know when this physique will prove useful.) Later, after a tragedy, he tells the people who’ve come to commiserate: “Hamdardi nahin chaiye. Thanks for coming.” (I don’t need your sympathy.) One’s a lightweight line. The other one is drenched in sorrow. But both come off in an even tone, befitting a man who won’t let his emotions show. If nothing else, I hope this film is a reminder to filmmakers that Patekar’s still out there, and a long way from retired.

KEY:

  • Ab Tak Chhappan= 56 kills so far

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“Badlapur”… A stunning thriller about PTSD

Spoilers ahead…

The tag line for Sriram Raghavan’s new film Badlapur is “Don’t Miss The Beginning,” and we wonder, first, what’s so missable about it. Everything’s so… ordinary. We’re on this side of a street in Pune. At the other end, there’s a bank. There are a few passers-by. There’s the noise of traffic and the sounds of people talking. It’s hard to say what we’re supposed to be looking at. There isn’t even any music. Then someone comes into focus – Misha (Yami Gautam), who’s crossing the road with her little boy, holding his hand. She’s walking towards us. She reaches her car, and… bam! It begins. The masked men who emerged from the bank with loot – again, no music! – are now beside Misha. They shove her in the back seat (her son too), and drive off. A police van gives chase. And now the music begins. But this isn’t the slick chase we usually get, weaving in and out of peak-hour traffic, showing how well the action choreographer knows his job. It’s horribly messy, and life intrudes at all points. Even as the car is revving up, a bike crashes into it. Then, a dog chases it. Another car is hit. The door opens, and the boy falls out. Misha is shot. And a little later, as if it were the most natural thing to do at this point, we cut to the kind of cheeky ad film (for brassieres) that R Balki might have shot.

What, now, to make of the “Don’t Miss The Beginning” injunction? It’s to make us invest in the plot, sure. We now have a reason to root for Misha’s husband Raghu (Varun Dhawan), as he embarks on a revenge mission. But this beginning also alerts us to the mood, the tone, the off-kilter rhythms of what’s to follow. For despite the lip-smacking African proverb that opens the movie – “The axe forgets but the tree remembers” – and makes us anticipate a sumptuous revenge saga, and despite the badla in the macho title, this isn’t an action movie. The proverb, which sounds like an old jungle saying, makes us imagine something out of a Phantom comic, fists of fury and a leading man who moves like lightning, but Badlapur is about a man who becomes a phantom, a shell of his former self – he’s literally the ghost who walks. What Imtiaz Ali did in Highway – subverting the abduction thriller/romance – Raghavan does to the vengeance-is-mine thriller. The films in this genre usually remind us of Hollywood, of Death Wish, where Charles Bronson turned into a vigilante when his wife was murdered. Badlapur reminds us of Dostoevsky, of Bresson, and of the Randeep Hooda character’s line in Highway that a bullet finishes off not just the man being fired at but also the man holding the gun.

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Nothing in Raghavan’s career prepares you for Badlapur. He’s always been an interesting filmmaker, and he’s never really made a dud (no, I didn’t mind Agent Vinod), but I’d slotted him as one of those slick movie-obsessed directors who keep reshaping their memories of the films they’ve watched and loved – a solid genre filmmaker, in other words. Even in Badlapur, we catch glimpses of the things that probably shaped Raghavan. The Nicholas Roeg thriller Don’t Look Now (based on Daphne Du Maurier’s book about another father grieving for a child). Aa chal ke tujhe. Ek ajnabi haseena se. And of course, Sholay. Even the repeated attempts by Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) – one of the masked men – to escape from prison could be seen as a slapstick variation on similar scenes from Bresson’s A Man Escaped.

But Badlapur goes beyond genre and simple homage. It isn’t slick. It has a verité feel. The film appears to have been edited on the jagged edges of life.. It’s a slap in the face of films like Death Wish that exhort us to cheer for the wronged hero. And it tells us that no one’s really that heroic, that good, that blameless, that spotless – and it tells us that the survivors are most likely victims of PTSD. They need help. It isn’t just Misha or the little boy who end up as collateral damage, or even Misha’s Tamilian parents, who refuse to eat. (In one of the many subtly amusing moments, Raghu’s north Indian mother asks her husband to go to the supermarket and get idli and sambar mix. Madrasis, clearly, don’t eat anything else.) Raghu himself is collateral damage – he’s “damaged goods,” in the way we use the term for people who are “psycho,” like those who return from war and discover that their life is now shrapnel.

Scene after scene subverts what we think a hero in our cinema is going to be like. We expect Raghu to be in mourning for his wife and his son. And he is. We are invited to sympathise with him when people recognise him on the train and point at him as if he were a minor celebrity, or when he makes a reference to the money he’s getting from his little boy’s LIC policy, or when, in a fit of self-flagellation, he gets beaten up by irate truck drivers. But slowly, we pull away from him. The easy empathy we have for people in these situations isn’t what we have for Raghu. Badlapur complicates our feelings for him. He has sex with a prostitute named Jhimli (Huma Qureshi), and later, with the social worker Shobha (Divya Dutta). At one level, this is only to be expected. After all, why should Raghu be like other husbands in Hindi cinema, whose sex life dies after the wife’s death? But this isn’t just that. This isn’t just about forgetting the world for at least those few minutes. Something else has hardened inside Raghu, and we are left disoriented.

I was initially unsure about the casting of Varun Dhawan. He’s an excellent comedian – put him or Ayushmann Khurana in a light film; you need no other selling point – but he’s also so young and such a livewire (at least in the few films we’ve seen him in) that when Badlapur makes a time leap of 15 years, I couldn’t see how Dhawan, in spite of a few flecks of grey in his beard, would portray a man in his mid- or late-thirties. This is also a man who’s slowed down, weighed down by every negative emotion that’s congealed inside him. Raghu, in other words, is no livewire; he’s dead. Acting older or younger than you are is one of the more difficult aspects of performance, and some actors manage to age convincingly – Anupam Kher in Saaransh, for instance. It was a surprise, later, finding out that the actor really wasn’t that old. It isn’t that Dhawan is a bad actor, as such – just watch him at Misha’s bedside, attempting to console her while breaking down inside. He’s completely convincing. It’s just that he isn’t that good a dramatic actor yet, and there are scenes in the latter portions where we feel an older actor may have brought something more to the movie.

But then, an older actor may not have been able to give us the jolt of joy Dhawan does in the brief flashback when he learns Misha is pregnant. His comedic instincts, his timing – they’re perfect. And the placement of the scene is equally perfect. We see this utterly lovable chap, and then, in a flash, we return to the present, where that ecstatic, young father-to-be has been replaced by this frightening murderer. Raghu’s scenes with Kanchan, played by Radhika Apte, have to be seen to be believed. And my stomach was in knots when Raghu inveigled himself into a dinner at Divya’s home – there was no telling what he’d end up doing. I don’t know if Raghavan is a fan of The Godfather, but there’s a line there that goes “Revenge is a dish that tastes best when cold,” and part of this movie’s mission is to show what waiting that long can do to someone like Varun Dhawan. Liak actually gets a line that riffs off this idea, when he – as the film’s voice of reason; it’s a stunning twist of irony – tells Raghu that at least his crimes were committed in the heat of the moment, unlike Raghu’s, which are the result of icy-chill calculations.

The film makes us pull away further from Raghu when we learn that Liak has terminal cancer. The karma thing, that’s apparently worked. Or maybe God has punished Liak. (Badlapur is the kind of film that keeps making you think about things like “retribution” rather than mere “revenge.”) Balance has been restored in the universe. That should be enough for Raghu. And when it isn’t, when Raghu keeps baying for blood, we realise he’s become the “villain” of the piece. He’s not doing this for justice, so that Liak won’t hurt another family again. He’s doing this for himself. Badlapur is the name of the place he’s settled in, after moving from Pune – revenge is his home, his destination. We don’t want anything to do with this man anymore.

And just as unexpected as the revulsion we feel for the hero is the sympathy we begin to have for Liak. Outside of gangster movies, where the bad guys are the protagonists and we are therefore invited to empathise with them, I cannot recall a film where we root for those who’ve done the hero great harm. The other characters, too, are detailed with great love, especially the women. There’s Shobha, whom Dutta plays with tremulous righteousness. She’s outstanding in the scene where she tries to convince Raghu that he should sign a petition that will allow Liak to be released on humanitarian grounds. You can see she believes in what she’s doing, fighting for Liak, and yet, she knows what she’s asking of Raghu. Then there’s Ashwini Kalsekar, playing a private detective hired by Raghu. The character is written well, but the actress comes off as too flamboyant, too cinematic in a film otherwise so rooted and real.

But the presence of this professional is unusual – we don’t usually see someone like her in the average revenge thriller. Even in Ek Haseena Thi, the person who helped the protagonist was a criminal, someone she met accidentally – whereas Raghu seeks out this private detective deliberately. He knows he’s no superman and he knows he needs professional help. Badlapur is full of these odd little asides. I don’t recall seeing a scene in another film where a prison inmate eats with his hands cuffed. The cut to “15 years later” – that’s a small shock. It’s done so… invisibly. The writing constantly confounds us. I expected a showdown when Kanchan finds out what her husband Harman (he was Liak’s accomplice, and he’s played by Vinay Pathak) did – but the drama happens off-screen. (Pathak is fantastic in the scene in an elevator with Raghu. He keeps us guessing: Does he recognise Raghu? Does he just find the face familiar?) And then there are the hints at something larger – something karmic or even divine. It’s in the way, for instance, Raghu meets Kanchan. Was he tailing her? Or is it providence? And there’s a cop (Kumud Mishra) at the end who finds out what Raghu is up to. I felt, for a while, that this blackmail subplot was unnecessary – but here, too, through Liak, we inch towards the film’s themes of compassion, forgiveness, and the divinity inside that can surprise us sometimes – all of which are now alien concepts to Raghu.

This is the thing with Badlapur. There’s no character too minor or too evil to be regarded as undeserving of love and compassion. Even Raghu. As for Liak, he’s surrounded by love. Pratima Kazmi is wonderful as his mother, a Nirupa Roy who’s been sandpapered over. You can see she loves her son, but that’s not the only dimension to her. She’s got her own baggage, about a dead husband, whom she cannot stop bad-mouthing – and this revelation syncs beautifully with Liak’s actions at the end. Harman too lucks out in this department – Kanchan does things above and beyond the call of duty. And yet, she flinches at his touch. Can you love and loathe a man at the same moment? Apparently yes, according to Radhika Apte – one grows tired of describing performances as “superb” and “fantastic,” but that’s what they are in Badlapur. Only Huma Qureshi seemed to me a little off. Playing a prostitute is always a problem for our heroines, and we know what’s missing in this performance when we see, later, another prostitute named Sweety. This actress (I don’t know her name) doesn’t seem to be “acting” at all.

Neither does Siddiqui. On the surface, he’s doing what he’s done in many films now – puncturing badassery with comic quirks. And he gets juicy moments – when he pleads with Jhimil for “gandi baat” over the phone, or when he mimics another prisoner’s limp. I laughed out loud when, after his release from prison, Liak walks up to the man who’s tailing him and has a casual chat. Siddiqui’s enunciations are entertainingly weird. You have to see the way he says goodnight to Patil (Zakir Hussain), compressing the word and spitting it out like a bullet. But Badlapur gives his character a hell of an arc, and he finds new things to do, newer ways to do them. At first, we think he’s scum – when Raghu visits him in jail and beats him up, Liak smiles, and we don’t doubt the reason for that smile. Surely he’s pure evil. Surely that’s why he’s smiling, at this realisation of how much pain he’s brought to someone. But then again, looking at him in the latter parts of the picture, maybe not? Maybe there’s something more to that smile? Siddiqui gives us a fully shaped performance and yet he doesn’t connect all the dots (and the writing surely helps). He keeps us on our toes. I don’t want to make grand statements like he’s the best actor we have today, but if anyone’s making “I heart Nawazuddin Siddiqui” T-shirts, will you let me know?

KEY:

  • gandi baat = dirty talk

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“Shamitabh”… Mostly good, madly inventive, and then there’s that ending

Spoilers ahead…

R Balki was put on earth for two reasons. One, to provide exciting projects for Ilayaraja and ensure that the maestro doesn’t languish in the south. Two, to provide exciting projects for Amitabh Bachchan and ensure that the superstar doesn’t languish in the shadow of his super-image. About the latter, first. When it comes to Bachchan, Balki is like a little boy who loves to dismantle and reassemble his favourite toy. Consciously or not, what he’s accomplished, over his films, is a sort of de-iconisation of the icon. In Cheeni Kum, we saw Bachchan play the kind of role usually played by someone half his age, and the part too – a rom-com leading man – was something new for the actor. (He’s done romances, but not rom-coms.) Then in Paa, the actor morphed into… well, I don’t know if there’s a name for it. The face, the stature, the voice we knew – everything had changed. And we saw Bachchan as he’s never been seen, as a child actor.

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The de-iconisation continues in Shamitabh. What if Bachchan never became a star? What, in fact, if he never even got a chance to be in the movies? What if he was stuck doing the voiceovers he was doing at the early part of his career? Or what if he were a dubbing artist? In other words, what if we associated that iconic baritone with another actor, who’s now getting an award from… a very sporting Rekha? And what if he didn’t even have that famous last name? What if he’s called Amitabh… Sinha?

Shamitabh opens with a glitzy Bollywood party, celebrating the success of a movie named Lifebuoy. (Yes, like the soap. And there’s a hilarious reason behind that name.) We see famous people like Javed Akhtar and Ekta Kapoor being asked for sound bytes – they call Shamitabh a star, a storm. Shamitabh rocks. And then we discover that Shamitabh is this self-effacing actor, played by Dhanush. And when he begins to speak, he speaks in Bachchan’s voice. I sat up, shocked – but also smiling. What the hell? I was glad I knew nothing about the plot, and that the trailer hadn’t given anything away. This is easily one of the best surprises I’ve had at the movies.

I thought, then, that this was a south-versus-north thing, that maybe the Dhanush character – named Daanish; Shamitabh is the screen name – had faced a lot of rejection in Bollywood because he spoke Hindi with a south-Indian Hindi accent. (He was once a bus conductor. Remind you of anyone?) But that would be too low-concept for Balki. We soon slip into a flashback and discover that Daanish is mute. And he wants to become a hero. Main Amitabh Bachchan Banna Chahta Hoon.

The song Ishq fillum begins to play, and we see the reason for the lyrics, and for the rather sinister tune (delivered in a stentorian tone) for what should have been a rollicking romp of a song. The same mix of showbiz-sparkle and sinisterness is found in Ilayaraja’s trumpet riff heard throughout the film. As is obvious by now, we are being prepared for a meta-ish film about the movies, but we are also being prepared for the danger that lies ahead – in the form of bruised egos, in the form of tragedy. I wasn’t too impressed by the songs as a standalone experience, but they sound fantastic on screen. Sha sha sha mi mi mi sounds like what it’d be like to be inside Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s heads as Farhan Akhtar is giving them a story narration. Even the borderline-silly Thappad is perfect, a slick version of a Balakrishna-type song for a slick, Balakrishna-style movie being made in Bollywood.

The film, for the most part, moves like a dream. It’s about impersonation – think Mrs. Doubtfire, but without the padded bras – and it has the bounce of a Hollywood screwball comedy. It’s easy to swallow the crazy contrivances, which involve, among other things, a trip to Finland. Remember Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending, where he played a director who went blind on the sets and had to pretend he wasn’t blind, so that the show would go on? Shamitabh is something like that. And just like Hollywood Ending was a making a point with its conceit – even a blind man, these days, can make a bloody Hollywood movie!Shamitabh seems to say that, unlike the other arts, filmmaking is collaborative. The mute man needs a voice. The baritone needs a body.

There’s a bit of the Abhimaan angle here, when Amitabh begins to resent Daanish’s success. There’s a bit of the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady angle here, in the question about whether the credit for success is due to the person behind the scenes or the one in front. There’s a bit of Singin’ in the Rain here, about a star who’d have been at home in silent movies but is now forced to reckon with the reality of talkies. And there’s a bit of Balki’s Bachchan worship here, that that voice is enough. Even a mute man can become a bloody Bollywood hero if he has Bachchan’s voice! Accordingly, we have Amitabh Sinha lapsing into Kinara’s Naam gum jaayega, chehra yeh badal jaayega, meri aawaaz hi pehchaan hai... Translation: The names and faces may change, but this voice is forever.

The dialogues are snappy and fun. The situations – a sex scene with a very vocal orgasm; a song sequence about toilets; the bit about Amitabh’s fear of injections; the fact that a nobody like Daanish makes a home for himself in the vanity vans of stars – are clever. And the actors work together beautifully – Dhanush’s youth and bounce and self-belief and can-d0 enthusiasm versus Bahchchan’s boozy world-weariness. (The man’s an alcoholic.) Akshara Haasan plays a pixyish assistant director (named Akshara) with a hairstyle that resembles a curtain (or a screen? the screen?) she has to keep pushing away. The casting is on-the-ball – she looks young, unsure, way beyond her depth, all of which is the character too. You think she’s going to be the love interest but she isn’t, which is refreshing but – when you think about it – not very surprising. Daanish and Amitabh have their own can’t-live-you-can’t-live-without-you thing going. There’s probably no room for anyone else.

The momentum slips in the second half. The film begins to meander, a tad too pleased with its metaphors about whiskey and water. (After the third or so mention, I wanted to yell: Shut up!) There’s a subplot about a journalist that isn’t very convincing – and it has no real finish. I don’t think the film would have lost anything if this hadn’t been there. I didn’t care for the scene where Amitabh speaks to Robert De Niro. It’s a good idea – but it isn’t pulled off very well, and Bachchan hams here in a way he doesn’t elsewhere. I wished Amitabh’s entry into a rival camp had been detailed better – he just walks in and starts dictating terms, which the filmmaking team is only too happy to obey. (Or is there a meta reference in there as well?) And there are times Balki’s cleverness can come off as… too clever. The A-to-Z gaali scene, followed by an A-to-Z lesson about living together. Really?

But the real downer is the ending. Thinking back, this ending may be logical. After all, the signs were all there. Amitabh lives in a cemetery. His dreams are dead. He’s dead to the film industry. Akshara seems to be in perpetual mourning – she always wears black. As for Daanish, his very first attempt at acting before an audience, as a child, has him imagining the death of his mother. And that’s enough. Instead, Balki wants to recreate the climax of Punnagai Mannan (I’m guessing; given the Ilayaraja connection and the chartbuster songs, it isn’t too wild a guess), and the scene in the car goes on and on. If you want to shock us, you shouldn’t work on us so much – just make us walk into a door we never knew existed.

But then, that’s always the problem with Balki. He’s great at making these light, fluffy, funny, clever films, but he feels the need for tragic undercurrents – and he just isn’t very good with heavy drama. The little girl who dies in Cheeni Kum was fun as the film’s “cute factor”, but her death and the ensuing drama felt like another movie altogether. So too Paa – a convention-breaking film suddenly turned all melodramatic on us, with the boy wanting his parents to get married, and they begin to circle his hospital bed… It’s like reaching the centre of a chocolate cake and discovering coffee grounds. As a philosophy, there may be something existential there, but certainly not in the way these films are being made. Why not just give us the cake?

KEY:

  • Hollywood Ending = see here
  • climax of Punnagai Mannan = see here

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“MSG The Messenger of God”… You’re going to need God-given strength for this one

Spoilers ahead…

As I was stepping out of a screening of MSG: The Messenger of God – as opposed to, you know, MSG: Do You Really Need It In Your Kitchen? – a man who was in the audience came up and asked how I’d liked the movie. I’d have told him the truth, but then telling a total stranger “Are you freakin’ kidding me?” didn’t seem terribly polite. So I said I liked it. He said he was from Haryana, and a disciple of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the film’s hero and, to quote Wikipedia, “social reformer, preacher, spiritual leader and the head of the India-based socio-spiritual organisation Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) since 23 September 1990.” He’d come to Chennai to gauge audience response. He’d already been to a couple of theatres. He was heading to another one after this screening. At three hours per screening, this, I thought, is some disciple. But he said there were others as well, from U.P. They’d rented a bungalow for a week. He sounded simple, sincere. He said the social reforms shown in this film were real, and that someone in his family had married a prostitute. I must admit I hadn’t heard of this guru until the Censor Board controversy erupted, but he seems to be some good things – again from Wikipedia, “cleanliness campaign, blood drives, tree planting, disaster relief, and support for transgender people, tribal communities, orphans, and rehabilitation of sex workers.” Unfortunately, this cannot form the basis of one’s appreciation of MSG as cinema, to which the only logical response can be: bwahahaha.

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A major chunk of laughter comes from Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s appearance. It isn’t the way he looks, as such. If anything he looks… normal, a little chubby, unkempt, with fertile skin sprouting hair from every nook. And that’s refreshing these days, when every leading man appears to have spent every waking moment in the gym. Singh, on the other hand, appears to have spent every waking moment raiding Kalpana Iyer’s wardrobe. Fur collars, jackets studded with pearls, sequinned caftans and harem pants – all embellished with jewellery. It’s like peering into a kaleidoscope dusted with Anil Kapoor’s arm hair. That is why we laugh. The plot has to do with people – one of them played by an actress named, I kid you not, Olexandra Semen; she appears in spurts – trying to assassinate Singh with rifles and bombs. You may wonder why they didn’t just lead him to a full-length mirror and induce instant cardiac arrest.

Did I mention that he sings and dances? He’s been blessed, in that department, with Sunny Deol’s genes – only his arms seem capable of movement. And so, in one song, he moves a solitary finger – it looks like he’s either lecturing us or indicating to the crew that he needs to use the facilities. In another song, he keeps tapping his chest and waving goodbye. He fares slightly better in the action scenes. People hurl swords at him – he raises his hand and the weapons turn into rose petals. Then they train machine guns at him – he raises his hand and the bullets become a tiara. It’s like a Mahabharata video game developed by Michael Bay’s dope supplier.

Why did some people want this film banned, given how it – even if only inadvertently – heartens our humdrum lives? Was the objection on artistic grounds? After all, we’ve seen better acting in a Vicco Turmeric commercial. Or was it something more serious? Was it because MSG is a blatant propaganda vehicle, with Singh positioning himself as an avatar? Despite the disclaimer, at the beginning, that “no claim is made of any individual possessing any fabulous power” – but of course; it’s the dresses that are fabulous – we hear a conch shell when the title appears. Later, we are told that God sends his angels to vanquish evil – and lo, here’s one, without wings, but with a beard and rhinestone boots. And with powers. The light emanating from the centre of his forehead reduces villains to a heap. If this isn’t God, it’s at least Rajinikanth. Still, one must acknowledge the work that Singh has put into MSG. Not only has he co-directed it (with Jeetu Arora), he’s either partly or wholly responsible for the action, lyrics, music, cinematography, story, screenplay and dialogue. If nothing else, Hindi cinema finally has its T Rajendar.

KEY:

  • T Rajendar = see here

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

“Roy”… A very slow trudge to nowhere

Spoilers ahead…

If you wandered into a multiplex and wanted to locate the screen on which Roy is playing, just head towards the discreet coughing. That would be the audience, after two-and-a-half hours of incessant second-hand smoking. Kabir (Arjun Rampal), Roy (Ranbir Kapoor) and assorted supporting characters are rarely seen without a cigarette (or a cigar), and when the camera isn’t focusing on their faces, we get shots of ash trays brimming with stubs. And the sound effects. Much pain has been taken to reproduce, with frightening accuracy, the sound of paper burning – that light hiss-and-crackle, as if twigs were being snapped in the next room – as cigarettes are consumed. Do not watch this movie if you are trying to quit.

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Why do these people smoke so much? Maybe because they’re creative. When you want to show someone as intelligent in the movies, you make them wear a pair of glasses. Cigarettes, similarly, are accessories that suggest creativity. Because, heaven forbid, you wouldn’t actually want to show the person creating something. Where’s the cool quotient in that? Kabir is a screenwriter (Roy is the protagonist of the movie he’s writing), and there are stray shots of him at his typewriter. Yes, I said typewriter. The manual kind, with a ribbon and everything. With this heavy-duty clacking and the cigarettes and the glasses of whiskey and the fedora, Kabir, I guess, is meant to be the Hemingwayesque type. The Old Man and the Ciggie. As a writer myself, I was very curious about the accoutrements on Kabir’s desk. The clock, I get. After all, deadlines are an undeniable fact of the writing life. But an hourglass as well? And a mirror on the facing wall? Perhaps this is the director Vikramjit Singh subtly alerting us to what lies ahead: those grains of sand are going to dribble out very, very slowly as Kabir/Roy embarks on a series of reflections.

I don’t keep track of less and more, right and wrong… We always want to lead other people’s lives… The noise of life is trapped in its silences… I am a tourist… The man who holds the gun, he’s the one people listen to… The questions are the same; it’s the answers that keep changing.

These musings unfold against the most scrupulous staging. The settings are lush, and even the mess is exceedingly pretty. There’s a scene that takes place inside a car as it begins to drizzle outside – it looks as if Jackson Pollock is at work on the windshield. Imagine an Architectural Digest spread that featured a Cambridge doctoral student whacking off with a copy of Camus in his hand – that’s Roy in a nutshell. The production designer’s brief must have been to bring to life the pages of an upmarket lifestyle magazine, except that what’s being sold aren’t perfumes and liquor but existentialism and male angst. Sometimes a female gets into the act. Jacqueline Frenandez – who plays Ayesha in the track with Kabir, and Tia in the one with Roy – asks: Are you who people say you are, or do you try to be the kind of person people assume you to be? Sometimes, a simple “hello” will suffice. Ayesha does yoga. Roy rides a bike. Tia feeds a horse. Kabir stares at the sea. Roy fires bullets into the ocean. Kabir says he’s going to miss Ayesha, and she replies that she always wanted to be a ballet dancer. Later, Kabir reveals that he always wanted to play the piano. I was reminded of the scene from Dev.D where Paro walks into Dev’s hotel room. He says that he wants to loves her. Main tumse pyar karna chahta hoon. She says she doesn’t get what ‘wanting to love’ someone means. Log pyar karte hain. Yeh karna chahna kya hota hai? But then, practical people don’t get romantics, especially brooding, solipsistic romantics. And for some reason, whether in literature or in the movies, these navel-gazers turn out to be babe-magnets. Devdas had Paro and Chandramukhi. Kabir, we learn, is something of a “ladies’ man” – he has had 21 breakups. A male fantasy? It may be no coincidence that none of these books or movies was written by a woman.

Every frame in Roy is freighted with so much significance that it’s a miracle the screen doesn’t sag to the floor. Kabir polishes the outside of a goldfish bowl, aka he’s knows what it’s like to be a celebrity. Or something. While Kabir suffers from a writing block, Roy is on a boat that’s going nowhere, aka they are both adrift. Or something. Kabir’s father gifts him an expensive watch and Kabir refuses it, aka he doesn’t really live by the clock. Or maybe he prefers the hourglass on his writing desk. Kabir mentions that he feels like he’s trapped in a room with no exits, aka finally someone had the decency to put into words what the audience has been experiencing all along. There’s no lightness, and we have to invent our own jokes periodically, like the fact that Ranbir Kapoor’s soporific presence is advertised in the opening credits as “a dynamic role.” I also had a quiet laugh about the name of Kabir’s film, Guns III. As if someone like him would consent to his work sounding like something dreamed up by a third-rate hack. Even if Kabir were to write a hack-like story with lots of guns, he’d title it That Feeling When A Bullet Expands Slowly In Your Brain. Or something.

The film didn’t have to be this way. It has a superb premise, about a creator and his mirror-image creation. It has some good actors – Anupam Kher as Kabir’s father, Shernaz Patel as Kabir’s assistant and mother-figure, Rajit Kapur as a detective. But the characters don’t connect with each other or with the audience. The director is just after mood and posturing, and he is great at manufacturing this – but he seems to want to be known as a philosopher rather than a good storyteller. It’s not wrong for a film to prefer the abstractness of ideas to the concreteness of events, but it is a problem when we’re not allowed to work out these ideas for ourselves, when they’re constantly being murmured into our ears. We’re used to our movies telling us what to feel. Roy tells us what to think. After a while it becomes unbearable.

Things go really downhill towards the end, with a desperate lunge at the shoelace-tying symmetry of a rom-com. And there’s a curious letter with Hindi sentences written out in English, which pretty much sums up the problem with these filmmakers. Figure out the language, the sensibility, of your audience – and then make your movie. In other words, Roy is what happens when an art-house English film masquerades as a mainstream Hindi movie.

KEY:

  • that scene from Dev.D = see here

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.