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Piku (2015)
Shoojit Sircar's 2nd wonderful film about bodily fluids...
18 May 2015
Quick alert to you lovers of GOOD films:PIKU, directed by Shoojit Sircar (VICKY DONOR, MADRAS CAFE), starring Amitabh Bachchan, Irrfan Khan, and Deepika Padukone is currently in theaters.

It was thrilling to watch Amitabh Bachchan, who is clearly reveling in his career resurgence as a character actor, getting to flex his acting muscles. Late-period Amitabh starrers were terrible: director after director would make him fly into a rage, kill a whole bunch of people, and then die in a barrage of bullets, but not before making a long speech while bleeding copiously - the poor man must be embarrassed by his last 20 or so films as the hero Vijay (his character was invariably named Vijay).

Now free of Leading Man responsibilities, he is finally permitted to act (CHEENI KUM, PAA (he was excellent - Vidya Balan and he rose above the sappy, manipulative script), BLACK, Baz Luhrman's THE GREAT GATSBY - his brief appearance as mobster Meyer Wolfsheim was the best thing about that awful film), and you realize how frustrating (if lucrative) it must have been for him to play in those earlier carbon-copy revenge sagas.

To his immense credit in PIKU, he makes you forget you are watching Amitabh Bachchan, the most iconic Hindi movie star of our times - what viewers see is simply curmudgeonly, pot-bellied, hypochondriac Bhashkor Banerjee--a Bengali living in Delhi--obsessed with bowel movements. But Bhashkor is no mono-dimensional old git: he is intelligent, fiercely proud of his independent daughter, truly progressive in his social views, and lover of good Scotch and old songs. You'll be infuriated by him, yet agree with him in matters that count, and you will completely sympathize with his long-suffering daughter Piku (Deepika Padukone), who struggles to juggle an architecture firm, run a household, and her full-time occupation: taking care of her father. Little wonder then that she is prickly, short-tempered and doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Irrfan Khan (THE LUNCH BOX, LIFE OF PI, etc.) plays the owner of a taxi company whose drivers quake with fear whenever there is a call for car service from the Banerjee household. So when none of his drivers will convey the father and daughter to Calcutta, it falls to Irrfan to drive the formidable twosome there. Along the way, they all learn valuable life lessons, and have an increased understanding and appreciation of each other. While this sounds like any other road movie, its treatment and approach are refreshingly different - the writing is the star here.

Deepika Padukone blows one away with her natural, endearing performance - faced with TWO brilliant actors, she gives of her best and doesn't ever falter. Irrfan has the smaller role in the film - what one might term the "love interest" part. Here one gets to see what an outstanding actor can do even when he is not the center of the action. Loved seeing Moushumi Chatterjee playing Piku's flighty aunt who is on her third husband - she has some great lines.

Treat yourself to a good film - go watch PIKU.
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The Last Supper (II) (2014)
This Supper a fine repast...
30 March 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The Last Supper, co-written, produced, and directed by Aaron Holly and Cathy Wang is an elegantly concise and deeply felt story of a dying man's quest for dignity.

When told he isn't much longer for this world, homeless Michael decides he will dine at least once at the fancy restaurant that is his view from the sidewalk where he resides. Towards this end, he takes up his battered violin again and plays a piece he had composed with a friend a long time ago.

His impassioned playing mesmerizes passers-by,and his violin case becomes the receptacle for the coins and bills that are tokens of their appreciation. Even as his physical condition worsens, he realizes he has earned enough to pay for a meal at the fine restaurant. With money in his pocket and a tweed jacket newly purchased from the thrift store, Michael diffidently walks into the restaurant to fulfill his final wish: to dine in style and experience one memorable evening.

A wish that seems so simple almost doesn't come to fruition: the world of the well-heeled can be callous and casually intolerant of those who are not part of it. How Michael's dream comes true forms the crux of the tale.

Michael's story engages the viewer with an economy of dialogue and a palette of somber hues and lengthening shadows, complemented by an atmospheric musical score. Yet this effort from first time filmmakers Aaron Holly and Cathy Wang is bracingly free from maudlin' sentimentality and Jon Jacobs imbues Michael with a grizzled dignity. Brion Rose and Dan Spector offer sterling support as a kindly doctor and the chilly owner of the restaurant whose encounter with Michael marks them indelibly.
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Haider (2014)
"Haider" is riveting...
17 October 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Vishal Bhardwaj is the lone present-day Indian filmmaker with the imagination and gumption to tackle transposing Shakespeare works against a contemporary Indian setting.

In 2003, financing "Maqbool"—his iteration of the Scottish play—proved tough, but the film's box-office and critical success enabled more adaptations. "Omkara" (Othello) followed in 2006, and now comes his best Shakespearean effort to date: "Haider", a dark, daring, layered take on "Hamlet".

His master stroke was placing "Haider" in 1990s Kashmir, when communal and geopolitical tensions—festering from the time of India's independence from British rule—explode with devastating consequences. The land itself, referred to in antiquity as "Jannat" (Heaven), has been riven by decades of strife, fought over by India and Pakistan.

(Hundreds of thousands of Hindu Kashmiri Pandits fled their homeland to live as refugees elsewhere in India – do not look to "Haider" for their story. For that, one should watch filmmaker Onir's omnibus film, "I Am" (2010) where one narrative strand "I am Megha" looks at post-Partition Hindu-Muslim relations through the eyes of Megha, a displaced Kashmiri Pandit.)

"Haider" is set amid the Muslim majority that populates Indian-administered Kashmir. A segment of these Muslim Kashmiris have allegedly been radicalized, trained, financed, and armed by Pakistan to destabilize the region. The decades-long armed conflict between these insurgents and the Indian military forces deployed to maintain Indian sovereignty has effectively turned Kashmir into hell on earth. The lives of the ordinary citizenry—who only ask to be left in peace—are filled with turmoil, their personal freedoms drastically curtailed by curfews,check-points, random raids and imprisonment seemingly without just cause.

By staging the action of "Haider" in this context, Bhardwaj politicizes the Shakespearean text brilliantly (albeit with a few startling, strategic changes) to make a plea for the end of the cycle of revenge and retribution. True freedom, he and his co-writer the Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer say, can be achieved only when one renounces the quest for vengeance.

The beauty and genius of Shakespeare's timeless works is that they can be superimposed over any geography, any period, any genre of cinema, and still resonate with undiminished immediacy and universal truth.

Dr. Hilal Meer (Narendra Jha) is a politically neutral, dedicated physician whose altruistic deeds in desperate times fill his more savvy wife Ghazala (the glorious Tabu) with apprehension. When he brings home an insurgent leader for an emergency appendectomy (I'm simply doing my job), the frantic Ghazala berates him for the foolhardiness of his actions. "Whose side are you on?", she demands; his response: "I side with Life."

Almost immediately the military shows up, arrests Dr. Meer for treason, and blows up his home. Ghazala moves in with his brother Khurram (KK Menon), a lawyer with political ambitions, and appears to carry on with her life. Haider, her son (Shahid Kapoor), returns from university in Aligarh in search of his "disappeared" father, and is incensed to find his mother apparently delighting in the amorous attentions of his uncle, who still addresses her as Bhabhi Jaan (beloved sister-in-law).

Bhardwaj and Peer cleverly conflate the characters of Horatio and Ophelia, thus giving Arshia (played surprisingly well by relative newcomer Shraddha Kapoor) more to do – as a journalist, she is Haider's helper, confidante, and lover. Her father Pervez (Polonius) is part of the Indian security forces, and keeps a close watch on Haider.

Haider scours Kashmir's prison camps and detention centers in vain for his father. In these modern times when paranormal phenomena would be scoffed at, Bhardwaj comes up with another smart device. He introduces the ghostly apparition—the spiller of the beans in Shakespeare's play—without challenging audience credulity. Roohdar (literally Spirit-filled One), a mysterious visitor with possibly questionable motives (Irrfan Khan doing a dandy job), confirms Haider's father was put to death, his treacherous uncle Khurram was the police informant, and his father's dying wish is for Haider t0 avenge him by killing Khurram.

Haider returns home with photographic evidence of his dead father. Funeral rites are performed alongside preparations for the wedding of Khurram and Ghazala. Wishing to discover the truth for himself, Haider enacts the betrayal of his father in the form of a song and dance for the entertainment of the wedding guests. Khurram calls an abrupt end to the performance, sealing his guilt Haider's eyes.

Now it is open war between the two. Khurram dispatches a pair of buffoon-like, yet treacherous Salman Khan fans (former schoolmates of Haider, they run a video rental shop stocked mainly with Salman Khan blockbusters)to kill Haider. Haider outwits this story's perfidious Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and finishes them off.

Will Haider live long enough to avenge his father's death? Whom should he believe: Roohdar,Khurram, or Ghazala? How does his romance with Arshia play out? For answers, I highly recommend watching "Haider".

Apart from the writing which is, unquestionably, the star, "Haider" boasts outstanding performances by the entire cast. Shahid Kapoor sets aside his lover-boy image and is practically unrecognizable as Haider. His initial diffidence vanishes as his character gets more and more embroiled in the machinations of his loved ones. This performance marks his entry into the ranks of grown-up thespians. KK Menon, Irrfan Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, the men playing Polonius, Laertes, and the Salman Khan clones – they are all excellent. Motivating the actions of all the men;goading them, yet wishing desperately to prevent their doom is the great Tabu. Her Ghazala Meer is a Gertrude for the ages – her entreaty to Haider to break the cycle of revenge echoes long after the film ends. Maternal love was never so fierce – what recourse does the hapless Haider have but to heed her.

Despite a few jarring tonal shifts (the Haider-Arshia love song and the gravediggers' jolly ditty), and the mispronunciation of "chutzpah" in a soliloquy, "Haider" is the most profound and provocative Hindi film thus far of 2014.
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Daawat-e-Ishq (2014)
Glad I accepted this invitation!
22 September 2014
Warning: Spoilers
This afternoon, we thoroughly enjoyed "Daawat-E-Ishq" – what a relief, or I would have been furious at myself for watching TWO disappointing movies in one week, ("Khoobsurat—the Remake" was the damp squib) and would have taken a long break from spending any more valuable time and hard-earned $$$ on commercial Hindi films.

The lead pair Parineeti Chopra and Aditya Roy Kapur are endearing performers, and Anupam Kher played Parineeti's father without a trace of the hamminess and excess that sometimes creeps into his performances. Director Habib Faisal and his team got the Hyderabadi (I can vouch for this due to my many visits to that distinctive city) and the Lakhnavi cultures and dialects spot on. And the display of sumptuous Lakhnavi food had us slavering like Pavlov's dog - all I wanted to do upon leaving the cinema was find a biryaani restaurant, but no such luck.

Without giving away anything, I can tell you that Gulrez (Parineeti Chopra) and her widower father (Anupam Kher) have had their fill of rejection from various prospective grooms because they lack the means to satisfy their outrageous dowry demands. So Gulrez decides to turn the tables and conceives an elaborate entrapment scheme, whereby she will find a greedy groom and get him to pay her hush money for having demanded a dowry, which is illegal and a federally punishable offense. She will then use this money to fulfill her dream of studying fashion design in the USA.

Tariq Haider (Aditya Roy Kapur) is one of her marks, the most famous chef in Lucknow, whose family has owned the city's best restaurant for generations. Tariq takes the bait, Gulrez finds him attractive and genuinely decent, but is determined to follow through with her scheme.

Do you think these willful, opinionated protagonists will patch their differences and ever become a couple? Keep in mind that this is a Bollywood film! Parineeti isn't a raving beauty, but she has what many beauties don't: she's a beguilingly natural actress who exudes intelligence and confidence. It's refreshing to see Aditya Roy Kapur's Tariq sober (Kapur has played drunks in two or three recent films) and angst-free, except when he uncovers Gulrez's plot - and then he has every right to be livid.

The goings-on in the second half of the film might be a tad far-fetched, but by that point, the cast had generated so much goodwill that we willingly suspended disbelief. I love that things were kept grounded and the middle-class characters were authentically so – the "Khoobsurat" reboot would have done well to emulate the "Daawat-E-Ishq" example if they were dead keen on remaking Hrishikesh Mukerjee's enduring cinematic gem, but Sonam Kapoor had her little heart set on a prince and that garish wardrobe that tried too hard to be kooky, so Hrishi-da's authenticity and simplicity were shown the door. Too bad for them.
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Khoobsurat (2014)
Why mess with a classic?
20 September 2014
Warning: Spoilers
I was disappointed in "Khoobsurat" - but the scores of teenage girls in the movie theater squealed and ooh-ed and aah-ed at Sonam Kapoor's aggressively mismatched clothing and juvenile mugging, so I was—overwhelmingly—in the minority. The marketing department of the studio has figured out their niche demographic and cynically plays to it to the exclusion of all others, resulting in dumbed-down writing, rudimentary characters, and the humor—such as it is—is broad and unsubtle.

In this film, everything about Sonam Kapoor was hammy and irritating - the film was carried by the rest of the cast: the new Pakistani hero (Fawad Khan, who has dignity, style, an old world charisma in spades—along with a spiffy wardrobe designed by Raghavendra Rathore—leaves all the recent callow Bandra/Juhu debutants in the dust. Pakistan produces the best movie heroes and that—not the ISI-trained terrorists—should be their chief export: look at Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, even Shah Rukh Khan's ancestors, and that nice young man from "London, Paris, New York" - all originally from what is now Pakistan.); Ratna Pathak Shah, reinventing her mother's iconic role as the matriarch who rules her family firmly—withering looks and frosty glares appears to be a wonderful genetic trait passed down from mother to daughter—rises formidably above the trite material. Costume designers Uma Bija and Karuna Laungani dressed Ratna superbly - she looked fantastic and was every bit the grande dame. The actor who played Ashok Kumar's role was very good, too - I've never seen him before. Kirron Kher, unfortunately, overacts dreadfully and her Punjabi mother shtick is nothing new - she can do this blindfolded and sound asleep.

Hrishikesh Mukerjee made a sweet and simple film, which remains a classic to this day. Ashok Kumar, Rekha (who won the 1980 Filmfare Best Actress Award for this performance), and Dina Pathak were the main players, but every single person in the cast benefited from having well-defined, fully realized characters to portray.

The new film's writers have thrown in so much additional, superfluous detail, changing the family the Rekha character has to transform into a Rajput royal family to no discernible purpose other than to literally give Sonam Kapoor's character a prince at the end.

Sonam Kapoor is pretty, but vexingly concerned only with the external elements of her character - the arc, the nuances and shadings a proper, committed actress would bring (as Rekha did so winningly) completely escape her. So she ends up being unrelentingly strident - and it's hard to imagine any person who's completed med school and holds down a professional job being so gauche and junglee, which the writers try to persuade us is being charmingly free-spirited. So put this down as one more Sonam Kapoor vanity/fluff project, where the overriding message is "I love my fabulous life, I am a fashionista, and my daddy will keep arranging expensive films for me in which I can undeservedly hog screen space—no change that—L'Oreal says I deserve it." You want to shake her and say, Grow up - you're pushing thirty, and should now be able to focus and do better work. Thank goodness, she did "Delhi 6", "Raanjhana", and that tiny graceful role in "Bhag, Milkha, Bhag", or folks would seriously question her choice of career. Perhaps then it's the director's job to tease a performance out of her. Oh, well…

On the positive side, the setting of the film is lovely - you know what a sucker I am for Rajasthan's gorgeous sun-scorched landscapes.
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Table No. 21 (2013)
An excellent start to 2013!
5 January 2013
2013 has begun well: "Table No. 21", the first Hindi film I've seen this year is an excellent start to what I hope will be an exceptional one for cinema.

This film came to movie screens without any fanfare yesterday, with no hugely well-known names apart from that of character actor and noted scene-stealer Paresh Rawal. I was unfamiliar with Rajeev Khandelwal's work until now, but he's earning a name for himself doing unusual, offbeat films, and Tena Desae (weird spelling, but no matter – I suppose her name is Tina Desai) debuted last year as Dev Patel's love interest in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel".

A young couple experiencing hard times wins a weeklong stay in picturesque Fiji. On their last night there, they're invited to dinner at a fancy resort. They are seated at Table No. 21, and welcomed with chilled Dom Perignon by the owner. He tells them that apart from the ultra-swanky resort, he runs a web-based game show that boasts eight million computer geek fans. The game sounds easy enough: answer eight questions with just "Yes" or "No", carry out eight tasks linked to the questions, and walk away with 10 million Fijian dollars, which equals Indian rupees 21 crores. Ah, yes, that No. 21 again! One simple rule not to be forgotten: If you lie, you die. Would they be interested in being that night's contestants?

The broke couple cannot believe their good fortune. Within a couple of questions and tasks, it becomes clear that their mysterious host knows a lot about them. Each "Yes" or "No" answer becomes tougher as he forces them into truly sinister terrain. Suddenly the idyllic Fiji landscape takes on threatening hues.

It would be unwise to ruin a taut, truly innovative thriller with more details. The title of the film gains significance when one considers Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which guarantees the protection of life and personal liberty. No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty, except according to procedure established by law.

It's impressive that such a small film has top-notch production values, a classy look, and best of all, thoughtful writing (Sheershak Anand, Abhijit Deshpande, Shantanu Ray Chibber, and Aditya Datt) and excellent performances. Veteran Paresh Rawal creates a multi-layered character one is unlikely to forget. You cannot take your eyes off him as his inscrutable, Machiavellian host turns the screws on the unfortunate game-show participants, while the hapless husband and wife do a fine job of winning our sympathy as their lives unravel before us.

Director Aditya Datt, whose three prior films went unnoticed, deserves kudos for helming this one with a sure, steady hand. Ravi Walia's slick camera work makes the most of the scenic Fiji locations that become more and more foreboding with the film's darkening mood. Editor Devendra Murdeshwar contributes much to the pace and texture of the film, which will stay with you long after the end credits have rolled. This timely film has enormous crossover potential, but because few know it is playing, it might not get the audiences it deserves.

Here's hoping 2013 will be filled with such imaginative, well-made fare.
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Ek Tha Tiger (2012)
This Tiger earns his Stripes!
19 August 2012
After watching recent Salman Khan starrers – completely idiotic movies combining dreadful writing, infantile humor, and hammy acting, most of it courtesy Mr. Khan ("Ready", "Dabangg") – I decided to steer clear of Salman Khan films, unless the word of mouth was overpoweringly good. However, do note that "Ready" and especially "Dabangg" were huge hits, so the paying public is not necessarily complaining about the quality of Salman Khan films. Rather, they flock to see middle-aged but well-muscled Mr. Khan as an ageing Romeo romancing nubile Juliets young enough to be his daughters. Mr. Khan, affectionately known as Bhai or brother in the Bombay film industry, is famous for his idiosyncrasies, his volatile temper, his feuds, and in the past few years, for his philanthropy through his NGO "Being Human". Underworld dons are also called Bhai, so one is not certain if it is filial affection or pure fear that earned him this nickname.

But due to the promising press for "Ek Tha Tiger", I checked out Mr. Khan's latest release. Like Jason Bourne in the deservedly successful Bourne franchise, Mr. Khan portrays a covert agent of India's Research and Analysis Wing. This would be equal to the US CIA or UK's MI5 (or is it MI6? – I can't keep my spy agencies straight), and like the globe trotting Mr. Bourne, Mr. Khan's Tiger criss-crosses the planet battling nefarious Pakistani agents from their secret service, ISI.

Kabir Khan, the writer-director of this film, constructs an entertaining popcorn flick utilizing Mr. Khan's strengths: his macho persona, his eccentricity, and his muscled torso. He also concedes Mr. Khan, nudging fifty, should no longer portray lovelorn teenagers. Instead, he plays a lovelorn middle-aged man, and does what Jason Bourne wouldn't be caught dead doing: he sings, he dances, he brandishes enormous bouquets and prettily wrapped presents. And he has a lot of fun doing it; Jason Bourne might find these activities effective stress diffusers, and would do well to unclench and enroll as "John Smith" in a salsa dancing class or take up pottery or French cooking. He'll live longer this way, and we'll be assured of many more installments in the Bourne saga. But I digress…

This tale's spectacularly filmed opening has Mr. Khan, er, Bhai, tracking down and kicking the stuffing out of a rogue RAW agent in Iraq. Then his commanding officer (a magisterial Girish Karnad) dispatches him to observe an oddball professor Dr. Kidwai (Roshan Seth) at Dublin's famed Trinity College, suspected of sharing his expertise in a nuclear missile deflection system with the Pakistanis. When Tiger meets the charmingly fey professor under the pretext of collecting material for a book on India's finest minds, the don balks at the amount of shadowing Tiger is going to subject him to. His query is justified: Do you want to write a book on me, or do you wish to marry me?

Kabir Khan peppers his screenplay with dry wit, takes us to far-flung places with genuine payoffs, and gets the proportion of the ingredients just right.

Without giving anything away, I can tell you that Tiger falls for one Zoya (Katrina Kaif), cleaning woman for the loopy Dr. Kidwai and his pug, in between choreographing dance routines that are straight lifts from River Dance. An avid multi-tasker, she also embarks on a romance with the fumbling Tiger, new to wooing instead of wounding. His secret agent buddy Gopi (an excellent Ranvir Sheorey) looks on in bafflement as the fearsome Tiger morphs into a bashful suitor.

Then, as must always happen in such tales, Tiger and Zoya find themselves on the lam in picturesque Havana. Unlike other people in deep cover, they sing, they dance, they get caught on camera (that's Jason Bourne rolling his eyes, muttering "Amateurs"), which results in the combined spy forces of India and Pakistan giving pursuit.

It's thrilling, it's engaging, it features white-knuckle chases and stunts, some by Ms. Kaif, who plays the conflicted Zoya. I always anticipate Ms. Kaif's artistic evolution with bated breath. She has demolished more movies with her bad acting than Mr. Khan ever did with his fists. Finally, in last year's "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" (You Only Live Once), she played a character with some measure of conviction, the sporty, mixed-race Laila. Her Zoya here is an extension of that Laila persona: once again, she is of mixed parentage, and again, she gets to use her athleticism.

Through diligent study, Ms. Kaif has pared her acting approach down to a single facial expression. We, the audience, are meant to decode the emotions in that expression in different situations – Ms. Kaif does not encourage lazily sitting back and letting her do all the hard work. The onus is on us: we are meant to look at that pretty, unchanging visage and deduce, aha, now she feels despair; now resignation, and yes, this has to signify either sultriness or acute constipation, and this, immense yearning. I liked that she kept me on my toes throughout her scenes, figuring out just what she was communicating through that one versatile all-purpose expression. Ms. Kaif can no longer be accused of being wooden; I salute her intelligence in pioneering a unique acting style offering discerning audiences a collaborative experience.

The film ends with one astonishing stunt, and we can only hope this means Tiger lives to roar another day. Amid the noise and fury of his rambunctious high-octane actioner, Kabir Khan makes one important point: it is truly obscene that India and Pakistan, countries with staggering amounts of poverty, illiteracy, starvation, and poor health care, earmark disproportionately large percentages of their national budgets for defense spending. Both nations would be infinitely better off, if like Tiger and Zoya, they opt to make love, not war. Human nature being what it is, such hopes would meet with Girish Karnad's cynical parting shot in the film: "Good Luck".
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Vicky Donor (2012)
This Donor generous with laughs and heart...
27 April 2012
This afternoon I watched "Vicky Donor" and was unexpectedly enchanted by it. The title and the recent spate of unfunny sex "comedies" had made me apprehensive, but this sweet film disarmed me completely. Of course, it is about a sperm donor, but it so cleverly involves the viewer in the lives of said donor and the people in his world, that one gets emotionally invested in their destinies instead of staying a Peeping Tom voyeur. Rather than titillating and going for cheap laughs, the tale of the donor and his circumstances is unspooled deftly to the point that he emerges as a kind of selfless do-gooder. The laughs that arise are from situational humor rather than the tacky nudge-nudge-wink-wink variety. Although not totally new, the dialogue is laugh-out loud funny. We've already been introduced to the outlandish vernacular in "Band Baaja Baaraat", "Do Dooni Chaar" "Ladies v/s Ricky Bahl" and other films set in that peculiar Punjabi Delhi milieu. In fact, a new film genre was spawned in the past few years: the middle class Delhi family comedy.

The cast is first rate, and again a director shrewdly deploys the best of Delhi's theatre talents in the service of an off-beat film. Most of these actors would be unknown to Hindi filmgoers who would think them to be overnight sensations; the fact is most of them paid their dues and honed their craft on the stages of Delhi and Calcutta for decades. Kamlesh Gill, as the titular donor's grandmother is a scene stealer with her progressive views, uncharacteristic knowledge of electronic gadgets and nightly peg or two. At one point, her movie grandson remarks admiringly that Delhi has only two truly modern things: the newly-built Metro and his grandmother. Ms. Gill has been active in theatre since 1957! In the film, her drinking partner is her widowed daughter-in-law, Vicky's mother, played with feisty brio by another theatre professional and National Award-winning costume designer Dolly Ahluwalia Tewari.

Spectacularly beautiful and talented TV actress Yami Gautam is Vicky's love interest Ashima Roy, while her widower father and spinster aunt are played appealingly, once again, by longtime theatre veterans: Jayant Das and Swaroopa Ghosh. With this wealth of combined acting expertise, it's no surprise that they succeed brilliantly in creating the compellingly real world of Vicky, Ashima, their families, and the man who upends their happy, orderly lives: the infertility expert Dr. Baldev Chaddha, played to perfection by Annu Kapoor. Dr. Chaddha has long been on a quest for the ideal sperm donor, and when he comes across carefree cricket-mad Vicky, he sizes him up and then pretty much stalks him until the young man becomes his star performer.

The title role is played by a TV anchor/VJ Ayushmaan Khurana, who understands that Vicky has to be an everyday schmo with nothing heroic to distinguish him from the hordes of similar unemployed slacker youths that populate present-day Delhi. Only Dr. Chaddha spots his potential, such as it is, and launches Vicky's fruitful if, um, single-handed success. These two and their humorous bickering mutual need-and-greed relationship are at the centre of the film. Chaddha is a cunning combination of fast-talking hustler, shameless (hence, very funny) mercenary, and ultimately, unlikely altruist, and the gifted Annu Kapoor makes him amusingly disreputable, but never sleazy. Chaddha genuinely sees Vicky as a walking-talking, revenue generating sperm bank, and after each encounter with the young man muses to himself "Confused sperm!", "Unpredictable sperm!" or "Pain in the sperm!" depending on the outcome of each exchange. It is excellent that Annu Kapoor has returned to Hindi cinema after a long self-imposed exile. He was a hoot in last year's "7 Khoon Maaf", and pulls off a funny yet heart-warming turn in this film.

When Vicky and Ashima decide to make a life together, it brings into hilarious play a Punjabi-Bengali culture clash. In the initial meetings, each side has catty put downs of the other, yet when all is said and done, they are so large-hearted and accepting that they promptly settle into an amiable harmony, complete with affectionate leg-pulling. The wedding with mix-and-match Punjabi and Bengali rituals and customs is an inspired piece of business: the Punjabis are spooked by a posse of loudly ululating Bengali matrons, but only for an instant. They give the well-behaved ladies an impromptu Bhangra lesson and have them all balle-balle-ing with new-found abandon. Vicky's grandma and mom get Ashima's teetotal dad drunk, but the real intoxication is from pure joy.

Alas, the truth will and does out, and Ashima goes ballistic when she discovers Vicky's donor past. Will they be able to settle differences and overcome what Ashima perceives as a colossal breach of trust? I am going to stay mum on this - for you really should find out for yourselves.

I'm impressed that John Abraham had the acumen to spot the potential in this unconventional project and made it his first producing effort. Kudos to Juhi Chaturvedi who penned a highly original story, screenplay and dialogue, and got the flavours and nuances of Punjabi-centric Delhi and Anglophile Calcutta just right. Shoojit Sircar directs with a light, but ever observant touch, and makes his large cast people you care about. Ayushmaan Khurana doesn't possess movie-star looks but his delightful, ingratiating personality and confidence should compensate abundantly. Yami Gautam is a classic Indian beauty and manages to takes one's breath away in simple every-day clothing - I can't wait to see the results when Manish Malhotra gets his designing hands on her in the Yash Raj extravaganzas that are bound to follow - and she's a good actress, to boot. This intelligent, generous, warm-hearted take on sperm donation does indeed, as its tagline naughtily promises, make every drop count!
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Kahaani (2012)
Storytelling at its best...
10 March 2012
A young woman, large with child, her jaw set resolutely, heads out of the airport and into the bedlam that is present-day Calcutta. As droves of taxi drivers close in on her, clamoring for her custom, Usha Uthup, Calcutta's most famous singer, snarls Aami Shotti Bolchi –I tell you the truth—on the soundtrack. The artful dissonance of that jazzy track highlights the paradox of Calcutta, India's most populous city, at once erudite and ill-bred. The mayhem is heightened as the city prepares for the ten-day festival of Durga Puja, Calcutta's biggest celebration.

The young woman, Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan), directs the cabbie to a police station, where she files a missing persons report. She has flown in from London on the trail of her husband Arnab who had come to Calcutta on a two-week consulting job and inexplicably vanished. They are both computer engineers—firewall specialists, a detail lost on the obtuse official taking down her report.

Where would one even begin to look for a missing person in a city of teeming millions? One immediately sympathizes with the woman and the apparent impossibility of the task she has set herself. But we underestimate her mettle: she isn't cowed by bullying men who would have her accept her husband has left her pregnant and flown the coop; or by the Byzantine bureaucracy that accompanies the simplest government transactions; or the impenetrability of a city whose geography, language, culture, and nuances are completely alien to her.

With intelligence, charm, and sheer doggedness, she works at unraveling the mystery of what might have befallen her husband. She gains unexpected allies in a young policeman Rana (well-regarded Bengali actor Parambrata Chattopadhyay in his Hindi debut), a couple of urchins who work as chai-wallahs and errand runners, and Agnes D'Mello, the kindly HR Manager of the company which might have enlisted her husband's services. Within days, she convinces everyone that she isn't budging from the city without answers.

Her tenacity uncovers unsettling facts while yielding no satisfying answer about Arnab's whereabouts. As a contract killer starts shadowing her, we realize she is unwittingly on to something much bigger than the temporary disappearance of her husband. Sujoy Ghosh made his directing debut in 2003 with the sweetly gentle "Jhankar Beats", followed it up with two duds, and emerges a masterful storyteller with "Kahaani". The writing is the star here (Ghosh collaborated on the story, screenplay, and dialogue) –there isn't a single throwaway scene in the film. In this ingeniously constructed thriller, even the smallest details have significance, adding up to a hugely satisfying whole.

Vidya Balan, who is incapable of doing wrong these days, is the soul of the film. Her Vidya Bagchi is an unlikely protagonist for a mystery. Who would have thought a hugely pregnant woman scouring a city for her missing husband would make a compelling heroine? Going against the most primal female urge to find a safe haven to give birth, she instead thrusts herself into increasingly dangerous situations in her quest for the truth. She inspires compassion and admiration, as in the sweltering heat and chaos of Calcutta, she tours its morgues, hospitals, police stations, and seedy guest houses for elusive clues.

Indeed, Calcutta is a character in the film: alternately stately, raucous, playful, boorish, scary, and secretive—maddeningly tantalizing and stubbornly unwilling to reveal what happened to Arnab, and Ghosh and his cinematographer Satyajit "Setu" Pande use the city's myriad faces to telling effect.

There is nothing showy or actorly in Vidya's performance: she creates a completely realistic character who—even in advanced pregnancy—will not be placated or intimidated away from her mission. Her forthright, no-nonsense manner is reserved for the world outside, but we witness her moments of anxiety, fear, doubt, and sorrow in the privacy of her hotel room.

The film's conclusion falls fittingly on the final day of Durga Puja, the festival that celebrates the slaying of the demon Mahishasur at the hands of the fearsome goddess Durga. When everyone else is either ineffectual or untrustworthy, must Vidya Bagchi assume the modern-day avatar of an avenging goddess, too? It would be a disservice to the best thriller since "A Wednesday" to reveal any details – in fact, I entreat you not to discuss "Kahaani" with anyone who hasn't seen the film.

Everything in this film works because it is so superbly and tightly written. The supporting performances are excellent, with Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the cynical Intelligence Bureau officer Khan, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, and Saswata Chatterjee deserving special mention. In flashbacks narrated by Vidya, we see Indraneil Sengupta as her husband Arnab, while Darshan Jariwala makes a dignified appearance as Khan's superior who took early retirement. The two tea-seller boys are unaffected naturals, as they open up to the woman who treats them with kindness and dignity.

Over the end credits of this fine film, Amitabh Bachchan sings a poem by the most famous Bengali of all—Rabindranath Tagore: Ekla Chalo Re –be not afraid to walk alone—which might be a poignant anthem for our spirited heroine.
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A charming antidote to standard Valentines' Day fare...
20 February 2012
When "Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu" rolled out just in time for Valentines' Day, it appeared to be another romantic trifle designed for parting swooning fools from their disposable income. I'm glad the timing of its release and cutesy poster didn't put me off, for it's actually a beast of different stripe.

For a start, Imran Khan – heart-throb du jour of young girls—is not cast in heroic vein. He plays Rahul Kapoor, only offspring of an over-achieving architect father and a socialite mother. An amusing opening montage shows various types of kids: goody-two shoes, hell-raisers in angel guise, rebels looking for a cause, and so on. And then we have Rahul. From infancy, he's been told exactly what to do and how to do it. His own aptitudes don't matter for his father wants a miniature high-achieving clone of himself, while Mom is preoccupied with the pursuit of eternal youth. When the tot announces he's won a silver medal for swimming, his father witheringly corrects him, "No, what you did was lose the gold." Unsurprisingly, Rahul grows up into a permanently browbeaten youth with a pathological compulsion for neatness and a passion for ironing his socks. Precisely the kind to sweep girls off their feet…

Dispatched to Las Vegas by Dad to intern at a big American firm as a preliminary step to becoming India's next architectural wunderkind, Rahul gets fired and doesn't know how to break it to his parents. That very day, they fly in to spend Christmas with him. Can a young man's life get more excruciatingly wretched? Why, yes, because his folks haul him off to the Christmas party from hell. A horrified Rahul gets unsolicited sex advice from Dad's loudmouthed friend, while the friend's new wife (hello, Mrs. Robinson) gropes his bum. Rahul makes a run for it, knocking over a waiter with an enormous platter, causing everybody to stare. Rahul's parents look pained. More withering looks follow and they depart for India in a gust of disappointment.

When Rahul encounters Riana Braganza, a free-spirited hairstylist, similarly unemployed, he feels compelled to prove he is no snore-inducer. Bolstered by copious quantities of alcohol, he loosens up and actually has fun. In a boozy blur, they impulsively get married at a chapel officiated by an Elvis impersonator.

This is no unacknowledged rip-off of "What Happens in Vegas"—it turns into something else entirely: a sweet-natured, generous-hearted reflection on human follies. Told they have to wait until the New Year for an annulment, Rahul and Riana return to India for a week. The Las Vegas location seemed arbitrary because the lead pair must get hitched in a hurry for the story to move forward – it's when the action shifts to India that the film hits its stride.

In Bombay, Rahul witnesses another type of family: boisterous fun, affectionate, supportive with no secrets or lies. The Braganzas take him into their bosom, and he blossoms into a fairly agreeable young man with sporadic bursts of confidence. Does this mean boy and girl will now fall in love and decide to remain married? It would be wrong to reveal any more, but suffice to say this is a charming antidote to the cloying sugariness of usual Valentines' Day fare.

Kareena Kapoor's Riana Braganza has certain shades of Geet, the character she played to perfection in "Jab We Met", but they are sufficiently unalike to hold one's interest. With scarlet streaks in her locks, a well-moisturized complexion, and a junior miss wardrobe, 32-year old Kareena does a pretty persuasive job of projecting youthful spontaneity and her pairing with the boyish Imran Khan doesn't jar. But, honey, it might be more fun to play women as opposed to girls – look at the blast Vidya Balan's having these days.

Imran Khan does a sterling job of playing squished—it's genuinely delightful watching him perk up as the film progresses. Ratna Pathak Shah and he reprise their mother-son roles (Ratna was Imran's mom in "Jaane Tu…ya Jaane Naa"), but the relationship they share couldn't be more dissimilar. Here Ratna doesn't have a single nurturing bone in her sleek well-toned bod. She's very funny as the self-absorbed, vain socialite, deliciously glamorous in a number of fashion forward looks. She made me laugh aloud when Imran finally has a cathartic meltdown at a dinner party, venting his rage at constantly being infantilized, a perplexed Ratna asks, "But what's wrong with chopsticks?" How I would love to see Ratna play Amanda Prynne in "Private Lives" opposite—who else?—Naseeruddin Shah as Elyot Chase in a Hindi version of that evergreen Noel Coward drawing-room comedy. Boman Irani is wonderfully off-putting as the severe, perpetually disapproving father whose first instinct is to scowl.

In a small cameo, Soniya Mehra (the late Vinod Mehra's daughter?) is a hoot as the extremely amorous date who decides to have her way with the cowering Imran.

Riana's large and loving family – all new to me, did fine work, especially her plump fun-loving dad completely devoid of tact. I also loved her toothless granny, tottering at the edge of dementia.

If one had to quibble, I would point to the cultural stereotypes the film plays on: Riana's laid-back tolerant family drinks, smokes, doesn't get bent out of shape over premarital sex –they're Christians, you see—maligned in India for their loose morals and tight clothing. But here they're the good guys, so that would just be me being tetchy - pay no heed.

Karan Johar has shrewdly mentored a number of fledgling filmmakers, and Shakun Batra,who co-wrote (with Ayesha DeVitre, hairstylist/writer—a truly uncommon hyphenate) and directs this film, proves yet again that Johar has impeccable instincts for choosing producing projects. Shakun's film has an authentic voice and tone and his characters are endearingly flawed, funny, and very human.
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Agneepath (2012)
A decent remake...
11 February 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Remakes don't interest me. They indicate filmmaking laziness and lack of imagination. The only instance I can think of where a remake improved on the original was the new "The Thomas Crown Affair" – Pierce Brosnan was dashing as the billionaire for whom art heists are sport; his love interest René Russo was smart, sultry, and age-appropriate as the insurance adjuster who's on to him. Their chemistry crackled, unlike Steve McQueen's Thomas Crown who looked ill at ease in his bespoke suits and an overly understated Faye Dunaway, who had yet to learn how to unleash her sensuality on screen. Given my disdain for the remake, why did I see the new iteration of "Agneepath"? Simple: I was curious to watch Rishi Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt cast against type.

I'm no fan of the old "Agneepath". It was one of Amitabh Bachchan's late-period starring vehicles, just another in his string of revenge sagas. I'll probably ruffle feathers by suggesting that Amitabh had got into a rut towards the end of his run as a leading man.

When he first burst forth from the screen, he jolted us into recognition of a bold new talent. We'd never before seen anything like those first roles that harnessed Amitabh's frustration with a corrupt system and explosive fury against wrongdoers as in "Zanjeer", "Deewar", "Namak Haraam" and "Sholay".

But somewhere in the late 80s, filmmakers stopped taking chances and cast him in the same role in film after identical film. Every film showed him in a couple of comic scenes, at least one drunken episode, maybe a song or two with the leading lady; then for the remaining three-quarters of the film, he would fly into a rage, launch a blood feud against some villain, not stopping until the bad guys and/or he himself were dead. In innumerable films, he sought revenge against heinous wrongs perpetrated against a parent/wife/sibling/child, until one couldn't keep the films and their story lines straight.

I had to go to YouTube for the plot of the old "Agneepath" because I'd muddled all those late 80s-90s films together. Today Amitabh's performance—despite being recognized with a National Award then—comes across as mannered, even tired. He thought altering his voice would give his Vijay Dinanath Chauhan greater resonance, but the public rejected the effort. The 1990 "Agneepath" was hastily re-dubbed in his regular voice, but folks had lost interest by then.

Amitabh today is a better actor than he was in the 90s. Freed from the constraints of the leading man's image, he can, as a character actor, take on any role, derive artistic satisfaction and dazzle viewers.

The same goes for Rishi Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt. What a thrill to watch Rishi Kapoor in this film! As Rauf Lala, he replaces the quartet of bad guys who induct the boy Vijay Chauhan into a life of crime. In his long career, Rishi Kapoor has always epitomized goodness – his cherubic visage glows with benevolence – he can be counted on to always do the right thing. Here, that Rishi Kapoor is nowhere in evidence. As surly, amoral, surma-eyed Rauf Lala, he convinces the viewer that he won't perform a good deed even by accident. When his vile son chides him for praising Vijay, he slyly tells him not to worry, Vijay will never be permitted to outlive his usefulness. As Rauf Lala, his girth is threatening, his smile as ugly as a snarl. It has been a treat watching the actor Rishi Kapoor take flight in "Luck By Chance", "Fanaa", "Pyaar Mein Twist". As Rauf Lala, he outdoes himself.

Similarly, Sanjay Dutt comes into his own as the evil Kancha. Kancha has a back-story here: his father the village headman was supplanted in the hearts and minds of the villagers by the idealistic schoolmaster Dinanath Chauhan. He summons his psychopathic son to rid the village of Chauhan. After accusing the virtuous teacher of raping and killing a schoolgirl, Kancha lynches him from a tree. Dinanath's pregnant widow (a stoic Zarina Wahab) and son Vijay leave for Bombay, where Vijay takes to crime, biding his time to exact revenge. Sanjay Dutt's bald-pated ox-like Kancha is truly menacing—his sadistic lunacy strikes fear. His penchant for reciting "shlokas" and general unpredictability up the scare factor. Sanjay Dutt should gracefully relinquish leading man roles, and embrace character parts with gusto – he had a lot of fun in the cameo he did in "Ra-One", and his Kancha is an extended riff on that bad guy, only badder.

Despite the stock tale of revenge, enough nuances and character developments make this "Agneepath" watchable. Of course, in keeping with the times, everything is louder, bigger, badder. Vijay Chauhan, as Hrithik Roshan interprets him, is all control and internalized emotion. He reveals little, and all his friendships and alliances are measured against whether they will get him any closer to Kancha. The flamboyance and bravado of Amitabh's Vijay are gone – this Vijay is a completely different creature. He yearns for life with a wife and family, but knows that he is not destined for them. He kills for his employer Rauf Lala, and lives only to execute Kancha, so he knows his own days are numbered.

I liked Priyanka Chopra's Kali – she takes the usually underwritten girlfriend's role, imbuing it with shading and touches of her own. She endears with her goofiness and remains in mind long after the film ends.

One glaring flaw: Zarina Wahab and her daughter rush to the police station to identify Kancha's man sent to murder the upstanding Police Inspector (Om Puri). Zarina had last seen him when he was a child, and the daughter hadn't even been born then – how could they possibly have recognized him? This irks because much thought was given to everything else – couldn't a better way been found for them to land in Kancha's den as hostages?
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Don 2 (2011)
Bang! Crash!! Kaboom!!! - that's "Don 2"...
28 December 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The first five minutes of Farhan Akhtar's shiny new flick "Don 2" is lists of media partners, brand partners, and other partners against a black screen, so one gauges there is going to be a vast amount of product placement. Then follow the names of German funding entities, and we realize that this is a German-Indian co-production—it's cool that Germany has taken to investing in Indian enterprises and offering tax incentives to film in the Fatherland. At that point, an impatient Sardarji yelled out in the dark: "Oy, that's enough – let's balle balle!" to much laughter in the house. Then the film began and for the next two hours raced at breakneck speed, pausing briefly every few minutes to blow something up.

I skipped Farhan Akhtar's remake of the 1978 hit Don with Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman – why bother with it when the original is still kicking around? Don 2 is advertised as an original work – that's what attracted me. However, out of curiosity, I did look up the song done by Kareena Kapoor on YouTube, and, yup, Helen needn't spare a second thought about anybody wresting that "Peerless Danseuse of the Hindi Screen" title away from her. Poor Kareena, in her pudgy phase then, tried hard but didn't even come close to what Ms. Richardson so effortlessly gave us back in '78. Akhtar appears to have altered something in his remake, for when the sequel opens, the good Don is nowhere to be seen; the bad Don is still alive, having a blast, and now wreaking havoc around the world. He's gone global. Avenging angel Roma—the Zeenat Aman character—traipses in his wake, always a moment too late on the uptake and the crime scene. She's been given a hunky subordinate who throws her melting looks and frisks after her like an adorable puppy. Whenever tough chick Roma (Priyanka Chopra) girds her loins to do battle with Don (a full-time occupation for the entire police forces of India, Malaysia, Germany, perhaps Switzerland, too), he acts touchingly solicitous. In one of the twists in the tale, when Roma has to go on a rescue mission with Don, loverboy gets to snarl at Shah Rukh, "If anything happens to her…" and doesn't even complete the threat. Really, little man, really?

Shah Rukh has great fun striding around with a bad ass attitude, many tattoos, and in the first part of the film, designer stubble and a hybrid coif that's part corn-rows, part dreads—and excuse my saying—part greasy and unwashed. Still, he's Shah Rukh, and can pull off anything. He's a lean mean fighting machine, and for reasons known only to him, allows himself to be arrested by Roma and incarcerated in a chic Malaysian prison. There's not a trace of grittiness—the prison has a jolly orange and crisp white color scheme and looks practically wholesome. Good old Boman Irani playing a mean baddie Vardhaan, who impersonated an Interpol officer in the original, is Shah Rukh's prison mate. However nasty Boman tries to be, I always feel he'll revert to comedy mode, and cackle "Fooled you - just kidding!" Vardhaan and Don have a balletic knife fight, then break out of prison together, and team up to relieve the German Central Bank of its Euro printing plates. Why mess with small-time labor-intensive activities like running international drug cartels, when you can just print your own cash supply without offering anything in return!

Don is baddest guy on the block, but loses a little of his street cred and edge, when recently sprung from prison, he reunites with his new honey/admin assistant Ayesha ( a slinky sophisticated Lara Dutta) and a number of sexy girl and boy henchmen (henchpeople?) in a Vegas-style synchronized song-and-dance routine, which would have called for weeks of rehearsal. Uh-huh, that's exactly what the most dangerous criminal in the world would do to strike fear in the hearts of opponents. The jokey vibe persists through innumerable convoluted cons and double cons, crosses and double-crosses. It's engaging and fast moving, and whenever your attention wanders – wait, who's conning whom now? – there's an explosion to jolt you out of your reverie.

Everyone tries to out-do Don, but Shah Rukh always has the last laugh, delivers cheesy lines with panache, and demonstrates that sheer star power can transcend utter improbability. There are fights aplenty, matched with an abundance of shameless product placement: gangs of baddies and battalions of S.W.A.T. teams routinely synchronize watches, giving us 70mm close-ups of Tag Heuer time pieces; breathless chases with Hyundai, BMW, and Mercedes cars (a vehicle for every price point, you see) proving their endurance and longevity; and designer duds, jewelery, and sunglasses from various fashion houses schilled by Shah Rukh, Priyanka, and Lara.

This is a well-crafted popcorn flick, with excellent cinematography (Jason West doing his best work), slick editing (Anand Subaya), and world-class stunts and chases – Farhan Akhtar owes much to the Bourne and Bond series, for there is a similarity of look, feel, and pace. Apart from looking stern and indomitable (Priyanka) and smart, sexy, and efficient (Lara), the women don't have a lot to do. Kunal Kapoor is effective as a computer hacker brought in for the heist, but only gets to Tazer a single guy – Shah Rukh deals with everybody else in every single country we visit in the course of the flick.

Okay, Shah Rukh, we've humored you and ponied up our $$$ for Ra-One and Don 2; now we need a good ol' fashioned grown-up love-story from you, before Farhan Akhtar lobs Don 3, 4, & 5 like grenades at us.
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Bold and thought-provoking...
8 December 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This audacious film unspools in South India from the 70s to the 90s. In Western world terms, that's behind the times by at least 20 years. Fleeing an unwanted arranged marriage, small town girl Reshma (Vidya Balan) pitches herself out of a window headlong into an unimaginably wild ride in Madras—the big bad city. Like millions of Indians, she's mad for the movies and besotted with Suryakant, the longtime hero of cheesy South Indian B-movies. What distinguishes her is her determination to be an actress. 1970s middle-class India got voyeuristic thrills from ogling the undulating curves of overripe vamps within the security of darkened cinemas, but would never permit an acting career for its daughters. But Reshma's credo is with only one life to live, why think twice.

Despite the odds, Reshma gets her break in a dance scene. Ordered to sizzle by the choreographer, she offers up a scorching interpretation of sexual abandon. Watching the rushes, the artsy director of the film, Abraham (Emraan Hashmi) is sickened by Reshma's flagrant display and orders the sequence cut. On its first day of release, the film flops, but when Reshma's "hot" number is reinstated, it becomes a hit. Sex-starved men return to repeatedly watch the uncredited seductress.

The producer tracks her down; Reshma rechristened Silk, finds herself on set with her idol Suryakant, and becomes his lover. Seen in film after film with the most famous leading man, she has the tabloids bursting with lurid speculations of their affair. With a naughty wink, Silk enumerates the three factors guaranteeing a movie's success: entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. Believing sex to be first-rate entertainment, she offers the salivating public what it wants, but her lover remains out of reach. With a dowdy but proper wife and infant son, Surya presents a façade of respectability to the world, and Silk realizes the futility of hanging on.

She moves on to his younger brother Ramakant, a screen-writer, but scares him off with her utter intractability. Claiming to offer filmgoers novelty, a resentful Surya insists that newer girls be paired with him in forthcoming projects.

Disenchanted by male duplicity, Silk becomes erratic and unreliable in her professional life and watches her hard-earned success evaporate. A self-financed movie ruins her financially. In her dark days, she again encounters Abraham, the director from her first film. He has revised his world-view, accepting the only formula for a sure-fire hit is entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. He appreciates her bravery in living life without compromise, and starts seeking out her company. All Silk wants to do is work in the movies, but she has been deemed unemployable. Her looks and figure have dissipated from years of alcohol abuse, so—in her mind—it is the end of the line. This, ironically, just as Abraham concedes he has come to love her.

Vidya Balan's Silk is a force of nature—strong, yet vulnerable; fearful only of betraying her essential self. Balan offers a nuanced study of naïve but gutsy femininity devoid of self-pity. Silk, as Balan interprets her, is rambunctious and loves to shock, but she's never cheap. It's little touches that catapult this portrayal into greatness: her radiant smile upon catching herself in a studio mirror after Hair/Makeup & Wardrobe have wrought their magic on her for the first time, or the conspiratorial grin at a woman journalist who applauds her daring at an awards function—for the woman has guessed her MO, or her child-like glee at upstaging the same hypocritical journalist's party to celebrate an award won by denouncing Silk's shenanigans in print. Silk collects a wildly appreciative crowd by dancing on her car outside the scribe's home, while the police ineffectually try to calm the ruckus.

There's honesty and conviction in her Silk, even when the script can't resist the trope of the fallen woman nobly giving up a loving man because she might be a liability for him. Kudos to Vidya Balan on creating a memorable firebrand who burnt out way too soon.

Naseeruddin Shah has a barrel of fun with his aging leading-man Suryakant character, wearing shiny fabrics in clashing colors, numerous gold chains, a pencil-thin mustache, and a heart as jet black as his wigs. He is as corny in real life as in his money-spinning potboilers: on screen, he bounds into the frame, brandishing a diploma, to announce his "First Class, first" to an impossibly young screen mother. (The director exclaims delightedly: "Perfect take, Saar! So boyish!") Off-screen, Surya displays a connoisseur's pride in pointing out various ugly artifacts in his mansion during a photo-shoot. When fawning minions praise his brilliance, he shrugs with faux self-deprecation, "I am a genius, it's my curse." But Surya doesn't completely devolve into caricature; his spite and vindictiveness toward his former lover are all too human—there's nothing funny in it. He's prescient about trends, too: in the new films, he declares, we'll have the heroine do whatever the vamp did—that's something new for the public. And sure enough, leading ladies now bare abundant cleavage, sport ever-shorter skirts, and come on to the hero with nary a blush.

Emraan Hashmi (Abraham), Tushar Kapoor (Ramakant), Rajesh Sharma as the producer Selva Ganesh, and Shivani Tanskale as Suryakant's wife do fine work. Anju Mahendroo is elegantly vitriolic as the poison-penned scribe.

Director Milan Luthria and writer Rajat Arora have fashioned a hip, irreverent recreation of a lost era. Their film has cheeky wit, social satire, and at its heart, the tragedy of a woman lynched by the patriarchy for flaunting her sexual emancipation.

The story gallops, with a riotous soundtrack spurring it on—there's no retard to offer Silk momentary respite. In a bit of a cop-out, the ending has Silk ritually donning the tokens of bourgeois respectability: a traditional silk sari and a bindi. But luckily for them, Vidya Balan renders that lone misstep plausible. It's been days since my rendezvous with Silk, yet an exquisite melancholy lingers.
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Ra.One (2011)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ...
13 November 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I saw "Ra.One" yesterday - first day, first show, because over the years I've become a big admirer of Shah Rukh Khan.

"Ra.One" is a technical and VFX feat of wizardry - for that it deserves a standing ovation. It is as slick and deafening as any foreign-made super-hero flick, if outdoing foreign films aimed at prepubescent boys was the point of it. For Shah Rukh's sake, I hope it's a big hit, because I hear he's poured many millions of his own money into it. Shah Rukh's teenage son should feel utterly loved and cherished - this movie is a valentine from a dad to his adolescent son.

Did I like it? I don't think this film was pitched at me - I am not their target demographic. That distinction goes to boys 10 - 18, or males who never matured beyond adolescence. I thought it was one long fight and chase sequence interrupted now and then by stray bits of dialogue. The relationship between the hero-heroine is underdeveloped and cursory, at best, although Kareena looks as sumptuously creamy and curvy as Diwali mithai. At least the father-son relationship gets some screen time. Arjun Rampal's look as the malevolent computer-generated Ra.One (Ravan) is fantastic - but it never goes beyond the look, because there's precious little scope for a performance from him. He's brought in during the final act just so Shah Rukh's G.One (Jeevan) has somebody to fight and blast into smithereens.

Shah Rukh looks dashing, even with the goofy South Indian wig, and simply marvellous as the blue-eyed android. Adore the film's music, complete with Akon's funky Hindi pronunciation (yukiyon se yukiya mila lein) which is weirdly charming, and the Chammak Challo sequence is delightfully staged.

With "Ra.One" out of the way, Shah Rukh doesn't have anything to prove. In Dec. we'll get his "Don 2", which from the trailer with "Ra.One" looks like another high-decibel affair, bursting with explosions, gunfire, speeding cars, helicopters, motorboats, and other noise makers. I sincerely feel next he should do a nice romantic grown-up love story. Something without bombs going off, car crashes, or computer games, but character-driven, with a good plot, intelligently written dialogue, some fine acting, and a heroine like Kajol, Rani Mukerjee, Preity Zinta, Sushmita Sen, or even Bipasha Basu, to try out a new pairing, or, hey, I hear Madhuri Dixit has moved back to Bombay.

Now that would be a treat...
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A glistening sun-drenched trifle...
27 July 2011
Director Zoya Akhtar's debut "Luck by Chance" was a perfect film. Without a single thing amiss, the clear-eyed unsentimental tale of a couple of strugglers in the Hindi film industry stayed with me for days. Of course, there was some irony that a child of privilege with access to Hindi cinema's biggest and brightest talents should make a film about newcomers scrambling for their lucky break: Zoya is the daughter of screenplay writer/lyricist/poet Javed Akhtar and his former wife Honey Irani. Her stepmother—known internationally—is Shabana Azmi; her brother Farhan Akhtar—a successful director—made another foray into acting in Zoya's film, and the slew of boldface names in cameos announced that this was no ordinary debut. But one can hardly fault her for the accident of birth; what was noteworthy was that she put her connections to excellent use and crafted a truly fine film.

I couldn't wait to see her sophomore effort: "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara", which I enjoyed much as one might a mousse au chocolat. It was tasty and fattening and very good to look at. I'm still pondering whether it has any major cinematic merit. My friends and I agreed that it was very much an NRI-friendly film: most of the action takes place in a breathtakingly beautifully-photographed Spain, with a few scenes in London. The characters speak English for the most part, along with sporadic bursts of flawless Spanish and Japanese, and the occasional lapse into Hindi.

ZNMD could also be looked at as the armchair sociologist's handbook on the complex mating rituals of the rich and gorgeous. The cast, without exception, is privileged, affluent, and beautiful; their major problems in life would make a Mumbaikar or Delhi-ite burst into derisive laughter. In fact, if a dehati (villager) were to see the film, he might scratch his head in befuddlement and wonder what the hoopla was about. From his point of view, these folks had hit the jackpot, but the ingrates persisted in whining. Still, even the rich have problems which cause them enough angst to require much soulful gazing at Spanish oceans at sunset, and conscientious filmmakers owe it to them to handle them with sensitivity, good lighting, and hypoallergenic makeup.

With this film, Zoya Akhtar appears to have joined the ranks of the School of Aspirational Filmmaking. Its foremost proponents are Karan Johar and 99% of the directors ever employed by Yash Raj Films. Their films—set predominantly in foreign countries—are made for the new consumerist India. Their characters are upwardly mobile non-resident Indians, and the message to every brown person seems to be: you, too, can escape India's shores and live in a 50,000 square foot mansion on a fifty-acre estate in the country of your choice, drive fast cars (or a beaut of a vintage one, as here) and romance impossibly beautiful chiffon saree-clad damsels. How is never addressed.

ZNMD has a surfeit of good taste; Zoya's cast—all beautiful—lives abroad in chic monochromatic minimalist apartments, is multi-lingual, dresses impeccably, and can tell the varietal and vintage of a wine from the merest whiff of its cork. The slim story line concerns three college buddies who set out on the bachelor trip to end all bachelor trips. They had intended to take this vacation four years earlier, but two of the friends had a spat and the scars remain. Now one of the trio is getting married and the other two must give in to his emotional plea to resurrect their foreign travel plans. So off they go to Spain in all its sun-drenched glory. They run into Laila (Katrina Kaif), an athletic diving instructor, who stays on for most of the trip. This is the first film for me in which Katrina Kaif did not jar; she plays a mixed-race woman—half American, half Indian. She speaks English most of the time, some Spanish, and a few words of accented Hindi, but it works here, and she exudes well-being and sportiness. Perhaps from now on, anyone looking to cast her believably should make her a person of mixed ethnicity with only a smattering of Hindi. But wait—isn't that all she has played for the past dozen years? Surely, you'd think she'd want to grow as an actor and add to her skill set by learning Hindi properly, and taking some diction and acting lessons. Maybe her cynical response is I'm doing very well without any of that, so why bother? And everyone agrees she's punctual and professional…

Hrithik, after a long time, is not doing all the heavy lifting. He has two buddies for company, and it's a pleasant change seeing him as just one of the guys. The sun glints off his highlights as he strives to achieve optimum work-life balance, dances with game senoritas, and gets drunk with his amigos. Abhay Deol is not as well-muscled but he does some appealing work, wrestling with the dilemma of the perfect girlfriend fast morphing into a harridan fiancée. Farhan Akhtar's character, once again, is glib and a bit of an asshole, and tosses off bon mots with a studied insouciance. He, too, needs to broaden his range. We've seen him do this shtick in "Rock On" and "Luck By Chance", with minor changes of shading in the undeservedly little-seen "Kartik Calling Kartik". Kalki Koechlin is pretty and funny as she makes the most of a small role. Naseeruddin Shah is pure gold in his cameo, speaking harsh truths with sympathy. Deepti Naval, too, is lovely in her two small scenes.

Zoya has her cast articulate some admirable sentiments: Carpe diem; face your fears; follow your bliss, but it all passes by in an inconsequential, golden haze. So you won't waste time or money watching this movie, but you're not likely to remember it the following week or even perhaps the following day. For Zoya Akhtar's sake, I wish this film every success, for it will enable her future films that will, hopefully, have significant things to say.
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7 Khoon Maaf (2011)
Love kills, and murder and mayhem were never so much fun!
19 February 2011
Scotland Yard's chief in the 1950s, G. H. Hatherill is said to have flippantly remarked, "There are only about 20 murders a year in London and many not at all serious - some are just husbands killing their wives." One wonders if this was the prevailing 1950s sentiment: wives were expendable, deserving of such dispatch, and replaceable. In 2011 we have an admirable gender reversal in the juicy Vishal Bhardwaj black comedy "7 Khoon Maaf", wherein Susanna Anna-Marie Johannes (embodied enthusiastically by Priyanka Chopra at her sultriest) displays a penchant for marrying and murdering her husbands as they prove unworthy of her.

Based on "Susanna's Seven Husbands", a short story by prolific Indo-Anglian writer Ruskin Bond, "7 Khoon Maaf" (literally "Seven Murders Forgiven") is cheerfully empathetic of Susanna's quandary: she enters into matrimony with every intention of loving, honoring, and cherishing her husbands until Death does them part, but what's a gal to do when the husband reveals himself to be an irredeemable lying, cheating, thieving, duplicitous cad? Why, off him, of course, is the pragmatic solution, arrived at after a decent amount of soul-searching.

I reveled in this sophisticated wickedly funny take on resolving marital crises, and I'm deeply grateful to Vishal Bhardwaj for such a delicious film experience. Can you believe it? Three excellent Hindi films in two months: "No One Killed Jessica", "Dhobi Ghat", and now, "7 Khoon Maaf" – this is rapidly making up for the Hindi film industry's gag-inducing output of 2010.

Susanna is orphaned, prodigiously wealthy, blessed with tawny sex appeal and a wardrobe that tastefully showcases her lovely bosom and long legs. Her daddy left her a vast estate in picturesque post-colonial Coorg, a stable full of prize-winning race horses, and, most importantly, three loyal to the death retainers. These three—a Muslim butler, a large and loving housekeeper Maggie Auntie, and a mute pint-sized jockey Goonga—run her household and estate with dazzling efficiency. But their special genius lies in vermin extermination as evidenced whenever Susanna's husband du jour proves to be inconvenient or in any way unsuitable.

Around the time Susanna is being wooed by Husband No.1, a dashing army captain, Goonga the mute jockey adopts an orphan boy, who earns his keep doing odd jobs. Susanna, smitten by the lad's smarts, daring, and general adorability, decides he should attend school. More than any of her husbands, he turns out to be the love of her life, and it is he who narrates the story of Susanna's many marital mishaps, and final undoing. The boy, Arun, goes from wide-eyed naïf who idolizes Susanna (quite literally – he prays daily to her photograph concealed behind one of that other fierce goddess of the Hindu pantheon, Durga) to a bespectacled forty-five year-old husband, father, and practitioner of forensic medicine who gives evidence that Susanna, after being widowed so very many times, is herself finally dead. Or is she?

Arun is a plum role, spanning a large dramatic arc, for the character goes from harboring an ardent schoolboy crush and aspiring to marry Susanna to appreciating the generosity of his benefactress, but not being blind to her rather deadly faults. Susanna's interest in him traverses from the maternal, initially, to playfully flirtatious to—over the years—seriously weighing his potential as a love/lust object. It's a relationship calling for delicacy in depiction, and it's handled exquisitely by director Bhardwaj, Priyanka Chopra, and wonderful first-time actor Vivaan Shah.

Shah, all of 21 and about to graduate with an Arts degree, is the younger son of acting stalwarts Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak. Vivaan projects a maturity beyond his years, besides possessing good looks, and an ingratiating screen presence. First, as the orphan relying on wits and winsomeness to get by in the world, and later as the conflicted husband compelled to reveal his most intriguing past to his wife, Vivaan negotiates his way with aplomb, never letting on once this daunting role is his first. Not every newcomer gets to romance—right off the bat—two of India's most beguiling actresses: Vivaan is paired with both Priyanka Chopra and Konkana Sen Sharma.

Any film that deals with so many marriages must have a frank approach to sex, and director Bhardwaj includes many bawdy and sometimes very funny sex scenes between Susanna and her many husbands. Susanna recognizes her sexual hold on men; she reinvents herself seven times into each husband's ultimate dream woman. The seven deadly sins manifest in one form or other in the husbands, and the romance and sex vary accordingly, ranging from Gothic gruesomeness with husband no. 1, to rock star boisterousness with husband no. 2, to cruelly violent with another, to risibly randy with a goatish older intelligence officer, to exotically charming and multilingual with a debonair Russian suitor.

Priyanka Chopra gives a nuanced, knowing, and unabashedly sexy performance as Susanna. Her dusky sensuality has never before been so effectively deployed in service of a character, but she wouldn't be as sexy if she weren't so smart. Chopra lets us see Susanna's intelligence—the biggest turn-on. Susanna is always a step ahead of her hapless husbands. Pitiful and weak, they clearly do not merit so much woman, so her homicidal instincts are almost laudable.

The husbands do a fine job, and Vishal Bhardwaj has assembled a terrific cast of lovers for Ms. Chopra to lock horns with. Neil Nitin Mukesh impresses as the bullying gimp, as do Irrfan Khan, Annu Kapoor, and Aleksandr Dyachenko. John Abraham camps it up as an Axl Rose-kind of head-banger, kitted out in stringy blond wig and kilt, while Naseeruddin Shah mixes seduction with menace as the husband Susanna encounters late in life.

Usha Uthup and the two actors playing Susanna's trio of accomplices were simply marvelous, and I couldn't wait to discover how each new disappointment of a husband would meet his demise. Love kills, indeed, and murder and mayhem were never so much fun!
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Incendies (2010)
A work of devastating power...
26 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
"Incendies (Scorched)" opened in town this Friday, just days before it made the short list of nominees for Best Foreign Film for this year's Academy Awards. It played in the Vancouver International Film Festival 2010, but I missed it then.

Fortunately, it received theatrical distribution; this devastating film on the horrors of conflict and its enormous human costs simply must be seen. Denis Villeneuve's searing work, his fourth feature, is based on the celebrated play of the same name by Montreal native and artistic director of the French Theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Wajdi Mouawad. While there is no doubting the immediacy and impact it must have had as a piece of theatre, "Incendies" benefits from the transition to the larger canvas of the big screen, appropriate for the epic themes and emotional conflagrations it tackles.

When their mother dies and her will is read, twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan are stumped by its bizarre burial instructions. Nawal Marwan states that she must be interred naked and facing away from the sun in an unmarked grave, until the two letters she has left with the family notary are delivered on her behalf. One is addressed to the father the twins believed dead, the second to a son whose existence comes as a complete surprise to them. The will makes the twins realize that they did not know their mother at all. They have not had an easy relationship with her, and are understandably reluctant to comply with her terms.

The daughter Jeanne moved away and found refuge in the abstract realms of pure mathematics. Her sibling Simon, who remained at home, had the more complicated relationship because he dealt daily with Nawal's strangeness. Jeanne agrees to deliver the letter that was left to her, and embarks on an odyssey of discovery, in search of the father she has never known. Later, she convinces Simon to join her.

Although the Middle Eastern country is never named in the film, Wajdi Mouawad ascribes the inspiration for his play to Soha Becharra, a woman who was imprisoned for six years in Khiam, southern Lebanon. In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, he explained "For me, the success of this play and the film is a way to give back some life to a woman whose life was taken away from her." The cinematic endeavor is hugely, powerfully successful: as Jeanne scours an alien land for clues of her mother's past, we see Nawal's tough life in flashback in the same locations that her daughter visits for the first time. Sectarian strife, tribal and religious warfare, family blood feuds, and honor killings have been the blight of the Middle East and areas as far as Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan, and parts of Africa. Bloodshed and violence have been a way of life; each side claims to be justified in killing to avenge earlier injustices. While humankind has not lost its baser urges—we just have to recall the recent incident of the young Afghani woman whose nose was hacked off, or the countless rapes in present day DR Congo—the film is a plea for reconciliation and forgiveness to bring about the much needed change.

Nawal barely escapes an honor killing due to her unwed pregnancy, gives up her baby son for adoption, and spends the rest of her life looking for this lost child. Along the way, she takes sides in the violence and is imprisoned for fifteen years for shooting a political leader. Upon her release, she begins life anew in Canada with her infant twins, the outcome of brutal rape at the hands of a torturer. Regardless of the change in geography, she remains haunted by the past and her unending quest for her lost child. How does one look for reparation and justice, when the perpetrators frequently flee the country of their misdeeds and seek asylum elsewhere? As she has not kept her word to her son to return to him, she feels unworthy of a proper burial. A character in the film wisely observes that death always leaves its traces, and Jeanne and Simon finally get to know their mother from the relics of her life.

The Belgian actress Lubna Azabal's heroic performance brings Nawal to awe-inspiring Brechtian life. Undefeated by each dehumanizing blow, she stoically navigates a war-crazed world devoid of any sense, her driving force is the need to reunite with her son. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette do excellent work as the siblings who gradually begin to understand their mother. Rémy Girard and Allen Altman, playing the Canadian and Middle Eastern notaries respectively, guide the siblings through their search, while Abdelghafour Elaaziz makes an impact in the small but important role of Abou Tarek the torture specialist. The rest of the characters are brought to life by a talented cast of unknown actors; in their hands, even the smallest roles acquire great significance. Denis Villeneuve's film honors the stories of these people by rigorously avoiding directorial excesses. Events and stories this powerful do not require embellishment, and Villeneuve's spare, dispassionate directorial style maximizes impact.

Someone remarked that "Incendies" is the closest contemporary approximation of Greek tragedy, and I agree with this assessment: the crimes and consequences are universal and timeless, and if a film holds up a mirror to question our capacity for barbarism, it is reason to applaud. Regardless of the outcome at the Academy Awards, "Incendies" is a major achievement for Canadian cinema.
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Dhobi Ghat (2010)
Four lives and a city...
23 January 2011
One could so easily get used to watching outstanding Indian films weekly: last week, I saw the brilliant "No One Killed Jessica", and this Friday brought Kiran Rao's polished debut "Dhobi Ghat: Mumbai Diaries" to town. While I feel spoilt with this cinematic bounty, I realize that it is nothing to take for granted.

"Dhobi Ghat" follows the stories of four characters, and a fifth one emerges as the film progresses: Bombay, or Mumbai, herself. The city that embraces these four, and millions of others besides, is as inexorably unfathomable as the ocean that laps at its edges, providing refuge and solace to some, while being callously indifferent to the fate of others. Bombay remains impervious to the fluctuations of seasons, fortunes, time, and tides, concerned simply with the business of being, of existence. Kiran Rao captures this ethos of the city with remarkable success, while unfurling the stories of some who would try to make sense of her.

Two of these are Shai, a wealthy Parsi investment banker from New York, whose year-long sabbatical affords her the opportunity to explore her Indian origins; the other—Yasmin—a gentle, affectionate soul, has moved to the big city from small town Uttar Pradesh, agog at the promise of a new start in a metropolis.

Then there is the artist Arun, a misanthropic recluse, who must move house often due to the reluctance of Bombay landlords to rent out accommodations beyond eleven months, and Munna, a street smart, large-hearted dhobi, or launderer, who is the link between these people who inhabit such disparate worlds within Bombay. The city's driving monsoon rains are capable of lulling to sleep the fortunate few who are languorously ensconced in affluence, while others must scramble madly with tarps and plastic sheeting in the dead of night just to keep their rude beds dry. It is a world of contrasts, indeed.

Shai has a one-night stand with Arun, who abruptly brushes her off, but becomes hooked on the video diaries of Yasmin, who appears to have been the previous tenant of Arun's new rental digs. We never actually meet Yasmin, but develop great affection for the sweet-natured small town girl from her meticulously kept video journal intended for her family in Malihabad. Munna meets Shai and an unlikely bond develops between them.

Each character's obsession with the perhaps unhealthy, maybe unattainable, appears to be what they have in common. Shai's budding friendship with Munna makes him harbor romantic notions about her, while she, intrigued by the reclusive Arun, starts shadowing him with her camera. Arun—mesmerized by Yasmin's journal—tries uncovering her whereabouts. Energized creatively by her diaries, he starts painting with a renewed drive. Each character's aspirational quests are what unite them with every other person who comes to Bombay, the city where nothing is impossible; where many dreams are dashed, but some, against all logic, are gloriously realized.

There is an assurance in Koran Rao's writing and direction that outstrip her actual filmmaking experience. Her deftly-written screenplay does not spell everything out for the viewer. One gets a clue here, another there, and must intuit the full inner life of her characters. This is a grown-up film about pragmatic people, briefly caught up in the illusory magic of possibilities, before opening their eyes anew to the implacable realities of the world they inhabit.

Newcomers Monica Dogra (Shai) and Kriti Malhotra (Yasmin) do praiseworthy work, allowing us into the interior lives of their characters. Aamir Khan, the veteran, offers a solid interpretation of a man exorcising the demons of his past, and finding hope through the optimism of his video muse, Yasmin. But it is Prateik—the son of the late great actress Smita Patil—who holds the film together. Prateik's Munna is no fool; he has negotiated the mean streets of Bombay from the age of eight. He is aware of what people must do merely to keep body and soul together; he himself holds down a number of jobs of varying degrees of legitimacy, but his basic purity and innocence remain unsullied. His tentative overtures towards Shai, his unselfconscious goofiness, and his innate decency make him one of the most endearing screen characters of recent times, and Prateik deserves a huge amount of credit for fleshing out such a multi-layered character.

Kudos to Kiran Rao for handling her cast with an exquisitely light touch, and for the delicacy and determination with which she unveils the many Bombays we see in this film. She enables us to understand what the artist Arun might mean when he raises a rueful glass "…to Mumbai, my muse, my whore". Tushar Kanti Ray's audacious camera work brings Bombay to vivid confounding life. Just how he accomplished filming amid the teeming chaos of the city's Mohamadali Road with someone as instantly recognizable as Aamir Khan fascinates me endlessly. Gustavo Santaolalla's evocative acoustic guitar score is perfect for this film, imbuing it with the same tragic wistfulness that permeated "Brokeback Mountain".

"Dhobi Ghat" is a film for adults, made with unwavering integrity and passion, and Kiran Rao—if there is justice in this world—will soon be one of India's celebrated filmmakers.

Let's see if this run of good luck at the movies lasts…the next film I look forward to is Vishal Bhardwaj's "7 Khoon Maaf".
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How fortunate to start off 2011 with such a terrific film...
12 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Do yourselves a favor, and go watch Raj Kumar Gupta's "No One Killed Jessica". That a film of such high caliber is 2011's first release bodes well for Hindi cinema, which has been hanging its head in shame with the crass, the manipulative, the cheesy, and--at very best--mediocre efforts released during 2010. The exceptions were "Ishqiya" (with a splendid job by Vidya Balan, the always wonderful Naseeruddin Shah, and Arshad Warsi); "Peepli (Live)";" Do Dooni Chaar";" Band, Baaja, Baaraat", and to some extent, "Badmaash Company". And when we wondered if we would ever see another film worth the price of admission, here comes "No One Killed Jessica", about the infamous Jessica Lall murder case that rocked the Indian judicial and police systems recently.

I don't give away anything in summarizing the plot, because we all know how the case ultimately played out: here is that rare instance when public opinion, once mobilized, proved mightier than the powers that be.

The worthless son of a politician arrives with two hangers-on at a sophisticated Delhi club, just as things are winding down for the night. Last call has been announced, and the two young bartenders are anxious to clean up and leave. The thug demands to be served a drink. When his attempt at bribery is rebuffed by the no-nonsense young fashion model who moonlights as a bartender, he brandishes a gun. The woman, Jessica, stands her ground, so he shoots her point-blank. In a heinous miscarriage of justice, the three goons are acquitted. Jessica's family is shattered. Her sister Sabrina runs herself ragged for six years trying to get justice, but one by one, the witnesses are bought off by the minister, and change their testimony in court. Sabrina gives up and retreats into a bitter silence. A TV journalist, known for her near-tabloid approach to reporting, decides to take up Jessica's cause. Through methods not entirely ethical (shock tactics and a couple of audacious sting operations), the journalist gathers enough evidence to expose the deceit, corruption, and coercion that had resulted in the acquittals. With the entire country in an uproar, the President is forced to intervene, the case is reopened and, finally, justice is served.

The action, plucked straight out of the newspaper headlines, moves back and forth in time. We get to know the vivacious Jessica, full of unfulfilled potential, through the reminiscences of her family and friends. We already recognize she was an extraordinary woman in the opening scene when she refuses to be bullied by the minister's son, only to be shot. The murder, filmed without sensationalism, stuns one. Is life in India so cheap that it's worth less than an alcoholic beverage? That's the question the journalist Meera (modeled, apparently, on the notorious Barkha Dutt of NDTV) poses to the nation. An open-and-shut-case becomes, appallingly, an illustration of how power and entitlement stifle the cries of the wronged. Thankfully, that's not the end. The case sparked a review of India's archaic judiciary, and the country's systemic corruption. Mark this story as one shining victory for the ragged and clamorous democracy that is India. The voices of her citizens unite across religious, regional, and socio-economic lines into a roar that will not be quelled until Jessica is given justice.

This is Hindi cinema at its realistic best. The camera takes in the Delhi of the coddled and favored few, as well as the Delhi of the wretched masses. The homes and clothes of the characters are from real life. Jessica's sister Sabrina, played flawlessly by Vidya Balan, is a studious nerd, uncaring of her physical appearance. Without a lick of makeup or actorly vanity,Vidya allows Sabrina's passion, rage, and finally, her sorrow and resignation to shine through. Sabrina is only concerned with the survival of her devastated family and ensuring justice for her dead sister. When she realizes that her sister's killer is going to go free, her eyes go dead. It's as though a light has been switched off inside her. There is no actorly bravado in this performance, but a deep and acutely felt realism. Although Rani Mukherjee and Vidya Balan are noted for their beauty, we appreciate them both as performers here.

Rani Mukherjee's role is glamorous only because of her character's profession. The journalist she plays has succeeded in the traditional domain of men; she is as foul-mouthed and callous as any man. But she pulls it never comes across as affectation. Rani's Meera smokes, drinks, lives alone in the big city, and has sex with a boyfriend. She is cynical, inured to the venality of human beings; she, too, is not above playing the game for her own ends. But something in the bowed head and defeated demeanor of Sabrina whom she encounters at the news station, stirs her dormant decency and outrage. Meera drives the story into the public consciousness and persuades it that such an unjust outcome must be reversed. Rani is astounding, and we should be angered that such a fine actress is not getting roles, or—if stories are to be believed—that she is intentionally letting her career slow down. Why, for God's sake, why?

Excellent writing, a superb cast, and technical brilliance make this film a stand-out . I loved that there was no obvious acting...these folks looked like everyday Delhi people. Stand tall, director Raj Kumar Gupta: your new film is of the same fabric as "Rang De Basanti". In fact, a screening of "Rang De Basanti" acts as a catalyst for one of this film's most moving sequences. Indians have always been deeply influenced by the movies, and we each live and perform daily in the cinema of our lives. The "Rang De Basanti" segment spotlights gloriously how positive action in real life can be instigated by a film.

Do not miss this film. And, Jessica Lall, now you may rest in peace.
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Don't demand too much, and you'll be happy...
1 July 2010
It's been several months since we've seen anything frothy and fun from Dharma Productions and Karan Johar. Karan attempted achieving cinematic maturity with his "Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna" and "My Name is Khan", but, frankly, his earlier "K" movies were a lot more fun: "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" and "Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham", mainly because they had Shah Rukh and Kajol in unadulterated romantic mode. Over the past couple of years, Karan Johar has shrewdly mentored new, younger talent, and produced a number of maiden efforts for debutant directors: the charmingly silly "Dostana", the pitch-perfect "Wake Up Sid!" ("Wake Up Sid!" and "Luck By Chance" are the BEST debuts in recent Hindi film history), and the slick "Kurban".

Similarly, "I Hate Luv Storys" boasts a freshly minted director, Punit Malhotra, nephew of Manish Malhotra, the designer who has kept Hindi film heroines in sequins and chiffons for over a decade. The new film put me off with its gimmicky misspelled title, but I enjoyed watching Sonam Kapoor in "Delhi-6" and Imran Khan in "Jaane Tu…ya Jaane Na", so I trooped off to catch it on opening day in North America.

For a film whose protagonist claims to be anti-romantic clichés as defined in Hindi masala films, it certainly takes a lot of artistic license with reality of the kind that you and I experience most of the time. Simran, the leading lady, is a movie art director who works for the most successful director of formulaic Hindi blockbuster love stories, while mono-lettered J (for Jayant Dhingra– but that's not hip)—the self-styled "cool dude" hero—is an Assistant Director, with aspirations of directing "real" cinema real soon but marking time with this job.

In a twist I've never seen in my film work, the director of the film within the film dispatches his A.D. to work as props buyer for the art director. Hmmm: usually, it's folks with the demonstrated skills and most appropriate experience or sensibilities that are assigned such jobs. Very rarely—if ever—does one come across such inter-departmental transfers. But I'm quibbling: if this didn't happen, just how would Simran and J get to spend much time with each other, given that they are chalk and cheese and their initial meetings are anything but felicitous? His best attempts at irony are construed by her as abrasiveness: how cute is that! Simran and J spend the rest of the movie making sporadic stabs at playing Art Director and A.D/Props Buyer, whenever they are not surreptitiously sneaking longing looks at each other, which is pretty much ALL the time.

Of course, Simran is the ultimate "girly" girl and has a perfect fiancé (a drip, actually—throughout the movie he wears shirts that match his girlfriend's clothes) named Raj. If you miss the reference to the 90s hit "Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge", don't worry. Punit Malhotra and his writers will clobber you over the head with the filmi references till you beg for mercy or whimper "Bachao!". The film within the film appears to be a pastiche of all the films from the Yashraj and Dharma Productions oeuvre in recent memory. Lines, songs, and entire scenes are lifted, parodied, and cannibalized to emphasize how unoriginal and creatively lazy Hindi films are capable of being, and are, most of the time.

There is some deliciously nonsensical business like the prima donna director demanding exactly four drops (no more, no less) of rain falling on his leading lady's dewy cheek. Too-cool-for-school A.D. J rolls his eyes and—to the director's delight—squirts exactly four drops out of a squeeze bottle. The goofy swaggering oversexed hero of the film within the film has all the stereotypical traits of movie leading men, but surprisingly ends up giving J a sound bit of advice. What's lovely is that both of them are tipsy, and we're never sure if the guy has unexpected depth or it was merely the alcohol talking.

The shifts between poking derisive fun at Hindi formula films and then ferociously tugging at the heart strings using those same filmi tropes aren't smooth. So one never knows if we're meant to scorn Hindi films for their cliché-ridden story lines, or sympathetically swoon with our young lovers once close proximity and raging hormones do their job. I got the feeling we weren't meant to question the jarring shifts in tone, but just go along for the ride: this is still a Hindi film, yaar, despite its hip pretensions to being otherwise.

Sonam Kapoor has an endearing coltish elegance, is long and lithe, wears clothes well, and the camera never tires of caressing her. Likewise, Imran Khan is leading man-lean and has melting cocker spaniel eyes. In the face of such adorability, it would be totally Scrooge-like to find fault with the movie. The film is slick with the lush production values we've come to expect and demand of Yashraj/Dharma Productions fare. The music is decent, and the locations (New Zealand for the songs this time around) are gorgeous. So, ardent lovers of Hindi masala films, you won't be denied your fix!
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See Sadiyaan for Hema Malini, Rekha, and Rishi Kapoor...
3 May 2010
If "Sadiyaan"'s only attraction was new faces Luv Sinha and Ferena Wazeir, it wouldn't lure many film-goers into the cinema. But, a triumvirate of talents make it a worthwhile enterprise: Hema Malini, Rekha, and Rishi Kapoor. Fortunately, enough screen time is given to these veterans, who persuade one to overlook the newcomers' tepid performances.

The film begins in tumultuous times: it is 1947, and Amritsar is the roiling scene of sectarian violence. As India is rent asunder into two countries, corpse-laden trains ply between Amritsar and Lahore, as Hindus and Muslims slaughter each other in horrific numbers. Sikh Rajveer Singh and his wife Amrit (Rishi Kapoor and Rekha) flee their Lahore home in what overnight has become Muslim Pakistan and take refuge in the abandoned Amritsar haveli of a Muslim family that has, likewise, taken flight from Hindu India. They discover a toddler in the debris of the mansion, and try to look for his family. When they realize all the Muslims in the area have died or gone across the border, they raise the child with all love and tenderness. Their own son had been killed, and they rejoice at this second chance at parenthood.

The first time Rekha appears on screen, her eyes are shut, and her luxuriant false eyelashes make one think twin moths have alighted on that gorgeous face. My heart sank, because over the years, Rekha has taken to gilding the lily. She possesses an enviable amount of talent, but her screen makeup and wardrobe have become more and more rococo. One wishes she would simply wipe off the excess makeup, dispense with unnecessary baubles, and let the sheer incandescence of her talent and her substantial natural beauty shine through. God knows she has enough of both. But that was just a momentary stumble, for once the story and the actress get going, there isn't a chance to notice things like false eyelashes and the overly fussy tendrils framing those legendary features.

Rekha's Amrit is a paragon of maternal love. But her mother act refrains from becoming cloying. When her adoptive son falls in love with a Muslim girl, and her family refuses to accept a non-Muslim son-in-law, Amrit decides to come clean. Placing her son's happiness above her maternal instincts, she reveals that not only is he NOT her son, the boy is Muslim, as well. When the prospective in-laws accuse her of concocting a story for their acquiescence, her husband and she set about looking for any living relatives of their son in Pakistan.

For years, both sides had thought it impossible for anyone to have survived the bloodbath of the Partition, but miraculously, Amrit and Rajveer's search turns up the boy's parents (Hema Malini and Javed Sheikh), patricians who number among Lahore's elite. The girl's family cannot believe their luck, and immediately agree to the match. When the birth parents show up for the wedding and announce that they will take their son and his bride with them to Pakistan, Amrit and Rajveer are tested anew.

Director Raj Kanwar recognizes his young leads couldn't possibly shoulder the film, and gives the stalwarts plenty of time and screen space to take the story forward, and they don't disappoint.

The film belongs to Rekha, with Rishi Kapoor gallantly abetting his two leading ladies. Hema Malini gets less screen time, but dazzles as the elegant, aristocratic Benazir who is reunited with the son she'd feared dead.

Shatrughan Sinha, new actor Luv Sinha's father, was never known for his looks. Against popular wisdom, he sought a career in film, graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India. At a time when Hindi film heroes were fair and handsome, his dark unconventional looks and chutzpah set him apart. His dialogue delivery and flamboyance made him the go-to villain, and later on, a surprisingly successful leading man.

While I wish Luv Sinha the best in his chosen profession, I would be remiss not to point out that he lacks the looks or—and more's the pity—the talent to make one take notice of him. His Ishaan is callow in the extreme, and his puny physique and unimpressive dialogue delivery don't help. Had he been paired with a beautiful, capable actress, his shortcomings would have been glaringly obvious. Luckily his co-star, like him, is neither good-looking nor talented.

Rekha is a wonder to behold, and I wish her screen outings were more frequent. When there is a good story and a good role, she goes at both with a gusto that is awesome to watch. She looks terrific, too, and over the years of 1947 to 1961 doesn't age by even a single day. I loved her simple but artsy wardrobe, and her great grace and dignity in the face of a tremendous sacrifice.

Rishi Kapoor has gone from cherubic leading man to excellent character actor. In fact this transition has let the actor inside emerge. His turns in "Luck By Chance" and "Fanaa" were a treat to watch. Here, despite not having as showy a role as Rekha, he effectively conveys the anxiety and pain of a parent who might lose his only child. He chivalrously allows some grey to peek through in his beard over the time span of the film, while screen wife Rekha remains impervious to the passage of the years.

Hema Malini at sixty-two is possibly more beautiful now than she ever was as the Dreamgirl of Hindi cinema. Her Benazir is dignified yet passionate, and oh-so-elegant in her Pakistani shalwaar-kameez and pearls.

They truly don't make them like Hema Malini and Rekha anymore: one leaves the cinema with that thought and the fervent wish these ladies get the opportunity to show their mettle in more films. Come on, filmmakers, that's not too much to ask for, is it?
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Housefull (2010)
See if you can neatly side-step this mess...
3 May 2010
Why do I never learn? Why do I keep going to Akshay Kumar films, when they disappoint so consistently?

My latest Akshay Kumar mistake is an unfunny comic caper named "Housefull". After the debacles that were "Blue", "Kambakht Ishq", "Chandni Chowk to China", now comes this new atrocity from Sajid Khan, who earlier had made the rotten-only-in-patches film "Heyy Babyy" (what's with the atrocious spelling?), a genial Indian take on "Three Men and a Baby". Somehow I evaded "Singh is Kingg" (there we go with the spelling again). Even I could tell that Akshay plus the blandly beautiful and seriously wooden Katrina Kaif would be an industrial-strength double whammy to be avoided at any cost.

I have a soft spot for Sajid Khan, because his sister Farah Khan makes the most awesome Hindi entertainers ("Main Hoon Na" and "Om Shanti Om") and is possibly one of the smartest, funniest, wackiest people in India. In short, I adore Farah Khan, and feel I must support any cinematic endeavor by her or her many family members. Her husband Sirish Kunder, a topnotch editor, made the passable "Jaan-E-Man" with Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan, and Preity Zinta, and Akshay was actually kind of endearing in it. Her cousins Zoya and Farhan Akhtar have made some excellent films: the flawless "Luck By Chance" and the clever and charming "Dil Chahta Hai"; as an actor, Farhan hit the bullseye in "Luck By Chance", "Rock On!!", and the psychological thriller "Kartik calling Kartik".

So, I'm not a total loser for going to watch Akshay Kumar movies. It's just that he appears to have absolutely no instinct for choosing good films, and sometimes, inspite of this, he ends up in a competent masala Hindi entertainer ("Dil To Pagal Hai", "Aitraaz" was a guilty pleasure...tacky, but Priyanka Chopra was fascinating. Akshay was very good in "Dhadkan", co-starring Shilpa Shetty after her first nose job and Suneil Shetty.), but mostly he works in simply dreadful movies. At the wrap of each awful flick, he probably drawls, "I'll have my check now, thank you very much!" and toddles off to the next excruciatingly bad film, gummy grin and all.

Arjun Rampal, Riteish Desmukh, and the ever reliable Boman Irani (playing a Gujarati businessman, this time) are the other men in this movie with a frat boy sensibility. And for the frat boys, we must have bodacious babes, so the polished and professional Deepika Padukone, the usually smart and sensuous Lara Dutta, and the sexy, but frankly terrible Jiah Khan, a fully clothed Malaika Arora (hello!), and Lilette Dubey are roped in to do the needful. Except Arjun plays Malaika and Deepika's brother...he must be still wondering how that bit of injustice came about.

To be fair, there is about 10 minutes of delightful nonsense, when practically the entire cast lands up under various pretexts at a house to make it the titular "Housefull" and I did laugh out aloud once, but that meant sitting through 1.5 hours to arrive at the funny bit, and then another 45 or so minutes when things went back to being unamusing.

Randhir Kapoor, looking porcine and hollering all the time, makes one of his periodic comebacks, playing Jiah Khan's father. These days he is more famous for being Karisma and Kareena Kapoor's father. Randhir Kapoor, you will remember, had quite the busy career in the 70s and 80s. Even as a romantic leading man, he was fat, cheerful, laid-back, wickedly funny in print, and on screen, as well. He had the Kapoor weakness for plenty of fine food and drink, never ever worked out, and was best buds with Rekha. Together they gave many politically incorrect, hilarious interviews in various film periodicals, poking fun at career-minded, goody-goody colleagues like Hema Malini and anyone who made the mistake of crossing them. They worked together non-stop in a few A, but mostly B-grade potboilers, and were like truant school kids having the time of their lives.

Then Amitabh Bachchan happened to Rekha: she shed many kilos (including Randhir Kapoor), her screeching laughter and her irresponsible teenager ways, learnt Urdu, how to conduct herself like a lady, and took to giving those ambiguous, mystical New Age interviews which were all about the mysterious "He", "Him", "the One" in her life. I wish she would return to being the hugely fun person she was, and do a riotous comedy. Her "Khoobsurat" days are over, but surely someone can do an "Auntie Mame" or "Travels with my Aunt" with her, and she would be an absolute hoot in it.

Randhir Kapoor could only have had a career during that period of Hindi cinema. In these times of buff bodies, six-pack abs, and bulging biceps, he would never have landed a gig. It's a shame, too, because now it appears to be all about the toned body and not quite as much as the performance or personality.

Arjun Rampal is an anachronism: he has the looks, body, dignity, plenty of screen presence and talent of a matinée idol of old. He did very well in this idiotic movie, giving much more than it deserved.

I don't know if these observations have anything at all to do with "Housefull", but I felt like letting off some steam after being gypped yet again by an Akshay Kumar movie.
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Dying is easy, comedy is proved by this film
9 November 2009
"Dying is easy, comedy is hard" the British actor Donald Wolfit supposedly quipped on his deathbed. And how true it is! This is borne out in "Ajab Prem ki Ghazab Kahani", the new film by Raj Kumar Santoshi. It starts out promisingly enough with Pop Art credits in the cheery primary hues beloved of Roy Lichtenstein. But if one thinks this hip opening is how the film will proceed, one would be way off the mark.

This romantic comedy is only fitfully funny, and too long drawn out to be amusing. Santoshi's cast resorts to extensive mugging and slapstick antics in the hope that they will be construed as light frothy madcap comedy. The film's male lead, Ranbir Kapoor, an extremely talented and likable young man, is set adrift without good lines and a leading lady, who though abundantly blessed with vapid good looks, is quite at a loss when she is required to act.

Ranbir Kapoor plays Prem, the good-for-nothing, good-natured leader of Happy Club. Luckily, he happens upon a group of young men considerably dimmer than he, and sets himself up as their leader. His followers look up to him admiringly and always address him as President, and he never leaves home without his name tag: President Prem.

The Happy Club—always the look-out for new members—aims to be happy, make everyone else around happy, have fun, and unite star-crossed lovers. Despite these simple yet lofty aspirations, the townsfolk do not look kindly upon the club members, as they have had ample experience of their freeloading ways.

In the course of a botched kidnapping to fulfill their mandate of reuniting lost loves, President Prem meets Jennifer (Katrina Kaif), the fair and flaky adoptive daughter of the Goan Catholic Pinto family that has just moved into town. Pretty, dimwitted Jenny becomes the town's librarian (it's all relative, you see: she probably has an IQ in the double digits), and Prem drops by to visit, but cannot be coaxed into doing any reading. When he discovers she is single, Prem promptly falls in love with her, and spends the rest of his days in adoring puppy dog fashion, getting underfoot and practically stalking her, but never actually declaring himself.

This being a "masala" Hindi film, there are complications and coincidences aplenty, and they go on and on until one is past caring. Both Prem and Jenny stammer when under emotional stress, and the audience is meant to discern through this device when they are playacting and when they are speaking the truth.

Let it never be said that I am a mean-spirited or ungenerous film critic: Katrina Kaif is very pretty, has a creamy complexion and looks good enough to eat with a spoon; she is probably a fine upstanding citizen, donates selflessly to worthy causes, always remembers to moisturize daily, brakes for the handicapped and small furry animals, and no doubt eschews the use of aerosol sprays because they release toxic fluorocarbons into the atmosphere. In short, Katrina Kaif is a paragon of virtue and goodness.

Sadly, however, she will never be mistaken for an actress. Her line readings are almost painful to the ear, but every once in a great while, almost by fluke, she gets a nuance right, startles herself, then looks beseechingly into the camera, imploring the audience to applaud her teeny-tiny microscopic iota of success as a thespian. Ranbir makes valiant attempts to be funny and act for both of them, and later, upon the introduction of an untalented muscle-bound interloper, for the three of them. No filmi hero should be required to do so much heavy lifting, and despite his best efforts, Ranbir is simply not man or actor enough to act for THREE people.

Mercifully, the supporting cast is much stronger than its female lead, and they contribute some much needed silliness to the proceedings.

After prolonged meanderings, the couple ends up in the fearsome villain's lair that charmingly resembles a giant bubble bath. Here, finally, there is some entertaining giddiness, but it's too little, too late. Even divine intervention by our blessed Redeemer Himself in a gentle cameo doesn't quite manage to save the film.
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A celluloid love letter to Bombay...
6 January 2009
Two years ago, I bought Vikas Swarup's innocuously named novel "Q&A", but must confess I have not yet made the time to read it. This novel forms the basis for "Slumdog Millionaire", a title that is oxymoronic but more apt for the audacious story of Jamal and Latika. Few would be able to resist the disarmingly honest, gritty, but ultimately uplifting and optimistic tale. It is certainly on my personal list of the best films of 2008. The release, in early December, of this cinematic love letter to Bombay/Mumbai could not have been better timed, as it arrived when we needed it most, right on the heels of the 170 horrific murders that took place there on 11/26/08. The film celebrates the resourcefulness and resilience of Bombayites and the live-and-let-live ethos of the city (which survives despite the sporadic outbreaks of sectarian violence and communal riots always instigated by unsavory politicians and sleazy "holy" men). Indeed, Bombayites are so consumed with the business of survival, that there is no time to waste dwelling on banal differences of caste and creed.

"Slumdog Millionaire" opens with Jamal (the titular slum dog) as the unlikeliest contestant on the Indian version of the TV quiz show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?". Equally incredibly, he is just one answer away from the contest's top prize of 20 million rupees. To ensure that Jamal is not a wily cheat, or perhaps to prove him one, the cops are called in and they attempt to beat a confession out of him. What ensues, however, is a series of flashbacks about three interlinked lives, stranger than any fiction, which settles without doubt how the unlettered Jamal could know the correct responses to questions designed to flummox university graduates.

While I am a complete cynic in real life, I fell hook, line, and sinker for the film's central romance between the Muslim protagonist Jamal and his exquisite Hindu ladylove Latika. The tribulations of the underdog are a staple of movie plot lines, but this particular story is so much more poignant because it is set in Bombay/Mumbai. We root for Jamal to succeed on all fronts because we're privy to his extraordinary life story.

Director Danny Boyle has a playful spirit that was most apparent in his film "A Life Less Ordinary". It was about a bungled kidnapping, but his leads took time out to break into song and elaborately choreographed dance routines. Now in "Slumdog Millionaire", he gets to indulge this appetite for fun, because his characters though poor, orphaned, and abandoned, are still children, and they unfailingly spot the opportunities for joy and mischief in their bleak lives. There is a wonderful touch of magical realism, where the two rascals Jamal and Salim are mesmerized by an opera performed at night in the environs of the Taj Mahal. But even as they marvel, they remain busy with the job at hand: pilfering the purses of the enraptured oblivious audience.

The soul-destroying poverty found in the big city, sinister predators, rapacious goons, underage whores, orphans maimed to better their earnings as beggars, the gleeful scams of street urchins, and get-rich-quick schemes that invariably turn criminal are all depicted without sugar coating, and so might make unpalatable viewing for some. For those who can stomach reality, the payoff is magnificent, for although this is a work of fiction, it closely mirrors the lives of millions. In the human spirit, as embodied by Jamal and Latika, we see that even the most dire, dehumanizing circumstances do not succeed in stamping out decency, loyalty, kindness, and love, and this is what the film celebrates.

I'd like to point out that while director Danny Boyle is reaping kudos for his amazing film in the West, the contribution of Boyle's co-director Loveleen Tandan remains unacknowledged. I am certain that Boyle's enormous success in capturing the Dickensian essence and authenticity of Bombay, the nuances of its bracingly blunt vernacular, and the spot-on casting, especially of the child actors, is largely due to Ms. Tandan's efforts. She is listed in the film's credits as co-director, dialogue writer/translator, and casting director-India: proof of her huge portfolio of responsibilities on the film, but not a single critic has mentioned her. Anthony Dod Mantle's spectacular cinematography is another reason not to miss this film: his camera leaps and vaults with the exactly the same euphoria and joie-de-vivre of its child actors,and its restless eye never stops as it sweeps over a city constantly in motion. I am told that he used Canon EO5 still cameras to film in normally crowded locations so as to capture as natural a mood as possible. This works brilliantly in the scenes at the Taj Mahal, and at venues that would otherwise not be filmable.
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Utterly charming fare!
14 December 2008
Okay, so I saw the new Shah Rukh Khan film directed by Aditya Chopra and--no points for guessing right--I LOVED it. "Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi" has the sketchiest plot, but thoroughly endearing performances by Shah Rukh and confident new find Anoushka Sharma. Vinay Pathak was very good, too, playing the usually thankless hero's best friend role. This is probably the first Yashraj film to be shot in India in a long time. We are shown Amritsar, its Golden Temple, but mostly the bustling lane where Shah Rukh lives in a gorgeous rambling old-world house with courtyard and barsaati that I immediately wanted to own.

Shah Rukh gets better and better, once again playing two characters in the same film. There would have been no film without his performance. I loved the decency and diffidence of his Surinder Sahni character, who mans a help-line for the State utility company: Punjab Power here; lighting up your life, ji. To reveal any more would rob whatever tiny element of surprise the film has. I reiterate: Shah Rukh's phenomenal success allows him to inhabit characters that are compellingly real. During his struggling days, he was so full of himself, so desperate to prove himself and to succeed, there was no room for a character. Audiences saw the same abrasive smart Aleck in film after film, until he hit the big time. Once stardom came, the actor in Shah Rukh was able to emerge. For the past few years, every character (with the possible exception of "Don") he played has been immensely watchable: the dignified Kabir Khan in "Chak De India", "Om Shanti Om"'s hapless Om Prakash Makhija and oversexed bratty Om Kapoor, and "Paheli"'s lovelorn shape-shifting ghost, to name a few.

I am blown away by the poise and professionalism of recent first-time leading ladies. One would never guess they are débutantes: Deepika Padukone was almost scarily self-assured in "Om Shanti Om", and Anoushka doesn't lag far behind. She doesn't appear to possess Deepika's megawatt glamor, but fills the girl-next-door requirements of this film admirably, while singing, dancing (full marks here), and emoting like a filmi veteran. Anoushka wears understated salwar-kameez for most of the film with a spectacular collection of "aari" and "phulkaari"work there will be a huge spike in their popularity. Very sad that the one-of-a-kind "phulkaari" ooparnas that I was thrilled to find this past March at a Taj Blue Diamond artisanal exhibition/sale (and for which I plonked down a bundle) will soon be seen on every Harinder, Gurinder, and Jatinder Singh and Kaur. Amend that: the Harinders and Gurinders have always been wearing them, but now the rest of India will catch up.

The BIG item number of the movie: Anoushka imagines a filmi song sequence where Shah Rukh's "Raj" character sings and dances with five heroines in a colorful homage to the various eras of Hindi films: Kajol as Nargis (Kajol, in a simple white saree and black blouse, has never looked more beautiful.), while SRK plays a Chaplinesque Raj Kapoor; Bipasha Basu as Vyjayantimala (makes an interesting pair with Shah Rukh, wonder if they'll be cast together in a film soon...) with SRK as a noddy and natty Dev Anand; Lara Dutta as a Helen-type (there will only be ONE Helen, Lara's valiant efforts don't even come close to the real thing) while SRK channels a suave Shammi Kapoor; Preity Zinta as a Technicolor Mumtaz paired with SRK's Rajesh Khanna, and, finally, Rani Mukherjee looking amazingly like the "Khel Khel Mein" Neetu Singh with SRK Rishi Kapoor. Must say, however, that the song itself isn't memorable despite the gimmicky mix 'n' match lyrics taken from old movie songs, but the visuals make up for it. Surprisingly for a Yashraj film, the music is not brilliant, but merely serviceable.

Also saw trailers for "Billo Barber", the next Shah Rukh film costarring Irfan Khan and Lara Dutta (they play husband and wife) with SRK as a very famous movie star (hmmm...hasn't he done this before?), and the next Yashraj offering--located comfily once more in NRI land--called "New York", starring John Abraham, Katrina Kaif, and Neil Nitin Mukesh with some sort of a tense 9/11 plot line.

Glossary: "aari" and "phulkaari" - types of embroidery that originated in Punjab...I learned this on my last trip to India.
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