Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cocktail: mix one interesting character with two irritating ones. Shake well.

In all honesty, I probably shouldn't have watched Cocktail, Homi Adajania's breezy NRI romantic drama. There were just too many things that I knew, from the get-go, would not work for me. The trailers looked bland as all hell (and as a big fan of Mr Adajania's debut film, the twisted black comedy Being Cyrus, I was puzzled as to why he decided to go mainstream with something so dull). Saif Ali Khan looked too old for the two heroines, Deepika Padukone and newcomer Diana Penty. Overall the film just gave me try-hard vibes - it was attempting cool, easy-going, modern, and not quite pulling it off, even with Imtiaz Ali behind the script. 

Then people came back to me with their takes on it, Rum titled Saif's wooing of the girls "Uncle Pyaar" and Beth was also less than impressed. This review from FirstPost largely coloured my initial impressions of the film - in fact, I think I still agree with it. However, folks also mentioned Deepika's performance as a major positive, and so I was curious, and eventually that curiosity won over.

The film starts off with Gautam (Saif Ali Khan), flirting with every good-looking girl he sees, to the point of irritation and almost to the point of sexual harassment. He runs into Meera (Diana Penty), who has just landed in London for the first time. She clueless wanders around the city until she finally locates her new husband Kunal (Randeep Hooda), who unceremoniously dumps her because he only agreed to the match to get some money from it all. Meera, heartbroken, runs into party girl Veronica (Deepika Padukone) who allows her to stay the night, for as long as she needs to.

Veronica really was the highlight of the film. While the characters are largely unfortunate stereotypes (the flirty stud, the proper old-fashioned Indian girl, the reckless party girl), a combination of the writing and Deepika's acting carve the most real character out of Veronica. Yes, her behaviour does seem mostly derived out of her distant, cold relations with her family - her only contact to her father are checks he sends to support her - but there's something more there as well, a certain care-free life philosophy and attitude that is real and refreshing to see. There are some minor discrepancies, like I'm sure every girl, whether she's English, Punjabi or Brazilian, realizes it's a good idea to put on more than a shirt when your boyfriend's mother drops by for a sudden visit. 

The friendship we see between the two girls is also wonderful, and I was beginning to hope Saif's role would be a mere cameo, so we could just focus on the two. It's an unlikely friendship, but one that feels genuine and relatable all the same, and it's one I would've gladly seen more of. 

Diana Penty does fine in her debut performance, but there were some moments in the story where the meekness of her character required more to be shown in her eyes or general appearance, and she just quite doesn't deliver. Towards the end, I began to see Meera as more of a stereotype, less of a character, and the fact that the script makes her do some pretty dumb choices (in my opinion) doesn't help much. The fact she ever even falls for Gautam seems unbelievable to me.

The music fits the kind of modern, cool, love triangle drama the people behind this movie probably set out to make, but didn't quite accomplish. I liked the music a lot, in fact, and the song picturizations tended to inject the flick with some much-needed life, especially on the second half.

Honestly, the less said about Saif as Gautam, the better, but let me expound on this regardless: even if I was to look aside the age factor, and the unappetizing "flirting" he does in the beginning of the movie, I would loathe this character. He's supremely unfunny, a complete douchebag, his character growth is not very believable and he's also just kind of gross? The other male characters are a tiny bit better - Boman Irani does a short but likable stint as Gautam's uncle, and Randeep Hooda's character turns out to be not quite the inhuman asshole you first see him as. In fact, Kunal is almost ludicrously underwritten - we never get to see how or why Meera sort of forgives him, why he's an asshole at first but okay later on, why he always looks like he's just come from a barfight.

Cocktail is one of those films that doesn't really impress while watching, but starts to come apart even more when you actually think it through more - why did this character do that, or accept this, or have a mature discussion about that problem, but not this one. It gets to the point where I just want to push it aside entirely, for whatever redeeming features the film has got, however few. Kudos to Deepika, and hopefully she finds more substantive roles like this coming her way. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Rewatch magic: Paa & Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge.

When I first saw Paa, I was sure my extreme emotional reaction to it was a fluke. It wasn't a hyperbole to say I cried my eyes out throughout the movie, by the end letting out dry sobs because I had no tears left. It was so bizarre - this had never happened to me with any movie, and I had watched a fair bit of tear-jerkers in my time. So it had to be something other than the film, causing this reaction - maybe it was just my mood to cry my eyes out, and the movie gave me good impetus to do so without feeling silly for it. 

This is not to say anything against the film. It's a damn good one, and even if I was wary of the "gimmick" of having the son (Abhishek) play the father, and the father (Amitabh Bachchan) play the son, who suffers from progeria. Acting through prosthetic make-up is difficult for anybody, and Amitabh-ji was praised through the roof for this performance, and I wondered whether that was because of the performance, or his star power combined with the braveness of taking such a role.

Thankfully, the movie puts the story and its characters front and center, thus making sure you almost forget about the gimmick entirely. And even if the film is named 'father', the mother is the real highlight here - I feel like Paa was the first role where Vidya Balan was just staggeringly amazing, and I'm pretty sure I cried the hardest whenever her character cried. 

I went into my rewatch thinking that I probably wouldn't be so emotionally prodded by the movie, as I remembered crying at so many lines and so many scenes. This time, I thought, I'd know what was coming - surely that had to make it less emotionally impacting? 

Well, it did not. Not only did I cry my one paper tissue soggy, I was also so mesmerized by the film I couldn't just hit pause and go get another one. When the climactic scene arrives, even though I knew what was coming, even though I had seen it coming miles away, I was just completely broken. If my tear ducts had any moisture left, it was all let out by the end of the film. Again.

So I keep wondering. What is it about this story that just gets to me? I don't feel like there's anything particularly personal about the story for me, so it's not like it reflects my own life in any way. I suspect some other fans of the film may feel the same way, but considering I'm not really the tear-jerker person, nor does this film get consistently mentioned among the best or most favourite films (hell, even I don't regularly list it as one), I'm kind of puzzled. The performances are all great, the musical cues certainly heighten those performances, and the soundtrack is wonderful, but I still don't know why this movie leaves such an impact on me. The only thing I know is that on my next rewatch, I'll know to prepare more tissues. 

Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge, on the other hand, remains the perfect rainy day romcom to watch. I wonder if Kunal Kohli feels that way, too - since I recently realized, being a little slow I guess, that Fraaandship is basically a modernized version of Mujhse Dosti Karoge. MDK, of course, and this has been admitted by Kohli himself, was kind of a dated movie even when it came out. It was a late 90's film for the early 00's, and though it has some redeeming features (that Antakshari song or the completely filmi and wonderful climax), it's not really one to remember much nowadays.

I wondered about the expiration date of Fraandship as I rewatched. Preity and Vishal fall in love via Facebook by impersonating their friends, and while social networking could be here to stay, youth culture does tend to change rather rapidly - what's cool one minute tends to not be so cool the next. Still, from the marketing perspective (ugh, yes, the kind of phrase I never wanted to type), it makes sense to give the youth films that portray characters who are also young, and hopefully in a way that's realistic but still idealized.

Another thing I picked up on was that the film was directed by a woman, Nupur Ashtana, which is sadly a rare thing world over. Good on Y-Films for finally getting some women directors in the fray as well (will mothership Yash Raj Films follow suit sometime in the future?).

I also thought about the message the film sends. As with any glossy romcoms, there is some focus on superficial traits, but what is notable in Fraaandship is how personality, chemistry and compatibility win out in the end. Preity and Vishal have instant chemistry online, but they continue to bicker with one another face-to-face. There is also no "make-over moment" - when Vishal sees Preity all dolled up for the club, he still doesn't seem all that interested. 

When Rahul and Mallika (the friends whose online identities our hero and heroine adopt) first meet, they don't seem to hit it off that well, even though they are both very attractive people. However, once they get to talking and discover they actually have some things in common, they become more interested in one another.

I know it's not much, but I'll take it as it's so much more likable and relatable than the films with paper-thin characterizations and so much emphasis on fashion and looking cool, hot, whatever. Of course films will always try to sell a very glamorous image, and that includes the superficial focus, but actors shouldn't just be moving clothes racks for the latest designer clothes. So for all its classic mainstream film traits, at least Fraaandship is putting a simple, yet agreeable message out there.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Rushed review of Rush.

Since I enjoyed two Emraan Hashmi films from last year so much, Shanghai and Jannat 2, I figured I wouldn't mind seeing a third one as well. Rush is a debut direction from Shamin Desai, who passed away before the film could be completed, leading to several delays. Finally the film was finished by his wife.

Rush takes place in the world of 24-hour news channels, where Samar (Emraan Hashmi) gets fired because he interviews a hitman, who boasts about killing the influential friend of the news channel's owner. Soon Lisa Kapoor (Neha Dhupia) contacts him with a luxurious job offer to become the chief editor of Crime 24, a crime-reporting network, where he gets full editorial freedom, company car, apartment and other significant perks. As you can imagine, it's a bit too good to be true..

Knowing the production history, the film in all its poor quality begins to make more sense. The promos give promise of a pretty slick film, but what is actually revealed inside is a muddled fever dream of somebody who's stayed up too late, watching trashy 24-hour news networks. Rush attempts to portray the honest journalists, slaving away to uncover the corrupt civil society for what it is, but whatever interesting ideas it contains (and the minor 'twist' is predictable from the get-go), those get lost inside all the bad acting, bad dialogue and badly integrated song sequences. Probably the best thing about the film is the fact you get a glimpse of Sagarika Ghatge (better known as Preeti from Chak De India) as Emraan's girlfriend, and even she's not great in this.

As far as Emraan goes, because the film began shooting in 2010, you can see this is probably still the stone-faced Emraan of old. While he's had fans throughout his career, I think there's a very good reason why he only gained serious mainstream success starting with The Dirty Picture - the man just wasn't a very good actor before. He had the delivery of lines, but none of the emoting capabilities we've seen him with as of late - it's almost as if he's sleep-walking through these older films of his. If I was ever planning on checking out more of his filmography, this film convinced me not to. The films don't interest me on their own, and it seems even his acting is unlikely to impress me, so I'm better served by just following his future ventures.

In summary, Rush ..just don't.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

This is the story of how I got completely obsessed with Randeep Hooda.

Everybody's allowed to gain a new quirk over the New Year, right? Mine just happened to be an instant obsession with Randeep Hooda (all thanks to Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai) and shortly after, the perusal of his filmography. At first I was steadfast - I would only watch him in films that gained the man critical acclaim, because I wasn't some obsessive, no, just a curious film aficionado following the lead of an interesting new acquaintance. 

I couldn't even tell you why I went near-completist on the man's career. He's not the most incredible actor I've ever seen, yet he has this amazing presence and intensity that just completely hooked me in. He also acts pained well, which is very much my thing (see also: Vinod Khanna, and some others, but mostly just Vinod Khanna). Then there's the good looks and the gravelly voice, which don't precisely hurt him any. Am I alone on this ledge of fanaticism? It's perfectly possible. Is my interest inadvisable for others considering how many crap films I ended up watching just for him? You may judge for yourselves.. I think he became this indulgence for me, like a guilty pleasure that isn't all that guilty. I'll gladly watch him play all sorts of psychopaths (because let's face it, the dude has been kind of type-cast that way) until the end of time, and will do so in the future. 

So here's my haul so far.

Jism 2 (2012)

The whole "I'll only watch Randeep Hooda in good films" resolution didn't last very long, considering I watched this film like two days after. I've reviewed the film already, and safe to say it was not a very good one (it does earn the descriptor "hot", but only to precede the word "mess"). Still, either Mr Hooda was pretty good in it or I am already incredibly biased, and surely it couldn't be the latter?

Heroine (2012)

Oh dear, oh dear. This is without a doubt the worst film I've seen in the past 12 months, and it really does not deserve a full length review: it's more or less pointless, the plot meanders and gets its heroine Mahi (Kareena Kapoor, delivering a good performance from a horribly written inconsistent character) from one crisis to the next. The secondary cast is for the most part absolutely atrocious - the only stand-outs are the tolerable Arjun Rampal, Ranvir Shorey, the always-reliable Shahana Goswami (though her part in the film ends with the most despicable, pointless lesbian-not-lesbian plot thread) and of course, Randeep. Sadly his character seems written only to eventually highlight Mahi's tendency to make mistakes. Still, he gets to be cute, so I guess that was worth something.

Ru-Ba-Ru (2008)

Speaking of Shahana Goswami, she co-stars this romantic drama about a live-in couple who bicker over inconsequential things and then get a second chance to make things right, following an accident. The plot is a complete copy of a Hollywood film, which wouldn't really be a problem for me personally, if the result wasn't such a tedious, limp film. Set in Thailand, the film offers some nice visuals and pretty naturalistic dialogue, but somehow the two stars (who I consider both to be good actors) just can't liven up the material. I actually stopped watching about 2/3 of the way through, as the film was simply so dull it didn't seem worth it sitting through the predictable rest.

Jannat 2 (2012)

This film only shares some cast and crew members with the original 2008 film, so really the title is a marketing ploy to cash in on the success of the first film. Emraan Hashmi plays Sonu Dilli, a small time gun dealer, who gets hassled by alcoholic cop Raghuvanshi (Randeep Hooda) to become his undercover contact in the illegal arms trade. Meanwhile, Sonu's life gets more complicated as he falls in love with Jhanvi (Esha Gupta) and courts her, while keeping his criminal past and present a secret.

I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. What really make it a worthwhile experience were the character carved out by Emraan and the hilarious reluctant partnership he has with ACP Raghuvanshi. I loathe to use the term 'bromance' but this really is it - instead of a will-they-won't-they couple, we get to watch the will-they-or-won't-they-trust-one-another chemistry between Emraan and Randeep, and it's just kind of awesome. Raghuvanshi, despite chugging down whiskey every chance he gets, is also a stone-cold badass, and probably gets the best lines of the entire film. Their partnership is so great in this, I want to rewatch just for that. Esha Gupta as the romantic interest is limited, but don't let that bother you.

After watching this film, I sought out the first Jannat, and while good (I may need to make a post dedicated to both of these films), it's clear how much Emraan Hashmi has improved as an actor. He's merely okay in 2008 - in 2012, he shines, and gives the character so much flavour with such confidence, it's plain fun to watch. The film is very violent, and got an A rating, but if you're keen on watching either of the leads in more things, definitely check it out it.

'D' (2005)

I'll openly admit that Ram Gopal Varma-produced or directed films are not my specialty, so I may be missing some serious context, seeing as how this film is a prequel to his classic film Company. 'D' tells the story of Deshu, a guy who works his way up the ranks of Mumbai underworld, until he practically runs it with business-like efficiency, until some people he's worked for decide they don't like how much power he has in the city. This rather standard plot could really be heightened by a good script with decently complex characters, or really supreme performances. Sadly, D has neither. The writing is bland, the characters mostly flat and while there are some good performances in the fray (I liked Randeep as the lead, as well as Chunky Pandey and Isha Koppikaar), for the most part the film just feels predictable and occasionally pretentious. There are so many scenes where dialogue is tuned out of and you just heard music while the actors mime carrying out the discussion. I kept thinking, "what the hell is this?" - perhaps it was something to do with censorship, but when nearly every dialogue scene had this trick used, it got really old very fast. Did the writer just forget to write half the damn script?

The inspiration is obvious but what could've been a really solid gangster flick ends up being pretty run-of-the-mill in my books. Randeep carries the film - sadly it's not much of a film to carry.

Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011)

The king in a world where kingdom is a dying concept, Saheb (the ever-dependable Jimmy Shergill) cares more about his business dealings and mistress than whatever's the matter with his off-kilter wife (Mahie Gill). His enemies recruit Bablu (Randeep Hooda) to kill Saheb while working in his household as a driver, but instead the wife has the new employee round her little finger..

Having had this film recommended to be a couple of times, I knew it'd be good, but it still managed to surprise me. For such a seemingly simple film, there's a lot you can read into its portrayals of characters, their status in society, their motivations. Loyalty, power, prestige.. There are a lot of themes that get jumbled into the mix of interesting performances, so much so that I think I need to write a proper review of this film as soon as possible. 

It was just fantastic to see Mahie Gill in a major role once again, and while at first I found her a bit exaggerated, eventually I understood how the character was the one who was exaggerated - or who chose to be that way. The biwi manages to manipulate even the audience. As far as Randeep goes, Bablu isn't exactly a character he's never played before, but the journey he takes during the movie, and how the character morphs during it, is a really fascinating part of the movie. A special shout-out to Deepal Shaw, who plays another servant at the house, and was such a great, vibrant part of the film - I wish there had been more of her.

The film probably warrants a longer review, so I'll write one up eventually. Look forward to that!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Upendra, starring Upendra, directed by Upendra.

I went into Kannada director-star (titled "Real Star" in the Kannada film industry) Upendra's self-titled film (now there's a turn of phrase one rarely sees in cinema!) very cautiously. My relationship with the film maker has been one part awe, one part admiration or appreciation but also one part condemnation for the, shall we say, problematic elements in his films. 

In Super (symbol), I appreciated the wild imagination that brought the film its energy, but loathed the way that women were used rather predictably as nothing but mere symbols of the bigger picture. I also had a more minor problem with the message presented. In A, the "women problem" was even more prominent, though once again the film had enough interesting ideas that I didn't hate it - in fact, I'll probably end up rewatching it at some point. 

There is so much thought behind these films, I would never want to dismiss them despite the fact that I am deeply disturbed by the way Upendra treats his heroines. Like I said in my review of Super, it annoys me because I would hope that somebody who puts so much thought into crafting his stories would really think through his choices when it comes to portrayal of women. Upendra is not the only brilliant man who hasn't considered the opposite gender much at all, and he won't be the last, but I maintain my wish that it wasn't so. I wouldn't be so hesitant in recommending his films if women weren't thrown around indiscriminately to deliver point whatsoever, really. To be fair, Upendra's heroes rough-house men as well, but it doesn't make it any more palatable. These are loud, eccentric films - but there's a way to do it without so much casual, pointless violence, and I think Upendra could consider that option.

However, and this is a fairly major 'however', I feel as if with Upendra (the film), I have reconciled my relationship with Upendra (the film maker). I feel like three films in, I finally understand him a bit more, and while those problems I have remain, I can look past them and appreciate his films on the level he intended. It was as if Upendra (the film) was a journey into the mind of Upendra (the film maker) and while I think out of his films, in terms of the story, I appreciate A the most, in terms of the message, I really came out liking Upendra (the film ..yes, I am aware of how confusing this continues to be!).

Upendra is a tale of Naanu (Upendra), an absolutely wretched, selfish human being. He doesn't believe in lying, so he exposes other people's hypocritical lives while  breaking every rule society has given him to break. Despite this, a young woman named Rathi (Damini) falls in love with him. However, she soon finds out Naanu has two other women in his life - he is pursuing the rich heiress Keerthi (Raveena Tandon) and has a wife (Prema) as well. Who will be choose to be with, and will any of the women have him?

The eccentric loudness makes the film actually quite difficult to watch, and the real experience actually only begins on the second watch. The first time, you feel as if you don't know where anything is headed - Naanu is your typical loud, violent, punch-dialogue-delivering Upendra hero, but the way he points out hypocrisies in society just isn't really all that logical. It's also really not that interesting. The juggling he does between the women in his life also starts to feel a bit dull after a while - he loves Rathi but wants Keerthi, but has obligations to his wife. 

Damini is possibly the weakest link in the cast - Prema and Raveena do well with their exaggerated characters, and Upendra of course doesn't need to do much to do what he knows to do in his films. It's a drag on the first watch, when one is still under the illusion that all these threads of story are actually headed somewhere fairly typical. Even once you find out the real purpose of the film, there is just so much slack.

I read somewhere that some press in India were upset over the vulgar portions of the film - there is pretty frank discussion of the hero spending time with prostitutes and other sexual topics. I didn't mind  these parts because they were there, but even in retrospect it is difficult to see their purpose.

And that's the real downfall of this movie - the purpose is so evident on the second time you watch it when it comes to some things, but not when it comes to others. I get the sense that Upendra (the film maker) often doesn't care what the audience that doesn't already love him, thinks of him, but there is much to be said for a slight toning down of the loudness to perhaps allow all of those who haven't previously enjoyed his films another look in. 

I think sometimes it's fine for a movie to be so much in your face with its everything - from the songs (lyrics penned by Upendra, unsurprisingly perhaps) to the acting, to the dialogue and even to the initial shreds of social message you may read into the film, and I wouldn't ask Upendra to completely abandon his style. Still, I think there's something to be said for taking it down a notch - less is more, that kind of thing. 

However, with all these criticisms, I really appreciated the final message of the film. I wish you could somehow remove the frillings and just focus on the point of the film. As it concerns the very end of the film, I'll have to slap a big SPOILER warning here right now. If you haven't seen the film, by all means, check it out if you think you'd like it. If you have seen the film, continue reading!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

So, I watched Jism 2. Yes, really.

There were three film reviews of Jism 2 I considered writing. 

One was a long, sprawling essay that read too much into the gender and sexual politics of the film, and could essentially be summarized with "there's a woman and two men, and one of them tells her what to do and is mean, and the other tells her what to do slightly less and is actually gives her some agency, and wait, why is she a porn star again?". That's just what happens when I watch erotic thrillers, I suppose, but it didn't quite work, and I think I knew it from the get-go. 

The second one was a short collection of rather shallow notes on Randeep Hooda's performance in the film. Not really one for the general readership of the blog, so I opted not to write this one, either.

The third option was to just snark the film, so that's what I did.

In order to support female directors, or female directors benefiting directly from nepotism, I decided to watch Pooja Bhatt's erotic treatise on international terrorism and conspiracy theories. Just kidding, I actually just wanted to watch Randeep Hooda endlessly making out with (current? former?) porn star Sunny Leone. On that front, the film was completely satisfying, no complaints. Everything else? Well...

I have to question the choice to make her character Izna a porn star as well. What exact purpose did this serve? She sleeps with the intelligence agent Ayan, who eventually hires her, in the first scenes of the film after seducing him at the bar. Was this the reason? Only porn stars have casual sex with strangers? Soon we find out her mission as the new 007 is to effectively seduce her ex  Kabir (Randeep Hooda) who's gone rogue, killing people left and right. Well, not seduce, exactly. They just need her to steal the data from the computer he keeps in his bedroom, but Ayan doesn't want her to sleep with her ex. It's almost as if she's not dealing with professionals! (Spoilers: she isn't.)

I must express concern for Sunny Leone's health, as she appears to constantly be on the verge of an asthma attack throughout the film. Not a scene goes by where the poor woman's breath is not stuck in her throat for whatever reason, and her bosom heaves in desperate need of air. Her physique suggests she gets enough exercise, and does not seem winded, so it's got to be something else, and I believe a doctor should attend to this as urgently as possible. 

As much as I harp on Miss Leone and her irregular breathing, she's not as bad at acting as the two men whose characters rope her into this mess - so bad they are in fact, that I refuse to look up their names for this review. Run to Google, should you care. Her acting is mostly just reacting to things other people tell her - and she actually does a pretty fine job of it. Isn't the most difficult part of acting reacting, anyway? Isn't Sunny Leone, by excelling somewhat at this, miles ahead of pretty much everybody? Shouldn't Ranbir give one of his Filmfare Awards to her already? Besides, for all the talk about how bad porn actors are at acting, let us consider this for a moment: how well would you act, if your character is a horny college girl who has to seduce the pizza delivery guy. It's not like you can go method with scenarios as flimsy as that. I'd like to see Aamir Khan sink his teeth into that one. (Not literally..)

Thankfully the torture from the secondary characters on-screen comes to a merciful end and we are treated to the sight of Randeep Hooda, who is under the illusion that he is in a genuinely good film. It would be tragic if it were not so spectacular. He puts his goddamn everything into the dialogue, so much so that I succumbed to the same illusion myself for a moment, and was left heaving, breathless like a poor woman's Sunny Leone. He also looked good. So. Very. Good. Suddenly, I believed in the silly, plothole-infested story. He was a tortured guy, stuck in a job he could no longer leave - she was the sole light in his life, and having her returned to him, he didn't want her to leave. Sadly, the illusion lasted only as long as each of his scenes did. (That voice, though, damn.)

Now here's the biggest plot hole of them all: why pigeon-hole a porn star into an erotic thriller that isn't even very erotic? Look, call me old-fashioned, but if you want to watch her in erotic situations, surely you just her previous career's fruits? You don't watch a low budget Hindi film with some liplocking and one potentially erotic back rub scene that doesn't even reach the heights of a softcore film. It's pretty unfair to think that Sunny Leone's talents lie solely in the world of erotica. I look forward to seeing her as prime minister, or as DCP, or as chief rowdy, or as an incarnation of a goddess. Pooja Bhatt, are you up to the challenge?

Would I recommend Jism 2? Yes, of course. It will serve its viewer in a meaningful manner and inform them philosophically. It's like an erotic back rub for your mind. Trust me. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chakravyuh: the red war.

You might've heard that India is at war with itself; hundreds, if not thousands, of people die in this war every year. You might've heard the term Maoist in conjunction to this war, or you might be more familiar with the term Naxalite, or the more academic name - left-wing extremist terrorists. The other side of the war is the central government, trying desperately to clamp down on the violent incidents by brutal force, with varied success.

Prakash Jha's Chakravyuh paints a portrait of this war that is harshly realistic, impeccably researched and sympathetic to both sides of the war, but does tend to give more of a hearing to the Maoists - indeed, Jha said in interviews prior to release that he's met Naxalites, and listened to their side of the story. As an issue-based film, Chakravyuh is excellent and an amusing disclaimer at the beginning of the film says up front that "nothing is coincidental" - everything is modelled after real events, real people and being true to the "war within". At the crux of the issue is that economic development and mining demands evacuation of mineral-rich areas, many of them home to adivasis (often translates 'tribals'), who resent the government for the way they've been treated in these instances. Naxalism is an old strand of India's left-wing history, that gained new momentum as the counter force to these evacuations and general poverty and misery of the adivasis.

These are all things I personally knew already, having read about them, but the fantastic way that the film presents these real-life facts and issues is commendable. It asks the age old political question: will capitalism really lead to better lives for the poor, or will it merely line to pockets of foreign company owners?

Perhaps due to my own fascination with the problems the film deals with, the actual story took a backseat in my viewing experience. Kabir (Abhay Deol, wonderful as ever), who manages to go undercover among Naxalites to help his friend Adil (Arjun Rampal), the SP trying to rid the area of Nandighat of the left-wing extremists, who act as the unofficial police force in the area. Anjali Patil plays Juhi, the Naxalite commander who Kabir ends up getting close to, while Om Puri and Manoj Bajpai play the other central Naxalite figures. 

Through Kabir's story, the Naxalite side of things becomes extremely well-rounded, and you understand their side of the dispute. These are not simple issues, however, and perhaps the one flaw of the movie is that it gives the Naxalites almost too sympathetic a hearing. We hear from the other side how many Naxalites merely use the movement as a way to gain power in society, rather than to make the lives of adivasis better, but we don't really get to see this greed for power in any of the Naxalite characters. There is cruelty among them, certainly, but I don't think there's a single flat-out evil left-wing extremist in the film, whereas to balance the morality of Adil's character, we get a few bad apples among the police. The film doesn't seem to really ponder whether violence is the answer to all the concerns of the poor people the Naxalites claim to represent. On the other hand, an alternative reading would be that they turn to violence because nothing else seems to be working - they have no other alternatives to it. But is that really so?

As far as performances go, both Arjun and Abhay deliver, as can only be expected, but the real joys of the film are the secondary characters. Om Puri as the steadfast ideologue was great, and Anjali Patil as the passionate, strong and driven Juhi is simply a joy to witness. Something about the relationship between the two main characters never truly becomes the centre of the film for me, but rather Juhi's character, and I really wonder why that is. Perhaps in the process of writing this well-researched script, Jha too became too fascinated with the issue at hand to focus all his attention on the drama that presented the issue.

The film ends up straight-forwardly asking a lot of pertinent questions. The war is horrific, and seemingly endless and inescapable, but what are the solutions to it? Can both sides give up on something to gain peace? It's an important issue, perhaps the one issue India has to face before it can move forward, and the questions the film asks also resonate to a lesser extent to the problems faced in other countries, such as growing inequality. As an issue film, Chakravyuh scores nine out of ten in my books, but as a film that tells a story, it doesn't quite reach that high. Still, it's worth watching if you want to learn more about the political realities of India today, or merely if you like Jha's style of film.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Gangs of वासेपुर.

Gangs of Wasseypur, Anurag Kashyap's epic about the titular town and its violent history, is a 320 minute film, split into two for a commercial release. I watched them re-united as one cinematic experience, spanning over five hours of my time and over 60 decades of fictionalized Wasseypur history. It was quite a ride, to put it mildly. In five hours, you meet a lot of characters and part with some of them too early, and others not as early as you would have liked. In five hours, you get to think a lot of things, and also feel a lot of things. In five hours, you ask tons of questions, some which get answered, many you're left to ponder over on your own.

The plot tells a fairly uncomplicated story of how revenge fuels decades' worth of violence between two camps. In some ways, the story in all its turns and roundabouts is secondary to the feeling of living in this world of Wasseypur: the somber narration by Nasir bhai (Piyush Mishra) walks us through it, and there are always certain constant realities to be found, like blood spilled or the greed of people. If you can stomach the very violent genre of the film, complete with unabashed and frequent, uncensored cussing, then the film is definitely among must-sees of Hindi cinema overall, and one of the best of last year, easily. It's got some flaws, like some confusing sequences (which I may have to blame on lacking DVD subtitling in part I), or certain characters being rather underwritten (more questions than answers about why they do what they do), but overall, it's a great effort.

From hereon, the review will get more specific and will contain SPOILERS for both parts.

To me, Gangs of Wasseypur was really crystalized in two scenes. Among the many characters, the main protagonists are Sardar (Manoj Bajpai) and his son Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) - they're in focus throughout most of the film, and yet they're very different characters. The revenge tale that frames the film is one things that simultaneously unites and divides them. Sardar is very much in touch with the idea of avenging his father, but the actual deed he can set aside for later. Faizal is only vaguely connected with the revenge mission, and occasionally shows signs of thinking it's pointless, and yet he inadvertently ends up killing the very man who killed his grandfather.

While Sardar wins none of my sympathies, Faizal gets a surprising amount. He's not much better than his father - he kills mercilessly, without blinking, without thinking twice. Yet he's somehow more human, more at a loss at everything he's doing, and his part in this cycle of violence he finds himself in. Sardar is at ease with his mission in life, and pursues it with ruthless precision. Faizal escapes reality to drugs. He can also be cold and calculating, and selfish, but not in the way his father is.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the scenes I'm about to talk about both deal with their treatment of women.

Sardar has left his wife to hide from the police, and ends up lusting after Durga (Reema Sen, who apparently now wants her name spelled as Remma), a young woman. I'd say they share a couple of meaningful looks, but this would be a lie - he stares at her, while she gives him a peek or two from a safe distance. When he finally approaches her, she is silent, and doesn't react to him, apart from trying to wrangle her arm from his grip. While the implication is that she wants him, as we later see her slipping into his bed out of her own volition, it was hard to watch these scenes and not read something predatory into the way he was looking at her. Even the eventual sex scene is far from romantic - it's fast, and on his terms, and his hand muffles whatever noises she makes. The unfortunate side effect of seeing this film after India has begun to publicly deal with its women being victims of rape and sexual harassment is that Durga's consent is almost not there at all. Most of all, Sardar's seeming lack of interest to whether she says no or yes is what really disturbs me.

He doesn't improve much after, abandoning his family for the new wife, at least for a while, and by the time he eventually gets killed, I found myself not caring particularly much.

Faizal, on the other hand, ends up approaching his childhood crush Mohsina (newcomer Huma Qureshi) after seeing her at the cinema. Their romance develops slowly after Danish, Faizal's brother, ends up marrying Mohsina's sister, putting them temporarily under the same roof. In a key scene, Mohsina scolds Faizal for holding her hand without asking for her permission. This shocks him into retreating but she assures him it's fine, as long as he asks her for her permission, and he accepts this. The contrast to the previous scenes I described were so stark, I was a bit in awe. Their relationship continues rather delightfully into a happy marriage, where they both seem playful and content with one another. In probably the best scene of the film, she comforts him (and sings to him), after he wonders what the point of all that he's accomplished in life, and in crime is, as he didn't really want any of it. It's one of the few moments in the film where everything stills and we're treated to a simple, gorgeously acted character-centric scene.

Their story ends up being the most human part of the film for me, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui is so compelling in his performance, his character becomes the only character besides the female ones (none of whom get an entirely fair deal in my eyes) who I genuinely root for. The complexities the film presents in its morality mean that this is by no means an obvious choice, nor is it the "right" one. Like I mentioned, Faizal kills a lot, often without reason. And yet, the acting makes him so relatable in a peculiar way, so interesting to watch that I cannot help but want him to make it.

I think Gangs of Wasseypur makes it onto my favourites list for the cinematic world it creates for itself. The beautiful cinematography, the music infused to it, all the performances that make up a solid ensemble cast and the real stand-outs among them, it just seems that a lot of things Kashyap and his team got so precisely right. It's gory, but compelling, and it doesn't meander much for such a long film - if anything, I think it could've used a few more character-building sequences. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai: goondagiri at its finest.

Ever since watching Milan Luthria's brilliant The Dirty Picture, I've been meaning to check out his previous hit, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai. I'm happy to report than when I finally did, I wasn't disappointed in the least. While Luthria may have began his career with the fairly forgettable Kachche Dhaage (starring Ajay Devgan and Saif Ali Khan in 1999), and Chori Chori, which I could barely sit through (despite severe cuteness from Rani Mukherjee) he's certainly progressed into one of the most solid film makers in India today.

OUATIM tells the story of Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgan), an orphan who rises through the ranks of Mumbai's underworld into the benevolent don of the city around the 1970's. He helps out the common man when the state cannot do enough, and through these actions, his reputation is good among just about everybody but the police. As he rules Mumbai, another child grows up: Shoaib (Emraan Hashmi) is trouble from the beginning, and does not improve as he matures.

There's nothing mind-blowing about this tale of two gangsters and their power struggle, but so much can be said for the film getting everything right. Both Ajay and Emraan are fantastic in the leads, and their co-stars are also wonderful to watch. Prachi Desai as Mumtaz, Shoiab's girlfriend, is tragic in her attempts to ground the man who only seems to go from bad to worse, hinging on sociopath-like in his quest for more power. Kangna Raut plays Rehana, an actress who catches the eye of Sultan, with confident ease. It's certainly not the most challenging role for Kangna, who I know can do more, but it's fun to watch her in this, and her chemistry with Ajay just won me over. 

The sole questionable aspect of the film is perhaps the portrayal of Sultan as a doer of good and a man who provides the city with a certain balance. The streets are safer, people's problems get sorted through him, the film implies, but he's still a smuggler and a gangster. This is not the only film where criminals seem the most moral of characters, despite their actions, and in that it largely reminded me of Nayagan, the Mani Ratnam classic that also tells the tale of an underworld don in Mumbai. The contrast between Sultan and Shoiab certainly makes you root more for the former.

Then there's the police man after Sultan - ACP Agnel Wilson, played by Randeep Hooda, whose name I was familiar with but had actually never seen on-screen prior to this movie. It's safe to say I was a goner pretty much instantly. He gives the role a certain intensity that just got me so hooked I paused the film and began looking up his filmography and mentally ticking off films I wanted to see him in. Of course, the tallness and the good looks didn't hurt, either, but I know my own tastes, and actors are rarely attractive to me unless I believe they've got some kind of talent, too. (I'll save the gushing to a post about him once I've seen more of him, for now I'll just say I'm very intrigued.)

The soundtrack is not particularly memorable (though there is a song that samples Piya Tu Ab To Aaja, one of my favourite oldies tracks ever) but fun enough. Much like TDP, Once Upon a Time In Mumbaai simply excels as a film - there isn't much I'd change or alter, and while it may not have made my top favourites like TDP did, it's certainly a film I'd recommend all around. And for once, I can see how the ending, while not open, lends itself to a sequel, which is coming out later this year, I believe. I heartily anticipate it.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Remake-mania or manic remakes? Rowdy Rathore and Siruthai.

Both based on the Telugu hit Vikramarkudu, I watched Rowdy Rathore and Siruthai in conjunction with one another, and not by accident. It just so happened that I didn't have the luxury of working subtitles for the Tamil version (Siruthai). After watching Rowdy, I figured I could follow the gist of the story and compare the performances, and began watching. Even without having seen the Telugu original, it was interesting to see both of the remakes that followed it. 

I'm not one to discourage Indian film industries from remaking each other's films, as its a tried-and-tested formula, and gives interesting, new stories different audiences, and bigger audiences. I do wonder though, are some of these remakes perhaps even too fateful to the originals? It seemed as if these movies shared absolutely everything - the highlights as well as the low points. 

The plot kicks off with our hero, Shiva in the Hindi version (played by Akshay Kumar), a thief, stealing things and falling in love with our heroine Paro (Sonakshi Sinha). Eventually a young girl emerges, who insists that Shiva is her father, and from there the story snowballs into an action masala one, filled with horrifying villains, dance numbers, gory violence and duplicates. 

The comedic sidekick in the Hindi version isn't very funny and thus the beginning feels like it's lagging desperately. The romantic comedy portion of Shiva and Paro falling in love isn't quite as amusing as I would've liked, either, and so I was just waiting for the film to get going. Eventually it does, in quite a spectacular manner, and the backstory gives good pay-off as well, but I just never felt like I was too in love with the film. And trust me, I really wanted to be. I mean, Akshay doing an action role with Prabhudeva in the director's seat? Yes, please, more.

Yet something just didn't click with me. It's certainly a passable entertainer, down to great fight choreography (though be warned for gory violence) and fantastic song numbers, in which the music, for whatever reason, reminded me of 90's Bollywood. And in my books, that's only a good thing. There were also a number of delicious cameos in the songs, which I enjoyed a ton. Still, I can't help but feel a bit disappointed. Maybe there's some room for improvement in Sonakshi's acting? I like her, but Akshay definitely outperformed her here, and while the heroine role in the story is a pretty thankless one, she just didn't impress me, so I never felt their chemistry as much as I'd have liked.

Rowdy Rathore is a film I'd recommend for a viewing (if you're into Southie remake action masalas), but wouldn't list among my favourites of last year. It's a shame, because I really wanted to like it more. 

Siruthai had a lot of things going for it (the Paiyaa coupling Karthi-Tamanna as the leads, and everybody's favourite new Tamil comedian, Santhanam as the comedic sidekick) but in the end my thoughts on this film are largely similar to that about Rowdy Rathore. The plot points are replicated so loyally that in Siruthai, the beginning moves slowly as well, and it feels as if the film only really gets going about an hour in.

Of course, the sad thing about not having subtitles for this film was that it made me miss out on the comedy of Santhanam, who I've really grown to like as of late. While some comedians are pretty physical, or very expressive in their faces, making the comedy translate even when there's no subtitled translation or if the subtitles are very unclear. Santhanam's comedy tends to lean towards the more verbal side, however, and having no familiarity with the Tamil language, I was forced to miss out. It's a shame, because in every role I've seen him in thus far, I've really enjoyed him in.

Now, this was my first taste of Karthi in full on masala mode. Paiyaa was masala, too, but his character in it was a rather stern, serious type, whereas Siruthai features some broad comedy besides the action and the romance. I'm not yet sold on the guy - he seems to have the bright-eyed charm of his brother Surya, but he's not quite there yet for me in terms of really selling it. He was merely okay in here, and while I won't mind watching him in the future, I doubt I'll be rushing to get more of his films.

Tamanna was once again a charming presence in a rather flimsy role. She continues to be one of my favourite actresses making a career in the Southern industries (ironic, since much like my former Southie favourite, Jothika, Tamanna is also a Northern girl - she hails from Mumbai). As sadly often in Southie films, it feels like she was there for a bit of romcom and then for the songs, which is a shame, since it's clear she's capable of more substantial roles as well. Regardless, the songs are fun, if fairly forgettable.

In some ways, the near-carbon copy-like remakes the different industries churn out are a commendable effort. Why change a winning formula? I certainly didn't want the Tamil remake of 3 Idiots to alter the plot, because the plot and writing was so good as it was. Of course, you run the risk of replicating the problems, too, as I feel like happened with these two remakes - I've read reviews where people complained the original had a slow beginning as well. But maybe rather that than trying to fix issues and failing to do so, just do the best job you can, replicating the original - it seems that's what both the Hindi and Tamil remakes did here.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kaminey picspam.

I love the way this movie looks and feels. The oppressive but calming blue tones with occasional flashes of red and gold just seem to add to the gripping atmosphere.

Things only go from bad to worse, and the descent is beautiful to watch, and re-watch, for that matter.

Somehow, Omkara with its tragic ending still feels more rewatchable to me, but Kaminey is just so good, and so well-executed, and with such beautiful music and performances that I couldn't help but love it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Shor In the City: oh, it's good. So good.

Sometimes you absolutely should take a gamble on your life's path. When Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K., two Andra Pradesh-born computer engineers who'd both moved to work in the US, decided to have a second career as film makers, it might've seemed like an odd move, but it certainly wielded great results. I've only seen their first Hindi feature, the terrific 99 (review here) and their latest, the appreciated indie hit of last year, Shor in the City, but based on these two ventures, it's clear to me that these two directors know what they're doing, and have a bright future ahead of them.

Shor tells a story of three protagonists. Tilak (Tusshar Kapoor) has recently married in an arranged match, and pursues a career in book piracy while awkwardly getting to know his new wife. Abhay (Sendhil Ramamurthy) has recently immigrated back to India to start a business, and is soon hassled by schemers, attempting to extort money from him. Sawan (Sundeep Kishan) needs money to bribe his way into a career in cricket. 

The wonderful thing about the way the narrative works in Shor, is that I wasn't constantly dying to know how the fates of these three would intertwine. Instead, I was fully content in following their three largely separate stories, because they're just that interesting. Besides providing us with fascinating portrayals of characters, I can honestly say their journeys also surprised me; if I thought I knew where the film was going, it usually didn't end up taking that route. 

As the name might suggest, Shor is a portrait of a city. It characterises Mumbai as a fairly unforgiving city, where the chaos is ever-present, but one where change (for better or for worse) is also possible. 

Tusshar's performance as Tilak was definitely the highlight of the film for me. His character's tale that leads him away from his idiotic, trouble-seeking friends and onto a path completely his own, was just really fantastic to watch. Radhika Apte gives a subtle performance as his wife Sapna, and seeing them grow comfortable around each other, after initial awkwardness, is really wonderful. The two form the heart of the film.

Sendhil Ramamurthy as Abhay was a solid performance, and he has natural, easy-going chemistry with Preeti Desai (who's not acted a whole lot besides this film - I know her better as Abhay Deol's girlfriend). He's an outsider in a country he can call his own, and it shows, and there's something really heart-breaking about the way the city forces him to bend and eventually - snap.

Sawan's story is the least interesting, if I can be honest. It's a tale of youth, and of despair (besides his cricket troubles, he has pressure from his girlfriend whose parents want her to marry as soon as possible), but it never reaches the grip that the other two stories had on me. 

The film also has a soundtrack, as good as I found that of 99, but I confess not really paying all that much attention to it. I'll probably pick up on it more on future rewatches - on this initial watch, I was too involved in the stories to really notice the music whenever it surfaced.

I find this to be one of those films where words really fail to capture what I enjoyed best. Just watch it, and discover its world on your own. It's a short (under 2 hours) journey that becomes more and more gripping as it goes along, it's seasoned with good performances and it's just a confident film by two of the most promising directors Hindi cinema has these days. It really is no wonder this was the off-beat favourite of last year.