A Disappointing, Confused, ‘Runny’ Mess!

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Milkha Singh is by far India’s most respected and accomplished athlete. Nothing can diminish his glory. On the other hand, nothing makes his story cinema-worthy. And definitely not for three hours!

India does not seem to understand the meaning of a biopic. When you need to add fiction and comic relief to a man’s life, you must realize that the person’s life was not interesting enough for a film in the first place! The fact that you need to have sudden song sequences (I am shocked at how Bollywood-ish Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra has become) and absolutely stupid scenes in airplanes shows your lack of faith in your subject itself. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is the story of a man who overcame hurdles and personal trauma to become a successful athlete. Now, where have I heard that story before?

The story begins with his loss at the Rome Olympics, flashes back to his journey through his army days, consequential training, affairs with women, failing at the Melbourne Olympics, training even harder (this is where you feast your eyes on the fabulous Farhan Akhtar body everyone has been talking about), and winning every possible race after that which leads to the Rome Olympics – which he loses, yet again.

Let us note that he did not win any Olympic title.

Moving on, the whole country – including PM Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru – keeps convincing him to go to Pakistan for a friendly race. Milkha is reluctant as he does not want to face the horrors of his past (which is what kept him away from winning the Rome gold, according to the film), but then he takes a trip down memory lane, and beats the Pakistanis – which becomes the climax of the film.

So, even after so many decades, the climax of a film still is India beating Pakistan at something. Not a man fighting the ghosts of his past. Not even him actually beating the world record (as claimed by the film. Contradictory data says otherwise. Quoting Wikipedia here – “Some sources say that he set a world record of 45.8 seconds in France, shortly before the Rome Olympics in the same year (1960) but the official report of the Games lists the record holder as Lou Jones, who ran 45.2 at Los Angeles in 1956) and making history with a new record speed. No. It all boils down to beating the Pakistanis. The sheer immaturity of the narrative curve of the film is shameful.

Areas where BMB goes wrong:

One – if you want me to believe that, that pudgy sardar kid became Farhan Akhtar in just T H I R T E E N years, I am not buying it. Farhan, however fantastic he looks in this film, does NOT look 25. And manipulating the beard is hardly a cheat code anymore to hide an actor’s age.

Two – How is it that the man who has been running for over five years suddenly has his traumatic past visiting him at the Rome Olympics? How is it that his past does not visit him every time he runs? How is it that even during his very first race, the prospect of milk triggers him more than his father screaming ‘bhaag Milkha bhaag’ seconds before having his head sliced off?

Three – The introduction of the love angles and interests were absolutely unnecessary. Sonam Kapoor has a total of five minutes screen space with just two-line dialogues. His firang girlfriend enjoys the same film span. He goes ahead and actually turns the third one down – thus reducing that horny swimmer’s screen time even more. The director himself proves that they were unnecessary characters.

Four – The director’s lack of good judgment when deciding what to make the climax of the film remains the most disappointing aspect of it. Everyone knows he lost the Rome Olympics. And the film states that upfront. There is almost a sense of ‘now what?’ half way into the film. You try to figure out what can be a bigger achievement than the Olympic gold. I cannot harp enough on how idiotic the climax is. Also throw in a couple of mean Pakistani athletes and coaches (as if being mean is a Pakistani prerogative) and absolutely juvenile Pakistani media. Very disappointing. And this is the man who made Dilli 6?

Five – (a) while on an airplane, Milkha Singh starts screaming that something is wrong because they are above the clouds and nothing can be seen. The co-pilot (ROM in a cameo) comes out – surprise surprise – to pacify him! (b) Australian chicks come over and ask the Indian team – where are you guys relaxing? Milkha Singh replies – No, main Milkha Singh. 400 metres. (c) A whole Shammi Kapoor-style song-and-dance routine in an Aussie pub with Milkha Singh dancing with aussies to rehearsed choreography. (d) Because a policeman roughs up a young Milkha who is carrying two cans of ghee home for his sister, Milkha drinks the ghee up and does push-ups amidst loud cheering from bystanders – who later carry him into the village on their shoulders! Do I need to go on about how LAME a huge chunk of the film is? And how much should have been actually edited?

Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music is good, if not their best. While the editing is a huge letdown, the cinematography shows experiment and promise. I still have no idea why Sonam Kapoor agreed to do this film. Farhan fails to impress, other than his musculature, of course. Funnily, in a film where he plays the title role, you won’t remember one scene where his ‘acting’ shines. Divya Dutta is the only actor who shines through with a dedicated supporting performance rarely seen in Bollywood. Your heart goes out to her as she breathes such honesty and passion into her role. Look out for the scene where she reunites with her brother at the refugee camp. The rest of the cast supports well, even if they didn’t shine bright. Dalip Tahil cannot pull off a Nehru.

If this is what ROM has to offer after so many years, my disappointment knows no bounds.

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All Aboard the Ship: A Sparkling Debut with a Heart of Gold

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The way I saw Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus is not how I generally watch films – in the producer’s office, on his computer, two weeks before the release, with a cat for company. It was an early morning show, and I was definitely not ready for the journey I made. The very first shot is so promising, you know that what you are about to embark upon is not going to be an ordinary journey. The ship, laden with paradoxes, questions, answers, doubts, and dilemmas, will surely force you to ponder. For many, this film might just be a novel life-changing experience.

Much has been written about the film since it started doing the festival circles in 2012. The international media, some of the inquisitive Indian press (who were bothered about an independent film which would not make it into the 100-crore club but still had reasons enough to be taken interest in), film critics, and cinephiles have been raving about SoT. The very avant-garde trailer, the interesting poster art, all made for a visual and intellectual treat that has been missing in Indian cinema for a while. And when Kiran Rao became a part of the project, one knew that this was a film one could trust. Even though there can be debate over Ms. Rao’s film making, her astute ability for selecting and encouraging talent is definitely unmatched. The woman has taste, heightened sensibilities, and an extremely intelligent eye. SoT became the film to watch out for in India.

I will state this upfront – No, this film is not for everybody. It will not be a massive hit or a blockbuster. Honestly, I do not think the director is vying for that either. While in a recent conversation with Anand he does talk about how escapism is mere exploitation and the audience should be trusted more (coming up on www.mansworldindia.com), I am personally less idealistic. If the majority of our cinema-going population really did not want the kind of regressive matter being churned out today, Salman Khan would have been out of business. So would have Akshay Kumar. And Sanjay Dutt. And Rohit Shetty. And new douchebag-in-the-block, Ajay Devgn. So, yes, while SoT might not enjoy a glittering future, it will definitely be remembered as one of those few independent films that actually delivered what it promised.

The Internet is a dicey thing. It is not difficult today to become a viral star. Garnering likes and views and comments and shares and tweets is not that much of a headache either. I was wary when SoT became a social media darling and wondered if this might just become another G**** (an obnoxious film by Quashik Mukherjee, touted as a ‘path breaking blah-blah’. The film was just bleh). Everybody was sharing the trailer, the sheer quirky quality of the scenes, the interesting cast, the captivating visuals – I hoped, for the film’s sake that it is as good as it promises to be.

For those who keep hamming that cinema has to entertain, I argue that it has to engage with enough interesting and provoking stimuli. A film has to remain with you. If it fails to make you think, make you discuss, fails to leave behind a part of itself with you, the film has not achieved the purpose of the art form. So, while mindless bullshit is not stimulating enough, continuous philosophical banter and verbose discussions is not the way to go either. SoT takes upon itself to discuss some very important and complicated dilemmas – sometimes they merge brilliantly with the fictional narrative while at others the film seems like the director’s monologue – rambling thoughts and debates that the characters carry out, disconnected from the framework of cinema itself. SoT weaves together three stories with a common finale. The first story is that of a blind photographer who battles with the gift of sight and its effects on her work. A monk deals with provoking questions of ethics and rights in the second, and a stockbroker deals with the realities of life amidst an organ-trafficking racket. I shall not take it upon myself to serve the spoilers – not that the fictional framework is that important anyway – but the questions that the film asks are so personal and insightful that at times you run the risk of introspection while the film is on. You begin placing yourself in the character’s shoes (or, bare feet) and begin trying to find solutions to their impending quandaries. It forces you to find out what life means to you, question identities and human rights, valuate emotions, evaluate notions of justice – all in the span of one film.

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The Aida Al-Kashef starring story about the blind photographer is an absolute delight. The film captures the innocence and artistic stubbornness of the photographer to the hilt. She is an adorable character, free-thinking, confident, and with a mind of her own. The fight scene in the kitchen will win anybody over, as will her self-blindfolding after getting her sight back. Her sheer dedication towards producing art of her kind, what she sees in her head, is her sole goal in life. Aida does a fantastic job, balancing strength and a certain frailty which shines on screen. There are times when you just want to reach out and hold her hand, give her a little assurance…More film makers should exploit the talent hot bed that she is.

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Sohum Shah’s piece is beautifully crafted, bringing forth a host of characters, well-written dialogue, and has the best plot of the three. The dilemmas presented entwine extremely well with the story, creating a winning piece. Sohum Shah, if he chooses his films wisely, will be an actor to look out for. He is a powerhouse of talent, and delivers dialogue with a natural ease rarely seen on the Indian screen today. The scene where he goes into a rant after helping his grandmother pee is exquisite acting. He can very easily become an Anurag Kashyap or Dibakar Banerjee actor. He already acts in their language.

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While Neeraj Kabi’s story has the most expansive canvas, with some exceptionally enamouring visuals in the film, it falls behind the other two due to its verbosity and the inability of the message to merge with the narrative without the help of dialogue. The piece is heavy in conversation and has continuous repartee which, unlike the other two, fails to draw you in. It is funny, how the pieces that talk less engage more. Other than Neeraj Kabi’s extremely dedicated performance (including his Christian Bale-like weight loss for the film), the visuals are extremely engrossing. The scene where he saves the caterpillar, the shampoo test on the hare, the monks gathered on a rock by the sea, a line of monks walking under the rotating shadows of windmills, are picture perfect cinematography. When Neeraj Kabi’s character slowly peels the bed cloth off his bed sore, you are repulsed, and filled with wonder at the same moment at the details of the scene. Vinay Shukla, who plays Charvak fails to support Kabi and is the weakest performance in the film. His incessant banter, shot surprisingly in a documentary style, tends to bore. Why the director chose to use so much of oratorical dialogue in this piece is a mystery.

While the cinematography and the editing marry extremely well with Anand’s direction, the music seems to fall short. The cinematographer should definitely take a bow as much of what the film wants to say lies in the adept storytelling of the visuals. Anand Gandhi is at home with this film, and the fact that he has enjoyed every minute of making it, is visible. He has polished every rough edge to the best of his abilities and that is why Ship of Theseus shines bright. If you want to watch a man tell his story and share his ideas the way he wants to, this is the film to go for. For those who always conform to set rules, give this man and his film a chance.

Watch SoT for an enlightening evening, astounding visuals, and a heart of gold. Watch this space for follow up posts on my conversations with Anand and the cast of SoT or catch the stories on www.mansworldindia.com.

 

And here is the link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5xt0cKasDw

 

 

Two Films and Travelling with Khaled Hosseini

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It has been quite a stimulating two weeks. The weather is still a-weeping and I have not been at my chirpiest best. There is always a pro and a con to being intellectually stimulated when you are low. While you obviously tend to enjoy less, whatever you are doing or reading or watching, you absorb a great deal more. In your eagerness to distract yourself, not ponder over what is bothering you, you concentrate harder on what you have at hand. I am in a pickle, actually – I do not know whether it is a good thing or bad.

The Kite Runner made me cry. It is not about being a wimp – there is nothing wrong with a man crying. The sheer canvas of the novel, the expanse of the time-character-space relationship blew me away. Here was a novel which spoke of the most uncomfortable subjects with such unnerving ease. And Hosseini’s innate ability to describe disaster and longing with such poetry made me fall in love with his language – lyrical, but not stretched. Then came Thousand Splendid Suns. I could not finish the book in one go. It depressed me beyond measure, almost to the brink of creating a misanthrope out of me. I read the first few chapters and gave up on it. I lost faith in people, and started believing that pain and suffering was the way of life. To have this thought hovering above your head is depressing enough. I accepted it. Then, one day, I heard someone talk highly of how much hope and faith the book instills. The shock itself made me painfully finish it. Other than War and Peace (for completely different reasons), this was the only book that had proved to be such a troubling and harrowing an experience. The pain it hurled made me blind towards the literary qualities it possesses. I wish to read the book again. I do not know when.

So, there was this contradictory feeling of fear and anticipation at the same time when I got hold of his latest – And the Mountains Echoed. I did not know what to expect. More pain? Depressing human conditions? A feeling of all-consuming helplessness? I knew there would be Afghanistan in store; lots of it. But it is Hosseini –  Afghanistan is both disastrously beautiful and beautifully disastrous on the same page. The ruthless terrains complement the snow-clad valleys and azure skies, the glamour of yesterday meets the poverty of today, the sophistication of the language is interrupted by painfully long silences. He knows how to make sorrow beautiful. And how to make you feel apologetic about beauty.

The book spans across years in the form of short stories about people inter-connected with each other, often estranged and brought together at interesting junctures in their lives. A host of wonderful people – Abdullah and Pari, Parwana and Masooma, Nila Wahdati and Nabi, Idris and Timur – and their second and third generations growing up in Pakistan, America, and Paris, take the novel around the world like feathers fluttering about, carrying different emotions and relationships on each fibre. While Abdullah and Pari are separated, we go back in time to be audience to Parwana’s jealousy towards Masooma and their final goodbye in the desert. We soon hurtle ahead to Nila bringing Pari up in Paris, in a whirlwind of alcohol, men, and poetry. The unrequited love of Suleiman and Nabi, an extremely mature and platonic relationship of the likes that I doubt has ever been read before, a small snippet about their neighbours Idris and Timur in the US, Abdullah and his daughter, Pari, who grows up to finally meet her namesake, Iqbal’s son trying to regain his homeland – the stories move like a movie, and the reader rise and fall with the crest and trough of every line.

 

Ghanchakkar (2013)

 

While I was reading this book, Ghanchakkar released on its slated Friday. It is a Vidya Balan film – reason enough for me to watch it. Add Emraan Hashmi (I have come to have some faith in him now), Namit Das, Rajesh Sharma, and Rajkumar Gupta (I still have not forgotten Aamir) along with her, and the reason just got too ‘pregnant’ to ignore!

The film lets its audience down because the walk uphill was just not worth it because the view from the peak was a big, well, let down. The film creates a brilliant premise – a crook comes out of retirement to crack a final heist, only to forget where he hides the loot, with an oddball wife and sidekicks for company – and is supported with respectable performances from the four-person cast, music, and film making. The writing fails the film. The climax is just not worth it. It is just like climbing the Everest and being treated to an aerial view of Dharavi from the summit. While the climb was quite worth it, the view from the top leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. The suspense was well created which is definitely commendable and Namit Das shines (watch him in ‘Stories in a Song’ – a musical treat by Sunil Shanbag’s very talented theatre group). Vidya Balan was unnecessary and Emraan has finally shed the ‘kiss’ from his kismet. Mr. Gupta, you could have done better. Special mention of the absolutely hilarious Utpal Dutt-Jai-Veeru sequence. Also, catch Namit Das having phone sex in an extremely outlandish scene. Also catch him bullying a couch potato to give up his veggies. If only bits and pieces made a pie!

Lootera released last Friday. It always makes me laugh when the names that attract you fail and the one you paid least attention to, shines through and impresses you the most. Sonakshi Sinha, I apologize for having doubted your calibre as an actor. After this film, all I can only wish that you meet directors who want to make you act more and bare less. A simple story of a con man who cheats a zamindar family of all its wealth, falls in love with the girl and breaks her heart on the day of the engagement. A few years later, with the police hot on his tail, he meets her again when she needs her much more than he could ever imagine. Lootera is deliciously warm and artistic in the first half, regaling amidst all the Bengali zamindari finery. Sonakshi (she does not look Bengali at all. But the girl has such big pretty eyes!), Barun Chanda (one of the most handsome Bengalis when he debuted years ago. He still remains unforgettable from his Seemabaddha days), and Ranvir create a wonderful atmosphere of music, finery, and art. While the lead pair lacked the warmth and crackling tension required, it does not stand out as an anomaly. You just wish there was more of it. For example, when Sonakshi’s Pakhi walks into Ranvir’s Varun’s room in the dead of the night, you do not feel the fear-sexual tension-excitement-risk-anxiety emotional combination. But, what the first half lacks in emotional depth, the second half quite makes up for it. Pristinely shot Dalhousie in cool blue tones plays out as a beautiful canvas for the painful meeting between Pakhi and Varun. Layers of heartache, sorrow, betrayal, and illness form a wonderful patchwork supported by fine performances by the actors and crew. While Ranvir had a tough time garnering attention in the first half, he does match up to Sonakshi in the second. Also, the facial hair makes for a visual improvement. The tussle between Pakhi and Varun when he tries to inject her medicine, the encounter with the police in the alleys, Ranvir’s frustrated humour when he sees Divya Dutta pointing the gun at him – all bear proof of a director who is confident of his craft. Motwane should take a bow, he has a winner at hand. Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya are a great team producing some memorable tunes. While the screenplay is a tad too convenient at places, it is thankfully not melodramatic. The VFX team could have done a better job with the final scenes though, but I am sure that is forgivable. A stronger script and sizzling chemistry between the lead pair could have made this film one of the best films of these years.

 

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Both the films, and Hosseini show a tendency to experiment with the female characters, some being more successful than the other. While Balan’s character was definitely different on paper, it failed to do anything for the film and the screenplay. Sonakshi’s Pakhi has range – from a dominating young lass who becomes a die-hard romantic to a woman driven by revenge, pain, and failing health – which allows her to experiment and unfurl wings that had been hidden beneath the Rowdies and Dabbanggs of the world. Hosseini’s Nila Wahdati shines, almost luminescent, because of her beauty and intelligence and eventual tragedy. She spreads across the book, like a spicy perfume, lingering between the pages. From Suleiman to Nabi to her French lovers and her own daughter, she becomes a source of varied emotions evoked across characters. The rustic Parwana and Masooma mirror Nila’s pain and loneliness but lack her glamour and beauty, making them even more tragic individuals. Pari and Pari remain spectators, affected wholly but rarely become major players themselves.

Thus, I remain exhausted now. I look forward to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and a short trip to Bangalore. I am also itching to write the review for Ship of Theseus which I watched yesterday. I also have to finish reading Nude Before God, a two-decade old novel which I am planning to adapt into a play.

Yes, my hands and head are full.

 

Lazy Shorts of the Latest Flicks

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Now You See Me

No, I do not see you

This magic flick has one of the most envious casts in recent years. ‘Now you see me’ drew me in with the subject, the opening trick, the promise the film throbs with initially. And then, it fell limp. What worked against it were the glaring gaps in the plot, the series of unexplained twists and back stories, and unclear intentions. You are left asking all those questions they teach you in a journalism class – What the fuck? Who the heck? Why in God’s name? Where on earth? Whose the what the who?

Yes. That many unanswered questions. The great Caine-Freeman fireworks is not even given screen space to shoot off. Mark Ruffalo is usual. Isla Fisher is annoying. Jesse Eisenberg is deliciously arrogant and sarcastic, unfortunately wasted in this role. He will be noticed, but it does not add much to his resume. For magic lovers like me, I was left dissatisfied and irritated. Four street magicians from Las Vegas plan to pull off three kickarse heists. You have to be really talented to screw that up. And the director does just that.

If you love illusionists and street magic, at least give it a watch for all the initial showmanship and razzmatazz.

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Raanjhanaa

All the reasons why NOT to go to JNU

Boy loves girl. Girl gets tired of him loving her and says, ‘Ok, chalo, love kar hi lete hai!’ But boy is Hindu, girl is Muslim! <insert C-grade religious film lightning effect here> Girl’s family sends her off to Aligarh. Boy grows up, delivering gas cylinders and doing menial jobs in his Banarasi mohalla, and loving her – For 8 years. E I G H T years.

I will not get into the plot, which outdid its improbability with its length.  It was something that the director could work with, only if he had chopped it intelligently. Honestly, the heart was in the right place and I can understand the destructive passion the protagonist has. While Abhay Deol was a breath of fresh air, Dhanush (even though he was a visual disaster) played the role of the passionate lover to the hilt. While the character itself was very powerful, it required someone powerful enough to pull it off. Sonam is, as usual, ho-hum. The woman, one of the better dressed celebrities this country has, has the uncanny knack to always be unimpressive. She is always the demure Delhi girl. Or the feisty Delhi girl. Or the heartbroken Delhi girl. Next to Anushka Sharma, she is by far the most no-surprise actor we have these days. I wish there was more of Abhay Deol and less of JNU. While on one side, the film incorrectly romanticizes the institution as the most dynamic onus of student politics (I belong to Calcutta. Bitch, please), on the other it mocks the pseudo/wannabe intellectuals the hallowed campus consists of in the ‘why does a thief become a thief’ scene. Evil.

Rahman disappoints. So does the editor, whoever the person is. Raanjhanaa is a boring watch with a promising story. We made Darr a long time back. While the rules of unreciprocated love still remain the same, our film making ability has deteriorated.

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Shortcut Romeo

Who let the director out?

This director should never be allowed to shoot a film. Ever.

Neil Nitin Mukesh needs to go into rehab. He needs to pay for our stay at rehab (Everybody who will watch this film will need rehab. Or a week-long spa. Or a stay at Jindal’s Institute of Naturopathy and Yogic Sciences).

Ameesha Patel should get a botched lip job. Or a botched facelift. Or face cream poisoning. Anything that will make her do a Koena Mitra and never come out of her house ever again. She could also turn into a vampire for all I care.

All the African tribal men and women hired for the film should be psychologically counseled. They have been subjected to nothing but severe mental and physical violence. Now that I think about it, send them to rehab too.

The dialogue writer should never be allowed a pen. Or a keyboard.

This is how such serious offenders of cinema should be tackled. Period.