Farewell 2015, part II

So I’m going to be reviewing films from time to time for Scoopwhoop. Here are the first three, which were the last three Bollywood releases of 2015.

Tamasha:

“You may suspect there’s something slightly wonky upstairs when you see Ved in Corsica. Why is he having conversations with mountains instead of the human being in the car with him? Why is he mimicking Dev Anand and unleashing the worst pick-up lines ever? Why are random Corsicans singing and dancing with him? Why is this erratic behaviour charming to Tara?

However, it’s when Ved hurtles towards self-discovery that his insanity becomes unmistakable. He repeatedly talks to his own mirror image. He flies into fits of rage with Tara (because how better to show your love for a woman than by yelling at her?). He also goes to a storyteller (Piyush Mishra) and asks the old man to tell him how Ved’s story will end, as though the storyteller is an astrologer.”

Dilwale:

Dilwale is very literally a bromance and this is a critical problem because Dhawan and Khan make for an unbearable couple. Watching Dhawan attempting to copy Khan’s acting style is painful and you’d never believe this is the same actor from Badlapur. Not only does Dhawan sorely lack Khan’s distinctive charisma, there’s so much hamming in Dhawan’s performance that he may as well have added an “oink” at the end of each dialogue. Next to him, even Johnny Lever’s over-the-top antics seem normal.”

Bajirao Mastani:

“It’s easy to see why this story has delighted so many writers in Maharashtra. Bajirao and Mastani’s relationship was and remains as scandalous as it is progressive. The liberalism of Bajirao, Mastani and Kashi makes this historical account startlingly modern. Today, when accusations of love jihad and communal tensions surround us, this unflinching love story between a devout Hindu warrior and a non-Hindu princess (although her son was raised a Muslim, Mastani probably belonged to the Pranami sect that didn’t recognise caste or religious divides) is one that bears repeating.

Bhansali is not known for subtlety, but the way he criticises religious orthodoxy without speechifying is among Bajirao Mastani’ s finer qualities. The director is unabashedly against anti-Muslim paranoia and he cleverly weaves his liberal beliefs into the dynamics of the love triangle and political drama.”

 

Flashback: Surviving MSG 2 – The Messenger

This piece was first published on Firstpost.

Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan released MSG – Messenger of God on Valentine’s Day this year. In a miracle that rivals the Immaculate Conception, the godman has birthed a sequel just seven months later. It’s called MSG 2 – The Messenger. If there is a god, then no doubt he’s heaving a sigh of relief that “of god” has been dropped from the title. Sadly, no one else can feel relieved – certainly not this writer, who paid Rs 250 for a ticket and thus unwillingly contributed to MSG 2‘s kitty.

I walked out of MSG – Messenger of God because to consider it worthy of being reviewed offended my sensibilities. Not because I’m Bengali (our sensibilities are notoriously delicate and sophisticated) but because I have a functioning brain and I know the difference between cinema and propaganda. Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan is not a filmmaker and what he makes aren’t films. When we watch his on-screen spectacles, we are choosing to be entertained by the most tasteless exhibition of rhinestones in the history of human endeavour and letting a man with thoroughly questionable credentials get away with seeming like he’s a harmless entertainer.

Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan is neither harmless nor entertaining. If he was either, then one presumes he wouldn’t have to round up crowds of people from other parts of the country to fill theatres.

In Mumbai, there was only one morning show of MSG 2 and it was a full house. When I reached the cinema about 45 minutes before the show time, there was a man near the ticket counter who was talking loudly on the phone. “Twenty four were booked and I’ve bought 96 more,” he said in Punjabi-accented Hindi.

(When I went to get my ticket, I was told at the counter that there were just two seats available. “They’ve made block bookings,” said the man at the counter, with a pained expression.)

Fifteen minutes before the start of the show, the hordes started gathering outside the cinema’s entrance. Dressed in their Friday best, they came in like a procession. “Break it up,” ordered a young man wearing reflective wayfarers like the ones “Guruji” sports in MSG 2. “Go in in groups of two or three, not more than that,” he said. “Remember, two or three.”

Another man said, “Those who are going to the counter, over here.” Ten-odd people, mostly men, gathered around him. “You go one by one, and ask for tickets to the man on the other side of the glass.”

Further away, a woman was talking about the afternoon show’s timings. Someone else was distributing tickets to the people around him. One person asked him, “When will we go in?” He told them to be patient, that they would be told when it was time. I didn’t get the point of this vague answer until much later.

When the film started, the theatre was about half full. It was evident that most of the audience were not from Maharashtra. Either that or they’re unused to watching films in theatres. As the slide announced that the national anthem was about to start, just seven people stood up (four of them were film reviewers, incidentally). It took a few bars of “Jana Gana Mana” and some hissing to get everyone else in the theatre up on their feet.

By the time 10 minutes of the film had unfolded, more audience members started trickling in. Two or three people – most of them brandishing the torchlight on their phones – walked up and down the aisles, occasionally talking to someone who was seated. From time to time, one person would leave and another would take their seat. Sometimes groups of two or three would leave. Their seats would be filled by different people. It’s as though the audience was on rotation.

On screen, Guruji was telling us about the paramilitary relief force that he has set up, which has saved lives in Nepal and West Bengal. From being the man with a bastion of hospitals in MSG, Guruji is now the Dear Leader of an actual army it seems. His deputies wear boxy suits and have medals pinned to their chest. Just to make sure you don’t read too much into that or the fact that there’s footage of mass marriages that Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan has held for adivasi couples in order to “civilize them”, Guruji sings a love song. To himself. As in, he gazes into the eyes of his own mirror image and croons romantic lyrics. Praise be.

In MSG 2, which we’re told right at the onset is based on true events and “a fiction” simultaneously, adivasis need civilising and Guruji is the man to do it. Thanks to his awesomeness, he’s able to see adivasis are in fact human despite their tiger-striped-leopard-spotted boxers, brown body paint, dreadlocks, blackened teeth and the whooping noises that some of them make. So what if in addition to all this, the adivasis also eat beef, get drunk and don’t believe in marriage? They’re also cannibals, primitive, cruel, stupid and have a surprising affinity for shell jewellery, which is curious given MSG 2 appears to be set in landlocked north India.

Fortunately, Guruji is here to hose adivasis down, and give them manicures, clothes and moral values. Next thing we know, the adivasis emerge fairer, without dreadlocks and with brightly-coloured ensembles and nail paint. That a man with Guruji’s fashion sense is going to give any one advice on what to wear is itself astounding, but before you can be ironic, you have to listen to Guruji’s offensive spiel on how adivasis just need a love to go from asabhya to sabhya.

On the plus side, at least Guruji is anti child marriage and recognises that girls should be given an education. There’s also a contest between Guruji and an elephant and without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say the bigger belly wins.

It’s worth pointing out that Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan may be pulling out his gold-trimmed armguards and his Made-In-China sudarshan chakra, but his audience was not riveted by either his antics or his lectures. From my last-row perch, I could see a constellation of glowing screens, which is never an indicator of engagement (at least not to what’s on the bigger screen). There were no applauses, no cheers. There may have been a snore or two.

About 15 minutes before the interval, when I was trying to decide if I should leave the cinema now or let my intelligence and aesthetics be assaulted till the end of the first half, the seat next to me emptied. A woman sat down a little while later. “You’re not allowed to record the film,” she told me. I told her I would rather die than have even a second of this on my phone. She blinked. I realised I’d spoken in English so I said in Hindi that I wasn’t recording it.

“You turned on your phone,” she said. “I saw the light.” Then she realised that I was using the phone to light up the page on which I was taking notes (yes, it’s true, I have notes for MSG 2).

“What are you writing?” she asked me. “You can’t write down the story.”
“There’s a story?”
“What?”
“I’m allowed to write anything I want actually,” I told her.
“You can’t write the whole story,” she insisted.
“According to whom?”
“I want to see what you’ve written.”

I handed her my note book, confident in my ghastly handwriting. I can barely make out my notes and I’m the one who wrote them. This hapless woman didn’t have a chance in hell.

By this time, one of the torchlight patrolmen had showed up. He peered down at us.

“She’s writing in her book,” the woman told him. He shone the light at my notebook for a moment and then on my face.
“You can’t write in here,” he told me.
“Who says?” I asked.
“It’s not allowed.”
“Who says?” I repeated.
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?” I asked in return.
“Punjab.”
“You’re far away from home,” I told him.

On screen, an eagle had dropped what looked like a coconut on an adivasi village. The coconut cracked open and it appeared to be full of blood instead of, well, coconut.

“It’s not allowed, to record the story,” said the young man.
“I’m not recording it.”
“You’re writing it.”
“First of all, I’m not writing the story. Secondly, even if I did, it’s allowed.” I smiled with what I hope was saccharine sweetness.
“There are more of us here,” he told me.
“That doesn’t mean the rules change,” I replied. “It’s still not a crime to write in a cinema. I’m pretty sure it is a crime to bring in more than one person with one ticket though.” I smiled at him again, inwardly cursing my ghastly Hindi grammar.

The young man switched his torch off. “You want me to sit here?” he said in Punjabi to the woman beside me. The woman shook her head. He went and dislodged a boy from the row in front of me and sat down.

On screen, an adivasi boy grabbed hold of a CGI snake and shook its head. A little later, Guruji revealed among his many miraculous talents is the ability to communicate telepathically with buffaloes. A buffalo whisperer – if that isn’t an honest-to-goodness Punjabi superpower, I don’t know what is.

I left the cinema at interval. When I reached the office, in my inbox was an email informing me MSG 2 had had record-breaking first shows in Gurgaon. I’m expecting one about its box office run in Mumbai soon enough.

Farewell 2015, part I

At the start of every year, I look back and realise, “Crap. Haven’t updated the links for x months.” This 2016 is no different. So here are the movie reviews from September and October.

Welcome Back: Biggest surprise of 2015, since I was well prepared to hate this film. 

“There’s a lot to love in Welcome Back if you don’t expect intelligence from the film. Like a sequence in which Uday and Majnu play antakshari with ‘ghosts’ in a graveyard (with neon tombstones, no less). You get to hear Kapoor singing “My name is Lakhan” after 26 years. There’s also a don named Wanted Bhai who gets a operatic chorus sing “Wanted Bhaaai” each time he makes an entrance. Just to bring this character home, his son’s name is Honey (played by Shiney Ahuja, which makes this role a double whammy of unfortunate names). And let’s not forget the desert chase that involves hovercrafts, skydivers, four-wheel drives, helicopters as well as a random train of camels.”

Hero: Possibly the most forgettable film of the year. Not sure. I forget.

“By the time interval strikes, you’ve got to feel bad for young Pancholi and Shetty. Sooraj and Radha may be sporting bruises that look like the make-up team was using lipstick to make tally marks — perhaps to show how many days of shooting these two newcomers had survived? — but the real wounds are deep. Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt got the vapid but glossy Student of the Year. Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor got the nonsensical and lavish Saawariya. The son of Aditya Pancholi and daughter of Sunil Shetty get Hero, a film as B-grade as their fathers’ filmography. Herois ill-conceived, outdated and lazily made, with neither director nor crew giving a hoot for details like continuity or logic. Pancholi and Shetty deserved better; not because they’re star kids, but because as actors they commit as much as they can to the colossal ineptitude that is their debut film.”

Katti Batti: Evidence of Bollywood’s stupid convention of privileging gender over talent.

“Give the film a little more time and you’ll realise that the film is not a study of what love means to lunatics. It’s disguised marketing for a manufacturer of toilets. Or perhaps this is Advani subtly accepting just how bad Katti Batti is.

There are critical moments of the film in which toilet bowls appear for absolutely no reason. For instance, when Maddy meets Payel’s ex-boyfriend, it’s in a toilet. They could have chatted by the wash basins, but no. We see the ex-boyfriend pee in one cubicle while Maddy sits on the toilet, in the neighbouring cubicle, comforting his turtle. This is not a euphemism. Maddy and Payel have a pet turtle named Milkha, which might be the only joke in Katti Batti that works.”

Meeruthiya Gangsters: Meh. 

“If Quadri is to be believed, then Meeruthiya Gangsters is an honest portrait of the average youth of UP. This is not a particularly heartening thought because then, one would have to surmise young men in UP are not just cartoonish and prone to mindless violence, but also idiots. South India and women in general, please refrain from holding up “Told you so” placards.”

Black Mass: Yet another piece of evidence for the case that Johnny Depp is among the most overrated actors in Hollywood.

“The questions that we should be asking while watching BlackMass are whether Whitey will actually succeed in getting the better of the FBI and if Connolly will get sniffed out? Instead, we find ourselves wondering whether the wig on Edgerton’s head is made of plasticine and if the expressionless Depp is actually a vampire, because what else explains that Edward Cullen-esque pallor and lifelessness? The prosthetics, fake hair and ice-blue contact lenses make Depp resemble Whitey, but it’s all so patently a feat of make-up that Whitey might as well have been CGI.

Despite being based on a true story, Black Mass feels theatrical and fake. Everyone is obviously playing a part and the performances all feel hollow.”

 

Pawn Sacrifice: One of my favourite films of 2015.

“This is an intriguing story that’s made gripping by Zwick’s masterful direction and the extraordinary performances that he gets out of his immensely talented cast. Maguire is incandescent as Fischer and despite being the film’s producer, he doesn’t whitewash Fischer in order to get sympathy. His Fischer is a brat, ungrateful, disturbed and trying — but we still care for him.”

Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon: Just kill me already. 

“KKPK is on its own planet. Ergo, Bholu — the dude who drives a fancy car, works in a fancy building, wears three-piece suits and shiny sunglasses, and is a trigamist. In Mumbai, where single people and unmarried couples struggle to find flats to rent, Bholu lives in a building called Cocktail Tower, with three wives, housed in three separate floors, and no one bats an eyelid. It’s home science, KKPK style.”

Calendar Girls: A gigantic case of #ButWhy?

“Unfortunately, Bhandarkar’s nose for stories isn’t matched either by his writing or directorial talent. It doesn’t help that he chooses to collaborate with people like his writing partner on Calendar Girls, Rohit Banawlikar. There are a lot of people who work hard to make Calendar Girls worse than it could have been, like the sound department that not only layers the film with a terrible background score, but also makes it painfully obvious that the dialogues were dubbed. However, few can match Banawlikar’s contribution toCalendar Girls’ downfall. His dialogues are so awkward and stilted that you will feel physical pain while listening to the actors struggle with their lines.

This is particularly disappointing because – brace yourselves – a lot of the conversations in Calendar Girls pass the Bechdel Test. Much like in real life, the women chatter a lot about work. They’re ambitious, hardworking, and a credible mix of good and bad qualities. They’re all friends who accept each other’s quirks with an eye roll and a grin. Barring their terrible make-up and wardrobe, these women are all surprisingly normal, which is a huge improvement from the last time Bhandarkar wandered into the world of glamour, in the godawful Fashion.”

The Martian: So. Much. Fun.

“The cast of The Martian is brilliant and particularly gifted at comedy. Damon is perfect as the cocky and brilliant Watney, who holds on to his good cheer with a desperate determination as time wears on. He gets most of the screen time and makes every second count. Watching him sitting around in Mars, listening to disco and talking to himself, you might just find yourself wishing the rescue mission gets delayed because it would mean some more time alone with Mark.”

Talvar: One of the best films of 2015. 

Talvar should be mandatory viewing for every police force and investigative agency around the country, who must confront and take responsibility for what their colleagues have done. Aarushi and Hemraj’s blood lies on their hands as much as on those of the actual killer. Loyalists of our law enforcement agencies may argue that this case is an exception. One desperately hopes that is indeed the the truth because if this case is the norm, then it’s a wonder anyone bothers to report a crime in this country.”

Singh is Bliing: Hello Akshay Kumar!

“Akshay Kumar is proof that ageing is a wondrous thing. He didn’t have even a fraction of this onscreen charm when he was in the prime of his youth. It’s not just that Kumar looks infinitely better — the death of the Nineties’ mullet has been a boon in many heroes’ lives — but as a grizzled older man, he’s also commanding the screen with far more confidence and grace than he did before.”

The Walk: One of the most disappointing Hollywood films of 2015.

“There would be no need to bring up Marsh’s documentary if The Walk made for compelling viewing and was an insightful portrait of Petit. Zemeckis had Petit’s autobiography as his source as well as Petit himself (Petit was a consultant on the film). Zemeckis also had at his disposal a big budget and contemporary digital imagery. Yet, the shadow of Marsh’s documentary looms large over The Walk. The photographs with blurred outlines of Petit sitting on almost-thin air, of him grinning as he walks on the wire and away from the hapless policemen on the roof of one of the twin towers — they’re actually far more captivating than anything Zemeckis and his crew are able to recreate.”

Jazbaa: Shed a tear for Aishwarya Rai having to settle for this as her comeback vehicle.

“One of the meta questions that Jazbaa raises is, just how shameless is Gupta? The director has the audacity to end his film with a slide that tells gives you statistics about rape, as though it’s an issue close to Jazbaa‘s heart. Does Gupta really think that we won’t notice how one woman’s rape is re-enacted for the audience’s viewing ‘pleasure’ no less than three times? It didn’t need to be shown even once. Do the depressing statistics make up for how the film suggests women should feel guilty about working hard and choosing to leave an unhappy marriage? Jazbaa also suggests daughters raised by single mothers are more vulnerable and therefore likely to suffer violence in the hands of strangers. What gives?”

Pyaar ka Punchnama 2: Gentlemen, seriously?

“According to Ranjan, women come in three flavours of manipulation: bimbo, spineless and gold-digger. They enter men’s lives and ravage them with either their stupidity or their mind games. Men, fuelled by lust and luuurve, are defenceless against women. That in a nutshell is the plot of Pyaar ka Punchnama 2. The three heroes do everything the heroines demand, but it isn’t ever enough. The women reduce the alpha males to unpaid labour, credit card debt and nail polish, so that by the end, the men are just beta. The Hindi beta, that is. Since spoilers are frowned upon, let’s just say that for Pyaar ka Punchnama 2‘s three heroes, mum’s the word.”

Shaandaar: A colossal mess. 

“Nothing adds up in Shaandaar and few of the characters have any sort of evolution. Alia is the wild child, Bipin is the kindly but weak-spirited daddy dearest. Jagjinder is the hardworking good guy. The only thing worse thanShaandaar‘s script is the editing, which makes the film a meandering, boring medley of forgettable songs, interspersed with some laboured comedy. The pace is slack and there’s no tension in the film. Frequently, it feels like large chunks of the story were snipped to make space for fluffy, silly repartee that contributes to neither character nor plot. Then at one point, as though no one could bear it anymore, the story gets bundled into a rushed ending. The only thing worse than the editing is the unnecessary and amateurish CGI that plagues the entire film.”

July Links: Ahalya, Amy, Minions, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and more

My reviews of MinionsI Love NYBaahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Masaan.

Asif Kapadia used paparazzi footage and home video to great effect in Amy. It was strangely unsettling to realise that ‘candid’ home videos ended up being far less honest and revealing than what the paparazzi showed of the singer. Ultimately, as they sniffed compulsively for scandal and weakness, those photographers ended up documenting just how troubled Winehouse was, while in her friends’ and family’s videos, she seems to constantly be performing an act of normalcy.

Sujoy Ghosh made a short film for the web titled Ahalya, which reminded me of the previous tellings of this myth. The unedited version of this essay is up at The Growlery.

What we can do, however, is wonder and interpret. Because wound into an epic that reeks of testosterone, aggression and masculine strength is the story of a woman whom society and its code of ethics fail. She follows all the rules and yet is wronged by the man who marries her and used by another man who claims to be in love with her. Perhaps it’s a word of warning that in the games of masculine posturing, the victim and the pawn is the woman. This was true in the golden age with Ahalya, when Indra’s wounded ego demanded he have the last hurrah in his competition against Gautam and Gautam couldn’t tolerate the idea of having been bested by Indra. It happens again, 60,000 years later, when Sita is ostensibly the reason that Rama goes to war against Ravana. Yet when the war is over, Rama first rejects her as impure even though she’s been faithful to him and then abandons her. It’s almost as though the narrator is suggesting – albeit with great subtlety – that some things don’t change with time.