Saturday, February 17, 2018


Men At Arms

In the Hindi fantasy novels of Chandrakanta vintage, aiyaars were shape-shifting spies who were exerts with disguises, chemicals and medicinal herbs. Which is why the title of Neeraj Pandey’s new film, Aiyaari, made it sound exciting.  That it turns out such a dud is disappointing because Pandey has been behind thrillers like A Wednesday, Baby, Special 26 and Naam Shabana.

The idea of a covert intelligence unit that will be thrown under a bus if anything goes wrong, has been used in many films, including his own Baby. So is Aiyaari cobbled together from scenes left out of earlier scripts? It lacks the cohesion and tautness expected from a film by Pandey.

Right off, it displays it sloppiness, when the head of the covert unit, Colonel Abhay Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), goes to Egypt to kill a villain – who? why? not explained—and intends to kill him from the window of his hotel room, not with a sniper’s rifle, but a revolver. And then, incredibly, the bullets are in the hotel safe! So, no matter how well the chase and killing is shot in a busy Cairo market, the sequence is dead on arrival.

There are many such glitches scattered through the film, but the biggest flaws are its sluggish pace and incoherence. 
Abhay’s acolyte Major Jai Bakshi (Sidharth Malhotra), overhears, literally via an electronic fly on the wall (a General’s room is not routinely checked for listening devices!) an arms broker Gurinder (Kumud Mishra) offering the General (Vikram Gokhale) a bribe to pass bogus arms bills.  He must have also heard the refusal, but, concluding that the system is corrupt (which is no big secret), he goes rogue.
What exactly he means to do with the data he steals from his unit is not clear either, but a fuming Abhay chases him and his hacker girlfriend (Rakul Preet Singh, decorative) to London, from where a mysterious arms dealer Mukesh Kapoor (Adil Hussain) supposedly pulls strings in Delhi. There are needless flashbacks in Kashmir, which add to the film’s 160-minute run time, but nothing to the narrative.
Then, apropos of nothing, the whole mess is dumped in Mumbai and the Adarsh scam—which is no spoiler, because it has been revealed in the film’s publicity pieces—and the audience is left wondering about the connection.
Bajpayee (always dependable) and Malhotra (always bland) do get to don a couple of disguises each, but that hardly matters. The film just goes all over the place and though some individual scenes are interesting, the whole thing just never adds up.
The crucial question the film raises and answers vaguely, is why Indian ex-armymen become weapons dealers!  There is a film there, but Aiyaari is not it.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


Cellulose Love

It is perhaps because Akshay Kumar is in social reformer mode that a film like Padman even got made. If he could make film about toilets watchable, surely he can sell the idea of low cost sanitary pads. It helps that his wife Twinkle Khanna wrote a story based on the Coimbatore-based menstrual hygiene activist Arunachalam Muruganantham, and also produced the film, directed by R. Balki. (Phullu, an earlier film made on the same subject and the documentary Menstrual Man went unnoticed). 
The Southern setting of the story is moved to Madhya Pradesh, the character of a table-playing MBA Pari (Sonam Kapoor) added to it for glamour and romance, and Pad Mangets off the ground with the marriage of Laxmikant Chauhan (Kumar) to Gayatri (Radhika Apte).  The gully boys know, but Laxmi is surprised to learn that menstruating women have to spend five days outside the house and nobody can touch them. He is even more astonished to learn that his wife used a dirty rag.  She refuses his gift of expensive sanitary pads (what will mother-in-law say!), so he gets obsessed with the idea of making low cost pads. 

His family breaks up, his wife leaves him out of shame, and he is banished from the village as a pervert. Step by boring (for the audience) step he makes a machine to manufacture low cost cellulose pads.  He wins an award for innovation (Amitabh Bachchan drops by to make an inspiring speech), the smitten Pari helps him market the pads door to door and the two also teach other women to make and sell them so that they can be financially independent.  Laxmi even gets to make a long speech in broken English at a UN meet in New York.  After getting a Padma Shri, he returns to the village in triumph. 
As a story of a man’s journey Padman is fine; you even overlook the constant mansplaining and chest thumping (“a man is a man only if he can protect women”). The first half has its moments of comedy mixed with melodrama. But there is difference between manufacturing a two-rupee pad (which would be out of reach of most poor women anyway), and tacking social taboos surrounding menstruation. For instance, many educated urban women won’t go to a temple when they are menstruating; in many households women do not cook for five days. Not to even mention problem of disposal of these pads in villages, and the environmental cost of non-biodegradable material being flushed into sewer lines. 
Maybe it is too much for a single film to tackle. It is enough that Akshay Kumar brought his star power and considerable charm to the film and at least started an open conversation about menstruation.

Thursday, January 25, 2018


Beautiful And Regressive

First of all, the Rajputs have nothing to object about in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat.  The filmmaker has glorified their valour and even their foolishness couched as ‘usool’ (principles).  If at all anyone has the right to protest somewhat, it would be the descendants (if any) of the Khilji clan, portrayed as greedy, lustful, unscrupulous savages without a trace of human decency.

The film throws a challenge at all those who decry the Karni Sena violence and the political filibustering that followed, if freedom of expression and creative liberty are to be safeguarded, then Bhansali’s film with its discomfiting currents of sexism, racism and obscurantism has to be defended too. Maybe the last is slightly acceptable because it is a period film, but then the question arises, why made film that glorifies mass female ritual suicide (jauhar). At the time when the story is set (14th century), with constant warfare going on and repeated invasions by foreign (read Muslim) rulers, the only way to save women from dishonor was to kill them. The onus of honour was on the shoulders of women then, as now; unlike Japanese harakiri, under which men killed themselves by the sword if they were dishonoured.  But watching a film today, in which a queen exhorts a horde of women dressed in bridal red (including a pregnant woman and a child) to jump into the fire, is distressing. That along with the Rani of Jhansi, Rani Padmavati is practically the only woman from Indian history held up as an example of courageous womanhood, is even more disturbing.
That said, the film will be seen by audiences in large numbers, because Bhansali lays out spectacle like no other.  Everything is opulent, larger-than-life (kudos to the production design and costume team) and aesthetically lit and shot (Sudeep Chatterjee), even the dark, unsightly living quarters of the Khilji barbarians.  

Ranveer Singh plays Alauddin Khilji with energetic glee and the many close-ups show him with an avaricious or depraved expression. In contrast, Rawal Ratan Singh of Chittor is upright and dignified. When he falls in love with Sinhala princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), he marries her; the first wife Nagmati Anupriya Goenka) summarily discarded. Khilji treats his wife Mehrunnisa (Aditi Rao Hydari) disrespectfully, kills her father and brother; on the day of his wedding to her, he is with another woman, and then dances with wild abandon.

His blood thirst and lust are Khilji’s only defining features—he even has a male lover, his chief aide Malik Kafoor (Jim Sarbh), used for mild comic relief and referred to contemptuously as Khilji’s begum

Ratan Singh banishes his Rajguru (Aayam Mehta) on his new bride’s insistence; he promptly joins the Khilji camp and tells him that he could rule the world with the beautiful Padmavati by his side. Khilji carries out a long siege of Chittor that ends with the capture of Ratan Singh. Padmavati, crosses the palace threshold, that was forbidden to women, and actually rescues her husband without ever showing her face to any enemy male. An enraged Khilji attacks viciously this time, and the end of the story is known, so it’s no spoiler.

Bhansali uses bits of his own films—the swirling ghaghra dance,  Khilji doing a macho foot-stomping number Khali Bali, just like Malhari from Bajirao Mastani; in the earlier film the romance grew when the woman was wounded, in this when Ratan Singh is accidentally shot by Padmavati’s arrow. (There is even a nod to the last scene from Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala).

To his credit, Bhansali portrays Padmavati as intelligent and brave, he also gives Mehrunnisa a redeeming sequence and a spine—both women were restricted by social rules of their time, or they might have lived better.

Khilji had more to him than his insane desire for an unseen queen—he was known for reforms and pro-poor measures-- but Bhansali’s film has no room for nuance. All characters are uni-dimensional, still, Ranveer Singh’s fascinatingly vile warrior king overshadows both kohl-eyed and stiff upper-lip Shahid Kapoor, as well as the gorgeous Deepika Padukone using her expressive eyes. Unfortunately, the prominent image of Padmavati in the film is her marching resolutely to her death, of course, not before taking permission from her husband to die.  By the time the inevitable climax arrives, viewer are probably exhausted, if they weren’t already with the needless controversy surrounding the film.

Monday, January 22, 2018

My Birthday Song 

Confusion Confounded

There’s unseasonal rain in Delhi, a successful adman is celebrating his fortieth birthday.  His wife is away, a pretty woman keeps eyeing him, and makes an excuse to stay on when other guests have left.  The man has no qualms about a roll in bed with a consensual partner. The evening ends in a shock for him, but things are not what they seem. 
Actor Samir Soni has written, co-produced and directed My Birthday Song,attempting a ‘psychological thriller’ that is beyond his capabilities as a newbie director, and beyond the acting skills of his cast; since Suri is in every frame, that is a problem.  A plot like this has to be convincing even in its realm of illogicality or alternate reality – Groundhog Day is a fine example. 
Anyway, when Rajiv Kaul (Sanjay Suri) wakes up the next day, everybody is wishing him a happy birthday and there is no sign of the party or the incident of the previous evening, but things that were said then, seem to be coming true.  It would spook anyone, and Rajiv is baffled when the shocking event seems to recur. 
The script bungs in many inexplicable happenings, but doesn’t go anywhere. When the ‘aha’ moment comes, it is too late, and too implausible. If the director is tying himself up in knots, at least the pace should be so brisk that the audience doesn’t get a chance to think; but a lot of the film’s run time has Kaul run around with a bewildered expression or drive around maniacally; every scene goes on for much too long and is accompanied by an obtrusive soundtrack. 
The best thing that could be said about My Birthday Song is that at least the first-time director did not pander to commercial demands and made the kind of film he wanted to.  

Sunday, January 14, 2018


It Happened One Night
A  man (Saif Ali Khan) is told in scene one that he is dying of cancer. The clean-living fellow is obviously gobsmacked. This is one of the tracks Akshat Verma’s Kaalakaandifollows in the romp through a night in Mumbai. 
 It is the story with most potential, and unfortunately, other pointless, clichéd and dull subplots intervene. The man, whose name is discovered only at the end, barely has time to register the trauma because his cousin Angad (Akshay Oberoi) is getting married, and suffering pre-wedding jitters.
The guy with just a few months to live, goes what-the-hell, downs a drink and pops a pill, and then drives the groom for a haircut, but Angad has an assignation with an old flame, which goes predictably wrong.
In between the drugged man’s hallucinations, two tough-talking gangsters (Vijay Raaz, Deepak Dobriyal) drive around trying to figure out a foolproof way of gypping their boss of his extortion money. (When will filmmakers drop their Quentin Tarantino obsession?)
In an upper class apartment, a young woman (Sobhita Dhulipala) is getting ready to go the US for further studies, with her insecure boyfriend (Kunaal Roy Kapur) hovering around with a panty on his face for some reason! These two decide to drop by at a friend’s (Shenaz Treasurywala, catching the right dopey tone) party which is raided by the cops.
If there is any bit of this hodge-podge that is moving and funny, it is the encounter of the dying man with a transgender hooker Sheela (Nary Singh). She shows the man, by now uninhibited enough to needle a cop, how to enjoy an evening with abandon and lack of shame. Sheela gives him that funny hairstyle, make-up and feathered shrug that Saif Ali Khan is seen wearing in the creatives of the film. The look probably meant to prove that an actor can consent to look ridiculous to get into the spirit of the role, succeeds to some extent; it is as if the man in this weird garb is cocking a snook at death.
Trying very hard to go for black humour and cool, profanity-laden dialogue in Hindi and English, the film does not quite work either as a comedy or as a thriller and certainly not as a rumination on mortality. Saif Ali Khan is going for unconventional roles and delivering the goods with his performances—this is one of his better ones—but consistently being let down by the writers and directors.

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