Raazi – A Review

Image result for raazi posterMeghna Gulzar directs Alia Bhatt in Raazi. Based on a book “Calling Sehemat” by Harinder Sikka the screenplay written by Meghna Gulzar and Bhavani Iyer tells the story of a 20-something Kashmiri girl who is inducted into the covert Indian spy network that was responsible for the defeat of Pakistan in the war of 1971 at the hands of the Indian armed forces.

Alia Bhatt plays Sehemat Khan – the daughter of Hidayat Khan played by Rajit Kapoor. Hidayat is friends with the Pakistan Army Brigadier Syed. Dying of cancer, Hidayat asks his friend to get his youngest son married to his only daughter. Vicky Kaushal plays Iqbal Syed, Sehemat’s betrothed. Sehemat gets married and is embedded in potentially one of the most influential households in the Pakistani army. Once there she starts passing on crucial pieces of information through many secretive channels back to Indian Intelligence Agency, and eventually saving the Indian armed forces from a deadly blow and consequentially causing Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war.

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Alia Bhatt plays Sehemat with a quiet confidence, she is not a natural spy and she doesn’t play pretend either. What she is though is a brilliant student with and eidetic memory. She learns quickly and masters the spy-craft. Once beyond enemy lines, there is a palpable sense of danger lurking every moment she goes trying to gather intelligence to pass back to India. You see her afraid and remorseful. You see her be resourceful and determined as well. And through it all you see her fall in love with her husband. Vicky Kaushal plays Iqbal with absolute honesty. He never overplays his hand in any scene. There is a surprising restraint to his performance which makes the budding romance seem even more real and even tenderer. It is therefore just as shocking when the climax comes around. The supporting cast is absolutely solid. Rajit Kapoor who plays Hidayat Sehemat’s father, Shishir Sharma who plays Brigadier Syed, Amruta Khanvilkar who plays Munira Syed, Aman Vashisht who plays Nikhil Bakshi and Jaideep Ahlawat who plays Khalid Mir are all exceptional. Soni Razdan, Alia’s real life mother plays her reel life mother Teji!

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The story is based off of Harinder Sikka’s novel Calling Sehemat, a based on true events tale that Sikka came across while embedded as a journalist during the Kargil war of 1999. The story of Sehemat as recounted by Sikka is fascinating. But what makes this translation on screen such a riveting watch is Meghna Gulzar’s Screenplay and Direction. I first fell in love with Gulzar’s craft with her debut movie Filhaal. A path breaking movie for its time in Bollywood. Gulzar then disappeared until she resurfaced with Talwar a couple of years ago and with Raazi she has established herself as someone to watch out for. Her detailed and believable translation from Sikka’s book to Alia’s portrayal on screen is absolutely thrilling. The spy-thriller genre is almost unheard of in Bollywood and Gulzar faithfully recreates the period and gets the grammar of the movie right. Despite a slightly shaky start once Gulzar reigns in the narrative she doesn’t let it and the audience’s attention slip even for a moment.

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The camera work isn’t the best – it comes in too close in most scenes and you lose the atmosphere a little because of it. Cinematographer Jay I Patel however shines in the more panoramic shots. The production and set design are fantastic and the selection of vintage cars a wonderful touch.  The music is classic Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, non-intrusive yet very effective. And Dilbaro is a brilliant song.

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A triumph in every aspect this is a movie for the ages. Alia continues to astound with the choices she makes in the roles she picks and depicts a maturity that belies her fresh looks. I cannot wait for Meghna to continue to defy expectations and chose varied subject matter and make movies that entertain and educate its audience in equal measure.

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Black Panther – A Review

Image result for black pantherRyan Coogler directs Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Michael B Jordan in Black Panther. Black Panther first made appearance in Marvel Cineverse with the Civil Wars and sees him return to the mythical African country of Wakanda to take to the throne after the death of its king T’Chaka.

 

Ryan Coogler has made quite an impact with his first two movies, Fruitvale Station and Creed, both movies pushing the boundaries with furthering the African-American representation in mainstream movies. Here again he teams up with his favoured actor Michael B Jordan. In Jordan, Coogler fleshes out Erik Killmonger in such a way that despite his villainous turn, the audience ends up being invested in him. Teaming with Black actors Coogler pulls off quite a stunning feat. The movie is lush and textured, it proudly embraces the African roots of T’Challa. The myths and motifs of African culture are in every scene. The battle scenes are choreographed to the tune of war drums, the subjects of Wakanda wear the most colourful garb and tribal jewellery. All actors wear their hair natural. The importance of this cannot be overstated. What Wonder Women did to represent the women as super hero, Black Panther does that for people of colour. There are only two white actors, Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman and for once they are relegated to unimportant roles.

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Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa is regal, lithe and ferocious all qualities befitting the Black Panther. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, the daughter of the tribe leader and T’Challa’s love interest is determined, industrious and benevolent all qualities that make a perfect queen of Wakanda. Danai Gurira as Okoye the general of the Milaje – the all women royal guard, is the stand out star of the movie for me. She is fierce in every possible way. She is a fierce warrior and she is Sasha Fierce, she flits like a butterfly and stings like a bee. Her spear handling is just as deadly as her deadpan humour. If only we can get a spin-off series for Okoye all will be well with this world. Angela Bassett as Queen mother is phenomenal and Letitia Wright as the whiz-kid princess Shuri, T’Challa’s sister is to Black Panther what Q is to James Bond and then some. Michael B Jordan is the perfect Erik Killmonger. He has a heart-breaking back story and he manages to balance that with sheer evil. The scenes between him and Boseman evoke the sense of Lion King-esque déjà vu

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I went in hoping to be blown away by the music, the trailer promised that it would have a very urban contemporary, rap, hip-hop feel to it but the overall soundtrack pales in comparison to that used for the trailer. In parts the story loses steam, especially when setting up the origin story and there are elements that feel a bit repetitive, the multiple visits to ancestral land, the ritual combat sequences, the final combat between T’Challa and Killmonger. Also Forrest Whitaker is as over the top as you would expect him to be. But it is easily overcome with the battle over ground with Rhinos involved and Okoye kicking serious ass! The CGI, especially around the Black Panther suit is phenomenal.

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While not quite on the same story telling scale as Nolan’s Batman Trilogy Black Panther does manage to lend a sense of mythical epic in the marvel universe. The humour which is the hallmark of Marvel takes a back seat to a story with a heart, a heart that throbs to the drumbeats and tribal calls of Africa. A new king has indeed risen and his name is Ryan Coogler! Wakanda Forever!

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Padman – A Review

Related imageBalki directs Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor in Padman, the story based on Padma Shri awardee Arunachalam Muruganantham, the innovator of low-cost sanitary pads.

 

Balki and Swanand Kirkire base the story on the short story written by Twinkle Khanna the wife of Akshay Kumar and also the producer of the movie. Akshay Kumar plays Lakshmikant Chauhan the eponymous Padman. Lakshmi is newly married and besotted with his wife Gayatri played by Radhika Apte. When she experiences her periods for the first time at her married home, he tries to talk her out of using a dirty rag and get her to use a store bought sanitary pad. She balks at price of it and tries to talk him out of it due to the high price. Lakshmi then embarks upon a quest to prototype his low-cost sanitary pad. The journey that Lakshmi undertakes all the way from being shamed out of his village to delivering a rousing “Linglish” speech at the united nation is fascinating.

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Akshay Kumar is fantastic as Lakshmi and brings a level of earnestness that lifts every scene he is in. The opening sequence song “Aaj se Teri” sets up Akshay’s character arc where he earnestly tries alleviate every single one of her problems, building a wooden seat for her to sit on his bicycle, a monkey toy onion chopper. He might be lacking in the formal education department but he makes up for that in his inquisitiveness. Radhika Apte plays Gayatri and she couldn’t be more of a contrast to Akshay Kumar. She is one note, whiny and overplays the ever silently suffering wife. For almost every scene she is in she is either crying her eyes out or passive aggressively berating Lakshmi for trying to help her. The whole “shame is worse than disease” cudgel she keeps beating over Lakshmi and the audience’s head gets really tiresome. Sonam Kapoor who makes an entry in the second half of the movie moves breezily from one scene to another. She is entirely believable as the college student who sees potential in Lakshmi’s reinvention of the Pad making machine and immensely likable – no small fete considering her previous work. Amitabh Bachchan who is a permanent fixture in every Balki movie chews up the scenery in the 2 minutes he is on screen. His screen presence is unparalleled and his baritone a calming balm on the frayed nerves after Apte’s annoying performance.

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The first half is hugely problematic with its pacing and overly regressive storyline. The whole premise of women using unhygienic rags is setup so tactlessly that it becomes impossible to feel anything for either the women who are suffering this plight or the one man who is trying his best to change the status quo. It is only when Lakshmi is left to his own devices that the movie really picks up steam in the second half. The writing is abysmal and the epiphanies that Lakshmi experiences when his boss at the garage spouts pearls of wisdoms is too on the nose. If not for Sonam Kapoor and Akshay Kumar the movie would have fallen in the same unfulfilled promise category as Balki’s previous Ki and Kaa. The music is catchy and does well to buttress the flailing script and the camera work is fantastic. Every scene is alive and vibrant. The locales of Madhya Pradesh lend a wonderful aesthetic backdrop to the rural setting lifting it out of poverty porn.

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A fascinating story, a decent second half and a strong acting turn from Akshay Kumar and Sonam makes this bearable outing. Balki ought to take directing lessons from his wife Gauri Shinde who knows how to let story translate on screen organically. Also I wish Balki took a page out of Oliver Stone’s book and got the real Padman deliver a final speech.

Molly’s Game – A Review

Image result for molly's gameAaron Sorkin directs Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in Molly’s Game. For his first directorial venture, Sorkin choses the explosive story of ex-Olympic class skier Molly Bloom and her high stakes poker game which brought everyone from Hollywood’s who’s to the billionaire wall street players around the table..

 

Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom and the story follows her near fatal fall while skiing to when she moves to Los Angeles to take an off year before law-school. Alternating between waitressing and temping at a real-estate developer in LA Molly is invited to play hostess at an exclusive poker game. This whets her appetite for the life of high stakes poker. What follows is the meteoric rise and the subsequent dramatic fall of the “Poker Princess”. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as Molly. She seems to be the embodiment of all of Sorkin women. She is equal parts emotionally fragile and stoic, at once resentful of all the people around her and at the same time acting as a sympathetic pit-boss when her players lose big or profess love to her. There are moments when you see glimpses of Maya from Zero Dark Thirty and that is a good thing. This movie is essentially a one woman show and Jessica Chastain carries the entire movie on her lithe shoulders.

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Idris Elba plays Charlie Jaffey, Molly’s lawyer. Elba is a hot-shot newyork lawyer and a former prosecutor who reluctantly agrees to take Molly’s case. Elba while possessing a great screen presence seems to struggle while enunciating his dialogues. Elba’s delivery is not best suited for the rat-a-tat-tat dialogues of a Sorkin screenplay also known as Sorkin-isms. Unfortunately Elba makes a real mess of his screen time and is nearly unbearable.

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Sorkin is a phenomenal writer and has turned in some of my favourite screenplays both on television and cinema. The West Wing, The Newsroom, The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs. But none of these were directed by Sorkin, and that is where I think Sorkin needs to up his game. The script and screenplay seem to become overbearing with Chastain’s Molly essentially doing a voice-over for almost the entirety of the movie. While Chastain is a phenomenal actress, her voice over skills make the proceedings feel like a real drag. With a Sorkin script the build-up is lengthy and very wordy but the pay-offs are huge and eternally satisfying, here there is so much build up about the high stakes poker and the players involved but the payoff feels like a  let-down

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The big ticket item is the who’s who of Hollywood who came to play at bloom’s games and here it is an afterthought. The juiciest bits are left off the screen and the burden of carrying the story forward falls on Chastain entirely.

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Mildly entertaining due to the fantastic Jessica Chastain but almost excruciating due to Idris Elba and his inability to speak clearly Molly’s Game is a Bad Beat- a subjective term for a hand in which a player with what appear to be strong cards nevertheless loses. I expected more from Sorkin’s directorial debut.