Udta Punjab – A Review

Abhishek Chaubey directs Shahid Kapur, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Diljit Dosanjh in Udta Punjab a story set in Punjab and the crippling effects of drugs and the complicated narco-politics. Udta Punjab hogged the headlines for a better part of the two weeks leading up to its release with its run-ins with the chief of the Censor board in India.

Udta Punjab is a story of two halves, the privileged – a Rockstar and a doctor and the under privileged a migrant labourer and cop trying to find his conscience. A half that is putting up a valiant fight in the war on drugs and the other that is responsible for perpetuating the drug menace.

Shahid Kapur plays Tommy a Rockstar whose songs promote drug abuse and the only way he can seem to perform is by getting high. Daljit plays Sartaj a Cop who turns a blind eye to the drug trafficking and accepting bribes. Kareena plays doctor Preet who runs a rehab project and treats patients of overdose. Preet is also a campaigner for the war on drugs. Alia plays an unnamed Bihari migrant worker who falls victim to drug addiction when she is kidnapped and kept locked up as a sex slave. She fights the addiction and tries to find ways to escape her predicament.

Udta Punjab is a story of halves, in that the first half tries to establish the backstory for each of its four protagonists and the second halve sees their story to its conclusion. The second half is gritty and grim with a couple of elements of slapstick which bring a welcome relief to the tragic drama unfolding. The first half suffers in comparison with the over the top antics of Tommy which add nothing to the movie. Also because the epiphany that he feels in the second half cannot somehow be reconciled with how his character has grown. The first half grates and the second half has pacing issues. Also Kareena is less Doctor and more investigative journalist. It honestly would have worked better had she played a journalist who is the sister of a doctor who runs the rehab clinic – the story would have seemed more plausible.

The actors all put in strong performances ranking them in ascending order of merit we start with Kareena who puts in a restrained performance that is a rarity from her. Diljit shuffles between a bumbling do-gooder cop and a hot headed corrupt cop but with the amount of time he gets on screen he is immensely watchable and a welcome authentic regional casting choice as a Punjabi cop. Shahid Kapur is fantastic the opening Chitta ve number is reminiscent of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey’s Dhan Te Nan vibe. He gives himself completely to the role and the only reason why he is the top performer in this movie is because his character is not fully developed. They try to make him into a good guy towards the end and the transition is sudden, abrupt and a bit disingenuous. The best of the lot is Alia Bhatt. She as the unnamed Bihari migrant farm worker who ends up suffering the most is the only character that you are invested in from the beginning. Her vulnerability and inner resolve make you root for her from the very get go. Alia has mastered emotional outburst – she showed glimpses of brilliance in Highway but here she goes ballistic when she recounts her tale and the misery she has gone through in the second half. When Shahid suggest suicide to end this misery, she throws a shoe at him for putting such thoughts in her head. You know her strength. You know she won’t give up. Alia is a beautiful privileged star child who was launched into Bollywood with a dream launch but the path she has carved out for herself with the acting choices is worthy of appreciation. She is the stand out star of this movie despite a role that isn’t that big.

The music isn’t that great. The story telling is chaotic. The dialogues are either too run of the mill or make no sense. Especially the Jameen Banjar Aulad Kanjar makes no sense because Punjab’s land is one of the most fertile and its sons form a majority of the forces protecting our borders. Abhishek Chaubey’s direction isn’t distinctive enough but Rajeev Ravi’s work behind the camera is stunning.

The controversy that preceded the movie and the PR by its makers would lead one to believe that this was a movie that would make ground shattering statement that would hold up a mirror to the society. This movie does that in parts but it essentially bungles up a fantastic opportunity. It is neither Requiem for a Dream which shows the devastating effects of drugs nor is it Sicario which focuses on the war on drugs. But thanks to Alia Bhatt’s riveting performance this rises above the mundane.

Bombay Velvet – A Review

Anurag Kashyap directs Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma and Karan Johar in Bombay Velvet, a film noir entailing the nascent days of creation of India’s financial capital. A much anticipated movie given the talent attached and the likes of Thelma Schoonmaker ( Scorsese’s preferred editor) Bombay Velvet has a lot of hype thanks to Kashyap and Johar’s media savvy and a lot hope to revive the floundering career of Ranbir Kapoor, Bollywood’s best actor who has sort of fallen off the wagon.

Anushka Sharma plays Rosie Noronah a goa-born jazz singer who comes to Mumbai hoping to make a name for herself as a singer. Ranbir Kapoor plays Johnny Balraj a small-time crook who dreams of dying as a big-shot and moon-lights as a street fighter to sort out his anger issues. Karan Johar plays Kaizad Khambatta a mobster who wants a piece of the pie in the transformation of the 7 islands to the metropolitan city that Bombay would come to be. With these ambitions driving the lead characters this ought to have been a stylized and cathartic look at the DNA that embodies Mumbai even today. But poor character development and appallingly bad screenplay, movie ends up being more style than substance.

Kashyap seems to have been too busy in the lush production designs aimed at recreating the 60s period look than any attempt at compelling story telling. And even the period recreation seems to rely a little too heavily on the Hollywood version of the 20s and 30s prohibition era inspired movies that romanticised gangsters than a realistic representation of Bombay of the 60s. The movie is supposedly inspired by real-life events fictionalised for dramatic flair. Even the closing credits tell us of Rosie’s fate post the events of the movie and it seems to me that Kashyap, Vasan Bala and Gyan Prakash Thyani relied too heavily on the fading memory of a septuagenarian to ever be in any position to tell a coherent story. Story arcs take off and veer into nothingness. Take for instance Jimmy Mistry the editor of Glitz Newspaper a left-leaning mouthpiece aimed at exposing the corrupt nexus at the base of the Bombay redevelopment plan. He is a major player in the first half of the movie and in the second half – Nothing! Even the actions of its lead pair seem to be hare-brained, they are in love one moment, scheming the next and back in love immediately afterwards. Also Karan Johar who plays a supposedly closeted mobster spouts “tumne usme aisa kya dekha jo mujme nahi hai” out of nowhere and it all just starts feeling like an elaborate joke. The acting is atrocious and the dialogue delivery flat. Ranbir who usually is able to make every character relatable seems to be phoning it in with his crook with a heart of gold act. His character is poorly written and he does nothing spectacular to salvage it. Anushka Sharma continues her transformation into a human babushka doll resembling more and more like Kim Kardashian in appearance and talent. Karan Johar who make his acting debut (DDLJ notwithstanding) and it might join the list of shortest acting career ever. He might be a good director-producer but an actor he is certainly not.

Besides the main lead the supporting cast is poorly cast. For a role as significant as Jimmy Mistry’s the casting of Manish Chaudhary is baffling as he brings nothing to the character. Kay Kay Menon is wasted as detective/inspector. Mastermind’s Siddhartha Basu as Bombay Mayor Romil Mehta is the stereotypical corrupt politician and he does nothing to elevate his performance. Vivaan Shah as the chauffer Tony is just a pitiful waste of space that honestly serves no purpose. The only character who seems to have anything invested in this movie is Satyadeep Mishra who plays Johnny’s sidekick Chiman. He has a sense of gravitas and plays the devil’s advocate to Ranbir’s Johnny.

Amit Trivedi’s music outside of the movie induces nostalgia to the days of Geeta Bali and other such elusive chanteuses. But the background score often overwhelms the scenery and becomes an overbearing distraction. Niharika Khan’s costume work on Anushka’s stage outfits is staggering and it creates for some stunning shots. But at the same time the costume work overall is pretty inconsistent. Take for instance the police, the commissioner is in khaki, Kay Kay Menon in short sleeve shirts and a hat and sub-inspector in all whites. It is nuances like these that are missing which takes the audience out of the equation and you end up not caring about the going-ons on the screen. 

Prerna Saigal a first time film editor who collaborated with Thelma Schoonmaker seems to have failed in her duty as an editor as the film’s two and half hour runtime seems far too bloated for its own good. Perhaps it was the poor story and screenplay which did her in but even as an editor there was room to salvage this from becoming an unbearable monstrosity it ended up as. I very nearly walked out at interval because the first half was so life-draining. The first few scenes of the second half gave me hope but then nothing. Characters of no significance were introduced in important scenes and then disposed of just as unintelligently. Also clearly sensing the stagnancy and impotence of the story telling the director introduces a stand-up comic who cracks unfunny chewed up jokes in order to further the story telling in a last ditch effort. alas that effort also falls flat.

Overall Bombay velvet seems life a self-indulgent exercise in film making that fails on every account. Inconsistent writing, uninspired direction and insipid acting leave a lot to be desired. It has been a very long time that I was this bored in cinema. Venture at your own peril.

P.S.: Last year I saw a preview of  Tom Hardy’s Legend that comes out later this year – the version we saw was unfinished with effects yet to be finalised and editing. that was based on a realy life story of the twin gangsters who rules the London of the 60s and that unfinished movie was way more fun than the bore-fest that was Bombay velvet.

2013 – A Review

Pop that bubbly and kiss 2013 good bye and bring out those notepads to make the resolutions for 2014! I am not the sorts to make resolution and even unlikely to keep one all through the year. But 2013 must be an exception to that rule and what I am hoping is a turning point for me. Back in jan 2013 I made a resolution to write about every movie I saw and as a result I started my blog. Since its inception the blog has generated 4600+ hits and given me many a joy as a result.

There were many highlights like when Ashok Banker posted my review of his 8-part Ramayana series on his facebook page! That was the push I needed to convince myself that I was onto something good. But even before that the blog’s very first post was a fresh and refreshing movie which has continued to be the benchmark against which all other movies I saw this year were compared to – Kai Po Che.

In a year of 100 crore plus blockbusters which required as many aspirins to overcome the headaches they caused there were little indie gems ( can’t believe I am using the word Indie in the indian cinematic context!) which made the year a lot more bearable.

Summarized below are my top 10 picks , my bottom 5 and the 3 biggest disappointments. This is not the whole catalogue of movies released in 2013 – just the ones I made an effort to go watch, there are still Oscar heavy hitters like 12 years a slave, August Osage County , The Wolf of Wall Street  which I am yet to watch and review.

Top 10 : (in alphabetical order) top 10

Bombay Talkies : a first of sorts where 4 mainstream big-name directors came together to present 4 short stories which celebrated the 100 years of Indian Cinema. Each story holding its own and neither director trying to one-up the other  but rather trying to tell an earnest story. Incidentally this is also one my most shared reviews and some people commented that they didn’t immediately see the connect I made between the four stories but did definitely agree afterwards.

Fukrey : A serious rib-tickler thanks to the antics of Choocha and Bholi Punjaban. And featuring the song of the year “Ambarsariya” this one was the most surprising as we went in expecting very little and came out clutching our sides which hurt from laughing out loud. A comedy that did not depend on physical gags and potty humor – my pick for the best comedy of the year!

Gravity : the opening 12-minute sequence is an experience that cannot be compared to any that we have had in theaters ever. A trip to space that we had only imagined so far but was brought life in glorious IMAX by the visionary Alonso Cuarón. Sandra Bullock should trade in her Oscar for best actress for blind side and ask for a new one for this one.  The magic of cinema as it was meant to be.

Go Goa Gone : A zombie movie made in india? You have got to be kidding me! And no Ramsay-fication of the same? Get out of here! This was a close second to the comedy of the year pick. Again went in with very little expectation came out with goosebumps from the gross zombies and a hurting jaw from all the laughing.

Kai Po Che :  I hate Chetan Bhagat and his brand of Indian-English Lit. but to take his story “3 mistakes of my life” and to make it into a sensitive, humorous and realistic tale of friendship, politics and redemption is not mean task.  This introduced us to 3 promising actors and redeemed a director after his overrated RockOn debut.  My personal favorite of the year, and a movie that will only get better with time.

Madras Café : this almost made it to the most disappointing because of the over simplification and the lack of cloak and daggers that I wanted from a smartly crafted and a beautifully shot political thriller. But I cannot take away from the fact that sujoy ghosh made a smart movie with believable performances from 2 of the worst actors.

Prisoners  : comparisons to Zodiac and Se7en are always going to bode well for any movie in my book and this dark and violent thriller about a man on rampage after his little girl goes missing is something that still gives me the chills when I recall the look of abject hatred on Hugh Jackman’s beautiful face. My pick for the best ensemble acting of the year, Jackman, Melissa leo, Paulo dano, viola davis, maria bello all bloody brilliant and I don’t hate Jake Gyllenhall anymore!

RamLeela :  This one is a controversial pick I know. Many people have written off Sanjay Leela Bhansali as a director more consumed with erecting humungous set pieces and working in monochromatic mode than concentrating on the story and character development. I disagree, and strongly at that. RamLeela , a Shakespearean adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in rural Gujarat between warring clans of Rajadi and Saneda and a opulent multi-hued visual spectacle is the best Bhansali has done in years. This is devdas and HDDCS good. Most definitely the best soundtrack of the year with every single song a win in my book. Give it a watch without preconceived notions against Bhansali and you will be happier for it.

Rush :  Nothing – the answer to the question what can Ron Howard not do? To a person who detests Formula one this was definitely one of the best sporting movies ever made. The rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt captured beautifully without playing the sympathy card for either of the protagonists. Daneil Bruhl turning in one of the best supporting acting all year. Beautifully shot, exquisitely scored – this was a highlight of the year without a doubt.

Ship Of Theseus :  The redemption of Bollywood in its 100 years of existence which has been marred by either blatantly plagiarized Hollywood fluff or story-less superstar billed histrionic orgy. Ship of theseus took a Grecian paradox ( had people googling what the hell a paradox is ) and turned it into poignant moving cinema which proved to the masses that you don’t need a small country’s GDP-equivalent budget or big-name stars to make a beautiful and technically adept movie. You need a brilliant director, a strong script and absolute dedication to your craft. Karan Johar rightly said – this movie makes every other filmmaker feel inferior. This should have been India’s entry to the Oscars’ foreign language category.

 

Bottom 5 ( In alphabetical order)

bottom 5

B.A. Pass : what promised to be a sensual Noir film ended up being a one-note repetitive mess which went no were and failed because the director was more consumed by trying to make a stylized movie which tried to touch upon every cliché possible rather than to make a simple story told in layers.

Bhag Milkha Bhag : the trailer set the pulse racing with a buffed up Farhan Akhtar running with a tyre tied to his waist against the stark ladhak landscapes. What was promised as a sporting bio-pic ended up being a boring meaningless mess. I had  such high hopes and I was left clutching at straws trying to find any redeeming factors about this movie.

 Chashme Baddoor : how can you take a Farooq Sheikh and Deepti Naval classic and butcher it so that it bears no resemblance to the original movie from which it was adapted from.  Chashme Baddoor is how.  

Dhoom : 3 : I knew this was going to be bad – but so bad that I had to take notes for my review! Every single thing about this movie was an absolute stinking turd. The only saving grace? The world now is in on the secret I knew for years! Aamir Khan is a conman who in guise of perfectionism is a hack who has only gotten lucky with a few good films and is essentially a worthless actor.

Satyagraha : Amitabh is good the rest is bad and Prakash Jha is  quickly become a tiresome director to sit through and when the new channels rehash the same political conundrum the nation is going through better than a national award winning director there is something definitely wrong with the movie.

Biggest Disappointments:

disappointment

 Lunchbox :  the end product failed to live up to all the hype surrounding the release of the movie and the hue and cry that followed afterwards when this movie was not selected as India’s official entry to the oscars. sure it is a cute little story but it did not live up to the potential that it held and ultimately the biggest disappointment for me for the year.

Man Of Steel : Snyder sullied the name of Nolan by making this mess of a movie. The perfect choice for superman Henry Cavill was not given enough to do in the movie which was more Snyder & Goyer  and less Nolan (chris and jonathan both) . a BIG disappointment all around.

 Nautanki Saala! :  the rising star of the last year Aayushman Khurana fails to entertain and the movie overall is just a giant mess. Less than catchy tunes and a story that had the potential but fails to deliver is the reason why this movie makes it to my list of big disappointments.

 

So there you have it – I wish I had seen more movies this year than I did and that is a resolution I am certain to make for 2014 and as a result more reviews to write and read. I will try to add more variety than just movie reviews and there is an exciting prospect under development which when accomplished I will be very very very happy to share with all!  Here is wishing all you readers of my blog a very happy new year and good luck with those resolutions! Make a resolution because it feels great at the end of the year when you sit down to look at what you have accomplished!

 

 

The Lunchbox – A Review

First time director Ritesh Batra directs Irrfan Khan and new comer Nimrat Kaur in The Lunchbox. Lunchbox has been garnering rave reviews all around the festival circuits and flooring the critics across the board. It also created quite a furor when Lunchbox which was considered a frontrunner in the race to be India’s official entry to the Oscar was denied the chance and it was handed over to a little known Gujarati movie. Having seen the trailer and how impressed I was with the trailer I was about ready to join the voices of righteous indignation even before the movie began expecting to see a gem.

The Lunchbox is the story of Saajan Fernandez (such an interesting name which is not explored in the movie) played by the multi-faceted Irrfan Khan who is nearing the end of his 35-year long service at a government office. It is the story of the ever suffering Ila played by new comer Nimrat Kaur who shuttles between getting her daughter ready to getting the dabba ready for the courier to pick it up to be delivered to her husband. The story is about how these two ordinary individuals through curious circumstances come to establish a relationship established over hand written notes exchanged via the titular Lunchbox.

The story is also that of Shaikh played by the irrepressible Nawazuddin Siddiqui brought in to replace the retiring Fernandez and that of Mrs. Deshpande as voiced by the immediately recognizable Bharati Achrekar (Mrs. Radhika Wagle) the friendly neighborhood aunty who is always at hand to provide advice or a bottle of masala to spice up Ila’s marriage.

There are a lot of good intentions and a well-meaning story and a lot of subtle nuances that Batra tries to infuse in this slow moving romance story but they were lost on me and my viewing company because of the insistence on staying away from the clichés that they ended up being indie-movie clichés of the worst sorts. Take for instance the communication between Ila and Mrs. Deshpande which happens without the audience even once seeing Mrs. Deshpande. It is in improbable that with the husband in the living room Ila would shout on top of her voice to communicate to MRs Deshpande who lives on a floor above hers and trying to muffle the sound by a running tap so that the husband doesn’t over hear the conversation. A more realistic and naturalistic portrayal would’ve been to have Mrs. Deshpande’s kitchen window be a few feet away from that of Ila’s so that the ladies could gossip and still be able to pass the jars of Masala across – a reality in the claustrophobic metropolis that is the financial capital of the country.

The actors are all very competent and no one gives any single reason to complain about. The intensity is in Irrfan’s eyes and so is the vulnerability. Nimrat Kaur puts in a believable  performance with understated presence that never once seems out of place in any scenario. Nawazuddin is a man with the midas touch – every role that he takes on has his distinguishable stamp, even here as the earnest Shaikh he does a wonderful job of being equal parts endearing and equal part annoying. I wish he was given a meatier role to flesh out his interactions with Irrfan.

Problems I had with the movie have to do with the camera work and how the finished product appears. The trailer had a very clean fresh and crisp vibe, the visuals had a young energy to it even though they were filmed in government offices with cabinets burdened under thousands of files and tracking shots of the dabbawalas through Mumbai locals. The scenes in the movie look tired and washed out as if they are lacking in energy of any type. The colors of the city are washed out to be a monochromatic beige palette. The pacing of the movie is far too slow to allow for the audience to feel a sense of urgency of the relationship based on notes exchanged via a incorrectly addressed tiffin.  And when the climax comes about it is so anti-climactic with the will they won’t they end that I wish I was watching Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili where the fate of Jaya Bachchan is left to the audience to decide.

Having seen this movie I don’t think I can justifiably be indignant or angry about it not being sent in as India’s official selection to the Oscars for foreign Language feature film category. I am angrier that this movie is getting so much more mileage than Ship of Theseus which was a far better movie than this one and the one movie which I’d be proud to have represent India at the Academy Awards.

If you want to watch what the hype is about, go give this movie a watch – there is nothing particularly bad about this movie and it could even be mildly entertaining if you are luckier than I was when it came to a juvenile audience.

Bombay Talkies – A Review

Bombay Talkies is a compilation of 4 diverse short stories directed by 4 of the most diverse filmmakers in terms of the kind of movies they’ve made in the past. Karan Johar  the king of over the top melodramatic high-gloss NRI-story telling, Zoya Akhtar the prodigal daughter telling coming of age stories grounded in Novae  Urbanist India, Dibaker Banerjee the gritty realistic maverick film maker and Anurag Kashyap the ever controversial irreverent auteur.

Karan Johar’s: my least favorite of the four but still one of the best Karan Johar has done in terms of portraying realistic relationship dynamics. The story starts of jarringly with the lead protagonist walking out of his house for his father’s disapproval of who he is. The story also features an upwardly mobile DINK couple of the newspaper columnist Rani Mukherjee and Political Analyst Randeep Hooda. Without going into too many details it suffices to say that Karan Johar pushes the envelope with pun intended double entendres which has most of the audience squirming and giggling uncomfortably. Some call it autobiographical but I couldn’t care less. Had it been a little less on the nose and little more subtle with the characters it would have easily been the best story of the four. I only wish that Karan Johar continues to challenge himself and his audience with more diverse story telling than just over-grown college kids.

Dibaker Banerjee’s: this features my favorite performance of the entire movie in the form of Nawazzudin Siddiqui. This guy is just phenomenal how he transforms from one role to another is a thing of marvel. Here he plays Purandare a loving father of a very sick girl who just wants a new story from her dad every night, a lovable husband to a wife who brings home the bacon, a budding business man with one last surviving emu which eats the neighbor’s besan. In a chance encounter he is offered a role opposite Ranbir which brings the inner demons he is battling to the fore and what ensues is brilliant acting, storytelling and directing that has wiped Banerjee’s slate clean after the disaster that was Love Sex and Dhoka. This movie brought me so much joy that I wish it was fleshed out into a fuller story. Mission accomplished!

Zoya Akhtar’s: This one’s about following your dreams no matter what the obstacles and also about the bond the siblings share as each one looks out for the other whether it is the Katrina Kaif poster or putting ones resources to the best use to make sure the other’s dreams come true. The child artist who plays the brother is amazing. The easy charm that one must expect from children but the one thing that Indian Cinema has failed more often than not in delivering from a child artist is on display by the truck loads! This is what kids are supposed to be like not precocious little know-it-alls with annoying voices! This was a joint second for me along with Kashyap’s

Anurag Kashyap’s: how do you do an ode to Indian Cinema without a reference to Amitabh Bachchan? You cannot. Even today driving past juhu you will see hordes of crowd patiently waiting for that one glimpse of the greatest superstar of Indian Cinema, Thousands come to the maximum city with the hopes of making it as big as the angry young man himself. The story is that of one man’s journey to meet Amitabh Bachchan to ensure that he eats his mother’s murabba as it is his dying father’s last wish. Like a dutiful son Vijay goes through what countless cinema-hopefuls go through every day.

This movie is touted as the ode to 100 years of Indian Cinema, it does that through the stories it weaves, and Johar’s uses the music of Indian Cinema as a central element, narrating the story that the dialogues don’t. Banerjee’s does by using the stories of the movies being the ones that are as popular as the great epics for the kids’ bedtime stories. These are worlds of fantasy come alive which always seem within touching distance. Akhtar’s uses the power of dreams that many dream seeing their idol’s dreams being realized on a scale unimagined. Kashyap’s story uses the power of celebrity, the crazy fan following that Indian cinema’s icons enjoy with there being temple’s being erected in their honor to their stories-tall posters being worshiped with milk and garlands.

For me there was one more common thread, that of lies. Some lies are told to protect self, some lies are told to make our loved ones happy, and some lies are told because those around us do not understand our truth and some lies are told to protect the feelings of those we love.  Because what is cinema if not the lies we tell to make up for the truth we imagined.

Do not miss out on the new wave of movie making in Indian Cinema , do not miss this movie.