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.

Fitoor – A Review

Abhishek Kapoor directs Katrina Kaif, Aditya Roy Kapoor and Tabu in Fitoor, a story adapted by Supratik Sen from Charles Dickens’ The Great Expectations. Kapoor last adapted the Chetan Bhagat’s three mistakes of my life into the brilliant Kai Po Che and given what he milked out of a less than stellar source material the expectations would have been sky high given Dickens’ rich and fertile literary ground that Kapoor had to play with. Does Kapoor and team meet the great expectations or do they drift aimlessly into the abyss like an untethered kite? Read on to find out more.

Kapoor and Sen have stayed quiet true to the original, Aditya Roy Kapoor is Noor or Dickens’ Pip, Katrina is Firdaus, Estella in the original and Tabu is Hazrat Begum the eccentric Mrs. Haversham . Besides these three there are a lot of other characters from Dickens’ Novel that find themselves adapted into the Indian context in Fitoor.

When we first meet Noor and Firdaus we see a beautiful and ethereal Firdaus and an awestruck and an inadequate feeling Noor. Begum Hazrat sees the first inkling of puppy love in Noor’s eyes and seems to encourage it by asking him to come to the Mansion more often but then following the violence in the valley which kills Noor’s sister the Begum sends Firdaus away to London to study leaving Noor longing for her. Years later Noor a budding artist is given a scholarship from a mysterious benefactor who he assumes is the Begum herself.  Moving to Delhi Noor meets Firdaus and confesses his love which she rejects as she is set to be engaged to Bilal. This is the biggest departure from The Great Expectations because where in the novel we clearly see that Estella is cold and unloving, Firdaus is seemingly struggling to decide between Noor and Bilal. This is also where the story wobbles because it becomes about this love story more than the over-arching theme of growth of Pip/Noor.

Aditya Roy Kapoor who caused me incessant grief as the drunken mess in Yeh Jawani hai Deewani surprises with a restrained performance. He has intensity in his quiet demeanor that is perfect for this performance. Katrina Kaif as Firdaus is beautiful but fails to bring a sense of haughtiness that is essential for the character of Estella. Without the cool aloofness the climactic realization of love does not carry the same weight that it would have. Tabu as Begum Hazrat is exceptional. There is a sense of discomfort that you feel when you see her approach young Noor, there is a tragic beauty in her when you see her lie on her chaise smoking a hukka. Her demeanor and actions at the beginning of the story make sense when you are given the back story to her failed attempt at love. Hers is the best written character amongst the main three. Her penchant for wearing ostentatious jewelry only makes sense when you find out her back story.

It is rare that one would complain that a Bollywood movie needs to be longer. But that is exactly what was needed; at least another 30 minutes and the second half could have carried more weight than just stumbling to a satisfactory conclusion. As in the novel the guilt of Mrs. Haversham at manipulating Pip and Estella, the connections between Pip’s benefactor, Estella’s biological parents and Mrs. Haversham’s Fiancé who jilted her and how all of this ties back to Pip and the eventual reconciliation between Pip and Estella would have made for a more compelling second half than Kapoor and Sen manage with Fitoor. But it is not to be and we must judge Fitoor for what it is and in that it is a solid attempt at adapting a one of the most influential literary works which Kapoor manages to with a justifiable degree of success. The cinematography is gorgeous and the production value of the highest kind when it comes to Noor’s works of art. Buoyed by strong performances from Aditya Roy Kapoor and Tabu it is a very competent film that leaves you wanting more. While it lacks the intensity of Haider a Shakespearean adaptation also set in Kashmir Fitoor is not lacking in allegories. Maybe I read too much into the movie but I could definitely see an Indo-Pak-Kashmir metaphor happening and it is commendable that Indian directors are aiming for a subtext no matter if the end result is sub-par at least they are trying.

 

Wazir – A Review

Bejoy Nambiar directs Farhan Akhtar, Amitabh Bachchan and Aditi Rao Haidari in chess inspired revenge thriller Wazir in a story written by Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

 

The story starts with an introduction into Farhan’s idyllic family life where he plays Daanish Ali a Delhi Cop, has a kathak dancer wife Ruhana played by the beautiful Aditi Rao Haidari and an adorable toothless daughter noorie. Disaster strikes when defying all logic he chases down a known terrorist with his daughter in the backseat as his wife is getting her ghunghroo repaired. And this is not the most absurd plot line in the movie.

Farhan amped up on sleeping pills goes on a rampage and kills the said terrorist while the Police are running a parallel operation trying to nab the terrorist alive to get information on the politician-terrorist nexus. Spiralling out of control Farhan tries to kill himself at his daughter’s grave and is stopped from doing that by Amitabh Bachchan. Amitabh Bachchan teaches Farhan Chess and helps him get his life on track and enlists him in his fight to nail the perpetrators behind his daughter’s death.

There is John Abraham playing a Kashmir Cop and Neil Nitin Mukesh playing the eponymous Wazir and while these actors are not exactly brimming with talent, their limited talents are also wasted with a half-baked  plot lines.For what is a short movie it feels overlong and poorly paced. The editing or the lack thereof is really what sinks the ship. For what could have been an intelligent thriller is rendered boring and insipid with its watered down plot and dumbed down narrative. The problem with Bollywood is that it has never owned a Wren and Martin or never attended figures of speech class. While going for Metaphors it ends up doing Simile. While trying to make the narrative complex and interesting using Chess moves as metaphors for calculated moves Daanish must make to help nail the culprits Amitabh ends up speaking out loud everything just in case Farhan doesn’t get it. And the final climax which you can see coming from a mile away is made even more obvious when a Child is asked to lay out the plot in sobbing bursts of storytelling while Farhan holds a gun over the head of a fearsome terrorist. Coincidence is a mark of lazy storytelling and it is on glorious display here.

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While watching a director’s round table with a popular film critic one director made a very important point of how the Indian movies are made with the interval in mind and how that breaks the flow of the story – while that director was speaking of it in defence of intervals and how it helps with long stories here it couldn’t be more unnecessary. For a movie with a total running length of 80 minutes the interval is entirely unnecessary and it manages to deflate whatever little energy the movie manages to build leading up to the said interval. And the other Achilles heel of Bollywood? Pointless songs! The whole movie can be broken down into 2 parts – the one part where nothing really happens in normal speed and with no background score and the other where nothing happens in slow motion with one monotonous song playing in the background regardless of the situation at hand. I almost gasped when at the end they had a song sung by Amitabh playing as the credits rolled and not the overused “Tu Mere Pass”

What could have been slick almost psychological thriller is watered down and made so bland I can’t believe how excited I was when the trailer first released months ago. Amitabh is good as is Farhan but the story is overly simplistic and the non-existent editing and over direction is what kills this story. Want a well written, competently directed and marvellously edited thriller? You’d be better served by rewatching Kahani instead and not waste your time with this tepid mess.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan – A Review

Kabir Khan directs Salman Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan in this year’s Eid release Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Critics often scoff at a Salman movie claiming their own irrelevance at a “bhai” movie due to his huge fan-following who will make a beeline for the cinema frothing at the mouth regardless of the absurdity of the plot and Salman’s Bhagwaan Dada inspired Dance moves.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan is the story of Hum Saath Saath Hai’s strait-laced Prem meets Maine Pyaar Kiya’s hard-working-to-impress-the-girl’s-father Prem going on a Gaddar-like mission to reunite a mute 6-year old Pakistani girl with her parents. India Pakistan stories with a Kashmir angle are more often than not laced with political commentary that tends to end up being preachy and sermonizing about the need for peace and how we are the same people made to take opposing stances due to vested political interest. While it tends to tug at the heartstrings a little bit with some of the familiar tropes, Bajrangi Bhaijaan mostly steers clear of the Aman-ki-aasha stereotypes.

Salman khan is having a sort of renaissance where he acknowledges that he isn’t the most talented actor but still manages to infuse a sense of earnestness to his performance. He was phenomenally entertaining in Kick and here too he commits fully to his hunuman-bhakt, stoutly Hindu good for nothing but still a heart of gold do-gooder. Salman is good at being Salman and he makes no effort to put on a Haryanvi accent and I am thankful for that. He keeps the face-pulling to a minimum and his entry with the selfie song is whistle-worthy. Kareena Kapoor Khan is blissfully underused. And in the time she spends on screen she is not unbearable. Nawazuddin Siddiqui stars in a small but crucial role in the second half as Chand Nawab a small time freelancing reporter who is chasing a breaking story which will earn him some credibility with the news channels. But the real hero of the movie is Harshaali Malhotra the young girl who plays Shaahida/Munni. There is no doubt she is one of the cutest kids to ever grace the Bollywood stage, but she manages to lighten the mood and make Salman’s quirks seem charming instead of childish. The little girl has a screen presence that dwarfs even that of Bhai’s and that is no mean feat.

The cinematography by Aseem Mishra is spectacular. He manages to capture the beauty of Kashmir for what it is always thought to have been. This is not the harsh landscape of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider but reminiscent of RK’s Heena. In fact the open scene of Shaahida playing on the slopes of her village reminded me of Zeba Bakhtiyar’s introduction to the tunes of “Mein hoon khushrang heena…” Julius Packiam’s background score especially during the chase sequences is worthy of the Hollywood scores, but it does tend to overpower in certain scenes and a slight restraint would have worked wonders. Of the songs Selfie Le le is a guilty pleasure and a worth entry song to The Bhai of Bollywood but the one song that stayed with me is the Adnan Sami Qawwalli, Bhar do Jholi meri. Story writer Vijayendra Prasad is having quite a purple patch with both Baahubali and Bajrangi Bhaijaan having a successfully run at the box office. The story works well mostly with no gaping plot holes. A tighter edit in the second half would have made the movie land more of a punch. It does seem to drag on for a bit with the scenes with Om Puri and entirely unnecessary flab that could have and should have been cut.

Put your prejudice aside and go enjoy a well-crafted, and decently acted movie that manages to entertain like only Salman Khan knows how to. Here’s looking forward to next Eid for Sultan!

Haider – A Review

 Vishal Bharadwaj directs Shahid Kapoor and Tabu in Haider an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is Bharadwaj’s third attempt at adapting the noted English playwright’s material after Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello). Bharadwaj has a knack for contemporizing Victorian stories in the Indian context and doing so very effectively. With Maqbool he set the story in the Mumbai underworld and with Omkara he exploited the criminal-political nexus of the heartland by setting the story in Uttar Pradesh. With Haider he takes the troubled prince’s story and sets it in the strife ridden state of Kashmir and the words that begin Hamlet “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark” couldn’t ring truer.

Kay Kay Menon plays Khurrum (Claudius) who marries Ghazala (Gertrude) played by Tabu after the “disappearance” of Haider’s (Hamlet) Father Dr. Hilal (king Hamlet). Shraddha Kapoor plays Arshee (Ophelia and also Horatio as Hamlet’s friend). Irrfan Khan plays Roohdar (the ghost of Hamlet’s father) delivering a message from his father about the deceit of Khurrum.

The story mostly plays around the themes of Hamlet and tries to be as faithful an adaption as possible under the constraints of the geo-political hotpot of Kashmir. Any movie based on Kashmir is sure to be divisive as you cannot take a neutral stance over the militant insurgency and the mistrust the people of Kashmir feel towards the militarization of what is essentially heaven on earth. Bharadwaj tries to tackle the AFSPA issue and that is where the movie stumbles. Bharadwaj tries to rely on AFSPA as a plot device allowing Khurrum to get his brother captured by the military and eventually killed. By trying to rely too much on AFSPA and to almost demonizing it is where the movie’s narrative pace fails. It becomes cumbersome and does not yield the results Bharadwaj might have wanted it to, however kudos to him and script writer Bashrat Peer for trying.

Shraddha Kapoor is a revelation as Arshee and playing Kashmiri comes naturally to her. Kay Kay Menon who has phenomenal talents to play the bad guy fails to excite me with this outing. He plays Khurrum with a degree of menace that is so on the nose that it becomes parody of the Claudius as intended by Shakespeare. The prayer scene where he is supposed to appear contrite ends up being even more contrived. Irrfan Khan is slowly become more unbearable with every outing and seems to have lost the earthiness that made him great in Paan Singh Tomar. There is nothing worse than an actor who thinks he knows he is better than everyone else and that is the vibe I am getting from Khan ever since his Hollywood foray. His Roohdar is unconvincing and for reasons best known to Bharadwaj or the editing team the whole plot with militancy is rendered under developed. Tabu does what she does best. She lights up the screen every time she is on it. Her physical presence is so commanding on screen that everything else shrinks in comparison. Her earnest Ghazala is another addition to an already overly impressive resume. She crafts her character so beautifully that every time she calls out to Haider as “Jana” it makes you think of your own mother (albeit less deceitful). Everything except Shahid Kapoor shrinks in Tabu’s presence. Shahid Kapoor delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career. This is the Shahid that we all know and love and was lost somewhere in the 100 cr race. The first time I ever took notice of Shahid was also in a Bharadwaj caper – Kaminey (also the first ever review I wrote so the partnership is special for a personal reason). His Haider is restrained and insane at the same time. The vulnerability and intensity in his eyes as he searches for his father and then avows to avenge his death is electric.  My favorite Shahid moment is during the song Jhelum when he exchanges photos with a woman looking for her missing son, it gave me chills and made me tear up for him.

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Bharadwaj, as legend has it learnt to be a music composer during college days to woo Rekha Bharadwaj. Here he provides the background score for Haider and it couldn’t have been done any better. His reliance on single instruments, be it the cello, the violin or even the stray strings of Sitar to underscore the uneasy silence that enfolds the valley is fantastic. There are places where the music rises with the rise in tension but then at the climax the strings fade from the concerto and the emotions alone drive home the point and this is the restraint that only a very self-assured story teller is capable of. Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography is beautiful as it captures the beauty of the Kashmir valley in all its snowy glory. The only misstep is the inclusion of unnecessary songs; the only songs that deserve any place in the screenplay are the Jhelum re Jhelum and the acapella song by Shraddha Kapoor as she mourns the loss of her father. The song with Haider and Arshee frolicking in the snow and the gravedigger’s song are jarringly out of place and seem to be paying mere lip service to Hamlet. The song bismil bulbul is the strongest argument in favor of giving a personal flavor to an adaptation, the famous play in a play from hamlet is adapted to a dance performance commemorating the marriage of Ghazala and Khurrum and is written, sung and shot so beautifully that it defies comparisons.

Hamlet and other work of art are always open to interpretations and I believe that Bharadwaj has also tried to add a layer a subtext to his adaptation that leaves the audience to interpret the story based on their own prejudices. How I see it is as an allegory to the contentious Kashmir issue. If one were to supplant Hilal (Haider’s father) as King Hari Singh Bahadur and Ghazala as Kashmir itself then based on your point of view you could argue for either Haider as India or Pakistan and khurrum as the other . I know I could be way off but to me it is essentially why this movie is more than just a mere adaptation and the reason why Vishal Bharadwaj is regarded as one of India’s best and most original directors.

Haider in many ways seems incomplete or entirely too slow and meandering and by the end it seems to have gone nowhere, but that is the nature of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which unfolds as a tragedy with many time lapses and moments of insanity and introspection. Haider is a beautiful made film which unfortunately isn’t without a few flaws, but these flaws are easily overlooked when Tabu and Shahid Kapoor set the screen on fire with their brilliant acting.