Friday, September 10, 2010

The Dabangg Review

Is it possible that a movie so utterly without redemptive value, so completely, pointlessly uncalled for, can also be, you know, kinda fun? Hell yes. Say hello to a monotonously mindless but colorful caper, a banally boisterous, jolting junk that strangely is filling in its sneering, rambunctious spirit. 'Dabangg'  is totally ridiculous, unbelievable, exhausting, and pretty much just plain stupid, but that's what makes it watchable. And like so much Salman Khan-branded contemporary entertainment, it is a frenzied distraction that means nothing.

Writer-director Abhinav Kashyap  sneers at any kind of rules, decorum or morality. Anything goes, as long as it's within the realm of exploitation-level "B" moviemaking. He's made a product that's so tasteless, trashy and totally over the top, that it amounts to one of the year's most inventive movies. Kashyap really seems to be enamored with the genre he's satirizing. embedding these gags in to the script instead of just tossing them at us waiting for us to laugh. He believes nothing exceeds like excess. And if that's not enough 'Dabangg' even over-delivers, permanently deflowering and deforming the mind of anyone lucky enough to be in the audience.  The question isn't whether Salman Khan as Chulbul Pandey knows how to spice things up. The question is whether or not you're willing to go with him on yet another highly implausible, ludicrous, action-packed adrenaline-pumped ride. Salman, who's tailor-made for this kind of thing, nevertheless spends too much time doing his cool-menace-wiseass thing to communicate the sort of urgency the (semblance of a) plot demands. Its 2+ hours of cinematic junk food paradise. Waking up in the aftermath of a meth-lab explosion might be less disorienting than watching this.

And now the bad news. 'Dabangg' is just a byproduct of Sallu's self-promotion, rendering the film itself, in essence, beside the point. There is potential all over this film, but every scene post interval is overwrought with unfunny caricatures and tired jokes. We've seen every gimmick and sight gag before, in better, funnier Salman Khan movies. The second half is pretty much a bad-taste sinkhole, with Sallu competing against Arbaaz and Sonu Sood to see if he can be more grating. Right after the chaos of 'Munni Badnaam Hui', Kashyap seems to have no idea whether this is an action movie, a comedy, a kid's movie or perhaps a bizarre experiment in Chinese torture. Here we have Sallu as Chulbul Pandey, a moustached, corrupt policewale bhaiyya who in turn is also a modern day Bollywoodised Robin Hood with a bone to pick with the sleazy local politician (Sonu Sood). Thrown in is a bit of a melancholy back-story on Pandey's character, just so the plot hides the spasms and pretends to move - there's a dead mother (Dimple, in excellent form) and a hateful step father (Vinod Khanna, sleepwalking) and an annoying step brother (furniture, aka Arbaaz Khan), compounded by gaaon ki gori Rajjo (Sonakshi, passable) and the standard goons and extras who're paid to merely serve as Sallu's punching bags. In the final 45 minutes Kashyap mistakes shock and boorishness for satire, and crudity for cleverness as he desperately, hopelessly catalogues of the ills of India, and 'Dabanng' ends up rejoicing in what it believes it is sending up.

'Dabangg' is one of the loudest, most obnoxious (not to mention sexist) movies of the year, but damned if it doesn’t keep an audience in high gear. I guess you could call it a "satire," but it doesn't particularly care to take the time or energy to spin the satire in any meaningful way. The film really is the super-concentrated silt at the bottom of a chemistry experiment that has no possible purpose to it but to deliver whatever limited jolt of which it's capable. Recommended for Sallu fans and those who love to hurl torn tickets in the air and whistle at bare, gyrating hips and flat abs on the big screen.

First published on on Sep 10, 2010

The Antardwand Review

In a year full of movies about families and tragedy, this is the class of the bunch. Antardwand is essential viewing for any student of rural Indian mores and scholar of human nature. The extremely accomplished and deeply disturbing film yields a disquieting portrait of Bihari communities and says far more about the 'Indian experience' than any of the jingoistic anthems in mainstream Bollywood or the pre-packaged patriotic speeches on a politician's campaign trail.

In this dazzling and minimalist drama, writer-director Sushil Rajpal has created an unforgettable portrait of a young man desperate to break free from the shackles of his society. Even those who've boned up on rural Bihari culture will have their eyes opened by Rajpal's gripping drama regarding our motherland lawless and wild. The themes are universal, and the simple (but not simplistic) story is delivered with considerable verve by the debuting director and an ensemble that makes it zing. Rajpal manages to maintain the delicate balance between the gritty realities of the story he's telling and the almost ruthlessly humorous biting irony it renders. He charts with starkly minute detail the fragility of sanity and, even more disconcertingly, the fragile nature of reality. What 'Antardwand' achieves ultimately is the full-scale distraction of its audience.

Raghuveer (Raj Singh Choudhary), a Delhi University civil services candidate plans to get married to his pregnant girlfriend Sia (Himanshi). He decides to make a short trip to his native place in rural Bihar to discuss marriage with his father (Vinay Pathak, in top form). The father is outraged, and so is Mahendra Babu (Akhilendra Mishra), who dreams of getting his daughter married to Raghuveer. Mahendra proceeds to abduct and torture Raghuveer until the latter complies. He even goes as far as instructing his goons to knock Raghuveer everywhere except on his face, so that he looks good in the wedding photos. Mahendra's daughter (an excellent Swati Sen) is left to deal with the humiliation of being forced to wed Raghuveer and face marital rape. Akhilendra Mishra and Vinay Pathak are great, but Raj Singh Choudhary is outstanding - last seen in the underrated 'Waiting Room' and 'Gulal', this is a major indie star in the making. 'Antardwand' really is a sad character study that also works as a stark thriller. And the director leaves the viewer feeling a lot like Raghuveer - haunted. Rajpal should also be applauded for keeping the film going at a nice pace, sprinkling it with few lighter moments, as well as one of the more suspenseful scenes from any movie this year.

'Antardwand' is a an admirable achievement, quite impressive on all levels. It brandishes the type of confidence and clarity of vision all too seldom seen in Indian cinema. We should be producing movies like this 10 times a year, not once in a blue moon.

First published on on August 26, 2010

The Aashayein Review

 Nagesh Kukunoor's latest offering 'Aashayien' is a movie with an urgent message. The message is: Please consider seeing another movie.

What's supposed to be a well acted, heartfelt story of a wounded soul finding himself and learning to heal is obliterated in one vile, manipulative swoop. This scene isn't deep or thought-provoking, it is in fact a sucker punch. John Abraham sprints through rain to deafening music and breaks up with his girlfriend, and in a matter of minutes 'Aashayein' goes from something that might have been memorable to a wholly unnecessary disappointment. There's a sense of construction to 'Aashayein' that undercuts its emotional impact, and emotional impact is pretty much all this film is shooting for. The result is an insignificant film that desperately wants to be significant. Still, thanks to a decent supporting cast and mostly solid direction by Kukunoor, it manages to be at least moderately interesting through its running time. If 'Aashayien' is remembered for anything at all, other than being yet another John Abraham vehicle, it will be for its over-the-top ending, which ranks high amongst the most shameless jerkers of tears ever unleashed upon lachrymose Indians.

So many terrible things happen to the people in 'Aashayein' that when the last awful scene comes - something so resounding and meaningful that it instantly, horribly cheapens the rest of the movie - you get almost numb to it. Here we have a protagonist with lung cancer and a foot in the bucket list, a teenage cancer patient in love with the protagonist, an out of work prostitute affected by AIDS, a speech impaired old timer. We have a dying hero fulfilling his fantasy of stepping into Indiana Jones' shoes, forced to mouth bland, excessively corny, schmaltzy and contrived dialogue. By act three, when Kukunoor himself shifts from a cameo to a supporting role, the sentimental twaddle bounces all over the place trying to find a center. It never does. And the finale turns exploitative, touting forgiveness while being infuriating.

Director Kukunoor plays it straight, and invites us to sniffle along if we want. There's something kind of admirable about this, I guess, in a going-down-with-the-ship sort of way. There's no real depth or texture to the characters of any sort, sentimental or otherwise. During the first half Mr.Abraham gives Keanu Reeves and Arjun Rampal serious competition - defining numerous shades of blank of which I had been thus far unaware. Part of the problem is John Abraham, an actor with the strengths and faults of Sylvester Stallone - he can be a charming antihero, as in No Smoking, or a block of wood, albeit one carved by God's hands. Though Ms. Sonal Sehgal and Anaitha Nair are lovely actresses, their inexperience shows in their scenes, which aren't written very well to begin with, while Mr. Abraham's stolid reserve decays into dull passivity. The terminally sappy romance shared between the leads delivers heartache, sacrifice, and of course a make-out scene that seems frustratingly out of place. The one person here who doesn't embarrass himself is Girish Karnad. But it's hard to see what he saw in this project, aside from a fairly easy paycheck. Farida Jalal is ghastly as the HIV-infected ex prostitute, bad not just in one or two ways, but in all kinds of ways.

'Aashayein' starts off promisingly, then falls to pieces by the second act, devolving into saccharine slush. A big disappointment from a filmmaker who's made path breaking cult classics like 'Hyderabad Blues', 'Teen Deewarein' and 'Iqbal'.


First published on on August 26, 2010