Friday, April 29, 2011

The 'Chalo Dilli' Review

Chalo Dilli‘ defies the notion that December is the only time for ridiculous Hindi movies that make you believe every studio head in Bollywood is engaging in Rahul Mahajan levels of drug use.

The best way to describe this Vinay Pathak-Lara Dutta joyride is as an emotional stream of senselessness.  In his sophomore feature, director Shashant Shah (Dasvidania) has a solid lead in Vinay Pathak, whose goofy goodness somehow never becomes cloying. ‘Chalo Dilli’ surprisingly opens with wildly unintended farce, but its second half is a meditative chewing on the unconventional – it is a tremendously constricting example of how we as humans are supposed to watch Hindi movies. Whether you ingest Akshay Kumar’s mind numbing extended cameo or spit it out is largely dependent on your predetermined emotional attitude about the actor. 

So here we have Fortune 500 company head honcho Mihika (Lara Dutta), a punctual, precise woman who has a terrific career. She makes plans to travel to Delhi to visit her husband, but alas, inclement weather disrupts her schedule, and she finds herself in Jaipur along with her co-passenger, the exasperating, loquacious, overweight, gassy Manu (Vinay Pathak). She's desperately in need of an operational vehicle, and since Manu is more than willing to oblige, he saddles himself with driving her to Delhi. As expected, their trip goes in fits and starts. They're waylaid by sleepy drivers, fuel leakage, the peculiarities of the Indian railways, gangsters, and her failure to see eye to eye on sundry trivial matters that are dismissed eloquently by Manu with his ‘ab isme kya badi baat hai’.

Unfortunately, the deliberately mismatched pair’s screwball template gets mangled, simply because both of them come off as infantile nitwits, undercutting any comic rapport.   Dutta is a snooty, neurotic woman who wears six-inch stilettos as she makes her way across the Jaipur desert sand, while Pathak is a salt of the earth commoner. Now here’s the problem - Dutta is shrill and repugnant instead achieving the desired quirky charm her character calls for. She drowns out the light from every scene she is in, and consistently fails to surprise; it’s a miraculous performance, really.  The very uptight Dutta (she wears makeup and has a Blackberry, you see) can't handle Pathak’s openness and is more than a little jealous of how casually he takes life. Shots of Dutta's high-heels sinking into mud passes for visual humor, and Pathak’s loud farts are made to suffice as verbal wit. There's only so long that a Hindi film that is this shallow can keep interest alive in this happily unconventional couple snoozing in a remote dhaba though - and so a tragic illness is introduced, presumably to ensure that tears will flow now matter what.  Whatever reservoir of good will Shashant Shah builds during the first hour is exhausted by the laughable climatic melodrama.

Of course let’s not think of the nonsense about how ridiculously impossible it could be for someone to have her plane diverted to Jaipur because of weather, and to end up alone at an airport taxi stand and then not receive any help from the other 100-odd Delhi-bound passengers from the flight. That kind of logic and geographical knowledge is so unBollywood. You simply must agree that this sequence of events is utterly flawless and logically sound. And just when the story seems to arrive to a welcome climax, Mr Shah pulls the rug from under your feet by offering Akshay Kumar and an extra half hour of butt-numbathon. And the film keeps droning on without producing any laughs whatsoever.   

Watch ‘Chalo Dilli’ for its mildly interesting first half, but leave during the interval. If your company forces you to stay on post interval, don’t be surprised if you find yourself praying for the sweet release of death.

First published in DNA

The 'I am' Review

I am is a resonant chamber piece for its talented actors and a possibly the finest cinematic study of modern Indian relationships to come along in quite some time.  The film's gratifying, unaffected handling of drama is incendiary. Director Onir weaves a haunting relevance to the current political climate surrounding gay relationships - a news bit within the film reminds us that those not in support of gay rights predicted the end of the world in the event of gay marriages being legalised. Mind you, the stories don't end in ideal scenarios – I am is critical and merciless at every turn. And the searching, agonised qualities of its characters feels very real.

As far as indie character flicks go, I am is in a class all its own. The mid section does betray the novelistic roots of Onir and Urmi Juvekar’s glowing script, but the soulful performances make this an emotionally rewarding experience. The film does little more than capture the sad truth of characters exploited at a young age. That is not the goal, of course. The intention here seems to be one of greater ambition - to spread the idea of acceptance to generations struggling with matters of sexual orientation and questions of mortality.
 The plot spans two decades, documenting the crucial events in the lives of Afia (Nandita Das), Megha (Juhi Chawla), Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri), Jai (Rahul Bose) and Omar (Arjun Mathur).  We realize pretty quickly that the characters’ lives aren't going to be ordinary. This becomes clear when, in the film's most effective scene, a betrayal leaves a web designer (Nandita Das) without a husband - the first of many tragedies which drains Onir’s world of colour. The story follows the woman turning to single motherhood via in-vitro fertilization, consumed by curiosity over the sperm donor (Purab). Meanwhile Kashmiri Pandit Megha (Juhi Chawla) travels to her native Srinagar to settle a legal tussle – she is torn between her hatred for the place and love for her childhood friend (Manisha Koirala). Enter Bengaluru man Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri), a staggeringly shrewd young bisexual filmmaker, who seems to be confused but not conflicted by his sexual interests. He is a sincere, twinkly-eyed innocent who refuses to put labels on the love relationships he forms, and hides a devastating secret about himself from the world. And somewhere in Mumbai, Rich Businessman Jai (Bose) is suddenly overcome by rage  after he spots young Omar (Mathur) making new friends. The stories do entwine, and though sexual attachments form fleeting alliances in this bunch, I am really is a story of companionship, of people exploring their necessity to each other. Radhika Apte’s character, for instance, is drawn to Abhimanyu’s honesty and sweetness, and never pines for the unobtainable love.  

The Kashmir segment is the least convincing of the lot - it comes across as hackneyed melodrama thanks to its laborious exploration of its themes. It may be earnest but it is rarely convincing and never engaging. That includes Koirala’s one-note mopey performance - her most intense moment is about drying clothes – she notices Chawla’s character reminiscing the old times, and suddenly turns sympathetic and arches her eyebrows. While less pathetic, she is no less of a mope with a new expression. There is nothing profound here, either, in the depiction of the Kashmir issue. Actually, there is nothing much of anything important here. Another minor failure of I am is that it falls victim in its attempt to cram too much information and tie up too many random events in its two hours. Also, Onir doesn’t seem to have the veritable gift of incorporating subtle, ingratiating musical cues into his story, he relies on making the cues individual overblown melodramatic characters of their own.

However, every single detail is right - the interiors of a Srinagar home, the awkwardness of youth, and the excellent performance of Nandita Das as a struggling suburban divorce’e.  It is worth the price of admission to watch her smile at the conclusion of her story arc.  Purab as the meek and nervous sperm donor spends much of the film feeling vaguely uncomfortable, and he seems uncomfortable playing uncomfortable. Nandita Das is a performer of great warmth – she can create dialogue without words. Rahul Bose takes on his character with a confused air, emanating a sensitivity he has not shown in any other role to date.  Sanjay Suri is remarkably complex and convincing as the sexually ambiguous manchild. Juhi Chawla is always lovely to watch, here she is given lesser material than that which made possible her incredible performance of Teen Deewarein.  And Shernaz Patel manages to evoke empathy for what is ultimately the most difficult and the most complex emotion soaked in by any of the characters. Anurag Kashyap and Anurag Basu deliver touch-and-go performances in their cameos. 

Onir doesn't shy away from the carnal side of the homosexual characters, making the scenes between them all the more unsettling, though natural. The only way to break the taboo against male kissing in Hindi films is if a major star did it. I am has such a scene with Rahul Bose’s character. And Onir does not drag the camera away to shimmering lights.  Someone in the audience ruled this scene ‘too distracting’. The same person lavished praise upon River Phoenix in My own private Idaho and Sean Penn in Milk. The taboo stays firmly in place in 2011. Why are we horrified by the sight of male kissing in our movies? Why are item numbers so common, yet the male body is vulgar and ugly?

Watch I am, for it is compassionate and touching, no less complex and gripping than what its trailers made it out to be. 

First published in DNA

Friday, April 1, 2011

The 'Game' Review

The climax of ‘Game’ is so bad I'm embarrassed to have seen it and therefore am a bit ashamed to write even an unkind review. 

The film’s supremely-dumb script has insurmountable problems as it panders it’s way, replete with far too many loose ends, asinine plot devises and laughable red herrings until it splutters, chokes, and finally loses itself to its own insanity. What really wounds is that ‘Game’ has a premise with a pedigree and a little promise – its got snazzy, exotic locales like Greece, London, Turkey, Thailand; an antagonist with a very interesting motive; love for Agatha Christie’s ‘And then there were none’ on full display complete with an underlying menace. So the possibility that this ostensibly dark whodunit might actually be good springs eternal for a full ten seconds -  exactly the amount of time that passes until someone utters the first of writer Althea Delmas Kaushal’s tragically cheesy lines. It would be misleading to say that ‘Game’ is a missed opportunity, because in spite of the film’s large cast (Jr B, Kangana Ranaut, Jimmy Shergill, Boman Irani, Anupam Kher, Shahana Goswami, Gauhar Khan and newcomer Sarah-Jane Dias), this flaccid corpse, like its characters, seems to be dead on arrival. 

‘Game’ is a half baked murder mystery, structurally less solid than Surendra Mohan Pathak’s Hindi language khooni potboilers one buys at railway stations. Of course, since this is a Bollywood whodunit - a weird strain of cinema in which all women, no matter how shrill and unpleasant, are nothing less than saints, and all men, with the singular exception of Imran Khan, are heartless (in the comedies) or violent (in the thrillers) – so the killing spree has to be the work of some MAN. And ‘Game’ gives us plenty to choose from.  We have Abhishek Bachchan, an Indian Drug Lord in Turkey, Boman Irani, a Prime Ministerial candidate in Bangkok, Jimmy Shergill, an actor, Anupam Kher, a multi zillionaire in Greece. Also in the mix are drunk reporter Shahana Goswami and investigating officer Kangana Ranaut. Director Abhinay Deo  builds up the usual false suspects before lazily revealing the murderer to be the person we should least suspect, who is altogether too obvious because of the well worn formula. It all wraps up in the usual way, with characters who’d earlier been shady and suspicious suddenly turning solicitous of the murder victim. Of course, there is a big kahani me twist, but it is so ham-fisted you almost expect Porky the Pig to make an appearance. 

I must admit that ‘Game’ begins with a bang – a 20-something named Ayesha (played by the hot hot hot newcomer Sarah Jane) collides with a car, and we’re treated with abstract imagery of various characters: Vikram (Shergill) is a Mumbai-based actor who has just killed someone with a glass bottle, OP (Irani) is a politician in Thailand with truckloads of black money and a lot of interest in child prostitution, Tisha (Goswami) is an alcoholic journalist cooling her heels in a London jail for DUI, Neil (Bachchan) is an Istanbul-based drug overlord making a getaway in a fast car. They all receive a mysterious invitation letter from a well known gazillionaire named  Kabir(Anupam Kher) – he offers Vikram a chance to escape imprisonment, OP a chance to turn all his black money legit, Tisha a chance to cover a huge political scandal and change her life, and Neil a cool 20 million dollars. The despos oblige, travel to Samos and finally meet Kabir on his island paradise (yes he owns the whole damn island, and has a butler and a secretary). Introductions are made, but almost immediately the defecation hits the oscillation when Kabir reveals his true intentions. It turns out that Ayesha was Kabir’s (estranged) daughter, and that all four guests are responsible for her death in some way. 

Much to everyone’s horror, Kabir has gathered damaging evidence against all of them, has already called the cops, and wants sweet revenge. As the guests have conniptions in the dark of the night, a shot rings out, and Kabir is found dead in his study, a bullet hole in his right temple, his right hand hanging limply by his side, with the gun lying underneath it on the floor, and his final Will burning in the dustbin. 
Suicide? Murder? The unintentional hilarity of the script begins with the arrival of the International Vigilance Squad hottie Sia (Kangana Ranaut), a character with keen eyes for detail and a severe allergy to wisdom. She finds absolutely no reason to take the four to the station and interrogate them. Everyone present at the crime scene is let off the island. Even OP, the corrupt politician who runs child sex rackets is allowed to go home to Bangkok.  Lo and behold, a rash of murders begins. And as the killer is unmasked at the end, the entire memory of the story seems to fade from one’s memory faster than Jr B’s career.

 As you can probably tell, ‘Game’ is riddled with cringe-inducing whodunit clich├ęs and plotholes the size of Javed Akhtar’s oeuvre.  Writer AD Kaushal makes sure she portrays international police as earth-shatteringly stupid as possible – only at the climax does a character deduce that Kabir was left-handed, but was shot on the right side and hence was… murdered. No really, a whole unit of the esteemed, impeccably named International Vigilance Squad working on the case, cops who have made a thorough inspection of the crime scene with fingerprint scanners, green coloured laser examiners and all kinds of fancy techno gizmos, and not a single officer bothers to find out if the victim was right-handed. The butler and the secretary aren’t questioned either. And if all that weren’t silly enough, a character coolly escapes International Vigilance Squad’s surveillance by simply outrunning them in a lane – he also manages to shuttle between Mumbai, Turkey and Bangkok as he pleases, and even hacks into another country’s satellite television networks. There are many more ludicrous contrivances and hilarious plot devices which unfortunately can’t be discussed without giving away the mystery. The locations are inexplicable as well – what was the point of setting the film in London, Turkey, Bangkok, Greece etc? The same story could’ve been much more effective had it been set entirely in India. Even the unmotivated flashbacks featuring Ayesha are as dull as their tendency to feel unnatural. 

‘Game’ cribs elements from ‘Gumnam’ (which itself was a remake of ‘And then there were none’), Abbas Mustan’s ‘Race’ and every other Hollywood killer-thriller from the last few years. Actually, there is another movie that seems to provide even more inadvertent inspiration, but to name it would give away the ending - not that you couldn’t figure it out within 20 minutes. There is a tradition in such films where the detective always takes the time to explain exactly why the killer is doing all of these things, just to give the villain enough time to grab the gun or escape. This big speech in ‘Game’ is easily the dumbest, most deranged example of such that I have ever seen in all of my years of movie-watching. The seemingly airtight suspense is annihilated instantly with shabby dialogue, boorish performances and tedious music.

‘Game’ is shoddily structured and wholly derivative. It doesn’t cover any new ground in the thriller genre and, if anything, is a mere rehashing of tired story lines. How this story worked its way up to Excel Entertainment and got a green signal will probably be the first question on KBC’s new season. Bollywood really needs to climb out of this rut. Or retire.