Friday, January 31, 2014

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is a tough watch. It’s depressing, distressing, gloomy, violent, brilliantly acted and shot. It’s also a little overrated and director Steve McQueen’s least impressive film to date.

It’s only expected that a well-directed film about slavery would be lapped up by the American press. But since we’re not directly involved with that aspect of history it allows us to look at the film a little more objectively.

In the opening minutes of 12 Years a Slave we’re shown a slave being whipped mercilessly. It’s a shocking, brutal scene that makes you cringe in your seat. Now here’s the problem – the film makes its point in this scene, and proceeds to whip us with the same point over and over again through the rest of its runtime. Here, the protagonist suffers and misses his family, then moves to a different location, then suffers and misses his family more, and repeats the cycle endlessly. This is not the Steve McQueen we know and love. His movies are not supposed to be predictable. McQueen’s films are arresting, but never repetitive. And even in the repeated sequences like in Shame, McQueen develops character arcs that much more, showing us something new about his subject. He fails to do so in this movie.

That said, 12 Years a Slave is a great acting showcase for its cast. It’s poetic justice that Chiwetel Ejiofor had a minor but important role in Spielberg’s Amistad which dealt with similar subject matter. He’s going to win the Oscar but the guy who really deserves the accolade is Michael Fassbender who renders a raging performance of a vile slave owner. Fassbender has worked with McQueen in all of his films and this is his best turn by a long margin. He’s scary, ruthless, sickening, and perverse and completely believable. Lupita Nyong'o makes a great debut, and there are a few quiet cameos from bigwigs like Brad Pitt, Paul Giammatti, Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch but Fassbender just blows everyone away.

McQueen and his DOP Sean Bobbit deserve credit for making the film look epic despite the small budget – they used just two cameras, natural lighting and real locations for the film. But it’s impossible to not be disappointed by the lack of McQueen’s trademark uniqueness. There was a fifteen minute long uncut single shot interrogation scene in McQueen’s Hunger. There were long tracking shots of Fassbender running in Shame. These images are ingrained in our memories forever, but there’s nothing of that sort to be found in 12 Years of Slave. You'll tend to watch the movie, be mildly moved by the torture scenes and forget about it in two days. Sure, this could again be because we can't relate to the movie as much as the Americans can, and this was the conundrum in Fruitvale Station too, but there's no excuse for lackluster writing.

Moreover, the music by Hans Zimmer is extremely reminiscent of Harry Escot’s main theme from Shame. Some of the plot points are a tad clichéd, and the final scene is full of saccharine, coming dangerously close to mawkish territory. That makes it a well-made and well-acted motion picture that will win a lot of awards, but one that is merely ordinary, given the talent driving it. Luckily even an ordinary film from McQueen is better than most of the stuff out there. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Movie Review: Jai Ho

According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Total Perspective Vortex is the most horrifying form of torture in the known universe. The Vortex is a small steel box in which its victims stand and are suddenly shown for a mere instant something so mind bogglingly demoralizing that they fall out of the box dead. I can now disclose to you what that something is: footage from Salman Khan’s latest release, Jai Ho.

This is a list of recent Salman Khan movies that are universally considered as bad, horrible or Nazi torture: MarigoldLucky No time for LoveGod tussi great hoHeroes, Yuvraj, Veer, Ready and Bodyguard.

As difficult as it is to believe, Jai Ho is worse than all of those films. I can’t look into the future, but I’m fairly certain the police could soon throw Jai Ho DVDs instead of tear gas to pacify a mob.

With Arbaaz Khan directing Dabangg 2 and Sohail Khan helming this film, the Khan siblings have formed a Shamanic Triangle of Terribleness. A remake of the Telugu film Stalin (which in turn was a remake of the Hollywood film Pay It Forward), Jai Ho time travels back to the ’80s and delivers an outdated, clichéd and ham-fisted attempt at showing a hero fighting for the common man. Bhai plays Jai, a Hulk Hogan version of Arvind Kejriwal, who fights corrupt politicians, saves damsels in distress; helps injured beggars, amputees write exams; restores kidnapped children to their parents and beats up goons who dare to lay a hand on his sister (Tabu).

I wrote two paragraphs worth of plot synopsis and character descriptions and then deleted them because I realized they’re pointless. Anyone reading this review falls into one of three categories:

1) Those who love Salman Khan so much they’ll ask for an Ek Tha Tiger screening as their last wish on the electric chair.  
2) Those who love Shahrukh Khan and want to gleefully place a dynamite under Bhai’s movies.
3) Those who prefer more challenging and cerebral cinema than ‘commercial masala’, but want to know if Jai Ho is fun enough junk for a timepass viewing.

If you’re in the third group, you’ll find this movie as interesting as a game of Pin the Tail on a Donkey. If you’re in the second  cluster, well, have fun. So the burning question is, does Jai Ho work as a ‘commercial masala movie’ for its target audience? The answer is a gigantic no. Jai Ho is a milestone in the marriage between boredom and nonsense. Those who watch Bhai’s films turn off their brains to enjoy his masterpieces, but they don’t deserve to be insulted or bored.

First, the songs are absolutely unbearable - they feel like the Khan siblings are punching our ears with cactus-embroidered gloves. Secondly, the film looks cheap, is atrociously written, lazily shot, clumsily edited and delivered with all the class of a mud wrestling match. Director Sohail Khan seems unsure of what his own target audience needs from their heroic and godly Bhai. Even die-hard Bhai fans will be bored to tears with the painfully drab romantic subplot between Jai and heroine Daisy Shah, who makes an entry with a classical Indian dance number to portray the purity of the Bhartiya Nari.

The lack of novelty, intelligence and cinematic artistry is not as much a criticism of Jai Ho as much as its lack of entertainment value. Most the comedy of Jai Ho is a humour-impaired tragedy. Here we have jokes about women’s underwear, horny neighbourhood MILFs and the usage of the Gujarati word ‘Gando’ because it sounds like a certain Hindi expletive.  Not to blame the audience, but if you find these ‘jokes’ hilarious, you should see a neurosurgeon and ask about getting a brain.

However, the worst thing about Jai Ho is neither the lousy jokes nor the turgid songs, it’s the antiquated and aggressively stupid attempts at emotional wrangling. You get gaudy dramatic music when a woman receives an urgent kidney transplant from her son in law. You get a 30+ year old ‘brilliant’ college student who commits suicide because of a traffic jam. You get a set of goons who gel their hair, drive posh cars, wear gansta hoodies, play rap music and boast about raping women.

Heck, in one scene Tabu tells Bhai to not rise against a villainous politico because she is finally close to her estranged mother; she watches Bhai get beaten up and then looks at the camera and gives him the command to fight back. If all that weren’t enough, there’s the theme of “helping three people who in turn help three other people” that every character mentions at least twice in the film, rendering some unintentional hilarity in the process.

There's an unmistakable sense of desperation in Jai Ho, as if the nearly 50-year-old Salman is wary of his shelf life in the industry and must do everything possible to hold on to his star power. With an army costume, yellow rimmed dark glasses and jeans, Salman’s Jai is a cousin of Chulbul Pandey injected with the nauseating germs found in Ready and Bodyguard. Daisy Shah can dance well but gives Sneha Ullal a run for her money with her lack of acting chops. The only little ray of sunlight in this black hole of boredom is the young Naman Jain who plays Jai’s nephew with a lot of spunk.

The supporting cast is an amazing array of actors filed under Where Were They For All These Years’: Genelia D’Souza, Ashmit Patel playing a living breathing side table, Yash Tonk in a hilariously fake wig, Mahesh Thakur who looks like he still hasn’t recovered from the shock of Satya 2, Mahesh Manjrekar playing an autowala, Aditya Pancholi playing a corrupt cop and even Danny, Sharad Kapoor, Nauheed Cyrusi and Vatsal Seth. The great Mohnish Behl also makes an extended cameo, sharing screen space with Bhai, bringing back memories of Maine Pyaar Kiya. This could have been a solid nostalgia trip if all these actors didn’t show up only to leave like robots.

The bloke who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically to annoy his wife, and Sohail and Salman have basically made Jai Ho to annoy their audience. Like the vortex, Jai Ho gives you a glimpse of the vast infinity of art, filmmaking craft, humor and talent, and somewhere in the vastness is a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot which says “This is Jai Ho, you are here”.

(First published in Firstpost)

15 Best Films from Sundance 2014

What better way to start the new year than discovering a bunch of good films? Here are 15 titles that received the most buzz at the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival. Let's hope at least some of them make it to the Indian shores. 


Director Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank chronicles the bizarre real life story of musician Chris Sievy (played by Michael Fassbender) who wears a large mask and turns into an alter ego named Frank Sidebottom. The film co-stars Domhnall Gleeson and Scoot McNairy and as per the reviews is a funny, warm and insightful debate on an artist’s dependence of someone other than himself to find his artistic inspiration.

I Origins

Three years ago director Mike Cahill and his writer-star Brit Marling stormed the indie circuit with Another Earth. The duo is back with a new science fiction drama I Origins that delves into the conflict between science and religion. Michael Pitt plays an atheist PhD student who madly falls for a devout Christian girl, and the film puts us in a crossfire between their conflicting personalities, until a scientific breakthrough that sends both characters questioning their own ideologies. 

Kumiko The Treasure Hunter

David and Nathan Zellner’s Kumiko The Treasure Hunter stars Rinko Kikuchi (Pafic Rim, Babel) in a rather unusual plot. Kumiko watches the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo on the television and goes on a quest to find the fictional buried treasure from the movie. It’s been acclaimed as a strange but touching character study of disillusionment and the fine lines that the title card ‘based on a true story’ crosses in motion pictures.

The Internet’s Own Boy

Exactly a year ago Aaron Swartz, the internet hero who operated Reddit, compiled data for all of us, and faced 35 yrs of jail for the same, committed suicide. He was 26. The internet paid tribute to Swartz but still no one away from keyboard knows who he is. This could be fixed thanks to director Brian Knappenberger’s film The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz which records the young prodigy’s heartbreaking rise and fall.

Ivory Tower

Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower takes an introspective gander at one of the most important subjects of modern America – the exorbitant college fees that forces students to repay loans over 15-20 years. The system is deeply flawed seeing as most kids either don’t receive higher education or are forever struggling with debt - it’s affected the society and the economy of the country. Ivory Tower is a damning look at the system in place and is definitely one of the most important movies of the year.

The Guest

Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett put a new spin on the home invasion genre in the critically acclaimed You’re Next a couple of years ago and their latest project is evidently even more visceral. The Guest is a mixture of a 90's Cronenberg movie and an 80's John Carpenter movie, and is a dark comedy mystery thriller with a heavy dose of violence.

Life Itself

Possibly the most adored film of Sundance, Roger Ebert’s biography Life Itself has been acclaimed as a sensitive and moving ode to the most famous film critic of our generation. Reviewing a biography of a film critic at a film festival seems a tad indulgent but the film chronicles even the unflattering shades of Ebert’s life instead of just mindlessly worshipping the man.  

Web Junkie

If last year’s A Touch of Sin delved into the social stigmas of China this year’s Web Junkie takes us through the unsettling addiction of the Chinese to the internet. The problem has risen to the levels of a national crisis and the country has set up ‘rehabilitation camps’ to forcibly get adults and even young children away from the internet.


John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson who made the hilarious The Guard two years ago reteam for Calvary, the second film at the fest that argued the necessity of religion in the modern world. Gleeson plays a priest and the film is a dark drama stocked under the winning tone of its cast that includes Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly and Marie-Josee Croze.


While making School of Rock, A Scanner DarklyBefore Sunset and Midnight, Richard Linklater had been shooting a radical project over the course of more than a decade. The project, titled Boyhood is a film that follows a child who grows up in Texas over a course of twelve years from 2001 to 2013. It’s a technique that’s been done in Michael Apted’s ‘Up’ series but never before in a feature film of this scale. Boyhood finally premiered at Sundance to overwhelmingly positive reviews and is undoubtedly the most ambitious motion picture in a long time.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lilly Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Alone at Night got me super excited when its eerie, atmospheric teaser hit YouTube a couple of weeks ago. The film is a rarity on many levels – it’s a black and white Iranian vampire western film noir directed by a woman. As per the reviews the film goes the extra mile and actually lives up to its making, forging new ground in the vampire genre and offering insightful commentary on Iranian culture.

The Raid 2

The Raid 2 was by far the most anticipated Sundance film and it delivered in bucket loads seeing as the acclaim is through the roof. Evidently Director Gareth Evans has taken the best parts of the original film and pumped some seriously high dosage of acid for the sequel. The buzz ranges from ‘the best action movie in recent times’ to ‘the most enjoyable Sundance film in ages’. We should be thankful that we’ll get to see it this April. 

Others: The Signal - which has been described by Slashfilm as an "ambitious, mind bending sci fi thriller" starring Lawrence Fishburne.

The Voices - A comedy horror from Persepolis and Chicken with Plums dir Marjane Satrapi, starring Ryan Reynolds as a psychotic man who is told by his cat to be a serial killer.

Whiplash - A student-teacher drama starring The Spectacular Now's Miles Teller as a drummer. Won the grand jury award. 

For the best coverage of Sundance, head over to Indiewire who reviewed 66 films at the fest. 

(First published in DNA on 26/1/2014)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Case Study of the Sherlock Season 3 Finale

Case History:

There was a two year wait post the Sherlock season two finale The Reichenbach Fall. Sherlock Holmes jumped off a building, but didn’t die, leaving only a frenzy of theories and questions. There was no way writers Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also plays Mycroft in the show) could live up to the fans’ expectations.

But they did. They not only lived up to the expectations but also smashed said expectations to smithereens. Season Three was the funniest, the most personal and the most bromantic segment of Sherlock and it ended gloriously with His Last Vow.

The ‘warm’ and ‘emotional’ side of Sherlock that we saw in the first two episodes disappeared without a trace in The Last Vow. The episode was scripted by Moffat and it was one of the coldest segments and probably the darkest of the series. It also had the much needed mystery-driven tone that was missing in the first two episodes. If you’re in the tiny section of people who still haven’t seen the Sherlock finale, turn away because spoilers follow.

The Facts:

Sherlock’s latest threat, the icy, terrifying Charles Augustus Magnussen (played by Lars Mikkelsen, the brother of Mads Mikkelson) was the first villain of the series to really make the hair at the back of your neck stand. Unlike the other villains in the series Magnussen literally touches his victims, with bodily fluids at that. He has an even more insane skill for deduction than Sherlock and his own gigantic mind palace that he uses to blackmail and exploit people. The reveal of Magnussen’s vaults, and the red herring of his 4G LTE glasses shook up Sherlock more than Moriarty ever did. This was a downright unsettling guy, and it was great to have a villain for the first time since Moriarty shot himself in the face. The all too obvious nod to Rupert Murdoch was a fun addition to his character.

The episode also turned out to be a waterfall of twists and turns, least of which was the one surrounding Watson’s wife.

The reveal had some heavy duty shock value due to the fact that Magnussen, a legitimately scary bloke was shown as being afraid of her. Watson’s propensity towards danger and psychopaths was suspected previously but is pretty much cemented here – his best friend is a high functioning sociopath and he fell in love with an international assassin. He loves peril, he misses the war, and he can’t handle the truth. The scene where Watson is made to face this fact plays out beautifully, and Martin Freeman brings so much depth to his character.

Cumberbatch himself is at the top of his game, especially in the terrific scene where he hurtles around his mind palace after being shot by Mary. It’s an incredible sequence and props to director Nick Hurran for bringing his own vision into it. Molly and Anderson appearing as the physical manifestations of Sherlock’s inner voice was a nice touch, as was Moriarty appearing as Death, trying to manipulate Sherlock into submitting to the dark side.

The Highlights:

 - Mrs Hudson’s Marijuana addiction and exotic dancing YouTube videos.     
 - Molly repeatedly slapping Sherlock.

- When Sherlock tells Watson that ‘Magnussen is quite simply the most dangerous man we’ve ever encountered and the odds are comprehensively stacked against us’, Watson says ‘But it’s Christmas’. To which Sherlock smiles and replies ‘I feel the same’, and is quickly dismayed that Watson is referring to it actually being Christmas.

 - Sherlock shooting Magnussen to death was all the more fulfilling after the deliciously menacing scene where Magnussen flicks Watson in the eye to display his power over him.

 - In Arthur Conan Doyle’s final mystery ‘The Last Bow’ Sherlock and Watson talk about ‘the East wind’ and part ways forever. That conversation takes place in this episode’s final moments, and you’re led to believe that it’s the end of Sherlock. Slyly, even the end credits drum beats kick in when Sherlock’s flight takes off, and suddenly stop to offer a jaw dropping final twist in the tale – Moriarty’s return. The man appears on every video screen in London and says ‘Miss me?’ Yes, we missed you, you weird evil fucker.

The Clues:

How the devil is Moriarty back? Right now a lot of people need to wear the T-shirt that Magnussen recommended Watson to get: with "I don’t understand" on the front and "I still don’t understand" on the back. Moriarty shot himself in his mouth. Everyone saw him die. Well, everyone saw Sherlock die too, but #SherlockLives trended on Twitter, and I’m pretty sure #MoriartyLives will trend in the Season 4 premiere. So let’s explore the options:

1) Earlier Sherlock said that he systematically dismantled Moriarty’s network over a period of two years. So Moriarty is not really alive, and someone simply used an old clip to broadcast it all over London as a threat. This could be Sebastian Moran, who in the books was described by Sherlock as the second most dangerous man in the world, the first being Moriarty. Moran was in cahoots with Moriarty in the books, and could well be the villain of Season 4.

2) Sherlock orchestrated the Moriarty broadcast. Remember, he was being sent to Eastern Europe on a certain suicide mission. So he could have planted the broadcast to make the cops call him back to London. He had hacked into phones in A Study in Pink so this broadcast wouldn’t be that hard for him to pull off.

    (a) He could’ve used help from Lady Smallwood as a return favour for eliminating Magnussen.

    (b) When Mycroft arrives in his chopper to see Sherlock pointing a gun at Magnussen, the sniper bellows ‘target is unarmed’, which means the target was always Magnussen. That way Mycroft was always in league with Lady Smallwood and Sherlock. Why else would he bring a top secret suitcase to his parents’ home for Sherlock to steal and give it to Magnussen?

3) The most plausible scenario is that Moriarty is actually back. The broadcast was a GIF image, but he actually shows up after the end credits, and it would be really silly of Moffat and Gatiss to tease Moriarty’s return for a year and then tell you ‘nope it’s someone else’.

Possible Theories:

1) Moriarty used a fake gun, although Sherlock spotted a fake gun in A Study in Pink. So Moriarty could’ve used blanks in a real gun. At that range even a blank could injure you, but certainly not kill you. We don’t see any blood spurt or brains getting blown out when he pulls the trigger, and Sherlock doesn’t really examine his body. The liquid coming from the back of his head could well have been apple juice.

2) Moriarty used a real gun and didn’t die because Fight Club.

3) Moriarty is Sherlock’s second brother. There is a scene where Mycroft tells someone about a third sibling and he hints that he did something unpleasant to him. As per the books’ mythology Sherrinford is the third brother and is more cunning and observant than both Sherlock and Mycroft.

The Suspects:

Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss are the same guys who at a recent press conference shouted that Moriarty is dead and there was no chance he’d be back. They remain prime suspects in this case for being lying scumbags and awesome showmen.

(First published in Firstpost on Jan 20, 2013)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Interview with Ashim Ahluwalia

After a stint at Cannes and a year long battle with the Censor Board, Ashim Ahluwalia's excellent Miss Lovely finally released in theaters this week. Though everyone loved the film, there was one consistent criticism - the lack of a deep story and the indulgent 'Film Festival scenes'. 

Why would a filmmaker who goes to the furthest extent in detailing, direction, casting, lighting and sound not focus on a decent story? 

So we met Ashim over a round of drinks (four to be exact) and we finally got to understand his point of view. Ashim has this rare combination of uncompromising vision, bravery and massive talent and passion to stick to his headstrong ideals. And he really, really fucking knows cinema.

Regarding his deliberate exclusion of a big story, Ashim said that any movie that he makes will be about the form, and not the plot. He has absolutely no interest in catering to the rules of commercial cinema nor the rules of independent cinema. Cinema is one medium which allows him to be expressionist and build up on atmosphere and mood, so what's the point of spoonfeeding a story to the audience? In fact his script had more detailing on the story but he chopped off huge portions of it during editing. 

Also, he wants to put every genre of cinema into one film and fuck with all of the rules of every element of every genre. He partially achieved this in Miss Lovely. And with this ideology he's making an INDIAN film, where every genre used to be there in the 80s and 90s films. This is very unlike most new age indie filmmakers who try very hard to ape world cinema with the facade of Indian sensibility.

He also explained why there were random shots of foliage and staircases in the second half of the film. When Nawaz's character is imprisoned and hospitalized, he visualizes the world outside him. He wants to get out and once again belong in the outside world. That is what those shots were about. If you think that's indulgence, Ashim has an answer for you. For him, a Salman Khan film is indulgence. A 50 year old playing a 25 year old romancing a 20 year old on screen - that's indulgence. 

Below is the transcript of a brief chat I had later with him on Twitter. (Thanks to @misslovelyfilm)

MF: When did the idea of Miss Lovely first come to you?

AA: I've had this idea for almost ten years. I just couldn't get finance earlier until I made my first film "John & Jane" which was the first Indian film to be sold to HBO. That made things easier

MF: Were Nawaz and Niharika Singh always going to be the leads, or did you audition others as well?

AA: I didn't know them. I wanted unknown faces. Nawaz had only done small roles when we cast him. Miss Lovely is his first lead role. I screen tested 100s of people, and they were both amazing in their tests.

MF: To some extent Anil George was even better than Nawaz in the film. Where the heck did you find him?

AA: Doing street theatre in Delhi. Another totally unknown face who had never done a film. Other than Nawaz and Niharika, he's the real discovery of Miss Lovely. He's got incredible presence.

MF: What was the casting process of all the junior artists in the film? They're all so wonderfully authentic.

AA: Most of them aren't extras, they are real guys who worked in the C grade industry as actors or crew. I just wanted them in the film because they're the real deal and totally believable.

MF: Was the film always going to be the way it turned out to be, or did the script change as you shot it?

AA: In the script, the story is completely spelled out. it is more conventional but I removed a lot of that in the editing because I preferred a more open-ended quality. I wanted the mood and atmosphere to play a part in moving the story forward, more impressionistic. I didn't want to only focus on the character development and 3 act structure because that removed a lot of the mystery. For me a certain incompleteness is not indulgent. Like in real life, not everything is explained.

MF: How do you deal with the constant criticism of Miss Lovely 'not having a deep enough story' Is the criticism even valid?

AA: It's not surprising. I don't face this so much internationally, but in India we are used to the story being the most important facet of cinema. Our cinema tradition comes from theatre. We rarely make films with atmosphere. For me cinema is about images as much as it is about story. I like that.

MF: How did you get your hands on the vintage 80's stuff, like the Weston C90 cassette, the TV sets and the yellow Yezdi?

AA: Mostly we emptied peoples houses and we hit up collectors of 80s memorabilia. I grew up in that era so I was very clear about what I needed - it was just a matter of finding things that weren't too damaged.

MF: What was the Censor board’s first reaction upon seeing Miss Lovely, and what finally convinced them to have just 4 cuts?

AA: They were fairly scandalized because they hadn't seen an Indian film like it. We were asked for a lot of cuts at first. But I went back to them for a year, we had multiple reviews, I kept bugging them until they reduced the cuts. They liked the movie and knew it wasn't an exploitation film, which helped.

MF: What, in your opinion, is the state of filmmaking in India? Are we progressing or regressing? Is the future bright for indie films?

AA: It's an exciting time because filmmakers are energized about cinema again. It's not just about 200 cr films. Smaller, more personal films are releasing more often. I'm hopeful.

MF: Given a budget of 100 cr, free reign and complete creative control, what sort of film would you make next? 

AA: 100cr and free reign are two words that can't co-exist! But if they did, I'd make a twisted remake of Mithun's Suraksha (Gun Master G9).

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Movie Review: Miss Lovely

In the opening scenes of Miss Lovely a man in an 80’s Ramsay-esque movie wanders around a dark haunted house with a candle, and is suddenly grabbed by a saree clad nubile female ghost. Later, we’re plunged into a film set where a heaving, semi naked woman is attacked by an overtly masculine monster, and the director who is off camera pinches the woman’s thighs to make her scream. This scene is projected on the screen of a seedy theatre where a pervy old man sits and smiles lasciviously as the woman suggestively moans when the monster assaults her. Director Ashim Ahluwalia beautifully demonstrates how enormous an impact horror filmmakers like the Ramsays, Harinam Singh, Gyanendra Chowdhary and their ilk had on India’s B-movie industry and the psyche of desi film buffs.

Some will appreciate Miss Lovely for its experimental arthouse style. Others will hate the film and call it a slow, story-less and pointless exercise in indulgence. But those like me and most desi D-grade horror fans will be fascinated to see (and hear) how 80’s low budget Hindi horror movies were made and delve into the unglamorous world of their production. What you’ll probably not expect is Miss Lovely being a moody rumination on loneliness, alienation, and desperation. It’s not the kind of film you’d watch every week but it’s impossible not to be mesmerized by its audacity.

The film follows a typical lower middle class bloke Sonu Duggal (Nawaz) who arrives in Bombay and finds some footing when his B-grade filmmaker brother Vicky (Anil George) offers him work in his cinema. A young and innocent girl named Pinky (Niharika Singh) shows up and Sonu is so besotted with her that he lies to her about being a filmmaker with the intention of turning her into a star. Things get ugly and Sonu gets embroiled in the murky underbelly of the B-movie industry, cops, shady gangster film producers and his desperate brother.

Theoretically this plot should make me giddy with delight and transform the very face of ‘Bollywood’. But this is a rare movie that is terrific yet simultaneously frustrating, because director Ahluwalia just doesn’t expand his plot. The story only kicks in the second half and just when it is about to mature into something truly great Ahluwalia pulls the rug from under your feet and just ends the story, but continues the film. What actually follows is an extremely long and indulgent existential slog through the eyes of Sonu, with various intentionally languid still shots of staircases, houses, foliage, telephones and buildings. The effect is so jarring it feels like Ahluwalia is deliberately blocking a good story from being told just for ‘film festival indulgence’. It’s maddening because there was so much effort put in every other aspect of the film.

You can’t even credit the film to be a character driven, rather than a plot driven piece. The screenplay reveals absolutely nothing about Sonu’s life before his arrival in Bombay and doesn’t provide much for him to do after the city clobbers him to near death. There is a brilliant dramatic contortion towards the finale but by this point the fundamental problem of the film not having a meaty story prevents it from elevating to the masterpiece level that it could so easily have reached. It’s a sad but solid reminder that without a good story no movie would become great, no matter how brilliantly acted, directed and shot it is.

Despite its drawbacks, there’s plenty of dark and wonderful stuff within Miss Lovely. The atmosphere in the film is so intoxicating it will take your breath away. The moody lighting and ambient sound design render a hypnotic feel to the film. The detailing is ridiculously good – all of the stuff from 80’s is omnipresent - from the Weston C90 cassettes to the Mirc television sets to the ancient projectors and reels to the polka dot clothing to yellow colored Yezdis. There is even a shot of Bombay traffic in the 80’s with all of the cars that were present in that era – how Ahluwalia pulled that shot off is a mystery. Most importantly Ahluwalia doesn’t make the sets too showy, thereby adding to the realism of the film’s timeline.  

As a lifelong lover of horror and B-cinema I found a ton of things to admire in Miss Lovely, like Ahluwalia’s ability to create an oppressively dreadful yet hilarious setting. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes a B-movie producer - a dwarf who sits in a grungy office with walls covered in smutty photos - is approached by a wannabe actress to star in an adult movie. She hands him her photographs and says ‘mai sexy dance accha kar leti hu’ and starts gyrating, and the producer points out to Sonu how busy he is.

The ‘filmmaking’ scenes, like the African jungle dance one are amusing. The sets are filled with bizarre scummy pulpy people you never expect to meet in your life. These are the rodents of the film industry and Ahluwalia presents them to you with glee. Hilariously, the B-movies being filmed in the film sometimes feel more real than the one we’re actually watching.

The casting and performances are flawless. Nawaz is yet again excellent – he switches from good natured and innocent to helpless, desperate and violent without missing a beat. Whoever discovered Anil George deserves a trophy because he’s a hell of a dramatic actor. Watch him in the scenes where he verbally spars with Nawaz and you’ll know we have a Vijay Raaz-Deepak Dobriyal competitor. Newcomer Niharika Singh is icily mysterious (not to mention gorgeous). The junior artistes are all wonderful in their tiny roles.

Miss Lovely breaks a lot of ‘Bollywood rules’. You can bristle about its indulgencies but I'll still prefer a movie that fiddles with the rules over an easy commercial one. Especially if it has a climax that features blood and a Nazia Hassan song.

(First published in Firstpost on Jan 16, 2014)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers’ movies have always been weird, unpredictable, neurotic, always funny and never depressing. So it’s quite surprising when you discover that Inside Llewyn Davis is their bleakest, saddest film to date. The change in tone didn’t seem to have had any effect on quality though, because the Coens are in top form as always.

Set in NYC in the 60’s the film chronicles the titular character Davis, a struggling folk musician (played to grim perfection by Oscar Isaac), who is having a hard time keeping up with his famous father’s reputation and paying the rent. Davis couch surfs his way through life, often depending on friends, exes and the generosity of rich acquaintances who render him some token remuneration in exchange for a song or two. His life takes a big turn when he pursues an escaped ginger cat across the city and re-examines his struggle and his life’s purpose. The cat is a wonderful little metaphor and anyone who has had a tussle with following their passion and making money out of it will be able to connect with Davis and his problems.

For the first time in many years the Coens work without Roger Deakins and there’s a significantly different mood to the film. Bruno Delbonell (Amelie) shoots in icy cold NYC and the imagery is powerful enough to give you the chills. The photography really takes you inside the lonely isolated yet hopeful headspace of Davis as he chases the cat around town. You get to feel what Davis goes through. You get to experience every agonizing disappointment that Davis faces. You can see the pain, the hunger to succeed and the distinct shadow of hopelessness in Davis’ eyes. When Davis meets a host of helpful and selfish people who all want to make it in the industry you realize in a way he is selfish too, for sticking with his plan and not getting a proper job and mooching off his friends’ couches to live. The quirky black humor typical of the Coens does show up in spurts, and the comedic moments are so welcome you end up laughing harder than intended.

Isaac, who was last seen in tiny parts in Sucker Punch, Drive and a host of forgettable films is given the role of his lifetime here. He’s completely committed to his role and you can tell he’s worked really hard to channel his own struggles as someone trying to peddle his talents across the film industry. It’s a tough role because Isaac is faced with the task of making Davis likable instead of pitiable, and he pulls it off. The soundtrack is as good as the supporting cast. The scene where Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake sing ‘500 miles’ will give you the goosebumps. Like the rest of the movie, the scene is a deeply moving, authentic portrayal of an artist scuffling to showcase his art to the world. Whether or not you can relate to it, you need to watch it on the big screen to appreciate its tragic beauty. 

(First published in Mid Day)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Movie Review: Dedh Ishqiya

My impasse here is to convince you to see Dedh Ishqiya without revealing too many plot details, which is like a salesman persuading you to buy a car because it is red.

Suffice to say that Dedh Ishqiya is smarter, funnier, richer and way more gorgeous than its predecessor. If you're a fan of really, really great writing, masterful direction, clever lines, terrific actors, Urdu literature and shayari, Dedh Ishqiya delivers by the truckloads. And if you were worried that Abhishek Chaubey and Vishal Bharadwaj had exhausted their supply of sardonic dialogues in the first film, relax. Dedh Ishqiya not only outdoes the wit and intelligence of the first film, but is also the finest sequel and perhaps the most hilarious thriller to come from Bollywood. Few filmmakers have the ability to deliver dark and nuanced humor with such confidence, and the Chaubey-Bharadwaj team have pretty much outdone themselves with this deeply awesome installment.

The story picks up an indefinite amount of time after the events of the first movie. Babban and Khalu continue to con their way through life in the hinterlands and evade being buried alive by their former boss Mushtaq (Salman Shahid). After a heist goes wrong the duo chance upon a lifetime opportunity of carrying out the ultimate con and 'settling down' in a gigantic Scindia style palace occupied by the ridiculously rich Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) and her subordinate Muniya (Huma Qureshi). Trouble brews and hilarity ensues when the villainous Nawab Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz) decides to contest Khalu for Begum's hand over a round of Shayari and Target Shooting'.

There’s a severely satisfying degree of subtext beneath the front layers of Dedh Ishqiya, and homages are only a part of the film’s intelligent satirical touches. But don't let metaphors and subtext get you down, Dedh Ishqiya is first and foremost a very entertaining movie. Plus it's got a generous dose of cinematic ‘moments’, and a terrific special effect – romance between Naseer and Madhuri Dixit. 

Much of the film’s humor comes from dry sarcasm and a deliciously acidic sense of irony. The genius is in the details. Chaubey and Bharadwaj fill Dedh Ishqiya with an array of stunningly colourful sets to complement the layered writing and set the film in a see-saw of the hilariously absurd and the absurdly hilarious. While Naseer and Dixit wax on Ghalib and Lihaaf a shot shows a bar with the signboard ‘Bhayankar Chilled Beer’ and a railway station is called ‘Baap’. There are deconstructions of Mexican standoffs, juxtaposed to beautifully ironic songs, and they’ll make your belly ache with laughter. The Shayari contest between Khalu and Jaan Mohammad is itself worth the price of admission. 

As the film goes through its myriad of twists and turns the viewer may recognize how quirky the characters are. And once the secondary characters branch off individual plot threads Dedh Ishqiya feels like a multi-pronged classic. Not to mention the wonderful production design and Setu’s elegant cinematography that gives your retinas a spa massage. There’s poetry in the lines as well as in the frames.

Naseer and Warsi really are a classic on screen couple - the camaraderie between them is a lot of fun. As in the first film Babban and Khalu are dysfunctional to an astronomical degree - they bicker, fight, dupe each other, but ultimately can't do without each other. Babban and Khalu are funny guys, but they'll go to any extent to frame people and manipulate situations to get what they want. And Naseer and Warsi portray their impious characters with a refreshing lack of apology. Naseer is quite lovable and you can tell that he's having fun in his role of a slyly fiendish and the winningly romantic conman. This time Naseer loses his faux youthful mehendi beard but gains a shade of vulnerability to his character. Faring just as strongly is Arshad Warsi who is once again amusing, and exudes a surprisingly darker shade to his character. Babban is a romantic on the outside but deep down he'll manhandle and slap women if he feels betrayed. Warsi nails both sides of his character - he should really do more films like this one instead of stuff like last week’s unmentionable dud.

With her pale visage and haunted eyes Madhuri Dixit looks stunning and has a couple of superb scenes with Naseer, but doesn’t have the magnetic screen presence of her former self. The fact that she plays a formerly beautiful and popular star makes her casting and performance kind of meta. It’s still great to see her back on the big screen in a really good film. Qureshi continues the super strong ‘don’t mess mess with me’ attitude from her previous films and seems to have perfected her style here, it’s nice to see that she’s getting better and more wide ranging with every film. Manoj Pahwa in a small but significant role is quite terrific. Bringing down the house is Vijay Raaz who is delightfully scummy and displays some previously unseen acting chops, teasing every comic as well as menacing possibility out of Jaan Mohammed’s character. The guy is an acting giant who can effortlessly make even the most jaded moviegoer applaud. It is frustrating that he doesn’t appear in more movies.

The only problem is that there are no ‘hit’ songs like Ibn-E-Batuta and Dil to baccha hai ji and that might not bring in audiences in droves, and that’s a shame because the songs (Gulzar-VB) in Dedh Ishqiya work really well within the film. And the film deserves to make hundreds of crores, because it’s a hundred times better than part one. It’s a rare movie that delves in intelligent humor and succeeds so brilliantly. It transported me to a more cheerful and less cynical headspace and I fell for it all the way. You will too, so check it out.

(First published in Firstpost on Jan 9, 2014)

Friday, January 3, 2014

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

How does this Scorsese guy do it? 71 years old and he’s still at the top of his game with the energy of a 22 year old.

The Wolf of Wall Street will do two things to you:

1) It makes you laugh till your sides hurt, and 2) It makes you take a shower asap. Because it’s a rare movie that makes you laugh and makes you feel guilty for laughing.

Debauchery has never been captured so sharply on screen, and The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour long drunk story, cautionary tale and horror movie rolled into one. It’s spectacular. It’s repulsive. It’s the Goodfellas of modern day gangsters (investment bankers) and it’s Scorsese’s best since The Departed.

The protagonist Jordan Belfort is a thoroughly unlikely character, and in some instances hilariously so. Some of the things that happen in the movie are so over the top you won’t believe they’re real. The funny thing is they are real, and the amount of excess and overindulgence that Wall Street honchos engage in is ridiculous. Show those guys this film and they’ll clap and cheer at Belfort’s wrongdoings.

Leo, in the performance of his career plays Belfort like any hotshot top level WS banker. I knew Leo is a great dramatic actor but I never expected his comic timing to be this insane. Take the performances of all the cast members of 2000’s terrific Boiler Room, multiply them by a thousand and that’s still less awesome than Leo’s portrayal of Belfort. There is a ten minute long scene where his character is completely bonkers on drugs, he’s unable to walk, and he struggles to crawl to his car, somehow drives back home still out of his wits, watches Popeye eating spinach on TV and becoming strong, and snorts cocaine to come back to his senses. This will be used in film school textbooks in the chapter titled ‘how to render a badass fucking performance’. This team of Scorsese and Leo is certainly one of the greatest things to happen in cinema history and we’re lucky to live in the era where this is possible.

The supporting cast is equally terrific, Jonah Hill seems to be getting better as he ages and there’s Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin and a half a dozen other extended cameos all bringing their own devilish scumbaggy charm to the movie.

There is a bit of outrage regarding the movie being sexist and glorifying drug use. The joke’s on you, because the movie isn’t misogynist, but you are if you enjoy the stuff happening on screen. Portrayal of misogyny and drugs is never defence of misogyny and drugs, and if you’ve seen any Martin Scorsese film to date, you should know that by now. Not once does the film condone Belfort’s behaviour, and Scorsese makes it a point to not victimize Belfort for falling in the drug trap – he is shown as an innately narcissistic individual who wanted to do the disgusting things that he did.

Belfort wanted more and more money, sex and drugs, and the film ultimately becomes him, offering more and more outlandish scenarios as it goes on. Every scene is long, indulgent and excessive but so energetic, euphoric and shocking you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s definitely not something you should see with your parents. But it’s definitely something you need to see to know that entitled assholes like Belfort get away with minor jail time while others are branded criminals and rot in prison for far lesser offenses.

(First published in MiD Day)