Sunday, February 22, 2015

Movie Review: Badlapur

There were plenty of factors riding against Badlapur. Director Sriram Raghavan was coming from the failure of Agent Vinod. Varun Dhavan, the star of over the top romantic comedies was headlining a dark thriller. Ek Villain, another film with a similar premise of vengeance had just recently come, made money and gone. That budget was super tight, only movies that cost a lot of money make a lot of money here.

Much like the protagonist of this film, Badlapur renders a brutal wallop to everything going against it, and emerges as the first truly great movie of the year.

Dhawan stars as Raghu, a successful ad agency professional in Pune whose life descends into the pits when his wife (Yami Gautam) and child are killed during a car hijack. One of the culprits, Liak (Nawaz) is caught and put behind bars, but he refuses to divulge the identity of the other guy. Raghu cannot accept this - his mind fractures, and what follows is a crazy revenge trip that is set, aptly in the town of Badlapur.

Fortunately, we don’t get a rehash of Ek Villain. What we do get is the Sriram Raghavan of Ek Hasina Thi. It is surprising that unlike the trailers this isn’t the bloody vengeful journey that you expect it to be – it’s a black comedy and character drama with a small dose of violence. The film zips by from one plot point to another, as we follow Raghu’s weird path of salvation. Raghavan extracts humor from apathy, like from Koko (Radhika Apte) a hapless wife willing to offer sex to a murderer without a moment’s consideration. He also extracts humor from desperation, like Liak’s bungled attempts at escape from prison. There’s also a lovely dynamic between Liak and his mother (Pratima Kazmi) that ends in a subtly heartbreaking way. To have such a nuanced and offbeat film as a mainstream release is quite a nice change.

At most times Badlapur feels like Raghavan set out to take badla and mess with the clichés of the formula and genre. Meandering romantic sub plots? To hell with that - Raghu just uses and throws. A thirst for revenge? Too easy, let’s make the hero and the villain wait for fifteen goddamn years until they actually do anything. No one even smokes in the film, yet there is persuasive mention of Ganja. The familiar element of a suitcase full of cash is present, and the plotline is quietly subverted by the end. What’s more, there’s shades of James Hadley Chase and Vijay Anand in the mix as well, complete with sex based shock value.

What works best is that Badlapur is stripped down, crystalline filmmaking. There’s no room for unnecessary BS nor are there any frills that pander to commercialization. While Johnny Gaddar had a dash of pulp in every frame the shots here are simple and beautiful. There’s no fancy camerawork here – Raghavan composes his scenes at the most basic level and lets the terrific acting and narrative do the heavy lifting. The visual resplendence is seen right from the opening scene, a long and meticulously composed Haneke style take where a woman simply crosses the road, while two shady folks in the frame do their own thing, until something horrible happens. It’s the reason why the tagline of the posters is ‘Don’t miss the beginning’.    

This is also violence done right. Raghavan seems to know that if there’s too much gratuitous brutality from the get go the audience becomes numb to it and the scene that matters won’t be effective. So the little bit of brutality there is arrives at a point when you least expect it, and whatever happens in that short burst will make the hair on your neck stand.

Raghavan managed to make even Neil Nitin Mukesh seem like a decent actor, and his knack for getting unheard of performances is on full display here. Varun looks like a beast, and his presence is felt. Much like Shahid Kapoor in Haider his transformation is memorably messed up. This is the film that is going to win everyone over and make him a household name. A bit more work on his delivery would have been perfect though.

Nawaz is once again effortlessly in top form as the sleazy, film obsessed baddie, and his chemistry with Huma Qureshi remains intact. Kumud Mishra as a cop is fun, and really brings the house down in a shouty meltdown scene with Nawaz. Yami Gautam is fine but she’s played the same role previously in Action Jackson, so hopefully she won’t be stereotyped as the murdered wife. The cherry on top are the wonderful cameos from Raghavan regulars Ashwini Kalsekar, Vinay Pathak, Zakir Hussain and Gopal Singh, the suitcase guy from EHT.

The question of comparison to Ek Haseena Thi and Johnny Gaddar is irrelevant. Badlapur is the kind of film we need more of, and also the kind of film that you need to see more of. It’s in theaters now, so if you want to see a change in the quality of Bollywood products, I suggest you get a ticket or two.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: MSG

Let’s keep aside the censor board controversy behind MSG. Let’s keep aside the unsubtle self flagellating of Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan. MSG Messenger of God is finally in theaters – so is it worth the hype?

The answer is a resounding, deafening, back flipping, motorcycle riding, dove tossing, fireworks exploding, lion roaring, Deol screaming yes.

The problem with most desi films is that they’re neither genuinely good, or bad enough to be entertaining. We get a Dunno Y Na Jaane Kyun or a One Two Three every now and then but these gems too few and far in between. Step aside and make room for MSG – it’s the granddaddy of them all – the Nazar Suraksha Kawach of these gems. It is not just a film, but also a crash course on so-bad-it’s-good filmmaking, and a thesis on guilty pleasure entertainment.

The story is pretty simple – Saint Gurmeet is the Borat of India. Except that he’s real, dead serious about how amazing he is and also a rock star. Think Nithyananda crossed with Aerosmith.

Our Saint, playing himself, is the alpha male, chick magnet, sports superstar, Grand Panjadrum and Dear Leader of Dera Sacha Sauda, a religious sect dedicated to helping helpless people in need of help. People lovingly call him Pitaji and seek his help by chanting ‘Dhan Dhan Satguru tera hi asra’. The chant works just like in Captain Planet and Pitaji proceeds to heal the unhealable, treat the untreatable, rehabilitate drug and alcohol addicts, rescue prostitutes and get them married, save poisoned victims’ lives and create wells for destitute farmers. He does all this using magic, of course. The local drug lord realizes that Pitaji’s rehabilitating and anti alcohol abilities could quash his business, and the film is built around his attempts to assassinate Pitaji.

Three fourths of this three and a half hour film is made up of Pitaji parading around in outrageous clothes and performing wondrous magic. He also constantly does things that make MSG a stoner’s paradise – like standing on a lion with flapping wings, or doing pushups between two buses that are draped in the national flag colors, or headrocking in a car named ‘We luv Sat Guru’, or shooting electric laser beams from his forehead. It’s like Saint Gurmeet sat down one night with his creative team with a kilo of the blue stuff from Breaking Bad.

How can one make a sword fight more awesome? By turning the incoming flying daggers into rose petals falling over a smiling Pitaji. How about doing something with bullets more awesome than The Matrix? Let’s convert the incoming bullets into a golden Crown for King Pitaji and then make him whoop the gundas’ gonads. This is the kind of stuff Rajinikanth can only dream of, and Pitaji chews every ridiculous scene with the smile of a huggable teddy. Not to mention the truly epic song lyrics like:

Papa the Great, mere papa the great
Bas tum karte ho pyaar
Saari duniya karti hate

The consistently over the top style of MSG is only buoyed by the absolutely atrocious acting from pretty much everyone in the film. ‘Guwwwuujeeeee’, a gut bustingly untalented phoren actress in this desi movie asks, ‘can I make a documentary on you? Pleeeeeaaaaase? Please Please Please Please’. When Pitaji replies in the affirmative the girl screams in delight, as Bhangra music plays and random kids begin celebrating. Only Dev Anand’s last few films commanded acting, character development and direction as hilariously tacky as the stuff in this movie.

Behind the crackpot writing, direction and acting, MSG without a doubt, is a gigantic advertisement for Dera Sacha Sauda. How dangerous is this, you may ask yourself. These guys spent tens of crores to promote a controversial cult on a mainstream level as this great organization that benefits mankind. The Dera has millions of followers and heaven knows there are people dumb enough to actually believe all the magical tricks of their Pitaji. Keep your concerns at bay, because it’s great to have more movies which are bad enough to be fun rather than the ones that are so bad they’re terrible. Besides, why wouldn’t you want more movies featuring a Saint, with curly arm hair, in a rainbow costume, playing a guitar with both hands, while riding a bike, over a swimming pool, in the air, as two female fans in the pool cheer in awe?

Hilariously, Saint Gurmeet’s ginormous name is present in every single opening credit of the movie, sometimes in different lengths. It is reminiscent of the film Jigarthanda, in which a local gangster forces a filmmaker at gunpoint to make him a superstar. The third act of that movie is pretty much the story of MSG’s release and now a bridge between satire and reality.

Why the film faced any ban is a mystery. You can laugh with the movie, and more so at the movie. It’s a win win. I reckon the censor board wanted to ban the movie for being too awesome. There is literally no better way to spend your valentines day than taking your date to watch the Love Charger.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: Shamitabh

Ten minutes into Shamitabh you’ll begin to realize you’re feeling something that seems almost alien – entertainment. You’ll be glad that, after what seems like eons, we have a mainstream commercial movie that actually attempts to render a story that’s unique and original, without the tacky underpinnings of the products from the genre. If you’re a Big B fan, the first half of Shamitabh is going to be your LSD.

Danish, a kid from a village grows up into a perfectly cast Dhanush with dreams of being an actor. Danish moves to Mumbai and stalks whichever filmmaker he spots, and begins living secretly in a Vanity Van. When he finally gets a chance to do a screen test he kills it. The only problem? He’s mute. But this is 2015, and filmmaking now has tools, like Dubbing. With these tools, even a tool can be a hero. And as the protagonist mentions, if you’ve got the vocal cords of Amitabh Bachchan, even a dog can be star. So when Danish comes across Amitabh (Big B), a washed up drunkard with a glorious baritone, the collaboration reeks of superstardom. Danish + Amitabh become Shamitabh.

Going with the theme of the film, Shamitabh is half a great movie. As you surely have guessed, there’s a ton of Meta in the film. This is a film about superstardom, starring superstars. It’s about the high of the rise and the constant threat of the fall, the jealousy, the disappointment and all the other emotional baggage that comes along with stardom. In one scene Shamitabh is shooting a movie where his heroine has to visit the loo, so he builds her a toilet out of snow and the commode becomes a romantic theme in the song. Yup Shamitabh is also an unsubtle commentary of the nature of commercial Bollywood.

The ‘conflict’ in director Balki’s previous films Cheeni Kum and Paa were ham handed to say the least, but this time we have something imaginative. As Shamitabh becomes a star, his greed starts to eat him inwards, and Amitabh, who is kept a secret, begins to wonder why he doesn’t get the lion’s share of the credit. Acting and screen presence is all about the delivery, he growls. To get you high a bottle of whiskey doesn’t need water, but water does need whiskey. Even if a whiskey bottle is 43% whiskey and 57% water. He’s a washed out alcoholic because his voice didn’t suit the industry in the 80’s, so how is it fair that someone with no screen presence becomes a star because of his voice. Neither can live without the other, and the ego clashes, the jealous bickering between the two is fun, as are Amitabh’s drunk philosophical putdowns.

It seems Balki took the dual nature of his film too seriously, because the second half of the film crashes and burns. Balki loses the drive and is unsure of what to do with the characters, so he includes some truly horrendous contrivances to pad things up.

There is also a ton of stupidity in the movie, like the eyeroll inducing Finnish sci fi technology behind getting Amitabh’s voice in Danish’s throat. Other forms of sci fi include a random Assistant Director (an awkward Akshara Haasan) suddenly rescuing Danish from being thrown out of film city for stalking, putting him on a screen test, sending him to Finland, and convincing her director to cast him in his film as the star. Talk about luck by chance. There’s also an unintentionally hilarious subplot of a tabloid reporter who realizes the discrepancy in Shamitabh’s voice and travels to Finland as an investigative reporter and then blackmails Shamitabh. Not to mention the hundred thousand product placements crammed into nearly every frame of the film.

If you were disappointed by the endings of Paa and Cheeni Kum, prepare to face something similar. During the closing minutes it becomes clear that Balki doesn’t know what point to make, so he just abruptly gives up and the credits roll, leaving you with a mixed bag of emotions. 

Fortunately you’ll still remember the one thing that kept the film going – Bachchan’s performance. Such style and elegance is seldom seen in cinema. Even when he’s lying in the dirt, blabbering with a sozzled face, he’s a class act. And it’s great to see him play a character instead of his own French bearded self. Amitabh points out that he’s the larger part of the name Shamitabh, and Big B is pretty much the only significant and memorable part of the film. This might as well have been called ShaMetabh.

(First published in Firstpost)

The 40 Best Movies of 2014

2014 was a pretty good, if not a great year for cinema. Surprisingly, a few mainstream films like The Lego MovieCaptain America 2, Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Apes turned out to be really great. The trusty old auteurs too hit gold with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gone Girl and Boyhood.

Since the Oscars only tell you who the best dressed celebrity was, and not which the best films were, I take this opportunity to give you 40 of the best movies of 2014:


The Edward Snowden documentary by Laura Poitras was not just revelatory but also a deeply incisive and upsetting look at the how the NSA spying drama unfolded. The footage itself is explosive, but how she managed to capture it for the film will blow you away. 

39 - Coherence

Yet another example that proves one can make a tremendous movie even with frightfully tiny budgets. A comet passes by on a dark night, and a group of friends dining in a house discover another house down the road that has clones of themselves. Trippy and imaginative stuff.

38 - IN FEAR

Couple goes on a road trip towards a romantic getaway. They get lost. Shit happens. A clichéd plot executed with incredible freshness and a chilly as fuck atmosphere. Directed by Jeremy Lovering, who helmed the Sherlock episode ‘The Empty Hearse’.

37 - I Origins

Mike Cahill followed up ‘Another Earth’ with another sci fi indie featuring Brit Marling and a much greater ambition. The film delves into the fine line linking science and religion, but enveloping the philosophical mumbo jumbo is an incredible well-made and moving love story between Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges Frisbey.


Aussie filmmaker David Michod’s follow up to Animal Kingdom isn’t as great but is definitely an excellent post apocalyptic thriller featuring a career best performance from Guy Pearce.


Ebert made it look easy. His biography showed how complex it was. It’s pretty much a go-to movie for anyone who writes about cinema, or even digs cinema with all his heart.


Andrew Rossi’s documentary 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. It’s depressing to know the extent of the system where most kids either don’t receive higher education or are forever struggling with debt, and to see it affecting the economy of the entire world.


The new Irish film by The Guard director John Michael McDonagh is a gorgeous dark drama with heavy-duty existential themes executed with dry British humor. Brendon Gleeson, who plays a priest facing an imminent death lost out on an acting nomination.


A throwback to Peter Jackson’s disgustingly hilarious horror comedies from the 90’s, this Aussie movie delivered by the truckloads in scares and laughs. The ’reveal’ in the movie has got to be one of the most fun mystery unravels in recent cinema.


If you thought Birdman was a great meta film about the film industry, Sion Sono’s new movie dips the theme in some acid and splashes it on your face. It’s surreal, crazy, hilariously over the top and very entertaining. It’s also a little less fucked up than Sono’s general output.


A dark, dark psychological horror murder mystery with even darker mood and atmosphere. Keeps you guessing until the very end, and even though the payoff polarizes viewers, the journey is terrific. And yes, it’s scary too.


The Weinsteins clearly had a bone to pick with director Bong Joon Ho. Not only did this excellent film not get a wide theatrical release, but it also didn’t receive any push in the awards circuit. It’s a pity that Chris Evans delivered the best performance of his career as an antihero in this movie and he’ll still be known as Captain America. 


Web Junkie had very interesting subject matter – the film shed a light on Internet Rehabs in China. Teenagers who perceivably spend too much time on their computers are forcibly sent to these military camps and are subjected to brutal psychological and personality shakeups. It’s kind of a horror movie because it makes you ponder over how you’d deal with an internet addict child, if you think brute force is an unfair option.

27 - FRANK

Director Lenny Abrahamson’s film 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, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy and is a funny and bittersweet debate on an artist’s insecurity, and dependence of someone other than himself to find his artistic inspiration.

26 - THE RAID 2

This.. well.. it kicked a lot of ass.


Packed with six shorts connected with the singular theme of revenge, this Argentinian film is darkly hilarious and enormously entertaining stuff. It’s also not often that we see six short stories by the same filmmaker presented as film.


Jim Jarmusch mixes up the vampire genre with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as a vampiric couple with existential problems. Jarmusch wonderfully subverts the nature of cinema vampires by making them a bored couple tired of living forever and staying hidden from the rest of the world. The monotony of constantly searching for blood without alerting the cops, and the humdrum nature of being in love forever is explored to smashing effect.


The passage of time in the film industry has seldom been captured in cinema and director Oliver Assayas does this beautifully in Clouds of Sils Maria. This is yet another meta Hollywood film, where Juliette Binoche plays an ageing superstar coming to terms with a younger starlet taking her place. Like Birdman, this film also transitions in and out of reality, and it also takes digs at snooty celebrities, and is also crowd pleasingly fantastic.


Directed with stunning precision and sensitivity by debutant Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is spine tingling hair-raising razor sharp entertainment. Dook, dook, dook.


The folks behind 2013’s surprise You’re Next up the ante in narrative, humor and genre parodying. Dan Stevens is fun as the mysterious 80’s antihero on the run.


Perhaps the most underrated movie of the year, Predestination has a tremendous script that puts a new spin on the time travel genre. Writer-directors Peter and Michael Spierig explore the predestination paradox to great effect and make Looper look simplistic. The film also signaled the arrival of a major talent in the form of Sarah Snook.


The Dardennes never disappoint, and with Marion Cotillard in a stripped down, unglamorous role they make it even easier for us to love them.


Through the eyes of a truly desperate couple (Candela Pena and Luis Zahera) director Alex Sampayo’s Spanish film takes us through an existential dilemma wrought with manic depression, blood, murder, illegal organ transplants and kidnapping. Brutal stuff.


What if you found a guy in a bar who offers you ridiculous amounts of money to indulge in the most bizarre challenges? How far towards depravity would you go when the chips are down? Do you really care about right and wrong when defecating in your neighbors house gives you one thousand dollars? Debutant director EL Katz answers all your sickening queries in this pitch black, hilarious, and audacious horror comedy.


If you haven’t seen this yet, you’re most definitely dragging, when you should be rushing.


What do we talk about when we talk about love?


What if every science fiction film you’ve seen since the 80’s was based on a project that never got made? And the director of said project faded into depression and oblivion because his dream was shattered? Director Frank Pavinch whips out a revelatory, moving film about the forgotten legend that is Jororowsky. It’s poetic injustice that the Academy failed to greenlight even this movie.

13 - ENEMY

Denis Villeneuve’s takedown of the human condition explained with baby spiders being crushed to death by strippers. Difficult to decipher, but easy to fall in love with.


Another takedown of the human condition, but this one did it with the metaphor of office space, the choice of good vs evil, and an elegant rendering of existentialist angst in society. Not to mention it was hilarious and absolutely gorgeous to look at.


Yet another fresh spin on the vampire genre, Iranian-American Ana Lily Amirpour’s part noir, part horror, part drama, part romance, part expressionist art, part comedy, part thriller, part western, part social commentary is one smooth, seriously gorgeous, black and white, sinfully entertaining package. If there was an Oscar for the best on screen kiss this would win it, because a stunning electronic music based five minute slow mo take preceeds the lip lock.

10 - 71

A soldier stuck alone in the midst of a raging war. Fighting for survival. Bullets, bombs and blood. It’s been done before, but never in such a brutally beautiful fashion. Special mention to David Holmes’ minimalist electronic music that intensifies the tension to unexpected levels.


Michael Keaton will walk away with the acting trophy, but although he was terrific, he had nothing on Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. It’s not often that an actor completely disappears into his character. And it’s very rare that a movie character scares you and makes you laugh nervously. Gyllenhaal was the devil incarnate, and he was me and you, and he probably didn’t get nominated because he was the voters too.

8 - BARF

Mehdi Rahmani’s stunning writing and direction showcases why Iranian cinema is regarded so highly. The film, set entirely inside a dysfunctional Iranian house weaves through themes of abandonment and social responsibilities, often veering between laugh-out-loud comedy and bitterness.


The Israeli French drama produced the single most stunning female acting performance from Ronit Elkabetz as a woman who is desperate to divorce her husband in a patriarchal kingdom of Israel. Elkabetz also co-directed the equally hilarious and heartbreaking film, it did manage to come under the Oscar radar but lost out in the penultimate round.


Xavier Dolan knocks you in the face with his powerful story of a single mother and her tumultuous relationship with her son, played to pulsating manic energy by Antoine Oliver Pilon. The scene when Pilon tears the cinema frame, or the one where he whirls a shopping cart around in a parking lot, repeatedly kicking and screaming ‘Who’s your daddy’ should have been enough to score a bunch of awards.


With razor sharp pacing, a smart script, and a fantastic cast of newcomers, director Jeremy Saulnier’s film represents the best the thriller genre has to offer. The film takes familiar elements of a revenge story and approaches it with less emphasis on the sensational and more on the moody and surreal atmosphere of vengeance.


Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s gorgeous film makes you question the accepted definition of the ‘man of the family’, and the divide between cowardice and survival instinct. It’s possibly the biggest upset at the Oscars, and aptly Ostlund, going with the theme of the film even made a viral video of himself and his producer watching the Oscar nominations and facing bitter rejection.


David McKenzie’s ferocious and uncompromising prison drama boasts the most explosive acting performance of the year from Jack O Connell as a volatile underage inmate hauled up in jail. Apart from O Connell Ben Mendelsohn lost out a supporting actor nom as the estranged father trying to make amends with his newly arrested prison mate son.  


The most important and significant story of 2014, Brian Knappenberger’s film chronicled the rise and the tragic murder of Aaron Schwartz, the kid responsible for some of the internet’s most iconic applications. The film brings you the hypocrisy of privacy laws in the US, along with the accompanying corporate bent and capitalist agenda. Depressing, but vastly brilliant.


A New Zealand comedy about a bunch of vampires living as roommates, bickering about each other, and having catfights with Werewolves. The single most hilarious movie of the year, and also the best. Directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have arrived in a big way. 

Honorable Mentions: Black Coal Thin Ice, Guerros, Party Girl, Girlhood.