Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bang Bang! review

Bang Bang!
Hrithik Roshan, Katrina Kaif, Danny Denzongpa 
Dir: Siddharth Anand

Bang Bang!, the official Indian remake of Tom Cruise action-comedy Knight and Day, opens with nauseatingly patriotic soldier Viren (Jimmy Shergill) showing up at a holding cell in London to basically goad a notorious criminal with news that he'll soon be extradited to India and that the jails shan't be as nice there. The scene includes the revelation that Shergill pronounces the name "Omar" like "Lamarr". Shortly thereafter he suffers a painful death - not specifically for this reason - though I feel being North Indian and not being able to wrestle your way around the name Omar is in fact reason enough.

Omar Zafar (Danny Denzongpa) is Interpol's most wanted criminal whom Britain's most secure space can't hold. He wants the Koh-i-Noor diamond stolen, from what I understood, to annoy the Indian people - though you'd think the United Kingdom telling them to sod off and get in line with the people wanting the Rosetta Stone back would be annoying enough. He puts the word out that he's looking for a thief - a real master craftsman - for the job. Surely no one has the audacity to steal something from the Tower of London itself! Enter Rajeev Nanda (Hrithik Roshan) - possibly international thief, possibly Indian agent, who steals it but makes a terrible nuisance of himself by refusing to hand it over.   

I'm not even a fan (it's the muscles, call me superficial, I just can't bear the muscles) but that man has undeniable presence and charm. Whether it's comic timing, romance, or action sequences that are called for - Roshan delivers in spades (I won't even get into his freakishly good dance skills). This is just as well as he not only has his own performance to worry about but is also lugging about the deadweight that is Katrina Kaif playing reclusive and none-too-bright receptionist Harleen accidentally caught up in the action. 
It's not just that the very beautiful Katrina Kaif can't act and can't speak Hindi - and she can't - it's that she can't so much as say the words "wrong number" without sounding like she has some sort of terrible speech impediment. At one point she explains to Roshan's character that she used to be quite suspicious of him "but now I chust you". I'm quite certain she needs an interpreter to order meals at restaurants. It's a dreadful shame because she has a good role, and dialogue that might actually have been funny from someone who doesn't sound like they're speaking through a misaligned jaw.

Together they are pursued across exotic locations by Zafar's henchmen (including his right-hand man, the underutilised Javed Jaffrey) whom Roshan dispatches of with much panache. All in all, Bang Bang! makes for a rather entertaining caper, which came as an enormous suprise as Knight and Day was utterly painful. With half an hour shorn off it - in particular the useless bubblegum pop songs, the scene that was shamefully in there just for product placement, and the scenes in which Katrina Kaif was required to do anything but look pretty, it would have been entirely satisfying.  

Friday, October 3, 2014

Haider and the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism

This is not about Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj's new Kashmir-based adaptation of Hamlet, so everyone may lower their hackles, thank you very much. This is about some Indian film critics and the disturbing trends one finds in their work.

I keep coming across reviews of Haider that employ the phrase "mainstream conventions" intended as some sort of slur - as in "Haider has succumbed to/not managed to escape some mainstream cinematic conventions." Few things in the world inspire me to enough of a frenzy of loathing to make me dash off a few lines about them. It so happens that the ill-informed arrogance that it takes to dismiss "mainstream conventions" is near the top of this list.

Those of us who actually like Indian cinema and have watched films made in decades gone by -- long before India's urban middle classes decided cinema belonged to them and them alone -- will be able to tell you that mainstream conventions have never got in the way of telling a good story. Conventions in and of themselves are the act of storytelling, if you want to crib, please have the sense to crib about the execution.

Other nonsensical criticism I've run into states that Haider has SONGS <gasp!!!> and DANCES <double gasp!!!> even COMEDY <NO WAY!!!> because apparently Indian cinema featuring song and dance is somehow absurd (while no one using a loo in all 24 hours of the series 24 is, you know, artistic license). The idea is that doing this to Shakespeare somehow desecrates His work. Let us just put aside for the moment the fact that Indian film music has been one of Prometheus's greatest gifts to mankind and try this instead - you know whose work featured songs, innuendo-laden jokes and a merry jig or two? I'll give you a few clues - playwright, lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, first name William...yes, that's bloody right!!

And in case you were under the impression that Shakespeare's plays were written for the audience that goes to watch them now at the Globe in Southwark at forty quid a head for a bad seat at a matinee, could we just flash back to Elizabethan England here for a slight reality check? Indian cinema at its very best does what Shakespeare did at his very best - entertainment for all first and foremost - because there's really no point writing a fine play if you can't keep bums on seats - with its genius permeating at every turn the story/dialogue/song for those who care to see it - satisfaction all round. Whether you like or dislike Haider is entirely your call - but if you're looking down at what you perceive as "mainstream convention", you've missed the point by a mile and a half. So really, could the Shakespeare scholars here expressing their shock at light moments in what was promised to be a Shakespearean tragedy please take their bare bodkins to their jugulars and spare the rest of us?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review - The Return of the Butterfly by Moni Mohsin

The truth behind the laughter

The hilarious diary of a Pakistani socialite returns in its third sortie to cause a flutter yet again
The Return of the Butterfly | Moni Mohsin | Penguin Books India | Pages 240 | Rs 299
Butterfly: Moni Mohsin (Photo: INDIA TODAY IMAGES)
Butterfly: Moni Mohsin (Photo: INDIA TODAY IMAGES)
Some of my favourite moments in The Return of the Butterfly—the third in Pakistani journalist Moni Mohsin’s immensely popular series chronicling the life and times of Butterfly, a malapropism-spouting Lahori socialite—remind me of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch in which four men, comfortably off, try to outdo each other’s accounts of humble beginnings. One says, “We lived in one room, all 26 of us, no furniture, half the floor was missing.” Another responds, “Eh, you were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in the corridor!” The Pakistani equivalents of this (admitting to humble origins, make no mistake, is tantamount to social suicide) are seemingly fantastical descriptions of how wonderful things were. You can’t escape it in drawing rooms: stories of cabarets at Karachi’s grand Metropole hotel, people insisting their grandmothers cycled to college in shorts, the ghastly socialite I once found myself seated next to on a Karachi-Lahore connection who took one look at the other passengers and conspiratorially told me: “In the good old days, we used to know everyone on these flights.” Or, as Butterfly says of her mother’s youth: ‘when both of them wore saris and beehives and meat was ten rupees a ton and only the deserving had cars and even those who took their six children to school on a bicycle had happy smiles and only nice prayers for their car-driving betters’.
Indeed, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, Pakistan’s finest hour was one in which it was so utopian that pesky irritants like social mobility simply didn’t exist. Now it’s so bad her mother’s new ‘phone wallah’, who replaced the guy who called her ‘Huzoor’ and ‘always did jhuk ke salam’, ‘barges into her sitting room and stands on her carpet without even removing his shoes’ and ‘calls Mummy “Anti”, as if, God forbid, he was related to us’. It’s enough to make Mummy want to leave, till Butterfly reminds her: ‘with your passport you have only two choices; either you can go to Afghanistan or else, Upstairs to Him’. One of Mohsin’s many masterstrokes.
Starting in 2009 with Benazir’s assassination when Butterfly’s husband Janoo—the very model of rectitude and foil to Butterfly’s frivolity—heads to his ancestral lands to campaign for Benazir’s party, lest her death be in vain, The Return of the Butterfly takes us through the worst of times. In doing so, Mohsin provides a timely reminder that even in countries freefalling into chaos and despair, life, in all its sublime and ridiculous forms, still goes on. And so, while Janoo starts exhibiting signs of clinical depression watching everything he loved about Pakistan slip away, Butterfly buys Birkins, attends and critiques lavish weddings, plans summer holidays in London and trades ‘Ramzan’ for ‘Ramadan al Kareem’—succumbing to the Arabisation of Pakistan (which the press describes as ‘creeping’, whereas it’s making a mad dash at one in the manner of a bull to a matador).
Mohsin hits the target every time. Butterfly goes to ‘the pools’ to vote after Benazir’s death, saying ‘Thanks God we live in Gulberg and not some slump type area where we would have to vote alongside all the bhooka nangas’. She is shaken by former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer’s murder and much of the country’s grotesque reaction: ‘Even friends of ours whose kids are in college in the US and who serve drink in their home and would sell their grandmothers for a green card, even they are saying that he wasn’t a good Muslim.’ She attends candlelight vigils but only the ones for ‘khaata peeta types’. In 2011, she goes the way of her more vapid friends and ‘feels a deep connection with Imran Khan’ because ‘Imran is also a PLU, na’ and ‘he will do sullah with the Taliban so they will aik dum drop their weapons and become all lovey dovey with us’. But even Butterfly can’t swallow the theory that ‘Amreekans’ shot Malala because they ‘want to give Pakistan a bad name’.
While Butterfly’s concerns are still her wardrobe, her horror of upstarts, and the distress caused by the local supermarket running out of avocadoes, the book is at moments just too horribly true to even laugh along with. You can tell the country’s really gone down the tubes when even Butterfly’s diary saddens as much as it entertains.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Review - A Bad Character

The bad girl’s guide to Delhi

A first novel offers sharp visuals and flashes of insight into the city but falls victim to the very banality it projects onto its hapless subjects
A Bad Character | Deepti Kapoor | Hamish Hamilton | Pages 240 | Rs 499
Deepti Kapoor
Deepti Kapoor
Idha, the 20-year-old protagonist of Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character, has always been an odd bird; rather sensitive, an overthinker one might say. As a child, she visits a butcher with her mother and, presented with chicken for dinner, she contemplates ‘the alchemy of this, the life made out of death’. Following her mother’s death, she moves in with her housewife aunt and accountant uncle. She suspects she’s somehow different, a rebel in a conformist world. Her defiant soul is why attempts at socialising with peers failed: ‘I have my own ideas about things and a couple of times having coffee with the girls, I’ve ventured some thought close to my heart only to receive blank looks in return’. I can imagine, especially if she opened with this chicken-alchemy-death-life business.
One day while hanging about at a cafĂ© in Khan Market thinking deep thoughts about her waitress (‘the kohl around her eyes looks like rebellion, around mine it is a prison’), Idha meets a man who changes her life. (The novel, which is told in flashback, opens with his body being recovered on a highway.) He informs her that she is ‘a blank slate, a lump of wet clay’ that he plans to mould. I’d have killed him myself. She, however, is won over by his bad boy demeanour and atrociously hackneyed lines. He appeals to the mutiny she seems to think is raging within her: ‘his entire way of being, makes me think of someone who’s …wandered out of the forest’. Perhaps he knows how to spot edible plants—who can say.
He’s not the sort of boy one takes home to meet the foster parents. For one thing, he’s dark. ‘It’s the years of conditioning’, Kapoor writes, with more than a touch of didacticism, ‘that make me think his dark skin is ugly, poor, wrong’. The two finally make love on the ‘1st of May. A day for the workers’. This mystifying socialist thread isn’t expanded upon further. Then, they spend some very slow-moving pages exploring Delhi, having philosophical conversations and watching obscure Resnais and Truffaut films. He teaches her ‘how to say charcuterie, from the French, obsolete: char for flesh, cuite for cooked’. Imagine all of Adrian Mole’s pretensions with none of his endearing warmth or humour and you’ve pretty much got it. At one point, he buys her outfits telling her to try them on and, ‘Fall in love with yourself’. It’s Fifty Shades of Grey meets Maine Pyar Kiya. Together, they are one of literature’s least endearing couples, and this isn’t helped by the complete absence of momentum; the tale is told in fragments, like author’s notes that aren’t written into proper scenes.
There are insightful moments—few and far between, alas—about a woman’s experience of the city, of life: the gas station attendant who strokes her hand while giving her her change, the Rapunzel-esque girl in the flat next door under her alcoholic father’s control, Idha’s wondering what decisions based on desire ‘will finally say about me’. Unfortunately, the author mostly has as little sympathy for women as the rest of society, portraying fellow students as brainwashed drones and her perfectly pleasant aunt as a vapid fool given to husband-hunting and gossip; the poor woman, perhaps tired of her supercilious charge, reasonably suggests she look for a job and a flat if she doesn’t want to marry.
The worst dehumanisation though, is reserved for Muslim women living in Old Delhi: ‘in the place where lives are spent behind walls’, which may come as a surprise to some of them—where ‘a man will make love to them, beat them for a look or a word, for no reason at all, will despise them, ignore them, be blind to them ...buy gifts to appease them, make them smile, coax a laugh from their lips from which love trickles like a brook’. Right then.
It’s all a terrible shame because Kapoor really can turn a beautiful phrase when she feels like it. She sometimes has a poet’s control of language and an undeniable gift for visuals, putting down one sharp, vividly realised image after another: ‘tree-tangled temples’, calls to prayer that ‘leap into the sky’, Delhi’s ‘sulphurous dark’. But journeys of self-discovery don’t work all that well when the protagonist turns out to not be terribly interesting after all.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Film review - Queen, Dir: Vikas Bahl/Starring Kangana Ranaut

The Queen Is Dead 

Such is the justifiable desperation to watch a film that deviates from the clapped-out male-dominated Bollywood standard, that the quirky, unconventional Queen has found itself basking in much acclaim and, more significantly, steady results at the box office. The sheer relief at a film about a woman’s life – a damsel finding her own way out of distress – is palpable as critics rush to outdo each other’s praise and pledge undying love to director Vikas Bahl and actor Kangana Ranaut. Since nothing succeeds like success, one can only hope that the natural course of things will see more films with meatier roles for female protagonists, eventually leading cinema to the thunderbolt of realization that women are also people. As such, the delight with which Queen has been received by critics and audiences is a joy to behold. It would have been all the more gratifying had the film actually been better. 

The story – and I use the term as loosely as the director does – kicks off beautifully. Rani (Ranaut), an obedient girl from a conservative middle class family complete with a degree in Home Economics, is dumped by her ghastly fiancĂ© at the eleventh hour. After spending a few nights awake soaking up the horror and mortification of it all, captured so well one can feel every pinprick of Ranaut’s despair and panic, she decides to go on her honeymoon after all, even if it is without the groom. So far so good. Utterly charming girl well shot of nasty boy with journey of discovery underfoot, in Paris at that. What could possibly go wrong? The opening act is so flawless that it took me a good hour to accept that the plot had subsequently disappeared down a rabbit-hole never to be seen again and what was one left with were a few entertaining moments, going nowhere, and not nearly fast enough.     

On reaching Paris, Rani and outrageously beautiful half-Indian chambermaid Vijaylakshmi bond over a bewildering exchange during which Vijaylakshmi complains that she doesn’t understand why men are offended by the suggestion that they have small penises. Scared, depressed, disoriented and now on the receiving end of rhetorical questions about genitalia, Rani decides Europe was a terrible idea and tries to book the next flight back to the familiarity of home. But as she waits for a seat, she plucks up the courage inch by inch to navigate the streets, fending off a mugger, and in a glorious highlight, getting sozzled and unleashing Punjabi dance moves atop a Parisian bar.

The scene in which she visits her parents’ friends, who lament the tragedy that’s befallen her, is pitch perfect and acutely observed and does what comedy does best, which is to reveal the ugly truth. Along with being the subject of much pity, Rani may well have similarly lamented her fate for having lost out on marrying a controlling, petty little shit had it not been for the opportunity to find a great big world of possibilities out there. It sounds obvious said out loud but believe me, it really, really isn’t.   

Some of the less charming moments included Rani shouting “Mummy, Mummy” with fear on seeing a black man in a dormitory and Rani telling a chef at an Italian restaurant her meal would be much improved with all the accoutrements generally associated with haleem. I cringed through the obligatory vibrator joke at the sex shop. I realise this is meant to be wholesome simplicity (which I have some trouble with in and of itself) but there’s a fine line between that and irritating doltishness and it is crossed here on numerous occasions.  
While it’s a refreshing change to see an Indian film without romance at its core, the absence of any sexual crackle whatsoever was also deeply felt and I was disappointed that Rani returned to Delhi having embraced a hair straightener rather than sexual liberation beyond a laboured and entirely unmagical first kiss. I also can’t help but feel that for all its unconventionality, and for all of Rani’s newfound daring, we’re still being presented with a goodie two shoes on a pedestal. A rough edge here or there wouldn’t have hurt. All of us off-screen women have somehow managed to live with them.

About a third of the way in, Rani accidentally sends her horrid ex-fiance a selfie in a skimpy vest and one knows too well that he’s going to reappear and also precisely how she’ll handle it. One waits for another story arc to appear to get one to that point but the arid Sahara that is the screenplay yields nothing. The complete lack of pace isn’t a minor problem. It makes for a very, very long two and a half hours; which, for example, afforded me the time to send nasty messages to everyone who’d recommended it to me and play Solitaire till the phone’s battery gave out. Three people are credited with conceiving the story - so where the hell is it? Admittedly, the film’s lethargy is punctuated with some lovely moments. The process reminded me rather of trying to stream a film on a slow internet connection – euphoria when it works followed by lengthy periods of frustration and restlessness when it sticks.