Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan Movie Review: Well-meaning, but tries too hard

With a little more saavdhani on the makers’ part, this could have been a film that truly spoke to the heart.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan: A riot that needed speed bumps along the way
Image Source: Google

Director: Hitesh Kewalya

Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar, Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta, Maanvi Gagroo, Manu Rishi, Sunita Rajwar

From risking a Bollywood debut by taking on the role of a sperm donor (Vicky Donor, 2012) to playing a scientist (Hawaaizada, 2015) and having it fall flat at the box office to resurrecting a fading career by daring to play second fiddle to Bhumi Pednekar’s overweight-in-love-yet-ambitious-woman show stealing act in her debut (Dum Laga Ke Haisha, 2015), to playing a brooding, sentimental writer going rogue to win the love of his life (Bareilly ki Barfi, 2017) and then shocking us all by playing a freshly engaged man suffering from erectile dysfunction later that year (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan), Ayushmann Khurrana is not merely your boy-next-door or the everyman you inadvertently miss in the elevator on the way to your office. Just when you sit back comfortably slotting the man and the actor in a Bollywoodish tried-and-tested stereotype, Khurrana grabs your attention by the horns by starring in a neo noir cinematic feast titled Andhadhun (2018).

So when Khurrana hit the big screens last week with co-actor Jitendra Kumar (of TVF fame) as his love interest in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (the ‘Zyada’ is where the secret lies), the audience, deep down, knew what they were going to be served. It was his home turf – playing the genial, passionate love with aplomb.

Except, it did not seem to hit the right notes this time around. At least for me.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS, hereafter) in short, is about two gay men, confronted with the excruciatingly laborious task of convincing one of their families in small town Allahabad to accept their ‘unnatural’ relationship.

Aman Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar) and Kartik Singh (Ayushmann Khurrana) are salesmen who meet in Delhi and seem to be quietly enjoying a passionate relationship in their little bubble, away from prying eyes and nosy neighbourhood side-eyes. The smooth trajectory of their bond, however, comes to a screeching halt when they are faced with the tenacious regressiveness of the Indian mentality.

Coming out to a family that had presumptuously chosen a nauseatingly saccharine heterosexual bahu for their only son, Aman is met with only mountains to conquer. No faith to move it by even an inch. Given the dilemma of working out the debt of his father’s sperm over an entire lifetime by doing the latter’s bidding, we see a simmering intensity brewing underneath Aman’s rather uptight, socially conscious persona. He is clearly torn between love and duty.

Kartik, on the other hand, is the unabashed, fervent lover who may well have been called I-put-my-foot-in-mouth-Singh. Be it getting his PDA game on in the most perilous of public spaces or standing head-to-head in combat with his lover’s sanskaari dad – he knows a thing or two about stirring trouble.

Together, Kartik is the fire to Aman’s meek, shifty winds.

And their love story could have been portrayed as a love story like no other, had director Hitesh Kewalya toned down on the theatrics. From the opening scene where the two are found dramatically chasing a moving train, we get a hint of how over-the-top the movie is to be in the next couple of hours. Aman’s conversation with dad Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) and mom Sunaina Tripathi (Neena Gupta) could well look to you like it’s been stolen from one of their many TVF conversations – so no surprises there. You are bound to enjoy their verbal exchanges, but truth be told, it is cut from the same cloth as have so many similar small town parent-child dynamics in earlier movies.

There are a motley of characters thrown in to highlight dormant undercurrents within the family  – uncle Chaman Tripathi (Manu Rishi), aunt Champa Tripathi (Sunita Rajwar) and cousin Rajni Tripathi (fondly called Goggle, played by Maanvi Gagroo) form the other half of the crazies making up the Tripathi clan. They each have their own troubles and injustices brandished like a sword on their chest, each time they butt heads with the seniors in the family. And what better than a dubious wedding to draw out past resentment between the stakeholders, look deep enough to even out power imbalances in the household and redefine the meaning of love and life?

Herein lies the strength of the film. As well as its weakness.

Director Hitesh (who is also the writer of the movie) must duly be credited for according side characters their respective and rightful place in the film – no more is this characterised than by the fact that none of his supporting cast looks like a mere aberration in the plot, they are all integral to the story. That said, often times there is just too much talking happening in the film, too many preachy, bombastic dialogues exchanged, too much of an emphasis on sending out a message to the society. For a film as sensitive as this, SMZS would have done better to instead focus on the characters living their lives and trying to deal with its curveballs the best they could, than acting in a certain way to prove anything to the society.

In that sense, the immersiveness of the story and its characters is what is missing here. They do not just be and allow you to draw from their experiences. And so, even though the film has its heart in the right place, you come away not feeling much at all.

I was also disappointed with how the director chose to only focus on the family and their interpersonal equations without taking into context the beauty and history Allahabad as a city offers. The laser focus centred on the characters and that one house makes the film claustrophic at many points.

Gajraj Rao is sufficiently interesting and will certainly tickle your funny bone. It is, however, Neena Gupta as his wife who matches (and even tops) his frazzled, all-knowing, wacky scientist demeanour with some of the most memorable punchlines uttered in the film. Her scenes with Rao and Rajwar are some of the most entertaining ones in the movie, and fortunately or fortunately, bound to linger on in your mind longer than the leads’ acting might.

Between the leads, it is Jitendra’s nuanced, tempered performance that is likely to win you over rather than Khurrana’s overzealous, lover boy act. In fact, the latter’s costumes and that oh-so-sexy-nose ring stand out more in your mind than does the overall performance. I dare say Khurrana may just have played the tritest role in his career.

Then there are irrelevant plot lines involving kaali gobhi (black cauliflower) and vague farmer’s protests woven into the story, the absence of which could have easily reduced the run time of the film by a precious few minutes. Not to mention, Bhumi Pednekar’s extremely immaterial special appearance.

However, not all is wasted in the film. The music is in fact one of the better elements of the movie. With 3 of 7 songs proving to be chartbuster hits within days of their release – Ooh la la, Pyaar Tenu Karda Gabru and Mere Liye Tum Kaafi Ho – you get your money’s worth tapping to the high voltage drama weaved into these songs.

Despite the cinematic glitches and sub-par portrayal of the subject, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan tackles an extremely sensitive and controversial issue – gay love – that continues to raise eyebrows despite the highest court of law in the land decriminalizing homosexuality. To that end, and that alone, the movie is a must-watch for families across the length and breadth of the country. As long as they can come out of the theater being able to accept different choices – and different kinds of love – whether they wholeheartedly agree with/understand it or not – the movie will have its done job well.

P.S. Special mention for the grace with which the kissing scenes between the leads were handled. If that is not brave, then I don’t know what is!

Rating: 2.5/5

The Sky is Pink Movie Review: More than anything else, the film is about love that endures

The film is nothing if not a testament to the power of love in the face of life…or rather, death.

The Sky is Pink: A story about life, love and everything else in between…and after
Image Credit: Google

Director: Shonali Bose

Cast: Farhan Akhtar, Priyanka Chopra, Zaira Wasim, Rohit Saraf

From the time Priyanka Chopra-starrer Mary Kom (2014) graced the screens, biopics haven’t stopped raining in Bollywood. Cinematically presenting a living human’s extraordinary life has been quite the norm. But with Shonali Bose directed The Sky is Pink cine-goers have now been treated to a slice-of-the-life film – narrated by a protagonist (Aisha Chaudhary played by Zaira Wasim) who’s at the heart and soul of it, but no longer there to see what becomes of her story.

To top it all – there are ample opportunities to giggle, raise our eyebrows at a naughty schoolgirl discussing the ins and outs of her parents’ sex life from the afterlife, and feel her ‘teen angst’ over unrequited love as much as the actual, physical limitations she was born, and then had to die with.

Because that is how the makers likely intended the audience to feel – there is life, and there is death, but there’s so much to cherish before and after death. Aisha suffered from a rare genetic disorder called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease (SCID) throughout her life – a crucial aspect that the makers have been careful in portraying without going overboard with the tragedy inherent in this condition. One can see that the film is painted with broad strokes of hope and joy, rather than the predictable terrain such a subject could involuntarily veer into.  

Perhaps, Aisha saw her life as magic and the filmmakers found no reason to infuse cloying sentimentality and deliberate sobriety in a human story that, as we see it today, is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Niren (Farhan Akhtar) and Aditi (Priyanka Chopra) make you chuckle at numerous points in the film – their days of falling in love and being carefree, their conversations around unprotected sex, even the way they handle a marital squabble over Niren helping out some to-be-divorced woman – are all cute and genuinely enjoyable. But what truly takes your breath away is how the pair navigate the ugly, frightening parts – with resilience and blind faith. In whatever higher power had brought them to this stage, but most of all, in each other to see this through.

However, make no mistake. The unmistakable beauty in, and the poignant remnants of the Chaudhary family’s shared lives that the audience gets to experience in the film has been hard-won, crafted and built from the ground up with unflinching patience, an unwavering sense of duty, and astounding willpower but most of all, undying, unconditional love.

Priyanka Chopra and Farhan Akhtar are outstanding as Aditi and Niren

What begins with an oddly exciting yet tense moment surrounding Aisha’s conception almost twenty-three years ago swiftly turns into a financial and emotional roller-coaster – tearing the Chaudharys’ lives apart, yet making them just as stronger and indefatigable as a married couple. Their love endures moving to a foreign land without preparation, later travelling back and forth between India and London while trying to hold on to their marriage and working night and day shifts for Aisha’s treatment, even going without long stretches of no intimacy. A concerned look here, an understanding hug there – in the midst of cranky conversations when the pair do meet between beginning and ending the day – is all they can afford.

Farhan Akhtar has been consistently wowing us since his very first film, Rock On. Here too, he impresses us with his measured, yet affecting performance. It is however, Priyanka Chopra as Aditi, who towers over all other performances in The Sky is Pink, and stands out as the thread that holds the various elements of the film together. Chopra has indeed, come a long way as an actor. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her stoic silences when she is faced with the everyday reality of Aisha’s condition, or the fire in her eyes when she walks out of her plush London home like a boss owning her life, or the flicker of indignance that her husband should want her to not talk about their dead child.

There are two scenes in the film that particularly showcase the depth of the lead pair’s acting. Niren and Aditi somehow manage to come to terms with the doomed realization that Aisha would have to undergo bone marrow transplant to extend her life by a few years. But what shocks them more is that the transplant proves to be simply a precursor to a decade-long wait before the doctors could deem Aisha stable. A swath of cold air passes over Niren’s face when he gets hit by the fact that they would have to readjust their lives and careers yet again. By now, viewers would’ve lost count of the trips made between India and London.

The other scene that really gripped me is an altercation between Niren and Aditi in the restroom of an upscale restaurant after the latter storms out of the dining area, following a rather crude and insensitive remark from one of their friends. The couple, who’d just lost Aisha to pulmonary fibrosis, found themselves in a heated conversation about who was to be blamed. But of course, they knew the answers already. They were always fighting a losing battle from the start. Those few heart-rending moments have been brilliantly portrayed by Akhtar and Chopra, who help us have a glimpse into what the Chaudharys may have endured.

Especially Chopra, as Aditi, is magnificent in her role as a mother, but more than that a round-the-clock caregiver. You feel her strength breaking, her tired and empty soul, and yet her single-minded devotion to keep their child alive at any cost. Underneath this crushing responsibility lies the regret that she has not really been there for her elder child, Ishaan (Rohit Saraf). The fact that she may have inadvertently neglected him, haunts her as well.

Being split into hopeful, cynical and guilty bits of yourself is never easy, Chopra essays that with the strokes of an experienced actor who knows the value of underplaying a certain character. The aftermath of death is an impossible grief that refuses to let go, The Sky is Pink, even amidst its light moments never fails to impress upon the audience of the crude reality.

All is not gloom and doom though. There are heart-warming moments between Aisha and her brother Ishaan, who she fondly calls Giraffe. So are her conversations with Niren and Aditi who are Panda and Moose for her, not regular Dad and Mom. It does come across as self-indulgent at times, but what is a teen girl if not childlike?

Amidst everything else, the Chaudharys made sure they kept the fun alive!

Viewers might find it disconcerting that a lot of Aisha’s pain and struggles have been brushed under the carpet, or that, most of the movie is about the Chaudharys’ navigating their child’s condition and doing everything in their power to keep her alive – rather than the actual pain of living with such a condition. However, given that the film has been narrated by Aisha, who was in her teens when she passed away, it is understandable why the film is equal parts heart-breaking and equal parts hopeful. Seen from her perspective, her life was every bit a miracle and she chooses to retain nothing but the good parts – regardless of the other world she’s in now.

My only grouse with the movie is that the film did not emphasize enough on Aisha’s book-writing journey (she wrote a book titled “My Little Epiphanies” ). We are never made aware of how the idea of writing a book germinated in her mind or what compelled her to see the beauty in her life. We are merely allowed a cursory glance at these crucial aspects of her life – towards the end of her time on earth, the very things that made her a global icon. Her inner life is never sufficiently probed.

Despite its flaws, The Sky is Pink is still worth a watch, simply because it touches upon the subject of life and death, and life after death using a featherweight approach. You dive deep enough to ponder the meaning of it all, but come out alive just in time to realize – there is nothing, if not beauty, in the moments that try your spirit as a human. It is bittersweet, hopeful even – once you gather the courage to begin at the end. Again. Like Niren and Aditi did.

My rating: 3.5/5

ANNABELLE COMES HOME MOVIE REVIEW: A strategic warm-up to a slew of clever Conjuring spin-offs in the future

Watch this – if you want to relive the first time you watched Evil Dead and labelled it the spookiest horror film ever!

Image Source: Google

Director: Gary Dauberman

Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga

If you have been wowed by Annabelle: Creation, the 2017 installment of the Conjuring franchise, you would do well not to walk in expecting Annabelle Comes Home to be half as exciting or even remotely ground-breaking. The prequel may have imbued in your movie-going experience quite a few unforgettable, heart-stopping moments, however, the 2019 chapter of the Conjuring series is most likely to feel like an initiation into R.L.Stine’s Goosebumps universe. Frightening, but restricted to the peekaboo kinds.

It’s the late 1960s. Demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren are on their way back home after rescuing two nurses from the clutches of Annabelle, the eponymic doll – by carrying her home. In their car. As predicted, the doll summons spirits to attack Ed, almost running him down, soon leading them to cotton on to the ominous doll’s doing. Once home, the Warrens ensure Annabelle is safely placed in a glass case, and a local priest called in to bless the case, ensuring the “evil is contained.”

Unsurprisingly, with a reticent, disturbed ten-year old in the vintage house with only a bubbly but imprudent babysitter (along with an even stupider friend) for company, the recipe for confining the evil to the Warrens’ ‘artefacts’ room’ where Annabelle is housed – looks rather undercooked.

So one night as the Warrens leave for an overnight investigation of a case, their daughter Judy and babysitter Mary Ellen, left to themselves, indulge in some homemade baking. Oblivious that the snug, rather dreamy ambience was soon to be punctured by Daniella, the babysitter’s troublemaker friend who drops in uninvited. It takes us only 10 seconds to understand that she hasn’t stopped by the Warrens’ house for striking small-talk with Mary Ellen. She clearly has dangerous intentions in mind – and as she sneaks into the Warrens’ office and picks up the keys, we know that horror would soon be unleashed.

As Mary Ellen and Judy bask out in the sunshine, Daniella takes her own sweet time touring the artefacts room, taking care to touch anything and everything she could lay her hands on. This includes a cursed wedding dress, an old TV set, a vintage watch, jewellery box and a hellhound. But nothing grabs her attention like attention-grabbing Annabelle, who, for her sprightly makeup and wide eyes, looks oddly inviting. Daniella fidgets with the doll, summoning spirits in the room and attempting to connect with her dead father. And as is the norm, she accidentally leaves the glass case ajar, permitting Annabelle’s horror to permeate the walls of the Warrens’ home.

From that point onward, Annabelle Comes Home becomes a scare-fest of a pre-teen and two other teens screaming, howling, crying and running around the length and breadth of the house – trying to escape the monstrous doll’s wrath. As the kids scurry about averting the deluge of doomed objets d’art lunging for their lives, hiding behind couches, peeking under the beds, answering cursed telephones, sniffing for clues and helping themselves by digging their hands under a Feeley Meeley board game, you feel startled, visibly spooked – sans any bed-wetting chills.

Eerie as she may be, Annabelle doesn’t do a thing in the film and may probably be the laziest doll in the whole world

After Daniella survives the most cursed room on planet earth (yeah, kill me for giving out spoilers), it becomes amply clear that writer-director Gary Dauberman (who also wrote the Annabelle prequel) has no plans of doing away with any of the three scared-to-death girls. Once you realize the same, Annabelle Comes Home feels like a fun, adventurous ride through a fictional ghost town in an upscale urban mall or a jumpy Scary House experience – to be laughed at, and even cherished. For instance, this is notably established when Mary Ellen’s crush Bob – and a fourth wheel in the scheme of things – becomes an inadvertent target one of the cursed objects let loose due to Daniella’s folly. And you cannot help but chortle when Bob finds himself smack-dab in the middle of the supernatural rampage – minutes into serenading his lady love.

These are a few moments that make this chapter playful and forgivable – primarily, because by and large, the makers of the film do not intend to carry forward sinister remnants of the Annabelle experience into the next chapter. Given that the filmmakers have a whole room of baleful artefacts to write spin-offs on, we can heave a sigh of relief and safely shut the lid on Annabelle Comes Home.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (playing the Warrens) have little to do in this instalment, and are mostly used to lead the opening sequences into the meat of the plot. Consequently, the bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the three girls – McKenna Grace (as Judy Warren), Madison Iseman (Mary Ellen) and Katie Sarife (Daniella) – and they do not disappoint one bit. Iseman and Sarife have plenty to do – especially the latter – who pulls off the mischievous, rebellious, daredevil yet grief-stricken Daniella packing in a punch of foolhardiness while also compelling viewers to empathize with her irresponsible ways. I look forward to seeing her in many more horror films, better still, if she gets an opportunity to act in consecutive Conjuring chapters. Iseman is effective and plays the role of the protective babysitter with appropriate urgency.

It is, however, McKenna Grace’s acting, that I found wanting in many aspects. Apart from the fact that Grace’s character was only scratched on the surface but not probed deeply enough, restraining her role to a psychic who only had to thrust the cross to ward away evil spirits, was dispiriting and quite a let-down. Truth be told, I was expecting to see Judy Warren get possessed and wreak havoc in the Conjuring world. Beat the Warrens at their own game (inspiration anybody?) Grace, who won the award for the Best Young Actor for Marc Webb’s Gifted (2017) is abundantly talented and certainly has more to surprise the audience with – full-blown evidence of which I wish to see the next movie she acts in. The spookier, the better.

Annabelle Comes Home may possibly be the first of the Conjuring series to have draw a fine balance between mind-numbing horror and playful paranormal wrapped in a sheen of bizarre. Perfect for hard-core horror buffs, but also digestible for fragile souls eager only to relive their Goosebumps’ days. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, do watch this adventurous tale of Annabelle – possibly, the world’s laziest doll who literally only has to grimace long enough at the screen and cause things to get upended.

Rating: 2.5/5

Article 15 Movie Review: Powerfully made, it is a mirror designed to shake you up from your stupor

Article 15 is powerful cinema, emblematic of our times and a must-watch for all sections of the society

Director: Anubhav Sinha

Cast: Ayushmann Khurana, Isha Talwar, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra

Article 15 is a reminder that the Constitution of India is still alive
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Article 15 (Part III, Indian Constitution): “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”

***

Anubhav Sinha (the director of last year’s critically acclaimed Mulk) wastes no time in diving into the heart of Article 15. He leads the audience straight into the heartlands of a sleepy village in rural India, where a folk song sung in high-pitched gusto and piercing the pitter-patter of the rain outside, rings out, cutting through the baneful existence of the small bunch huddled together. As the group claps in unison and rhythmically moves their bodies to every intonation launched against the powerful, privileged upper castes, you are immediately sucked into their world – a shadowed presence flung far away from mainstream civilization. Elsewhere, two hapless girls in bloodied, dishevelled states are seen resisting clawing hands, their screams muffled and lost inside the walls of a bus.

Content with startling your senses, the movie then jumps to a white ambassador snaking through highways and open fields, introducing to us the man who would soon find himself in the eye of the storm. Ayaan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurana), a freshly trained IPS officer has been posted at Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh, where the caste divide is stamped across every inch of the local’s lives. Ayaan – foreign-returned, privileged, woke yet blissfully unaware of the country’s ground realities – is only slightly amused and shrugs off the casteist implications – when a constable in his team attempts to desist him from buying water from a low-caste chap on the street. He keenly observes the undercurrents of the “local harmony”, still quite oblivious of the power hierarchy therein – as Brahmanand (Manoj Pahwa), a cop at the Lalgaon police quarters emphasizes on his last name, “Singh” while introducing himself. More eyebrows are raised when yet another cop Jatav (Kumud Mishra) urgently signals to the kitchen staff to serve food on a separate plate because, “aap hamari thali se nahin kha sakte kyunki aap unchi jaat ke hain.”

Article 15: Trailer
Source: YouTube

The initial light-hearted banter and sheepish talk around the caste pyramid, however, gives way to horrified silences when word gets out about the gruesome sight of two Dalit girls hanging from a tree. A third girl is missing, Ayaan is soon informed by Gaura (Sayani Gupta), a relative, and one among the Dalits heading the chorus at the start of the movie. The woke, Europe-returned liberal man is shook, and so are we. Though the makers of Article 15 resolutely maintain that the movie is “inspired by real events”, we all know too well the glaring similarities of the plot with that of 2014 Badaun case where two minors were gang-raped and murdered, but their perpetrators walked out free after an investigation by the CBI revealed no evidence supporting the allegations.

Nevertheless, unlike the continued mystery of the Badaun incident, a sense of urgency pervades the air in Article 15 and the world constructed within the film, as the quest to find the culprits and the missing girl navigates the treacherous nuances of caste, religion, political influence and more, picking up a rather nationalist vibe. This is no regular investigation, for Ayaan, this is a tightrope walk between a corrupt system entrusted with upholding the values enshrined in the Constitution but wantonly reluctant to commit to the same, his own personal idealism about the land he calls his own and practical exigencies in tackling caste and social injustice where a section of the population are barely counted as human beings, let alone citizens in their own right.

Ayushmann as Ayaan deftly balances his decorous position as a government servant confined by due process along with an intensely rebellious approach to the investigation at hand, frequently snubbing the “law” of the hinterlands and the occasional foreboding warning to “stay out of this mess.” He is sharp, alert and quick enough to see through the façade of a crooked justice system, in the process earning the scorn of the ruthless, cunning upper caste perpetrators and an undeserved suspension. Khurana, in probably his first serious role in years, slips effortlessly into the shoes of a free-thinking man quickly disillusioned by the dirt and filth residing in the dingiest corners of one of the country’s building pillars.

As Ayaan, Ayushmann plays a mixed bag of emotions – from anger and derision to restraint and compassion, albeit, with a touch of social activism – which – given the film’s context is inevitable. His cluelessness regarding the intricacies and sub-sub-categories of the caste ladder compels the viewer to grapple with an untold, unseen side of India, leading them to wonder out aloud, “What the fuck is going on here?” much like Ayaan screams out in rage in one scene, exasperated with layers he never knew could be a part of the country he thought was so highly spoken of around the globe.

Among the supporting cast, Sayani Gupta as Gaura is powerfully defiant yet devastated, in a brief role. Gupta, who is fast climbing up the ranks to become a diverse actor with meaty roles across a slew of genres, does more with her watchful, indignant eyes than mouthful of dialogues could possibly do. Her scenes with Nishad (Zeeshan Ayyub), the leader of the rebel Dalit gang, are particularly heart-wrenching to watch – in that they throw us off our cushioned, privileged lives for a few moments – deeply unsettling us.

Manoj Pahwa (as upper caste Brahmanand) and Kumud Mishra as low-caste (but higher than the Pasis in the pecking order) Jatav dazzle with their nuanced, electrifying performances (I dare say they at times outshine even our main man Ayushmann). There is a fear of authority (both legally and socially determined) as the two attempt to circumvent the revolutionary IPS-in-charge’s scant regard for untimely transfers and a possible dent on his career. Likewise, there is a mounting tension among the junior officers as well – as they teeter on the edge of losing their jobs and lives even – conspiratorially shushing their fears, courtesy the powers that be. Fear drips nakedly as Ayaan darts around hunting for clues, and is gently reminded of the “santulan” (balance) inherent in the locality and how he would do well to not tamper with it. There is danger lurking as rogue agents ghoulishly follow the investigation, while attempting to mask and annihilate evidence, furnishing manipulated accounts to the press and commit a dastardly crime and more.

The unspeakable terror and the pallid tones permeating life in Lalgaon have been aptly captured by cinematographer Ewan Mulligan, rising stark and sinking deep in their blues and greys. A few shots – of the girls hanging limp from a lone mango tree, the police team ineffectively trying to lower the dead girls onto the ground without touching them, a decrepit abandoned hut with skin and blood spilling out on the ground and a traitorous swamp holding (possibly) a secret or two within – are few of the many flashes of brilliance that are bound to remain etched in your mind, long after you walk out of the theatre. It is a superbly crafted mystery whoddunit without temporary thrills.

My only grouse with the storyline is the excessiveness of cross-plotting: there are simply too many wrongs to be fixed in the space of two and a half hours. Naturally, not all of the evils get adequately addressed; these parallel and often interwoven plot points, however, serve as grim reminds of the current socio-political fabric of the nation. For instance, a local political leader uses the tragedy to mint Dalit votes, offering them pseudo olive branches in the hope of forming a “sangathan” – a united Hindu front to fight off “the enemies”. Adorning saffron clothes and a booming voice, he wears his religion on his sleeve, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a saffron-clad political authority under the present ruling party – while selling a pipe dream of equality.

Disappointing also is the manner in which Isha Talwar’s character Aditi is treated in the film. We are only told she is an impassioned writer, content in her world of blogs and articles and journalism – we know she and Ayaan do not always agree when it comes to ideology, and yet, her character is never explored, or utilized to provide credibility to the main context of the film. That in my opinion reduces her to an armchair activist.

At a time when religion has become a touch-point to determine nationalism, or lack thereof, Article 15 takes a magnifying glass and exposes the threads the caste system (under an increasingly dissatisfied and wary majority) is made of. It forces you to first look out into your own backyard and weed out the terrain so it stops choking your growth – as a human being – and as a responsible citizen.

Rating: 4/5

Kabir Singh Movie Review: Testosterone-fueled, toxic love can still thrive in 2019, this film sings a paean to that

There’s enough meat be enjoyed in the film – provided, you leave your opinions regarding gender portrayals behind

Going gaga over this angry young man can seriously hamper your chances of being accepted in social situations
Image Source: Google

Director: Sandeep Reddy Vanga

Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Kiara Advani, Suresh Oberoi, Arjan Bajwa, Adil Hussain

Two specific scenes in the Shahid Kapoor starrer Kabir Singh come to my mind when I think of a key trait that shapes Kabir, the angry young man of 2019. In the first half – let’s call it scene A – the hero, in a mad dash to get some booty, turns up at a young woman’s house to romp it up. She is thrilled too, except, she changes her mind at the last minute when her fiancé turns up at the door, asking Kabir to leave. Our protagonist, angered, shoves a knife in her face asking her to undress and make good her word. No, I am not making any of this up.

In the other scene in the second half (let’s call this scene B), Kabir and a popular Bollywood actress (played by Nikita Dutta), snuggled in the latter’s car in the middle of nowhere, seem to be assessing each other’s breaths before making a carnal move. Guarded by a reluctant, mildly disgusted driver standing a little distance away from the car, the two, in hurriedly stripped-down states, ready themselves to get it on – when a soft “I love you Kabir” jerks our hero back into reality. In a split second, all plans of sexual gratification are flung out the window, as he walks away, leaving a shocked, heartbroken, half-undressed woman calling out his name, pleading with him to come back.

Kabir doesn’t. He hates the mere mention of love.

And perhaps, the woman’s exercise of her agency in matters of sex and relationships.

The trajectory from scene A to B is clearly steeped in copious amounts of expensive and dirt-cheap alcohol, drugs, cussing, irrational aggression, familial abandonment, social humiliation, public ridicule and condemnation, and more – never grazing the one characteristic in the hero that ought to have been addressed, one that could have redeemed the character to a great extent: Kabir’s sense of entitlement and a stubborn will to play by the rules. His rules only.

The pattern is prevalent from start to finish. In fact, it is no more apparent than in a showdown with the dean of the college (Adil Hussain) over his violent, uncontrolled behaviour on the football field resulting in a well-deserved suspension. Kabir, quick as lightning, respectfully retorts, reducing the dean to a mere employee “who was just doing his duty” while asserting himself as one of the torchbearers of the university and its pride by virtue of his position as a student par excellence, on and off the field. There are numerous other instances where we get to witness that flash of privilege in Kabir’s demeanour – the very first time he locks eyes with the docile, demure Preeti (Kiara Advani) and walks into a classroom to “inform” the juniors of his newfound interest so as to “mark his territory” via the announcement “Woh meri bandi hai”, or the way he kisses Preeti on the cheek – without her consent, no less – in full public view- cementing his mark – both are testimony to a full-scale manifestation of toxic masculinity. Backed by raucous laughter and soft chuckling on this side of the silver screen, of course.

If that is not enough to establish our lead’s bravado, then please note: Kabir is also the super brain, multitasking orthopaedic surgeon who holds a record of operating hundreds of patients (more than his fair share) – without causing a single life to pop out – all while being stoned drunk. Thankfully, this one flaw in his character is not celebrated despite the subtle and overt eulogies tendered to his other traits.

 As flawed and precarious the character arc is, we are not quite sure what makes Kabir Singh the raging, vicious wayward man he is. But we understand, that having wealthy influential parents, a doting brother (Arjan Bajwa) who ought to have slapped him at least 20 scenes earlier, multiple academic and professional badges of honour caking his persona, and a gang of friends who enable his crass, abusive behaviour by either cheering him on or laughing it off – is far too much temptation to will away. In these given circumstances as well as the heightened context lent to the character by placing him in Delhi (the land of false machismo and regressive gender attitudes), what is a man to do but turn outward and unleash his most destructive states on his immediate environment?

Kabir Singh is what most men dream to be – the holder of an “impeccable academic record”, topper of the board and the university, “one of the best ever” – and the wearer of jaw-dropping sexiness in that I-don’t-need-to-try-hard-to-get-chicks style is the allure that men and women secretly wish to possess. Albeit, in different capacities. Raw maleness dripping in every frame, the hero’s near-obsessive attempts at securing the woman’s affections, intense combats with opponents/anti-heroes and a subtle theme of ‘love conquers all’ has long been a staple of Hindi movies. While on one hand it reaffirms the social standing for the men, it projects to the women the kind of guy they must aspire to because, well, that is the stuff Mills & Boon is made of.

Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Kabir Singh, however, cuts out the rigmarole of delving into the female lead’s internal conflict and her thoughts about the potential lover in question. There is no internal dialogue, no conversation shared with friends as regards the suitability of the suitor and no objection raised to Kabir’s manhandling of Preeti as he walks into her classroom, asks her about the topic of the day and leads her out saying he would tutor her on the same. Heads bow down collectively, justifiably prying eyes turn away from the couple as Kabir takes Preeti around the college, out riding his bike, even as he packs her bags and gets her to live with him in the boys’ hostel.

To say it was mildly disturbing yet funny (primarily for the director’s witty portrayal of the lead pair’s dynamics) would be an understatement. If Kabir, on his part, is supremely confident that his affections and searing interest are being reciprocated, never mind the domination, Preeti, on her part, is equally compliant in the way the relationship begins, progresses, even till the point it breaks off – by following her lover’s lead, content in playing by his rules. In 2019, when feminism and sexuality are a hot topic, the portrayal of a romantic relationship with such skewed power dynamics and the concept of “ownership” is bound to raise eyebrows. And yet, before we castigate the makers of Kabir Singh for being primitive, sadistic and setting a dangerous example for the youth of the nation – it cannot be denied that they are clearly playing to the gallery. The fact that the director Vanga’s original Telugu movie Arjun Reddy (2017) was touted as a commercial and critical box office hit, thus, paving the way for a Hindi remake of the same, is evidence enough of which side of the moral high ground the average viewer occupies.

Shahid Kapoor as Kabir is phenomenal – from the word go. Whether he is ruthlessly smashing opponents on the football field, declaring to the dean that he has “no regrets about who he is”, fighting for the love of his life but also expressing in a moment of weakness his vulnerability or demanding his lover to stand up to her father with the kind of intensity she otherwise expresses when she is with him, like she “owns him” – Kapoor as Kabir hits high octane notes on almost all fronts. It would be safe to say that he manages to render a certain charm – and humaneness- to this gravely unlikable character, so much so that at one point you find yourself rooting for him, despite knowing fully well he has been digging himself trenches for far too long and must, one day or the other, pay the price for it. The sight and sound of a bottle popping up every now and then gets repetitive, however, Kapoor nails it with the nuance of a polished actor. Ultimately, even though he shocks you with his unconventional, insolent attitude, you care for him and want the self-inflicted torture to end.

Kiara Advani, on the other hand, massively underplays Preeti. If you can come to terms with the fact that she does not speak one whole sentence in the first 45 minutes (barring saying her name out loud twice), then there is much to be surprised by how the character transforms as the minutes go by (provided you have not watched the original).

A woman like Preeti might seem like a rare sight in 2019
Image Source: Google

The climax, in particular, pays tribute to her passable evolution over the course of the film – startling both the audience and, for a moment, Kabir himself. Her scenes with Kabir during their time in the college are refreshing, passionate and filled with the sweet angst most teenagers and young adults in love would find relatable. Special mention to Royal Enfield for heightening the pair’s romance on the roads, as well as later redefining Kabir’s relationship with his true self. The frills aside, the infantilization of the leading lady and her largely wallflower-like characterization is bound to rub many viewers the wrong way.

Adil Hussain is commanding, despite a brief appearance. Suresh Oberoi as Kabir’s father packs a punch as the authoritarian rich dad who refuses to take his son’s frequent brushes with authority (both in and outside the college) as well as the boy’s rebellious, angry ways lightly. Kamini Kaushal as Kabir’s grandmother is effective, despite a brief role. Her understanding of her grandson’s defiant and provocative ways, as well as her reluctance to intervene in his processing of his personal grief is subtly philosophical, never treading the preachy route.

In the medley of performances and a bevy of characters thrown in, Shiva (Soham Majumdar), playing Kabir’s best friend, sidekick, and even on occasions his man Friday, puts up a stellar performance. Loyal, trustworthy, patient and miraculously accepting of his bestie’s constant emasculation of his less-than-macho ways and lack of confidence (or should I say an absence of sho-sha of masculinity), he is the kind of friend you want to have by your side when you’re plodding through hellfire. Or well, just to experience life in its sweetest, most sparkling glory. It is a pity Shiva’s constant pleas – asking Kabir to move the fuck on and do something concrete with his life – are met with ignorance and a few more bottles of alcohol.

Despite holding divided opinions on the content of the movie, people are quite in agreement when it comes to the music of Kabir Singh. The timeless ‘Bekhayali’ can compel you to dig up every past pain you may have buried in your chest and cry unshed tears. Yes, even the ones in currently happy relationships. ‘Kaise Hua’, my second favorite from the album, is sweetly melancholic and draws you in as you try to make sense of this odd couple falling in a deep, mad love. ‘Tujhe Kitna Chahne Lage Hum’ haunts you long after you listen to it, spelling the pain and anguish of broken love no song in recent times has succeeded in. The other tracks – ‘Yeh Aaina’ and ‘Pehla Pyaar’ are hummable too.

As for the cinematography, cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran’s captures of camera angles are crisp, taut and soft enough to bring out the different shades of the story. The sequences with Kabir riding the bike (alone as well as with Preeti), a stray scene where the old, dusty bike is getting ‘cleansed’ (quite literally) are impressive. These little details bring out a touch more magic than is indicated by the actual storyline of the movie.

As mentioned earlier, it may have been a more solid redemption had Kabir moved away from “Woh meri bandi hai” (she is my girl) to “pehle usse toh pooch lun” (I should maybe ask her once). Having said that, his character, however blemished, is fierce, fearless, and does not mind taking risks…it is adrenaline-pumping watching a human walk single-mindedly towards the object of his desire. However vehemently the audience may protest such mania.

Kabir Singh is controversy designed as a rollicking good tale, turning love stories on their head, and unabashedly telling you – that not all love is equal, but maybe, not all love needs to be so long as concerned parties come away feeling loved. To summarize it – if the world can go gaga over Fifty Shades of Grey, Kabir Singh would likely seem enjoyable, albeit, a mere warm-up for people intending to explore the darker side of love.

Rating: Purely, in terms of entertainment value and the fact that I have good sense to divorce cinema from its inherent social impact, I’m going with 4/5.

Kalank Movie Review: Grandeur personified and needlessly melodramatic sans Bhansali’s magic touch

Kalank is your staple star-studded elaborate cinematic launch that never takes off

Even the best of an ensemble cast does not save Kalank from bombing at the theatres
Source: Google

Director: Abhishek Varman

Cast: Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sonakshi Sinha, Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit, Kunal Kemmu, Hiten Tejwani, Achint Kaur

Dialogue Writer: Hussain Dalal (had to mention this because I cannot fathom how all that Urdu could spout off from the man who made Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani relatable to the millennial audience!!)

The last time Sonakshi Sinha (as Pakhi) was dying of a deadly disease and managed to arouse our heartfelt sympathy was in Lootera (2013). Still recovering from heartbreak and betrayal, and grappling with abject loneliness, her sighs and whispers interspersed between painful bouts of coughing and breathlessness came across as relatable.

This time though, as a stunning Sonakshi (as Satya in Kalank) layered in the choicest makeup and grace fitting for the goddesses, leaves the doctor’s clinic saying, “Marne wale ko karam thik karne chahiye, tabiyat nahin”, we find it less than convincing. As if that is not enough, we are then taken straight to a modest home in Rajputana (Rajasthan) where Sinha makes a rather unbecoming request of Roop (Alia Bhatt) – she only has a year to live and wants her husband Dev Chaudhry (Aditya Roy Kapur) to marry again. And she wants them married right away, so she can assure herself that her husband’s life will not waste away like she will, very soon.

Now, we are never told, in the course of a whopping 170 minutes of the film as to what exactly Roop owes Satya (even though there are tedious hints throughout the film) to tag along in this bizarre plan; all we know is she reluctantly agrees to this proposal so she can lift her family (and especially, her other two unmarried sisters) off the financial trenches they were living in. If this is not the most regressive of Bollywood plots, then I don’t know what is. But since Kalank is set in the time of Partition, we reason to ourselves that of course, women were not as emancipated back then as they are now!

Fast forward to Husnabad (Lahore), Roop’s life begins on the most unexciting note ever. Dev is prompt and kind enough to let her know that while she will be accorded utmost respect as the bahu of the khandaan, she should not expect love in return from him. He loves his wife deeply, and will never be able to give her that place in his life. Sounds eerily similar to what Paro’s husband says to her in Devdas (2002) right? Fortunately or unfortunately, the references to “Bhansalism” don’t end here.

Trapped in the reality of her youth and her life nipped in the bud, Roop, while gazing out at empty skies on her balcony one day, is intrigued by a mysterious voice crooning out in the distance. It is none other than Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), the songstress and local courtesan who had wowed many a fickle heart (pun intended) and lives in Heera Mandi, the scandalous lanes of Husnabad, “jiska naam lene se bhi log badnaam ho jaate hain.” Or some such. No, I’m not saying it. The characters say it, over and over again, masking it with doom and making it sound as unpalatable as unpalatable can be. There is of course a dreaded link between Heera Mandi and Chaudhry villa, and the same becomes clear as day despite the characters humming and hawing through their lines, steeped in pointless sobriety.

Away from the stuffy, sombre atmosphere at Chaudhry villa, Roop finds herself mesmerized with Bahaar Begum’s singing prowess as she is by her nazaakat. Between working in the family newspaper business headed by Balraj Chaudhry (Sanjay Dutt) and learning music from Bahaar Begum, she gradually finds a purpose to soak herself in. All is decidedly well till she meets Zafar, the local blacksmith, who takes a fancy to her and even ends up grabbing her wrist the very first time they meet. Since this is the 1940s and stalking had not yet found a mention in society’s rulebook, Roop falls passionately for the audacious Zafar, against her better nature and the lines drawn for her as the bahu of the Chaudhry khandaan.

Zafar, abandoned at birth by an unwed mother (Bahaar Begum) and a cowardly father (guess who?) even prior to his birth, now wakes up every morning to be branded as “najayaz” and “haraami” by the local people, practically in every scene. Lives in the gutter (figuratively), sleeps around indiscriminately and throws himself away in murderous bullfights, while seething in rage directed at his mother as well as Sr. Chaudhry (Dutt) for having taken from him a life that could have been. When he meets Roop and finds her besotted with him, he decides to use her as a weapon to destroy the Chaudhry khandaan, to have them suffer the shame and humiliation he had endured all his life. There is a glitch though – and this is embarrassingly predictable – he inadvertently drops his seedy, Casanova image and does fall for Roop – but so does Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur), despite the noblest of intentions. And that is exactly where all hell breaks loose, because the filmmakers seemed to have realized that now, hearts must shatter and make noises loud enough to deafen the audience – so that the ornate setting, ostentatious Bollywoodized Urdu, jaw-dropping expensive costumes and heavy, practiced silences can be justified.

Nonetheless, despite director and screenplay writer Abhishek Varman’s tenacious efforts, none of the faux-intensity employed to tackle the project seems necessary or sincere. In fact, what gravely punctures the tempo of the film is the forced drama inserted in every scene (even those that could have done with some cheeriness sans Urdu dripping off the actors’ tongues) that makes it come across as disingenuous. Many a time my mind wandered back to Bhansali’s Devdas and Saawariya, as I found myself drowning in the carefully designed noir-ness of Kalank – made possible with veteran cinematographer Binod Pradhan’s work behind the camera. It is a shame though that the film had none of the urgency palpable in Devdas (well okay, I admit I cannot say the same about Saawariya), despite overt signs of a forbidden love, and explicit scenes of unrest, violence and gory included to render the love triangle more devastating against the context of Partition.

This is not to say that Kalank does not at all have its winning moments; these however, are sparse and stand out in your memory long after you’ve watched the film. For example, the confrontation between Dev and Balraj Chaudhry juxtaposed against the one between Zafar and Bahaar Begum feels mildly thrilling. So does the climax, which the makers seem to have worked hard at to prevent it from veering into the utterly predictable.

The cinematography and the dance performances in both Ghar More Pardesiya and Tabaah Ho Gaye are breathtaking, the only time the extravagant build-up of the movie feels good. Alas! Without a solid plot, the decorative aspects of a film can only go so far.

Barring Alia Bhatt who shines as the gentle yet bold Roop, the performances of the remaining ensemble fizzle without a trace. Varun Dhawan as Zafar is hammy in the first half and a spitting image of most of his previous characters (sans the kajal and the beard) as he rolls off one cliché romantic/cringey dialogue after the other. It’s only in the second half that you begin feeling for his character, even though you do not cross over completely to side Zafar.

Roy Kapur as Dev is restrained and dignified, so much that it robs away from the character’s motivations. I actually enjoyed his conflict with Sr. Chaudhry more than I did his equation with his dying wife and his newly-wed second wife, which were insipid to start with. Sinha has Satya is completely passable, her presence so diluted she might not have even been a part of the project. Dutt as the newspaper baron Balraj Chaudhry is authoritative without the menace that patriarchs don such hats with. He, however, fails to slip into the remorseful old father towards the end, an element that chips away at the core plot tool. And may I add he seems resolutely stone-faced through most of his scenes? Madhuri Dixit as Bahaar Begum is grace personified, but lacks the namak that a Chandramukhi from Devdas was draped in, in addition to the layers of ethnic fashion. Supporting actors such as Hiten Tejwani and Kiara Advani remain just that – on the fringes. Kunal Kemmu (as Abdul, Zafar’s friend) starts out lukewarm but gains range over the course of the film – he is actually more of a surprise element than the film’s plot itself!

One of the cardinal sins of filmmaking is rendering the execution too stretched, too thin, a glitch the makers of Kalank ought to feel guilty about. Repetitive scenes between Roop and Zafar to forcibly create romantic tension between the pair only made it monotonous and yawn worthy after a point. Begum’s well-meaning advice to a young, impulsive Roop could have come about at least ten scenes earlier, and so could the atmosphere of strife in Heera Mandi and their agitation for a separate homeland. At least four of the eight loud, bombastic songs could have been done away with – would have helped lower the budget of the project while saving us recurring headaches. And so could the item song featuring Kriti Sanon and the boys to establish a Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam-esque bond between the two suitors (except that HDDCS was classy, massy and was the ultimate treat for folk-song lovers). Against the setup of the 1940s, why on earth would a garishly-dressed woman be used as a crucial plot tool, is beyond me!!

All in all, Kalank feels stuck in time (was conceptualized fifteen years ago by the late Yash Johar and revived by son Karan Johar, so no surprises there), and pretty darn regressive for a Bollywood seeking fresher, more emancipated subjects to make films on. An exercise to rip off the highlights of Bhansalism, the film, while succeeding in emulating the director’s over-the-top treatment of plots, dives miserably in creating characters that the audience could have truly rooted for. There is awe-inducing grandeur, just no spark.

Or as Bahaar Begum says to Roop in their very first meeting, “Aawaz acchi hai, bas namak kam hai.”

Rating: 2/5

Photograph Review: Nawazuddin, Sanya’s story flows like poetry, albeit an unfinished one

If watching love blossom between an oddball pair is your thing, this film will introduce you to possibly the unlikeliest of them all.

Photoraph shows you how love can bloom between the unlikeliest of souls
Image Source: Google

Director: Ritesh Batra

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Jim Sarbh, Vijay Raaz, Geetanjali Kulkarni

If you’re a millennial (like me) or even a Gen X’er, you might still remember the days of yore when traveling to new places also meant getting plenty of pictures clicked in awkward poses by one of the many street photographers thronging the tourist spots.  You would dutifully let the photographer call the shots, and tilt your head this way or that, stand a bit closer to your beloved, or emulate one of the many other corny poses to make it a success. And then you got handed the hard copies of those photographs to later file them away neatly in the family album, reserved for nostalgic gushing over a family gathering or a rain-soaked afternoon in the future.

Once the selfie boom made its appearance, everything changed. Our lives, the way we view the world, but most of all, the way we began to view ourselves. Sadly, in the microcosm of this apparently innocent technological revolution, street photographers eking out their living out of making people smile were the hardest hit. I mean, if you had an iPhone or a One Plus, and were visiting the Taj Mahal, what would you do? Click your own selfies with filters and special effects or pay the photographer to click you in a practiced pose – mostly in the camera’s P mode?

However, despite living in an era where millions of carefully created images grace the social media space every day, a photograph can mean many things to many people. In Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, a photograph alludes to years of toil and hardship buried underneath, of hopes crushed and then revived, a journey of layers peeled and layers owned; actually, anything that you seek to take away from the movie.

Photograph is a tale of two palpably distinct characters, stewing away in their own existence, mostly without rhyme or reason, because they have to. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer who clicks tourists at the Gateway of India for a living. Debt and poverty mark every inch of his being, as he trudges from one day to the next without an end in sight. Until one day, a shy, introverted girl, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) crosses paths at the site and agrees to get herself clicked, only to hurriedly leave without paying him. He is slightly amused, but takes it in his stride, much like the feeling of desolation, defeat and all else engulfing his life. Except his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) whose only desire now is to see her grandson married and settled before she passes on into the other world, is getting restless with Rafi’s lack of a sense of urgency about his own existence.

And so are his circle of friends, the neighbourhood bhajjiya wala, cab-driver as well as the grocery store guy. Suddenly, the whole world wants him to quit running the pointless marathon that has come to define him and get himself a wife. Sombre life advice is dished out sandwiched between funny anecdotes about dead people who pressed the exit button without so much as leaving a letter behind, because they did not have anyone to bid their goodbyes to. Still reluctant, yet slightly shaken, Rafi, on a whim, sends a picture of the unassuming, yet beautiful stranger he had met at the Gateway, concocting a wild story around their “love”, naming her Noorie and claiming her as his fiancée. Understandably, dadi is thrilled and wants to come to Mumbai and meet his fiancée for real.

Caught in a web that would only grow denser with time, Rafi sets out hunting this mysterious stranger, aided by a picture of her on a billboard of a coaching institute. And as unbelievable as it may sound, he convinces Miloni to play along with his ploy till his granny is around in the city. Miloni, who until now, has only known a life of gruelling academics and has been forced to wear an invisible crown on her head – much like her picture on the billboard – perceives this amusing incident as a prospect to be something more than the high achiever tag she has been wearing, and of course, as a fitting occasion to quietly, yet resolutely rebel against her upper-class, stiff Gujju family.

Out they go, hopping into cabs, touring the city’s myriad landscapes, day after day while taking Rafi’s grandmother around – until this ritual is what each of them looks forward to, even after granny departs for her native village back in Uttar Pradesh. Between the first photograph and the next few, hope descends in the circumstances of these two starkly dissimilar protagonists. Where Rafi succeeds in finding a way out of the maze of disappointments (or so we are made to believe) dotting his life, courtesy Miloni’s fondness for Campa Cola, the latter awakens to the realization that in the photograph taken by Rafi, she was looking back at a girl who looked happier and prettier than she was. The deep connotations associated with a photograph taken on impulse could not have been portrayed more poetically than has been done by director Ritesh Batra.

Photograph is about finding meaning in a world not our own
Image Source: Google

Batra’s nuanced direction also seeps through in the discretion with which he deals with his characters. Much like Irrfan’s deadbeat, dry Saajan Fernandes (of Lunchbox fame), Nawazuddin as Rafi is handled with equal parts cynicism and equal parts panache, who dares to break of out of a somewhat self-imposed, yet largely circumstantially built prison.  Siddiqui embodies the struggles of a migrant man trying to survive Mumbai in a way that feels raw to the bone, almost like he is symbolically retelling his own hardships on the silver screen. That said, in Siddiqui’s portrayal of a despondent man, there isn’t a lot that you may not have seen before in the actor’s own earlier projects. So for our sakes and his, I am desperately hoping the next project he picks will paint him in a brighter light than all his past ventures have individually and collectively painted him.

Jaffar as Rafi’s grandmother plays the cardboard granny quite effortlessly, emotionally blackmailing her grandson to settle down by refusing to take her medicines. Loud, grumpy, blunt and sarcastic, she plays to perfection the proverbial Hitler dadi with a heart of gold buried under her chest. So while wondering how her grandson landed this fair beauty, she giggles good-naturedly about finally realizing her dream of having fair grandkids. For a movie dominated by vintage lenses and poignant silences, these snippets of the grandmother’s candid conversations with Rafi and “Noorie” come across as a breath of fresh air, almost equalizing the otherwise moody atmospheric build-up permeating Photograph’s narrative.

It is Sanya Malhotra as Miloni who is brilliant, yet confusing, in spurts. From the word go there is an uneasy hesitation about her, almost like there is a sea of words waiting to tumble out of her lips and she somehow catches the wave in her throat at the last minute. Miloni is frankly, an uninteresting character, passive and utterly bland for the most part. So much so that a potential suitor remarks that she looks prettier in the photograph, ironically the only recent photograph of her clicked by Rafi.

Malhotra’s brilliance nevertheless, shines through in a couple of scenes. For instance, during one of the classes when Miloni excitedly shares the photograph with her classmates, they look as fascinated to see her in a different light than they’ve known her. For a few minutes, and barely just, Miloni transforms into a regular girl keenly aware of the hidden layers of her personality, and not merely the CA topper everyone identifies her as.

Sanya Malhotra as Miloni is uninteresting in an interesting sort of way
Image Source: Google

She is also acutely sensitive and aware of the class barriers rising tall between her and Rafi. So one night when she sits the maid (realistically essayed by Geetanjali Kulkarni) down and asks her about her family and what they do, you realize she is trying to bridge the chasm between her and them (the ones living on the fringes of poverty), and by that token, get a step closer to Rafi. Her eagerness to blend into Rafi’s world and understand the same is subtle, yet striking, even if it takes surviving the ordeal of watching a movie in a rodent-infested cinema hall.

Apart from the leads, Jim Sarbh as the head of the coaching institute is crisp and impactful in a brief role, and yet, I wished he had been given more to do in the movie. Vijay Raaz in his cameo is arresting and adds a touch of make-believe to the grey atmosphere of the film.

Despite the supposed depth with which the subject has been treated, Photograph fails to hold a candle or even burn half as bright as Batra’s The Lunchbox, where despite the nuanced portrayal of Ila and Saajan’s newfound companionship, there was plenty to glean from their lives and grasp their worlds. Photograph allows the viewer to have numerous sneak peeks into Rafi and Miloni’s worlds, and yet we come away feeling like we simply do not know enough.

For instance, despite the duo’s willingness to jump into uncharted territories marked by religious, class and age divides, we only manage to grab at and second-guess what each character might individually be thinking. We do not know the real dynamics of their relationship or even a hint of how, or if, they plan to traverse this gulf. There are no real conversations about issues that are screaming red flags, and a lot is left to the audience to piece together and come to a conclusion. This not only makes it frustrating for the viewer, it also forces idealism in circumstances and seems far removed from their stubborn realities.

Despite its obvious flaws, one element Photograph scores high on is the cinematography. Much like its title, the movie is a testament to the undecorated, hurried yet pensive beauty that is Mumbai. Curious cab drivers, hawkers, a kirana shop in Rafi’s neighbourhood, the stretch of marine drive, Gateway of India and the salty air floating over the city – cinematographer Ben Kutchins has successfully captured each of these elements, rendering them a touch of timelessness. It would, therefore, not be an understatement to say that the film at times feels like a testament to Mumbai – the city of dreams, where anything is possible.

And yet, Photograph simmers and simmers, never really taking off.

“Saalon baad jab aap yeh photo dekhengi Madam, toh aapko aapke chehre pe yehi dhoop dikhai degi”, Rafi tries to persuade Miloni at the start of the film. He may be right.

If for nothing else, Photograph ought to be watched, solely so you can enjoy the poetic finesse it brings alive on screen. It may be incomplete, wistful even. But it will remind to smile in the darkest of places.

Rating: 3/5

Luka Chuppi Movie Review: A youth-centric entertainer, this film deserves to be watched by all

Live in relationships CAN culminate in marriage. But what if marriage leads back to living in?

Director: Laxman Utekar

Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Kriti Sanon, Aparshakti Khurana, Alka Amin, Atul Srivastava, Pankaj Tripathi, Vinay Pathak

Image Source: Google

Whoever knew, that come January, 2019 would soon turn into the year when lines between politics and entertainment would blur to reveal the zeitgeist of what truly drives India- desh bhakti, the lampooning of subjective desh droh – especially the kind that is accompanied by having an opinion and an honest criticism of the government, and of course, the ultra-predictable sanskaar.

So if Uri made your chest swell with nationalist pride, and The Accidental Prime Minister woke you up to the horrors of a largely silent ex-Prime Minister suffering under the thumb of dynasty politics, there’s Battalion 909 and Vivek Oberoi-led PM Narendra Modi later this year to help buff up these nationalist sentiments. I am not against beaming from ear-to-ear when it comes to saluting our armed forces for their exemplary courage and unparalleled sacrifices, but to bite into electoral fodder every other Friday is hardly my idea of entertainment. Thankfully, we are still breathing democracy, and have the chance to lap up some engaging, visual stories of what nationalism could look like. director Laxman Utekar’s Luka Chuppi falls bang in the middle of this nationalism train (actually, anti-nationalism), and delivers a hard-hitting message, albeit, softly and humorously, averting a wreckage imminent in such scenarios.

The Plot

Luka Chuppi revolves around the bane of young Indians hankering for sexual agency and privacy – when confronted with self-appointed moral guardians lurking at every corner, all prepared to disgrace them, should they sidestep bharatiya sanskriti. This pack of crazy fundamentalists consists of members of the honourable Sanskriti Raksha Manch (cough cough) – an organization responsible for keeping uncultured, anti-national youth in check. At the start of the movie, the poster boy of anti-national, unsanskritik behavior happens to be actor Nazim Khan (Abhinav Shukla) who faces probing questions posed by the media for being in a live-in relationship. Elsewhere, in Mathura, ordinary hapless couples end up facing the ire of the Raksha Manch so they do not even dare think of innocent romance, let alone dream of living in.

Soon enough, the tentacles of moral policing cloud the town before being seized by a local news channel for the usual journalistic minting.  This is where we meet Guddu Shukla (Kartik Aaryan), a star reporter of the said news channel, who is entrusted with an exciting new project: interviewing local people to hear their thoughts about live-in relationships. His friend and the channel’s cameraman Abbas (Aparshakti Khurana) is to join him on this mission. However, before the duo can set off decoding the locals’ views on live-in relationships, in walks Delhi-returned journalism graduate Rashmi Trivedi with her father, seeking to intern at the news studio before hitting the job market.

As the trio set about interviewing sadhus, old women and touchy nationalist men on the streets, Guddu and Rashmi steal a few moments to make eyes at each other, engage in banter – quickly falling in love. Guddu, being the small town man he is, makes the leap by proposing marriage. Except, Rashmi isn’t impressed and wants to try out living in with him first before the much-dreaded saat pheras. Guddu reluctantly consents to it; there’s only one little glitch in this arrangement: Rashmi is Vishnu Trivedi’s daughter, the leader of the Raksha Manch aka the vulture pack prowling around the city and hunting for their next victim.  

Left with no option, Abbas, the loyal wingman suggests they try out this arrangement in Gwalior, away from the prying eyes of their families, in the guise of working on a journalism assignment. The deal is sealed and the two head off on a month’s adventure, basking in the throes of a new romance. There is sex, there is humour, there are talks of dividing household chores between the two as well as plenty of theatrics involving sindoor, mangalsutra and fake tacky wedding pictures to fool the neighbours. In short, it is a jolly good ride until they are caught snuggling by Babulal (Pankaj Tripathi), Guddu’s relative.

In less than 24 hours, they’re jerked wide awake from planning romantic destination weddings to playing “husband and wife” for their families, over and over and over.

What transpires from living in before marriage to still “living in” in a full-fledged marital setup is what forms the spine of Luka Chuppi.

Execution

From the word go, Luka Chuppi succeeds in drilling into your head the perils of indulging in young romance in a country like India. Be it the Sanskriti Raksha Manch’s hooligan-like antics in the beginning, Guddu and Rashmi’s sneaky live-in romance against the backdrop of the culture police or their desperation to living in like a sanskaari married couple, the urgency in these critical moments is palpable.

Kartik Aaryan and Kriti Sanon and perfectly cast for their respective roles, and fit in easily into their characters. While the chemistry between the two is hardly crackling, the duo is easy on the eyes and manages to draw genuine curiosity, sympathy and laughs from the audience. Thankfully, Kartik does not have yet another lengthy monologue as was the case in Pyaar ke Punchnama (which actually set off this bizarre trend) and Sonu Ke Titu ki Sweety, or dish out sexist dialogues in favour of bromance as was the norm in both these movies.

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The film’s humour is the situational kind that you may have come to love if you’ve ever watched cult picks like Hera Pheri, Hungama, Hulchul and others of this genre. That said, it’s only in the second half when Luka Chuppi actually feels like a comedy of errors and tickles your funny bones, hard. A large supporting cast is intricately involved in the romance and boasts of weirdos such as Guddu’s much-older, single brother who feels betrayed much by the younger brother’s secret marriage and is merely a brink away from falling into irreversible depression.

Others in the cast include the top of the crop like Atul Srivastava (who plays the stumped father yet again mentoring his supposedly libidinous son on sanskaar) and Alka Amin (yet again the indulgent mother). Vinay Pathak plays the leader of the Raksha Manch and Rashmi’s father, his sole aim being to crack the election using the religious and cultural card. While earnest and at times even funny, Pathak’s role seems to have been written in a lopsided fashion – almost as if the writers could not make up their mind as to how they wished to paint him. On the other hand, Aparshakti Khurana, who seems to have undoubtedly mastered being the hero’s sidekick, plays it down for the film, securing a neat place as one of the highlights of the movie.

It is, however, Tripathi, dunked generously in broad strokes of a small-town stereotypical Romeo – donning shocking red trousers and a mismatched shirt – I had the most expectations from, which, I’m glad to say were largely met. Given the blatant typecasting, it is obvious the makers intended to write Tripathi’s character purely as a comic relief; nevertheless, it is to the award-winning actor’s credit that he prevents Babulal from slipping into that homogenous box and instead turns it into a key link in the chain of events in Luka Chuppi.

Winning Moments

In a film about sanskaar (or the lack thereof), what else can make an audience sit up and take notice than the words of a saffron-clad sadhu endorsing live-in relationships by alluding to the ancient yet controversial tale of love between Radha-Krishna! Then there is swag with which Abbas handles dad Trivedi’s tacit disapproval of his religion, and by that token, his existence. The cherry on the cake, however, sits pretty in the implied accusation that well, the Raksha Manch has little to do with dharm, and more to do with chunaavi mudda.  I kid you not, at this point, I was sitting with the stupidest grin on my face.

But you know what truly hits home with the film? Its rather straightforward, simple approach to young romance and the perils thereof, in a divided nation like India.

What else does the film score on?

The music. The movie is peppered with just the right number of songs to temper the slightly long-ish runtime and the occasional repetitive humour. Barring Poster Lagwa Do (sung by Nikita Gandhi), the remaining are generously infused with Punjabi lyrics and are a fun mix of slow romantic to high-on-beat music. My personal favourite is Tu Laung Main Elaaichi (Tulsi Kumar), a remake of 2018’s massive hit wedding song that, in Luka Chuppi, incidentally turns things around for the duo. In fact, since I watched the movie, I’ve listened to it no less than 20 times!

Yay or Nay?

Luka Chuppi, despite its obvious flaws is earnest, mostly hilarious yet social relevant – without being preachy. Plus, at a time when being political (and expressing condemnation of the powers that be) can get you trolled, fired from your job and everything else you may not have possibly imagined, Luka Chuppi is an act of courage.  That makes it at least a one-time watch, and yay, yay, yay! All the way!

Rating: 3.75/5

Why Cheat India Review: An interesting premise that limps away to a bland execution

Watch it only to see Emraan Hashmi grace the big screen once again. Keep your expectations low so you don’t feel cheated.

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Barely days before the film’s release, the Censor Board instructed the makers to change the title of the film from ‘Cheat India’ to ‘Why Cheat India’, on the belief that the original title sounded negative, almost like a command to cheat India. Given that we are already a jugaadu nation and many of our people are the complete antithesis of principled citizens, they probably thought Cheat India was going too far and handing people a cinematic license and some deadly ammunition to defraud others. After all, Bollywood already takes a lion share of the blame for the “Western, unsanskaari modern-day Indian woman” too, isn’t it?

I personally thought Cheat India sounded sassy, wicked and just what the film hoped to touch in its runtime. But sitting through the 128 minute affair made me realize the abominable, shoddy way in which the makers had squandered this opportunity. And that instead of naming it “Why Cheat India”, they could’ve titled it “Why Cheat Audience?” instead.

Directed by Soumik Sen (who has previously directed movies such as Gulaab Gang and other unmentionables), the movie picks a genuinely interesting, and worrying theme – the education mafia in India that helps students get through the grind of examinations, many of them life-changing such as the JEE and Medical examinations – without having to use their mental acumen and efforts for the same.

Rakesh Singh aka Rocky (Emraan Hashmi) is a cog in the well-oiled wheels that help run this barter system – where rich, affluent kids gets a pass to premier educational institutes in the country and smart kids (often poor and needy, who appear for these exams) get fat loads of cash in return for their “social services”. I say “social” because Rocky makes it sound like he is doing the strugglers and the fringe-dwellers a favour by allowing them to have a dash at the big life. This includes daru, women, paying off hefty student loans, randomly gifting family members expensive stuff and the ever-present ‘behen ki shaadi’. At the expense of thousands of deserving students getting thrown out of the rat race, incidentally their one shot at a better life as well.

Rocky, a Jhansi-born lad who’d failed in competitive examinations a grand total of three times, and could not become a doctor or an engineer to take a chance at the Indian version of The American Dream finds purpose in his life’s mission – as desperate wealthy parents flock to him to get their laadlas enrolled in prestigious universities, and poor, struggling students live the high life. Unwittingly sucked into the vortex of this promise is Satyendra Dubey aka Sattu (Snigdhadeep Chatterjee) who has recently cracked the engineering entrance exam and secured rank 287, after surviving the intense grind at Kota factory. Needless to say, this is a moment of pure shaan, baan and aan for the lad and his entire family.

Soon enough, Sattu happens to meet Rocky at the cinema hall, who beats up a few rogues in the theatre and restores democracy among the cinema-watching crowd, who (quite seedily) express their appreciation by clapping feebly at this heroism. And despite Rocky’s claim in the trailer, that he neither wants to be a hero nor has the time to play the villain, this ‘chance encounter’ played out between Sattu and Rocky ends up painting the latter as a saviour.

Rocky doesn’t waste a minute and lets Sattu know he could be a saviour in more ways than one, if only the latter batted from his side. Sattu only had to use his smarts, write papers for dumb but rich students, and get paid Rupees 50,000 for his efforts. For a fresher in a college, in the 90s, this kind of money appears to Sattu as the ticket that could lift the burden off his father and take him out from the trenches of a lower-middle-class life. Before we know it, Sattu becomes one of Rocky’s star ‘players’, traveling all the over the country and writing exam after exam. Ill-gotten money is hard to let go off, as are the vices that often come with it. It therefore, comes as no surprise when Sattu takes to drugs and women to get through the pressure of this newfound high-life. All is well, till Sattu flounders and the first noticeable glitch in Rocky’s wide and penetrative web makes its ugly face known. However, Rocky, who by now has snaked his way up to becoming a family than Sattu’s “guru”, swoops in and recues Sattu by arranging for him to go to Dubai instead. And just like, Sattu drops out from the storyline like a limp feather, not to be heard off again until much later, but even those mentions of him are superficial, as is Sattu’s treatment in the film. Despite Chatterjee’s earnest performance, he is relegated to being portrayed as a prop, floating about aimlessly, rather than an actual character whose story drives the film forward.

However, in all honesty, the plot of the film in itself does not make a linear progression – it flails all over the place. It simply tries to frame a credible narrative around numerous standalone, disjointed scenes – of Sattu and the other hapless helpers like him using Photoshopped IDs, writing exams, exiting entrance halls flaunting their victory grins, taking money, getting dirty with women – without ever investing in exploring actual character graphs.

We are never quite certain about Sattu’s parents’ reaction to this charade of Sattu unexpectedly going great guns in life, despite the chap pulling off these stunts right under their noses. Our only reference of the same lies in his sister Nupur’s (Shreya Dhanwanthary) curiosity around all the money and all the gifts, whose range of interest in her brother’s sudden rise in life is restricted to merely asking, “Itne paise kahan se laa raha hai?” but never digging deeper to uncover the truths. But how and why would she? Considering she too is used as a prop specifically designed to fill in the shoes of the hero’s (villain?) lady love. So while she is smitten with Rocky, and is content serving him feeki chai, her brother’s life begins to fall in tatters, bit by bit, until it is too late to undo the damage.

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Shreya Dhanwanthary makes an impression, but the script largely fails her too

This is not my only grouse with the Why Cheat India. There are other ornamentals thrown in here, such as a failed, insipid marriage (much like the film’s second half), a perpetually disgruntled father, a sidekick (who is surprisingly more enthusiastic about playing the bad guy than Rocky himself), an elder brother playing the staple Golden Child of the family – all without ever really making us feel Rocky’s predicament, or his guiding force to choosing what he has chosen in life.

There is a lack of urgency in any of his dealings, and what begins with Rocky’s slick, nonchalant, crooked demeanour, gradually turns into an impassive observation of all the muck around him. His father’s constant rejection of him still affects him, but he purses his lips and looks on. His wife’s postcard existence in his life apparently is also a moot point, but we don’t see it as such.

In the second half, love blooms between him and Nupur, again, on a whim and without traces of any real passion serving only as a plot tool. Despite Shreya’s natural, effervescent acting, there’s only so much that one can relate to in her character without grasping the spine of an edgy storyline for support. Not even his progression to big scale management scams draws us in, as we are merely treated to hordes of students and teachers filing in, exam papers and their answers getting leaked over telephones, and the police’s lukewarm efforts kicking in to catch the culprit red-handed.

So when Rocky makes an appearance in court and launches into a high-octane lecture about the corrupt education system (oh, the irony!) and the pressure on students to clear exams by rote learning, of parents that burden these children with their expectations and the state of deserving, but poor students in this chain, one is inclined to yawn because it negates every act of fraud, every sin, every wad of notes ever revelled in, in the minutes gone by. You are abruptly left to make sense of which side Rocky is on, as he justifies being a corrupt peddler in an already corrupt system.

For film fanatics who may have watched con man acts in movies such as Special 26, none of what transpires in this film will feel heady, making you want to grab the edge of your seats. None of it will make you root for the good-guy-gone bad.

With Why Cheat India Emraan Hashmi makes a comeback indeed, but a rather underwhelming one. As an anti-hero, he starts off on a promising note, but meanders, stumbles, and literally sleepwalks through the arduous stretch of the movie, as unaffected as the plot is. Among the coterie of supporting actors, Snigdhadeep Chatterjee and Shreya Dhanwanthary however, stand out and will hopefully get the chance to prove their talents in heftier projects. The music, with the exception of Phir Mulaqat and Stupid Saiyaan, is rather dull.

With the right script, Why Cheat India could have been so much more than a tortuous rehash of the ills of the Indian education system. Despite the dangers inherent, life will go on for the lakhs and lakhs of hapless students fighting insurmountable pressures of the system, just as it does in the movie.

The censor board could’ve rightly stuck with Cheat India.

Rating: 2/5

The Accidental Prime Minister Review: A lazy and patchy execution, in today’s politically charged environment, the movie is no accident at all

Anupam Kher’s intuitive portayal of the former Prime Minister notwithstanding, the movie is a telltale jumble of political narratives designed to influence the masses.

Image Source: Google

Director: Vijay Ratnakar Gutte

Cast: Anupam Kher, Akshaye Khanna, Vipin Sharma, Suzanna Bernert, Ahana Kumra, Arjun Mathur

When a political movie “surveying” the mighty reign of the UPA government through a decade, graces the big screens barely months before elections and the BJP even tweets the trailer from its official handle, there is anything but accidental about this project. And while I am inclined to use the word ‘propaganda’ in this review already, herein I have attempted to assess the movie on purely cinematic grounds alone, elements that are inextricably linked to political ethos discussed and debated in the movie. Propagandist or not, how does it affect a movie-goer’s senses and intelligence, is what remains once we step out from the political mud-slinging of who’s the hero and who’s the culprit.

Now. For the uninitiated, The Accidental Prime Minister is based on Sanjaya Baru’s memoir (of the same name) based on his stint as media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from 2004 to 2008. That the world would finally get to see Dr. Singh’s side of the story (past the memes and accusations) is a reason inviting enough to watch the film.

And yet, this is a grand opportunity director Vijay Ratnakar Gutte misses in his debut.

The Accidental Prime Minister opens with a footage of the UPA’s 2004 win in the general elections, with equal parts’ support for Sonia Gandhi assuming office and equal parts protesting against a foreigner deliberating heading the world’s largest democracy. No time is lost as we are taken through the hallways of power, right inside the Gandhi family’s startlingly opulent sarkari bungalow where discussions are rife as to whether Sonia Gandhi should indeed be accepting the Prime Ministerial post, amidst heated sentiments in the country.

A quick fearful reproach from a rather unconvincing-looking Rahul Gandhi (Arjun Mathur masquerading as RG) takes us right into the stunned, bewildered silence where Dr. Manmohan Singh is called upon to assume office as the PM. Veteran actor Anupam Kher walks in as Dr. Singh, mild-mannered and unassuming, and just when you are struck by the uncanny resemblance with the erstwhile Prime Minister, and are possibly hoping for a cinematic fiesta, Akshaye Khanna as Sanjay Baru enters the scene wearing a vibrant assortment of colours, speaking directly to the camera. From that point on till the end, he becomes Dr. Singh’s “voice”, whether the ex-PM may or may have approved of it, as is hinted at later in the movie.

The references start seeping in quick and fast. The painstaking effort behind getting the appearances of the central characters right becomes evident, as you look up to see German actress Suzanne Bernert play Sonia Gandhi with conviction, restraint and an uncanny intuition. Bernert’s grip over the diction and mannerisms are what help maintain the nuance in Gandhi’s characterisation. Ahana Kumra as Priyanka Gandhi makes a short, dignified yet ineffective appearance, having been relegated to eulogizing her mother’s decision of not accepting Prime Minister’s post in a short interview.

Mathur’s characterization of Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is deliberately designed to suggest the Gandhi scion’s inability to handle the rough, dirty political turf. Not to suggest that Gandhi is a liability to his own party-members, but to have someone in the movie pointedly say, “Yeh election Rahul Gandhi ke bas ka nahin hai” merely months ahead of the 2019 general elections can hardly be construed as innocent portrayal of facts alone. Add to that, towards the end, as Mathur’s Rahul tears up his party’s ordinance, the insinuation becomes clear enough to echo in your ears well till the elections and beyond, “Rahul Gandhi is an accidental political candidate best to be averted”.

Top-notch makeup and slick performances further work the trick as Ahmed Patel (Vipin Sharma of Taare Zameen Par fame) and Baru interact in hushed tones, and through barbed looks, pursed lips and cold, hard threats issued in soft undertones. Kher, in particular, is outstanding as the soft-spoken, mild-mannered, shy Dr. Singh and succeeds in portraying a strength not many may associate with the former Prime Minister. Given that he had to constantly fight ‘the powers that be’, as the movie quite unsubtly suggests. Reference to the ‘The Family’ is unmistakable, as dynasty politics rears its ugly head and makes it impact known.

To comply with the censor board and to possibly keep some semblance of cinematic objectivity intact, a shoddy attempt is made at beeping the phrase. This is, however, met with hoots and chortles in the movie hall, as scene after scene makes a stab at the opposition’s murky role in the downfall of the very empire it created. While the first half showcases Dr. Singh’s brush with authority and power ranks within his own party as well as the opposition in moving forward with the nuclear deal, the second half focuses on the former PM’s inability to stand up to the pressure of doing the right thing amidst dynasty politics, his naivety in handing media coverage and generally reclaiming a waning public persona.

Full marks to the director for ingeniously painting the former PM in neat, clean strokes of a good man thrust into the big, bad world of politics. In fact, Kher’s portrayal of Singh’s incorruptible, honest disposition is what makes The Family look evil, manipulative and insidiously abusive towards a man who was likely filling in boots too big for him. As Khanna in Baru’s sharp, stinging voice addresses Singh saab as “Bheeshma” who knew everything, but chose to side with “the family” and his vows of loyalty to the clan, I inadvertently cringed, because there was no camouflaging the unspoken accusation: the Prime Minister could have spoken up, reclaimed his authority given his constitutional rank and authority and saved the nation (or the party, or his image, fill in the blanks).

However, there is only so much a filmmaker can achieve with sweeping references and generalizations. While the former PM’s role in letting party politics perpetuate despite his misgivings is open to debate, the plot becomes quite complacent and lazy in its execution, especially in the latter half. References to the 2G and 3G scams are thrown in our faces without showing a plausible build-up, it is almost as if the makers want to rush into the thick of things: Look there, this is what the UPA was doing to the country all those years.  

Disappointing also is restriction of Singh’s portrayal to one as a man under the Gandhi family’s thumb rather than a constitutional voice with a will of his own. Barring the oath-taking ceremony, no public addressals have been included in the movie, a lack that fails to establish the former PM’s connect with the junta at large, a connect that helped him win a second term despite all the naysaying.

The editing is at best, patchy and the background score, sloppy. Thankfully, there are no songs to pep up the rather lurid goings-on in the movie. The constant intercutting between Khanna’s over-enthusiastic Baru and the actual occurrences of the film strips away all seriousness that a project such as this otherwise commanded. As I write this review, my mind goes back to a rather comic scene between Singh and Baru, where Kher’s Singh is shown acting amused at “Que Sera Sera”, a political innuendo uttered in the context of the nuclear deal.  Not even an Oscar-worthy performance could have justified this caricaturish, insincere patchwork attempt at showing the human side of Dr. Manmohan Singh, the man, in all his ordinariness.

What makes the direction worse is Khanna’s Baru taking centre stage, popping up on the screen every few minutes, pushing past the highest ranks, opposition and even the PM himself.  Truth be told, this could very well be Baru’s claim to fame, meant to glorify his mistaken role as Dr. Singh’s “Sanjay” (get the Mahabharata reference, folks?) than the PM’s media advisor who had the good (or bad, depending on how you see it) fortune of having been witness to historical events in the annals of politics in that era. Hours after watching the movie what dominates my experience of The Accidental Prime Minister is Akshaye Khanna’s controversial comeback in a high-octane role rather than Kher’s portrayal of Dr. Singh against the UPA era, which feels like a let-down considering I paid to watch a slice of the former PM’s tenure in office, not Sanjaya Baru’s self-aggrandizement.

That said, with top-notch mimicry of the country’s highest-ranked politicians and actual footages used to establish contexts, The Accidental Prime Minister is undeniably on point and hits the bull’s eye. And while the slapdash execution of the movie is in itself disheartening, I cannot help but also be amused by the underlying motives peddled by the movie. To conclude, if I may borrow Khanna’s dialogue in the film, “Rajneeti mein star girte huey maine bahut dekhe hain, par itna neeche girte huey pehle kabhi nai dekha” – quite matches my sentiments.

This is an aggressive political campaign disguised as cinema, just falling short of being touted as a parody and clearly insulting the intelligence of the audience. How it has been allowed to see the light of the day boggles my mind. And yet, if even a sliver of the honesty portrayed in The Accidental Prime Minister can spill over to PM Narendra Modi’s biopic (political slip-ups and deliberate deviance from concrete issues included) releasing later this year, I believe we’d be all too happy to make a democratic, fair choice in the upcoming elections.

Politics or not, accidental or not, I am left keen and hungry to read the actual book now. The movie was a punishment, the book better be good.

Rating: 2.75/5