Pihu Review: An ambitious and gripping premise, this deserved to be treated no more than a short film

Your home can be a potential deathtrap for your toddler, if they’re left alone – Pihu tells you how.

Director: Vinod Kapri

Cast: Myra Vishwakarma

A two-year-old trotting about all alone in a high-rise apartment, trying to find her way through the maze of strewn confetti, scattered plates of food and practically survive a steam iron, a geyser, an oven, a burner, the refrigerator and more. Not to mention the heart-stopping moment where she literally dangles off the balcony railing, calling out for her friends who are nowhere near enough to reciprocate her needy affection. Her mother lies lifeless in bed, even as the little one constantly keeps nudging her to wake up, cries incessantly and at one point attempts to unbutton her mother’s top and feed herself. There are more grisly, and in equal parts, heart-breaking details I could give you a sneak peek of, but this is a feat you have to watch to believe.  That an unsupervised toddler in a high-rise flat left alone with electrical appliances and even regular devices to experiment with is a nightmare you never want to experience.

Ever since the trailer first released on YouTube, Pihu succeeded in generating much hype and immense anguish amongst the audience, whose minds were instantly prepped up to face the worst –a horror the premise of the movie is meant to compel adults to ponder – why is a two-year old all alone in the house? Where are the parents? How can anybody be so irresponsible? This is certainly no jovial, cheery Home Alone, but this isn’t anything like last year’s gritty, nerve-wracking Trapped either.

Unfortunately, the manner in which the project has been handled falls on neither side of the spectrum. 

Director Vinod Kapri’s Pihu undoubtedly has a stellar foundation – of taking a frightening “what-if” hypothesis and spinning it around a lone child’s crucial hours at home alone, but this is one that could have been used to build a gripping short film instead of a cruel and arduous 93 minute -feature .

Not even Myra Vishwakarma (as Pihu), the toddler who has now garnered much fame and appreciation for her role in the film, succeeds in doing justice to the plot, which admittedly, after the first 30 minutes or so becomes predictable and manipulative. Solely because, even after the point has been drilled home – that an infant left unattended at home is no pretty sight, the director relentlessly continues to put the child, and the audience, through elaborate illustrations of what those horrors could be. If you’re a parent, you will likely drown in nausea and massive guilt, and if you’re planning to become one you will likely never leave your child unattended. Or commit suicide without having a backup plan for how your toddler will manage to deal with it, especially if he/she has to endure a few hours alone at home.

This brings me to the other eerie elements this film is made of  – the father is evidently away on a trip and makes his presence felt, by vehemently screaming and snarling over the phone. There is first, a clear disdain of his wife’s recriminations pertaining to his fidelity (or lack thereof), and then, conciliatory assurances attempting to prove otherwise. But there is absolute silence on the other end of the phone to match the husband’s frustrated, angry rants. Throughout the film, we are forced to make peace with only the guttural, authoritative voice of this character right till the end.

There are bruises on the mother’s listless body, pointing to domestic abuse.  

Joining in this chaotic, yet terrifying medley are the clueless, angry neighbors who ramble on and on about the power trips happening in the apartment and the water leaking out from Pihu’s house. There are the milkman and a few other random characters whose presence is felt just outside the door, almost as if they are deflected off the solid wooden frame, to retreat back into their mundane, unhappy lives. There are little to no dialogues, leaving plenty of room to still yourself and soak in the happenings.

All of this serves to heighten the anxiety and dread you feel as the audience. There are plenty of could be’and should be’s you map out in our head, as you’re taken through the possibilities rife in today’s modern-day apartment-residency lifestyle. And yet, at one point, it looks contrived and deliberately exploitative, failing to impart the lessons it so tries to convey with this premise. Especially the climax, which seems rushed and scrambles to accord a befitting conclusion to the mayhem you somehow survive in the last 90 minutes or so.

Towards the end of it, I was more worried about Myra than I was about Pihu, wondering how she would react to her innocent, and manifestly, unconsented participation in this project once she is old enough to process it all. Would she be proud? Or would it leave her unsettled and indignant that she was made to be a part of something that she did not understand, but something that actual grownups were in charge of?

For Myra Vishwakarma’s au natural persona in front of the camera and her innocence, for the fact that this is a story that needed to be told (albeit, not in the manner it has been in this film), and primarily because it perturbs viewers and warns them, this is a movie that should be watched. Not as a thriller/suspense (you will get disappointed soon), but as a documentary one can learn from. 

Rating: 3/5  

5 Weddings Review: Don’t expect to find love in this documentary-styled cross-cultural tale

Possibly the biggest cinematic blunder Rajkummar Rao may have committed.

The title of the movie is so predictably self-explanatory that I don’t even have to tell you what it deals with. Nevertheless, I will unburden myself of the twenty-pound weight on my chest so you can partake in some of the mind-numbing trauma this movie subjected me (and other innocent cine-goers) to.

5 weddings is centred around the theme of the typical Big Fat Indian wedding, and two strangers falling in love as we’re taken through the pomp and show, dramas and songs, latkas and jhatkas in these weddings. Honestly, that is not half as bad as it sounds; after all, there is a cult following around movies like Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), Ishaan Trivedi’s 7 ½ Phere (2005)and Maneesh Sharma’s Band Baja Baaraat (2010), with Nair’s directorial sweeping us off our feet even till this day, in a way few other movies ever have.

5 weddings though, looks bored with the usual trope followed in these movies and decides it will take a circuitous route – it will infuse heaps and heaps of drama, but offset it with a loud and clear social message so the audience just doesn’t have fun, but also takes home something that can change their lives and outlook towards a certain marginalized community.

Except, neither are we drawn in by the “fun” or moved by the plot twists promising a hard-hitting social message. There is inherently nothing wrong with the message, it’s just that it is executed in a slipshod fashion and overpowers the actual crux of the movie, which is, by the way: 5 Weddings and whatever love or ‘happily ever after’ that should’ve sprouted out from that.

Shania Dhaliwal (Nargis Fakhri), a fashion journo from Los-Angeles, is sent to India to cover the glitz and glitter of Indian weddings and make a documentary (of sorts) about five different ceremonies that make up the traditional Indian wedding. She is a self-proclaimed arachnophobic (as we’re told five hundred and ten times during the course of the film), and so, that is her deep, dark secret for never wanting to go to the land of the snake-charmers (and now insects), India. Also, she hates Indian weddings and cannot be bothered with those. But she must, as she is gently persuaded by her American mom (Bo Derek) who, incidentally, wants Shania to meet her father while on this journey. Shania, who hasn’t seen her father since she was six and came away to America with her mother, now has a purpose that looks like it will make the actual mission bearable.

Side note: At one point, you’re compelled to think if India is a land swarming with spiders andrats and scorpions waiting to make a lunge at her if she set foot in here. I may have sympathized if her editor were sending her to the Amazon rainforests to cover the story.

In any case, the ‘overseas assignment’ is a ticket to keep her job alive and to qualify for the position of editor-in-chief she has been eyeing at her media company. Before we know it, she jets off to Chandigarh.

Rajkummar Rao aka Harbhajan Singh (I mean, really? That was the one name you found in the whole of Punjab?!) a Chandigarh police officer is assigned the duty of supervising Shania’s trip to ensure she doesn’t cause trouble. Specifically, the kind of “aatankvaad” foreign journalists these days are wont to do. By now you’re laughing your guts out – for someone like Shania who is worried she might die of an arachnoid attack soon and talks like her whole life is a beauty pageant, spreading journalistic terrorism would need more daredevilry and determination than she can manage at the moment.

Your assessment of Shania’s ability to grapple with unknown things is soon confirmed – when she lands at the Chandigarh airport on Holi, is smeared with colours and dashes off to report “the attack” to Harbhajan and his aide. Harbhajan shoots off a dialogue that is too heavy to handle for his character in this film, and you instantly start dreading the forced culture-clashes and drama awaiting you ahead in this venture.

Escorted around the city, Shania is taken to these 5 weddings, and as she (first reluctantly) and then voluntarily participates in the wedding shenanigans, zipping off colourful pictures and juicy titbits on Punjabi weddings, she is drawn more to the eunuchs who grace these weddings for a livelihood than she is in the real purpose of her assignment. Witness to the violence, humiliation, and derision this community is subjected to at every juncture, every day, Shania then decides to take up their cause and write a feature on them.

If you’re wondering how and why the movie steered from microscopically analyzing how big fat Indian weddings to a social drama, fret not, we are all in the thesame boat. 

However, what is worse is that –even this purpose Shania filters out from the overall larger purpose she has been driven to India for, falls flat on its face. The execution is awful, the script , limp, and the dialogues hammy. What could have been a somber case offun-cum-activism takes a bewildering turn as the head of the Chandigarh police department instructs Harbhajan to dissuade this “foreign journalist” from covering this feature at all costs. Why, you keep wondering? I’ll tell you why:so the movie could rope in some more meaningless contraptions in the name of a love story, and a battle of wills, and a clash of ideologies, and some much, so we, as an audience, could latch on to some semblance of something happening in this movie that’d make us sit up and notice. Even this doesn’t. It merely leaves you rolling your eyes.

Bollywood, which is known for unabashedly capitalizing on its song-and-dance routines and the chemistry between the leads to pull off spineless scripts flagging in places, comes to a grinding halt in 5 Weddings. The wedding sequences look pallid and forced, and the music agonizing. At one point, it makes you wonder if you’ve traveled back in time and watching a bunch of teenagers trying to pass off as grownups. Even 90s pop icon Daler Mehndi’s U U Yeah sounds like a stubborn hangover from the 90s, failing to lift your spirits. A special mention for the really unnecessary, loud makeup on the brides and the jumpy,worse-than-documentary style cinematography. I constantly kept wondering why I was watching the 2000s all over again!

Rajkummar Rao is completely wasted as an actor here. No matter how hard he tries, he manages to infuse neither sensibility nor liveliness in his character. The same can be said of Nargis Fakhri, who, believe it or not, has delivered better performances in Rockstar and Madras Café, movies where her sole motive was to make the hero look larger than life. She simply sleepwalks through the whole film, looking sullen and disinterested, irrespective of the situation she is thrust into. So it comes as no surprise when she looks phony as hell throughout the film.

Did I mention Harbhajan and Shania’s chemistry feels colder than a bag of ice and that they would have looked better as siblings than as the obligatory cross-cultural lovers they had to portray? There is even an airport sequence in the end which is just as pointless as most of the other additions/inclusions in the film. I will refrain from commenting on any of the supporting cast performances, considering the leads themselves look like they belong to the supporting actors’ camp.

And if, only if the makers had thought of making the movie entirely in Hindi and adding English subtitles instead, it would’ve fared a lot better. To watch Hinglish accents and dubbed conversations against a Hindustani background, right in the heartlands of Punjab simply snipped away little emotion you may have otherwise felt for any of the characters.

5 Weddings, as I understand, is a labor of love, and plenty of painful harangued waiting since its initial conception in 2008. Helmed by Indian-American Namrata Singh Gujral, it faced a delay of over 5 years, owing to Gujral’sbattle with both breast and blood cancers. Her tryst with two back-to-back- life-altering events and a string of related incidents later gave her the impetus to include the social angle focusing on the transgender community. And while this was a laudable motive, it, unfortunately, seemed misplaced in the theoverall premise of the movie. That said, kudos to Gujral for coming out stronger on the other side of life, hopes and telling stories that matter, for as long as one can.

I sincerely hope we get to see better from the director who has headed leaner projects before, and my absolute favorite, Rajkummar Rao.

Rating: 2/5 (For the director’s sheer gumption, determination and well, Rajkummar Rao)

Kaashi, In Search of Ganga Review: A thriller where you keep searching for logic but find none

Skip this film and go take an actual trip to Banaras. It’ll take you to heaven sooner.

Director: Dhiraj Kumar

Cast: Sharman Joshi, Aishwarya Devan, Govind Namdev

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Source: Google

My excitement regarding Kaashi: In Search of Ganga was palpable, as anybody who read my review of its teaser last month, may have guessed. Now though, my disappointment knows no depths. Given that I have (as have you all) earlier been bowled over by Sharman Joshi’s hilarious yet heart-breaking performance in his last major outing in 3 Idiots, I wasn’t expecting him to give his nod to a project as illogical and disconnected as Kaashi.

So this is how it goes: Kaashi, a corpse-burner from the Dom community in Kaashi/Banaras, is an aggressive, short-tempered chap who doesn’t believe in mincing words or mind raining blows at the drop of a hat. And of course he is also a devout Bholenath bhakt. How do we know this? Because in the first five minutes itself, Kaashi is seen rescuing a woman (journalist Devina played by Aishwarya Devan) from two really seedy-looking ruffians trying to get too friendly with her. He roars at them, beats them up black and blue and in the process wins a friend in Devina. But not before we are made to watch a terribly unimpressive semi-taandav dance preluding this scene and cringe at the excessive use of “Bholenath ki kasam” in these 5 minutes. Oh, and all of this fiasco happens during Holi (jeez how can it not? There’s Bholenath, there’s bhaang, there’s colours flying all around, there’s eve-teasing on the pretext of bura-na-maano-Holi-hai).

Anyway, Devina, who for no apparent reason seemed fascinated by Kaashi from the word go and was clicking him left, right and center in the introductory scene, now has a valid reason to ask him to take her around the city and help her with a piece on the same. Kaashi obliges, and he must, else how would we have a love story bang in the middle of a thriller that looks so wimpy it would make you cry?!

Amidst the boat rides, strolling on the streets of Banaras and bonding over lassi (specifically the clichéd wiping-the-lassi-moustache from the hero’s face), love blooms between the two. This is also when Kaashi introduces Devina to his family – his parents and his sister Ganga (Priyanka Singh), the crux of the movie. There’s plenty of oversharing between the parents and the son, cringe-worthy bhaiyya-behna scenes between Kaashi and Ganga, and a Devina who behaves more like a potential bahu than a journalist on a mission. If you aren’t weary and rolling your eyes yet, you will. Soon. Because all of this also leads to unfettered passion, and an extremely unnecessary, contrived sex scene between Kaashi and Devina, likely to only grab eyeballs given that it has absolutely NO relevance to the plot. None. Not even in building some half-decent chemistry between the two. It’s yawn-worthy and callously B-grade-ish (I seriously have no other word to describe the same).

A steamy affair as Kaashi and Devina’s should ideally have had some padding later on, and make a smooth transition before gently nudging us towards mystery land. Instead, from a seedily shot sex scene against the backdrop of “Zindagi guzaarne ke liye, dost ki nahi, hamsafar ki zaroorat hoti hai, mere hamsafar banoge toh bolo,” we go to, “Ganga abhi tak college se aayi nahin hai.”

And then begins the roller-coaster ride. More like, a tumultuous journey of twists and turns that had amazing potential but crashed to the ground before it could even take off.

I’ll tell you why.

For starters, the script and the direction is atrocious. For instance, right from the opening scene where you see a chained, dishevelled Kaashi being led to a cell and then scratching the walls of his cell with a spoon, you experience this sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach – why does it look so put-on? And then you hear the doctor saying something to the effect of, “at least he is not engaged in nonsense” and you realize your apprehensions are coming true: this movie is going to be a massive dhokha in the disguise of a thriller.

Every scene thereafter (barring a few genuinely decent ones) oozes with So.Much.Overacting.Its.Not.Funny. It is clear the makers do not trust our judgment, intelligence or intuition in getting the craft of filmmaking right. At one point my husband audibly even let out his exasperation, “Yeh toh 90s se bhi bekaar hai”.

I’ll go with his verdict. It is worse than what we had to endure in the 90s – from start to finish. There are too many melodramatic dialogues beginning and ending with “Mahadev ki kasam”, a horribly directed scene portraying Ganga’s affair with Abhimanyu (a crooked politician’s weird-looking son), bad editing, bad music, absurd supporting performances, a second half that is centered on looking for Ganga to proving her very existence, damp cinematography, an illogical climax…. Phew! The list goes on…

The writing is so loose and the chronicling, so disjointed, it makes you wonder if the director just woke up from a slumber, skipped a few scenes because he was bored (or maybe the script was too tedious) and deliberately threw in a few twists and turns to make it ring true to its genre instead. The grating, annoying, maddening background score (underlined by a pronounced metallic KAASHI, KAASHI, MAHADEV, BHOLENATH, you get the drift right?) doesn’t help one bit either. But might I say the casting trumps the list of cardinal sins the makers have committed with this project?

Sharman Joshi as Kaashi is appallingly miscast. From the taandav dance in the beginning to the show of aggression to the out-of-the-blue “Mahadev ki kasams” dropping out of thin air to line after line of histrionic dialogue-delivery, this is so not a role he should have taken up. He is earnest, some flashes of his talent remain, but they are in no way sufficient to hide the glaring flaws in this movie. Aishwarya Devan as Devina is tepid and totally passable. Considering she is a famous name down south, I am not really sure why she had to try her luck in Bollywood and ruin it all. She cannot act. Period. If I didn’t know she was a lead in the movie, I wouldn’t even notice, and I definitely wouldn’t care, it’s that bad.

Govind Namdev as the twisted politician has had better performances as the bad guy. In Kaashi, he looks just as stereotypical and farcical as the other characters. The supporting characters mostly look like they’re amateurs trying to get their foot in the door. Even theater actor Manoj Joshi known for his tickle-worthy performances in Phir Hera Pheri, Bhagam Bhaag, Hulchul and Bhool Bhulaiyya starts off on a promising note, but fizzles out too soon. A special mention for the actors playing Ganga and Abhimanyu, whose careers have collectively taken a tumble and may take a long, long time to recover from the shock. This dreadful casting along with the lacklustre narration makes me now want to watch reruns of Savdhaan India season 1, 2, 3, 4 and more so I can feel my adrenaline kicking in.

In the second half of Kaashi, a psychotherapist announces with laboured sobriety: It’s a serious case of schizophrenia.

There. I rest my case.

 

Rating: 2/5 (only because Joshi tries his darnedest best to save this film)

 

Andhadhun Review:Wacky and intriguing, this is the movie Bollywood needs right now

This Ayushmann and Tabu starrer will surely tickle your brain cells like few Bollywood noir thrillers have.

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Director: Sriram Raghavan

Cast: Ayushmann Khurana, Tabu, Radhika Apte

What are the odds of you playing Good Samaritan to a distressed neighbour on a regular day, and then getting toppled off of a high-rise building in broad day light? Also, without provocation?  “That’s bizarre,” you might say, with a nervous laugh, convinced this macabre thought may have been taken straight from the pages of a B-grade thriller novel. But what if you were an ill-fated spectator who happened to catch the murderer in the act and they looked you in the eye instead of fleeing the scene? “Some nerve,” you might gasp!

It is this defiance that underscores most of the character sketches in Sriram Raghavan’s universe, the man famed for filming cult thrillers in the past like Johnny Gaddaar (2007) and in recent times, Badlapur (2015). Raghavan’s penchant for making plot twists work without relying on whodunit trails and snaking his way in through the seemingly obvious, is what makes his movies stand out as classic masterpieces. Andhadhun, a neo-noir thriller duly inspired by a 2010 French short film L’accordeur (The Piano Tuner), is visibly cut from the same cloth. At the heart of the story is a blind pianist (Ayushmann Khurana as Akash) whose life takes a turn for the worse when he becomes privy to a murder and goes on to report a crime he never actually witnessed.

At the outset, it would not be remiss to say that the mystery of whether Akash can actually see or not is solved in the first fifteen minutes of the runtime. And yet, even as the end credits roll, you find yourself still floundering for clues – Can he see or not? The director’s ability to take a relatively obvious element of the plot – Akash’s blindness – and play around with the idea of sight using deeper, darker undertones till it drives the audience to exasperating (yet chuckle-worthy) confusion, is remarkable.

But the idea of sight is not the only element the director toys with. If you aren’t the kind to dismiss opening and end credits (and you mustn’t be, if you’re watching this cinematic treat), you would find puns galore in the film. Right from the opening credits, which start with a seemingly out-of-place, “What is life? It depends on the liver”, a blind man singing ‘Naina Da Kya Kasoor‘, to the shrewdest of specifics in the end credits, the essence of the movie is neatly sandwiched between these points. You miss this, and you miss out on the whys and hows that effectively describe this zany ride.

Andha hone ke problems toh sabko pata hain, fayda main batata hun,” Akash draws us into his private world – one that’s dominated by a grand piano, and his relentless search for inspiration. The only other recurring distractions are a pesky neighbourhood kid frequently testing his patience (and the veracity of his handicap), and a pet cat named Rani. Enter Sophie (Radhika Apte), a refreshingly candid and earthy woman, who he meets literally “by accident”, before being profusely apologized to and offered a gig at her father’s diner. Amidst casual conversations and random scooter rides, the two wildly different personalities develop a bond which swiftly culminates in a passionate, albeit, short-lived affair.

But not before we are told that Akash wasn’t really born blind, but became so, after being struck by a cricket ball at the age of fourteen. This revelation serves to further amplify Sophie’s interest in the man – and ours – as the first layer of this flawless make-believe world is peeled away just a tad bit. Clearly, there’s more to this blind musician than meets the eye. This however, does nothing to create a dent in Sophie’s unmasked admiration for Akash, who keenly churns out mystifying originals of his own as well as classic masterpieces, day after day, to the wonderment of the guests at the diner.

On one such eventful evening, as he contentedly plays out a series of old melodies, his genius is picked up by a jovial, indulgent yesteryear actor Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan) who later invites him home for a private performance. But once Akash arrives at the actor’s apartment, all the happy coincidences of the recent past turn into a dramedy of unwelcome coincidences he cannot easily extricate himself from. As he then fumbles his way through a chain of staged realities, Akash, along with his fellow desperados, come to realize that no matter who invents the game, nobody truly knows all the rules. This jumble of twists and turns, flip-flops of loyalties, pretence and sheer audacity through it all makes up the core of Andhadhun, which justifies its likeness to the Hindi word (Andhadhund) meaning ‘indiscriminate’, or ‘slapdash’, more than it does to ‘blind melody’ – its literal meaning.

Ayushmann, the poster boy for entertaining, social dramas moves away from that predictable mold to enter the conflicting, experimental world of Andhadhun and succeeds in giving his own spin to it. Here too, glimpses of the boy next door remain; in fact, Akash’s inherent sensitivity and unassuming aura is what enthralls the audience on and off the screen. But these are merely sprinklings overlaying the character’s true motivation, which remains consistent throughout the movie, much like the heightened focus he so boasts of, at the very beginning.

Unlike a straight-laced Vicky Donor or a Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, Ayushmann’s character in this wily project seems more in control of his circumstances, despite the obvious tragedies, sometimes brought about by his own smug machinations. Khurana delivers a crackling, delicious performance, probably the best of his career so far – never truly letting his grip on Akash slacken, even as there were moments where it could’ve been laid threadbare for the viewer to catch on to. Besides the broader picture, the actor seems to have a grip on the minutest of details – from the practiced agility of a professional pianist, to the wary body language of a blind man, he hits it right out of the park every single time.

Matching his finesse is Tabu, as Simi (Pramod Sinha’s much-younger sexy wife) who knows a thing or two about making crab murder a little less unpalatable than it really is. By her own admission she has quite a big heart, given that she prefers lulling the crab to sleep in an ice bath before plopping them in boiling water so it doesn’t meet a shocked death.

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Tabu, who has previously played the femme fatale to perfection in Maqbool (2003) and Haider (2014) knows just the tropes to get the inevitably charming, yet insidious trappings of her character right. Fascinatingly dangerous, yet affable, she makes Simi worthy of your understanding, as you take turns sniggering at her dervish ways and pitying her, but never with outright disdain.

Together, Ayushmann and Tabu lend a fresh, intriguing touch to the neo-noir genre and give us some superlative moments in the film. In one of the principal scenes in the movie, the blind man is shown fervently playing high notes on the piano, proud of the applause coming his way, even as the camera shifts enough to focus on a minor detail on the fringe – there’s someone lying bedraggled on the floor. And they have broken glass and splattered wine (or is it blood?) to give them company. Even before you can put two and two together, the tempo of the music intensifies, as do the muted goings-on – painting a picture of such gruesome yet, amusing incongruity that it leaves you agape and breathless in anticipation for what’s waiting next. A winsome tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, this will forever stand out as a moment of unparalleled cinematic brilliance.

Andhadhun is an extremely intelligent film, in the sense that it dunks the obvious and refuses to play to the gallery. As is evident, the taut screenplay (by Pooja Ladha Surti, Raghavan, Arijit Biswas and others), an outstanding editing (by Surti) and phenomenal camerawork (by K.U.Mohanan) contribute greatly to the film. But this is also a project where the background score is pushed to the foreground, compelling the audience to take note of. This is one movie where music is used to drive the story forward, backwards and sideways and isn’t a mere garnish on the actual recipe. It is what makes the recipe. Borrowing heavily from childhood delights like the Tom and Jerry series, as well as a generous mix of the 70s mood (courtesy Dhawan starrers such as Honeymoon, Hawas and others), there are no suggestive background scores telling you what to think or how to react.

Despite some portions in the second half bordering on the contrived, the humor and the urgency never leaves the characters. Rather, a disquieting air of desperation pervades the participants (of this muddled adventure) and their circumstances in general. For instance, there is tough cop Manohar (Manav Vij) stuffing 16 eggs a day to manage his protein intake, but scrambling for breath in his wife’s (Ashwini Kalsekar) presence. A small-time lottery ticket seller (Chhaya Kadam), an auto-rickshaw driver and an unscrupulous doctor (Zakir Hussain) are the other crooks flipping between playing the devil and then the sidekick, just as conveniently and desperately as their motivations change. At one point, the audience is left second-guessing everything and everyone in the movie, even as the director challenging our wits mercilessly without ever truly giving us our “Aha!” moment.

Special credit to Radhika Apte for playing Sophie in the most natural, undecorated way possible for a Hindi film heroine – for acting as a lever to such an ambitious, heavyweight venture. She is feisty, and doesn’t mind baring her heart out. And so, if it means she’s got to spurn the “invisible tension” orchestrated by her hard-to-get musician lover in favour of having brighter, pimple-free skin, so be it. Sophie’s candor is not the only thing that draws us to her, she unintentionally soaks up the collective perplexity of the audience and throws it back at the events, and the man in her life, almost asking – Yeh chal kya raha hai? 

Andhadhun is wicked, riveting and mindbogglingly witty. This is not your regular mystery movie, to be enjoyed with a tub of popcorn and a racing heart. This is the kind that will torment your mind, long after you’ve watched it, making you ferret for answers where they may be none.

After all, in Sophie’s words, “Kuch cheezein adhoori hone ki wajah se hi toh poori hoti hain”.

 

Rating: 4.5/5

 

Batti Gul Meter Chalu Review: This Shahid Kapoor starrer is well-intentioned, but trips far too much

Promises some heavy-duty storytelling, but mostly feels like it is running out of power.

Director: Shree Narayan Singh

Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Shraddha  Kapoor, Divyendu Sharma, Yami  Gautam, Farida Jalal, Supriya Pilgaonkar, Atul Srivastava

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Set against the backdrop of the picturesque hilly town of Tehri in Uttarakhand, Batti Gul Meter Chalu begins on a rather attention-grabbing note – with an archery competition in the dark, where the winner gets enough fuel to keep the neighbourhood community centre’s generator running for six months. If this unusual motivation behind winning the local competition does not sufficiently stir your curiosity, a few fused light bulbs later – added to the rampant town talk of electrical grid failures – let you have a sneak peek into what dominates the existence of the inhabitants. Acute power shortages, and ironically, inflated bills.

Amidst near-perpetual darkness engulfing the city and mostly nondescript lives of the locals, there is however, a trio that finds its joy and light in the idiosyncrasies of its ordinary existence. Sushil Kumar Pant (fondly addressed as SK by his friends, played by Shahid), Sundar Tripathi (Divyendu Sharma) and Lalita Nautiyal (Nauti) are childhood friends and thick as a bunch, despite their wildly different personalities.

SK is a crafty lawyer, who doesn’t mind breaking the law to make a buck, whereas Sundar, entrepreneur-in-the-making is the gentle one, and more of a straight shooter. Nauti, the feistiest of them all, is an aspiring fashion designer aiming for the stars, is outspoken and can easily be slotted into the stereotype reserved for Hindi film heroines, which, as the norm goes, hardly scores any brownie points for how the movie perceives women.

From sneaking out to their favorite adda and drinking till they drop, to chatting and joking about mundane, everyday stuff, the three friends find easy comfort and boundless platonic love in each other’s company. Until, Nauti wakes up one fine day to realize she is of marriageable age, and decides to navigate this new path by dating the boys in turns, for a week each. Needless to say, the arrangement to find the perfect “husband material” in this slipshod fashion is childish, to say the least. At its worst, it spells disaster and brings about the ruin of their years-long camaraderie. And eventually the narrative of BGMC.

Their predictable friction notwithstanding, the real backstory is that of faulty meters and extortionate bills, which, naïve and honest Sundar becomes a poster victim of. With a bill of a whopping 54 lakhs to pay, his printing press business practically comes to a standstill, and with no respite in sight due to a callous, insensitive system, Sundar is driven to the edge. Quite literally.

This medley of events doesn’t quite seem like a tremendous lot to carry, and yet, BGMC takes an arduous 1.5 hours to get to the core – time wasted in picking apart pointless nuances of the trio’s friendship, and squeezing in out-of-context song-and-dance routines on ludicrous lyrics such as, and I kid you not, When you getting Gold, Why go for Tamba. And of course, time spent in establishing and re-establishing the authenticity of the pahaadi/Garhwali setting, courtesy an excessive use of words like “bal” and “thehra”. After hammering the local dialect into our eardrums as a suffix to practically every sentence uttered by literally every character in the movie no less than twenty times within the first twenty minutes, I figured the makers could easily have titled the movie Batti Bal, Meter Thehra.

However, that is not the only exasperating bit about BGMC. The movie, which actually delves into the menace of power shortage, the role of corrupt private electricity companies and (as we come to see later) and the absolute inefficiency of the government in living up to the thousand and one promises made in recent years (cough, cough, “Acche din” subtly couched as “Badhiya din” in the movie), only in the second half, slips and trips ominously, much like the subject it deals with.

The second half follows almost the exact same graph as the director’s 2017 feature Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, with minor differences. In Toilet, what begins as a Prem Katha becomes a full-fledged documentary of social activism, replete with viral videos, protests and an ode to the government’s unfailing work towards improving and maintaining national hygiene. In BGMC, we are treated to the explosive effect of social media virality and innovative, eye-grabbing protests yet again (with people from over three states sending in fused light bulbs to the electricity provider’s office), however this time around, it is intended to be a mockery of the government’s failure in addressing a basic, fundamental right of the common man – access to electricity supply. Most denizens in the hinterlands of the country have to go without power supply for weeks and months on end, living crippled lives, despite the gazillion welfare schemes promised by the government – the fact that BGMC even attempts to broach the subject and make hard-hitting notes about the same is praiseworthy. However, a gauche execution of the same belittles even the best of the makers’ intentions, clumping it as trivial and farcical by the end.

For instance, during the second half which primarily deals with a courtroom drama, Shahid Kapoor as the common man’s representative – in a laudable turnaround from his cocky, crooked avatar in the first half – thinks nothing of shooting witty repartees and sexist jokes at the defence lawyer (Yami Gautam), possibly to diffuse the seriousness of the matter being dealt with. From body shaming Gulnaar (Yami’s character) to asking her out for coffee as an aside to their cross-examination, it is obvious the makers have left no stone unturned in playing to the gallery. And while it does draw cheap laughs from the spectators in the courtroom and the theater-going audience alike, it blatantly undermines the very message it so grandiosely wants to convey to the aam janta, thereby diluting the narrative of the movie further down.

Despite a weak script flagging off in places, the lead actors and the supporting cast do an earnest job in portraying their respective roles. Shahid as SK plays every bit the arrogant, witty, wicked chap in the first half quite effectively. From his deliberate swagger right in the opening scene, and his surefooted moves as he attempts to woo Nauti, to his greyer-than-grey shades with the friendship going haywire, he hits the right notes with each emotion. It is however, the ‘good boy SK with a change of heart’ version of Sushil the audience is bound to love, as he combines equal parts shrewdness, aggressiveness, empathy and a sense of justice to fight the villains. The collective cause Sushil goes on to represent makes him the hero, almost akin to David fighting Goliath, and will likely strike a chord with the masses. Special mention to his grasp over the pahaadi dialect (however infuriating the utterance of ‘bal’ and ‘thehra’ might be), his ability to shift gears and convey a different persona in the latter half, despite his basic character staying consistent.

Divyendu Sharma as Sundar plays the gentle, meek ordinary guy with much needed restraint, and manages to hold his own, despite Kapoor’s boisterous performance taking up a huge chunk of the screen time. Shraddha Kapoor is relatable as Nauti, but is relegated to the background post-interval and does no more than huff and puff in the guise of playing part-time social activist.

The most regrettable bit about BGMC though, is that it fails to utilize veteran talents such as Farida Jalal and Supriya Pilgaonkar, who are completely wasted in this venture. So is Sushmita Mukherjee, whose character as the judge has been dealt with quite irresponsibly in this venture – from discussing cricket amidst court proceedings to merely pursing her lips at SK’s outrageous conduct – she is made out to be a mere caricature. It is evidently intended for some easy laughs; unfortunately, Mukherjee is no Saurabh Shukla, who famously carried his role as the seemingly laidback but principled judge in both the instalments of Jolly LLB – with just the right degrees of sobriety and panache.

Yami Gautam’s performance as Advocate Gulnaar Rizwi? Well. Silence.

The cinematography is blotchy, and impresses in bits and pieces, and so is the music. With the exception of Atif Aslam’s Dekhte Dekhte, the composition is nothing to write home about. Add to these flaws, the movie clocks in 161 minutes of run time, which makes Batti Gul Meter Chalu look like a hapless bulb blinking on for dear life, testing reserves of your patience.

As you walk out of the theater, you feel neither indignant nor concerned about the common man’s plight. In short, meh.

Rating: 3/5

(purely for a brave attempt at dealing with the crucial issue of power shortage, the lead actors’ performances and the occasional bouts of laughter)

102 Not Out Review: A warm, entertaining tale where the Old are Bold

Centenarian Dattatreya Vakharia plans to send his pessimistic, old-fashioned 75 year-old son to an old age home so he can achieve a record of being the oldest living person on earth. Does he succeed?

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When you step out to watch stalwarts like Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor in the same frame, you know you’ve grabbed the chance to taste some eclectic wine, one of the finest that there is in Bollywood’s landscape.

After wowing old and new generations alike through their collaborative efforts spread over four decades or so – in Kabhie Kabhie (1976), Naseeb (1981) and the cult movie Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), among a few others –  Bachchan Sr. and Kapoor come together to show the audience, that despite wearing wrinkled smiles and grey hair, the sheen of their craft hasn’t dulled one bit.

While in all their earlier associations, Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor have bonded as brothers or friends, in 102 Not Out they play father and son for the first time – and what a crackling pair they prove to be!

Based on Saumya Joshi’s play bearing the same name, Umesh Shukla’s 102 Not Out is one thick, flavoured chicken soup guaranteed to warm your frantic, restless soul.

Read on to find out what’s in it for you.

What’s their Story?

Rishi Kapoor as Babulal Vakharia is a 75 year-old elderly chap who seems to sleepwalk through life, taking his senior citizen status a tad bit too seriously – feeling and acting older than he really is. Early on, we are shown snippets of his reluctance to take a joke or a carefree walk outside, his obsession with using the same bedsheet irrespective of the decades of wear and tear it might’ve been exposed to, and his repetitive, fearful relationship with his doctor. As evident, Babulal is in no mood to let a single happy vibe touch him, except an anticipative joy at the possibility of reuniting with his NRI son.

Dattatreya Vakharia (Amitabh Bachchan) on the other hand, is the 102 year-old crinkly yet over-the-top father of stuck-up junior Vakharia who, unlike his weathered son, refuses to take his age seriously! He believes he is all of 26, and that there’s at least a decade and more left to breathe so he can successfully break a Chinese man’s record of being the oldest living person on earth. Dattatreya just doesn’t think it – he, in fact, brings home a life-size picture of the Chinese guy for inspiration, as well as to announce his intentions to Babulal, causing more furrow lines to appear on his already-furrowed countenance.

Clearly, Babulal is averse to his father living more than any human being ideally should; now he is even more displeased knowing daddy cool has set such high aims for himself knowing he could easily outlive him. Understandably, he is perturbed by these new ‘Life Goals’ Dattatreya has set for himself, and wonders out loud why he isn’t accepting his age for what it really is.

Sr. Vakharia throws out a bunch of names at his son – informing him of how lack-lustre, boring and mundane Babulal’s life really is, and how, he must stay away from such negative creatures if he is to ever reach his mission of living up to a ripe old age of 118.

Thereafter, Dattatreya decides to send Babulal to an old age home, so he can peacefully complete his goal of living another sixteen years.

Babulal is shocked and distressed – not only because he would accidentally end up creating history by being the first son on the entire planet to be packed off to an old-age home by his much-elderly father, but also because it meant he would have to warm up to existing in an alien environment. For a man who has been living one day to the next, trapped in a cocoon of familiarity and everything tried-and-tested, this new possibility of being thrown out of his zone literally gives him sleepless nights.

And therein jumps Papa Vakharia, telling his son he is ready to let him stay in the house if he agrees to certain conditions – a list of dos and don’t’s Dattatreya gleefully imposes on his son, spread over the next few days and weeks, and that play out in funny, sometimes satirical sequences making up the entire first half of the movie.

What works?

In a day and age where the audience is sassy enough to criticize even a Sherlock Holmes and rarely finds anything intriguing to hold its attention for long, 102 Not Out coasts along beautifully, primarily due to its inherent simplicity. Granted, the plot is straightforward and the climax predictable, and yet, as a viewer I found myself looking for twists and turns, as Dattatreya’s challenges played out sequence after sequence.

Amitabh Bachchan as Dattatreya Vakharia plays the uber-old dad with the sneaky intentions to the hilt. From making us chortle at his frequent barbs at Babulal, to his reaction on being addressed by an obscene name in his son’s hand-written letter to his dead wife, he surpasses himself on more than one occasion. And lest you think the movie is all punchlines and silly humor, Bachchan, with his well-timed silences and nuanced performance (especially in the second half) draws you into his own personal evocative world, where he makes you cry, contemplate in silence about the mystery and purpose of life, and brighten up again at the thought of new hope streaming in. It’s a window you’re allowed to, rather compelled, to peek in at the start of the movie, and you only remove yourself away from this emotional ride when you understand why Dattatreya did what he did.

On the other hand, Rishi Kapoor as Babulal is smooth as butter; from his dialogue delivery to the poignant silences conveyed with the least effort. He plays the disgruntled, disapproving son with relatable finesse, and keeps the movie from leaning too hard on comedy alone. His hypochondriac behaviour may remind you of typical Virgo behaviour of obsessing over details and perfection and their fervent attempts to keep away from diseases and death, whereas his rebellion will remind you of characteristic tools children often employ to deal with stubborn, autocratic parents – these flavours in Babulal’s personality feel tremendously personal, almost tugging at our hearts.

There is love between the father-son duo, and there is outright war – the way this love finds its way out of their old, creaky, stubborn hearts, barreling right through their frequent spats and overtly polarised views on life, is the recipe that makes this a treat to watch.

Needless to say, the film’s essence lies in the earnest performance of the two stars in the centre of this tale, but it is just as much bolstered by theatre actor Jimit Trivedi’s humble act as the young assistant (Dhiru) in a pharmacy shop, who speaks without a filter in his mind, and who, as told to us by the narrator, happens to find “job satisfaction” in the Vakharia household more than he does in the pharmacy store.

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What is particularly endearing is his relationship with both father and son – the bond between him and the Vakharias blooming out in different degrees but in disparate ways. While he is admittedly in awe of the lively spirit Dattatreya is made of, and readily agrees to be a “partner” of sorts in seeing son Babulal get playfully tortured; he is, nevertheless, just as affectionate with Babulal, and empathizes with his resistance to change.

As you get pulled into the drift of the movie, Dhiru looks more like the next-door naughty kid getting a kick out of upsetting the ‘oldies’ on the block by shattering their glass panes with cricket balls. The annoyance of aging and then dealing with a reckless youth remains, and yet, there is an underlying warmth between the young and the old that belies these superficial occurrences.

What doesn’t 

It is commendable that an effective portrayal of such a simplistic story has been executed with a total of three characters, with most of the scenes taking place in the Vakharia bungalow itself. That said, Jimit’s portrayal as Dhiru, however sincere, seems to be holding back its rightful brilliance, a sparkle, which seems to have been blunted around the edges to make the megastars stand out in contrast. As much as I loved Dhiru, I personally wished he had more to do than just play along and soak up this roller-coaster ride like a sponge.

Bachchan saab waves his magic wand and slips into the childlike reverie of Dattatreya wanting to beat old age and death, even at 102, while also maintaining a fine balance by imparting some much-needed wisdom (without the preachy hangover), an expectation that comes with being this old. And yet, you can’t help but see a glimmer of Piku’s Bhaskor Banerjee in Dattatreya – just a tad bit more bearable, a little less sexist and definitely less selfish.

This is, however, a minor coincidence and doesn’t quite get in your way of enjoying the movie as a wholesome dish served for your senses. What does sometimes get in the way is Dattatreya’s cakey makeup – the hair, a little too unruly and wispy, the dentures not ‘real’ enough.

But there’s boundless freedom to look however weird one wants to at that age; after all, how many get to survive till they’re 102?

The music is lamentably uninspiring. Except Bacche ki Jaan loge kya sung by Arijit Singh, there is hardly any other tune worth humming to. There is a rehash of old songs in the movie which is great to stir up some nostalgia, but is devoid of any recall value, once you step out of the theatre.

So Yay or Nay?

Despite its obvious flaws, I’d go with a big, resounding Yay!

102 Not Out is worth spending your hard-earned money on simply to have the chance to partake in the nuanced, delicate world created by these two veterans. For the pure joy of losing oneself in an old-fashioned tale of love between a parent and his child, while cruising through bitter memories, while eagerly awaiting a new tomorrow. This is a film that will move you to the core and make you believe in rainbows – that don’t die and fade away just because you turned 75 or even a 100.

On a lighter note, if you wish to exorcise your mind of the imagery of Nirupa Roy winging it as Bollywood’s cult Mommy in Amar Akbar Anthony by pulling a cherubic Kapoor and a lanky Bachchan into the folds of her pallu, this is a good way to do it!

 

Rating: 4/5

Hope aur Hum Review: All heart, no theatrics, the film still gets you to smile

A slice-of-life film that touches your heart without making much noise.

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There are days when you want to hang up your boots and breathe deep, removing yourself from the humdrum of life and not do anything at all. There are seasons – like the first rains hitting the ground or that first snowflake artistically cascading down to kiss the grass underneath – that make you want to wrap your palms around a mug of coffee and simply stare out your window, probably contemplating the mysteries of life and just being in the moment. Content, still, mindfully idle.

Hope aur Hum is exactly the kind of movie that feels like those not-too-happening days darting from frustration to disappointment to agony to deliberate silence, before bouncing off to become those other days where you are greeted with nothing but bursts of joy and textbook optimism.

A debut feature film of ad filmmaker Sudip Bandyopadhyay, Hope aur Hum starts off by placing an old, faulty photocopy machine (affectionately named Mr.Soennecken) and patriarch Nagesh Srivastava’s (Naseeruddin Shah) decades-long bond with it, a nostalgia he refuses to give up on, despite his customers’ obvious displeasure with the machine’s performance.

Nagesh, who, on more than one occasion, effusively talks about the outdated German machine hailing it as a state-of-the-art beauty, and the act of producing photocopies an art in itself, is repeatedly nudged by his sons and his daughter-in-law – older Neeraj (Aamir Bashir) and his wife Aditi (Sonali Kulkarni), and the younger Nitin (Naveen Kasturia) – to replace the outdated photocopier with a modern, efficient one; suggestions he glosses over, preferring to romanticise his fondness for Mr.Soennecken instead.

The only ones who empathize with him are his grandchildren Tanu (Virti Vaghani) and her younger brother Anu (Kabir Sajid), despite the fact that such support would mean they would have to continue sharing a room, which could very well have been allotted to adolescent Tanu, as Aditi wonders aloud one evening, resentfully. To add to this resentment, there is her husband’s overdue promotion at work to lament about, robbing away the slightest sliver of hope Aditi could have held on to.

Against this background, there is a question that persistently hangs in the air – will making way for some room and a new way of life mean discarding the old German photocopier, and in turn, stepping over Nagesh’s attachment with the obsolete machine?

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It is an ordinary setting and intensely metaphorical, of the old trying to come to terms with their value past their thrive date, of adults struggling to grapple with the motions of life (that is frequently unkind and disappointing) and of growing children looking out into the world from a perspective neither adults nor the elderly can understand nor emulate.

Plenty of meandering happens in this context – maternal grandmother’s (Beena Banerjee) resigned decision to sell off her palatial old haveli to a hotel chain is roped in for some added drama, via an experience and a promising sub-plot that deviates from the predictable mundaneness of the story and hints at mystery. This strange incident Anu experiences in a dark, forgotten room in the mansion though, is abandoned in favor of lending a silken, hopeful touch to the climax of the film. That said, child actor Kabir’s scenes in the mansion and thereafter are powerful, pulling us in crests and troughs, as we ride on the wave of emotions so effortlessly portrayed by him.

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Coupled with his cheeky squabbles with the older, feisty Tanu, his thoughtful support of his grandpa’s love for Mr.Soennecken, and his innocent outlook on life, are an absolute delight to watch. Needless to say, Kabir Sajid, who last gave an outstanding performance in Secret Superstar, continues to wow the audience with each endeavor and doesn’t look like he will fade like one-hit wonders usually do.

To be fair, Kabir is not the only thing to look forward to in a simplistic tale like Hope aur Hum. We have Naveen Kasturia (TVF fame) as Nitin, Nagesh’s younger son, who stirs things up with his freshness and easy charm. Back from Dubai for a vacation before he sets off on a Europe trip, he brings in tow a brand-new photocopy machine, fully expecting his aging father to warm up to this gentle, but very direct suggestion: Pop, it’s time to get rid of Mr.Soennecken.

And while the suggestion is in itself pointless and draws mere disinterested looks from Nagesh, Naveen’s very presence in this cramped, cluttered house leads him on to a trail of strange but exciting events that help in drastically changing the overall tone of the movie. He loses his flashy smartphone in a taxi on the way home, spends a couple of days frantically looking for it in the Srivastava house, before being led on a journey of hope and a shot at (elusive love?) by none other than the pretty girl who’d ‘rescued’ his phone in the taxi – ostensibly playing the good Samaritan, but with undertones that went deeper than what met the eye.

Interestingly, as the film moves at a languorous pace, Nitin’s brush with the “phone girl” and his peaking interest in what this chance encounter held for them both, towers over Hope aur Hum’s original central theme, and buttresses Nagesh’s wistful, meditative view of life, where “Everything is destiny.” A pleasant surprise awaits the audience as the movie draws to a close, and appears to be a more viable thread of events to base a sequel on, than the one the present movie is based on.

Kasturia’s brilliance lies in his easy charm, and the nervous uncertainty he brings to Nitin – making his character look affable and instantly likable. Paired well with his laidback yet buoyant demeanor is a sensual, exotic Neha Chauhan (of Love, Sex and Dhoka fame) playing the mystery girl –  a vibrant force, she almost knocks the dull vibe of the movie right out of the screen, claiming her own space in less than ten minutes.

Like Kabir, Virti as Tanu hits the right notes as the lively, belligerent, dominating elder sibling. Ready to fight Anu at the drop of a hat, she is just as anxious to see him behaving differently than his usual self and hopes he will revert to his normal, mischievous, bratty self.

Naseeruddin Shah as Nagesh pulls out familiar expressions, practiced sighs, and deliberate pauses from his bag of tricks – fully impressing us in his inimitable style, and yet, there isn’t room enough for his character to grow and spread its wings and deliver something he hasn’t in his previous outings as the old man imparting life wisdom to the young and brash. His relationship with the grandchildren is possibly the only highlight of his performance and is bound to tickle plenty of warm, nostalgic memories shared with your own grandparents.

Bashir and Kulkarni are regrettably unutilized in this project, their characters written in a flat, unremarkable style. A lack of credible performances from these gifted actors is, however, the fault of the script alone that positions them as blandly as it eventually does.

Despite the apparent glitches in the storyline and less-than-moving performances of some of the characters, the movie is worth giving a try, especially if you are in the mood to spend a sultry afternoon doing nothing. For, even in your moments of nothingness, the film is certain to make you smile wistfully and believe in the rhythm of life as it wraps up.

At the heart of Hope aur Hum lies a naïve idealism, the unexpected hand of destiny and the way it plays out in our lives. The movie is clear on what it wishes to portray – that it is not always in the grand and dramatic that you find life’s joys but sometimes in the little things that often escape your notice. Life isn’t perfect, you aren’t perfect, but as long as there’s hope and a dream for a better tomorrow, it’s as good as good can be.

 

Rating: 2.5/5

 

Dil Juunglee Review: A drab two-hour ride on some farzi love

Dil Juunglee feels like a phony experience disguised as a romcom. Period.

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I am a 90s kid and have grown up on hundreds of quintessential nauseating Bollywood romantic flicks of that era. From fawning over the Rajs and Rahuls of DDLJ and K3G fame, to dissing the Poojas and Tinas and Nainas, it has been a long and conflicting ride about which side of sensibility to stand on – while also shamelessly lapping up all that came my way because there was hardly any choice.

Last checked, with the evolution of cinema, I (including so many of my generation) had graduated to post-millennial Meera, Silk Smitha, Kashibai and so many other strong, intriguing women who were much about love, but so much about their own selves as well.

Which is why it was quite a frustrating exercise to wrap my head around Taapsee Pannu’s Koroli Nair – an immature caricature of a tortured girl constantly looking for love to fill her own sense of self.

Koroli is the shy, reserved daughter of an uber rich business tycoon who wants her to take over the family business but she has other plans – to continue teaching English literature – and to be ‘happily married’ to whoever loves her. In the framework of this simple, threadbare character sketch some other supporting filler content appears – Koroli’s Maggi-like curls and the prominent bangs, her glasses (because how else will we believe she is a teacher!!) and her insanely annoying ritual of sticking notes and writing pages and pages worth of sob material in her scrapbook that is supposed to give us an insight into her perpetually screwed love life.

When she is not lamenting her imagined love life, Koroli spends her free hours poring over romantic novels, and has a best friend named Shumi (Srishti Shrivastava) who spends her free hours raising eyebrows at Korolis’s serious (read: clingy) take on relationships urging her to go ‘get some action’ instead.

Which is fine and actually interesting advice, considering Koro is the dampest, most insipid female lead character ever written in the history of cinema. No wait, that has to be Ameesha Patel’s Sonia from Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. But then that was the year 2000, and to have women portrayed like they are lost kittens waiting to be rescued even in 2018 is an unforgivable cinematic catastrophe.

On the other hand, we have Saqib Saleem playing Sumit Uppal, the stereotypical Delhi lad prepping up for the typical Bollywood debut – while moonlighting as the head instructor at Gulati gym in Lajpat Nagar and as a reluctant model in condom ads. He also has an average-looking, bespectacled best friend (Abhilash Thaplial) who stands by him as the loyal sidekick, offering us more relief with his straight-faced remarks than the hero does with his pretend Delhi attitude. See how many clichés we’ve already run into – and well, the meaty chunk of the movie hasn’t even begun!

Sumit is desperate for a break in Bollywood and ends up at the British Council where Koro teaches. From then on, there is some predictable wordplay where Sumit spends more time ogling at Koro than actually getting the diction right, there is a nightclub scene where Koro lets her hair (and top) down Naina-esque style from Kal Ho Na Ho and the leads then dance with abandon, already crossing over to the other side of shikshak-shishya maryada.

The next morning apologies are exchanged, some flirting and eye-gazing happens and before we know it, Sumit invites Koro home – only to have his mother (Supriya Shukla) barge in on some embarrassing cuddly couple moments and spend the rest of the day admiring Koro’s fair skin and her Anglo-Indian genes…and well, the fat load of cash. There are a few more fast-forward moments which lead to an instant overturn of Mommy Uppal’s affections for the could-be-bride and Koro is instantly thrown off the pedestal – because she is ‘manglik’ and Mommy realized not even White skin could save her son’s anyway-doomed life.

I will spare you the details so you can partake first-hand in some of the headache-inducing plot twists that come soon after as the duo decides to lay Mommy’s well-meaning concerns to rest and decide to elope and get married anyway. Which, by the way is the cue for Armaan Malik’s admittedly punchy number Beat Juunglee – a trap essentially to make you feel a little less lost about where the movie is headed.

But a few more songs (including the genuinely soulful Dil Jaane Na where the leads showcase some effortless chemistry) later you realize you are just as god-smacked as you first were when this immature pair with their childish tricks fell in love for reasons that had remotely anything to do with love – and then snapped apart like your patience does when the credit card guy calls you from an ominous-looking number and you hang up on him anyway.

What was designed to be a unique rom-com because of the ‘special’ packaging fails to keep you hooked because there is too much fluff in the characters to base an entire 120+ minutes movie on – and your initial impression of both the leads being downright clueless comes to fruition as more layers are peeled away.

Even as Koro next sports a chic hairstyle and a brand new wardrobe and has upgraded herself to fit into Dear Daddy’s entrepreneurial dreams for her.

Even as Sumit seems to have successfully oriented his life away from condom ads and punk-mythology shows, toned down his brash ways.

Even as the trajectory of the story physically moves from Delhi to London.

It was painful to see Tapsee give her all to this ridiculous character, after having recently portrayed some powerful ones in Pink and Naam Shabana, including her role as the feisty Nimmi from Running Shaadi, a far better project than the current one. On the same note, we have Saleem who looks and speaks his part (a little too much though), cracks fifth grader jokes along the lines of ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’ and tries to convince himself- and us- that he really is a boy who’s fallen madly in love.

It therefore, appears outright foolish when Saleem as Sumit tries to imitate 21st century Devdas – an outstanding portrayal of which Abhay Deol is remembered for in Kashyap’s Dev D and standards the former might take ages to achieve.

Supriya Shukla remains grossly underutilized through the movie as have the other fringe characters making up this charade. On her part though, Nidhi Singh as the Delhi-bred girl with the Dilli ki ladki ke nakhre and accent shines in the limited room accorded to her, overpowering even the leads’ performances. Santosh Barmola, whose first screen appearance was in the extremely forgettable, shady Warning (yes, that Varun Sharma movie about sharks attacking in the open sea) plays the mild-mannered, suave rich guy with panache in Dil Juunglee – but there’s just so much you can do when the script is flagging off in all directions. Of course, the fact that he looks drop-dead gorgeous helps his case, making you wonder why he hasn’t been offered meatier, saner roles in Bollywood.

Nevertheless, despite the occasional humor and fleeting flashes of some passable acting, this is a movie that couldn’t have been rescued anyway, given the sketchy roles and the abysmal character graphs. From debutante director Aleya Sen to the actors and the supporting cast, everyone seems to be trying too hard to inject some element of Juunglee-ness in the movie – the outcome being the movie neither touches your heart nor feels wild.

Rating: 2/5 

 

Sonu Ke Titu ki Sweety: Sprinkled generously with gender stereotypes, but undeniably funny

No more just men versus women, it’s Bromance versus Romance all the way

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When was the last time you sat down and openly laughed at gender stereotypes playing out in myriad ways on a 70mm screen, along with a bunch of other cackling adults (and teens, and hapless 2 year-olds who had no business being there), without a few pairs of eyebrows shooting up?

With serious projects like this year’s thought-provoking Padman (based on real-life revolutionary Arunachalam Muruganantham credited with generating awareness around female menstrual hygiene, particularly in rural India) – and the politically tainted, violence-inducing Padmaavat – that spoke of a beautiful Rajput queen’s fearless act in the face of savagery, lust and a probable miserable death at the hands of a brutal Muslim ruler – a lot of food for thought has been fed to the audience in the span of a quick two months.

And while I wholeheartedly agree with, and respect each of these premises explored in the aforementioned films, they are hardly viable opportunities for a regular movie-goer to burst out laughing without being judged. Not that we wanted to.

But if you, like me, have been looking to give your over-analytical mind some rest and play silly, Luv Ranjan’s latest flick might just help in loosening up those overworked intellectual muscles. In Sonu ke Titu ki Sweety (indeed, a tacky tongue-twister), you step in knowing what to expect, given the director’s penchant for making laugh riots of a similar nature in the past– in fact, you sort of look forward to leaving all the isms behind and just partaking in a rom-com that is of course ridiculous, and sexist, and audaciously stereotyped in chunks, but makes you chuckle anyway.

Borrowing the familiar shtick first used in Pyaar ka Punchnama to roaring success, and then re-used in Pyaar ka Punchnama 2 to relatively smaller success, Ranjan adopts a mix-and-match of sorts and inverts the popular love triangle on its head in this instalment.

The core elements remain the same – the director takes a laidback route and retains the film’s foundation on the commonly accepted Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus theory while introducing some interesting twists. This time it’s not just men versus women, it’s a battle of the sexes over a man. Yes, you heard that right.

At the helm of the story stands a young, love struck man who falls in love faster than you could blink an eye, a scheming, manipulative woman who does everything right by Sooraj Barjatya’s culture book (jarringly and nauseatingly so) and an equally kameena best friend who would do everything in his power to rescue his buddy from the clutches of this woman – who, by her own admission, is not the “heroine” but the “villain” in the story.

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The film opens with Sonu (Kartik Aaryan) delivering a monologue styled along the lines  he delivered earlier in Pyaar ka Punchnama and that had worked wonders at the time because it was fresh, and funny. Only this time it seemed tiresome already. Thankfully, it is directed at a customer’s tedious demands than his buddies stacked against the sofa like a neat row of pillows, waiting to begin his endless diatribe. Other details follow – we get to know that Sonu runs an event management company and his bachpan-ka-yaar from way back in nursery, Titu (Sunny Singh), takes care of the family halwai business. The duo are your classic, cutesy and sometimes annoying chaddi-buddies, meaning, they’ve been best friends since nursery and continue to be attached to the hip even at the ripe old age of 28.

Titu is the gullible, naïve quintessential romantic who seems to always fall for the wrong woman – it could be anything that threatens Sonu’s sniffer-dog sensibilities. Okay, let’s be fair, the first girlfriend (Ishita Raj Sharma) with her overzealous emphasis on maintaining Tinder privacy was too much to take, but that in no way discounts how badly Sonu wants to press the pause/stop button on Titu’s apparently glowing love life every time it takes a serious turn. Following which, Sonu apparates like a knight in shining armour to ‘rescue’ Titu by effectively leading him to break up with his girlfriend (s) in dramatic ways that could make even 70s’ actress Rakhi cringe. We are given to understand Sonu has had a practiced hand at this sort of thing.

Enter Nushrat Bharucha as Sweety (really, who goes around with a name like that in 2018 for Chrissake!), an educated, susheel, sanskaari, pretty damsel via the arranged-marriage scenario, a cardboard-cut bahu prospective grooms and their families publish ishtehaars for in the seedy-looking matrimony section of the Sunday newspaper. She looks right, says all the right things at the right moment without ever slipping up, and while this is ideally a dream-come-true for a big fat joint family that wants to retain its hold over the potential new member and mould her into the established setting, Sonu suspects this whole easy-breezy vibe around Sweety as too-good-to-be-true.

Thereafter, he swoops in once again and makes it his life’s mission to break Titu and Sweety up before the damage is done. His insecurity over losing his place in Titu’s life and the obvious dents in their friendship adds fuel to fire, stoking his otherwise noble cause. Sweety too, is no wallflower either and has no intentions of relinquishing her control over Titu and his entire family, and openly declares war when Sonu least expects it.

From that point on, it is the launch of one psychological attack after another – with fervent blows raining from both sides – from sex to ex to food to every other trump card in between and beyond.

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An oddly exciting plot, Luv Ranjan optimizes popular male-narratives to the maximum, by brushing the women in strokes of monochromes – mean, manipulative, controlling gold-diggers, while painting the men as blameless bystanders in their own lives. That’s fine, as a director he is catering to the majoritarian viewpoint he knows will draw easy, cheap laughs. But apart from Sweety brazenly admitting she is ‘chalu’ and a ‘villain’ we don’t really see how she really is that wicked, wretched monster out to ruin Titu’s life. Much of what she does is how most women think, and if given a chance and/or possessed of brains like those of our anti-heroine, would do it her way – the Chanakya neeti way.

In the absence of any clear defined reason for the Sweety-hating, thus, the movie – especially in the second half – looks sort of scattered and tangled, leaving you impatient for the battle of the sexes to end asap, saved only by a startling climax. The heap of overbearing, dhinchaak Punjabi music, although enjoyable, seems overwhelming, at times taking you by surprise because frankly, movies these days hardly have enough songs worth tapping your feet to!

Notwithstanding the glaring yet bearable hiccups in the storytelling, the writing is crisp and the comic timing of the actors impeccable, which means you keep laughing through some genuinely smart punches, as well plenty of absurd misogynistic logic casually thrown around. While that might cause some discomfort at times, the biased script is sufficiently powered through with the actors’ (especially Kartik) earnest performances to let you keep feeling that way for too long.

Though Kartik is mostly credited with sincere performances in Ranjan’s movies, his best being Pyaar ka Punchnama, he seems to have a lot more potential simmering underneath, a glimpse of which we would like to see in a genre other than the women-bashing cinematic franchise he has helped build and popularise till date. Given the limited scope in the script, Nushrat Bharucha too pulls off a nuanced performance in a role that could’ve easily been overdone – and makes Sweety relatable than an outright evil witch who must be hated. Ironically, it is Sunny Singh’s Titu that, despite being the crux of this rom-com, has little to do and largely gets overshadowed by the other two, despite consistent attempts.

Keeping aside the lead actors’ performances, and a refreshing supporting cast (with all the members belonging to Titu’s family), it is Alok Nath’s rendition of the perpetually drunk, uber-cool granddad (Ghasitaram) throwing the swearing and the sexist jokes around that truly sinks into your memory, as you see him turn upside down his decades-long image of sanskaari babuji and fling it out of sight. Paired with his best friend Lalu (Virendra Saxena), he seems irrepressible – the duo consistently couched in the men-will-be-men zone, but never losing their charm – a camaraderie viewers will be compelled to dig.

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The same cannot be said of Sonu and Titu though, who refuse to grow up and quit labeling the opposite gender in tones of black and while. Hypocrisy is generously sprinkled, with the men complaining of how God has stopped creating “good girls”, missing their own lack of worthiness as “good boys” by a mile and more. However, even under the heavy-duty influence of his childhood bestie, Titu seems to grow a brain at some point in the movie. Does he make it all the way to the other side of sense and sensibility or does he get pulled back into the frat-boy cult this side of the fence? Find out by giving this blatantly stereotyped, yet light-hearted Bromance versus Romance a chance.

Meanwhile, after watching three full-blown chapters of the all-male perspective on relationships, my eyes are itching to see the tables turned on the men, and a bunch of women sharing boisterous, guttural laughs over the same.

High time someone played to this section of the gallery, isn’t it?

 

Rating: 3.5/5

 

Aiyaary: Manoj Bajpayee nails it, but that’s about it

Ambitious, and underscored by a bold subject, Aiyyary might sadly just be a wake-up call for the director to stop making spy-thrillers altogether.

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With his latest outing, Neeraj Pandey seems to have checked all his favourite boxes.

Men in uniform fighting the bad guys (read: terrorists, arms dealers and the like) and staking their everything for the nation: Check.

The common man up against the system, surprisingly ingenious and suddenly all powerful enough to bring down the government: Check.

The Mumbai hangover: Check. Secret military and security agents lurking at every corner: Check. Loyalists in the government turning traitors: Check. Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Kumud Mishra as the usual staples in a Neeraj Pandey spy-thriller: Check, check, check.

Oh well. That’s a lot to tick off for one movie.

Which is probably why the movie feels longer than its actual runtime of 160 minutes.

As a cocktail of all its same-genre predecessors, Aiyaary begins on a familiar, yet promising note. Familiar because as a Neeraj Pandey espionage thriller, you instinctively know what to expect of the film. Nonetheless promising because this time the narration at the forefront revolves around a chase, a battle of ideologies, so to say – between mentor Colonel Abhay Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and his subordinate Major Jai Bakshi (Sidharth Malhotra) – both members of a covert military intelligence unit within the Army. The latter is all set to spills the beans on the unit, dragging down a slew of army officials and political dignitaries as well, whose corrupt dealings he happened to discover while on a surveillance duty at his hush-hush job.

At stake is the covert team’s continuance, its existence having been sanctioned by the government on a condition they never be found out, the army chief’s reputation who helped set this team up backed by funds not on record and a closet of skeletons that could very well undermine the public’s faith in the Indian army. Predictably, before mayhem strikes, the mentor’s got to stop the wayward acolyte.

A mentor chasing a mentee gone rogue, should ideally make for an interesting watch, primarily because the narrative pits two strong and determined men against each other –  ruthlessly-trained, shrewd individuals who know each other too well to be led astray by the other’s psychological games. And yet, this neat premise gets derailed by unnecessary sub-plots, suspense that, at times seems forced and manufactured, and a climax that’s less than impressive.

For starters, Malhotra as disillusioned Jai looks less like the chap who’s turned rebel to take on a crooked establishment, and more like pretty-boy Abhimanyu Singh (straight from Student of the Year) making smart women go wobbly in their knees, while smirking at regular intervals to prove he doesn’t care. In fact, if you pay attention to the actor’s filmography, you recognize these familiar flashes of been-there-done-that through most of his movies, barring an occasional Hasee toh Phasee or a touchingly sensitive Kapoor and Sons. Which is why, despite desperate attempts to be taken seriously, Jai comes across as flippant, and mocking, rather than furtive and scared-for-his-dear-life as he logically should have been – for someone who has technically converted into a whistle-blower of sorts.

But Jai is no ordinary snitch, and his are no old-fashioned principles worth taking bullets for, so he does what he thinks best: he decides to trade the covert unit’s secrets to ex-army Lt. General and arms dealer Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) who in turn works for ex-Army guy Mukesh Kapoor (Adil Hussain), out to weaken the core of the very system he was a part of. A side fact – we never get to know why Kapoor has pledged his cause to the devil, we’re only told it is because Col. Abhay Singh fails to earn his respect.

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But we also never come to understand why a criminal like him shits his pants when faced with an oddly-tedha-but righteous army chap, considering he’s long since turned his back on the Indian Army and doesn’t really care what they have to say or do, as long as he is safely perched in his high-rise apartment, can trade exorbitantly in weaponry and milk the Indian government for all it’s worth. In the absence of any real context, thus, Adil as Mukesh Kapoor looks pathetically lost and visibly squirmy – almost like he wants to get the hell out just as curtly as he’d appeared.

Coming back to Jai, while his disillusionment is understandable, his actions are not. We never really know what those secrets are that have the potential to drag the other 27-28 army officials and politicians into this nest of skulduggery, nor we do manage to comprehend why, just why, this man who so revered his honest and loyal superior, has now decided to tell on him and his other teammates! Considering his superior has almost been disowned by the government itself,  and his superior, army chief Gen. Pratap Malik (Vikram Gokhale) is already facing the heat from mean boy Gurinder, who is out to get him for rejecting the sanction of an extortionate quotation of an arms deal he represents (for Kapoor’s Armour Inc. by the way). Wondering which side Jai’s on? Beats me as well.

In contrast, Bajpayee’s Abhay Singh is sharper and more resolutely written. The character often takes circuitous routes but a linear motive to reach his goals – serving as constant reminders of the end justifying the means – a familiar trope in most of Pandey’s movies. To be fair, as much as the plot execution seems faulty and patchy, Bajpayee yet again, delivers a sincere, gritty performance – sneaky, snooty, devoted, furious and callous in equal parts – his character largely remains laced with a dark sarcasm, even in the toughest of crises. Right from his introduction till the climax, Bajpayee’s Abhay never lets his guard down, and infuses the only semblance of thrill and suspense into this otherwise drab tale.

Particularly interesting are his many disguises in the movie – the imposter act being the reason behind the film being titled Aiyaary, meaning shape-shifting or trickery. In fact, one of my favourite scenes in the film is one where Abhay manages to nab a sneaky informer after weeks of waiting outside the informer’s uncle’s house, dressed as a beggar. He literally sleeps on the cold, hard ground, eats leftovers, has a filthy blanket for cover, and a straggly beard along with a set of fake teeth to lend credibility to his act. Even more impressive, though chilling, is the way he abruptly shoots the informer in the head after he’s had noodles, a last wish Abhay seems to have kindly, but callously, granted. The calmness, and the sense of purpose with which Bajpayee enacts this scene speaks of his decades-worth nuanced experience that has still not lost its sheen.

However, irrespective of how solid Bajpayee’s acting chops are, these long-winding flashbacks and an excess of sub-plots do not add up to the movie’s actual intent. Even the title seems to have been conjured as an afterthought, after surveying these extra bits and trying to somehow tie them up sensibly. An exercise that does not quite work.

To add to this melee of disjointed backstories, we are also treated to few rushed, superficial scenes based on the 2010 Adarsh Housing Society scam, of which, rogue Gurinder seems to have been the chief architect. This sketchy account of a real-life political scandal is bizarrely connected to a poor security guard Baburao Shastri (Naseeruddin Shah) with a sick dog Babloo somewhere in Colaba, who, together, manage to bring Gurinder and his circle of traitors to shame by exposing their involvement in the scam. How did they succeed in doing that? You’ll have to watch the film to find out. Why though? Just so Baburao can validate a rather bombastic dialogue already fed into the script, “Gareeb aadmi ko ungli nai karne ka.”

So for all those who are expecting a Wednesday-esque plot to unravel here, by virtue of Shah’s inclusion in the project, please kiss them goodbye.

Even veteran Anupam Kher as Tariq Ali, Abhay’s friend and his secret pyaada, is regrettably squandered in this venture, and his appearance in the movie is nothing more than the director’s stubborn insistence on keeping his favourite camp of actors huddled together, irrespective of how ill-fitting or absurd their presence may be. Kumud Mishra as Gurinder Singh effortlessly sinks into the various layers of his role, playing the cool baddie with elan right from the moment he steps into the army chief’s office – still, you can’t help but see how his brilliance gets overshadowed by the abruptness of the zigzag storytelling,  and the characters and contexts that never stop making unwelcome entries and exits.

While the stellar male cast (barring Bajpayee) seems confused, unconvinced, underutilized at times, it’s the female characters that are actually treated the worst. Rakul Preet Singh (Sonia) as the hacking wizard and Jai’s girlfriend is reduced to looking like the girl next door whose main job is to fall in love with this handsome, ‘idealistic guy’ and keep giving him inputs on how to pull off a range of illegal activities. At one point, I began wondering where her IT smarts lay – and why she thought nothing of being a part of this monstrous operation and tagging along with a man she barely knew.

Juhi Babbar as Abhay’s wife is forgettable too and adds absolutely zilch to the movie. It is Pooja Chopra’s Maya Semwal I feel saddest for though – the script teases us with a promising glimpse of her character – that starts off strong and unfazed even in the face of authority, but abruptly fades away to being an extra relegated on-call mundane tasks.

What a shame after last year’s female-centric Naam Shabana – written and produced by Neeraj Pandey, no less – boasting of a narrative arguably tauter than Aiyaary, and a female lead (Tapsee Pannu) whose vulnerabilities hit just as hard as did her punches.

Aiyaary, assessed even on technical aspects, scores miserably on the editing front – and could’ve spared us the grief of going over the unending flashbacks and the long-drawn execution of even crucial scenes. With the exception of Lae Dooba, which stands out as a soulful, soothing rendition by Sunidhi Chauhan, the background score too disappoints, sounding more clanging than rhythmically pacey.

The movie does offer the audience one hair-raising scene where steely Abhay confronts  a red-faced Jai, and just when you get busy conjuring the hundred and one possibilities that could now fork out of this one deadly encounter, Jai effectively punctures every shred of suspense built till this point, chickens out and blames it all on “70 years of corruption” received as virasat from the nation’s political leaders.

There. Big face-palm moment.

This is of course, an overt attempt to drill a message into your psyche, and though you kind of agree with it, it is all shattered the next minute by a cock-and-bull story of a sick dog and its vengeful aam aadmi caretaker who are out to bring down the government.

See? Round and round in circles we go, and that is exactly where Aiyaary’s weakness lies: it keeps changing track from this side to the other and takes excruciatingly long to drive home its actual message.

This cinematic saga can only be endured.

Rating: 2/5