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

Padmaavat (i): Ranveer Singh’s Khilji steals the show even as you can’t quite take your eyes off Deepika

Hands down, Bhansali’s period drama is a testament to the raw acting prowess of Ranveer Singh.

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You would have to be living under a rock if you still haven’t heard/read/debated the billion controversies surrounding Padmavati, right up to the point of its release where it was reduced to Padmaavat (minus the scintillating ‘i’) with as many as 300 cuts. 

And if your curiosity has not yet been stoked, despite the unasked-for-constant-stream-of-assault-on-the-senses via scathing movie reviews, think-pieces and just plain rants on the magnum opus flooding the internet, know that I envy your aloofness and determination to stay away from this muck, but also know, that you might possibly be missing out on one of the fiercest performances of a Bollywood hero in recent times, minus the excessive praise showered on Rajput valour.

Does Padmaavat cater to the bombastic, upscaled grandeur of Bhansali’s vision and overwhelm you with its largeness? Yes.

Is it an accurate account of historical events? No.

So what can we take away from this semi-historical, sometimes borderline annoying cine fest? Ranveer Singh’s portrayal of the quirky, psychopathic Alauddin Khilji, arguably his career’s best till date.

From the moment Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) steps into the pallid dark grey frame of the betrayal-infested darbar of his crook of an uncle, Jalaluddin Khilji (Raza Murad), with a CGI-constructed humongous ostrich by his side instead of just its hair as asked for, his intent eyes set on the breathtakingly beautiful Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari, playing Jalaluddin’s daughter) and the tantalizing pull of the Khilji throne simultaneously, you get a sneak peek into the evil residing in this man, lurking in every inflection of the words spoken, every twitch of the lips, every gaze lingering a second too long.

And when he mouths this famed line: “Kaynat ki har nayab cheez par bas Khilji ka haq hai”, you know you’re set to witness an extravaganza  of talent-meets-opportunity, in almost every frame Singh inhabits as the tyrant Afghan ruler. You are made aware of the lengths the monster Khilji can go to and the rules he is ready to break to obtain every ‘nayab cheez’ that comes his way. So if it means engaging in semi-adultery right on the night of his wedding, so be it. If it means betraying his uncle and having him assassinated by the very slave, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh) gifted to him so he can finally declare himself Sultan, so be it. And in the same vein, if it means he has to endure mountains and deserts and some gauche humiliation for a man in his position, to invade the formidable Chittor so he can ‘have’ Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), so be it.

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This single line of thought defines Bhansali’s Khilji, a man so possessed by an all-consuming desire for a woman whose exquisite beauty he has only ever heard of, but never seen or experienced in person. Granted, this makes Alauddin Khilji look almost uni-dimensional and much like an incensed,  stalkerish lover-boy rather than the ruthless, strategic ruler he was; however, any regular cine-goer and Bhansali’s fan would realize this outright show of villainy and the smattering of barbarism in the character is only an old Bollywood trope of pandering to the good versus evil, Ram versus Raavan Hindu narrative.

In fact, this contrast is ever more apparent when paired against Shahid Kapoor’s Maharawal Ratan Singh’s sobriety and his unrelenting grip on Rajput aan, baan shaan, of which, of course, Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) is the center piece.

A couple brownie points for the story though: thankfully, the movie borrows only the romanticized account of Khilji’s conquest of Chittor as narrated in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat (the source 2018’s Padmaavat is inspired by). Had the director chosen instead to adapt the entire poem for the silver screen, we might just have come to know what a dickhead Chittors’s Ratansen was in the first place, given his seven-seas journey to capture Rani Padmini’s heart based on mere hearsay.

Doesn’t make for an epic tale of war and love, right and wrong,  does it, when you have two idiots with near-exact temperaments fighting for the same thing?

And so we stick to Padmaavat, where Raja Ratan Singh happens to be the lucky bloke coming back home with a stunning second wife from the distant land of Singhal, when he was only seemingly on a vacation hunting rare pearls for the first wife. And we have Padmavati who, by the show of it knows how to shoot arrows, knows her mind, and still falls for the douchebag Ratan Singh, making for a love story as cold as the ice in Siberia. From happily picnicking in the jungles of Singhal, the duo go on to get married before the audience could go “wtf!” and return hand-in-hand to the home turf in Chittor, sparking the general praja’s awe, royal priest Raghav Chetan’s (Aayam Mehta) lust, and the first wife’s jealousy.

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Matters move speedily, as the priest is caught snooping in on the king and queen’s intimate moments and is promptly thrown out of the kingdom. The fact that Raghav Chetan is let out alive instead of getting beheaded alludes to Rajput honour, as we first come to know, and, are repeatedly reminded around 145890 times over the course of the movie. This obvious lack of foresight on the part of the Rajputs also drives the rest of the story ahead, as Chetan, on his way out vows to bring Chittor to its ruins, which, as see see over the course of the movie, he succeeds at accomplishing.

Despite the rather quick introduction of the three main characters (Ratan Singh, Padmavati and Khilji), the story doesn’t quite progress as fast as one would have liked it to. Bhansali takes his own sweet time in building up the background and digging into the motives driving each of these three characters, while we are invited to soak in the palette of hues and colors, and the air of grace and ferocity simmering at both ends of the extremely diverse worlds forming the battleground of this epic love triangle.

I say ‘love triangle’ solely because of the almost romantic touch Singh brings to his character – the helplessness, desperation and the heart-brokenness is apparent in a scene in the film when Khilji ends up realizing his near-futile attempt of getting a glimpse of Padmavati after spending a whole night waiting outside his camp dangerously close to Chittor fort. Amidst the manic depravity, ruthlessness, even boisterousness, Ranveer manages to bring out a seemingly softer side of the cold-blooded ruler, which is a major coup in itself and as much of an artistic liberty a director can take when relying on a fictitious tale.

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Padmaavat, in no way is a straightforward saga of love, war and heartbreak though; its inherent turmoils deepened by Khilji’s marriage to Mehrunissa, and a simultaneous relationship shared with the slave-cum-companion Malik Kafur. Hydari enacts Mehrunissa with plenty of vulnerability and tenderness, but we see her largely relegated to the background until after the second half begins.

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With Kafur though, Bhansali seems to have taken a chance, choosing to subtly portray the undertones of a homosexual relationship between the slave and his master, rather than a blatant mention of the same. Jim Sarbh as Kafur is outstanding as Khilji’s homosexual aide, never loud or comical (as most Bollywood movies as wont to portray), with a queer accent and a gentleness characteristic of his position in the Sultan’s life. Sarbh continues to make an impact from the time he played a key role in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, and topped it off with a different shade in the rather disappointing Raabta. In Padmaavat though, he might have taken on his biggest challenge till date, playing a homosexual character without making it raunchy, exaggerated or an outlet for comic relief.

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Kudos to Bhansali as well for crushing ‘gay’ stereotypes and bringing out nuances in Kafur’s character, while lending a fatalistic touch to this behind-the-scenes relationship,  and while it is neither celebrated nor denounced, the mystery behind this amorous chapter adds an extra layer of complexity to Singh’s Khilji – we don’t see him trying to shake off his bisexuality, or deny its existence, even when he is busy raging wars in a bid to capture Padmavati.

As torch-bearers of Rajput pride and valour, Shahid and Deepika nearly fit in the template of grace, magnetism and restraint demanded of their respective characters. In the director’s world of excesses, it is a miracle how they manage to effectively portray their love more through subtle glances and tenderly spoken words, rather than outright expressions of passion. Kapoor however, mostly lets us down after starting off smoothly, as we watch him struggle under the weight of the laden Rajputana values – his stomach sucked in, his lips puckered in an ungainly pout, and his nostrils flaring, we see him reduced to a cardboard character where somehow being robot-like is a substitute for being taken seriously. Stacked against Khilji’s savagery, Ratan Singh’s self-righteous, stern demeanor is reduced to a puddle, blowing off unnecessary steam without causing any real damage to the opponent.

As a sensible viewer, you are appalled and annoyed by how Ratan Singh could pass up decent opportunities to capture the lunatic Khilji when those chances as good as fell into his lap, all because: Rajput pride and honour. You are equally stunned when the king makes a mention of ‘usool’ in the battleground, right before slumping to the ground. And so, you end up mocking Rajput stupidity, and lamenting their absolute lack of war strategy, rather than raising a toast to their pride and glory. The sole thing the movie set out to do, but ironically ends up subverting in these crucial moments. 

However, all is not lost and there is much to Padmaavat than fighting fair and losing. The director fluidly taken you on a journey where pivotal moments in the narration that make it all too clear who the real boss is: it is essentially Padmavati who succeeds in driving the maniacal Khilji mad, shredding his ego down to pieces, making a defeatist out of the invader.

Deepika is grace personified, as she moves about buoyantly, the pleats of her royal sarees/lehengas  tucked in neatly, and her pallu dancing in seductive waves. True to the director’s promise of at least one song the audience cant stop humming to, we are treated to a visual splendour in the form of ‘Ghoomar‘, quite a masterpiece within a masterpiece. It would be an understatement to say the actress has never looked as bewitching in any of her earlier movies.

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Full credit to the director for treating her character as  more than just a cog in the wheel of this epic tale of love and war, when there was a mighty chance of her presence being drowned against the sheer scale of this project, but more so, by the compelling depiction of Singh’s Khilji that seems to tower over the very premise of the film itself.

In fact, much of the second half bears testament to Padmavati’s political strategies meeting with success, in not only avenging Rajputana humiliation and distress caused by instigator Raghav Chetan by having him murdered by the faithless Khilji, but in also  sneaking her husband away from right under the nose of the Muslim ruler. Her decision to not surrender to Khilji’s wily schemes climaxes in the much-debated and (mostly) ridiculed mass Jauhar, a cinematic glorification that has been lambasted by commoners and a few celebrities alike.

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More on this in a different post, but for a cinematic spectacle carved by an artist of Bhansali’s stature, one can hardly expect a dowdy, miserable showdown depicting jauhar as a bawl-fest.
Anyone who has watched the director’s earlier movies – be it Bajirao Mastani, Ram Leela or even Guzaarish – would know the man chooses to portray passion and dignity even in death, and roots for his characters’ abilities to determine their own fates, irrespective of how nonsensical and foolish that might appear to the outside world. I dare say, he probably believes, if one were to be snuffed out, one should exit the mortal world with a bang AND on one’s own terms!
As someone who hates insipid love stories in real and reel lives, I don’t quite mind the dramatic endings. However, in Padmaavat’s case, I quite welcome it because I see it as a powerful show between a man who thinks he can conquer a woman’s body simply because he feels entitled to, and a woman who intends to stand by her choices and not surrender, even if it means losing to death. I see it as a battle of wills. Not the usual Romeo-Juliet, Heer-Raanjha sob-fest, for sure.
I see it as a choice exercised towards freedom rather than sexual slavery when faced with an army of thousands of savage men. This psychological game might not appeal to us 21st century human beings, specially modern feminists, but to ferret and tear apart the motives and ideals that drove people in the 13th century to do what they eventually did, would be a pointless exercise.

So if you wish to partake in the visual expansiveness of the mega project, can allow for a weak plot line and a historically flawed account to consume close to 3 hours of your time, and are content watching Ranveer Singh turn upside down the trajectory of the traditional Hindi film antagonist while Padukone plays to the gallery, albeit, with controlled finesse, go ahead and give this a chance…but make sure you soak in the opulence on the big screen, not on TV!!

 Also, tough luck Karni Sena. Try harder next time maybe? 

Rating: 4.5/5

 

 

Our mockery of Anant Ambani and why it’s not okay simply because he is privileged

Recently Anant Ambani’s speech at Reliance Industries’ 40th anniversary sparked a series of trolls and articles (some taken down already) mocking the same. While it is funny to look at at first sight, here’s why we need to stop this online bullying and give the likes of him, privilege or no privilege, a chance.

I have a confession to make.

Like everyone else who happened to take a look at Anant Ambani’s speech at a recent Mumbai event marking Reliance Industries’ 40th anniversary, I too laughed my heart out, partaking in the meme fest spreading like wildfire in the online world, while still bitching about it over a glass of whiskey with close friends off the internet grid.

Nastily laughing over how the Ambani scion became the first meme of 2018, as was diligently reported  by Yahoo news as soon as it caught fire on Twitter, Facebook and just about everywhere else.

The admittedly unpalatable expressions, the ‘energy’ just hitting through the roof, the eerily corny lines delivered in a frenzied monologue…I could go on and on and we would still not cover all the points we find funny in this speech.

And we would chuckle over it harder than we have over any other meme in recent times, more so, because it is Ambani’s son after all, and to mock wealthy, privileged people born with a silver spoon in their mouth for their follies is justifiably our way of getting back at this increasingly capitalistic society and a seemingly harmless way to feel better about our own debt-ridden, harried work-laden, tousled, ordinary lives.

Why then, is my article titled the way it is?

Because each time I clicked on the Youtube link to laugh some more, the hilarity of the speech hit me with lesser intensity with each subsequent click, directly proportional to the warmth and empathy gushing over me when I would see just how proud and elated his mother, Neeta Ambani looked to see her son standing up on stage and facing thousands of people and owning his space – however that might come across to the rest of the world.

Because I recalled, many many years ago, I was that person, braving the stage,trying to come off unscathed by ready criticism and still survive the ordeal of speaking in public. 

No, I am no Ambani, my family isn’t even close to being what can be considered an elite bunch (we will get to that later). But I’ve had to deal with my demons, some of whom paralyze me to this day.

Let me be clear, this certainly features as one of the weirdest speeches I’ve ever heard, mostly in part due to, and predictably accentuated by the trite script handed over to the lad.

Sample these:

“Doston, main apne Papa ki tarah aapko inspire toh nahin kar sakta, par aspire kar sakta hun ki inspire kar sakun.”

“Main aap sabhi se dil ka sambandh banana chahta hun, kyunki, mere liye, dil ka rishta bahut gehra aur lamba hota hai.” (Okay, this one seems like it’s bordering on double entendre, or maybe, I am just too much of a pervert!)

“I deeply respect my parents and gurus. I am deeply religious and God is my constant companion. I also respect every religion and their Gods. I am concerned about the environment. I deeply care about animals and for me, to serve the Reliance family is the most important mission of my life.”

“Your pain is my pain, your joy is my joy, your tears are my tears, your smile is my smile.”

“Reliance meri jaan hai, Reliance India ki jaan hai, Reliance duniya ki zubaan hai.”

Reliance being “India ki jaan” standing factually incorrect as can be verified with most of us Indians here who will willingly hop on to other services if Reliance goes bust;  but this is the point where Neeta Ambani gives her son a standing ovation, beaming proudly, looking around for some encouragement and applause and you can say this is working because Anant smiles back feeling a sense of accomplishment too.

I believe I ended up copying almost the entire speech showing exactly what was off about it (which, ironically, is the whole damn speech); I daresay it almost sounded like those over-enthusiastic prompted speeches delivered in  multi-level marketing seminars. Needless to say, the words are almost barked at the audience and you feel a sinking sense of cringe throughout.

The Ambanis really should have hired someone with a good pair of ears to write this speech.

But does their lack of  foresight warrant this level of mockery and derision of a young, 22 year-old braving an audience of no less than 500 people, evidently speaking in public for the first time?

Although there were plenty of publications that jumped in to send out ridicule-filled articles into the social media space while also quietly taking them down within hours of publication, there were thankfully, some sensible people who thought it was no laughing matter.

Trolling this young man trying to stand up to the intense pressure he in no way asked for, is not only distasteful, but quite pitifully exposes what we, as a society, have collectively become.

Anyone who we perceive as funny, weird, different from, or inferior to us in some way, is immediately trolled. God forbid, if that person has as much inherited money as Anant does, then there is clearly no escape route, since somehow we feel money and privilege blunts the edges of social ostracization faced by these entities and it possibly couldn’t affect the unfortunately ridiculed souls as much.

For one, it seems Anant used to be severely asthmatic and a patient of hypothyroidism, having only recently lost more than a hundred kilos.

Now imagine someone with body image and breathing issues and how hard that person might have tried to be socially accepted.

Health issues or not, disability or not, what makes it okay for any of us to deride this individual whose personal journey we have no idea of? 

In Anant’s case, snap off the wealth and privilege tag and objectively think how hard it might have been for this young boy to socially conduct himself.

A glaring reality would’ve faced him at many points in his life – that of rejection (albeit, sly and less obvious, because he is Mukesh Ambani’s son at the end of the day), that of not being as healthy and mobile as his counterparts, feeling terribly hopeless and helpless for something beyond his control, despite all the money at his disposal.

Now imagine that same person, trying to break out of his shell, follow the path his father took, and make his family proud. Imagine him trying to handle the burden of expectations weighing down on him by virtue of his birth and the millions of eyes hungrily watching him, as he takes center stage and tries to make a mark on his own.

Imagine him trying to impress a mighty crowd of socially important figures and at least be accepted as worthy of the baton that has been passed on to him.

I doubt he was thinking he’d swing it from the moment go.

Rather, I believe, he was most likely petrified but knew he had no choice but to make the best use of the chance he had, because sometimes, life presents us with circumstances we must face. 

But just when he had probably started finding his feet in this hyper-competitive, socially glossy terrain, thousands of strangers chose to drag him down and shatter his self-esteem and the tiny morsel of confidence he might’ve gained into pieces.

Think of the rejection and what a blow it might have landed on his still-developing personality.

And now think back to how it felt when you were publicly criticized/mocked/humiliated/shamed for something that’s beyond your control. If you have never been in that position, good job, you’re going great guns in life, but if you have been made to feel like an object of joke even once in your life, even if it’s in a circle of no more than 5 people, do remind yourself how that feels and apply it to this scenario.

Does your hefty bank account step in to provide any solace?

Do the social media likes and comments on your carefully curated posts count?

I guess not because trolling and shaming have a language of their own, universal and non-discriminatory in who they touch and how they affect those who’ve been at the receiving end of it.

Public Speaking, Bullying and why it’s got to stop

I was in the ninth grade when I first got the chance to participate in an elocution competition. Bright and curious, I was the standard poster child for the kid who excelled in academics, knew the answers to pretty much all of the textbook questions and was quite annoyingly called the ‘teacher’s pet.’

I cannot even describe how tormented I used to feel as a child all the way till my teens, slowly crumbling under the weight of the gazillion expectations – flying in from my family, teachers in school, private tutors, and even friends (the kinds who are quick to bring to your notice the high scores of freshly brewing toppers and remind you of how your ‘position’ as class no. 1 is fading out).

So naturally, going by this logic, everybody expected me to make a success of the competition and come out with flying colors.

I remember starting off well and articulate, my best friend in the crowd of at least 100 students sitting in the auditorium hall, nodding her head, egging me on as if to say “Good, keep going”.

I recall being pumped up for five seconds or so before unfortunately catching two students in the row behind sniggering uncontrollably.

And there – just like that I lost the plot. The words stopped tumbling. I froze. Everything look like a vicious mask of black around me. 

No matter how many times the teacher tried to prompt me from the sidelines or my friend nodded her head vigorously, trying to keep my drive going, I could not speak a word further.

That was my first time experiencing extreme stage fright, and though I have unwillingly stepped up on stage numerous times later in life, it has been harrowing, maddening, numbing.

Could I have come out on top in that elocution contest, or at least not embarrassed myself, had those silly guileless teens in the row behind not sniggered the way they did? 

I don’t know, maybe I was a weakling who was desperate for the approval of her peers and anxious to retain the ‘class No. 1 badge’ at all costs and shouldn’t have tumbled down like a pack of cards at the slightest nudge. So I might’ve still have messed up.

But would more eager eyes (minus the sniggering) and encouraging nods have helped my case? Possibly.

Could constant rejection and verbal and physical abuse on the home front have factored in, so much so I couldn’t/sometimes still can’t face a crowd? Definitely.

That’s a lot of skeletons in my closet for a single post, more on that some other day.

But the point is – this constant feeling of trepidation and that dreaded sense of drowning in a black, black hole has since lunged at me each time thereafter – be it during those handful of class presentations back in the university, or that moment when I had to go up on stage to receive an award, or even when I had to face a live audience during my theater days. 

Clinging to me like a stubborn, blood-sucking leech right till this day – so much that

I wish the moment would somehow dissolve into nothingness.

And when it grudgingly does come by, I want it to end like nothing happened.

Turns out I am not the only panic-stricken soul that routinely avoids speaking in public like it’s plague, I have more than 20 million individuals to give me company, if this information trove on Psychology Today is anything to go by.

Surveys don’t exaggerate when they say people like us would rather die than speak in public.

Interestingly, not even powerhouse performers, insightful leaders and speakers of this day and age have been spared by the phobia of facing the stage.

Julia Roberts, with a net worth of $140 million used to stutter as a child and was terrified of public speaking. So was world-class investor Warren Buffet who spent most of his college years avoiding courses that required him to speak in front of a class (let’s high-five then Mr. Buffett, since I have done the exact same thing for all of my 5 years in law school).

From being in the shadows to taking the stage for his first sermon at 36, and to being mercilessly compared to his possibly more eloquent father, televangelist Joel Scott Osteen must have dug in his heels and sweated out some intense groundwork, the result of which is there for all to see.

Can you believe this is the same guy? 

 

Holy Christ (or rather, Hey Ram!) even Mahatma Gandhi, the man who led the Independence Movement of a demographic and ethnic mix like India used to fear speaking in public!

Others included in this list are actor-singer Bruce Willis, golf icon Tiger Woods, comedian-writer Rowan Atkinson and many, many others.

I don’t need to gush about their achievements and global impact any more, you see their names pop up and already know what they have managed to accomplish, despite their speech disability, which obviously, was not a permanent scar of some sort and with time was overcome.

So all those humiliating Anant Ambani for the way he spoke at the event, relax people, he is just 22, he has time and a world of opportunities on his side, and irrespective of how he fared in his first grand public appearance at the moment, know that he’s already winning it, because he has started on the journey to glory and success by taking that first big step.

Trust, that everything else will fall in place eventually, because that is how it always does.

The Actresses Roundtable 2017, and why we need more of this every year

Rajeev Masand is out with his bag of small treasures, right before Christmas hits. Hear the leading ladies of Bollywood talk about acting, love, life and everything else in between.

What is the ONE time you get to see Bollywood actors/actresses baring their hearts open like it’s nobody’s business other than when they’re playing a character on the big screen?

When is the only other time you see a bunch of artists huddled together and bonding AND talking about cinema in a they-make-sense kinda way, a trait we as an audience seem to have dissociated from their seemingly gregarious, light-hearted onscreen and off-screen personas?

I’m not talking about glittery film fraternity parties, nor am I hinting at those carefully orchestrated charity/fundraising/book launch/other non-filmy events where more often than not much of what a celebrity says is PR-driven and meant to serve the script.

I am talking about the pepper-and-salt sprinkled, maddeningly interesting and evocative discussions one of the most charming and affable entertainment journalist in the country manages to engage the public in, year after year, and have a glimpse of the people behind the stars that we so adore and are intrigued by.

Stating the obvious but yeah, it’s Rajeev Masand, the man who can elicit a response from even the most somber, tight-lipped celebrity. The man you just can’t hate because despite the fact that he’s totally being nosy and in-your-face with his hundred and one personal and professional (bordering on personal) questions, he almost sounds and looks like the benign pastor at your Sunday church or that all-knowing, gentle, elderly uncle sitting in the park with lots of time to kill – who knows you have plenty of skeletons to fix in your closet, and he’s simply helping you take the burden off your chest by giving you a space to talk about it. Sometimes it is not as much a dirty secret as it is a constant annoyance, like flaky dandruff you would want to brush off your glossy black jacket before anyone else has a chance to judge you for it. Other times, like in Kangana Ranaut’s case, it’s a steely polite of conveying to people who matter and who’re definitely listening – hey, watch it before I take you down!

Every year Masand takes on the powerhouse performers and their standout performances of the year, and grills them (albeit with all smiles and a lot of heart) on a range of introspective questions – from how they prepared for a certain role to how they felt playing a role that was a contradiction of everything they were and stood for in real life, from how they felt about the changing perception of film fanatics to how society continues to be connected with this medium in a deeper way, as the years go on.

And while each year has a unique annual offering distinct in terms of the evolution cinema and artists are touted to have accomplished as the year wraps up,  2017, with its diverse range of performances and its clawing relatability to more humaneness, and less fiction indisputably comes out on top for being THE year where women in cinema took the spotlight for regaining their individual as well as collective voice – something they had found, lost, and then found again.

Now that I have gushed aplenty about Rajeev Masand and the reactions he routinely draws in these closeted, yet absolutely unscripted discussions, it’s time to explore why 2017 will be remembered as the year that shook us from within, as much as it did on the outside by making our cushioned butts squirm uncomfortably.

Below:

The most unmissable picks of year 2017 (from left to right): Zaira Wasim, Ratna Pathak Shah, Vidya Balan, Bhumi Pednekar, Swara Bhaskar

Stealing Masand’s words right off his mouth (but only because this is what I noticed too right at the beginning): “The most interesting thing about the line-up here today is the sheer spectrum that we cover…the range and the talent at this table is staggering.”

Hear, hear! He couldn’t have said it better.

From the newcomer (Zaira), to the veteran (Ratna Pathak Shah), to the experienced but-not-long-enough-to-be-called-a-veteran (Vidya Balan) to the ones still exploring the medium but not really struggling (Bhumi Pednekar and Swara Bhaskar), this table represents the range of aspirations and spectacular talent of young and old India as well as those who are middling it.

Not giving it all away because you must watch this intellectual, raw play of words and layered emotions among the ones who’re living it on and off the screen, but just so you know this roundtable is sheer gold, here are my top 6 favorite statements from the discussion.

  1. Ratna Pathak Shah (Lipstick under my Burkha): It’s good I hadn’t begun writing film reviews around the time this movie released, or else I’d never been able to hit full-stop. Can I just say Shah’s character in the film (as Usha Buaji) just knocked our socks off? Or hit the guys right on their balls, you know where it hurts the most (smirk, smirk)? Because an ‘old’ woman being so vulnerable about her sexual desires, so much so that she dares to make the mistake of falling for an attractive man years younger than her, can be termed as nothing but audacity and a huge blow to the ever-inflating unfounded male ego. I mean, how dare women acknowledge their own bodies and desires? To top it off, how dare OLD WIDOWED WOMEN even think they can get some action?!! I know I am digressing but coming back to the discussion, one of Shah’s first statements from the round table hit the nail right on its head, turning even Hollywood upside down on its heels.

““We don’t need to be Gal Gadot, who is doing everything that the guy would do, except that she is a pair of breasts. We are telling our stories, the way we see our world”

There, there Wonder Woman, our desi ladies might not be dressed in metal and leather and conquering battles alongside warring men, but they sure are turning heads and shaking up the quintessential Indian man’s ego simply by stating they have needs, even when they’re 50 plus. That they need sex. And they LIKE it. And slut-shaming or age-shaming them isn’t going to douse that fire of awareness anytime soon.

Our women have made people sit up and notice – even if to judge – merely clad in sarees, kurtis, burkhas and a touch of lipstick.

         2. Ratna Pathak Shah again (I’m being biased here right?) – 

“Every woman who decides to act in a film like ‘Dabangg’ where she is made a complete object of lust, they also need to stand up and say no.”

It cannot get more direct and hard-hitting than that. Sonakshi Sinha, are you listening? Thankfully, you have graduated to better choices, but we dearly hope, going forward, you will not make us cringe with the characters you choose to play.

Not related, but Shah’s candor in openly stating she never really fit the “heroine” bracket because she was no longer young, to saying “I never really got any work to start with, obviously I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t the right choice, just never got any work” -as a response to why it took her so long to make a comeback to mainstream films, was a breath of fresh air. Plain, unvarnished truth, instead of beating around the bush and saying she wanted to take care of her kids and be a “family person” yada yada.

That touch of real “ness” in the make-believe world of cinema is so so rare to come by. Ratna ji, you have my heart ❤

3. Vidya Balan (Tumhari Sulu) – The industry is a place of flagrant irony. It thrives on objectifying and demeaning women and relegating even the top crop of female talent to the background by having them play shoddy characters that exist to support the inherent dominant patriarchal vein, but won’t let actresses love their bodies and themselves without being part of an external narrative.

And while every actress routinely gets under the scanner for a pimple here and a little flab there, Vidya Balan, going by the mass vitriolage and public scrutiny over the past few years until very recently, has sure had it worse than her contemporaries, all because people can’t get over how she continues to wow us with each power-packed performance despite not having washboard abs.

She asserts herself, and beautifully so, that she is content being who she is, and how she is and in case haters are wondering if it’s going to come in the way of a remarkable career she has built on her merit alone, no, she isn’t going extinct anytime soon.

“We don’t want to be shamed by our bodies anymore. We are proud of our bodies.”

More power to you Vidya. We know we’ve said it out loud before, but we need to keep hammering this in so patriarchy knows we don’t anybody’s permission to own our bodies, to shape our identities.

4. Bhumi Pednekar (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan): Two of the perkiest movies this year with two much-needed but needlessly shushed subjects, Bhumi has scored a hat-trick with these two releases in 2017.

In one she plays the supposedly compliant village belle (Toilet) till the adventurous and abominably humiliating experience of shitting (literally) comes in the way of her basic rights, to being the confused and distraught yet progressive fiance who isn’t ready to back out on her man simply because he cant get it up (ahem), she has succeeded in tickling our funny bones, while slamming social messages right down into our bathrooms and bedrooms!

For someone who had to put on 30 kilos for her debut role in Dum Lagake Haisha to someone who has thankfully lost the drive to see herself in the mirror every now and then and fret about how she looks, she has traversed some philosophical journeys without having to painfully prolong the process of self-realization.

Here’s what she had to say:

“It’s liberating to not care about the way I look.”

5. Zaira Wasim (Secret Superstar): Since she graced the silver screen two years ago, the teen actress has been unstoppable. Quite literally. If there had to be a fledgling in this cinematic world to carry forward the baton of yesteryear’s’ legends, I dare say, Zaira could be on her way to greatness.

And while she continues to pop in and out of news headlines for reasons both good and bad, and I absolutely condemn the misplaced, unsubstantiated allegations of molestation she lately leveled against a poor, hapless chap flying in the same airline as her, I have to, and must laud her for her honesty, and willingness to delve into some areas of personal introspection even adults in this realm probably wouldn’t have dared to, at least not at her age.

So when asked about what she likes about acting and what she doesn’t, she revealed she might not yet be ready to face the big, bad world called Bollywood, reminding us of the chaotic dark mess the film industry can often be.

“I like that I can become somebody else, but I’m not ready for it, maybe because of the vanity that comes with it. I don’t think  I’m the kind of person who can handle it.”

Keeping aside her possible hunger for the arc lights (as I have ranted about at length in this piece here) though, the forthrightness and simplicity with which she responds to Rajeev’s questions is something I haven’t come across in a long, long time. Or maybe, she is just an actor par excellence, but let’s give her the benefit of doubt, shall we?

With that poise and sense of awareness of her very being and her surroundings, I would  not be surprised if she managed to take nepotism by its horns and twist them out of shape (Jahnvi Kapoor, Sara Ali Khan, and the rest of the nepotism clan, brace up!)

6. Swara Bhaskar (Anarkali of Arrah): Since the time I first watched her in Tanu Weds Manu, I have been an ardent fan of the actress. Despite having no connections, as well as not quite accommodating the typical Hindi film heroine image, she has managed to consistently climb the ladder with movies like Ranjhanaa, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, and most recently Anarkali of Arrah, which also happened to be the first movie she played the lead in.

The movie which largely revolved around a small-town erotic singer-performer being publicly molested by a powerful chap (Sanjay Mishra) and then fighting for her rights, borders on a heated debate which has consumed much of our spaces this year: sexual harassment in the workplace and/or sexual harassment because of the work women do (read actors, performers).

It was in this context that Swara give us a teeny-weeny glimpse into how life is like an actor, especially when you’re a woman, and how real even reel can feel at times.

“When the molestation scene was shot, the whole crowd was cheering and whistling. You get to see the sides of our society.”

This truly made my skin crawl, considering those men were undoubtedly partaking in some sort of vicarious pleasure, despite the fact that it was a movie and not real. I shudder to think what their reactions might have been had it been real life? Sad you had to confront that side of patriarchy Swara, but at least we know how much educating this country’s sinister male crowd needs.

Other reflections that made me nod my head going, “Yeah, I get you!” to grinning like a cuckoo

In a conversation spanning more than an hour involving the participation of five powerful, articulate women, and covering some very shocking to amusing stuff, it’s pretty darn difficult to pick favorites right?

And so I’ve listed some of the other things that blew my mind away. Truer words have never been spoken.

  1. Ratna ji on how Zaira shouldn’t think of acting as short-term and be bothered by some of the unwanted attention and other hazards she was currently faced with; expounding on this point, she truly embodies an artist’s spirit, stating in no uncertain terms that her desire for acting was not dependent on her success. I’m not sure if she has ever read the Bhagavad Gita, but she has beautifully rephrased the famous quote from the scripture, “Karm karo, phal ki chinta mat karo.”

2. Ratna ji again on getting comedy right, “If people on the sets are laughing, you’re making a mistake.”

Damn! We all knew pulling off comedy is tougher than bawling your eyes out on screen, we just didn’t know a good comic act had a yardstick it could be measured by.

3. Ratna ji, PHIRSE (okay, this blog post has started to sound like a seedy fan hyperventilating in the “Compose Mail” section of Gmail, except this “fan mail” won’t be mailed to the actress ever) –

“The nicest thing about growing old and letting your hair go grey is that I don’t give a shit about how I look now.”

Bhumi, you said pretty much the same thing, except Ratna ji said with it more aplomb and a dash of finesse, like a queen reining in her best years of her life after successfully navigating the fretting-and-feeling-depressed-over-how-I-look stage. There is something about life experience that you just can’t buy, or rehearse. And there’s something about a woman embracing her age and all the flaws that come with it.

4. Vidya Balan“Live life!” Well, want to be an actor, writer, performer? Go live life. Go watch plays, listen to music you love and even the kind you hate, meet people, fall in love, have your heart broken.

We have all been dished out this category of advice bordering on YOLO, but decades before YOLO even took birth, Vidya had the chance to imbibe her soul and spirit with this advice, imparted to her on a TV commercial set, and it seems to have served her well. It’s time those of us wanting to be honest to our craft do that. Live life. And draw from its infinite well of experiences. Accept the poison and the nectar, and retouch it with hand strokes of our own.

5. Zaira Wasim on conviction as a key weakness and strength she has discovered in herself in the last two years,

“If I’m not convinced about something, I’m not gonna do it. If I am, I am going to do my best.”

May not sit pretty on the expected narrative of an actor’s life and approach to roles, but hey, it is a good starting point for each one us dreaming of showing our art to the world one day. Let’s have faith in, and be convinced in the magic of our written and spoken words, music, art, sculpture before we try and make the world pull down its stubborn walls and let us in.

6. Swara Bhaskar on being real, and keeping it realistic

“Bollywood is just a small part of a really big universe, and if it doesn’t work out, then it’s not the end of the world.”

For an outsider who has made it here on her own and has a long mile to go, keeping one’s expectations free from the confetti-wrapped optimism an actor’s life is frequently prone to, is a no mean feat. Swara borders on cynical, but her feet firmly planted on the earth, acknowledging that even happy spells can cease to last and that there is a plethora of opportunities and experiences to be lived outside of Bollywood.

There. Just like that, some of the glamour has worn off hasn’t it, but does it make sense? Absolutely!

Is it a good way to keep one’s sanity intact? You bet.

It is no surprise then that we see her dabbling in a world devoid of Bollywood’s scripted mania, as is evident in her latest spoken-word performance titled Conceal, Remove, Repeat in association with TLC India.

That is some badass poetry, and the sass game perfectly on point! Not to mention, we hear the message loud and clear.

7. Zaira Wasim again, because I was saving the best for the last. Her parting advice for youngsters (and am sure even the older crowd out there):

“We are the sun and the moon and we have our own times to shine.”

Okay, honestly, this was so beautiful it made my hair tingle and my eyes tear up a little, because that sort of profound language shooting off a 17 year-old’s mouth is as common as the BJP acknowledging Muslims as human beings.

I envy her so much right now it’s not funny, but I am glad the Hindi film industry, amidst all the paid media and scripted answers and the pressure to entertain but not be contemplative or meditative, has this one gem. Predictably, all the other actresses at the table were in awe of her, just as we were. If only, she hadn’t jumped the gun and have poor Vikas Sachdeva publicly condemned for something he didn’t do.

Hits and Misses

From cackling wildly at Ratna’s sarcastic comebacks in Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai (as Maya Sarabhai) to actually listening to her talk in that fluid, un-self-conscious, organic way was an enriching experience in itself, one that had me consumed in the intensity and layers it unveiled. But what I was most bowled over was her voice. Her timber, tone, pitch are perfect; with an alluring voice like that paired with a feisty mind, who wouldn’t want to hear her talk for hours on end?

Speaking of voice, isn’t that what grabbed our attention through the run-time in Tumhari Sulu? Vidya Balan continues to enthrall us by drawing us in the coherence and fluidity of her thoughts, making her stand on numerous issues clear while unabashedly exhibiting the way to love oneself. It can be quiet, unassuming, never over-the-top, but always there. She’s sexy, powerfully feminine, and not afraid to speak her mind, and while as she chattily tells us what life and movies are like from her perspective, we can’t help but soak in the shimmy of her gorgeous metal earrings.

Zaira Wasim is one of the most self-assured actors to have occupied Bollywood’s ever-expanding, and admittedly over-crowded space in these times. Her present and growing awareness about survival in the tinsel world is glaringly honest, and commendably structured. Not only did she hold her own in the session, but chimed in at the right moments, without breaking into the conversation unnecessarily, preferring instead to absorb what the others had to say. That is quite unbecoming of a millennial (more so, in the film industry) in an Insta-bombed age, which is why I just cannot wrap my head around why she acted so hastily in the airplane molestation incident.

Bhumi Pednekar has had us thrilled with her acting chops considering the commercial success of all her chosen projects till date, and yet, I cannot say the same about the round table discussion – I was less than thrilled to hear her speak, visibly annoyed by how she kept throwing the ‘privilege’ word around. Yes, I get it, you had never stepped out of Mumbai and been a part of the cultural milieu of a tier two/tier-three cities in the country (it’s not A,B,C city for god’s sake!) until you chose to step into acting, but I am sure so have the others. Vidya Balan has lived her whole life in Mumbai, Swara has braved her growing-up years in Delhi, what’s the fuss then?

Might I say I was also unimpressed by the fact that Bhumi wouldn’t talk normally, but let the words tumble out in a drawl, like she was speaking to impress. An actor putting on an act when she clearly doesn’t need to, is obviously off-putting and dilutes the overall tempo of the discussion.

However, lest the tempo meander into the territory of scripted interviews and actors acting even when the cameras aren’t rolling, Swara ensures she was heard, AND seen, quite a bit, courtesy the excessive gesticulation. At one point, I started getting a mild headache from all the different directions her arms would keep flying and with the way her head/shoulders would twitch. Her animated movements more than made up for the sober, cautious, controlled approach taken by the others. Having said that, maybe we need to step beyond how actresses should present themselves on and off the cameras?

Note: why do I think Bhumi and Swara were constantly trying to one-up each other (goofy grin, the ‘competition’ is unmistakable, huh)? 

Now that I have penned no less than an epic on this topic, it’s time to wrap up, but not without thanking Rajeev Masand for his insightful questions, his diplomacy and intuition in ferreting out just what we want to hear from our stars.

Also, thank you for not asking some of these ladies the parroted and much-dreaded sexist question: So, how was it working with the Khan (s)?

The Curious Case of Zaira Wasim

A video of the actress having suffered molestation in the flight has been doing the rounds of late. When it comes to sexual harassment, where do facts end, and fiction/assumption begins? Read on to know more about it!

Disclaimer: I’ve almost picked a side, after dearly hoping it weren’t this way. But then I got a mind, that doesn’t quite agree with the popular, rigid narrative.

A little background

The first time the world was introduced to this 17-year old from Srinagar was a year ago in December when Dangal (under the banner of Aamir Khan Productions) released worldwide.

The rare display of talent and a nuanced performance in a film revolving around wrestling, no less, Zaira Wasim burst into the halls of India’s tinsel town in the quietest way possible, intriguing even the harshest of critics while surpassing the perfectionist Khan himself.

Just so you don’t write the actress off as a fluke or a one-off wonder in Bollywood’s fleeting landscape, she proved her mettle again in the endearingly crafted Secret Superstar ( October 2017), quite literally overshadowing mentor and fellow powerhouse performer Khan.

Since star success is not just reliant on stellar performances alone, but largely dominated by how many bums on seats a movie can draw in, we know Dangal went on to become the highest-grossing Indian movie overseas (a whopping 2000 crores!!) while smashing just as many records in the home country itself! Same can be said for Secret Superstar that went on to become the fourth-highest grossing Bollywood film in the international markets in addition to its commercial success in the home turf, all on a budget of Rs. 15 crore.

This kind of unexpected, massive fame in such a short while and at a tender age as hers; heck, a national award in her debut performance itself is nothing short of magic, and can easily turn someone’s head around. Couple it with a YouTube/Insta/Twitter/Facebook obsessed regular teen’s ambition for rapid fame, and you have an adolescent heading towards delusion and an imminent fall, which could well be just as dramatic as the rise was.

Zaira will have none of it – ‘the trappings of fame’- so to say. At least that’s what I used to believe till a few days ago, till the memory of her recent interview with film critic Rajeev Masand was dominant of the image I had of her in my mind.

Dressed crisply in a white vest and a black-and-white striped jacket of sorts, she shoots off responses like she owns her being, and that entertainment space where she is a mere newcomer, but with a poise and grace unmatched by even experienced artists in this realm. Not one of her answers sounds doctrinated (well, she’s a brilliant actor too, so you never know, but let’s give her the benefit of doubt, shall we?), and not once does she falter, not once does she give away her power, even when Masand asks her a couple click-baity questions ;).

I was truly bowled over….

Until a video of the starlet having allegedly suffered molestation by a passenger on a Mumbai-bound flight did the social media rounds barely a week ago, largely unsupported by facts and necessary evidence – making me question, for the first time, if Zaira indeed was as unaffected by the spotlight as she portrays herself to be.

How the drama unfolded

The video that she shot herself while in the flight to capture the ‘molestation’ does show the accused’s (Vikas Sachdeva) foot hanging loosely by Zaira’s side (not moving though as per Zaira’s allegations); the little footage that we have access to is certainly insufficient to substantiate an accusation as grave as the one made here.

 

 

 

 

Airline Vistara promptly apologized for the ordeal Wasim had to suffer and let the public be known of its PR-drilled stand on the issue stating, “We have zero tolerance for such behaviour”, while initiating an inquiry into the incident, even flying two of its senior team members to meet the actress.

The accused was taken into custody by the police for further questioning, and as many as three charges under the IPC and POSCO were slapped against him.

Sachdeva’s wife, Divya Sachdeva on the other has cried foul at these allegations leveled by the Dangal star, calling it a “publicity stunt”, while offering a possible explanation stating, “His mama ji had passed away and he was not in the right frame of mind. He was feeling very low and asked for a blanket. He wanted to sleep. I am shocked at Zaira’s allegation.” I say Madame, this is not a valid enough reason to behave in this manner-less fashion in public.

But then again she raised some pertinent questions as well, demanding to know “Why did Zaira not raise an alarm then and there? Why did Zaira tweet two hours later? Zaira had her mother for company. Despite that, the two ladies chose not to make any noise, why?” This is a fairly reasonable doubt that has had no responses offered to it as yet.

Meanwhile, Twitter too went berserk over this incident, rushing out in support of the teen actress.

Sample these:

 

 

 

And even as netizens denounced such appalling instances of women harassment even in broad daylight and clamored to have the “culprit” punished, there were some who found the whole affair fishy and reserved their sympathy and encouragement for more “deserving cases” – in not-so-subtle terms.

A look at women’s rights activist Madhu Purnima Kishwar lets us know in harsh, unapologetic language that she isn’t buying any of this.

Even Vikas’s co-passenger came out in his defense, stating that while the suspect’s legs did touch Zaira’s armrest, he had dozed off immediately after being seated and had not misbehaved as alleged by the actress. Apparently, the man had also apologized to Zaira after the plane landed at Mumbai airport, post which the matter was reportedly settled.

What’s the verdict, then?

The last we know, Zaira’s mother refused to file a complaint regarding the alleged molestation on board (I wonder why though).

The latest update states Vikas has been granted bail by a Mumbai court today on a surety of Rs. 25,000. Seems the matter has been laid to rest, for the moment.

As of now, the public remains divided on whether the accused placing his foot on Zaira’s armrest really constituted molestation; I don’t blame the differing points of view offered on this incident, considering the first thing a rational human being (note: I’m not using the word ‘woman’) would first do is to politely ask the passenger behind to take their foot off the armrest.

I’ve done this in countless situations – in theaters, in airplanes, buses – and I believe so have others, before jumping the gun. Nine times out of ten, it has been a lack of basic etiquette that people suffered from, than the malicious intention of getting touchy with a stranger like me. But then, the few instances where I have called out deliberate sexual behavior also add to existing testimony that men do try to take advantage of the crowd, of the naivete of young girls and women, and many a time of their mislaid assumption that a woman can’t possibly draw attention to herself in public because of the shame involved.

The key here lies in discernment of a man’s true intention, a feat women don’t even have to accomplish since they’re already endowed with a powerful sixth sense no mansplaining can defy.

Her claims about the accused nudging her shoulder and moving his foot up and down her neck and back, sound illogical; primarily because it would have to come to someone’s notice at the very least, with co-passengers tightly seated around. I mean, I’m not sure how someone can pull this feat off in the presence of so many people around, the crew included.

And even if someone did dare, I cannot fathom why Zaira or any other girl in her position (irrespective of their celeb status) would not raise an alarm, considering at least some good-natured folks and/or the crew would step in to set the offender right in the plane itself. Having an unwanted strange-looking foot nudge you in your private space and enduring it for a good two hours or so, when you could have called for help doesn’t make any sense to me. Especially, when when you have your mother around!

This is also baffling, considering Zaira as a person does not come across as someone who can be shushed easily, or pushed into a corner where she sees no recourse. For a girl so forthright and self-assured, for someone who seems unafraid to speak her mind, it strikes me as odd that she should wait till the flight landed to make a video about it and cry about how “no one will help us if we don’t decide to help ourselves.”

It’s disconcerting as to why she didn’t try to help herself while on the flight as opposed to narrating her ordeal after deboarding the plane. The best help really would have been to turn around and confront the molester, shame him, even better -slap him, and ensure the passengers and the crew inside take notice and take appropriate action.

Lest my take on this be perceived as an attack on women empowerment and feminism, let me make it amply clear I do not wish to disregard the harassment faced by strong assertive women from all walks of life (circa the Uber scandal that came to light in February this year), and especially by women belonging to the entertainment industry, as has come to surface in the wake of Hollywood’s dirtiest scandal in recent times: the Harvey Weinstein saga.

By no means does being strong-willed, articulate and determined shield a woman in these times from getting sexually assaulted/harassed. Contrary to what one might think, the stakes in reality are higher for women who have tasted success and have been thrown into the glare of the public eye. Then again, this is also why it is so deeply traumatic for survivors to come out with their stories since they find themselves pitted against powerful men, with truckloads of moolah and a litany of connections,and can quite literally on a whim make or break their careers. Shame, guilt, and loss of agency continues to haunt even the most accomplished of women, only to crawl their way out years or maybe decades later.

We know the drill by now – the stakes are high.

And before you think I’m demeaning those women who aren’t as successful and established or have a platform at their disposal for airing their voice, or probably have no such “big stakes” well, I’m not even taking those instances into account, considering we’re talking about public figures here and cant wrap our heads around how bad  it can get for them, even with all the money, power and connections! Is it any wonder the rest remain restricted to simply being read as case studies or as mere statistics?

My point is – Zaira had nothing to lose and yet she did not raise an alarm right where it mattered most – in the flight. She effectively waited for the plane to land and recorded her ordeal, with tears streaming down her face. Not only does it betray the image she has already portrayed of herself in countless interviews this year, but also reeks of misplaced judgment as to what sexual harassment really means, and when you pair all the facts together, well, I hate to say this but it really does seem like a publicity stunt.

No, we’re not burdening her with being the torchbearer of women empowerment but not raising her voice where it did matter the most, but instead slipping into “victim mode” after a whole two hours, puts scores of other women at a disadvantage who might find actually themselves in similar situations but not react at the appropriate time because they feel safer being portrayed as victims and expecting help will somehow materialize; or worse, urge them into taking advantage of the feminism ride and accuse someone genuinely blameless!

Note: before I’m lampooned by people crying hoarse that “she is already do widely known, she doesn’t need to manufacture this kind of fame”, well, let’s not forget human flaws, the age we live in coupled and ambitious, driven youngsters bombarded with numberless opportunities to milk their constant hunger for fame.

In all likelihood, the man probably was sleeping, and at most, he deserves a telling off for sitting in an uncouth manner in an airplane, but definitely not being slapped with such grave charges for ‘molestation’, something he clearly did not engage in.

In this age of Instagram and Facebook fame, even the most innocuous thought/view/statement posted can have far-reaching consequences, some, that a mere two minutes of fame cannot even comprehend. Sharing an experience as traumatic as sexual harassment/molestation needs to be done responsibly, and not because one has a preconceived notion that men, are, across the board, just lusty animals and every accidental touch is an act of transgression deserving to be condemned and punished.

Ladies, let’s also hear the men out. By now we know what good touch and bad touch really mean. Yes, men can be uncivilized and stupid, but to paint them as sexual attackers/offenders in generic strokes goes a long way in defeating what feminism really stands for. Let’s not do that, because if we have honor, so do they. If we have a reputation and a public image, so do they.

Before I sign off on this really lengthy rant, here’s some food for thought. You really want to know how women can and should react if sexually apprehended by men in public? This video here (from more than two years ago) was recorded by a woman on a flight to Bhubaneswar, to shame this uncle who had reportedly tried to grope her through the gap between the seats. She raised a hue and cry. Right there. Created a scene. Made herself heard.

I believe the public shaming might have desisted the old moron from flying ever again.

But I also believe women, at least some of the time, have the power to change the drift of the wind in their favor.

 

 

Fukrey Returns: Makes you wonder why these Fukrey ever returned

One more time, the boys of the Fukrey gang are up to no good. But the reasons that compel them on to this straggly adventure may not be as relatable this time around.

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June 2013 was a jarringly tumultuous time in my life.

My career was in shambles, my relationships more so. Especially my love life – that was teetering on the edges of insanity and was begging for some fresh air, less fear, some cheer.

That’s when Fukrey happened; I distinctly remember having gone to watch this movie with my then-boyfriend since it was our #relationship monthversary (yeah, go on laugh). I remember both of us having laughed our guts out, and leaving the theater with lighter heads and heavier love for each other. Not that my career dived into a positive spin, but  hell yeah, all the humor and silliness did rub off on my then-floundering relationship.

Fast forward to December 2017.

I am married to the same man, and this time around too we were squabbling over something inconsequential when we decided to go watch this movie, because hey, filmy love binds us like no other.

However, we were in for a squirmy, uncomfortable shock because nothing about Fukrey Returns was the same anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t expecting the sequel to be a caricature of its much-famed predecessor, but neither was I expecting these four twats to go around zoos and caves like they were on a regular visit to the mall, and dealing with the lady don (read: Bholi Punjaban) with the collective IQ of a bunch of four-year olds.

The audience breaking into uncomfortable, overdone, needlessly boisterous laughs even in the absence of anything remotely funny confirms what I felt all along – Fukrey Returns tries too hard, and you only throw in some giggles here and there coz you’re a loyalist. Now that’s a certified recipe for disaster for a movie claiming to be a comedy.

The setup is the same here: Bholi Punjaban (Richa Chadda) manages to get out of Tihar jail using her political connections and is now back in her element to make lives hell for these Fukreys, who, except for Zafar (Ali Fazal) are leading disappointingly morbid lives. Still in the lottery business, Choocha (Varun Sharma) and Hunny (Pulkit Samrat) continue to mint easy money on the strength of Choocha’s weirdly disconnected dreams and the latter’s weirder interpretation methods. Lali (Manjot Singh) who isn’t quite content on just having secured his entry to the college of his dreams a year ago now resents his father’s halwai business and is keen on setting up a coffee shop instead. Zafar seems to have crossed over the dangerous hurdles in his relationship with Neetu (Vishakha Singh) and is now on the verge on moving in with her, into their dream home.

All looks well, till political baddie Babulal Bhatia (Rajiv Gupta) steps in with meaty stakes for rescuing Bholi from the roach-infested living premises of the prison, something the Punjaban lady don is willing to do anything to not cave in to. And so she greets the four idiots in the unlikeliest of places and has them kidnapped and bound like cattle, declaring revenge by asking them to step up and prove their usefulness, or else perish. To save their sore arses and their lives, they’ve now got to do her bidding – one thing leads to another and before they realize it, they are sucked into the familiar vortex of hatching get-rick-quick schemes and dangerous bets, eventually rubbing local politician Babulal Bhatia (Rajiv Gupta) the wrong way and paying for it by dumping themselves in the stench-filled Yamuna.

A snake metamorphosing into Bholi who comically appears in a glittery naagin costume (remember Sridevi from Nagina (1986)?), an angry tigress and her cub, a Ponzi scheme that has hapless investors pushing the Fukreys to go take a plunge in the savage waters of the Yamuna pretending to be dead, Babulal Bhatia raking up his dark side in running shady lottery business and a couple more sins, political speeches and dirty agendas, and a long drawn yawn-inducing adventure leading up to the cave (from Choocha’s dream sequence) and beyond, is essentially what the sequel is made of.

Choocha’s dreams are more scattered and harebrained now, and that’s okay, but it looks like the climax was written first and then the chidiyaghar dream added as an afterthought to fit the narrative, which frankly, lacks any sense of urgency like the prequel did. And while Choocha now has to grapple with a new gift and dabble in the business of premonitions, which admittedly he does quite fervently, Hunny lacks the spontaneity and desperation he displayed in Fukrey and looks kinda bored throughout the movie.

But then this is probably why Fukrey Returns doesn’t stir up much in your belly because the entire plot looks contrived, from start to finish.

For one, Fukrey was a refreshingly put-together movie, with four protagonists at the helm with ‘issues’ or rather ‘problems’ typical to the bracket of youngsters falling between age 17-25.

Boys wanting to secure admissions in elite colleges because they want to have girls hanging at their arms and live the good life isn’t unheard of, and neither is a struggling musician desperately looking for funds for his father’s treatment an anomaly. Bundle these relatable desires and concerns with jugaad gifts like making money out of having dreams, and you have a sleek potboiler to be cherished over a tub of popcorn and full-throated laughs!

The nuances in Fukrey, be it in the way Lali develops the much-hyped crush over tutor Neetu, Hunny wooing Priya (Priya Anand) and then genuinely falling for her, Neetu confronting Zafar and presenting him with some hard life choices, were all elements that added to the overall grain of the story. No surprise elements here like the thieving beggar from the first part who actually had tons of money on him and bailed the boys out in a stroke of luck (Ashraf-ul-Haq, bless your soul, you did a fantastic job even with that itsy-bitsy role!).

But the key moment that sets off Fukrey is the scene where Choocha is pressured and literally cornered into coming up with a dream (which he conveniently lies about), and the resulting blunder lands them all in a deadly mess. This seems to be missing in the sequel, and the characters largely look lost and disillusioned, less with their lives as protagonists of the movie but more as actors not knowing why they signed up for this half-baked project.

Neetu and Priya, who were more invested in the first part and their roles better integrated in Fukrey, seem to have disappeared after a few half-hearted appearances in the first few minutes of the sequel, only to reappear much later post intermission, making it look the director suddenly wanted to make good their payment for acting in this deluded vision.

Bholi Punjaban is less feisty and more gullible in Fukrey Returns, lacking the punch or the audacity she possessed in the first part. You definitely don’t shit your pants or break into a sweat with this Bholi around! The climax though, makes this change in behavior and her subsequent change-of-heart amply clear, as she pairs up with Choocha, fanning his more than a year-long romantic feelings for her as well as her now comparatively ‘cleaner’ ambitions of climbing the political ladder. Oh well, she even does  a group dance with the whole tormented Fukrey lot, even touching her mother-in-law’s feet in the end!

The only characters worth sitting up and noticing are Babulal Bhatia (Rajiv Gupta) and Pandjitji (Pankat Tripathi). Babulal with his menacing underhand moves and dirty agendas contrasts well with the occasional straight-faced humor (a trademark of Tripathi) sprinkled in by Pandjitji, who is more engaged in this misadventure than he was in the last, to our delight, as well as our chagrin, because we eventually see how this rare talent is wasted in the sequel.

Sequels generally are tricky grounds to tread on, and unless they have solid character growth to offer, much of the familiar setting of previous movie (s) and tropes can seem like a vacation gone stale long back. In fact, one of the best Bollywood sequels I have watched till date happens to be Tanu Weds Manu Returns, which frikkin’ not only won Kangana Ranaut a National award but stood up as a benchmark for filmmakers planning to go the sequel/franchise way. I dare say TWMR trumped the original by a mile and more, with predictable characters peeling off layers of their innate character traits in unpredictable, fresh circumstances.

Unfortunately, most sequels in Bollywood are barely a patch on the originals; and thus, in this vein, Fukrey Returns can literally be summed up as a labor of love – laborious, tedious, never-ending, considering there is nothing much to go on about for close to 2 and a half hours of screen time.

The only thing that may lend you solace is when the credits roll and you are introduced to a Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara kinda post-script where Zafar and Neetu are finally hitched, and Choocha (along with his lady love Bholi), Hunny and Lali seem to have thankfully found some purpose in life. An overdone song-and-dance sequence culminates in a picture of the four Fukreys sitting huddled up together on the beach, looking out at the sea, and probably thinking to themselves, ab bas ho gaya. Let’s move on shall we?

But that is also the only thing I could take away from the movie (both parts included) – their friendship and how they stuck together, irrespective of who failed the bets.

I hope that’s something you’ll take away too when you give the sequel a chance, but I also hope they return no more.

Rating: 2.5/5

Qarib Qarib Singlle: Two imperfect leads come together for a qarib qarib perfect love story

Qarib Qarib perfect!

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“Love is like wildflowers; It’s often found in the most unlikely places.” – Anonymous

So it is when 35-year-old workaholic Jaya (Parvathy) meets clumsy, chirpy Yogi (Irrfan) on a Tinder-esque yet glaringly un-sophisticated  and embarrassingly creepy online dating website called Ab Tak Singlle. No, they do not hit it off right away, much less fall in love, but embark on a charming ride that is languorous and unhurried in its pace, yet sweeping you up in its nuanced fluidity.

Marking South Indian actress Parvathy’s Bollywood debut and critically acclaimed director Tanuja Chandra’s comeback after a nine-year long hiatus, Qarib Qarib Singlle unfolds as a light-hearted rom-com in stark contrast to Chandra’s previous works underlined primarily by thriller and tragic themes (courtesy: Dushman, Sangharsh and Zakhm). Rooted in a radio play penned by her mother Kamna Chandra many years ago, the film takes the wittiest elements of the former, infused with a freshness that is easy to soak into, but hard to shake off.

The opening in itself is mighty impressive. Much is said about Jaya in the first 3 minutes- where a harmless, decked-up attendance at a friend’s wedding becomes a sore point for rehashing the past, serving as a window for the audience to have a peek into her life – she is a widow, a fact the world decidedly does not want to let her forget.

From this point on, we are drawn into Jaya’s superficially successful yet mundane everyday life, dotted with an unrelenting obsession with work but crumbling at the nooks and corners, exposing us to the brittleness of her being and the dark spots she casually dresses up in pastel shades and thick-rimmed glasses.

Don’t get me wrong – in no way does Jaya come across as miserable with her life, man or no man (the director takes great care to establish the same). And yet, one can’t help but notice how she is defined more by others’ perception of her than her own. From the subtly cruel and disparagingly insensitive friend introducing Jaya to her husband as the ‘woman whose husband died’ (at her own wedding, no less), to the friend shamelessly dumping her parental responsibilities on stepni aunty, we are repeatedly made familiar with society’s hypocrisy and conditioning that somehow paints married people in brighter strokes than it does someone who is widowed/unmarried.

Remember the friend back in college who didn’t have a social or romantic life of her own, and was relegated to the side, only to be called upon to  save her actively social and unabashedly promiscuous friends’ sorry asses? That might have been you, that definitely was me back in my Diana-cut, no-kajal, skinny-arms-and-legs days of adolescence, and this is what makes Jaya seem so real to us.

Enter Yogi and right off the bat Jaya’s closed, monotonous, ‘cultured’ existence is thrown into a state of pandemonium, where all that she knew about doing things the ‘propah’ way comes crashing down, albeit, riding on a lot of humor and sprinkled with just as many shocks.

Yogi is outspoken, effortlessly amusing, and an unabashed flirt. From the moment he occupies the screen, you are reminded of Monty from Life in a Metro and Rana from Piku who seemed to have just caught on from where they had pressed the pause button last. The brightness and unmistakable weirdness of the character is quite obviously carefully constructed, and yet, this in no way acts a barrier to the audience bursting into peals of laughter over Yogi’s hilarious antics – from sharing anecdotes about his exes apparently still pining for him to meditatively lecturing on how mangoes should be eaten (safeda kaatke, dussehri chooske), Irrfan, through his hungry, mischievous eyes, that careless gait and the relaxed demeanor conveys more than words can.

I am yet to figure out what about such loud, unsophisticated male characters appeals to me – bordering on the ‘social misfit’ type, these are the men women would least want to be seen with, let alone be in a relationship with. A man who insists you hand over your phone to him so he can teach your online ‘admirers’ a right little lesson, to inviting you over on a trip to revisit his past, believing his exes still hold a candle to him, you are left flabbergasted, amused, flummoxed by the sheer audacity of this impenetrable creature. Curiosity really does kill the cat, and so sneakily, quite unconsciously you feel drawn to this character, in a I-need-to-figure-this-chap-out kinda way.

The allure of traipsing through unknown lands with a stranger (who queerly still feels familiar and safe to hang around with), Jaya is pulled out of the trance of her remarkably ordinary life and hurtled into a time-machine of sorts, zig-zagging through incredible experiences and much needed laughter. And tons of warmth and that sly, crafty love that sneaks up on her when she least expects it, like a coffee brewing for a little too long.

On his part, Khan as Yogi eventually ceases to be the drifter that he has always been (or so we are made to believe, unless of course a sequel pops up), finally stopping to pause for breath and smell the roses as they really are (read: give love yet another chance, by pushing reminiscence of the past right where it belonged).

Yes, it is a familiar trope resorted to by Bollywood and Hollywood alike – the shy, introverted female lead paired against the boisterous, bolder gregarious male lead (or vice-versa). The plot isn’t novel as such, in the way it brings opposites together, bound by externally different, yet intrinsically similar circumstances – of really wanting to be loved and share a beautiful companionship instead of drifting about or hanging on to memories that no longer serve the soul.

The tempo of this sometimes tiresome journey though is saved by the initial build-up of curiosity, that continues almost till the very end, barring a few unmistakable hiccups along the way.

So missed trains and flights through Dehradun, Rishikesh, Delhi, Alwar, Jaipur and Gangtok repeatedly keep pulling us into the temporary world of this odd pair – each surreptitiously scanning the other’s mind, as if to tick off an invisible box in the head – until we’re hooked.

On the downside, the extreme interest in Jaya’s sordid, lonely existence seems at times overplayed in contrast to a vague summary of Yogi’s life and background – we only know he is a self-proclaimed poet and he somehow has his pockets filled with dough enough to go around the whole country (I’d really like to know how he digs in all that moolah from merely shooting shayaris off his mouth). Technically, the cinematography is disappointingly average, with the sheen of the locales relegated in favor of the couple’s (sometimes mindless) meandering through the film.

At times you wish the scenes didn’t jump too fast, and the sub-texts didn’t multiply with each location covered. Also, as hilarious and affecting as the overall journey was, the rational bone in your body does perk up quite a few times wondering, “Why the hell would any sane woman (and as sane as Jaya) agree to revisit this complete stranger’s past?” Also, that all of Yogi’s exes should welcome him with open arms and sexy dresses and off-kilter behavior (read: Neha Dhupia as one of the bunch casually flirting with Khan over some overwrought poetry) sounds preposterous and supremely wishful. You of course, know, this subtext has been thrown in to lend some padding to an otherwise simplistic plot.

So yes, that’s the level of trust, absurdity and incoherence on display here that unnerves you for a few moments here and there, till the leads recapture your attention and sweep you off your feet with their earnest performances.

The supporting characters here hardly support the narrative in any credible way – with the exception of Pushtii Shakti (the first of the exes the couple paid a visit to) who was the only one I could somehow relate to, the rest seemed to have been treated worse than furniture, as mere appendages.

Neha Dhupia looks phony at best whereas Luke Kenny as Jaya’s friend (ex?, what was he?) looks like he may have been shoved into the frame because no one agreed to do the part. Isha Sharvani as the third ex, seems to have wasted time showcasing her svelte body and fluid moves, I think a picture of hers with a garland around her neck might have sufficed. Navneet Nishan as the parlour-wali aunty Mrs. Saluja swings her part well, even though you find it stereotypical and bordering on a rehash of every other role she has ever played till date.

Jaya’s makeup has been tastefully done, with pastels and soft shades dominating much of her wardrobe in the movie. Full credit to Parvathy, for not being the quintessential Bollywood heroine and yet owning her part in her very first brush with this maya nagri. Her mastery over Hindi minus the familiar South Indian twang too is commendable.

Qarib Qarib, admittedly, is a flawed enterprise in more ways than one, and yet, it is hard to look away from the screen with such an oddly fresh pair tugging at your heart. If you walk in wanting to have a good time without letting your judgment come in the way, if you want to go all heart and not rationalize and identify rights and wrongs in the movie or identify isms and themes dotted across the length of the feature, you’ll probably come out with a silly grin on, wondering why it wouldn’t leave your mind – despite your brain having pointed out its occasional ludicrousness to you.

Rating: 4/5