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

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

Image Source: Google

Director: Gary Dauberman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2.5/5

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

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

Director: Anubhav Sinha

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

Article 15 is a reminder that the Constitution of India is still alive
Image Source: Google

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

***

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

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

Article 15: Trailer
Source: YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

Director: Abhishek Varman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2/5

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

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

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

Director: Ritesh Batra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3/5

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

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

Director: Laxman Utekar

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

Image Source: Google

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

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

The Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Execution

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

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

Image Source: Google

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

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

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

Winning Moments

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

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

What else does the film score on?

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

Yay or Nay?

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

Rating: 3.75/5

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

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

Source: Google

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2/5

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

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

Image Source: Google

Director: Vijay Ratnakar Gutte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2.75/5

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

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

Director: Shree Narayan Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3/5

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

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