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.”

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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

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

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

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Director: Sriram Raghavan

Cast: Ayushmann Khurana, Tabu, Radhika Apte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rating: 4.5/5

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what she had to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hits and Misses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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