Friday, June 24, 2016

REVIEW 402: RAMAN RAGHAV 2.0


Release date:
June 24, 2016
Director:
Anurag Kashyap
Cast:




Language:
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vicky Kaushal, Sobhita Dhulipala, Amruta Subhash, Ashok Lokhande, Saksham Sudhija, Mukesh Chhabra, Vipin Sharma, Anuschka Sawhney
Hindi


In one of the most telling scenes in writer-director Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0, a man assaults his girlfriend in the presence of two policemen. The cops have been assigned as her personal security guards, to protect her from a notorious serial killer, yet they watch wordlessly when her own boyfriend roughs her up.

It is a powerful cinematic moment in a nation that has socially (and in some instances, legally) divided violence against women into categories of “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. Gangrape by slum dwellers: unacceptable. Marital rape: acceptable. Domestic abuse: acceptable. Stalking by a senior politician with the help of state machinery: acceptable. Digital rape of a subordinate by a senior editor in a five-star hotel lift: acceptable (even by Kashyap’s own yardstick, in a sense, as evidenced by one of his troubling quotes in the media). Rape of an intoxicated woman who fell off to sleep in the back seat of a cab after a late-night party: acceptable. Rape of a hard-partying drug addict who went home with a stranger at a club: acceptable.

There are many such moments in Raman Raghav 2.0, a film that purportedly tells the story of two maniacal individuals but is in fact a distressing portrait of society’s attitudes and responses to violence. This is not, as viewers would be expecting, a biopic of the notorious Mumbai serial killer Raman Raghav who was caught after a string of murders in the 1960s. This is the story of two deeply disturbed brutes, one a poor man called Ramanna, the other a policeman called Raghavendra Singh Ubbi, set in the present decade – hence the “2.0” in the title.

Each is kinky in his own way, yet one has a veneer of sophistication that helps him to move around in glamorous circles while the other is obviously crude but blends unnoticed into the streets. As the film progresses, we see how they are no different from each other and how – much as snooty wealthy folk would be repulsed by this mirror – one completes the other.

Many of Kashyap’s films so far have been about the pointlessness of violence and the manner in which our actions inevitably catch up with us. But what about the ones who get away? What about people who do not kill with communal, sexual or other motivations, but for the pleasure of it. Is every member of a rioting mob genuinely committed to the religious group they are supposedly fighting for, or truly angry about the harassment of a woman in their community by someone from the other, or paid to be there? What about those who join in for the heck of it?

Murder for the sake of murder. Murder sometimes committed in the moment. Murder committed to make way for another murder. Raman Raghav 2.0 is not, therefore, about pointlessness, but about the mindlessness in so much of the bloodshed around us.

Kashyap’s latest film may appear to resort to certain devices popular in the genre: the ominous sound of a metal pipe being dragged over a hard surface, for instance. Yet none of them is used in a clichéd, predictable fashion.

Interestingly too, though both protagonists are ferocious creatures, the portrayal of violence here is not in your face, gratuitous or exploitative. Aided in no small part by Jay Oza’s discreet camera and Aarti Bajaj’s seamless editing, we know that blood is routinely drawn and skulls are routinely cracked in this film, yet at no point do we actually see it happening. In fact, only once in the film do we get a shot of a murder victim’s face after the murder. In that scene alone is a prone body shown in its entirety post a crime.

The pacey narrative – with an eight-chapter structure – is unrelenting. Though the dialogues are smashingly effective, they do not rely on filmic melodrama or earthiness (the most charming part of Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2) for their appeal. They are hard-hitting because of the situations and settings in which they are set.

Holding it all in place along with Kashyap’s unswerving directorial intentions is one of the best casts put together for a Hindi film in recent times. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s brilliance is now a given. Still, considering the number of gangster and crime flicks in his short filmography, it is amazing that he has managed to reach into himself to serve us something and someone so completely different from Faisal Khan of the Wasseypur films and Liak from Badlapur. His Ramanna is eerie, scary, disgusting and yet almost elicits laughs for the matter-of-fact manner in which he goes about his bloody business.

As chalk is to cheese, so young Vicky Kaushal’s all-Punjabi, all-Mumbaikar, well-heeled, gruesome cop here is to his turn as an impoverished, emotionally vulnerable low-caste boy from Varanasi in 2015’s Masaan. Two superbly written characters, two superb performances.

The leads are all the more striking because they do not get the benefit of repeated extreme close-ups or a repeated focus on their eyes and faces in much of this film. Kaushal, in fact, wears dark glasses almost throughout and many of Siddiqui’s shenanigans are captured in long shots.

With these two in full flow and the story revolving entirely around them, you would think it would be impossible for any other character to make a mark. It is a measure of Vasan Bala and Kashyap’s excellent writing and the wonderful cast that there are others who are memorable too.

Amruta Subhash as Ramanna’s sister is in top form. It would be Hindi cinema’s good fortune if it manages to tap more into this consistently lovely Marathi actress who, among other roles, was so moving as the young, widowed mother and struggling professional in Avinash Arun’s Killa.

In a film peopled with impressive talents – including little Saksham Sudhija’s beautiful, speaking eyes – Sobhita Dhulipala as Raghavendra’s girlfriend Simmy Naidu and Anuschka Sawhney as Ankita, a sexy guest at a party, merit a mention.

Raman Raghav 2.0 does not slip up tonally at any point. From Sona Mohapatra’s velvety voice at a nightclub early in the film to that remarkable overhead shot of Mumbai city’s beautiful ugliness in the twilight, from the impeccable sound design (crucial, since this is a film in which gore is heard but rarely seen) to Ram Sampath’s background score and songs that have been quietly woven into the narrative, it is all a perfect fit.

Anurag Kashyap has been a highly acclaimed writer and director for 13 years now, but I confess I have had issues with quite a few of his films, not just the widely thrashed Bombay Velvet but some that have been showered with reviewer and fan affection. Although he has been a producer of some gems over the years, several of his own directorial ventures have felt stylistically imitative of known international auteurs, rather than being rooted in his own personality and reality. As a result, most have not matched up to the sheer genius of his debut film Paanch (which remains unreleased due to a Censor ban followed by problems with the producer), Black Friday and a darling short called Pramod Bhai 23 that appeared in the omnibus volume Mumbai Cutting. With Raman Raghav 2.0, we once again get to hear and see the son of the soil at work.

Mein tujhe kuchh bhi kar sakta hoon aur mujhe kuchh nahin hoga (I can do anything to you and nothing will happen to me), a murderer tells a potential victim at one point in the film. This is not just one man talking because he has the confidence that the system will close ranks to protect him, this is the system, the government and the elite talking.

Raman Raghav 2.0 is layered, gripping from the word go, unnerving and, in a twisted way, hugely entertaining. It is also a stinging commentary on the times we live in.

He is back, people. Anurag Kashyap is back.

Rating (out of five): ****


CBFC Rating (India):
A
Running time:
140 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Poster courtesy: Phantom Films


Friday, June 17, 2016

REVIEW 401: UDTA PUNJAB


Release date:
June 17, 2016
Director:
Abhishek Chaubey
Cast:

Language:
Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Shahid Kapoor, Diljit Dosanjh, Satish Kaushik
Hindi


Motherfucker, sisterfucker, cock, balls, nuts, asshole, madarchod, behenchod, fucker…

Once you get past the shock value of hearing those words in more than one language repeatedly on screen – yes, even more than in numerous Bollywood gangster flicks of the past 10-15 years – you will realise that all this is nothing more than what a visitor to many parts of north India will hear in casual conversations. It is hard to understand why the Central Board of Film Certification a.k.a. the Censor Board would get so antsy about invectives that are used more often than the definite article in real life; or why these abuses, which are uttered without beeps by various characters, are inexplicably asterisked out in subtitles in this primarily Punjabi, partly Hindi film.

Here is the actual objection that Punjab’s politicians and their Censor Board allies would have had: writer-director Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab minces no words about a fact that the state’s netas have been anxious to keep under wraps for years now. Punjab is facing a serious drug epidemic; common sense suggests it is impossible for so many addictive substances to be so easily available to so many people, without the cooperation of the police and the political class.

Now that we have got that out of the way, let us focus on the real problem with Udta Punjab. Sure it is great that Chaubey has chosen to highlight a pressing social calamity, but the erratic narrative style ultimately dilutes what should have been a hard-hitting, revelatory film, in the end reducing the tragedy of drugs and drug addiction to a farce.

“Ever since I saw her, I no longer feel the need to take cocaine. After a long time, a tune has begun playing in my head after I set eyes on her. I’ve got my mojo back.” – This, in a nutshell, is how Punjab-based musician Tommy Singh describes his reaction to a Bihari field worker.

Is this some kind of joke?

A self-destructive drug addict has been ‘cured’ of substance abuse because he saw a pretty face?

There is more in this film where that came from. The first half of Udta Punjab is consistently grim, deeply disturbing and, appropriately, almost docu-feature-like. The second half though is intermittently farcical and ultimately makes a mockery of the concerns it set out to raise.

Three threads play out simultaneously in Udta Punjab. One involves the artiste formerly known as Tejender Singh, now Tommy (Shahid Kapoor), whose talent and success are fuelled by his consumption of multiple drugs. The second revolves around the young sportswoman-turned-peasant (Alia Bhatt) who gets entrenched in the drug mafia when she tries to sell a stolen cache. The third is about Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) who encounters assistant sub-inspector Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) when his brother becomes her patient.

At first, Udta Punjab proves to be a well-researched, sharply observed, much-needed, no-holds-barred account of the extent to which the state is mired in drugs and drug-related corruption. Even if you think you know, it is shocking to see the extent of unscrupulousness of those willing to ruin an entire population and even their own families for financial gain.

The intricate web of powerful folk and minions involved in this conscienceless trade is gasp-inducing, to say the least. It is also unnerving to see the soul-shattering effect that drugs can have on individuals who might otherwise have been humans with dignity.

So far so good. Then though, as if another director or multiple directors have taken over, the film unravels. Udta Punjab’s Achilles heel proves to be an inexplicable compulsion to assign a romance to each major mainstream star in the cast. The acting too is surprisingly patchy.

In fact, this film might be a good case study to help students understand that fine acting is rarely possible without the right chemistry between an actor, a director and a script. This can be the only explanation for why Shahid – whose stupendous performance in Haider (2014) remains fresh in the memory – is convincing in the first half but goes all goggle-eyed and almost comical once he apparently gets over his love for coke and sets out to help a stranger; or why the usually dependable Kareena here seems not to know when to wipe the twinkle out of her eyes.

Besides, there is no spark at all between her and the man in whom she appears to develop a romantic interest. As a result, that entire blossoming ‘relationship’ is awkwardly handled and appears contrived. Their younger co-star, Alia Bhatt, comes off better for the most part.

Likewise, Amit Trivedi’s music is as pleasing to the ear as always – especially the foot-stomping title track – but every good song is not good enough to be stuffed into a film. Ikk kudi, for instance, is well sung by Shahid Mallya, nice as a standalone number but maudlin in this context and completely out of sync with Udta Punjab’s initial tone.  

It is a mystery why this film was allowed to come undone despite the tremendously gifted individuals involved and the extreme poignancy plus conviction of the first half. To watch a woman drugged into sexual submission, to hear her captors assure a potential rapist that “she is well trained” and will therefore not attack him, to witness the depths to which drug-addled brains will fall in their desperation for a fix is chilling beyond description.

After all this, then, to have a character suggest that he has recovered from his addiction because he fell for a woman is infuriatingly irresponsible; to see the film switch between heartbreak and the male protagonist’s serio-comic behaviour is confusing. 

It is hard to believe that this uneven treatment of a grave issue has come to us from the director who delivered Vidya Balan to us in all her electrifying glory in the otherwise mixed bag that was Ishqiya (2010), from the man who gave us the genteel Dedh Ishqiya (2014) starring Madhuri Dixit-Nene and Huma Qureshi.

How could you, Abhishek Chaubey?

Rating (out of five): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
A
Running time:
148 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: