Friday, September 19, 2014

REVIEW 290: KHOOBSURAT

Release date:
September 19, 2014
Director:
Shashanka Ghosh
Cast:


Language:

Sonam Kapoor, Fawad Khan, Ratna Pathak Shah, Aamir Raza Hussain, Kirron Kher
Hindi

It takes a brave man to remake a much-loved Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic. Director Shashanka Ghosh’s Khoobsurat matches the mood of the 1980 original, but he wisely borrows just the bare bones of the story to come up with something that’s uniquely 2014 and uniquely his own.

This Khoobsurat then is the story of a bubbly, guileless, kind, successful young Delhi-based physiotherapist called Milli Chakravarty (Sonam Kapoor) who is hired to treat a wheelchair-bound erstwhile Rajasthan royal. ‘Maharaja’ Shekhar Rathore (Aamir Raza Hussain) is a tough nut to crack. Milli is his 40th doctor so far but she soon realises it’s his spirit that needs reviving, not his legs, for reasons this review won’t reveal. The Rathores live a strict, regimented life in their lavish palace overseen by the propah disciplinarian ‘Maharani’ Nirmala (Ratna Pathak Shah). Making up the rest of the family are their son, the dashing but boring workaholic ‘Yuvraaj’ Vikram (Pakistani actor Fawad Khan), and conflicted school-going daughter Divya.  

Like Maria in Sound of Music, Manju (Rekha) in the old Khubsoorat (different spelling) and other films in a similar mould, we know from the start here too that Milli will win everyone over by the end. It matters not, because the journey to that point makes for a sweet romantic comedy.

This may seem blasphemous to Hrishida’s fans, but if you set aside those rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia for a moment, you might agree that Manju/Rekha’s antics in her sister’s marital home, especially her loudness when she first entered there, defied believability. Milli’s exuberance never once resembles Manju’s early idiocy and is, therefore, more credible. This is a chirpy girl brought up in a happy, informal middle-class household by supportive parents, her convention-defying Punjabi mother Manju (Kirron Kher) and her quiet Bengali father (Kaizad Kotwal). Thrown into unfamiliar environs, Milli refuses to put a lid on her joie de vivre yet never comes across as being unaware of her surroundings or of how she sticks out like a sore thumb.

Sonam here does something she should do more often: she does NOT play a designerwear-addicted ultra-glam shopaholic and/or spoilt rich kid whose on-screen character mirrors her off-screen persona; quite the opposite and she looks stunning despite that. To find her Milli though, she reaches not into a wardrobe but into her self for that X-factor we saw in Saawariya’s Sakina, to deliver effusiveness and innocence tempered with sensitivity and wisdom.

Fawad’s staid Vikram is a perfect foil to her effervescence. It doesn’t hurt that he fits well into those suits and gives us a glimpse of a sexy torso in his bedroom one night, without strutting around like a peacock as some Bollywood heroes do these days. The supporting cast is strong, and the sweet chemistry between Ratna and Aamir merits a mention.


By now Kirron Kher could probably do the over-wrought Punjabi mom with her eyes closed. It’s to her credit that despite the burden of playing a cliche, she manages to be funny.

For the most part, Indira Bisht’s screenplay is consistent and realistic. One major grouse: the writing of Vikram’s character. We see him a lot, meet him often, yet don’t get to know him much. It’s easy to understand why Vikram falls in love with Milli. It’s also easy to see why she would be sexually attracted to him – c’mon, he’s cute! – but what evoked love? Can’t quite tell.

The writing does get occasionally lazy, with one particular situation of convenience being drawn up just to fit plot requirements. I mean, how likely is it that a royal Rajasthan household would offer a room with one bed to two guests, one male and the other female?

Early on in the film, another hard-to-believe scenario is unthinkingly thrown in to establish Milli’s egalitarianism. I can imagine a woman like her being kind to household staff, but how likely is it that the crazy-yet-sensible Milli would party, drink and dance wildly with them without stopping for a moment to wonder if the male employees might misunderstand her, considering the gender segregation prevalent in so much of traditional Indian society?

The film also unnecessarily slows down in the last half hour, feels stretched in Vikram’s interactions with Milli’s family and could have done without the generic song Abhi toh party shuru hui hai accompanying the end credits. The spotlight is almost entirely on Sonam in that number. Unfair to Fawad? Yes. But her family is co-producing the film and well, this is what Bollywood’s male stars do to heroines in entire films most of the time, so therefore ergo...

That song apart, the music – Sneha Khanwalkar’s pleasant compositions with lyrics by Kausar Munir – are neatly woven into the story and not lip synced but play in the background. The chosen locations show us a Rajasthan beyond sand dunes, and DoP Tushar Kanti Ray delivers eye-pleasing visuals without trying to impress with the grandeur of natural scenery or palaces.

Besides being fun, this is a sensible film. It’s non-judgmental towards Nirmala Rathore despite her harshness. The humour is never raucous and often used to convey an important point: note Milli’s response to Nirmala’s confusion on discovering that Ms Chakravarty considers herself a Punjabi. Except for some rough patches I’ve already grumbled about, this is a well-told story. There you go Sajid Khan, frothy does not have to mean foolish. Khoobsurat is proof of that.

PS: (1) Nice opening credits with visuals of the characters in gilded frames, against the backdrop of what looks like jacquard silk. (2) Is Manju named thus in a bow to Hrishida’s heroine?

Rating (out of five stars): ***

CBFC Rating (India):

U/A
Running time:
130 minutes 



Friday, September 12, 2014

REVIEW 289: FINDING FANNY

Release date:
September 12, 2014
Director:
Homi Adajania
Cast:




Language:


Deepika Padukone, Naseeruddin Shah, Dimple Kapadia, Pankaj Kapur, Arjun Kapoor, Anjali Patil, Anand Tiwari, Cameo: Ranveer Singh
English (A Hindi version has also been released.)

After a sparkling debut with Being Cyrus, director Homi Adajania unexpectedly betrayed a penchant for stereotyping with his disappointing take on the Christian woman and neurotic spinsterhood in his second film Cocktail. It was with trepidation then that I entered the hall to watch his latest film, Finding Fanny. Would it continue Bollywood’s notorious typecasting of Goan Christians as a semi-foreign bunch of male drunkards and female cabaret dancers speaking the “hum God se pray karta hai” kind of Hinglish?

As it turns out, whatever else it may or may not be faulted for, Finding Fanny cannot be accused of a reductive portrayal of Goans. For the moment, let’s forget the fact that Hindi cinema as a whole is yet to acknowledge the existence of Goan Hindus or of sari-wearing Goan Christian women. Before that stage of evolution can be reached, here comes Finding Fanny, a film that thankfully does not follow the Bollywood tradition of caricaturing this community.

Sadly, that’s not enough. Finding Fanny is quirky in parts, funny some of the time, and has a wonderful cast. But by the end of it all, the film feels too lightweight and too flimsy to matter.

Welcome though to sleepy Pocolim in Goa. On the surface, this fictional village appears to epitomise the fabled susegad, the contentment that lies at the heart of the state’s culture. We discover along the way though, that there are unfulfilled dreams and desires and long-held secrets simmering below the surface.

We are introduced to the film’s five leading characters in the voice of young Angie (Deepika Padukone), a beautiful widow of six years who shares a warm equation with her gorgeous and curiously husbandless mother-in-law Rosie (Dimple Kapadia), the local queen bee. Angie’s best friend is the elderly postmaster, choirboy and child-man Ferdie (Naseeruddin Shah). Their lives take off in a whole new direction when a letter Ferdie sent to the love of his life – Stefanie Fernandes a.k.a. Fanny – is returned to him after 46 years. Angie urges him to find Fanny, and reveal his unrevealed feelings to her. For their mission, she is compelled to rope in ma-in-law, the artist Don Pedro (Pankaj Kapur) and her childhood friend Savio (Arjun Kapoor); because Savio is the only one among them who can drive, Pedro owns a car, and the unwitting Rosie’s company on the road trip is essential as bait to coax him into lending them that vehicle.

Clearly the film is aiming at whimsy, a quality so smoothly achieved in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel that was recently in Indian theatres. Finding Fanny doesn’t have enough substance to achieve its goal though. It is not entirely consistent in its characterisation either. That outburst by Rosie against Savio, for instance – did it not imply animosity towards Angie, who she clearly loves? Is it fathomable that sweet, protective Angie would pimp Rosie to the discomfortingly lustful Pedro? And why are we expected to be amused by that lecherous chap?

Pankaj as Pedro over-acts to the point of making you wonder why he is routinely described by critics as “one of Bollywood’s most under-rated actors”. When he is good, he can be lovely – as he was in last year’s Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola and in Bhavna Talwar’s brilliant 2007 film Dharm – but when he is not, he can be painfully repetitive and/or OTT, which is how he is here. The forever-stunning Dimple too has a couple of overdone moments in the film, but it’s hard to hold that against her when she’s clearly enjoying the role. Besides, overall she shows more depth in Finding Fanny than she has got a chance to display through most of her career so far. She immerses herself in her character, as does Naseer whose loveable babe-in-the-woods turn here has more conviction than we see from him in most commercial films these days.

Notwithstanding how Finding Fanny has turned out, it’s a sign of our interesting times that hard-core commercial stars Deepika and Arjun signed up for this evidently experimental venture. Arjun has been growing with each film and proves, especially in that scene in which he ticks off Rosie, that he has what it takes to lose himself in a role. Deepika looks angelic, is attractively but simply turned out, and is completely natural before the camera. She does laidback very well, although Angie’s internal conflicts are not conveyed quite as effectively either by her acting or the writing. Still, the actress reminds us why she is widely considered one of mainstream Bollywood’s best talents in a late-night scene in a field, during a conversation with Savio that is far more casual than you would expect considering the circumstances – so casual, in fact, that it’s a hoot. It’s the best-written scene in the film and both stars shine in it.

The delightful music of Finding Fanny is a perfect fit. Composed by Mathias Duplessy, it is woven seamlessly into the narrative to complement the mood of the film and cinematographer Anil Mehta’s picture-postcard images of the pretty Goan countryside.

“Fanny” is used by Indian English speakers as slang for the bottom. In some places though, it mean a woman’s genitals. Adajania’s overt reason for using the word in the title is the search for Ferdie’s lady love. However, he seems to be having a chuckle with this naming game, playing simultaneously on Angie’s and possibly Freddie’s virginity, Rosie’s expansive buttocks and Pedro’s paintings of grotesquely voluptuous women reminiscent of the legendary Goan painter Francis Newton Souza’s canvases and to a lesser extent, Goan cartoonist Mario Miranda’s buxom ladies. Errr… So who exactly is “finding fanny” in this story? Now if only the film was as substantial as Rosie’s derriere or had as much depth as the connotations of its name...

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):

U/A
Running time:
105 minutes

Photograph courtesy: Effective Communication


Friday, September 5, 2014

REVIEW 288: MARY KOM

Release date:
September 5, 2014
Director:
Omung Kumar
Cast:

Language:


Priyanka Chopra, Darshan Kumaar, Sunil Thapa
Hindi

I have to confess to a certain degree of incredulousness while watching Mary Kom. Really? A husband so supportive that he takes care of the babies, motivates his wife and voluntarily puts his own career on the backburner to support hers? Do they make ’em like that?

Now having read reams on the five-time world boxing champion and Olympic medallist M.C. Mary Kom – on whose life this film is based – I’ve discovered that debutant director Omung Kumar and screenplay writer Saiwyn Quadras have been pretty faithful to her true story. In an interview to Good Housekeeping magazine in 2012, Mary had said: “He knows my dreams and is always encouraging me to go out and achieve them.” Onler, who reportedly left a full-time job in Customs and Central Excise to support her, added, “When we decided to get married, it wasn’t just to be man and wife. The promise was to be on her side always.”

This then is what this film is for me: the story of a gutsy woman who never gives up a fight, a feisty woman who is unapologetic about her ambitions, and her great partnership with an unconventional man unfazed by the standard gossip directed at husbands of successful women.

Mary Kom is an unusual sports biopic because it is, for the most part, shorn of contrived melodrama. Since the real Mary is an active boxer who is very much in the news, many viewers already know the outcome of most of the matches being portrayed on screen. The focus then is not on boxing but on the woman who enters that ring.

Contrary to what you might be expecting, this film is not designed as a grand epic set against the backdrop of insurgency in Manipur. Nor is this a masala film made along the lines of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. It is, instead, a saga of the daily struggles that a woman professional in particular must deal with. It is about gender prejudice, politics in India’s sporting establishment, a couple who are best buddies and the everyday tensions faced by parents. It is about a woman torn between the emotional and practical pulls of motherhood and her passion for her sport. It is about rising from humble circumstances yet it does not exaggerate Mary’s poverty, although extreme scenarios are often deemed more commercially viable than regular stories.

The effort to tell Mary’s story at a very personal level is commendable, but leads to a major flaw in the screenplay: it tells us nothing of the challenges faced by ordinary persons in the politically turbulent – and ignored – North-east, except for a wish for peace made in passing by Mary’s dad. Elsewhere, Mary’s sudden outburst that sports officials are discriminating against her because she is Manipuri is incongruous, because there’s not a whimper about such bias before that scene or after. Quadras even makes the odd choice of leaving out of the film a huge tragedy in Mary’s life: the murder of her father-in-law by unidentified gunmen that almost drove her to give up boxing, as she told The Hindustan Times in December 2013.

Some of the film’s dialogues required greater writing clarity. Mary Kom is also pulled down by the volume at which its passable songs are played. These loud numbers – particularly the irritating Hai tujhe salaam India – diminish an otherwise relatively understated narrative.

While the tone of the writing remains consistent almost throughout, there is an unnecessary effort to whip up emotions and suspense during an overly-dramatised scene in which Mary fights an international match just moments after having received bad news involving her family. Mary in real life did in fact face such a situation, but not in the same time frame.

The big picture though is that there is more to praise than slam in this film. Right on top of the heap of positives is Priyanka Chopra’s performance as Mary Kom. No, she is not Manipuri and does not look it either. This casting decision is not evidence of racism in Bollywood though (as has been alleged by some) but a sign of the star-ridden system that enslaves the industry, where even big film makers struggle to notch up a hit without stars and therefore avoid taking risks.

This situation needs to change. For the moment though, it’s a relief that Priyanka doesn’t overdo Mary’s mannerisms and reduce her to a caricature. PC throws herself into the role with the kind of commitment we saw from her in Barfi! At no point does she look like a boxing novice, and her body language – loose-limbed and excitable – matches her character’s temperament.

Interestingly, the writer does not deify Mary. Her excitability often translates into irritability and though she’s a good soul, I occasionally found myself admiring Onler’s patience with her. Playing Onler is film debutant Darshan Kumaar who is an absolute natural and a delight on camera. Of the excellent supporting cast, Sunil Thapa as Mary’s coach is particularly nice.

Press reports tell us the film has not been shot in Manipur. That’s unfortunate. The locations are pretty though, and cinematographer Keiko Nakahara has fun with them especially during an extended training sequence in the great outdoors. For the most part though, she keeps the scale of her camerawork more intimate, to match the mood of the film.

In the overall analysis then, Mary Kom is a neat little biopic. It is inspiring because Mary is a fighter in every sense of the word, and her marriage is a partnership of equals. It is unusual because the director and writer do not allow Mary’s motherhood to dwarf other aspects of her identity, and even when Mary is in pain over her kids, she is never shown feeling guilty about being a career woman.

Despite some major grouses with the film, I’ve come away from the theatre admiring Mary Kom and being a little in love with Onler. Mission accomplished, Omung Kumar.

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

CBFC Rating (India):

U
Running time:
124 minutes


Poster courtesy: Raindrop Media