Saturday, June 24, 2017

REVIEW 501: TUBELIGHT


Release date:
June 23, 2017
Director:
Kabir Khan
Cast:



Language:
Salman Khan, Sohail Khan, Matin Rey Tangu, Om Puri, Zhu Zhu, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, Yashpal Sharma, Brijendra Kala, Isha Talwar, Cameo: Shah Rukh Khan
Hindi


Kya tumhe yakeen hai, partner?” Do you have faith? Confidence? Conviction? Do you believe?

The question is repeated throughout writer-director Kabir Khan’s Tubelight, in which Salman Khan plays a Kumaoni man waiting for his brother to return from the India-China war of 1962. It has its origins in the 2015 Hollywood venture Little Boy on which this film is based, in which the boy Pepper’s actions were driven by these words of Jesus Christ in the New Testament of the Bible: “…For truly I say unto you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say unto this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. And nothing shall be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

In Tubelight, the child hero of Little Boy who is plagued by insecurities about his small size, becomes a slow-witted adult called Laxman Singh Bisht who is taunted by the local bully Narayan (played by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub); Jesus and a kindly Christian priest are replaced by Mahatma Gandhi and the elderly Gandhian gentleman Banne Chacha (Om Puri) who is a sort of spiritual guide to the protagonist; and a father away fighting in World War II becomes Laxman’s brother Bharat (Sohail Khan) fighting the Chinese. The title of this film, of course, is a reference to the colloquialism (cruel, in this case) that is used by Narayan & Co to equate Laxman’s congenitally imperfect intellect with the time it takes for a tubelight to come on.

Laxman and Bharat lost their parents when they were very young, and have been everything to each other ever since. When Bharat leaves their town of Jagatpur for the battlefield, Laxman becomes convinced that his faith can bring back his beloved sibling.

Meanwhile, Liling and her son Guo move into Jagatpur and are tormented by Narayan who assumes that they are Chinese and therefore, the enemy. As it turns out, their origins, his mistreatment of them and Laxman’s reaction are a decisive slap in the face of pseudo patriots currently dominating the national discourse in India, demanding that all of us – but especially religious minorities, liberals across faiths and Kashmiri Muslims – wear our patriotism on our sleeve, and constantly asking for proof of our love for Bharat Mata. Like them, in Narayan’s worldview too, anyone who can be deemed “the other” – Liling, Guo, even Laxman – is a potential target of suspicion, violence and/or contempt.

Since this is a Kabir Khan film, it goes without saying that it is steeped in political commentary from start to finish. In Kabir’s hands, every word, every look, every turn of phrase takes on a special meaning, especially in the context in which the film has been made. There is a passage in which Laxman, initially swayed by prejudice himself, demands that Guo prove his Indianness by shouting “Bharat Mata ki jai” and, later, by speaking Hindi. The boy’s differing reactions to the two demands are both hilarious and telling.

This is the sort of material few Bollywood directors would dare to feature in such a massive, big-budget film. Kabir dares. The man who risked giving us Bajrangi Bhaijaan just a year after Narendra Modi won the general election pulls no punches two years later.

For his courage, above all else, he deserves kudos. But good cinema is not about courage alone. Tubelight works in the first half because its messaging is subtle and woven into an endearing story filled with humour and warmth, and because it pointedly tells us not to be as literal in our interpretation of the point it makes as Laxman is with Banne Chacha’s wisdom. It flounders repeatedly in the second half though, when it begins to stretch itself, loses much of its layering and becomes overtly manipulative.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being reduced to tears by a film, and I spent a considerable part of the post-interval portion happily crying, because what was playing out on screen has such stinging resonance when seen in the light of what is happening off screen in the real India. There was no need, therefore, for the insertion of two maudlin songs in the second half. Tinka tinka dil mera was particularly infuriating, and both numbers felt as if they had been put there because the director did not have enough faith in his story’s ability to move us and wanted a safety net. You know, just in case.

Even the upbeat Radio felt like an afterthought, as if to compensate any audience member bored by the gravity of the film’s theme. It is Tubelight’s equivalent of the loud Punjabi wedding song ‘n’ dance number that is now a commercial Hindi film cliché. Sure it is fun, but it is also completely incongruous considering the kind of film that this is.

Besides, the screenplay of Bajrangi Bhaijaan (by Kabir, Parveez Shaikh and K.V. Vijayendra Prasad) was comprehensive and well-rounded, whereas this one (by Kabir and Shaikh) is not as nuanced and well thought out. (Spoiler alert) The writers might want to consider, for instance, why it was necessary to make Liling and Guo Indians of Chinese origin, rather than citizens from any of the sister states of the North-east, and what precious meaning has been lost by making this choice. Elsewhere, Banne Chacha seems confused beyond a point by the effect his words have had on Laxman and fades away. (Spoiler alert ends) This is a pity because the late Om Puri is better utilised in the first half of Tubelight than he has been in the highly acclaimed Death In The Gunj that is also now in theatres, and unlike his somewhat listless performance in that film, here in Tubelight there is enough to remind us of the great actor he once was.


While reams of screen space are given to Laxman, not enough time is spent on developing the supporting characters, especially Liling and Guo. Zhu Zhu is beautiful, Matin Rey Tangu is utterly lovable, and both are clearly gifted actors, but the mother and son they play feel more like props than full-fledged people who we can invest in. In fact, the considerate Major Tokas (played nicely by the always wonderful Yashpal Sharma) is much better written than these two. Frankly, so is the character played by a very sexy-looking (I’m-not-trying-to-camouflage-my-age kind of sexy) Shah Rukh Khan in a significant cameo.

Liling and Guo are a far cry from the well-fleshed-out Shahida and Chand Nawab of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. 

The two things that remain consistent and commendable throughout Tubelight are the polished cinematography by Kabir’s long-time associate Aseem Mishra and (possible spoiler ahead) the writers’ non-conformist, non-formulaic determination not to force a romance into their storyline.

At the centre of Tubelight’s balance sheet is Salman Khan. He is both the film’s biggest asset and its greatest liability. Salman’s acting limitations are painfully evident in this film and I kept wondering what Tubelight might have been if Laxman had been played by Irrfan Khan or Nawazuddin Siddiqui, or even Hrithik Roshan under his father’s controlled direction.

In fact, Salman here seems to be drawing on Hrithik’s Rohit from Koi Mil Gaya and the contrast between the two stars’ abilities is embarrassing. That said, it is obvious that the pre-release attention this film has received has been almost entirely due to his megastar presence. I have to also admit to being relieved that at this stage of his career, when he could play it safe with conventional projects, he is at least trying to do something different and is taking on films that many other major stars might consider politically risky. 

There is so much to celebrate in Tubelight, that it hurts to point out what is wrong with it. This is a brave film yet so much of its bravery is lost in the over-wrought tone of the second half and the strained acting by its leading man.

Still, with Tubelight, my glass is half full and not half empty. When your head points out several exasperating aspects of a film and you still find yourself weeping with it, there is something to be said about the director’s ability to strike an emotional chord. Whatever be my reservations, the big takeaway for me from Tubelight is that Salman Khan and Kabir Khan have once again teamed up in trying times to deliver a resounding snub to bigotry.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
U
Running time:
136 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

REVIEW 500: G KUTTA SE


Release date:
June 16, 2017
Director:
Rahul Dahiya
Cast:


Language:
Rajveer Singh, Neha Chauhan, Rashmi Singh Somvanshi, Nitin Pandit, Sandeep Goyat, Parth Sharma, Vibha Tyagi      
Haryanvi, Hindi


In a small town in Haryana, not far from where I sit writing this review, a woman escapes home in the dead of night with her lover. Within minutes, they are abducted by car-jackers. On the drive that follows, during which she is almost raped, one of the men asks why she is running away. Is her husband impotent? Does he beat her up? He runs through a list that even an ultra-conservative might see as believable reasons (reasons, not justifications) why a woman might choose to dump her pati parmeshwar, the deity she is legally and socially bound to for life.

This pretty, feisty (albeit slightly silly) creature does not fit the mould of his imagination though. She is leaving, she says, because she does not love her husband and he has no interest in her beyond the few minutes he spends each day getting into her salwar.

That early conversation in a cramped vehicle flying down a Haryana-Delhi highway comes to mind when we later meet another free spirit in a tiny Haryana village, the lovely Kiran who has a mind of her own, and emotions, plans, dreams and desires no one expects her to have. Writer-director Rahul Dahiya’s heart-stoppingly beautiful G Kutta Se (earlier called G – A Wanton Heart) is about the claustrophobic and hypocritical world that suppresses and suffocates those like Kiran, a world where family ‘honour’ resides between the legs of womankind.

This is a place where women are denied dignity and men roam free, where loneliness and sexual yearning can drive women to make foolish choices in men, where segregation could result in dangerous innocence, where such innocence and gullibility in a girl can become punishable, where men may vent their testosterone on unwilling women yet demand virginity from their daughters and sisters, where women are themselves often aggressive purveyors of patriarchy, where a disinterested woman is more desirable than one who says yes, where a man might avenge his unrequited lust by raising a din about the ‘chastity’ of a girl who did not notice him and targeting the chap she did, and where death is a real and present danger for any girl or woman who does not play by the rules.

However much the media may have told us about what are euphemistically termed ‘honour killings’, nothing can prepare us for the casualness with which such crimes are committed by ordinary people in G Kutta Se. However disturbing the film’s early scenes may be, nothing prepares us for the frightening level of misogyny and the murders that follow.

Four stories intersect here: they involve the runaway wife, her abductor Virender, his little sister who gets exploited by a creepy local boy and Kiran, a college girl who is having a clandestine affair. This is clearly a social setting Dahiya knows well. What makes his work exceptional though is its unassuming tone and utter sincerity. There is no “see how socially conscious I am” attitude here that has pervaded many recent Bollywood films made by directors who do not give a damn about women’s rights but chose to cash in on the increasing media spotlight on feminism; there is no screeching background score to melodramatise intrinsically dramatic scenarios; no fanfare with which ‘issues’ are raised. In G Kutta Se, life unspools on screen as though it just happened to happen while a camera passed by.

Far from downplaying the seriousness of the subject at hand, Dahiya’s matter-of-fact storytelling style and Sachin Kabir’s unobtrusive cinematography have the effect of further underlining the blazing intensity of their theme, so that every new development comes as a punch in the gut.

Understatement is among the film’s greatest assets. The other is its cast of actors so natural that they feel like real people whose true story is being told. Although an array of smaller characters are well-written and well-rounded off, the two who end up being protagonists of sorts are Kiran and Virender played by the good-looking Neha Chauhan (earlier seen in Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhoka) and Rajveer Singh. Both deliver flawless performances.

“G” in the title is to be read variously as the Hindi words for “live” (from the usage “live your life”, as for example with “ja Simran, ja g le apni zindagi”) or “the human will” (derived from a scene in the film where a woman says, jisko g karega na, usko doongi” which amounts to “I shall fuck whoever I please”); or even the G-spot, which epitomises the sexual pleasure forbidden to the women of this film. This is my interpretation of the director’s notes, which I sought out after watching the film. Initially the title struck me as inaccessible, since it does not immediately offer up its meaning, but having heard the catchy song accompanying the closing credits (music: Anjo John, lyrics: Dahiya and Danish Raza), I find myself intrigued and still enjoying the challenge of translating “G Kutta Se”. Figure out your own take once you watch it.

It is a measure of the extent to which the Censor Board interferes in filmmakers’ creative choices these days that the Board had the audacity to ask for the replacement of this quote which was placed at the start of the film, “Your borrowed ego lies rooted in the same taboo, the same sexual desire, which gave you life, for which you cease my existence”, with these statistics which were earlier placed at the end: “There are about 5000 honour killings reported every year in 23 countries around the world. Official estimates state that about a 1000 persons are reported killed in India alone. However, a large number of cases go unreported.” The figures are appalling, no doubt, but where they are presented in the film should have been the director’s business and his alone. The idiocy and arrogance of the Board should be the subject of a full-length feature some day soon.

G Kutta Se runs for 103 crisply edited minutes, but feels less. Not too long back, Navdeep Singh’s excellent NH10 had taken us into a Haryana hinterland ridden with gender-related violence. G Kutta Se is completely different yet just as searingly effective. It is about hypocrisy and double standards, but the point about it is not that it merely picks a relevant topic. The point is that it does a great job of telling a solid story based on that relevant topic.

There are several bloody moments in G Kutta Se (none of them gratuitous), but the scene that shook me to the core had no gore. It features a young woman arranging a rendezvous with her male lover. When they meet, all he wants is to have sex, and he is taken aback when she refuses, assuming perhaps at first that she is playing hard to get – I confess, at first, I wondered if the filmmaker was making a crowd-pleasing concession here, to go along with the prevalent “she asked for it” response to sexual assault. The young man finally snaps: If you did not want this, why on earth did you come here? I just wanted to meet, she replies tearily.

The fact that he (a comparatively decent chap, considering the dismal scenario) had not even considered that possibility; that for him a relationship with a woman is not about conversations and friendship but about sex alone is scary and deeply saddening to say the least.

Far beyond its shock value, it is scenes like this – unexpected, acutely observant and written with moving sensitivity – that make G Kutta Se such a special film.

Rating (out of five stars): ****

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

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Poster courtesy: Rahul Dahiya