Friday, October 19, 2018

REVIEW 648: BADHAAI HO


Release date:
October 18, 2018
Director:
Amit Ravindernath Sharma
Cast:


Language:
Neena Gupta, Gajraj Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana, Sanya Malhotra, Surekha Sikri, Shardul Rana, Sheeba Chadda 
Hindi


What happens when a woman gets pregnant in her twilight years. If some gentle ribbing is all you are expecting, then you are out of touch with reality and the subconscious prudery that even supposed liberals direct at the elderly.

Now imagine if the expectant mother and her husband, the child’s father, are already parents of a teenaged son and another who is in his 20s. The contempt they face within the home then is no less than what the outside world inevitably throws at them, as Priyamvada and Manoj Kaushik discover in Badhaai Ho.

Manoj (Gajraj Rao) is employed in the Indian Railways and Priyamvada (Neena Gupta) manages their home. Their son Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana) works in an advertising firm and is dating his colleague Renee (Sanya Malhotra). The younger one, Gullar (Shardul Rana), is in school.

Their family is rounded off by a tetchy, demanding grandmother (Surekha Sikri). Or so they think until a sudden bout of unease takes Priyamvada to the doctor and they realise she is almost halfway through a pregnancy she was not aware of.

The Kaushiks live in a congested house in a lower-middle-class Delhi locality with an old-world air. Nakul’s office is in Gurgaon, the suburb characterised by its glitzy, gigantic, modern buildings. Their worldview lies somewhere in between.

And so, first comes the older couple’s shyness to announce what in their youth would have been demanded of them as “good news” they owe to the human species. Then comes the laughter and derision of family and their larger social circle. This much is expected in such a story and makes Badhaai Ho a lovable slice-of-life comedy.

What is most telling and a departure from the expected is the nuance and sensitivity with which director Amit Ravindernath Sharma (who earlier made the dreadful Tevar) and his writing team (story: Shantanu Srivastava and Akshat Ghildial, screenplay: Akshat Ghildial) examine Priyamvada and Manoj’s own response to their situation, and the judgement they face from a seemingly forward-thinking character who sees in their decision not to terminate the pregnancy a sign of backwardness.

Messrs Sharma, Srivastava and Ghildial’s work reminded me of an article I read a few years back by a rape survivor who said she had to deal with considerable social opprobrium in small-town America when she decided not to abort the child she conceived from rape. Too many people who view themselves as liberal think that pro-choice means pro-abortion. It does not. It means being in favour of the right of every woman to choose for herself. So if you pressure her with your expectation that she absolutely must, in certain specific circumstances, exercise the option the law gives her, then how are you different from fundamentalists who want to change the law that gives women this freedom?

Priyamvada holds the conservative view that abortion is a sin, Manoj clearly does not and would like her to consider it. Badhaai Ho for its part reveals its standpoint in the position Manoj ultimately takes when he tells his beloved Priyamvada: “Kasht tera hai, final decision bhi tera hi hoga” (You are the one who will go through the trouble that this pregnancy entails, therefore the final decision too will be yours). That, and the fact that Badhaai Ho openly acknowledges abortion as an acceptable possibility, takes it light years ahead of most Hindi cinema so far including the Salman Khan-Anushka Sharma-starrer Sultan (2016) which steered clear of the subject perhaps for fear of antagonising a traditionalist audience.

This is what makes Badhaai Ho not just warm, funny and realistic, but also thinking, intelligent and unobtrusively politically and socially conscious. What makes it so enjoyable is that it wears its IQ lightly.

The characters in this film are not painted in black and white but in all the colours of the rainbow. The middle-class protagonists are not portrayed as saints nor are the upper classes presented as evil clichés. The screenplay, like these people, does have its imperfections though. Halfway down the line it moves too far away from Priyamvada and Manoj in its focus on Nakul and Renee. It’s not that we don’t get to spend time with them – of course we do – but they are dears and it feels like not enough. Since the young are the top priority of most cinema, it would have been nice to get better acquainted with the older pair here and especially know more about Priyamvada’s mindset, her goals and life-long dreams.

Still, what Badhaai Ho offers is precious – an insight into the lives of real people rather than glossed-up specimens of humanity that exist only in the imagination of commercial filmmakers. Sanu John Varughese’s camerawork plays a part in highlighting the contrasting spaces Nakul in particular inhabits. Varughese scales down while shooting the Kaushiks’ home milieu and even Renee’s posh residence, but his frames become more expansive when they shift to Gurgaon. The cast and Sharma’s vision are a match made in heaven.

Ayushmann Khurrana is gradually becoming the Amol Palekar of his generation, yet different. This young artiste is capable of top-lining conventional Bollywood cinema (as we see even with the closing song and dance routine in Badhaai Ho), but chooses to work in small films where the star is the story. He is completely convincing here as a well-intentioned though conflicted son. He also shares a comfortable chemistry with his co-star Sanya Malhotra, whose calling card as of now is her role as a wrestler in the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal (2016). Within a span of just three weeks, Malhotra has managed to display amazing versatility playing a sensible, urban, wealthy woman of today in Badhaai Ho, a character that is chalk to the cheese that is the loud, pugnacious sibling living in rural Rajasthan that she was in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Pataakha.

Surekha Sikri is rollicking good fun as the cantankerous Dadi who turns out to be not quite as old-fashioned as you might think at first. Hers is a character that occasionally is in danger of being overplayed, but Sikri holds back just at the point where she needs to. The always wonderful Sheeba Chadda’s turn as Renee’s mother is marked by her trademark restraint.

Neena Gupta plays Priyamvada with the natural ease that has characterised all her performances on film and TV. In addition it is worth noting how she has been styled and how she chooses to carry herself in Badhaai Ho. When she was young I never particularly thought of her looks, but in this film I was struck by her luminous prettiness in a face filled out beautifully with life experiences. Gajraj Rao is so credible as her reticent yet romantically inclined partner, and they are so good together, that they bring to mind these lines from I Believe In You sung by the legendary American country musician Don Williams: “But I believe in love / I believe in babies / I believe in Mom and Dad / I believe in you.”

Badhaai Ho believes in Mom and Dad. And you know what, Mr Sharma? I believe in you.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
UA 
Running time:
125 minutes 38 seconds

A version of this review has also been published on Firstpost:




REVIEW 647: PATAAKHA


Release date:
September 28, 2018
Director:
Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast:


Language:
Radhika Madan, Sanya Malhotra, Vijay Raaz, Sunil Grover, Namit Das, Abhishek Duhan, Saanand Verma
Hindi


Trust Vishal Bhardwaj to get to the root of India-Pakistan enmity plus crack Bollywood’s star system, both with one stone. His Pataakha (Firecracker) – coming a year after the Kangna Ranaut-Saif Ali Khan-Shahid Kapoor-starrer Rangoon – is a triumph of good acting without a single major star on its roster. Established, respected artistes: yes, in the supporting cast. Newcomers: yes, one of the leading ladies is a big-screen debutant while for the other, this is her second film, the first having been Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal. Big stars: nyet.

Bhardwaj’s new film is also one of the most hilarious, vivid, electric portrayals of sibling rivalry ever seen on the Hindi film screen.

Pataakha is set in rural Rajasthan where Badki and Chhutki – “children of one mother yet thirsting for each other’s blood” – are constantly at each other’s throats. No particular reason can be pinpointed for this extreme animosity. It just is because they just are.

The two are so abusive and violent towards each other, that it is a wonder they did not finish each other off at birth.

Their widowered father is devoted to them but knows not what to do about their visceral hatred. Bapu (which is what he is called even in the credits – can’t help but grin at the Mahatmafication) earns a modest income from stone quarrying, but is constantly stretched by bribe-seeking government officials. As if that is not stressful enough for the old man, his daughters refuse to be constrained by custom or by his commands.

Based on Rajasthani writer Charan Singh Pathik’s short story, Do Behnein (Two Sisters), Pataakha is not merely a tale of siblings. Just as Hamlet in Kashmir was not about an internecine in-family war, but about Kashmir itself, here in Rajasthan, Badki and Chhutki become a metaphor for two warring neighbours who emerged from the same womb and seem incapable of getting along yet equally incapable of surviving alone. Sound familiar to denizens of the subcontinent?

The film operates at multiple levels. Even without its delicious political impertinence, Pataakha is a hoot. The battles between Badki and Chhutki have a maniacal, frenzied energy that is as heart-stopping as a series of high-adrenaline car chases. The unrelenting slurs the girls throw at each other are never at low volume, and in fact, they are so godawfully loud that if the staid nuns in my mother’s convent school who told her “girls should be seen and not heard” were to meet Badki and Chhutki, they are likely to go into an eternal faint. Except for one particular fight they have in a new home that made me uncomfortable with its decibels and wish for just a few moments of silence, the rest are ridiculously funny for the girls’ combustibility and vocabulary.  

TV’s Radhika Madan plays Badki. Sanya Malhotra, who was the younger Phogat sister in Dangal, is cast as Chhutki. Both personify the firecracker/s of the title. On the face of it, these are easy roles – the two young artistes could have leant entirely on their screaming as crutches. Instead, they ensure that their performances are not reductive nor entirely externalised. The outer trappings are the fun and lively part, but what makes this film an absolute killer is their inner journey, and both of them nail that part.   

Vijay Raaz has often been wonderful in his career, though never more so than when he played the tentwallah P.K. Dubey in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) and the diamond thief in the Bollywood film Delhi Belly (2011). He has just as often been repetitive though. Not here. Bapu is a man of grays, swinging between confused liberalism towards his daughters and despotic behaviour. Through all this, but most especially when he resigns himself to his fate, Raaz makes him a loveable, likeable fellow.

The motley crew surrounding the sisters includes curious bystanders, innocent victims, interlocutors, intermediaries, peaceniks and troublemakers. The pick of the lot is the Narad Muni of the story, a fellow nicknamed Dipper played by Sunil Grover who also voices the wry, hysterical narration.

Dipper is part of the problem and also the solution. He gets off on getting the sisters to head for each other’s throats, yet once he puts a matchstick to the tinderbox that is their relationship, he also invests considerable effort in soothing their flared tempers. Grover is clearly having a blast with the role and his enthusiasm is infectious.

The dusty, grimy women look like they have not bathed in the entire first half (although at a literal level we know they do because Chhutki steals Badki’s clothes while she is in the bathroom one day). Even in the second half, when they are scrubbed out somewhat, they never come even close to being the polished, waxed, tweezed, plucked, made up, dolled up, gym toned, designer clothed, assembly-line heroines usually featured in contemporary Bollywood. Their faces mirror the dust-laden appearance of a film in which both sparring parties are ever prepared to get down and dirty with each other on the spur of the moment.

Their enmity seems to have begun before the beginning of time – Pataakha does not care to clarify the origin. This could cause some confusion if you choose to dwell on it, but for me it was a source of fascination for where this narrative could possibly be headed. Once the allegorical nature of the story is gradually unveiled though, it is clear why Bhardwaj did not pinpoint a reason. There is none. Like south Asia’s (arguably) most enduring political rivalry, this one too is unreasoned, unreasonable, and such a matter of habit that at some point it has become intrinsic to the survival of those involved.

Of course that realisation raises this question: is it Vishal Bhardwaj’s contention that peaceful coexistence is impossible, even undesirable, for some? Pataakha leaves it to the audience to figure that one out, even as it sucks us into the whirlpool of its manic imagination.

This is not the first time that Bhardwaj has allowed his mind to run wild in the Indian countryside, unrestrained by form, formulae or any manner of convention, his music as rousing as the tale he tells. He tried something similar in Haryana back in 2013 with Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, and fell flat on his face. It is a good thing he decided to lift himself up, brush himself off and return with Pataakha. Never before has a film been more appropriately named. What cracking good cinema this is.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
UA 
Running time:
136 minutes 11 seconds