Saturday, November 10, 2018

REVIEW 653: THUGS OF HINDOSTAN


Release date:
November 8, 2018
Director:
Vijay Krishna Acharya
Cast:




Language:
Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Katrina Kaif, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Sharat Saxena, Ila Arun, Lloyd Owen, Gavin Marshall, Ronit Roy
Hindi


Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif, Fatima Sana Shaikh – this is the order in which the lead cast’s names are placed in the credits of Thugs of Hindostan. The ranking is representative of their star stature combined with seniority in the industry. A more truthful list reflecting the substance in the roles they play would have read: Khan, Bachchan, Shaikh, Kaif. And if you want to know which of these stars scores in terms of quality of performance and conviction, this is my list: Aamir Khan, Aamir Khan, Aamir Khan, Aamir Khan.

Vijay Krishna Acharya’s third directorial venture (the others being Tashan and Dhoom 3) might have been a lifeless parade of spectacular visuals without Khan. Whenever he is on screen though, the film develops a pulse. Khan is Thugs of Hindostan’s heart and soul, breath and blood.

The story is set in an India overrun by the British, and revolves around an unscrupulous rascal called Firangi Malla who serves only one master, himself, until he encounters the freedom fighter Azad (Bachchan). Torn between self-interest and patriotism, Firangi keeps his associates guessing about where his loyalties lie, swinging back and forth between the British led by Clive and his own people. The road he will ultimately take maybe obvious to the audience, but how he takes it is unpredictable enough to keep the film going.

If the mention of a Clive suggests that Thugs of Hindostan is historically accurate, then let it be placed on the record: it is not. “What’s in a name?” as that most famous of Englishmen once wrote. A white man by any other name would have smelt just as rotten. So yeah, in all their confrontations here, the Brits are made to look like incompetent, gullible asses, forever suffering defeat at the hands of Indians. Since India is the wronged party in the imperialist equation, it could be argued that taking this sort of liberty with the past can hardly be treated as a crime especially since this is nothing compared to Western cinema’s casual portrayal of true thugs of the colonial era, most recently Winston Churchill, with affectionate indulgence. In any case, Thugs of Hindostan is unapologetically commercial, characteristically masala-filled Bollywood fare, that does not ask to be taken seriously. It is an action adventure in the mould of Hollywood’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, and does not pretend to be anything but that.

Acharya’s actual crime lies in the weak writing of every character other than Firangi Malla. Azad is a pallid creature, and Bachchan invests nothing beyond his towering personality and baritone in his uninspired performance.

The women are laughable asides in the screenplay. Kaif as the courtesan Suraiyya gets to look sexy and dance mechanically, displaying technique but little grace in two lavish song and dance sequences on elaborate, eye-catching sets. She has a third scene but disappears for the rest of the proceedings, which is just as well since she seems unable to move even those few facial muscles that she has exercised in her earlier films.  


Shaikh, who made a mark as a skilled wrestler and rebellious daughter in Dangal, is not required to act at all. As Zafira who is part of Azad’s band of warriors, she barely has any lines, and most of her screen time is spent running across battlescapes, firing arrows and throwing punches. She is fair enough doing all this, but not outstanding, and since she lacks charisma it is hard not to wonder why she landed the job. She also has less chemistry with Khan than Lloyd Owen who plays Clive.

It is thus left to Khan and the technical departments to save this film, and they do. Thugs of Hindostan’s production designers (there are four) and DoP Manush Nandan ensure that the film is never short of pretty and grand. John Stewart Eduri serves up a throbbing background score and Ajay-Atul’s songs are all hummable.

Given the only well-written character in Thugs of Hindostan, with an abundance of mischievous dialogues and credible motivations, Khan throws himself into his role with gusto, summoning up Munna of Rangeela and Siddhu of Ghulam, imbuing Firangi with a relentless zest, and switching from good to bad to inexplicable to exasperating to lovable within a twinkling of those delightful kohl-lined eyes.

Thugs was promoted as the first film ever to pit him against the great Bachchan. The legendary superstar is a pale shadow here of the best he has been. Khan, on the other hand, crackles, pops and sparkles as a swashbuckling scoundrel. The writing of his character and his performance are the only reasons why Thugs of Hindostan does not turn out to be a stylishly produced but disastrously dreary repeat of Acharya’s first film, Tashan. Despite all its minuses, Thugs is light-hearted fun.

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):
UA 
Running time:
164 minutes 30 seconds 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:




Sunday, November 4, 2018

REVIEW 652: DRAMA


Release date:
November 3, 2018
Director:
Ranjith
Cast:


Language:
Mohanlal, Arundhati Nag, Asha Sarath, Kaniha, Suresh Krishna, Shyamaprasad, Dileesh Pothan, Baiju Santhosh
Malayalam


Dead men tell no tales, they say. Dead women could be a different kettle of fish. Drama, directed by Ranjith, is about the funeral politics that ensues when a lady from Kattappana in Kerala breathes her last unexpectedly in the home of her daughter in London.

Before she passed away, old Rosamma had expressed a desire to be buried beside her husband in their hometown upon her death. Of her five children, three don’t care what the mother wanted, one does, and one is too weak to push her point of view forward. It is then left to Raju (Mohanlal of course), a partner in the funeral services agency that the family hires, to ensure that Rosamma’s last wish is fulfilled.

Raju’s reason for getting personally involved arrives with a twist in the tale right before the interval. That it took so long to get there is one reason why Drama is not as impactful as it could have been. Another is that Mohanlal plays a stock Mollywood character seen a million times before, complete with flirtatious nature, lecherous behaviour, and a conviction that infidelity in marriage is cute if the erring partner is the husband.

Like those million films that have gone before, this one too bears the stamp of the director’s belief that a sensible wife will not and should not take any of this seriously. This is a world of commercial Mollywood’s imagination, in which all women, especially young women, get excited or at worst are bemused on being leered at, especially by paunchy, elderly heroes. The trivialisation of male infidelity, of course, is rampant across all Indian cinema, not just Mollywood. In this and other ways, not only is Drama sexist and deeply patriarchal, it is also clichéd. A woman in the film says marriage is built on a foundation of forgiveness, but she too offers an example of a wife forgiving a husband who ‘slipped up’ sexually, but no example calling on a male spouse to close his eyes to a wife in similar circumstances. A man plays on the words “pig” and “pork” while addressing his wife in conversation. A passing reference to domestic violence is troublingly casual, more so because the woman in that scene is in a situation that could potentially be very dangerous in real life. And the truth is, all this feels minor in comparison with the horrendous misogyny of so many other mainstream Malayalam films.

This aspect of the film and the scenes squandered on establishing Raju’s pointless back story divert too much attention from its main purpose, which is to address family politics at the death of a relative. That part of Drama is far more engaging and fulfilling and at least initially, nuanced. Note the fleeting look of hurt on Rosamma’s daughter Mercy’s face when she first hears Raju’s employees referring to “the body” and “the box”. Even if she were not the quiet, mild-mannered person that she is, how can she possibly object to their choice of words? Mom is, after all, now “the body” and “the box” to them and it is clear they mean no offence. That said, the men’s tendency to switch to terms such as “item” and “stuff” when the family is not around shows how they have been hardened to the point of extreme insensitivity by their daily encounters with death.

The intricate games being played among the siblings too are interesting and comical to begin with until they get repetitive and it also becomes clear that while an effort has been made to build up Raju in the screenplay, an equal effort has not been invested in the characterisation or casting of Rosamma’s children. This should not come as a surprise although the film has been made by the National Award-winning director of Thirakkatha and Indian Rupee since, as Mollywood-gazers well know, Ranjith is as capable of insipidity (sample: Puthan Panam) and mixed bags (sample: Spirit) as of quality cinema.

The absence of detail in the writing of the children is Drama’s big gaping lacuna. Even the performances are largely ineffectual, with only Kaniha as the reticent, sorrowful Mercy leaving any kind of lasting impression.

Arundhati Nag is alright as the dead lady. And the always-striking Asha Sarath is wasted playing the role of Raju’s wife whose deletion from the screenplay would have made absolutely no difference to the plot.

Mohanlal too is just alright except when his comic timing is put to good use in some scenes. In the end he gets to sing a foot-tapping number accompanying the closing credits. That is not a bad thing when viewed in isolation, but when you consider that this is an ensemble film, the song is a symptom of the director’s undue focus on the character played by his superstar leading man.

2018 has provided an excellent measure of the chasm that separates conventional commercial Malayalam cinema from its more experimental cousins, with the release of Ranjith’s Drama coming just months after Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Ee.Ma.Yau. Both are funeral-centric satires, but Ee.Ma.Yau. is a profound commentary on death, relationships and the community in which the story is set. Drama, on the other hand, has little depth. This Mohanlal-starrer is mildly entertaining but, like its unimaginative title, also unremarkable.

Rating (out of five stars): *3/4

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

This review has also been published on Firstpost:




Monday, October 29, 2018

REVIEW 651: WHO


Release date:
October 26, 2018
Director:
Ajay Devaloka
Cast:

Language:
Shine Tom Chacko, Shruthy Menon, Pearle Maaney, Rajeev Pillai, Prashanth Nair
English, Malayalam


What if we are characters in another person’s dream and death is that person waking up?

What if we could communicate in our dreams with individuals we have never met?

Writer-director Ajay Devaloka addresses these questions in Who: Chapter 2, an English-Malayalam film that travels back and forth across several decades all the way up to 2040 A.D. Through this time we encounter a young woman called Dolores and a reclusive man called John who are both troubled by what they see in their sleep. In the same region, two policemen are investigating the disappearance of a woman named Isabella when they learn that tragedy strikes in that area each year on Christmas day.

Dreams and the scope of the human imagination have pre-occupied philosophers and litterateurs for generations. Devaloka’s theme per se remains captivating, until a long-drawn-out voiceover in the end decides to idiot-proof it for us with a detailed explanation about electromagnetic waves, cosmic connections and other blah.

Before that finale, when we are left to ourselves to interpret the goings-on, large swathes of Who are quite interesting, and what appear to be loose ends are forgivable since a companion film to Who called Isabella is in the offing so one assumes that those gaps would be plugged in that film. “Quite interesting” but not entirely so because the film never comes to terms with its chosen language of communication, that is, English with some Malayalam. Its awkwardness with the former – in the writing and much of the acting – makes its silences preferable to too many of its spoken conversations.

Those silences, draped in the mists of a mountainous region “somewhere in India”, come swaddled in an alluring air of mystery, foreboding and desolation. DoP Amith Surendran embraces the film’s setting with both arms, his magnificent frames tempering the rich green of the mountainside with a perennial gray.

Visually then, Who is stunning. Thematically too it is filled with promise. But all the intriguing paranormal and pop psych questions in the world, the Biblical knowledge, the referencing of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream from the Old Testament, and beautiful cinematography cannot camouflage the fact that though the dialogues are written primarily in English with some use of Malayalam, the writer’s English does not flow comfortably.

The choice of language is in itself inexplicable. Where in India is this film located that people would force themselves to speak English even in private spaces although it does not come naturally to them and they do have a choice since everyone seems to know Malayalam too? Of course there is the other possibility – a perfectly acceptable one – that a director/writer would pick a tongue alien to his story’s setting because it is the language most understood by his target audience, like Richard Attenborough making Gandhi in English although we know that the characters in that film would mostly not have been speaking English in real life, and Milan Luthria making The Dirty Picture in Hindi although it is set in Chennai where, in real life, most of the characters would have been speaking Tamil with perhaps a spot of English. If you take that route as a filmmaker, you may opt for actors who speak in local accents but you cannot have a writer who writes dialogues in a way that no one speaks.

Not only do many of the English dialogues in Who sound pretentious (a woman called Arunima is crushed under this burden), but some are downright hollow to the point of being hilarious. Like this solo line delivered by John, who grandly tells one of the cops: Sometimes life is more than just a dream, isn’t it? He then walks away, as if he is leaving us to think deeply about a gem that just tripped off his lips.

Or sample this exchange between the two policemen discussing the fact that Isabella’s body has not been found although another woman who disappeared was later found murdered:

Cop1: I suspect a foul play.

Cop2:  Yes I think so too.

Oh, you do?!

Thankfully, these are the very worst of Who, and the rest is better. But the language also appears to affect the performances of some of the artistes since John’s little daughter and John himself sound more natural when they are speaking in Malayalam, but stiff and strained while dealing with their English lines. The kid, in fact, struggles with English to embarrassing effect.

John comes off worse on the whole though because English dominates his lines and, sadly, actor Shine Tom Chacko comes across as though he has been instructed to be intentionally mannered in his speech. Shruthy Menon who plays Arunima must have got the same memo. Menon is very likely at ease with both languages off screen, but is better with her Malayalam dialogues in this film, not because her acting changes for them but because those portions are better written.

One can only assume that with their theatrical performances she and Chacko are playing along with director Devaloka’s vision here since this is not how they have been in their previous films.

The actor who comes away from this film with her reputation unsullied is Pearle Maaney playing Dolores. To be fair to the others, hers is the best-written part. Still, there are places where she could have gone all melodramatic and lofty on us but does not. Whether she was given the freedom to decide for herself or that was Devaloka’s call for her we do not know, but either way she manages to keep Dolores unpretentious till the very end.

The first half of Who evokes curiosity despite its obvious flaws, because Maaney, the camerawork, and the theme keep it going. It becomes increasingly laboured as the second half progresses though. This is a theme worth exploring, it just needed to be handled in a less self-conscious and self-important manner epitomised by that laughable spoonfeeding session in the closing voice-over that may as well have been preceded by the words, “Dear viewers, I just showed you my very very intelligent film that I think perhaps you may have been too dumb to understand, so let me spell it out for you...” Uff.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
UA 
Running time:
153 minutes 

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