Sunday, June 17, 2018

REVIEW 610: RACE 3

Release date:
June 15, 2018
Director:
Remo D’souza
Cast:


Language:
Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor, Jacqueline Fernandez, Bobby Deol, Daisy Shah, Saqib Saleem, Freddy Daruwalla
Hindi


In a ritual that male stars of the Hindi film industry have followed with religious fervour for too long now, Salman Khan and Bobby Deol strip off their shirts in the closing minutes of Race 3 for an extended sequence of hand-to-hand combat. Some directors in recent years have managed to lend heat or humour to this over-familiar cliché, as Ali Abbas Zafar did last year with Tiger Zinda Hai when Khan’s character – hilariously and memorably – gave ISIS the full blast of his naked torso. Remo D’souza’s Race 3 lacks the panache to turn such triteness on its head and/or to keep it still interesting.

In 2008, Saif Ali Khan redefined “debonair” and directors Abbas-Mustan reinvigorated the action thriller genre in Bollywood with Race, in the able company of Bipasha Basu, Anil Kapoor, Akshaye Khanna and others. The film wove double crosses into double crosses into further double crosses in a novel fashion and was justifiably rewarded with massive box-office collections. The surprise element was gone in 2013’s Race 2, but it remained kinda fun albeit forgettable.

Race 3 is an example of a franchise failing to recognise its own strengths and shooting itself in the foot in the bargain.

One Khan’s entry into this money-spinning series resulted in another Khan’s exit. And Abbas-Mustan have been replaced by D’souza (F.A.L.T.U., ABCD: Any Body Can Dance). The loss is the film’s, entirely.

Salman Khan here plays Sikander Singh, nephew of the dubious billionaire business tycoon Shamsher Singh (Anil Kapoor). We are introduced to Sanjana (Daisy Shah) and Suraj (Saqib Saleem) as Shamsher’s twin children who resent the attention and affection he showers on Sikander. Yash (Bobby Deol) enters this explosive family mix as a fond employee, along with a beautiful traitor who goes by the name Jessica (Jacqueline Fernandez). Shamsher leads a life of luxury in the Middle East but has not forgotten his days in his village in Allahabad.

Since this is the Race series, it goes without saying that twists are piled upon twists unrelentingly from start to finish, and in the suspense department, this third instalment does fare better than Race 2 – which was too obviously conscious of its desire to startle the audience at every turn – although it is not a patch on Race 1. The best of Part 3’s mystery elements are not enough compensation though for the dilution of several pluses that made Race what it was.

In the matter of acting, it goes without saying that Salman is no match for Saif. In Race 3, his face appears even more immobile than it has been in his earlier films. That alone might have been excusable since Salman has in recent years made up for what he lacks in the histrionics department with charming self-deprecation and amusing quirks. Not here.

Race 3’s screenplay by Shiraz Ahmed and the dialogues by Ahmed with Kiran Kotrial have been written not with commitment to the story at hand, as much as a deep and abiding commitment to the leading man (whose company has co-produced this film with Tips) and his by now legendary connect with his core fan following – the rest of the audience be damned.

This is never clearer than in the finale when Khan looks at the camera and directly addresses his fans, as has been his wont through most of his career. Khan a.k.a. Sikander makes them a thinly veiled promise that there will be a Race 4 and teases them by refusing to confirm that he will be a part of it. The problem with this device is that it assumes everyone in the hall is a devotee, and effectively excludes the rest.

In a similar scene just moments earlier, Kapoor too confirms that there will be a Race 4 and he will feature in it. Yet, he remains in character as Shamsher while delivering those lines, he does not stare at the camera and the lines are written in such a way that though the intent is clear, they simultaneously also take the story forward. This is the difference between a star and an actor, a star who is playing to the gallery and an actor whose sincerity to his craft extends to immersing himself in his role even in the silliest of works.

Further emphasising this film’s Salmania is a comment about the dispensability of women – whether in big-banner commercial ventures (as producers, directors and analysts have openly said in the past) or in men’s lives is unclear. When Jessica saves Sikander’s neck in Race 3, she asks him: Main nahin hoti toh kya karte (If I weren’t around, what would you have done)? Koi aur hoti (there would have been another woman), he replies without batting an eyelid, giving her a speaking look.

Read: women don’t matter. Yeah, we got that.

Fernandez and Shah are good with their stunts, and it is particularly nice to see Sanjana cocking a snook at those who are cynical about women and action by modifying her tight skirt for a fight scene in which she turns her stilettos – a constraint in such a scenario, you would assume – into a deadly weapon. Sadly, Shah lacks presence and it is exasperating to imagine that D’souza or his producers felt she could equal Basu’s charisma that was such an important part of Race.

Oh wait. I forgot. Women don’t matter?

Race 2 was replete with bombastic dialoguebaazi. Fortunately for Race 3, silly lines like, “Ise dil nahin Dell kholke dikhao (gist: instead of talking so much, show him the video we have on your Dell computer)” that Sanjana tosses at Suraj do not come too often.

The film has been released both in regular 2D and 3D. I watched the 3D version and I found it rewarding in the sense that it had the effect of drawing a viewer into its world while being intermittently shocking, even if the determination to impress in 3D got too glaring twice when Salman throws his sunglasses at the screen, once early on and once towards the end.

Kapoor is the best thing about this film, even though he is constrained by the not-so-imaginative writing and staccato rhythm of the screenplay that follows this pattern from beginning to end: high-adrenaline action, song, action, song, action, song, action, song. That arrangement is especially problematic because the soundtrack is packed with colourless compositions, redeemed only by Selfish with music by Vishal Mishra, sung by Atif Aslam and Iulia Vantur. “Ek baar baby, selfish hoke, apne liye jiyo na (Just once, baby, be selfish and live for yourself),” it goes. I approve of the sentiment.

The Allah duhai hai reprise retains the original robust tune, but much of its impact is watered down by the way songs are used in the film.

For the record, Kapoor looks handsome and immensely dignified with a grey beard and hair. That he is playing his age ends up underlining the fact that 52-going-on-53-year-old Khan is not. Sikander is 35 years old. Seriously? Why?

Race 3 is perhaps Khan’s way of assuring fans that he does not intend to make a habit of films like the gutsy, politically subversive Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and the thoughtful even if flawed Tubelight (2017).

To be fair to him and to D’souza, some of the whodunnitandwhy in Race 3 is genuinely engaging, but the film needed more where that came from. Besides, the narrative style is tired and ends up adding nothing new to the Race franchise. Everyone and everything looks pretty and is dressed pretty in Race 3. The evidently expensive production design and the visuals by DoP Ayananka Bose – especially that aerial shot of vehicles in a desert looking like ants from high up above – give the film its polish.

You know what would have added depth to that polish? Saif Ali Khan and a better laid out screenplay.

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

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

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




Sunday, June 3, 2018

REVIEW 609: VEERE DI WEDDING

Release date:
June 1, 2018
Director:
Shashanka Ghosh
Cast:





Language:
Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Swara Bhasker, Shikha Talsania, Sumeet Vyas, Vivek Mushran, Ayessha Raza, Manoj Pahwa, Anjum Rajabali, Ekavali Khanna, Sukesh Arora, Vishwas Kinni
Hindi


I confess I set out to watch Veere Di Wedding with some trepidation. Honestly, I am exhausted from the parade of so-called ‘women-centric’ Bollywood films in recent years by directors who do not understand or care a fig about women but smelt an opportunity as the rights of our half of the population moved from the inner folds of newspapers to Page 1 and television prime time after the December 2012 Delhi gangrape. When feminism is a fad and a formula for you, not a conviction, obviously you will churn out empty vessels such as Akira or stereotypes like Tanu in the Tanu Weds Manu flicks.

Veere Di Wedding is none of that. Director Shashanka Ghosh’s new film is about real, relatable women. They fight everyday battles, laugh and cry by turns, trip and fall as human beings often do and pick themselves up each time, all the while defying not just social strictures but also Bollywood’s boring cliché of what constitutes a ‘strong woman’ that even good films like NH10 and Mardaani did not entirely shake off. In the world according to Hindi cinema’s aspiring or fake feminists, if a woman is tough, she must compulsorily smoke heavily, drink, swear incessantly and if possible, be sexually promiscuous – teetotalers in particular apparently do not count.

Thankfully, Shashanka Ghosh, his writers Nidhi Mehra and Mehul Suri are not faking anything. Their Kalindi, Avni, Sakshi and Meera are not trying to impress us with what other shallow minds have perceived as mardaani (masculine), hip habits worth striving for, nor are they founts of what is conventionally considered feminine virtue. They simply are who they are.

These are women with agency, flaws, humanity and, above all, a sense of humour they often turn on themselves. Their vocabulary and behaviour are not borrowed from American serials that are often tapped by unimaginative, mindless writers who see the US as the Mecca of coolth and liberalism. They speak and act like educated, city-bred, wealthy or middle-class Indian women might and do.

The bride and buddy (veer) in the wedding of the title is Kalindi (Kareena Kapoor Khan) who has returned home to Delhi from Australia with her boyfriend for what turns out to be a garish, extravagant shaadi that his parents insist on organising, ignoring the couple’s wishes. Kalindi’s prospective saas-sasur – wealthy, unsophisticated, conservative, smothering their son with affection and attention – are a sharp contrast to her suave father (Anjum Rajabali) with whom she has barely had a relationship since he married after her mother’s death.

Of course her wedding is incomplete without her childhood friends, each grappling with their own problems. Avni (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja) is a divorce lawyer who sees marriage and babies as the next step for herself though she does not appreciate her mother being on her case about it. Sakshi (Swara Bhasker) is a mess, a creature of unhealthy propensities who is dawdling about her millionaire parents’ home, refusing to tell them why she left London, dumping the man she had picked and married in a rush.

Meera (Shikha Talsania) loves her husband and baby, hates her over-sized physique, seems incapable of staying away from food and drink, but steers clear of the father who objected to her choice of life partner.

By the end of the film’s running time, life has changed significantly for each of the four.

Romantic comedies, not just in India, tend to underline the indispensability and inevitability of marriage, or at the very least a romantic relationship, in every individual’s journey. Veere Di Wedding is about having a choice at every turn. Its achievement is that it arrives at this point without any dialoguebaazi or overt effort at messaging.

There is a tendency in the liberal public discourse to dismiss the concerns of women like Kalindi, Avni, Sakshi and Meera because of their apparent privilege. Ghosh and his writers refuse to underplay their wealth, instead occasionally emphasising it, as with that scene where they exit a building housing some of Delhi’s most expensive clothing stores and one of them grumbles about the forbidding cost of designerwear. Sure, they visit designer outlets but that does not make their problems any less pressing or their stories any less worth telling.

Veere Di Wedding is impactful especially because the lead quartet are enjoying themselves even while their film remains an unapologetic commentary on the lives of women in this setting. They are funny, these four. Funnier still is the picture in my head of the notoriously narrow-minded Censor Board viewing Indian female characters openly speaking of masturbation and sexual droughts, and – Hey Bhagwan, hamari sanskriti ko koi bachaao! – de-romanticising motherhood, in addition to discussing careers, marriage and kids.

Yes, this happens. In a mainstream Hindi film.

Without appearing to strain a muscle, Ghosh and his writing team end up smashing more barriers with laughter than a million weepy, vacuous Akiras could. It’s enough to make you want to forgive them for repeatedly getting Sakshi to equate courage with having “balls”, and to forgive the producers for the surfeit of product placements in a single film, one for a car too in-your-face to be ignored.

Kareena delivers a neatly restrained performance as Kalindi. Sonam is sweet and equally convincing with her character’s confusions as with her ultimate decisiveness. Swara is born to comedy and takes to this glossy set-up – vastly different from the two wonderful, low-budget films she has headlined so far, Nil Battey Sannata and Anaarkali of Aarah – like a fish to water. Shikha is pleasant and as impactful here as she was in Wake Up Sid back in 2009. Remind me again why we do not see her more often in films?


The supporting cast includes a bunch of reliable actors. Their performances cannot be faulted though the writing of some of their characters leaves much to be desired. The rigmarole of anger, fights and misunderstandings between Kalindi, her father and uncle are not as well articulated as the rest of the story. Ekavali Khanna as Kalindi’s Dad’s second wife Paromita and Edward Sonnenblick as Meera’s husband are the worst hit – he is gora, she has a weird laugh, there is nothing more to either of them. C’mon.

This is not about screen time, but about depth and detail in brevity. Just that one scene in which Avni and her mother (Neena Gupta) have a heart to heart conversation tells us all that we need to know about the older lady and their relationship. Kalindi’s fiancé Rishab too is treated with empathy, and actor Sumeet Vyas fashions him into a congenial fellow.

I have heard some chatter describing Veere Di Wedding as “India’s answer to Sex and the City. For god’s sake, do not undervalue this film. The women of Sex and the City may have been entertaining, but at the end of the day, let’s face it, these were their primary preoccupations: the next lay, the next boyfriend, a husband. Kalindi, Avni, Sakshi and Meera are far more forward thinking. What they do have in common with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda is their hilarious frankness about subjects so far untouched by Bollywood and an endearing bond that is far more believable than the clingy relationships shared all these decades by numerous gentlemen yaars and dosts in Hindi cinema.

Shashanka Ghosh has already worked with Sonam in Khoobsurat, which introduced Fawad Khan to Bollywood. In Veere Di Wedding he proves yet again his ability to tell sensible, engaging stories about women without being painfully self-conscious about his sensitivity or their gender, without elevating female characters to devi status, but presenting them to the world as they/we are, as human beings, good and bad, with the ability to laugh our heads off even as we deal with the multiple challenges this damned male-dominated world and our own failings throw at us.

As lyricist Anvita Dutt puts it in Veere veere, which is part of the film’s soundtrack:

Hum to aise 
Toote phoote se
Dham dhadaam se

Din dahaade 
Baithe baithe
Gir gaye muh ke bal yun 

Humne socha hume to bhai sab pata hai 
Mil rahi is galat faimi ki saza hai

(A rough précis: We are flawed. We have fallen flat on our faces as a result. We are suffering the consequences of having assumed that we know everything.)

Bless you Ghosh & Co for saying it like it is. Bless you ladies for signing up for this.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
125 minutes

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