Monday, January 15, 2018

REVIEW 557: KAALAKAANDI


Release date:
January 12, 2018
Director:
Akshat Verma
Cast:



Language:
Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Oberoi, Isha Talwar, Sobhita Dhulipala, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Shenaz Treasury, Vijay Raaz, Deepak Dobriyal, Amyra Dastur, Neil Bhoopalam
Hindi



When the writer of Delhi Belly announces his intent to direct, obviously there is reason enough to sit up and take notice. That film – released seven long years back, produced by Aamir Khan and directed by Abhinay Deo – was an excellent black comedy that pushed the envelope in the genre more than most Bollywood filmmakers had for decades before that or have since. Its writing, direction and casting were in sync with each other. Kaalakaandi gets one element right: its cast. But though Saif Ali Khan is funny as hell here and several of his talented co-stars show spark, the writing does not give any of them enough substance to bite into and the film does not fully take off at any point.

Khan plays a man who has just discovered that he has stomach cancer and barely a few months to live. He is shocked at the diagnosis because he has lived what he considers a clean and healthy life. Read: no smoking, no drinking, no drugs, no fooling around. Since his family is celebrating a wedding when the doctor breaks the news to him, he decides to keep it to himself but also to live it up since he now has nothing to lose. His bizarre transformation confuses the groom (Akshay Oberoi) who, in any case, is coping with his own set of problems arising from pre-marital heebie-jeebies.

In the same city lives a young couple on the verge of parting ways since she (Sobhita Dhulipala) is leaving him (Kunaal Roy Kapur) while she heads off to the US for a PhD. With just hours to go for her flight they attend the birthday party of a close friend (played with aplomb by Shenaz Treasury).

What seems like light years away from their swish lifestyles, a notorious gangster’s sidekicks (Vijay Raaz and Deepak Dobriyal) are dealing with dilemmas of their own.

During the course of the film, the paths of these disparate characters cross in the most fleeting fashion, resulting in dramatic consequences for all of them.

Kaalakaandi (which, I have learnt from one of Khan’s pre-release interviews, means “gadbad” or “everything going wrong) is about karma taking over as we make other plans and the importance of occasionally surrendering to fate. The film is set in Mumbai and about two-thirds of its dialogues are in English, a choice that is well suited to the milieus it inhabits. Verma has an interesting enough concept in place here and has picked just the right bunch of artistes to get where he wants to go. The opening half hour offers plenty of Saif-Ali-Khan-induced laughter and zaniness to hold out the promise of more to come.

Sadly, the rest of the film does not live up to this potential, since it is neither madcap enough nor pacey enough nor raunchy enough nor witty enough nor shocking enough nor clever enough nor gutsy enough nor experimental enough to have the effect that it seems to be aiming for.

Verma’s inability to flesh out his basic idea for Kaalakaandi is particularly unfortunate because Khan is in his element here. In film after film, this actor has shown that he has the chops to pull off pretty much every genre, but his industry is not offering him projects to match. He was sweetly likeable in Chef last year and beautifully melded amorality with heart in Rangoon just months earlier. In Kaalakaandi, he lets his hair down wonderfully as he descends into nuttiness, but the script is too frail to give him the space to spread his wings.

That said, the writing of the thread about his character is the only one with the substance and life to keep this film going. The highlight of Kaalakaandi is his encounter with a transgender sex worker played by a luminous Nary Singh. The easy blend of light-heartedness and poignance in their interaction marks an important milestone for the portrayal of the trans community by Bollywood.

In the sensitivity Verma seemingly effortlessly combines with humour in that one episode, he proves that he has what it takes to be a director. If only he had spent more time on his script, it may have occurred to him that the strand involving Khan could have been a standalone venture.

The rest of Kaalakaandi is dead before it takes birth. Getting Oberoi to say “fuck” a few times, infusing Raaz and Dobriyal’s segment with ma-behen abuses, showing a naked woman covered in a sheet and throwing her lingerie at a horny lover or injecting a heavy dose of drugs into the plot doth not a black comedy make.

Each member of the cast has provided ample evidence of being a gifted performer in earlier works. Vijay Raaz was the heart and soul of Delhi Belly and Kunaal Roy Kapur was a hoot in the same film. We know from the Tanu Weds Manu films that Deepak Dobriyal is a killer comic. The good-looking Akshay Oberoi is just emerging from the brilliance of Gurgaon last year. Sobhita Dhulipala – who is a hottie – made a smashing debut in Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 in 2016. Yet in Kaalakaandi, when they are occasionally engaging, it feels more like a factor of their natural charisma than the writing of their respective characters. And then there is the usually exceptional Neil Bhoopalam who has zero impact in a pointless cameo here.

Besides, the timeline is inexplicable. The events in Kaalakaandi happen over one night, yet everything seems to take much longer than it possibly could in reality. The young couple, for instance, pack so much into the two hours before her flight that you have to wonder what clock they are operating on. This loose writing deprives the film of the compactness it should have had considering that its 111 minutes and 54 seconds is far less than the average Bollywood length.

It is hard to believe that a film directed by the writer of Delhi Belly is, for the most part, a drag. Despite Saif Ali Khan being in cracking form, Kaalakaandi lacks fizz and purpose.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
111 minutes 54 seconds

This review was also published on Firstpost:

  

Sunday, December 31, 2017

REVIEW 556: MAYAANADHI


Release date:
December 22, 2017
Director:
Aashiq Abu  
Cast:

Language:
Aishwarya Lekshmi, Tovino Thomas, Leona Lishoy 
Malayalam
 

“Sex is not a promise.” I cannot believe I just heard these words from a heroine in a mainstream Mollywood venture. Aparna Ravi a.k.a. Aps in Mayaanadhi (Mystic River) is a far cry from the coy virgins of past Indian films for whom sex was usually a mistake that almost inevitably led to a pregnancy.
 
This is not to say that other women in Malayalam films – or Indian cinema at large – have not gotten between the sheets with heroes in the past. Just this year, one of the most comical sequences in Angamaly Diaries involved a woman visiting the male protagonist in hospital to offer more than just sympathy. Their sexual escapades were designed as a source of amusement though, and the woman in question was not the heroine. In too many other Indian films, sex between a leading man and woman who are not married to each other has become a sort of mandatory signifier of coolth used by conservative filmmakers to mask their conservatism and/or establish how with-it they are. Exhibit No. 1: Aditya Chopra’s painfully self-conscious “look at me, look how progressive I am” Befikre from Bollywood in 2016. Exhibit No. 2: Mani Ratnam’s aiming-to-be-modern but ultimately conformist O Kadhal Kanmani from Kollywood in 2015.
 
Hear this, dear Indian filmmakers: showing your heroine having sex is not an indicator of your film’s liberalism, giving your heroine agency is. The difference between aspiring to be feminist on this front (or faking it) and genuine conviction is in evidence in Mayaanadhi.
 
Aashiq Abu’s new film stars Aishwarya Lekshmi as Aparna and Tovino Thomas as her on-again, off-again boyfriend John Matthew a.k.a. Mathan. Aparna is an acting aspirant who has been earning a living by emceeing and modelling while she works towards a break in films. Mathan was her senior in college and is now a professional racketeer. Each has a challenging family background, his is far more troubling than hers.
 
Mayaanadhi is a romance disguised as a crime thriller. When the curtain goes up, a series of events unfold that force Mathan into hiding. While he stays low key to escape the police, the film explores his long-standing relationship with Aparna, which is now in the doldrums since she no longer trusts him for reasons that are completely his fault.
 
Aparna is a bright, determined, professionally ambitious woman who knows her mind in all matters except Mathan. They have been friends as much as lovers – a magical combination that is hard to recover from. Though her head tells her he spells trouble, she remains as fond of him as she is attracted to him. The film stays with them as he desperately tries to get her back in his life while she is torn between her affection for him and her desire to get over him.
 
There is so much to recommend in Mayaanadhi. The attractive Aishwarya Lekshmi, for one, a model-turned-actor who is effortlessly glamorous on screen. She made her film debut earlier this year in the only awkwardly written passage in the otherwise excellent Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela. In Mayaanadhi she is handed a vast canvas and wonderfully nuanced writing to display her considerable acting chops.
 
Tovino Thomas has had a year that most actors can only dream of. If in Oru Mexican Aparatha he was a gritty and grim political activist, in Godha he was a man-child, and here in Mayaanadhi we get the full blast of his versatility as he aces Mathan’s irresistible boyish charm and longing for his Aps.
 
(Spoiler alert) That scene in which Mathan lightly accuses Aparna of “talking like a prostitute” and instantly regrets his words is a fine example of great writing meeting great acting. Her reply, in sharp contrast to his unevolved reaction to their rendezvous, reminded me of Shruti’s response in the morning-after scene in Band Baaja Baaraat (Hindi, 2010) in which Bittoo expresses regret for their sexual encounter, as if it is a catastrophe that he as a man must take responsibility for. (Spoiler alert ends)
 
For its non-traditionalism, smooth flow, credible characters and situations and so much else, the true stars of Mayaanadhi are director Aashiq Abu and his frequent collaborators, writers Syam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair. Their lead pair come across as real people with real dilemmas. Neither of them is flawless, but unlike in most commercial Indian cinema, the man’s mess-ups in the relationship are not casually justified or glorified. And it is a joy to see a woman who is strong but not in a cliched filmi fashion: her strength is believably human and not divine.

Team Mayaanadhi draws us into Aparna and Mathan’s story so effectively that we ache for them. The film’s atmospherics are compelling. DoP Jayesh Mohan ensures that Mayaanadhi is visually exquisite. His colour palette is dominated by whites, blacks and steely grays in the outdoors, almost as if Kerala in this film is experiencing an icy winter it never does in reality. This cinematographic choice serves to build up a sense of immense sadness and a feeling of foreboding around the fate of Aparna and Mathan’s romance.

There is also a largeness and grandeur to his outdoor frames, but the director’s narrative style is such that when Aparna and Mathan are together on screen, nothing matters but these two. He also wisely eschews song and dance numbers that are characteristic of commercial Indian cinema. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is allowed to distract from the ruminative mood of the narrative and the twosome around whom it revolves.

Till the interval, I remember being curious about the mystery behind the crimes we witness in the film’s opening scenes. Those questions recede into the background by the second half, by which time I found myself more preoccupied with what to expect for Aparna and Mathan as a couple.

There are plenty of other people around them, including some characters with stories that are striking even though their time on screen is limited. The actor Sameera played by Leona Lishoy, her autocratic brother (Soubin Shahir) and Aparna’s emotionally needy mother all leave an impression, yet somehow the film seems mysteriously depopulated. This is the most remarkable aspect of Mayaanadhi: Abu builds his narrative in such a way that his satellite characters are not neglected but his lead couple are lost in their own thoughts and their own world, and I found myself lost in them.

This is what gives Mayaanadhi its fine balance between being relatable and yet being an epic romance. It is a befitting December release in a year that has witnessed some great works from Malayalam cinema.

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

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

This review has also been published on Firstpost: