Friday, August 22, 2014


Release date:
August 22, 2014
Pradeep Sarkar


Rani Mukerji, Tahir Bhasin, Priyanka Sharma, Anil George, Jisshu Sengupta
It’s been a long long time since I’ve watched a Hindi film in a hall where all the women in the audience clapped – several times. They did this today not for a bizarre, unrealistic gang of rape victims on a rampage, castrating rapists as Dimple Kapadia & Co did in 1988’s Zakhmi Aurat. Today they applauded a believable woman police officer whose fisticuffs are a far cry from the fantastical dishum-dishum of Bajirao Singham in Singham Returns; a woman who looks like she may well exist in a police station near our homes. 

Rani Mukerji plays Mumbai Crime Branch Senior Inspector Shivani Shivaji Roy in Pradeep Sarkar’s Mardaani. Hate the title, but let’s discuss that later. When a street kid she’s fond of is netted in a sex trafficking racket, Shivani goes after the gang and its intriguing kingpin. This is a sociological crime thriller atypical of Bollywood: shorn of frills, straight-laced, to the point.

Shivani doesn’t fit any social or Bollywood stereotypes, unless you count the film’s awful name. She’s smart, assertive, pretty, has an unconventional family, is friendly with her juniors yet very much in charge, committed to her work yet not obsessive to the exclusion of all else. She’s fun, she’s sexy, she doesn’t hesitate to bash up bad guys, and she’s not exactly a saint when it comes to the law. I kept waiting for a lazy and trite bow to commercial compulsions with a suddenly glammed-up Shivani in a nightclub, under the pretext of an undercover operation, while an ‘item song’ with a scantily clad female dancer played in the background. No such scene came up.

So the film is consistent in tone until that last scene in which Shivani delivers an unnecessary sermon to the central villain and offers that dreadful, completely superfluous statement to us as a solution to sexual violence: “Apne andar chhupee mardaani har aurat, har bachchi ko dhoondna hai (Every woman, every girl must find the man/manliness/masculinity hidden within her).”

The unmistakable reference is to this line in Subhadrakumari Chauhan’s Hindi poem on Rani Laxmibai: “…Khoob ladi mardaani / woh toh Jhansi waali Rani thhi (She who fought like a man, she was the Queen of Jhansi).” That verse could perhaps be forgiven for equating valour with manliness, since it was written in the early 1900s. Decades later, sycophantic, sexist Indian netas were still adjectivising “man” as a synonym for “decisive” and “brave”. Indira Gandhi was “the only man in her Cabinet”, they said. Israel’s Golda Meir and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher had already earned similar epithets. What a shame that Indian language is still so regressive and gender insensitive, that a film on a gutsy woman police officer is titled Mardaani.

Sarkar’s gender politics is confusing. His Lalita in Parineeta (2005) defied norms. Pinky in Lafangey Parindey (2010) was fiercely independent. In between came Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (LCMD) bearing the absurd lesson that a woman alone in the big bad city has no choice but to turn to prostitution to earn a living. Everything except the title of Mardaani and that last sentence from Shivani are a complete departure from LCMD’s inexplicable medievalism.

That’s the only daag on this otherwise excellent film, which provides a well-deserved platform to one of Bollywood’s best actresses. Rani is pitch perfect as Shivani. She also looks sweet with barely any makeup on. She gets the physicality just right, looking fit, like a fit woman would be, and is delightful in those thoroughly un-Singham-like action and fight scenes. Good job, girl!

Backing her are wonderfully natural supporting actors in well-written roles. The most unusual character of the lot is the trafficking boss who possesses neither the complexion nor the looks, language or demeanour typically associated with Bollywood gangsters. This Hindi-English-speaking Hindu College dropout is the kind of chap who could be your neighbour or mine. He’s played by the lovely Tahir Bhasin who was noticeable even in Abhay Deol’s dismal production One By Two earlier this year, so you can imagine how he shines in this sparkling film.

Mardaani’s clean writing by Gopi Puthran is complemented by cinematographer Artur Zurawski and editor Sanjib Datta’s no-fuss work. Together with Sarkar, they manage to portray the sexual exploitation of girls without being exploitative themselves. Except for that final song, the use of music is minimal, which is well suited to the tenor of the film. The sharp dialogues are rarely melodramatic. There’s some interesting referencing of religion (a muezzin’s call at an interesting point) and popular culture (watch out, Breaking Bad fans). Also neat is the way Delhi NCR has been woven into the scenario, with a Gurgaon multiplex, the Metro, the Hanuman statue at Jhandewalan and our newest landmark, that striking gigantic Tiranga in CP set up by industrialist Naveen Jindal’s Flag Foundation, distinguishing the Capital from Mumbai where the story first takes off. No cliched shots of India Gate and Rajpath as is the wont of most Hindi films.

Let’s pretend we didn’t hear that last line and that they called the film something else. After Kangna Ranaut’s Queen, here comes Rani The Action Queen. This has been a good year for proving that women-centric films can be fun. “Kadam milaake dekho toh / Main saath mein tere chal doongi / Par chhed ke dekho tum mujhko / Main tumko nahi chhodoongi,” goes the song playing in the background in the final scene. It’s more dramatic than the rest of the film, but after years of watching Salman, Ajay & Co mindlessly bashing up baddies in an often enjoyable but always unrealistic fashion, I confess I had a rollicking good time seeing a woman grind her foot into a creep’s groin in a far more probable fashion. Mardaani strikes that delicate and hard-to-achieve balance between realism and entertainment. Very very nice, Mr Sarkar.

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

CBFC Rating (India):

Running time:
114 minutes

Photograph and videos courtesy: Yash Raj Films
Mardaani anthem “Main tumko nahin chhodoongee”:

Friday, August 15, 2014




Release date:
August 15, 2014
Rohit Shetty


Ajay Devgn, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Amole Gupte, Zakir Hussain, Mahesh Manjrekar, Anupam Kher, Dayanand Shetty, Sharat Saxena, Ashwini Kalsekar

Meri zaroorte kam hai, isliye mere zameer mein dum hai.” Remember the hero Bajirao Singham’s signature line in director Rohit Shetty’s blockbuster Singham? Or the villain’s equally memorable, melodramatic trademark utterance, “Sab kuchh karne ka, lekin Jaykanth Shikre ka ego hurt nahin karne ka”? I kept waiting for killer dialoguebaazi like that to pop up in the film’s sequel, Singham Returns, that’s now in theatres. What came instead was Singham telling a group of errant youngsters, “Tumhari zaroorat jail ko nahin, desh ko hai,” and telling us how “tareeka nahin, taakat” is what he needs to vanquish a corrupt Maharashtra politician and a dishonest sadhu. Comparatively thanda, as you can see. Singham in this film also repeats some of the more successful lines from Part 1, such as his iconic Marathi dialogue: “Aata maajhi satakli.

That, in a nutshell, encapsulates this film: it’s fun but it lacks the imagination and the novelty value of its prequel. Singham was the Hindi remake of writer-director Hari’s highly successful Tamil film Singam starring southern Indian screen siren and superstar Suriya. Shetty’s Bollywood version with Ajay Devgn in the lead was a virtual carbon copy of the Tamil original, combining enjoyably unrealistic 1970s/80s-style filmic conversations reminiscent of Amitabh Bachchan’s biggest hits, with equally unrealistic, high-octane, imaginatively choreographed action scenes, at an unrelenting pace. For those who don’t mind the required suspension of disbelief, Singham was a thoroughly entertaining experience. Singham Returns is based on Shetty’s own original story with a screenplay by Yunus Sajawal, dialogues by Farhad-Sajid and action by Shetty himself, Jai Singh Nijjar and Sunil Rodrigues. The decline in quality is a reminder of how much Singham owed the writer/s and action director of the Tamil film.

Singham was the story of a politician avenging his insult at the hands of an honest policeman in a small town on the border of Goa and Maharashtra. In Singham Returns, the Mumbai-based DCP Bajirao Singham is caught in the crosshairs of a coalition government battle between the honest Maharashtra Chief Minister (Mahesh Manjrekar) and his idealistic mentor (Anupam Kher) pitted against the corrupt neta Prabhakar Rao (Zakir Hussain) and a holy man (Amole Gupte) whose sabhas with his devotees are a cover for a black money racket.

There’s enough meat in that basic storyline to sustain Singham Returns’ two hour-plus running time for those in an indulgent mood. What’s lacking is the punch and pizzazz of Singham’s stunts and dialogues with their delightfully unapologetic over-the-top-ness. There are a couple of well-designed shootouts here, one scene in which Bajirao Singham flies out from behind a vehicle in slow motion to shoot down a bunch of bad guys even while his body is still suspended in mid-air, and another in which he coolly jumps over a wall; scenes that had me half-giggling, half-wanting-to-whistle. But there’s just not enough where that came from.

If you found the first film troublesome for its unthinking justification of police atrocities, be warned: this one takes that attitude several notches higher. In Singham Returns’ uni-dimensional world, all police personnel are squeaky clean, encounters are a justifiable method of policing, and unbridled power must be placed in the hands of these great men because, you see, there’s no question of any of these flawless, angelic creatures misusing their powers.

This lack of nuance is nothing but laziness in writing from a man who is capable of more. Yes please, it may be intellectually fashionable to brush aside all Shetty’s work as mindless, but that’s actually not the case. Note how, for instance, with Chennai Express, he got all of north India to watch a film in which about 40 per cent of the dialogues were in Tamil without subtitles. The Marathi dialogues in the Singham series are not as many (there was even some Tulu in the first film), but they’re still enough for the determined lack of subtitles to be noticeable.

Notice too the thread of secularism neatly woven into Singham Returns. During a song filmed at Maqdoom Shah Baba’s dargah – a regular haunt of the Mumbai police force, we are told – Singham wears a Muslim skullcap while at prayer. The significance of that scene cannot be lost on an India debating Narendra Modi’s refusal to wear a skullcap offered by a friendly maulvi although he gladly wears the headgear of all other communities, including the Sikh turban. While filming that scene, wonder if Team Shetty was conscious of Devgn’s known closeness to Modi.

The ever-reliable actor delivers an effective performance as Singham. Kareena Kapoor Khan in the limited role of his gluttonous, drama queen of a girlfriend displays her flair for comedy that has been poorly exploited by Bollywood outside Shetty’s Golmaal series. It’s sad though to see a female star of her stature playing fifth fiddle to a major male star in yet another film. For what it’s worth, Shetty’s directorial hand is evident here in her friendly on-screen equation with the hero, a far cry from the amusing tepidity of their pairing in Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha last year.

Instead of glossing over the 12-year age difference between the stars, the screenplay even has her teasing him about dyeing his hair to hide his age, while he tells her in turn that she “looks like a married woman” even though she is young. Elsewhere, one of his juniors says: “Shaadi kar lijiye saab, aapki umar nikal rahi hai.” The refusal to act with women their age continues, but at least some – though not all – of our 40-plus male stars are acknowledging their age on screen.

Singham Returns is a fine example of the dispensability of women in Bollywood sequels. The hero’s girlfriend Kavya (Kajal Aggarwal) in Singham is casually replaced here by Kareena’s Avni. This is standard practice in Hindi film franchises (read: Hera Pheri, Phir Hera Pheri, Race, Race 2), but it’s disappointing coming from the director who gave us the fiercely feisty Meenamma (Deepika Padukone), equal partner to SRK’s Rahul in Chennai Express last year.

The pick of the supporting cast in this film is Amole Gupte playing the evil Babaji who swills alcohol in shorts and Celtics / Dope Chef T-shirts in the confines of his home. Gupte shows flashes of brilliance in his performance, but the writing of Babaji is not as well-rounded as the characterisation of Jaykanth Shikre in Singham. Dayanand Shetty as Singham’s colleague Daya is an interesting addition to the cast. His role as Daya in the iconic teleserial CID gives Singham Returns one of its best lines. An over-made-up Ashwini Kalsekar is laughable as a TV journalist.

DoP Dudley’s cinematography is eye-catching, giving us sweeping aerial shots of Maharashtra’s bridges and water bodies and capturing Mumbai’s Gateway of India rather beautifully. After a while though, those overhead shots become repetitive. As for the music, the title track playing in the background replete with Sanskrit shlokas and throbbing beats remains as catchy as it was when first used in the 2011 film. However, the original songs composed for this film are dull.

Dullness is excusable, not so the deeply disturbing picturisation of Yo Yo Honey Singh’s Aata maajhi satakli accompanying the end credits. It’s bad enough that television dance contests sexualise children. Ajay, Kareena and the controversial singer-musician dance to the song accompanied by a large troupe of children mimicking Ajay’s body language of fury from the rest of the film. Singham Returns, like its predecessor, is an extremely violent film and Ajay’s “Aata maajhi satakli” dialogue signifies his hot-headedness and penchant for fisticuffs. The gore could be passed off with a caveat for adult viewers, but it is decidedly distasteful to try and sweeten the after-effects of bloodletting with the irritatingly precocious dance moves of little kids.

It’s unlikely that Shetty and his team of writers thought that through. Equally poorly developed is the means of protest used by the police in an extended sequence in the film: they take off their uniform shirts in front of the boss and march down the streets in banians. In a country where the male-dominated mass audience sees actresses primarily as sex objects, in an industry where actresses are primarily used as glamourous asides, it would have been clear to the writers that they couldn’t show women taking off their shirts in the same fashion without drawing leery wolf whistles from sections of the audience and lending a whole different dimension to that scene. What is Singham Returns’ solution? It excludes women completely from the protagonists’ immediate team. Later in the crowd a few policewomen are shown in loose white tees instead of uniform shirts, but the secondariness of the women in the entire protest is unmistakable. This scene is reminiscent of the manner in which girls were erased from the underwear protest in the children’s film Chillar Party. As it is in filmmaking, so it is in other areas of life too. If the presence of women in a scenario throws up challenges, we tend not to look for a solution to the challenge; we exclude women from that scenario instead. Easy, no?

A nip here, a tuck there, a tweak here, a touch there, and this could have been a much better and even a much more entertaining film. Those tweaks and tucks would have required more time invested in writing though, which perhaps was considered unnecessary in a film that could make money merely from resting on the laurels of its prequel. Ah well, as it is now, Singham Returns is good enough for a single watch. Fun but unremarkable and unmemorable, that’s what it is.

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

CBFC Rating (India):

Running time:
142 minutes

Photograph courtesy: Effective Communication