Sunday, November 30, 2014



2014 threw up three pleasant surprises — entertaining films that tell credible stories of women. That such films are rare is a result of gender politics, not economics

By Anna MM Vetticad

Winter is a time for bonfires, boots and smart overcoats. It’s also the season for a parade of best-of-the-year-gone-by lists from film critics. But I want to share with you a more personal compilation — three pleasant surprises for a cinephile forever in search of entertaining films that tell credible stories of women.


Watching a mainstream Bollywood film which makes me go “oh my god, that could be me” is a rare experience. Queen was that kind of film. The story of a conservative middle-class Delhi girl (Kangna Ranaut) who rediscovers herself after her fiancé dumps her shortly before their wedding, it reminded me of how starved we women are of films about us.

The US and India, home to the world’s largest film industries, are guilty on this front in different ways, governed by gender politics that drives economics. Here in India, film industry power structures are so male-dominated, that despite a steady trickle of women executives in production houses and the occasional woman director or writer, films remain largely dictated by the male gaze.

Result: most tell stories of men and are told from a male point of view, even if women have substantial roles in them. It is also generally assumed that women-focused films need to be about a dispiriting ‘issue’ because someone somewhere thinks women do not have amusing, uplifting experiences.

In this scenario, Queen was path-breaking in many ways. It was about a woman whose existence in the film was not dependent on her relationship with a dominant hero, and it was highly entertaining. Director Vikas Bahl shared the writing credits with Parveez Shaikh, Chaitally Parmar, Anvita Dutt and lead actor Kangna Ranaut herself — reminding us that sometimes all it takes to make a warm, fun film about a woman is a sensitive man who asks women what they want and who they are.

How Old Are You: 

Director Rosshan Andrrews’ How Old Are You marked Malayalam actress Manju Warrier’s return to films after a decade and a half. It turned out to be startlingly courageous. Think about it: how often does a mainstream Indian heroine ask her on-screen husband whether he would have wanted her to emigrate with him to a foreign country if servants there were inexpensive?

Warrier plays a woman who subordinated her career ambitions in favour of a boring job that would allow her to focus entirely on her husband and daughter, only to become the object of their disdain because of her limited interests and achievements. In an industry that tends to retire lead actresses at a relatively early age or relegate them to supporting roles, it was unusual to see an actress in her late 30s playing the heroine in a film positioned as commercial, not ‘art cinema’. For the record, Queen and How Old Are You were money-spinners, proving once again that audiences are far more open-minded than gendered film industries give them credit for.

Les Stances a Sophie: 

Indian film buffs would perhaps best know Israel’s Moshé Mizrahi as the Oscar-winning director of Madame Rosa (1977). He made his debut in 1971 with the French film Les Stances a Sophie (Sophie’s Ways), which was lost to the world for nearly four decades thereafter because the producer went bankrupt and most prints were seized.

And then the Embassy of Israel called earlier this month. They were screening Sophie’s Ways in Delhi. Would I moderate a discussion with the octogenarian director?

Sophie’s Ways is about a young woman in 1970 Paris who does not believe in being tied down to one man, but impulsively succumbs to a marriage proposal early in the film. As she becomes frustrated with the relationship, Moshé delivers an incredibly progressive, grim yet humorous take on women’s sexuality and sexual freedom.

The film had a limited release in France back then but got a lukewarm response, according to Moshé, “because the women’s liberation movement had not yet come into the French media in a big way as it had in America by then, so French people thought the film was too much.” In 2008, a digitally restored version was released on DVD. Six years later at the Delhi screening, I asked myself for the millionth time: what prevents film industries from making more such mainstream, women-centric films?

“Economics” is the standard answer. The truth lies elsewhere. In India’s male-dominated industries, for instance, mainstream heroes are perennially cast in lead roles with larger-than-life personas. Mainstream heroines are rarely offered such films. Over time, this creates a disparity in numbers and obsessiveness between fans of male and female stars. This usually ensures that the occasional commercial, woman-centric film — which is rarely marketed as heavily as hero-oriented films — doesn’t get the same opening collections that a hero-centric film does, and is more dependent on word of mouth. “We told you so,” producers promptly say.

But hey, you created the system, and you work hard to perpetuate it. Films like Queen and How Old Are You (and the Priyanka Chopra-starrer Mary Kom, for that matter) have been hits despite these constraints. Make such films in large numbers over a period of time, create equitable circumstances for heroes and heroines, and then see how many more of these you get. It’s a crying shame that in the 21st century, film buffs like me are making such lists of pleasant surprises

(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)

(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on November 29, 2014)

Photographs courtesy:
(1) Still from Queen – Everymedia PR
(2) Still from How Old Are You:  
(3) Still from Les Stances a Sophie – Embassy of Israel

Note: These photographs did not run with the column in The Hindu Businessline

Friday, November 28, 2014


Release date:
November 28, 2014
Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi

Adil Hussain, Mona Singh, Mukesh Tiwari, K.K. Raina, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Rahul Singh, Shivani Tanksale, Sanjay Mishra, Ekavali Khanna

If you’ve seen him on stage, you will know why I refer to him as His Hotness Adil Hussain. Sadly so far, the actor is best known to Bollywood audiences in films that have done little justice to his looks or immense acting talent. English Vinglish – in which he played Shashi Godbole’s selfish husband – is the best the Mumbai industry has offered him till date. In this week’s release Zed Plus – his first Hindi film as a leading man – Adil erases his striking personality to metamorphose into a diffident, flawed, sometimes naïve, sometimes clever tyre-puncturewallah who gets Z category security due to a misunderstanding that spirals into a national affair.

Aslam is the poor man in question, forever at loggerheads with his neighbour (Mukesh Tiwari) in the small town of Fatehpur, Rajasthan. One day he meets the Indian prime minister who is on a visit to the Peepal Wale Peer Ki Dargah in Fatehpur. My “padosi” is constantly giving me death threats, Aslam tells the PM. In the tension-ridden subcontinent, “padosi” means only one thing to this troubled neta. PM-saab issues orders that the fellow be given 24-hour security. This engaging political satire is about how that one move affects governments and a little man’s life.

Director Chandraprakash Dwivedi and Ramkumar Singh’s screenplay is for the most part both realistic and comedic. Adil is like a chameleon playing Aslam, changing his entire being for the role, without caricaturing the character. Mona Singh too delivers a laudable performance as his conflicted wife Hameeda who initially hates the disruption in their lives, then begins to revel in the unexpected importance. I particularly enjoyed the warm relationship she develops with her husband’s security team, especially a dapper Rahul Singh playing their chief, Rajesh Chaudhary.

Barring Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the PM and one jarring extra playing a cop awkwardly directing traffic in a fleeting scene, Zed Plus hits the bull’s-eye with every other casting choice. My pick of the supporting actors is Mukesh Tiwari who has given us one stand-out performance after another, from Bachcha Yadav in Prakash Jha’s Gangaajal (2003) to the Tamil-speaking Sikh policeman in Chennai Express (2013) and now this. To watch him dance like a maniac when his election campaign procession bumps into a rival group in Zed Plus is to see a man lose himself in a role.

Kharbanda’s laughably clueless PM is a product of faulty casting and writing. The usually reliable actor struggles with a character who cannot speak Hindi but whose English sounds ridiculous too. The PM’s inability to speak Hindi is not a minor plot point but the starting block for an entire chain of events. At first it comes across as a metaphor for a neta’s limited understanding of the “people’s language”. In one scene though, he wears a kasavu mundu and a lady presumably from his family is shown at his dining table in a kasavu sari. One can only assume then that we are expected to gather that he is a Malayali or some form of south Indian.

Is it Zed Plus’ contention then that for an Indian PM, aam aadmi ki bhasha must perforce be Hindi? Is Hindi here symbolic or to be taken literally? This mixed messaging is irritating. Besides, Kharbanda has such an overtly northern tongue that it’s hard to see him as a southerner.

In a small way, Dwivedi also reveals a desire to pander to a male audience. Aslam has a lover. When he gets Z security, he can no longer visit her without attracting attention. This becomes his primary motive for wanting to get rid of his guards. It is initially an amusing situation. However, when at one point he tells his wife “main tumhara gunehgaar hoon” and we are not shown the rest of the conversation, the audience is left to guess whether he was apologising to her for the affair or for having messed up their lives as a whole by allowing circumstances to overtake them.

The ambiguity reminded me of Ross’ fling with the copy girl in the US teleserial Friends while he and Rachel “were on a break”. It remained a major sore point between the couple throughout the show, but Ross was never once shown clearly apologising to Rachel for infidelity. The situation was left fuzzy enough for each of us to read into it what would least offend us. I guess whether it’s the US or India, Bright-Kauffman-and-Crane or Dwivedi, getting a man to say that word “sorry” to a woman with clearly articulated contrition is deemed avoidable.

We also never figure out what becomes of the other woman in Zed Plus. Make no mistake about this though, this is a sweet, fun film. The mincing of words in passing on the gender front is disappointing primarily because elsewhere Messrs Dwivedi and Singh make no bones about their attitude towards communal political parties (the Rajasthan government is run by the majoritarian, ahem, BKP), the manner in which supposedly secular netas use India’s biggest minority community, the meaning of that much-abused term “minority appeasement”, and the hypocrisy of a religionist who points out that consuming alcohol is not allowed in his religion but making it is not barred. This low-key political satire also bravely refers to the Babri Masjid demolition at a time when the prevailing mood in India is to pretend that some things never happened.

Dwivedi is best known for the mega-teleserial Chanakya and the National Award-winning film Pinjar. Despite some rough patches, Zed Plus is a worthy addition to that formidable CV.

Rating (out of five): ***

Aside: Misspelt words flashing on screen are inexcusable in any film. Didn’t anyone on Team Zed Plus notice “Chief Minister’s Residance”?

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
141 minutes

Poster and video courtesy: Epigram PR


Release date (India):
November 28, 2014
Rensil D’Silva

Emraan Hashmi, Randeep Hooda, Neil Bhoopalam, Kangna Ranaut, Angad Bedi, Sanjay Dutt

Sanjay Dutt’s character is to Ungli what Anupam Kher was to A Wednesday – a voice from within the system legitimising a vigilante; an honest policeman expressing grudging admiration for an ordinary citizen showing the finger (ungli) to the law. The watchdog played by Naseeruddin Shah in Neeraj Pandey’s 2008 film was a nameless person who called himself “common man”. Six years later, in keeping with the vocabulary of the times, the term of choice is “aam aadmi” for the four youngsters who join hands to fight corruption as the Ungli Gang.

That being said, let’s be clear that this review does not equate Ungli with A Wednesday. Although both work on the same premise, the crimes committed by the Ungli Gang are minor in comparison. They don’t blast bombs to kill alleged terrorists like the “common man” did in A Wednesday; instead they do milder stuff like impersonating policemen and abducting corrupt folk. Some of the stunts they pull are in fact quite amusing (watch out in particular for the autowallah, I can’t say more). In the hands of a more skilled writer, the deeds of this well-meaning quartet could have been presented to us without an endorsement and could still have translated into an entertaining package tapping into the frustration of the citizenry with the “system”. Unfortunately, director Rensil D’Silva’s writing of Ungli is anything but skilled.

For a start, the screenplay is half-baked. The Ungli Gang are hot-shot crime reporter Abhay Kashyap (Randeep Hooda), computer engineer Gautam (Neil Bhoopalam), Maya (Kangna Ranaut) who is vaguely described as an “intern” while we are left to figure out whether she’s interning as a doctor, nurse or something else in the hospital where we first meet her, and auto mechanic Kaleem (Angad Bedi). Ungli’s early scenes with Randeep, Neil, Kangna and Angad hold out considerable promise. Subsequently, all four characters are poorly fleshed out, with Maya and Kaleem getting the worst of it. Although the four are the protagonists of the film, I came away feeling as if I barely knew them despite the 114 minutes spent in their company.

This leads us to the film’s second great failing: lack of focus. The screenplay seems unsure whether to make the Ungli Gang its centre-piece or just supporting players revolving around Emraan Hashmi, possibly because he is the established box-office draw in the cast. Emraan here plays a disgruntled policeman called Nikhil Abhyankar who is disgruntled for no apparent reason. After the Gang has been placed firmly at the heart of the plot in the tightly executed opening minutes, the introduction of Nikhil and the effort to weave his story into theirs is disjointed. The move to then prioritise him is disruptive, confusing and ultimately kills the film.

Add to this the project’s indecision about whether to be understated (which is the tone it adopts with the Gang) or be a larger-than-life drama revolving around a swashbuckling Emraan. This becomes apparent in Milap Zaveri’s dialogue writing for Nikhil and the elderly policeman Ashok Kale (Sanjay Dutt). Both are made to utter grandiose lines of the sort that might have sounded clever in Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai because that film was consistent in its tribute to 1970s/80s Bollywood-style dialoguebaazi. Here, they are jarring to the point of being ludicrous.

The result is a film that wastes four talented young actors. It’s a crying shame that a heroine emerging from a triumph like Queen has been reduced to a shadowy presence in Ungli. Kangna looks pretty here and continues to do well in the departments of diction and voice modulation that were once her Achilles’ heel. Sadly, the film gives her the least to do in the Gang.

The often wonderful, always sexy Randeep Hooda deserves so much better than to be relegated to the background once Emraan enters the picture. Ditto for Neil Bhoopalam who played the hostile witness in No One Killed Jessica – he is leading-man material but this darned Bollywood doesn’t seem to get that. Angad Bedi has done far less films than his three co-stars, but if you’ve seen him play Jackky Bhagnani’s buddy in Faltu, you would have already witnessed his comic timing and easy acting style, neither of which he gets to display much of in Ungli.

Emraan and Sanjay get more screen space but the writing doesn’t challenge them either. It’s a relief though to see Bollywood’s 55-year-old “Sanju Baba” finally play an elderly, gray-haired man rather than embarrassing himself and us the way he did by starring as little Prachi Desai’s boyfriend in last year’s horrendous Policegiri. 

The one heartening aspect of the film’s politics is that it doesn’t adopt the easy route of condemning the corruption of only the rich or of middle-class government employees. Condemning the corruption of the poor may be considered non-PC by many, but Ungli takes the brave step of highlighting the dishonesty of Mumbai’s autorickshaw drivers in the same breath as low- and high-ranked babus, netas and policemen.

Considering the loveliness of Salim-Sulaiman’s songs in Rensil D’Silva’s earlier directorial venture Kurbaan, even the music of Ungli is hugely disappointing. I still get goosebumps listening to Shukhran Allah from that film. The best we get in Ungli is Dance Basanti featuring Shraddha Kapoor in a song-and-dance cameo – she’s cute and pretty but certainly not the hottie she’s trying to be here, the number is foot-tapping but in terms of melody it is lukewarm.

That’s the word for the film as a whole too: lukewarm.

Rating (out of five): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
114 minutes 

Poster courtesy: Raindrop Media
Videos courtesy: Everymedia PR