Monday, November 4, 2019

REVIEW 742: AADYA RATHRI

Release date:
Kerala: October 4, 2019
Delhi: November 1, 2019
Director:
Jibu Jacob
Cast:



Language:
Biju Menon, Anaswara Rajan, Aju Varghese, Sarjano Khalid, Pauly Valsan, Vijayaraghavan, Sreelakshmi, Cameo: Anu Sithara
Malayalam


An openly misogynistic film. Sub-conscious misogyny from a filmmaker who actually considers himself feminist. Or closeted misogyny from a filmmaker publicly faking feminism. Aadya Rathri fits into one of the above three slots. Which one, is the question.

Aadya Rathri or First Night is headlined by Biju Menon, a fine actor whose inconsistent filmography shows a seeming lack of discernment. Just this year he was the lead in the darling Sathyam Paranja Vishwasikkuvo shortly after Mera Naam Shaji, which was so viscerally antagonistic towards women that it was unnerving. Menon’s new film purportedly puts across the message that a woman’s assent should be given primacy over all else when families, brokers and communities seal marriage deals. The catch is that the road to that life lesson is lined with sexist humour and a trivialisation of marital rape – not just by the character who is reformed in the end, but in the tone of the film itself. And that’s not counting the ageist casting in Aadya Rathri.

Menon here plays Manoharan, a marriage broker who doubles up as a moral policeman to terror-struck couples in the village of Mullakkara. When the film cuts from his youth to the present day, he has been arranging marital alliances for 22 years and boasts of a 100 per cent success rate. His arch rival Thresiamma (Ee.Ma.Yau’s Pauly Valsan) has been gunning for him for as long as he has been in the business. His big test comes when he is called upon to find a match for Aswathy Ramachandran a.k.a. Achchu (Anaswara Rajan), a college-goer from a prominent family.

A bulk of Aadya Rathri is devoted to the hurdles Manoharan must cross to find a husband for Achchu. The film meanders considerably, but swatches of humour keep it going till the interval, and well, Menon has the ability to evoke laughter with just a twitch of a muscle, a twinkle in his eye or a word. Post-interval though, none of this is enough.

The leading man’s innate acting skills and immense charisma combined with a moral position taken by the film towards the end cannot possibly compensate for all its narrative weaknesses, the under-utilisation of a fine supporting cast, lack of novelty in the treatment and confused politics.

Despite running barely over 2 hours, Aadya Rathri feels too long. It does not help that a couple of its songs spring up instead of blending smoothly into the proceedings. And a conventional fable-like, moral-of-the-story structure cannot work if storytellers unwittingly reveal their deep-seated illiberal true colours from the start.

In an episode right after the credits, a bride tells Manoharan’s sidekick that she is not yet ready because the beautician has not arrived although the hour of her wedding is closing in on them. He finds the beautician doing up her mother’s face and makes a terribly ageist comment about Mum. Filmmakers when confronted with questions about such scenes often argue that they are merely depicting a reality, not glorifying it. In this case that would amount to claiming that a sexist character was portrayed cracking a sexist joke to illustrate the regressive nature of the society in which this story is set. No excuses please, there is no ambiguity here – that scene is designed as comedy.

Marital rape too is tapped as a source of amusement in Aadya Rathri, except that it is not considered rape at all. A man incessantly impregnates his wife against her will, but when she complains about the creep, Manoharan says: How can I stop a man from expressing his love for his wife? Ugh. Again, such a scene could well have been set up to throw light on the meaning of consent in sexual relations, but the narrative here is too light-hearted for it to serve that purpose. In fact, the flippant tone of that scene in which a woman with a swollen belly is shown struggling to juggle her expanding body, children of varying ages and her housework, is disconcerting to say the least.


And then of course there is the casting. Considering the massive age differences between male superstars and their female romantic leads in most commercial Malayalam cinema, I was dreading the possibility that sweet little Anaswara Rajan from Udaharanam Sujatha and Thanneermathan Dinangal would be shown here as the nearly 50-year-old Menon’s girlfriend or wife on screen. Thankfully, that does not happen, but Aadya Rathri’s idea of age-appropriate casting is to make her, a 17-year-old with a child-like face, the potential bride of Kunjumon P.P., the character played by Aju Varghese who is 34 in real life. That scene in which Kunjumon fantasises about Achchu romancing him feels weird.

And get this: Achchu and Kunjumon were once schoolmates and are about the same age.

Sexism and misogyny are not Aadya Rathri’s only characteristics. Kunjumon is repeatedly fat shamed. Bangalore’s youngsters are viewed through the lens of clich├ęs that conservatives reserve for societies where gender segregation is not the norm. And Aadya Rathri is not even committed to its regressive views. It wants to be seen as progressive. The tonally patchy narrative fails at both.

In a scene early in Manoharan’s journey, as he watches a bedroom door close on a traumatised woman on the first night of her forced marriage to a sexual pervert, it is apparent that it has begun to dawn on him that what is happening is not right. Yet 22 years later, the same Manoharan tells a pregnant woman that her horny husband’s sexual aggression is, in fact, an expression of love. Huh? Character graphs and consistency in characterisation seem to be alien concepts to this team.

This is disappointing because director Jibu Jacob’s last film, Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol, though completely accepting of a patriarchal social structure, did take some progressive forward steps, and was certainly not so poorly written. Writers Sharis-Jebin, on the other hand, have lived up to their track record as the team behind the bizarre, mixed-up 2018 film Queen that was supposedly anti-rape. Do us a favour, gentlemen. Stop claiming to care and try genuinely caring instead.

Rating (out of five stars): *

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

This review has also been published on Firstpost:




Saturday, November 2, 2019

REVIEW 741: DRIVE


Release date:
November 1, 2019
Director:
Tarun Mansukhani
Cast:


Language:
Sushant Singh Rajput, Jacqueline Fernandez, Boman Irani, Pankaj Tripathi, Vibha Chibber, Sapna Pabbi, Vikramjeet Virk
Hindi


So it is here at last: the first direct-to-Netflix release by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions. 

Produced by KJo, written and directed by Tarun “Dostana” Mansukhani, starring Sushant Singh Rajput and Jacqueline Fernandez, Drive is a thriller that follows the tried-and-tested pattern of a heist within a heist within a heist. Film industries across the world have explored this genre to fun effect. India’s Hindi film industry a.k.a. Bollywood proved that it has the chops for wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels crime back in 1978 with the iconic Don starring Amitabh Bachchan, more recently with Abbas Mustan’s Race in 2008 and the SRK-Farhan Akhtar Don films in 2006 and 2011.

The very least you would expect after seeing the poster, the credits of Drive and reading its summary is that it would deliver spadefuls of excitement, pretty people in pretty clothes and swish special effects. Well, lower those expectations right away. 

Sure, Rajput and Fernandez look hot in the film, both have tremendously fit bodies, and if you think back on the story, the original concept probably had the potential to become a slick cops-and-robbers drama. At first it does seem like Drive might prove to be an entertainer but the narrative, like the special effects, steadily declines as the film progresses. The SFX are overall so downmarket that it is hard to believe Drive comes to us from Dharma, whose signature for at least two decades has been glossy visuals. 

Not that anything else in the film is of high calibre. Well suited to the SFX are the generic storytelling style, the overall ordinary production quality, inconsistent audio, a stand-out acting loophole and glaring lack of logic that, among other things, translates into Delhi roads – notorious in reality for their traffic jams – obligingly emptying themselves out to accommodate high-speed car races and chases at all times of day and night. 

The reason why Drive is set in India’s capital city is because a robbery is being planned in Rashtrapati Bhavan. The primary players in this game are a group of car racing aficionados, an outsider who infiltrates their inner circle, a criminal known simply as King – you know, like Don in Don – and corrupt bureaucrats. 

The opening race in Drive is reasonably well done, the song ‘n’ dance that follows is kinda nicely choreographed by Adil Shaikh, and Jacqueline Fernandez has some cute moves in it. From then on it is a downhill descent. 

Gaping gaps in the plotline recede into the background in the face of ordinary car chases that routinely look plastic and an embarrassingly low-brow extended climax that feels like the work of an entry-level animation student. Lightning McQueen’s universe appeared more real than the vehicles and roads in several of this film’s scenes. 

Much has been made of the fact that a portion of Drive was filmed in Israel, making it the first Bollywood venture to be shot there. The media has reported that the film was also partly funded by that country’s government. The true mystery here is why the Israeli sarkar thought this film would be a good ad for them in India. Be assured that what Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna is to New York City or Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is to Spain, Drive is absolutely not to Tel Aviv. At best the city is treated like the geographical equivalent of an ‘item’ number chucked mindlessly into a bad Bollywood film – it springs up out of the blue and it has no relevance whatsoever to the storyline.

In the face of such mediocrity, analysing the screenplay almost feels pointless. But a job is a job, so consider this. Without giving anything away let us just say the only way the masterplan revealed in the climax of Drive could possibly have worked is if no one in Rashtrapati Bhavan’s entire security department checked a critical character’s ID carefully for several days. 

Granted that this point arises only in retrospect, and granted that this person could have had the world’s top creator of fake IDs backing them, so instead consider this question that comes up quite early in the film. (Some people may consider this paragraph a spoiler) The loot could not have been where it was unless other critical characters managed to easily beat the security system in the Indian President’s residence for what must have been months, if not years. If you have visited Rashtrapati Bhavan and experienced the tight restrictions in place in the complex, you would know how ridiculous this is. How the crooks aced the system is never explained, we are simply expected to accept that they did because we are told so. (Spoiler alert ends)

Or consider this. Person X says in the end that they were expecting to be deceived by Person Y. But in an earlier scene when X realised they had been double-crossed by Y, the facial expression – clearly visible in close-up – is one of shock and not at all “oh well, I knew this was coming”.

Or this. In a key scene in Drive, a quartet of cars zips through an airport runway and the occurrence seems not to be a blip on the radar of Air Traffic Control (ATC), the local police or the news media at that point or for the two months that the story continues. This writing laziness is intentional – having ATC, the police and press notice the breach would have been too much of an inconvenience since it could have meant the kingpins of the gameplan being discovered before the writer wanted them to be, you see. 

Or consider this. Snazzy cars with the words “Delhi Police” emblazoned on them zoom about the city, offering evidence of how little the team of Drive knows the reality of the capital’s ill-equipped force. 

As for the acting, well, Pankaj Tripathi does lend a Pankaj Tripathi touch to his character, but really, how is one to seriously and fairly critique the performances in such a film?

For a moment let us set aside thoughts of the cast though, and Johar, Netflix and Israel. Let us take that moment to mourn the fact that this sub-standard action flick has been made by the same director who gave us Dostana, which, notwithstanding its resemblance to a Hollywood film, was, in its own way, pathbreaking in the Indian social context. From Dostana to Drive is such a fall.

Rating (out of five stars): 1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
None 
Running time:
119 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: