Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Crew: Girls just wanna have fun and break the law – Bollywood finally gets it (Review 801)

 

Release date:

March 29, 2024

Director:

Rajesh A. Krishnan

Cast:

Tabu, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Kriti Sanon, Rajesh Sharma, Saswata Chatterjee, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Kapil Sharma, Diljit Dosanjh, Trupti Khamkar

Language:

Hindi 

   


Why are women-centric films always about serious issues? Why don’t we get to act in crazy comedies of the kind routinely made for guys? I remember Madhuri Dixit Nene raising these questions in an interview she gave me about 20 years back while I was with The Indian Express. Back then, blue moons would pass between goofy, fun flicks revolving around women, such as Seeta aur Geeta (1972) starring Hema Malini, Khoobsurat (1980) with Rekha, Chaalbaaz (1989) headlined by the great Sridevi, and Dixit’s own Raja (1995). The Hindi film industry’s approach to comedies is still unfair to women, but it has improved in recent years, owing considerably to the producer Rhea Kapoor whose latest screen adventure is Crew, jointly produced by Ektaa Kapoor, directed by Rajesh A. Krishnan, written by Nidhi Mehra and Mehul Suri.     

Starring Tabu, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Kriti Sanon, Crew comes not far behind 2023’s Thank You for Coming! in which Bhumi Pednekar’s character (spoiler alert, hehe) attained sexual nirvana at her own hands after years of trial and error in bed with men. In Crew, Geeta Sethi (Tabu), Jasmine (Kapoor Khan) and Divya Rana (Sanon) have settled for their respective Plan Bs because Plan A has not (or not yet) worked out. They are flight attendants on a sinking ship called Kohinoor Airlines run by the stinking rich and corrupt Vijay Walia. The minimal effort invested in disguising the real-life entities referenced here is just one of the sources of amusement coming at us from all directions in Crew 

 

Geeta has long wanted to use her PF to start an eatery in Goa with her husband (Kapil Sharma), but Kohinoor is not paying up. Jasmine is waiting for her business idea to find takers. Divya was an academic achiever and ace athlete in school whose actual aim was to be a pilot. As Kohinoor gradually goes under and the friends see their dreams receding further into the distance, they decide to break the law in a bid to improve their bank balances and ultimately, to also get back at the unscrupulous Walia. Their mini scams culminate in one big fat heist.  

  

Crew has no pretensions to being intellectual. The tone is determinedly flip for the most part. To dismiss it as mindless would be wrong though. In a cinematic universe where Dixit Nene’s hope for women is still only being fulfilled in baby steps, Crew’s significance lies in the way it defies the industry’s tradition of equating “women-centric” with “grave” and “weepie”.  

  

Discrimination, harassment and violence are intrinsic to the experience of being female in most cultures, but laughter is one of the tools that helps us survive – and finally, finally, the Hindi film industry seems to be getting it. Crew is part of the emerging trend sparked by this realisation. The bonus here is that, as with other women-led Hindi film comedies so far, the director and writers of Crew too demonstrate that it is possible to elicit laughs without being sexist in the way makers of mass-targeted men-centric comedies usually are.  

 

After years of crass quips about women’s bodies and rape jokes in men-centric comedies, it is a pleasure to see the agency in a film’s humour being handed to its women characters, and to watch these women crack up as they toss double entendre about themselves at each other without trivialising violence or themselves or women at large. When a passenger gets handsy with one of the trio in Crew, his conduct is not humourised. What is humourised is his shock at a woman striking back. And guess what, Dudes Who Write Sexist Comedy? Team Mehra & Suri have written an entire women-centred comedy film without a single wisecrack about the rape of men. 

  

The lesson from Crew for the likes of Indra Kumar (the Masti series) and Sajid Khan (Housefull 2) is this: you can joke about sex without demeaning other genders, without making light of violence, and without lazily aiming at the oppressed and their oppression. 

  

The film is high on energy owing to its unrelenting plot developments and infectious music, in particular the reboot of the blockbuster number Choli ke peeche from Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak (1993) and Sona kitna sona hai remixed from David Dhawan’s Hero No. 1 (1997). Geeta, Jasmine and Divya are spunky, funny and flawed. Though they have a mountain of troubles on their plates, their ruminative and sorrowful moments are never maudlin.  

 

Crew’s script and craft could have done with some polishing up though. There is, for instance, an awkwardly shot post-interval scene in which the three women hide behind a luggage trolley, and for some seconds, it looks like a decapitated Kapoor Khan’s head is on top of a suitcase. Sanon does not come off much better in that frame. If this was intentional, it would have been a hoot, but it comes across as unwitting. Greater finesse would have made Crew a better film and a different film but as things stand, it is both entertaining and thoughtful, despite its rough edges.  

  

I want to believe that Crew’s and Laapataa Ladies’ simultaneous success at the box office marks an important turning point for the representation of women in mainstream Hindi cinema. For the record, both are very different. Laapataa Ladies is sublime and finessed. Crew is rambunctious (in a good way) but some of the writing also feels hurried. The heist, for instance, is simplistic. What makes it work nevertheless is that the narrative pace and the cast’s conviction leave little time for analysis. Frankly, I have felt no differently about most heist films I have watched. This genre tends to demand a suspension of disbelief. A filmmaker’s challenge is to convince the audience that the film is worth that effort. Krishnan is very much up to the task. 

  

Geeta, Jasmine and Divya get equal treatment and space in Crew’s screenplay. Cinematographer Anuj Rakesh Dhawan has also shot them without celebrating one body over the other, without being sheepish about any one’s girth or complexion, without de-emphasising any one’s age.  

Tabu is now reportedly 52, Kapoor Khan is 43, Sanon is 33. The camera does not make any visible distinction between them. Any concessions made have been made unobtrusively.  

 

Dhawan’s work in Crew, no doubt in keeping with Krishnan’s vision, is a reminder that, as I wrote in The Economic Times in the context of Laapataa Ladies, “‘The male gaze’ is not merely ‘the gaze of a man’. It is the gaze of a man who lacks empathy... Likewise, ‘the female gaze’ is not merely ‘the gaze of a woman’. It is the gaze of a woman who possesses empathy.” Illustrating this premise, the women in Crew are treated as people, not mere bodies. That each in her own way has a fabulous body is a bonus, which too is celebrated unapologetically. 

 

Given the care that has gone into these choices, I do not see why Crew’s soundtrack is dominated by male voices or why the heroines are shown lip syncing to a male singer’s voice in the end 

 

In an interview she gave me after Veere Di Wedding, Rhea Kapoor had explained why she got Badshah to sing Tareefanfor the central female quartet: “The idea came from this Beyonce-Jay Z video where Beyonce has kind of taken on Jay Z’s mantle and kind of raps for him – there’s something so f*cking empowering about that.” The problem is that a woman singing for a man has been used over time as a comical device in films, so describing the reverse – a man singing for a woman actor – as “empowering” comes from the same subconscious conditioning that has got even progressive women equating the “balls”, not the uterus or vagina, with courage. 

 

This discordant note particularly stands out because Kapoor, Krishnan & Co have got so much else right here. Quite unusually for an overtly commercial film, Crew’s scriptwriters do not view the presence of a male romantic partner as mandatory to complete a woman. The leads don’t measure their self-worth in such terms either. Geeta has a warm relationship with her spouse that is unconventional going by society’s expectations of who ought to be the income provider in a family. Without batting an eyelid, the writers write Jasmine as a single woman, while Divya bumps into an old flame (Diljit Dosanjh).  

 

There is so much that Crew does unobtrusively while doggedly entertaining us, that its politics could easily be underrated. Its attitude to women apart, note how a turbanned Sikh is not only the romantic interest of a glamorous woman, Dhawan’s camerawork and Dosanjh’s vibe in the role purposefully make the man sexy. This is not a lens that usually falls on Sikh men in Hindi cinema who have for decades been positioned variously as boisterous, patriotic, dutiful, loyal, comical, buffoonish, innocent and loveable, but rarely as hotties. Nice touch.  

  

Krishnan’s first film, Lootcase (2020), too dealt with a primary character’s questionable morality and ill-gotten wealth. It was well begun but half done. In Crew, he lives up to the initial promise of a lark right till the end without once treating the audience like idiots or insensitive jerks.  

 

The smart script is elevated by Tabu, Kapoor Khan and Sanon’s crackling chemistry. The casting coup goes well beyond their stardom. The three come across as real-life friends who had a blast while shooting this film. Their enjoyment is contagious and makes for a cracking combination with their natural affinity for comedy, adding yet another feather to Rhea Kapoor’s expanding filmography of resolutely women-centric, resolutely hilarious-not-stupid Hindi cinema.  

      

Rating (out of 5 stars): 3.5   

 

Running time:

120 minutes 

 

Visuals courtesy: IMDB 

 

RELATED LINK: Read my column in The Economic Times on Laapataa Ladies and the female gaze published on February 18, 2024

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/opinion/et-commentary/engazing-with-empathy-through-the-female-gaze/articleshow/107783299.cms 

 

Friday, May 3, 2024

Amar Singh Chamkila: Brave in its stand on religious despots, lazy when it clubs harassment with fun and equates censorship with all criticism (Review 800)

Release date:

April 12, 2024

Director:

Imtiaz Ali

Cast:

Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra, Nisha Bano, Anuraag Arora, Anjum Batra

Language:

Hindi-Punjabi 


When a song overlaying a film’s opening credits describes the hero in deliciously mischievous terms – as “sexeela, ttharkeela Chamkila” (sexy, horny Chamkila) – the promise of an unapologetic sense of humour with a distinctive earthy flavour is unmistakable.

 

This lively number lifts the curtain on director Imtiaz Ali’s Amar Singh Chamkila, an eponymous biopic of the iconic Dalit folk-pop singer from rural Punjab whose murder in 1988 was never solved. The film platforms career-defining performances by the actor-singer Diljit Dosanjh as Chamkila and Parineeti Chopra as his wife and singing partner, Amarjot Kaur, alongside a fabulous soundtrack combining A.R. Rahman originals and Chamkila’s works. 

 

Delightful though the musical prologue is in many ways, it also briefly signals a troubling element that recurs later in the narrative, by casually clubbing instances of harassment with the amusing albeit crude eroticism that runs through the film. Shots of men and boys watching bathing women without their consent and peeking into rooms where women are changing their clothes roll out on screen in a manner that suggests an equivalence between such male voyeurism and the consensual, clandestine sexual liaisons also depicted during that early audio-visual montage. 

 

This mindless, poorly developed take on Peeping Toms and consent diminishes an otherwise well-crafted, mostly thoughtful, entertaining film on a man whose raunchy music enraged religious bigots and terrorists in Punjab, until he was assassinated at the age of 27. 

 

Too many biopics by filmmakers worldwide are PR exercises for their subjects. Amar Singh Chamkila is not one of those. Imtiaz Ali and his co-writer Sajid Ali along with their editor Aarti Bajaj present Chamkila as an enterprising, canny, courageous, yet sometimes dubious man.

 

Chamkila in this narrative stands up to caste chauvinism, strives hard to rise above his poverty, calls out the hypocrisy of conservatives when confronted about his no-holds-barred compositions, and in the long run, snubs his nose at censorious religious fundamentalists and extremists. The same Chamkila also lies, deceives more than one woman, and rationalises his lies. 

 

Sometimes writers gloss over such discomfiting aspects of a protagonist’s personality or journey in a bid to further a political agenda or to safeguard their financial interests, sometimes they do it to pander to fans or extra-Constitutional censors, very often they do so because it is simply too challenging to write a script that neither canonises nor vilifies an icon but portrays them as is. What sets Amar Singh Chamkila apart from most biopics is that the Alis don’t bury or sidestep the leading man’s flaws. It is what it is. 

 

This is a risk and one that ends up giving the film its layers and credibility. 

 

The script also risks spotlighting pro-Khalistan violence. Hindi films set in 1980s Punjab tend to confine themselves to police atrocities against Sikh civilians, Operation Bluestar and the pogrom that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi. This partial picture ultimately does a disservice to the minority group that it seeks to protect. 

 

As I wrote recently in my column in The Economic Times about liberal filmmakers largely avoiding a scrutiny of members of oppressed communities: “The fear is not only that one might be misunderstood, cause offence and hurt, but also that irrespective of the chronicler’s intentions, such stories could be misused by hate-mongers to further demonise an already beleaguered people.” However, “The counter to demonisation is not deification, or whitewashing. The counter is normalisation and unprejudiced truth-telling.” Amar Singh Chamkila provides a much-needed illustration of how this can be done – it recounts a passage from actual history in which members of the Sikh community themselves suffered at the hands of the enemy within, while doing so it does not stereotype Sikhs, it does not over-stress or de-emphasise any characters religious identity, and it does not tar the entire community with one brush.

 

This, to my mind, is the film’s most noteworthy achievement.  

 

It is because of the gutsy, quality writing in these areas that the Alis’ take on Chamkila’s lyrics is disappointing. The bulk of the songs he’s shown singing with successive women collaborators and, finally, Amarjot, are hilarious in-your-face accounts of sexual encounters in conservative societies. There are endless stories of men lusting after their brothers’ wives and those wives surreptitiously hooking up with their brothers-in-law. I had a good laugh listening to them because of their frankness, their impish tone, the articulation of women’s sexual desires, and the way they blow the lid off the pretence and propriety that our country values above the truth. However, the film also fleetingly refers to songs humourising voyeuristic men. The former are fun, the latter are creepy – if this is indeed Chamkila’s body of work in its entirety, then well, it should not be brushed under the carpet. The issue is that the Alis’ own confused gaze enters the picture here.

 

In the film’s weakest portions, the script conflates Chamkila’s funny, audacious material with lyrics about intrusive, non-consensual, criminal male conduct. Women in rural Punjab are shown celebrating Chamkila through the joyously wicked number Naram Kaalja complete with sexually assertive lyrics and suggestive dance moves. That they would endorse his songs about covert, consensual sex in a society that demands coyness from women is believable, but the script does not stop to ask if they also approve of him making light of unwanted men peering into women’s bedrooms and bathrooms, nor do they touch upon legitimate concerns about such works. 

 

Instead, that task is left to an English-speaking woman journalist in Western clothing, the conceptualisation of whom indicates the writers’ disdainful, uninformed, clichéd definition of feminism. It is even implied that this stereotypical character was an instrument of Chamkila’s jealous rivals.

 

There’s a technique that storytellers employ when they wish to feign neutrality while taking a stand: they depict a confrontation between two people, ensure that the one they are batting for is a sympathetic character, and write more convincing arguments for this person in debates unfolding on screen. The American sitcom Last Man Standing is one of the wiliest examples of this cinematic device. Actor Tim Allen on the show plays a conservative who upholds Republican Party values that his wife (Nancy Travis) opposes. Each time they clash, the writers write weak political arguments into her lines that make his views – and conservatives at large – come off as smarter and more credible than progressives, as exemplified by her woolliness. Last Man Standing does this while appearing to give both of them equal room and strength. It is no coincidence that Allen, who is one of the show’s executive producers, is a Republican Party supporter in real life. 

 

The charmless, confrontational, joyless, jeans-wearing feminist with fuzzy logic using big words like “objectify” in a conversation with a guileless, rustic singer is Amar Singh Chamkila’s Nancy Travis. Chamkila himself is the film’s Tim Allen.  

 

Chamkila and his oeuvre are undoubtedly complicated. By simplistically positing feminists, terrorists and Sikh conservatives on one side, ranged against him, the script loses the opportunity to address certain questions that struck me while watching his female admirers in this film. Did the religious establishment target Chamkila because he wrote of women as sexual beings with wants and needs? Was the patriarchal clergy rattled by his popularity among women and afraid it could spark a female sexual Rennaissance in rural Punjab? 

 

Caste too is not examined with any depth here. Amar Singh Chamkila assumes significance as a rare Hindi film with a Dalit protagonist, but the script does not even look into the possibility that at least some of the resentment towards Chamkila may have come from members of oppressor castes unable to digest the rise of a Dalit. 

 

Multimedia packaging is used throughout to remind us that Chamkila and Amarjot were living breathing creatures who once walked this earth. Scenes with Dosanjh and Chopra sometimes turn grainy, and sometimes transition into or share space with footage of the real Chamkila and Amarjot, interspersed with watercolours, animation, old newspaper clippings, graphic-novel-like illustrations, photos of the actual couple and stills of the stars playing them. This mosaic of images adds to the period feel and gives the film the air of a docudrama. They complement Sylvester Fonseca’s restrained camerawork and production designer Suman Roy Mahapatra’s recreation of 1980s Punjab to make Amar Singh Chamkila a rich and varied visual experience. 

 

Two components of this mix are superfluous. English transliterations – sometimes of Punjabi lyrics, sometimes of Hindi translations of Punjabi lyrics – repeatedly flash on screen. They are terribly distracting. I had to force myself to ignore them so as to catch the English subtitles. And the captions that pop up at regular intervals serve no purpose at all. 

 

Chamkila and Amarjot dominate the plot, but satellite figures too are meticulously characterised. One of my favourite scenes involves Surinder Sonia, the artiste with whom Chamkila performs his first duet. The attitude she throws as a star of the stage in rural Punjab, her contempt for this unknown man, the high ground she takes about his lyrics, and the lightning-speed change of heart when the audience reacts positively to him are captured impeccably by the lovely Nisha Bano. 

 

I wish this film had been as much about Amarjot as it is about Chamkila, but given that she is a supporting character, Chopra invests her everything in the diffident young woman who blossomed on stage. In her hands, Amarjot exudes shyness belying a steely will and an occasional roguish grin. Chopra adapts her body and body language to the role. Most astonishingly, she has also sung for Amarjot in the film, holding her own against her co-star who is a superstar singer. 

 

Dosanjh was born to play Chamkila. He displays incredible range and immaculate timing here. He knows he is likeable and releases that charm in measured doses to jostle with his character’s lowest ebbs, even as he embodies the determination, desperation and savvy that made Chamkila a legend. 

 

Imtiaz Ali’s film, like the man it seeks to immortalise on screen, is a melange of black, white and grey: brave in its stand on religious despots, lazy when it clubs harassment with fun and equates censorship with all criticism. It is also beautifully acted and uses music in the best way a film can, making it a memorable tribute to a folk hero who had so much more to give the world. 

 

Rating (out of 5 stars): 3.5   

 

Running time:

146 minutes 

 

Visual courtesy: IMDB 

 

RELATED LINK: Read my column in The Economic Times on minority representation in cinema published on April 13, 2024

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/opinion/et-commentary/challenging-stereotypes-a-fresh-perspective-on-minority-representation-in-film/articleshow/109274630.cms

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Do Aur Do Pyaar: There are no villains in this gentle, thoughtful take on infidelity and love (Review 799)

Release date:

April 19, 2024

Director:

Shirsha Guha Thakurta 

Cast:

Vidya Balan, Pratik Gandhi, Ileana D’Cruz, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Thalaivasal Vijay, Rekha Kudlig

Language:

Hindi-English with a bit of Tamil 

 


“Who was at fault?” is usually the question asked when we hear stories of marital infidelity. While this black-and-white approach may work in cases where the power balance completely favours one partner, sometimes it makes more sense to ask: what went wrong? 

 

Debutant director Shirsha Guha Thakurta’s Do Aur Do Pyaar starring Vidya Balan and Pratik Gandhi is not in the business of finding villains. Instead it examines the circumstances that cause its protagonists to cheat on each other. 

 

Balan here plays Kavya Ganeshan, a Mumbai-based dentist whose husband Aniruddha Banerjee (Gandhi) runs his family enterprise. Kavya married Ani without the blessings of her conservative Tamilian parents. Over a decade later, her father (Thalaivasal Vijay) still disapproves of the man that the extended family continues to describe as his “Bengali son-in-law”. 

 

Unknown to Kavya’s folks in Ooty, the couple have drifted apart although they live in the same house. They have both been having long-term affairs with other people, except that the word “affair” sounds casual and sordid, whereas Kavya and Ani seem committed to their respective extra-marital partners: Vikram played by Sendhil Ramamurthy, who is a respected photographer, and Nora (Ileana D’Cruz), a talented artiste whose acting career is just taking off. 

 

A turn of events on a visit to Ooty takes the quartet in an unplanned direction. 

 

The Hindi film industry has so far favoured either maudlin hyperbole or ribald comedy while portraying unfaithful spouses. Comedy has been a route adopted for adulterous husbands (cases in point: No Entrythe Masti franchise) – adulterous wives, it seems, are serious business (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna). Do Aur Do Pyaar is neither trivial and sexist like the former bunch, nor weepie like the latter. It is a slice-of-life exploration of infidelity and love, that is never heavy-handed in its approach to these themes and in considerable stretches, is light-hearted, even funny. 

 

Do Aur Do Pyaar is a remake of the American film The Lovers, written and directed by Azazel Jacobs. I do not understand why Bollywood requires inspiration from abroad when every nook and cranny of this massive, complex country is teeming with original stories, but given that a decision was taken to remake this ordinary (albeit domestically acclaimed) American film, I am happy to report that Do Aur Do Pyaar is a vastly superior work. The Lovers provides just a skeletal premise that writers Suprotim Sengupta and Eisha Chopra have expanded into a substantial script featuring dialogues co-written with Amrita Bagchi. 

 

The Lovers was solely focused on the excitement that subterfuge brings to relationships. The leads were dull characters. Their feelings changed abruptly and inexplicably. Their partners were poorly developed, charmless creatures. The husband’s lover in particular was hysterical, possessive and unlikeable. In contrast, Do Aur Do Pyaar is a wistful and layered study of the human psyche. There is a plausible progression in Kavya and Ani’s feelings for each other and their lovers. In fact, if it weren’t for the prominent acknowledgement of the original in the opening credits, I doubt I would have noticed the sole similarity between the two storylines. 

 

One point that gives me pause is that the Indian film has lowered the ages of its protagonists by at least a generation. The Lovers is about an elderly couple with a college-going son, whereas Kavya and Ani are young. Whatever the excuse may be for the edit, it is a sad reminder that the Hindi industry is by and large disinterested in seniors as leads. 

 

Do Aur Do Pyaar is defined by its non-judgemental attitude towards its four main characters. Each is loveable in their own way. The prevalent social stereotype of the evil doosri aurat is discarded here in favour of compassion. I wish Nora had been given as much maturity and calm as Vikram, but at least she is never viewed with anything but empathy through Guha Thakurta’s lens.

 

Most conversations in Do Aur Do Pyaar sound natural, barring one crucial lengthy exchange between Kavya and her Dad in which he dispenses simplistic wisdom and she psycho-analyses her relationships in a vocabulary that borrows American cinema’s pop psychology clichés. That discussion disregards some of what went before and what follows. While I understand that the writers felt the need to resolve Kavya’s stormy ties with her father, it does not make logical sense that this feisty woman who had accused him of being cold and expressed the belief that her mother was scared of him, would in the climax turn to him for relationship advice. 

 

Kavya in that scene asks how he and her Mum have lasted so long. You just keep showing up every day, he replies glibly. Really? Did the frightened Mrs Ganeshan have a choice to not show up? Was she financially secure enough to leave him? If she had done so, would the family have supported her? The Kavya we have known until then would have challenged him on these points, would not have deemed the longevity of a joyless marriage an achievement, and is more likely to have asked Mom (Rekha Kudlig), “Why on earth did you not dump him?” – the response would, in all probability, have been far more illuminating. 

 

The scene as it stands feels like a cop-out, and a bid to reassure conservatives in the audience that although the hero and heroine strayed, the film itself favours socially prescribed territory. Do Aur Do Pyaar challenges traditionalism and many patriarchal norms until then and thereafter, but disappoints in this incongruous passage by batting for marriage over happiness. 

 

(No spoilers ahead, but some people may disagree) 

 

If this had been the finale, the film would have been ruined. Thankfully there is more to come. 

 

Romantic dramas across the world have stereotypical notions of “happily ever after”. Guha Thakurta and team skip that trap, leaving us with a rare – and rewarding – open-ended climax. 

 

A lot is said without being said in Do Aur Do Pyaar. Kavya’s adaptable food habits, for instance are as much an instrument of flirtation as a comment on the person she is below the feisty demeanour. Ani’s begun poshto is a metaphor both for affection and for the mundanity that replaces the early sparks in a romance. Beneath the quiet surface are roiling sentiments and resentments. And anything, yes everything, in Do Aur Do Pyaar can transform into fuel for a sense of humour when you least expect it. 

 

Guha Thakurta and her editor, Bardroy Barretto, keep the shifts in mood flowing smoothly. 

 

DoP Kartik Vijay’s pale palette lends a coldness to his frames irrespective of the habitat in which the couples wander. His camera miraculously manages to make grimy Mumbai come off as a sister locale of stunning Ooty, with both places reflecting the moods of their inhabitants as much as the beauty that nature has bestowed on at least one of them. 

 

Subhajit Mukherjee’s background score reminded me a teensy bit of Brokeback Mountain’s music – and I’m not complaining. I don’t see myself seeking out the soundtrack outside the four walls of this film, but within the span of the narrative they serve their purpose well. 

 

The Hindi industry is a long way away from acknowledging India’s language diversity in a script that truly reflects reality, but considering how insular Hindi filmmakers tend to be, Do Aur Do Pyaar is a baby step forward. The mere smattering of Tamil dialogues while the leads are in Ooty is not enough, but is still better than Hindi films set outside the Hindi belt that feature characters speaking in Hindi alone. For shining recent samples of the language authenticity found in scripts from the country’s other film industries, watch Thankam and Ariyippu.

 

Balan is delightful in Do Aur Do Pyaar, mutating from flirtatious to fiery to pained and conflicted in a matter of seconds. Her fluid expressions power the fluidity of the plot. 

 

Gandhi does hesitation and diffidence to perfection. He is so adorable that it’s easy to imagine why a distant wife may still reflexively reach out to fix the glasses sliding down Ani’s nose. 

 

D’Cruz and Ramamurthy never allow their gorgeousness to distract from Nora and Vikram’s vulnerability. When they hurt in Do Aur Do Pyaar, I did too. 

 

The title of this film translates to Two Plus Two Equals Love. Now don’t be a wet blanket and go looking for mathematical precision in that equation, because Do Aur Do Pyaar does add up. This is a consistently engaging, often amusing, always thoughtful, low-noise account of the ebbing tide in a waning marriage.

 

Rating (out of 5 stars): 3   

 

Running time:

139 minutes

 

Visual courtesy: IMDB 

Monday, February 26, 2024

All India Rank: “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you” (Review 798)

Release date:

February 23, 2024

Director:

Varun Grover

Cast:

Bodhisattva Sharma, Samta Sudiksha, Geeta Agarwal, Shashi Bhushan, Sheeba Chaddha, Neeraj, Ayush Pandey, Saadat Khan

Language:

Hindi 

 


Tum ladkon ke akal mein phaphoond laga hota hai kya?” (Have you boys got fungus on your brains?) Sarika Kumari asks her classmate Vivek Singh in the new Hindi film All India Rank. It’s the sort of throwaway line that indicates the user’s comfort with the tongue. 

 

The ease with which Sarika slips phaphoond into the right context makes it my word of the week, though nasudda hogs the limelight in All India Rank since Vivek is asked the meaning at one point. (I won’t tell you his answer.) 

 

It is no surprise that All India Rank has the feel of a film written by someone who takes pleasure in language. It is after all the directorial debut of Varun Grover who rose to fame and acclaim with his lyrics for Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), then sealed his reputation by writing Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015). Grover has also written this film, which was premiered last February at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam and is now in Indian theatres. 

 

Sarika (Samta Sudiksha) in All India Rank is one of the foremost supporting players in the story of Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma), a teenager from Lucknow who arrives in Kota in 1997 to prepare for the IIT entrance test. Kota is the Mecca of coaching classes for IIT aspirants or, as Vivek’s father R.K. Singh (Shashi Bhushan) puts it, it is “coaching ka Haridwar”. 

 

Vivek has been dragged by Singh Senior into a race he does not care for, while Sarika runs with passion and for herself. A parent forcing his dreams on a child and the pressure to gain admission to one of India’s most sought after educational institutions are only the backdrop against which All India Rank unfolds as an observational, almost meditative portrait of what can best be summarised as “a year in the life of Vivek from 1990s India”. 

 

The desperation and despondency of some of the leads in other Hindi films dealing with career choices, India’s education system and so on are not to be found here. All India Rank is not 3 IdiotsTamasha or 12th Fail. The pressure-cooker existence of the impoverished Manoj from All India Rank is a far cry from Vivek’s situation – the latter has relative privilege as the only child of lower-middle-income parents. Vivek is unhappy at being pushed into a profession he does not want, but he does not get depressed, unlike Ranbir Kapoor’s character from Tamasha. Viveks exist too. 

 

All India Rank is semi-autobiographical. Grover himself is an IITian, but the film is left open-ended, perhaps to make a point that it can hardly be viewed as a climax if a disinterested kid gets into a coveted college. All India Rank is not about a triumph, it is about a journey. 

 

Grover’s film, edited by Sanyukta Kaza, has a calm vibe and an air of innocence. Its low-key sense of humour is written into both the conversations and the pleasant music (lyrics by Grover, original songs and background score by Mayukh-Mainak). The unhurried demeanour and unmelodramatic presentation of even its most dramatic moments convey an impression that little happens here. In truth, it is packed with thoughtful character development and discreet socio-political commentary. 

 

In a sense, Vivek is an unlikely protagonist. He is unexcited by IITs but he doesn’t fight his Dad too much, he dabbles in rebellion but soon gets back on track, he’s nice but slightly bland. He grows in his own way though. In any case, even a seemingly bland individual is the hero of their own story, and even such a person has his moments, as we see with Vivek. 

 

Besides, the boy is surrounded by interesting people – the feisty Sarika, their friend who pretends he’s not studying when in fact he does, parents who evolve, an easygoing mother (Geeta Agarwal) and a man who sees his son’s entry into IIT as a passport to elevating his own social stature. 

 

The newcomers and veterans in the cast are uniformly endearing and real. Geeta Agarwal and Shashi Bhushan infuse warmth into Vivek’s parents’ close bond. Sheeba Chaddha is capable of being harsh as spikes on screen, but in All India Rank she brings an unexpected softness to Kalpana Bundela, the queen of IIT coaching in Kota, who keeps the mood light in class.  

 

Among the film’s winning qualities is the authenticity in the recreation of the era in which it is set, through dialogues, Prachi Deshpande’s meticulous production design and revisitations of old songs. In 1997, telephones with whirring dials were the norm and the Nirma detergent powder advertisement was a reigning pop culture reference. The detailing of the time is charming. 

 

This was the decade in which economic liberalisation, Mandal and the Babri Masjid demolition permanently altered India’s DNA. The script does not spell out any of this, but slivers of the politics of that era and of the present are an unobtrusive presence in the writing. 

 

Azaadi” in the 1990s was not yet a word that could land you in jail, but as we see in the film, queasiness over Urdu was very much the norm and Indian was already a country that valued its national symbols more than its people. 

 

I’ll leave you to spot the messaging that dots the film, including the manner in which the writer-director tests the liberal viewers’ obliviousness to anti-minority stereotyping in Hindi cinema by seeming to present a stereotype, then turning it on its head. No spoilers here – you will hopefully recognise that episode when you see it. Compare it to the mischief played by the writer-director of last year’s OMG 2, who placed three minority community members in his all-Hindu universe in a north Indian temple town, wrote all three of them as jerks, and picked one of them to torment a schoolmate over his penis size, thus setting off a chain of events that almost destroyed the boy. 

 

In the past 10 years, much of Hindi filmdom has bowed and scraped before the right-wing through works that demonise religious minorities, marginalise the influence of minority cultures on India, and erase every achievement of non-BJP governments and prime ministers. All India Rank stands out from this obeisant crowd with almost indiscernible defiance. Don’t go looking for a sermon or lengthy exposition. What we get instead is a word here, a brief chat there, a quote on a wall, a passing image on TV – Grover worships at the altar of the God of small things in All India Rank

 

The film is not about any of this though, just as it is not about IIT. Grover leaves us free to note his politics if we wish, or to enjoy All India Rank as a sweet little film about “a time of innocence, a time of confidences”, to borrow from the American songwriter Paul Simon’s Bookends (1968). 

 

Unlike most coming-of-age sagas, All India Rank does not feature any grand awakening or drastic change in the central character’s plans by the close. Yet, it tugs at the heart. The film is like photographs we take of regular days, pictures that don’t commemorate a birth, death, graduation or anniversary but instead freeze frame the spaces in between when most of life occurs. Those are the days that get us to our milestones, and our stories are incomplete without them. 

 

In choosing to make All India Rank – and make it in precisely the way he does – Grover subscribes to the Paul Simon school of thought. “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” (Bookends again)

 

Rating (out of 5 stars): 3   

 

Running time:

101 minutes 

 

Visual courtesy: IMDB