Saturday, January 29, 2011


Release date: January 28, 2011
Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Emraan Hashmi, Omi Vaidya, Shazahn Padamsee, Rituparna Sengupta, Tisca Chopra, Shruti Haasan, Shraddha Das
“Love Grows … Men Don’t” says the tagline of this film. But what about the films men make?  

Dil Toh Baccha Hai Ji is director Madhur Bhandarkar’s first shot at a romantic comedy after a decade of giving us his gritty, straightforward, no-frills take on the grimy side of Mumbai. So what we have here are three men with love stories as different as different can be. Naren Ahuja (Ajay Devgn) is a decent sort of chap going through a bitter divorce. When he shifts out of his marital home into his parents’ empty house, he takes in a couple of paying guests to counter the loneliness. Enter, playboy Abhay Suri (Emraan Hashmi) and the world’s most earnest virgin Milind Kelkar (Omi Vaidya).

Abhay is a gym instructor who beds wealthy women in exchange for a lavish lifestyle. Currently unemployed, he’s having an affair with former Miss India Anushka Narang (Tisca Chopra) who maintains him to occupy the empty spaces in her married life. Milind is a matrimonial bureau employee who writes bad poetry in his spare time, while safeguarding his chastity for that one woman he thinks he’s meant to be with. He falls hard for RJ Gungun and refuses to heed his friends’ warnings that she’s ruthlessly using him to further her own movie-star ambitions. 

Add to this mix Naren’s own emerging romance. He’s falling for the new intern in his office, though well aware that she’s half his age. 

It’s a story filled with promise … but though Dil Toh Baccha Hai Ji works in parts, for the most part it’s a let-down. 

The biggest problem with this film is the dialogue writing that reeks of wannabe-cool. Are mature grown-ups actually expected to laugh at the voiceover about the three Fs in Abhay’s life: fun, flirtation and teesra F tho aap jaante hi honge?! It’s the sort of line that might have had you in splits in the years bordering puberty, when the use of the word “sex” or thereabouts was enough to elevate a drab anecdote to the status of a “joke”.

Too many of the conversations in this film seem designed to give characters an opportunity to throw smart one-liners at each other. And too many of those supposedly smart one-liners are not so smart at all. The ones who suffer the most at the hands of this cheesy writing are Nikki (Shruti Haasan playing the woman Abhay genuinely falls in love with) and Abhay himself. Emraan Hashmi still has the acting chops to make Abhay’s corny lines tolerable. But the very pretty Ms Haasan’s strained dialogue delivery further exacerbates our pain. When Nikki’s parents talk about dad having aloe vera juice at breakfast, and she grabs the chance to quip about getting their “juices flowing”, I cringed. 

I cringed even more at the film’s two gay characters who must rank among the crudest portrayals of homosexual persons seen in popular Hindi films in recent years.

But the biggest disappointment for me is the depiction of some of the women in this film. Bhandarkar showed an acute understanding of the female psyche in his earlier films Chandni Bar, Page 3, Corporate and Fashion. But his Gungun, for one, is a product of confused characterisation. I’m not saying hard-nosed, hard-hearted women like her don’t exist. But if this particular hard-nosed, hard-hearted woman genuinely had a change of heart as we are shown part way through the film, then her actions in the end are inexplicably abrupt, and seem to have been written simply to fit into the denouement that the director and writers are purposefully heading towards. 

A word about the music. Abhi kuchh dino se and Tere bin are hummable and well shot. As for the rest of the cast apart from Emraan and Shruti, well most of them do a decent job except for the actor playing Anushka Narang’s husband who is, to put it mildly, omigawdawful! Omi Vaidya is amusing and fits the part, but if I see a third film in which he plays exactly the same guy he did on debut in 3 Idiots, I think I may shake him by the shoulders and ask him to go stand in a corner and hold his ears. If ever there was an actor who is allowing himself to be typecast at the very start of his career, it is he, it is he, it is he.

The film does work in stretches. And foremost among those stretches are the scenes devoted to Ajay Devgn and Shazahn Padamsee. To be fair to the others, these are the two characters who are best-written, and who have been given the least trite lines. But that shouldn’t take away from the pat on the back they both deserve for bringing a certain earnestness to their performances as Naren, the boss falling in love with the new kid at office, and that new kid herself, 21-year-old June Pinto.

Shazahn’s performance underlines the fresh appeal we saw in her debut film Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year in 2009. As for Devgn, in recent years, all the way up to Raajneeti and Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai, as a viewer I’ve become concerned that he’s been repeating himself – same couple of intense facial expressions, same deportment, same body language. But in Dil Toh Baccha Hai Ji he lightens up, showing us a side of him we’ve seen in the recent past only in Athithi Tum Kab Jaaoge. Almost a decade back, Devgn had tried his hand at an out-and-out comedy in Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahi with disappointing results. Athithi… and DTBHJ show that he’s come a long way since then. 

It’s in the interactions between June and Naren that Bhandarkar manages to convey the most warmth, sincerity and humour in DTBHJ. Witness the scene in which June and her friend confide in the middle-aged Naren about the other middle-aged men at work who are making passes at her, men who are going through “a mid-life crisis” the girls explain artlessly. The Naren-June relationship in the film works because no one’s trying to be witty or smart here, and the writers have kept it simple. 

In fact, the appeal of all Bhandarkar’s earlier films have been their simplicity, and the director’s easy style of story-telling that made you feel you were watching life as it was happening before your eyes. All he need have done in DTBHJ was to focus on his strengths and be true to himself.

I’d recommend this film only to committed Ajay Devgn / Emraan Hashmi fans and to die-hard Bhandarkar-ites in a generous mood. 

Rating (out of five): **

PS: On a different note, the A-certificate awarded to this film is a perfect example of this country’s unreasonable, inconsistent film censorship system. Ghajini got a U/A despite its extreme violence. The innuendo-driven Kambakkht Ishq got a U/A too. Could someone on the Censor Board please explain the Adults-only rating for Dil Toh Baccha Hai Ji?!!!

Friday, January 21, 2011


Release date: January 21, 2011
Director: Kiran Rao
Cast: Prateik, Monica Dogra, Kriti Malhotra, Aamir Khan
Dhobi by day, rat killer by night, some day he hopes to become a movie star.

NRI investment banker on a sabbatical, photographing a world beyond hers, one day she falls unexpectedly in love.

Young bride in the city, wrenched away from her beloved small town, one day she just gives up.

Artist by profession, a****** by temperament, one day he chances upon some videos that spark  off something within him.

Bring them together in Mumbai and you get Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries), debutante director Kiran Rao’s affectionate portrait of the metropolis that she has made home.

Dhobi Ghat is an uncommon Bollywood film. It’s just 95 minutes long. It has no interval. It’s as much in English as it is in Hindi. And though it stars Aamir Khan, he is not the central character. If anything, it draws our attention to some remarkable young talent out there who are so easy before the camera that it’s impossible to believe some of them have not done this before

Singer Monica Dogra is Shai the NRI in whose sub-consciously compartmentalised existence she has fallen for Aamir’s eccentric, much older painter Arun on a one-night stand; while in another neat cubicle of her life she befriends Munna as she tries to get to the heart of Mumbai with her camera. Prateik as Munna reminds us why we loved him so much in that cameo in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. In Dhobi Ghat – his first full-fledged role – he takes on the complexities and confusions of the charismatic young washerman who has known hunger, who has worked hard enough to now have his own little stash of cash, and who realises that his goal of becoming a marquee name is far more attainable than the memsaab he’s fallen in love with. Watch him in that moment when he sees Shai for the first time in Arun’s house and the camera switches to his back as the door shuts: in the gentle droop of his shoulders you hear the heartbreak.

But my personal pick of the cast is newcomer Kriti Malhotra as Yasmeen Noor whose video letters to her brother fall into Arun’s hands. She had perhaps the biggest challenge in this film since Yasmeen is the character whose background we know least about – we see her life only in flashback through three videos she recorded to mail to her sibling. The twinkle in the newly wed’s eye gives way to fatigue and finally despair. We are never told what ultimately pushed her over the edge, but that doesn’t take away from the pain we feel at the fading glow on the once-sparkling girl’s face.

As for Aamir Khan, for me at least, Dhobi Ghat is the film in which the actor has finally come to terms with his age. For almost a decade now, even more than his contemporaries, Aamir seemed to have been resisting the advancing years to embarrassing effect – as a college student at the start of Dil Chahta Hai in 2001 and again in Rang de Basanti and 3 Idiots. In Dhobi Ghat, thankfully, the camera celebrates his age and every wrinkle and line that accompanies it. And Aamir is not playing Arun here. He is Arun.

So Dhobi Ghat is neither only about the glitzy city that forms a backdrop to so many mainstream Bollywood films; nor only about its underworld most recently chronicled to great commercial kudos in Once Upon A Time In Mumbaii; nor only about its poverty and sleaze so wonderfully captured by Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. It’s about those anonymous people you see on the sidewalk or brush past at a high-brow party in a megapolis, rarely having the time to stop and discover their colourful back stories.

The film boasts of many little touches that add up beautifully. Like the loner Arun sipping his drink on a balcony, reaching out and letting the rain into his glass. Like the NRI rich kid who thinks nothing of inviting a dhobi for coffee into her house but whose maid nevertheless serves the beverage in a glass for him and a China mug for her. Like that aspiring-to-be-an-actor dhobi who wears a T-shirt of The Doors because it’s cool but clearly has not a clue who they are. And like the artist who chooses to live in a crummy neighbourhood though of course he can afford those Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein tees.

But Dhobi Ghat is elevated to another level altogether by director of photography Tushar Kanti Ray who switches between formats and styles with ease. The home videos for Yasmeen’s story are a really nice choice. Also top-notch is the art work by Ravi Mandlik. Unlike so many Hindi films where women are shown applying make-up on already-made-up faces and artists are shown running brushes over already-completed works, we actually see Aamir painting here.  

There have been other cinematic odes to cities. My favourite is that captivating volume of short stories Paris, Je t’aime. Nearer home, Mumbai Cutting was much more of a mixed bag but neat on the whole. Dhobi Ghat is different in that its four stories intertwine.

The film eloquently captures a certain poignancy in the lives of Mumbaikars, aided by a haunting score by Oscar Award-winning musician Gustavo Santaollala whose CV includes Brokeback Mountain and Babel. What I missed though was the city’s infectious energy – in the narrative and in the score.

I also have some questions that are really bothering me, Kiran: if Yasmeen recorded those videos for her brother, why did she never send them to him? And I’ve met enough Bihari taxi and autorickshaw drivers in Mumbai to wonder if Munna isn’t a tad too sophisticated to be real. If Prateik portrayed the emotions of his character so well, why not the demeanour? The characterization of Shai too left me dissatisfied. Here was a warm, open-hearted girl with nothing in the story hinting at a selfish streak in her: am I really to believe then that she didn’t realise that Munna was falling for her? Or did she know and not care?

Be that as it may, while I can’t say I found Dhobi Ghat entirely enthralling, I certainly liked it very very very much. My friend with whom I watched it asked me, “So, what is the conclusion?” Of course there is none unless you decide to arrive at one yourself. If I were to shoot a few days in your life, what would be the conclusion?

In one of the most enchanting scenes in this film, Yasmeen videotapes her all-Maharashtrian maid’s shy daughter who is studying in Class 10 “English medium”. Either by design or by coincidence, the girl recites Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Brook. She didn’t get to that poem’s most memorable line though:  

“… For men may come and men may go, but I go on forever ...”

It’s a line that pretty much encapsulates the story of Mumbai. And if you think about it, that’s the whole point of Dhobi Ghat.

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

Monday, January 17, 2011


Release date: January 14, 2011
Director: Aman Mihani
Cast: Mohsin Akhtar, Muzzi, Shilpa Shukla, Luna Lahkar
It would be the easiest thing in the world to dismiss this film, tell you it’s not worth your time and wind up my review in a jiffy. After all it’s a deliciously wintry morning here in Delhi and happiness beckons elsewhere.

But I won’t do that. Because in spite of everything that’s wrong with Mumbai Mast Kallander, there’s something appealing about the young cast that makes me want to say a little something more.

Mumbai Mast Kallander is the story of brothers Ram and Shyam who come to Mumbai from Gorakhpur to make it big in the underworld. Their first assignment with a city goon is to mock-kidnap the wayward son of a local builder. Dad hopes the episode will get him the sympathy of his creditors plus reform the boy. Problem is that sonny boy too has notched up some debts with his gambling addiction and so plans his own kidnapping to wrest money from his tight-fisted father. The third angle in this kidnapping triangle are two hapless girls trying to save their beauty parlour from that same builder. How do they plan to pay the money they owe him? By kidnapping his son of course.

Plenty of potential for a goofball comedy, right? And it might have worked, considering the obvious earnestness of some of its young lead players. But for a film that is meant to be a comic thriller, the editing is shockingly slow-paced leaving it with low energy levels that no amount of youthful sincerity can rescue it from.

Ram is played by former Mr India Mohsin Akhtar who flashes his well-worked-out arms to good effect and looks like he may have shaped up better in the acting department, given a firmer hand on the director’s baton. Chak De villainess Shilpa Shukla does a decent job as the beauty parlour owner Rhea. And her partner-in-crime (pretty Luna Lahkar) is not bad either.

The film features a couple of genuinely funny situations but many more that could have been humorous if they’d been handled deftly. Like the Dussehra theme party where girls in corsets dance on stage to Thoda Ram naam bhaj le. The writing shows some promise. Sample this: When the kidnap victim takes an inordinately long time in the toilet, his rustic kidnapper says: “Arrey bhai, itni der mein to hum do baar khet ho aate.”

But that’s no compensation for the nauseatingly badly conceptualized, badly acted, badly directed, badly written sequence towards the end of the film featuring a killer who is an Amitabh Bachchan fan. Yikes!

Rating (out of five): *

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Release date: January 14, 2011
Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
Cast: Gul Panag, Tillotama Shome, Jeneva Talwar, Purab Kohli, Siddharth Makkar
Language: Mostly English, some Hindi  

After the rain comes the sunshine.


Since the Indian Met Department gets its predictions wrong so often, you can turn instead to Naina (Gul Panag) in Turning 30!!! whose voiceover gives us weather reports such as these plus other superficial ‘insights’.

In a film industry that rarely offers this much space to a leading lady, Turning 30!!! is the worst kind of showcase you could find for the life of a young Indian city girl just entering the fourth decade of her life.

O wait! Did I call her “young”? Silly me! Naina is 30 which, according to the film, is the start of middle age, wrinkles, disinterested men, misery and sagging breasts.

This would not be such a problem if these were the views of the heroine alone, or a couple of the characters in the film – no doubt there are some women out there crossing 30 who worry that they’re getting middle-aged; no doubt there are many girls in their 20s who think 30-plus is old. The problem is that this film may be telling the story of one woman but positions itself as the story of Everywoman.

In spite of its desperate effort to appear cool and forward-looking, Turning 30!!! is nothing but a cliché-ridden film repeatedly underlining every stereotype about ‘liberal city girls’ that there is. It’s anxious to match the tone of Sex and the City. It’s a wannabe Bridget Jones Diary. It’s one of the most regressive films on single women I’ve seen. And it’s far more dangerous than most because (like Bridget Jones) it disguises itself well.

So Naina in Turning 30!!! is a rising ad exec with a cute boyfriend and good friends. Then all at once, her boss threatens to fire her, she is dumped by her man and the greatest tragedy of all strikes … she turns 30! Naina’s friends lend her a shoulder to cry on while also pointing out that she should have babies soon since her biological clock is ticking. I guess menopause strikes women very early in this film. Naina copes by crying, mooning about the house, consuming intoxicating liquids, begging her ex-boyfriend to get back with her, sleeping with another ex who enters her life just then, puffing away at her ciggies, misbehaving at that recently-ex-boyfriend’s engagement which she attends accompanied by her current squeeze, grovelling at the feet of the ex-boyfriend and even fighting with his parents over him.

I cringed while watching this woman who has so much going for her – she’s beautiful, smart and talented – and yet is willing to repeatedly trample on her own dignity for that man. She’s not the only one. Her married friend casually shrugs off her husband’s infidelity because her baby needs a daddy. She also says clever things like: “Divorce seems so pointless now.” Why? We’re not told. Perhaps because it sounded like something an SATC babe might have said?

All this is really a pity because Turning 30!!! had so much potential. Gul Panag has a lovely, likeable face and an easy acting style that the industry has not explored enough. Purab Kohli is sincere and always nice. The entire cast is easy on the eye. The settings are all very pretty and polished. And the first half of the film is actually quite funny in bits and parts. But there’s too much that’s wrong with Turning 30!!! for these to be considered redeeming factors. 

Strange things happen in this film. Naina devises a marketing plan which involves starting a club for 30-plus women. But for some unfathomable reason, it features women who appear to be in their 50s, 60s and above. There’s boob job advice directed at the heroine which is kind of weird considering that her pert and naturally voluptuous bosom is staring us in the face.

To be fair to the writer-director, the clichés extend beyond the single woman. Everyone’s a certain ‘type’ here. The artist type boyfriend wears curtain cloths for neck-scarves. The ad type wears a hat in office and is gay. And the cool woman type hangs out at cafes and bars, plays Truth or Dare with her friends, uses words like “closure”, has a lesbian gal pal (oh, the height of coolth!), discusses “pussy pamperers” with her buddies (their words please, not mine!), drinks a lot, smokes a lot and has lots of sex. 

Wasn’t producer Prakash Jha monitoring the goings on at all?! Why didn’t he notice some of the stodgy, stagey dialogues written in a language that English-speaking Indians don’t speak? He’s even allowed the music directors to shamelessly borrow some easily identifiable bars from Bryan Adams’ Please forgive me for the background score.

And oh that irritating voiceover by Naina! Each time she has dispensed a gem that’s meant to induce awe in us, the director dutifully signals the audience by raising the volume of the music many notches. Triteness just trips off Naina’s tongue effortlessly. When her boyfriend wants to get back with her, she says gravely: “Find yourself first, Rishabh, and you’ll find love,” and better still, “Read my book, it has all the answers.” The film, sadly, has none.

At the start of Turning 30!!!, Naina is turning 30. By the end she’s 31. I don’t blame her. I think I too aged a year while watching this film.

Rating (out of five): **

Friday, January 14, 2011


Release date: January 14, 2011
Director: Samir Karnik
Cast: Dharmendra, Sunny Deol, Bobby Deol, Kulraj Randhawa

Gaon-waalon, isme Dharam hai, Sunny hai, Bobby hai … Maine yeh bhi notice kiya ki isme Kulraj hai, Emma hai, Sucheta hai … Isme action hai, comedy hai, romaaance hai … Banaras hai, Caneda hai, sarson da khet hai … Isme good jokes aur flat jokes hai, zyaada sochoge to isme positives se zyaada negatives hai, first half mein especially isme ups se zyaada downs hai … Par maa kasam, isme bahut mazaa hai!

What do I say? Every once in a while a film comes along that makes you want to reach out across the hall over the heads of your fellow viewers and affectionately pat the face of the star on screen. In Yamla Pagla Deewana, Bobby made me laugh, Sunny made me smile, but maa kasam I’m telling you … I quietly hugged Dharmendra close to my heart every single time he appeared on screen and I sighed and silently said, Aww!

That sentiment kind of sums up YPD for me. It’s an unapologetic Deol vehicle unabashedly riding on the goodwill that this family enjoys so much among us, and paying tribute to their three careers, to the minuses that critics have repeatedly picked on in the past and to the pluses that both critics & audiences have embraced. And it does all this in an often cheesy but utterly loveable, endearingly self-deprecating fashion.

When Sunny is shown trying to extract water from a hand-pump, Bobby asks him cheekily if he intends to uproot it (and perhaps throw it at the girl’s stubborn family? … since the Pakistan army is not available here? … what do you say ji?) Towards the end of the film, in the midst of a long-drawn-out fight sequence in – what else but – a godown, Sunny announces that aukaad dikhane ka time has come. He then opens his mouth wide and lets out a ear-splitting yell that shatters the glass in the godown, sends people flying in different directions and had me collapsing in a heap of laughter in my seat. Even the famed Deol left feet got me unconsciously putting my hand to my heart and saying for the nth time as I watched this film, Awww!

I say all this although there is also much to criticize in YPD. It starts off slow, the climax is inexorably stretched, and the entire film could have been chopped down by half an hour (which is an awful thing to say about any film). There are many decidedly unfunny parts. Some of the references to the Deol family are a little too self-indulgent and in-your-face to be charming … like that moment in the climax fight when Bobby says to no one in particular, “If Dharam and Sunny are here fighting, what should Bobby do? Romance, of course!” Doesn’t work! The interactions between the Maaaa (Nafisa Ali) and Sunnybeta are grating. The additional track about the heroine’s brother’s political career seems unnecessary. A couple of the songs are completely tuneless. And why was Dharampaaji given less screen time than his sons?!

But chhad yaar, ki farak penda …. ’Cos there is also so much to praise.

The title track is a heart-stopper and Pal pal na maane tinkoo jiya is a foot-tapper. It’s also nice to see that though YPD is meant to be a platform for the Deols, director Samir Karnik has paid some attention to his supporting cast too. Hindi films featuring “white people” in ancillary roles often serve us embarrassingly bad actors. Look no further than the ad agency honcho in this week’s other release Turning 30, or the cops in the mega-budget Hrithik-starrer Kites. But in YPD, Australian actress Emma Brown Garrett shines as Sunny/Param’s gori mem wife whose English is peppered with Hindi and Punjabi. Mukul Dev as the drunken Punjabi sod is fun. Kulraj Randhawa as Bobby’s girlfriend Sahiba shows a spark that goes beyond her undeniable good looks … as they say in Hindi film circles, ladki mein kuchh hai. And Sucheta Khanna is hilarious as Sahiba’s Caneda-crazed relative Poli who ogles Bobby/Gajodhar as she says, “Tussi bade impotent ho ji.”

A bit about the story here. In YPD, Sunny plays an honest Punjabi NRI Paramveer whose parents split up when he was a child. Param now lives a comfortable life in Canada with mom while his father Dharam and younger brother Gajodhar revel in their careers as conmen in Banaras. Param visits India to re-unite his family. But before he converts a matlabi Dharam and Gajodhar, he must wrench Gajodhar’s messy love life from the clutches of his lady love’s numerous brothers.

And that’s the way it is. YPD is aimed at Deol fans willing to forgive the film its many flaws, and for those in the mood to throw logic out of the window and perhaps on to another continent altogether. I mean, if you really sit down to think about it, how in biology’s name could a 50-plus Anupam Kher be cast as the brother of 20-something Kulraj? O fortunate mother who begot two children so widely separated by age and rivalled perhaps only by Amitabh Bachchan and Ash playing siblings in the 2002 film Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin! And how in the name of genetics do you explain the all-out-100%-Indian appearance of Sunny/Param’s sons despite being children of a brown daddy and white mommy?

Whatever! This film works best if you’ve followed 1970s & ’80s Hindi cinema as also the careers of all three Deols. During a hold-up at a store in Canada, when the crook dares to spit out these words at Sunny/Param, “To hell with your mother and wife”, you just know even before it happens that that dhai kilo ka haath will be raised.

But over and above everything else, YPD is a tribute to Dharmendra. This is a versatile actor who could pull off a Satyakam, a Sholay and a Chupke Chupke with as much ease as the dishum-dhoom-dhadaaka that too many people now remember him for far more than his acting skills; an actor who did himself in with the films he chose through part of the ’80s and the entire ’90s. And yet, this is a star who is remembered with so much affection that when you see him dance to the title track of Yamla Pagla Deewana, you can’t help but rewind to 1975’s Pratiggya in which the song was originally featured; and you realise that at the age of 75 he may not be as sprightly as he was back then, but I tell ya he can still make ya smile … And you quietly hug him close to your heart and sigh and silently say, Awww!

Rating (out of five): ***

There you go, the original Main jatt yamla pagla deewana from the 1975 Dharam-Hema-starrer Pratiggya

The song resurrected for the 1991 film Farishtay featuring a 56-year-old Dharmendra & a much younger Jaya Prada. Uh oh!

And it’s back!!! Dharam-Sunny-Bobby aka Yamla-Pagla-Deewana in 2011. Now that’s more like it paaji!

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Release date: January 7, 2011
Director: Gaurav Jain
Cast: Voices – Even the movie’s official website has not thought it fit to list their names!

Okay, I’ll make short shrift of this one. Ashoka The Hero is an animation film about an eight-year-old boy in Mumbai whose brave police officer father is killed in a bank robbery. He’s a regular good kid who does his homework and goes out to play only with his mother’s permission. Then one day his old neighbor Masa tells him the story of how Emperor Asoka, saddened by the deaths he caused in the Kalinga war, had summoned nine wise men from across the world to capture the powers of the sun in a medallion. Dunno why they did it, really. But they did. The medallion is to be handed over to its rightful owner by the emperor’s loyal lieutenant Masa when the time is right. And of course the chosen one, many centuries later, is little Ashoka in modern-day India.

Blah blah blah!

So much rubbish is churned out these days by people who think that if they throw in “destiny”, a “rightful owner” or a “chosen one” into a story, they’ve got a Harry Potter / Superman / Spiderman / Batman / LOTR on their hands. The makers of Ashoka The Hero shame themselves further by lifting their hero’s look straight from Superman, even showing him suspended vertically in mid-air with one leg slightly bent in the manner of Christopher Reeve, as he watches over his city.

The animation looks dated, the movement of the figures is stodgy. Good Indian animation films are hard to come by, but an overall low standard can hardly be an excuse! The recent Ajay Devgn-Kajol starrer Toonpur ka Superhero did a pretty neat job of its mix of live action and animation. And director Anurag Kashyap’s Hanuman Returns was laudable both for its visuals and storytelling. Ashoka The Hero, on the other hand, looks like it was made during the Kalinga war.

Rating (out of five): Forget it!


Release date: January 7, 2011
Director: Sachin P. Karande
Cast: Deepal Shaw, Nirmal Pandey

The story of my effort to watch Vikalp is worth telling. As you can imagine, it’s not been released in a zillion theatres. But in keeping with my resolution to review every single Hindi film released in the NCR this year, I drove 32 km to the hall nearest to my house that’s showing Vikalp … alas to find that the show was cancelled because no one else wanted to see it. I offered to buy two tickets, but the theatre manager explained to me that then too, it would not be cost-effective for him to run a show. But all was not lost – he promised that if I was back the next day, and the situation was exactly the same, he’d run the show just for me.

Well, I did get back. He did keep his word. And I’ve lived to tell the tale of Vikalp.

Am I making a point here? Yup. ’Cos if you come across a film suffering the same fate as Vikalp, you can be sure that one of two things has happened: Either the film is so bad that the combined effect of critics’ reviews and word of mouth from the audience has kept the rest of the world away; or (and this is no reflection on the quality of the film) the producers just did not market it, which means the public does not know that it exists.

The latter happens often enough. I remember watching that lovely Irrfan-Jimmy-Shergill-Hrishitaa-Bhatt-starrer Haasil directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia in a near-empty theatre many Fridays ago. This was in the pre-Twitter era, in the days when newspaper reviews would be published only on Sundays, by which time it was too late for Haasil, which had entered theatres unheralded and disappeared just as quietly.

This is why I was willing to drive 32km (one way) * 2 (the return trip) * 2 (back and forth again the next day) = 128 km to review Vikalp.

Let me make it clear, Vikalp is no Haasil – far far from it. But as a wise woman once said on this blog, every film deserves a chance, right?

Deepal Shaw stars in Vikalp as Rishika Gandhi, a young, orphaned computer wizkid who finds herself at the deep end and at a dead when she loses her job and her boyfriend in quick succession. Disillusioned by what she perceives as disdain for her earthy Maharashtrian accent and non-snooty-school background here in India, she takes up a lucrative job in Bangkok. Once there, she realizes that she’s being used as a hacker by her company that’s in cahoots with international terrorists including – but of course – Osama bin Laden! Does she manage to get out of the mess? Ah, the suspense!!
Just kidding!
Since I have so much that’s bad to say about this film, let me start with the good stuff – Deepal Shaw. Most of us have seen her in A Wednesday and Kalyug, but before that (unfortunately!) in the Baby doll music videos. I find it tough to erase the desperately-wannabe-sexy cheapness of those videos from my memory, but perhaps I should try harder because Shaw is an interesting actress. In Vikalp, she fits well into the role of a non-Anglicised, Marathi-school-educated girl, low on self-esteem and easily ensnared by wolves preying on her lack of self-confidence. She looks, walks and talks the part, and I found myself going along with her on her journey in the first half of the film in spite of its tacky look.
But once Rishika realises that she’s caught in an international web of terror, the sillyfest begins. The storytelling is ham-handed to the point of being unintentionally entertaining. Just as Rishika is battling a life-and-death situation, up comes a romantic song with a good-looking chappie who’s been trying to woo her ever since she landed in Bangkok. This said good-looking chappie turns out to be the company boss’ son who does some villainous dialoguebaazi about Internet ki duniya and Internet ki taakat, but seems amazingly inept at handling his own office systems. And the proceedings are dumbed down for us stupid viewers to such an extent that the words Osama bin Laden appear more than once on the computer screen when our heroine is hacking the company’s database … Osama = terror, you know, just in case we didn’t get the point. I almost expected them to drill it in further with a cheque signed by “O.B. Laden”. Or perhaps a letter in an envelope addressed to “Mr Osama bin Laden, C/o Al Qaeda, A Cave, Somewhere In The Wilderness, Afghanistan”.
Just kidding again. But you get my point?
The saddest part of watching Vikalp for me though was the presence of the late Nirmal Pandey in it, all menacing and unabashedly over-acting. Pandey passed away in early 2010. Gosh, how much I liked him as Vikram Mallah in Bandit Queen! Gosh, how I cringed when I saw him appear for a few seconds in that travesty of a film, KRK’s Deshdrohi! Gosh, is it really this darned tough to make it in the film industry?! And if Vikalp is his last role, gosh how sad it feels to know that this amateurish production and hammy performance mark the last time we will see this talented man on screen!
Rating (out of five): *

PS: Deepal the Baby doll. Remember this?

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Release date: January 7, 2011
Director: Raj Kumar Gupta
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Vidya Balan

Conclusion: A good film. Holds the attention though it falls short of being gripping all the way. Top marks to Rani and Vidya for their performances. There are also some wonderfully written, wonderfully acted supporting characters in this film: the alarmingly realistic honest-yet-dishonest cop on the case superbly played by Rajesh Sharma; the prime witness to the murder who turns hostile, Vikram Jai Singh (Neil Bhoopalam); and Myra Karn in a brief but compelling appearance as Jessica. But implying – without officially stating – that Rani’s character is based on Barkha Dutt is an unnecessary gimmick. So here’s my review …

There’s a reason why I gave you my conclusion before the body of my review. After all, No One Killed Jessica is about a very very public real-life murder trial and we know the conclusion long before we enter theatres. The test then is the treatment.

For the most part, director Raj Kumar Gupta pulls it off. We watch the callous killing of model Jessica Lall by a politician’s son at a high-society do. There were 300 guests at that party. But at the bar in an adjoining room, as a policeman later points out to Jessica’s sister Sabrina, there were just a handful of witnesses to the crime.

The first part of the film takes us through Sabrina’s relentless pursuit of the case until witness after witness turns hostile and she gives up hope. It’s also through this time that we’re shown NDTV’s star reporter Meera Gaity refusing her boss’ suggestion that she follow up the Jessica story. It’s an open and shut case, says Meera, later to discover how wrong she was.

Vidya’s Sabrina Lall is quiet, dogged and tugs unbearably at the heart. Rani as Meera Gaity is feisty, flashy and supremely entertaining to watch. And Gupta – who earlier directed Aamir and who has also written the screenplay and dialogues for NOKJ – gives us a bunch of accompanying players who are neither black nor white, but human and gray … There’s the aspiring actor who should have been the case’s prime witness, asking, “If you were given a choice between a crore of rupees and a bullet, what would you choose? I don’t want a crore, but I don’t want a bullet either.” There’s the bumbling socialite digging into a chocolate cake as she tells Sabrina that her memory of the incident is confused. There’s that fabulous policeman who burns the midnight oil to crack the case but also informs Sabrina matter-of-factly, “I took Rs 70 lakh from these guys just to keep my hands off the boy while he was in custody” and then, in reaction to her shocked expression: “Sab koi khaata hai. Kisliye, mein fark hai Aap kaunsi duniya main rehti ho Sabrinaji?” Completely, utterly lovely.

But the film slips up on other fronts. The mother of Jessica’s killer is a caricature, terribly acted and killing the mood each time she is crudely inserted into a scene. I also kept waiting to see Vidya transform into the Sabrina we’ve seen on TV for many years now, the sparkling girl who pulled herself out of her despair when she witnessed the public and media support for her battle. The fault here lies not with the actress – the fault lies with the script which seems inexplicably keen to anoint a solo journalistic crusader (and not Sabrina) as the star of this story.

NOKJ is an unsual, experimental blend of reality and fiction which is interesting until this point. But if you were to believe the film, then the entire Justice for Jessica campaign was spearheaded single-handedly by one particular journalist from NDTV. Among other things, this is factually incorrect though NDTV was no doubt at the forefront of the movement.

The producers say Rani’s Meera Gaity is not Barkha Dutt but “an amalgam of many journalists who worked on the story”. But boy oh boy, have they gone out of their way to remind us of Dutt in the film! Gaity is a star female reporter from NDTV who covered Kargil. Who else are we the people expected to assume that she is? Is this a stunt intended to spark off speculation and thus bring more bums to theatre seats because Dutt is the most visible face of Indian TV news today?

In a bid to build up Gaity’s character, Gupta even ends up displaying what seems to be a lack of understanding of the functioning of news channels – a pity since Bollywood got it absolutely right in a pathbreaking fashion just so recently with Peepli Live. NDTV is so foolish in this film that when they conduct a sting operation, they send one of their anchors (read: a visible face on national TV) to meet the man they are investigating. This reporter is an under-confident idiot, because after all she’s not Meera Gaity. But the day is saved again by … guess who? … Meera Gaity who guides the foolish girl past every one of her faltering moves.

There’s also some worrisome gender stereotyping in NOKJ. Rani’s Gaity ends up perpetuating many widely-held assumptions about professionally successful women. She is single, brilliant, foul-mouthed, aggressive, has sex (because of course that’s Hindi filmdom’s way of saying she’s ‘liberal’), smokes relentlessly and (her words not mine) she’s “a bitch”.

But let these grouses not divert attention from the fact that NOKJ is a ground-breaking film. Unlike Hollywood, respectable film makers from mainstream Bollywood have so far steered clear of recent real-life events. NOKJ is courageous in that respect.  

Besides, there is much that is moving in the film. When a despairing Sabrina refuses to join in the Justice for Jessica campaign, we see her recently widowed father lying in a hospital bed, surreptitiously getting a nurse to send an SMS in support of the movement. Then there’s Amit Trivedi’s rousing music. And most of all, there’s the flashback to the spirited Jessica that Sabrina knew and loved, the girl who tells her sister: Today you tolerate an eve teaser, tomorrow he’ll come back to rape you, what will you do then?

This is a story that needed to be told. And for all its flaws, No One Killed Jessica tells it well.

Rating (out of five): ***