Friday, August 30, 2013


Release date:
August 30, 2013
Prakash Jha


Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgn, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Arjun Rampal, Manoj Bajpayee, Amrita Rao


Imagine a film on the life of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal (this is not that film, I’m just saying “imagine”) and just as the country is burning with on-street protests, Kejriwal darts off to a historical monument to sing a love song with Barkha Dutt (she’s not in this film, I’m just saying “imagine”).

Now take a moment to imagine my frustration with Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha. It’s wonderfully timely and intermittently gripping, but suffers from an inability to decide whether it wants to be realistic or a vintage Bollywood fantasy that’s over-dramatised, unreal and inaccurate. This is the story of an idealistic old Gandhian called Dwarka Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) in Ambikapur, Madhya Pradesh, who is spurred by a personal tragedy to become the leader of an anti-government movement with his foster son Manav Raghvendra (Ajay Devgn), a well-meaning but thuggish local politician called Arjun Rajvansh (Arjun Rampal) and a high-profile national TV journalist, Yasmin Ahmed (Kareena Kapoor Khan). Their enemy no. 1: the state home minister Balram Singh played by Manoj Bajpayee.

Satyagraha is inspired by the mass citizens’ protests of 2012 led by Hazare, Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and others culminating in the formation of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party. It’s relevant, and there are twists and turns in the film that are extremely convincing, as you watch corrupt politicians, parties and a government switch allegiances, manipulate state resources and use the police to quell a people’s movement. As heartening as it is to watch an intelligent man tap the burgeoning mainstream media, the social media and simmering outrage against politicians among the youth, it’s also alarming to see how easily a peaceful movement can go out of hand due to an occasional leadership mistake combined with volatile insiders and hostile outsiders. These proceedings unfold most naturally on screen. Even the voice of reason in Satyagraha – Kareena’s Yasmin – does not feel contrived; she is utterly believable in her attempts to inject sanity into the andolan while all else is crumbling around her.

With such a strong basic plot at his disposal, it’s surprising that Prakash Jha felt the need to rev up the proceedings with a needless romance, inane songs including a tepid number between Manav and Yasmin, a raucous background score and some unnecessary illogical elements. Don’t get me wrong – I love musicals. It’s just that the insertion of songs in this film is awkward, as are the songs themselves. Yes, Kejriwal & Co did have musicians present to keep up the spirits of the crowd at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, but that’s no excuse for Satyagraha serving up such an average musical score. Even the interpretation of the goosebump-inducing Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram is far less rousing in the film than it’s been in the trailers. And what’s the reasoning behind keeping the background music so loud and so cliched at most times? Seriously, if you didn’t have a shehnai playing at your wedding, would you have forgotten you are getting married? Likewise, did they think the viewers of this film would fail to spot the drama if the music didn’t rise to a crescendo in every dramatic scene?

In the midst of this comes Manav and Yasmin’s love affair. The situation is not implausible, the handling of it is. Ajay and Kareena look like a fond elder brother and younger sister who were forced to star as a film’s romantic leads and told, “Okay, now kiss karo nahin toh maar padegi.” There is zero chemistry between them, when his mouth landed on her forehead I was almost expecting her to pull out a rakhi and tie it on his wrist, and that pretend liplock with the camera hiding their faces was almost funny. Does Kareena now have a no-smooching policy in films? If yes, that’s her call of course, but why include a sex scene in your film when your actors – both of them – seem so conscious of the lines that have been drawn?

Even in his overall performance, an otherwise-accomplished actor like Ajay seems somewhat out of sorts here. He’s also looking uncomfortably chubby in the face and tubby around the waistline, which is unusual for him. This man was on fire in Jha’s Apaharan and Gangaajal, so we know their team is capable of so much more. In contrast, Manoj Bajpayee as a manipulative politician is the very embodiment of the slime and grime that’s mucking up this nation. Despite the high decibel level of the film as a whole, he refrains from going over-the-top. Ditto for Vipin Sharma in a much smaller role as a leader of a “kattarwaadi” party. Bachchan Senior is spot-on as he metamorphoses from a seemingly impractical idealist to a heart-broken father to a leader of the masses. It helps that his face is getting more beautiful with time.

I know it’s not fashionable to say this, but I’ve begun to enjoy Arjun Rampal’s performances. Gentlemen readers, wipe that grin off your faces!!! This has nothing to do with the man’s delicious handsomeness. Remember, he had the looks even when he started out in Bollywood, and all of us – justifiably – hung, drew and quartered him for his lack of acting skills. But I’ve begun to find his acting interesting since his villainous turn in Don. Here in Satyagraha, he’s very much at home as the local neta whose hooliganism once got him expelled from school.

Kareena’s performance and role merit a separate discussion. She has chosen to play Yasmin as one of the slightly more over-wrought, emotional journalists that we see these days on news channels. No issues with that, though she’s more glamorously dressed than a female journalist in India is likely to be while reporting from a small town. Yasmin is successful, powerful and slightly arrogant (witness her behaviour towards her boss) and who better than Ms Kapoor to pull that off? In the writing of her role though, Jha and Anjum Rajabali have shown a strange lack of understanding of the functioning of the media. She’s a journalist but halfway through the film she joins forces with Manav and Arjun to become a leader of the movement – not a behind-the-scenes sympathiser as many journalists might be, but a frontline leader! All this while still on assignment for ABP News! You think the channel would have allowed that? No way! So why did they cast her as a journalist from Delhi? Why not as a local girl who joins the protests? No idea. What’s nice though is that a big tamasha is not made of the fact that she is a Muslim girl – she just happens to be a Yasmin, not a Geeta or Sita – though there is one fleeting moment when, in contrast with her language until then, she makes a reference to Allah, as though the film maker wanted to remind us of her religion in case we hadn’t noticed.

Which brings us to another instance of indifferent writing: just because the film has a media tie-up with ABP News, do they have to show reports on only one Indian TV channel? Would it have been so tough to show flashes of reports on some fictitious channels too? Did we really need a character to mention that she wanted a packet of a particular brand of basmati rice opened, or another to mention a cement brand? From a team of this standing, in a film that is not in the Chennai Express mould, we expect product placements to be handled differently.

On the political front, the film fails to recognise the urban-rural, small-town-big-city divide that ails this country. There’s a reason why Anna Hazare travelled all the way from the village of Ralegan Siddhi to Delhi to fast last year for the India Against Corruption movement: Team Anna knew that crowds were far more likely to be deemed crowds by the Central political leadership and the so-called national media if they were gathered in the national capital, that the government wouldn’t give them the time of day in the absence of sustained media coverage, that the Indian and international media were far more likely to give that coverage to a movement based in Delhi, that the attention of the population in Indian metros was essential to keep the national media interested, that this population in the metros was unlikely to care – or at least for long – unless the action was close to them plus visible on national TV and… You get the picture of the vicious cycle? Yet in Satyagraha, despite being based in little Ambikapur, Ajay’s Manav seems to have no trouble in garnering the attention of the masses on the social media, the national mainstream media and, as a consequence, the state government.

To buy this requires a huge suspension of disbelief if not a detachment from the Indian reality. Even if you grant this to the film as cinematic licence, it’s hard to ignore its other failings. There are places where Satyagraha is truly compelling, heart-wrenching and unpredictable, but too much of the time, it defies probability and is just too painful to the ears. All I can say after watching Satyagraha is: Thank god for Madras Café!

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

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
2 hours 32 minutes
Photograph courtesy: UTV Motion Pictures and Prakash Jha Productions

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Release date:
August 23, 2013
Klay Hall

Voices of Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, Priyanka Chopra, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, John Cleese

Planes is sweet. It’s also insubstantial and feels incomplete; a film I think I might have liked better if I’d never seen Pixar’s Cars.

As Hollywood animation flicks go, this one seems to be following a template set by Cars without the depth and brilliance of that film. Dane Cook voices Planes’ leading man Dusty Crophopper, a male plane whose job as a cropduster is to spray pesticides on fields. He lives in a town that’s “off the map” (there you go – a reminder of Radiator Springs, where Cars’ Lightning McQueen accidentally found himself) and wants to figure out if he can be something more than that. So he enters a prestigious international flying competition where he comes up against the accomplished and wickedly competitive Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith) and his chamchas, the delightfully propah British gentleman Bulldog (John Cleese), the stern French-Canadian hottie Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), her Mexican suitor El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), the attractive Indian lady plane Ishani (Priyanka Chopra) and other colourful characters. The problem is, as soon as we meet the principal cast, it’s clear where the story is headed: of course Ripslinger plays dirty, of course everyone else is won over by Dusty’s goodness and backs him, and of course Dusty falls for Ishani. Back in Dusty’s home town, the reclusive, retired naval warplane Skipper Riley (Stacy Keach) who reluctantly agrees to train our hero for the race, harks back to Cars’ elderly and bitter Doc Hudson.

Planes’ locations are scenic, humour intermittently rears its head in the story and the film’s palette of colours is attractive. But Hollywood has set the bar so high with its animation films over the years, that this is a basic minimum we demand from each of them now. So what else? In terms of writing, beyond a point the film feels flimsy. In terms of action, sure there are some nice aerial manoeuvres during the race scenes, but except for one suspenseful ride through a train tunnel in the Himalayas and another wonderful sequence in which Dusty crashes into the waves in a furious Pacific Ocean, there’s nothing particularly qualified to take our collective breaths away.

For us here in India, Priyanka’s name in the credits is of particular interest. It’s nice then to see that Ishani is a crucial character in Planes and – this is particularly significant – the film has neither caricatured her nor exoticised her as an Indian the way some American films and teleserials still do. The romance between Dusty and Ishani is awww-inducing and one of the film’s high points. Priyanka purrs her way through the role, her voice oozing so much sexiness, that when Dusty gapes at her retreating back gasping the words “nice propeller!” you know exactly what he’s getting at. There’s also a charming scene in which Ishani takes him on an aerial survey of India, over the Himalayas and the Taj Mahal, when A.R. Rahman’s Tere bina besuwadi ratiyaa from the film Guru plays in the background. Truly lovely! Sadly, considering that she provides a very important plot point in the film, their relationship is rounded off in a hurried and unsatisfactory fashion towards the end. Wonder if the sequel will take it forward.

Making her Hollywood debut here, Priyanka finds herself in the midst of a star-studded voice cast. The numero uno Hollywood animation film on that front has got to be Kung Fu Panda 2 – I mean, imagine the glare of a film featuring the voices of Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie, Jack Black, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Gary Oldman, Michelle Yeoh and Jean-Claude Van Damme among others! – but Planes doesn’t do too badly on the front either. Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus delivers a neat French accent without going over the top, and Desperate Housewives’ Terri Hatcher is cute as a button playing Dusty’s cynical friend Dottie. The pick of the lot though is Brad Garrett as Dusty’s fuel truck buddy Chug. Garrett, of course, is familiar to Indian television viewers as Ray’s gigantic brother in Everybody Loves Raymond.

There you have it then… Planes has its moments that are worth a single viewing, but it’s also decidedly unmemorable. John Lasseter who co-wrote this film, seems not to have been able to shrug off the memory of Cars 1&2, both of which he directed (well, actually he shared direction credits on sequel) and co-wrote. So yeah, Dusty Crophopper is a nice guy and Dane Cook does a fair job of voicing him, but it’s got to be said that there’s no one quite like Owen Wilson and his blazing red Lightning McQueen!

Rating (out of five): **3/4

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
MPAA Rating (US):
92 minutes
PG (for some mild action and rude humour)
Release date in the US:
August 9, 2013
Poster of Ishani courtesy: Disney UTV

Friday, August 23, 2013


Release date:
August 23, 2013
Shoojit Sircar


John Abraham, Nargis Fakhri, Siddhartha Basu, Raashi Khanna, Prakash Belawadi, Ajay Ratnam, Piyush Pandey, Avijit Dutt, Dibang
Hindi, Tamil, English

If you are looking for John Abraham taking off his shirt in a political thriller infused with song and dance, if you are keen on decibel levels raised to needlessly over-dramatise intrinsically melodramatic situations, then this is not the film for you. Madras Café is what D-Day might have been if Nikhil Advani had reined himself in just that little bit. This is a fictionalised account of Indian intelligence-gathering and other covert operations involving the LTTE (called LTF in the film) in the couple of years running up to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi (called “ex-PM” here) and centred around an imagined RAW operative Vikram Singh (John).

Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal are perhaps the foremost Indian films to have covered the LTTE so far. Both were lovely but different from this one, more emotional and novel-esque. Madras Café’s near-unflinching, near-newspaper-like matter-of-factness is its strength. It goes quietly from Point A to Point B to Point C the way real life does, underlining the unrelenting, risky and thankless nature of the espionage agent’s work. It does this without glamourising spies as Hollywod does. Vikram Singh is no James Bond, nor Ethan Hunt from the MI series. He is a real man with real vulnerabilities. He is brave but not without fear; he even has nightmares when he returns from a war zone. He does not drink martinis “shaken not stirred”; he’s just a human being who’s shaken and stirred. This then is Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination seen through the eyes of Vikram. He doesn’t know for sure that it will happen; we do. It is to director Shoojit Sircar’s credit that the film remains compelling right till the end even though we all know what’s coming.

Though Madras Cafe is replete with historical references and rich in detail right down to reminding us of the tennis shoes Rajiv wore on that fateful day, it’s important to stress that it is not a documentary. Blending fact with fiction in the manner it does is rarely-charted territory for Bollywood but Shoojit manages well. The film is based on the premise that Rajiv was killed by a shadowy network involving Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and global forces opposed to the late Indian prime minister’s efforts to find a peaceful political solution to the Lankan civil war. Now this may bother you if you are not inclined to take such a kind view of Rajiv especially since the film fails to mention the irony that Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv’s regimes had played a role in nurturing the nascent LTTE. So the key to enjoying Madras Café is to accept that history is always someone’s version of events. Let’s also be clear, this film is not about Rajiv; he is merely on the sidelines here, as Vikram doggedly goes about his business.

Shoojit and Madras Café’s writers (story and screenplay: Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya, dialogues: Juhi Chaturvedi) rarely abandon the tone of detachment in their narration. Some problems merit a mention though: the flashback device used to tell us the story – Vikram Singh recounting those years to a priest in a church – didn’t work for me and led to some of the film’s very few less-than-true-to-life moments, including Vikram walking into the camera quoting Tagore’s Gitanjali. There is also one awkward scene with Vikram’s boss’ wife (played by Ruma Ghosh) in which she sheds tears over the ex-PM’s assassination and asks: What was his fault? Nowhere else does Madras Café appear to deify Rajiv, which makes this maudlin moment rather jarring, especially considering the tricky political questions involved.

The casting is unconventional. John surrenders his sex-bomb image to this role, and delivers a convincing performance. It’s been a pleasure watching this man grow as an actor in the past 10 years. His Vikram is surrounded by interesting actors playing well-written characters, each memorable despite brief appearances: TV producer and 1980s telequiz host Siddhartha Basu as Vikram’s boss Robin Dutt, model Raashi Khanna as Vikram’s wife Ruby, adman Piyush Pandey as the Indian Cabinet Secretary, former Aaj Tak journalist Dibang as an unnamed figure in Bangkok, among others. All the actors playing Tamil militants are believable as is journalist-and-theatre-artiste Prakash Belawadi in the role of troubled RAW honcho Bala. One sore point: Gayathri Devarajan in a few-seconds-long appearance as Bala’s wife. Nargis Fakhri doesn’t particularly enrich her role as London-based war correspondent Jaya Sahni and seems to have been cast for her foreign accent, but to be fair to Shoojit, he does control her bobbing head and pouting lips unlike Imtiaz Ali who directed her debut Hindi film Rockstar.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty comes to mind in the context of Madras Café, as does David Fincher’s Zodiac and several other Hollywood crime and political dramas that have aimed at a near-documentary feel. Indian film makers tend to avoid recent history and current events because of our political class’ penchant for bowing to violence-prone religious and political groups. That’s why in Madras Café we get LTF’s Anna Bhaskaran (Ajay Ratnam) who just happens to bear a striking facial resemblance to LTTE’s V. Prabhakaran. That’s why Rajiv Gandhi can’t be called Rajiv Gandhi and we must suffer the strain of hearing character after character refer to him as just “ex-PM” in a way you know real people would not. That Madras Café has pulled off what it has done despite these constraints is laudable.

John in particular must be applauded for picking unusual projects as a producer (Vicky Donor – also directed by Shoojit – was his first, this is his second). Kudos too to him for taking a strong stand against those protesting the release of Madras Cafe. I can imagine where the BJP’s opposition is coming from: either they are pandering to extremist Tamil sentiments or, with just months to go for the next general election, they’re uncomfortable with a film that takes a positive view of a Congress leader. The ban demand by Tamil groups is inexplicable though. Their complaint seems to be that LTTE has been portrayed as terrorists in this film. Err… LTTE is shown assassinating a former Indian PM in this film. You mean it did not?!

In fact, the two primary takeaways from Madras Café are: (a) innocent civilians are always the first to suffer in violent conflict situations, and (b) “one man’s revolutionary is another man’s terrorist.” Both are thoughts articulated by Vikram Singh who even refers to Anna Bhaskaran as an “idealist” at one point. Elsewhere Dibang’s character says: “Har kisi ka apna sach hota hai, depends on where you are standing.” What more do LTTE sympathisers want?

Despite some of its questionable politics, Madras Café pulsates with life, a realistic feel and a sense of danger at every turn. The locations are spectacular but DoP Kamaljeet Negi does not try merely to overwhelm us with their beauty; with art director Vinod Kumar and music director Shantanu Moitra as his co-conspirators, he uses his camera to build up the atmosphere of the hazardous world inhabited by Vikram. As I sat watching the film in that darkened hall, there was a point at which Vikram’s shoes became my own, when I began to dread the perils dogging him. I can’t think of a better compliment than that for Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Café.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
2 hours 10 minutes