Friday, April 29, 2016


Release date:
April 29, 2016
Sabbir Khan

Tiger Shroff, Shraddha Kapoor, Sudheer Babu, Sunil Grover

Baaghi is a slickly packaged empty vessel. The action choreography is striking, the locations are exquisite, the camerawork polished, the art design impressive, the cast well dressed. Scratch the attractive surface though, and you get a dated, cliched storyline that compartmentalises hero, heroine, villains and comedians in the way Hindi films of the 1970s and 1980s did.

The story begins in the menacing Bangkok den of a rogue called Raghav Shetty, who is on the lookout for Sia Khurana. Cut to Hyderabad, where she is shooting for a film directed by her Daddy, when the numero uno baddie’s goons abduct her. Martial arts expert Ronnie Singh is called in to rescue the damsel in distress. Ronnie and Sia have a past. Time for explanatory flashback.

Cut to Kollam railway station in Kerala where boy and girl met, girl pretended to resist boy, they fell in love, fate split them up, reunited them, Raghav split them up again and so on.

It is a formula that is so dull and dusted that even Sunny Deol has stopped revisiting it.

Baaghi’s writer Sanjeev Dutta seems to have a thing for antiquity though. This is the sort of film where the hero is omnipotent and successfully bashes up dozens of men single-handedly, as did male leads of pre-1990s Hindi cinema who sought to replicate and cash in on the success of Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man formula. Here, like it was back then, the heroine’s only role is to be good-looking, charming and if possible dance sweetly/sexily enough to make the hero fall in love with her, thus providing him with a motivation to bash the bad guys in the end.

The villains here too are uni-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Comedians are slotted in to relieve tension even in the middle of a hectic chase. Love happens at the first sight of a pretty face who fakes disinterest in the hero though of course she is keen on him because, well, you know, after all he is the hero. What else was she created for but to fall for him?

Besides, do we not also know that when a woman says “no” she means “maybe”? Ronnie, an absolute stranger who just met Sia a few minutes back on a train, blows a kiss to her from a station platform. She shows irritation but turns away to hide a smile. This film may not be as aggressive or overt as the song Koi haseena jab rootth jaati hai from Sholay, Jumma chumma de de from Hum, Jumme ki raat from Kick or Tu hi to hai from Holiday, but it does make that regressive point all the same.

The film’s only USPs are its only novelties. First, it is set almost entirely in Kerala, which translates into an eyeful of stunning locales, the famed snake boat race (vallam kali) in scenic backwaters and miles of greenery all around. Second, Ronnie is in Kerala to learn the state’s traditional martial arts form Kalaripayattu, which has a way of transforming men into Rudolf Nureyev and Birju Maharaj while they smash and slice other human beings to bits.

Tiger Shroff as Ronnie gets the bulk of the film’s fights and has clearly worked hard to learn Kalari. Many points to him for that and what he has achieved with his body. He must, however, control the tendency to pose about, which is never more evident than in scenes where he replicates his Guru’s moves and comes across as a mannequin, while the old man looks like a battle axe and a ballet dancer rolled into one.

In terms of acting, Tiger’s exaggerated expressions are one with the film’s penchant for overstatement. To be fair, he seems like he would do better with better direction, even if it is hard to ignore the fact that his Caucasian facial features make him a bit of a misfit in Indian cinema. He absolutely does not look Punjabi, although that is what he is meant to be in this film; he looks European. Perhaps he will figure a way around that.

And while I’m all for men showing off their beautiful bodies on screen, could someone explain why so many Hindi film heroes these days make it a point to rip off their shirts before a fight? Sure they look good, but is there a scientific logic here that has escaped me? Just asking.

Shraddha Kapoor as Sia is well turned out and gets a couple of fight scenes of her own. It is nice to see the actress throwing punches and kicks with such elan. Her acting in the early scenes though, is over-cutesified. Time to cross over into the adult world, girl. You are too good to waste yourself playing and replaying a child-like innocent who is an appendage to the hero.

Of the remaining performers, Sudheer Babu Posani merits a mention for his Kalari moves as Ronnie’s bête noir Raghav Shetty. It is curious though that Sudheer, who is a Telugu actor, manages his Malayalam diction so poorly in the film. He keeps addressing his father as “Aachan” when it should be “Achchan”, a word that even a north Indian might easily get right if you point out that the “chch” is pronounced precisely as it is in Bachchan. Simple, no?

Veteran Sanjay Mishra and Sumit Gulati (who we saw last year in Talvar) enter the picture at one point to provide what is conventionally called “comic relief”. If a blind man bumping into things or mistakenly feeling up a woman’s legs makes you laugh, then the director has got what he wants. Some people, hopefully, have better taste.

Director Sabbir Khan made his debut with Kambakkht Ishq in 2009 starring Kareena Kapoor and Akshay Kumar, which he followed up with Tiger and Kriti Sanon’s debut Hindi film Heropanti in 2014. Both films revealed his love for bombast.

In Baaghi, he adds to his shoulders the burden of targeting Salman Khan and Akshay’s traditional audience. And so, Tiger is given an old-style punchline to repeat through the film: Itni bhi jaldi kya hai? Abhi toh maine start kiya hai.” (What’s the rush? I’ve only just begun.) It is hard to imagine why the producers thought this ordinary writing would be as memorable as, say, Salman’s “Ek baar jo maine commitment ki, toh apne aap ki bhi nahin sunta” (Once I make a commitment, I do not allow myself to hold me back) or that Tiger has the panache to elevate it.

More triteness comes in the form of Baaghi’s effort to cash in on the prevailing tension between India and our neighbour China, as Hindi cinema once did with Chinese-looking villains around the time of the 1962 war or before that in the just-post-Independence era when seemingly Western Roberts were the bad people. Here, Raghav’s henchman Yong tells Ronnie: “You killed my brother, you Indian. You think you can fight? We fight. Chinese fight.” Ronnie beats him to pulp before replying grandly, “Sorry, China ka maal zyaada tikta nahin hai” (Chinese goods do not last long).

Might as well have gone a step further with a crowd-pleasing, sarkar-pleasing “Bharat Mata ki jai!” yelled out by the hero. The chest-thumping suits the film’s emptiness. Gloss sans substance tends to make a lot of noise.

Rating (out of five): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
140 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Sunday, April 24, 2016


Release date:
April 22, 2016
Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari


Swara Bhaskar, Riya Shukla, Pankaj Tripathi, Ratna Pathak Shah, Cameo: Sanjay Suri


A struggling single mother, an only child who takes her for granted and a supportive employer – three bright women lie at the heart of this film by debutant director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari.

Nil Battey Sannata is a reminder that there is no such thing as a life less ordinary. We are, after all, the heroines of our own existence. Writers who plagiarise are clearly not looking around them. If you must lift an idea, lift from life. Chanda Sahai is not the sort of person who would attract a second glance if she passed us on a street. Her sweet face is overshadowed by drab saris and a boring hairdo. Yet Tiwari, her co-writers Neeraj Singh, Pranjal Choudhary and Nitesh Tiwari stopped, not just to take a look but to weave an entire screenplay around her.

It is a good thing their collective imagination did not go in search of the millionaires, billionaires and bhais that Bollywood is so pre-occupied with. In telling us the story of a bai (housemaid) instead, they have ended up creating a unique, inspiring and exceedingly moving Hindi film.

Like many impoverished mothers, Chanda works relentlessly to make ends meet, holding down multiple jobs to supplement her income as a maid in Agra. Her daughter Apeksha a.k.a. Apu barely notices her labours though. Apu is in Class X and has been scraping through all her tests so far. With Mathematics, she does not even manage that (hence the song Maths mein dabba gul, meaning: useless in Maths) and Chanda fears the subject will cause her to flunk her finals.

Worse, Chanda is shocked to discover that none of this matters to Apu because she has no career dreams. Just as an engineer’s kid becomes an engineer and a doctor’s kid becomes a doctor, so also a bai’s kid becomes a bai, the girl tells her mother nonchalantly one day.

The lady of the house where Chanda works, the kind Dr Diwan, suggests that she return to school herself, in fact to the Xth (the class she failed as a student) in Apu’s school. This would put her in a position to help Apu with her work and also monitor her.

The film takes us through the ensuing tension between mother and daughter, the effect of the increased demands on Chanda’s time and how this decision alters the course of their journey.

Nil Battey Sannata literally means zero divided by absolute silence, stillness and desolation, which is a mathematical metaphor for hopelessness or an existence that could amount to zilch. Chanda is determined that she and Apu will add up to more than that.

It is a charming tale told with good humour, sensitivity and confidence. The characterisation of both the leads and the supporting players – including Apu’s classmates – is richly layered and plausible. They all come across as real people from a real world.

Even Apu’s extreme nastiness towards Chanda is straight out of reality. Is there a kid out there who has never ever been hatefully mean to a sacrificing, loving parent?

The team of Nil Battey Sannata wisely recognises that there is no need to artificially heighten the drama in their film when life is a drama in itself. The result is a minimalist directorial style that is apt for the realistic story at hand. Both are complemented by a background score so gentle that you could forget it is there. Just as you forget cinematographer Gavemic U. Ary’s camera that is self-effacing and self-erasing to the point that a viewer might believe she has herself entered the frame and is watching Chanda and Apu from the margins of their lives.

The film does falter occasionally. First, the girls-are-not-good-at-Maths stereotype is stated as a truism by a seemingly liberal character. The continuing worldwide prejudice against women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related professions) is not an imagined problem and it hurts when a sensible film casually perpetuates gender typecasting.

The other off-key point comes in the end with Apu’s response to the question of why she wants her chosen profession. Her answer is rather thin and poorly thought out. Surely the idea is not to belittle bais but to have worthwhile goals and sound, specific reasons for zeroing in on them.

Besides, the ode to mothers in the climax is out of sync with the rest of the film’s non-schmaltzy tone. There are plenty of crappy parents (mothers included) out there. The point should be to acknowledge great parents because they are great, not merely because they happen to be parents.

These portions are especially jarring because they rear their heads in an otherwise lovely venture.

The film’s dialogues, for instance, are uncommon on the Bollywoodscape. There is a lyricism to the language these characters speak and Chanda’s vocabulary in particular. While the use of “bai” may have been more convincing in a western Indian setting, it is not unknown in north India with this meaning. Besides, there is such pleasure in hearing words like “kantaap” (slap) and “kandam” (useless) that so rarely find their way into Bollywood scripts. My pick of the film’s phraseology though is “nil battey sannata” and how it smoothly rolls off Chanda’s tongue.

It helps that the actress playing her is brilliant. With Nil Battey Sannata, Swara Bhaskar – a memorable satellite player in Raanjhanaa and the Tanu Weds Manu films – gets a lead role in a worthy project. A city-bred, educated woman herself (Bhaskar is an MA from JNU) she subdues her naturally sophisticated body language to slip into this role without becoming a cliche.

Riya Shukla is a flaming ball of energy and well cast as the little spitfire Apu. She is a discovery.

Ratna Pathak Shah plays the elderly doctor-householder who helps Chanda along with her ambitions. She brings warmth, empathy and dignity to the role which, incidentally, is vastly different from the part she plays in Kapoor & Sons that is still running in theatres.

She is the sort of employer about whom newspaper articles are not written because the media, justifiably so, is focused on those who ill-treat their domestic help. While their cruelty, casteism and classism ought to be chronicled and condemned, it is also good to be told about this benevolent memsaab who goes out of her way to help her bai, because such people too do exist.

Pankaj Tripathi is a scene-stealer and showstopper as the school principal and Maths teacher Srivastava Sir. Despite the thoroughly entertaining, quirky mannerisms and mincing speech, it is to Tripathi’s credit that he does not reduce Srivastava to a caricature. In this performance, it is impossible to spot the bloodthirsty Sultan Qureshi he played in Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2.  

The writing of his character too is nicely shaded. Srivastava is well-intentioned, yet humiliates his weak students, perhaps thinking, like so many Indian teachers do, that he is motivating them. Extreme portrayals are easy, the challenge lies in the middle path. Nil Battey Sannata reminds us that as with all categories of people, among teachers, parents and children too there are the good, the bad and the ugly, and sometimes the entire spectrum within the same person.

The film’s finer details though are what make it an all-round interesting experience. Such as the unspoken caste, communal and gender equations. Dr Diwan’s husband is sweet but stays in the background and no information is offered about Apu’s father. Whatever happened to him apparently no longer warrants discussions. Chanda’s singleton status also adds dimensions to the story, such as the relationship of equals as much as mother and child in the household.

Even the use of the Taj is refreshing. Most films mindlessly latch on to architectural landmarks as city identifiers. Example: a character who lives and works in south Delhi passing Red Fort in north Delhi on her way from home to work. In this film, the Taj first makes a fleeting – and logical – appearance, and in the end forms the backdrop to a long monologue Chanda delivers to Apu. It feels right. If you have visited the Taj you would have experienced the calming effect of the monument which, here, matches Chanda’s sedate words in Bhaskar’s velvet voice.

Nil Battey Sannata has a light touch, yet is serious as hell. Despite the frenzied pace of Chanda’s days, the film itself has an air of composure. To see it merely as a lesson in the importance of education would be to limit it. This is an uplifting film about the importance of having dreams.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, where have you been hiding all this time?

Rating (out of five): ****

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
100 minutes

Photograph courtesy: (1)