Saturday, September 30, 2017


Release date:
September 28, 2017
Arun Gopy

Dileep, Kalabhavan Shajohn, Mukesh, Prayaga Martin, Radhikaa Sarathkumar, Siddique, Renji Panicker, Suresh Krishna, Leena

A young politician is expelled from Kerala’s Communist Democratic Party (CDP) and joins a rival front. He fights a candidate from his original organisation to win back the seat he had to vacate when he switched parties. In the midst of the machinations against and by him, comes a crime of great daring, and all clues appear to point towards the same individual.

Will an innocent person be framed? Is the guilty person feigning innocence? These are the questions that occupy us through the two hours and 38 minutes running time of Ramaleela, a new release directed by debutant Arun Gopy and starring Dileep in the lead.

Ramaleela has made news for ugly reasons so far, since it comes to theatres while its main star is in jail on charges of conspiring in the abduction and molestation of a top woman actor in Kerala. Dileep plays Ramanunni Raghavan, a youth leader and rising politician at the centre of the action in the film. The casting choice is an unwittingly appropriate reflection of the Indian reality where 49 for a man is indeed seen as youth in both cinema and politics, while women in cinema are compulsorily retired 10-15 years before that or relegated to playing sister and Mommy to men of Dileep’s age.

So anyway, Ramanunni’s father was assassinated by forces unknown to the world at the start of Ramaleela. His exit from CDP causes his mother, Comrade Ragini Raghavan, to label him a traitor, while his entry into NSF ruffles feathers there too. Ramanunni’s bête noir in CDP is Ambady Mohanan (Vijayaraghavan) while his Enemy No. 1 in NSF is Udayabhanu (Siddique)

As Ramanunni grapples with these opposing pulls, the police are called in, first to provide him with protection and later to investigate the crime mentioned at the start of this review.

Like this year’s Oru Mexican Aparatha and Sakhavu, Ramaleela too, in its own way, is an ode to Communism. Primarily though, it is a mystery story. Arun Gopy and writer Sachy complement each other well. While Sachy has a surprise for us at every turn, Gopy is confident in his direction. This is a thriller written and shot on an epic scale yet, for the most part, attention has been paid to the characters’ motivations, not the lavish cinematography and art design alone.

There are intermittent missteps, but the overall pace is so unrelenting that there is little time to think about the improbabilities and far-fetched scenarios in the film. For instance, a key character hatches an elaborate scheme, but it is unclear how that person or their collaborators found the resources for such a plan and implemented it at such short notice. A fugitive easily crosses state borders despite heavy police patrolling. Also, Ramanunni’s intention in meeting politician-turned-columnist Madhavan (Renji Panicker) is tenuous. It is as if Sachy could not think of a more credible way to introduce Ramanunni to Madhavan’s daughter Helena (Prayaga Martin).

Dileep’s insipid personality is well-suited to a role where it is important that his physicality not come across as larger-than-life and where he is to be seen as a little man, a beleaguered lone warrior, a common person who one might easily underestimate. Equally to the point, his is a clever performance – he does not set a foot wrong for even a moment in Ramaleela.

The cast is packed to the brim with artistes more charismatic than he is, but Dileep’s limited charisma serves to heighten the impact of his character’s towering intelligence and actions.

It is nice to see Prayaga Martin looking more natural here than in her dolled-up avatar in last week’s Pokkiri Simon and to see her Helena – an architect-turned-reality-TV-set-designer – serve a purpose other than to be a pretty appendage to the hero. And while the nearly 30-year age difference between Martin and Dileep conforms to Mollywood standards, what does not is Helena’s unconventional relationship with Ramanunni.

That said, it is irritating that any time a good-looking single woman and a Malayalam film’s hero share a frame, the surrounding characters compulsorily envision romance or marriage in their future. Unlike those characters, Sachy himself shows that rare hero-heroine partnership where she at least does not see matrimony as the only route to a happily ever after in her life and he too is not single-minded in the matter of his association with her. That said – yes, again – Martin’s impact is curiously feeble though Helena has a crucial hand in the proceedings.

This is a seemingly secondary element in Ramaleela. The overtly overriding factors are the games politicians play with each other and the media. Here too Team Gopy-Sachy score by not caricaturing either the netas or the journalists involved. The one slip here is a scene in which a flunkey who is trying to manipulate the media against Ramanunni is so stupid as to be caught with a phone on his person that he had used seconds earlier to leak information to the press.

Ramaleela also offers more scenes of routine policework than we are used to seeing in Indian films, which tend to either lionise or demonise cops (more the former). DySP Paulson Devassy (Mukesh), the lead investigator in the case, and his team are portrayed as real people going about their work with the constraints all Indian police face, not shorn of their own prejudices and ambitions, but also – thankfully – not sounding idiotic or ignorant to a viewer fed a diet of TV shows such as CSI and Law & Order supplemented with common sense.

Of the supporting artistes, it is only fair to single out Kalabhavan Shajohn who is highly effective – and hilarious – as Ramanunni’s secretary and shadow. The weak link is Radhikaa Sarathkumar whose turn as Comrade Ragini lacks spark.

The rape joke in Ramaleela is a tricky one. Real people in such situations do speak lightly of rape, but – unlike in other films – here it is unclear whether the film itself takes sexual violence lightly. In a situation of doubt, I am choosing to err on the side of caution and Gopy.

Ramaleela has been marketed as an expensive venture. The monetary investment is evident in the polished production and Shaji Kumar’s swish camerawork. One of the earliest scenes in the film features a particularly striking frame of Ramanunni at the centre of scores of TV news cameras and mikes covering every inch on all sides of the screen. Another, not long after, gives us an overhead night-time shot of CDP members carrying red flags and flaming torches gathered outside the gate of Ramanunni’s house while the compound itself is filled with police in uniform. It is one of several visually rich scenes in Ramaleela.

Kumar over-uses overhead shots and aerial shots after a while, but the result is so eye-catching that he can be forgiven for succumbing to temptation.

At the end of the day, grand images would have mattered little if it weren’t for the excellent execution of the suspense in Ramaleela. Gopy has delivered a gripping thriller set in Kerala’s political establishment, and succeeds in keeping the viewer guessing every step of the way. When you have a good thing going, it is important to know where to stop though. The biggest folly of his direction and Sachy’s script – both at an ideological and cinematic level – comes after the big reveal in Ramaleela. Far from being satisfied with that gasp-inducing climax, they proceed to needlessly raise the film’s pitch from that point, thus subtracting from the impact.

Worse, what follows is a leading character in the film advocating taking the law into our own hands, not merely to settle personal scores, but for the ‘larger good’, and articulating a bizarre view of what makes a Communist. Instead of a dissenting voice in the narrative, we get instead an endorsement of that anarchic stance by the most upright person in the entire saga.

That populist conversation was absolutely unnecessary, designed to tap the audience’s bloodlust and elicit cheap applause.  

The caveat to this review then is that as a political commentary, Ramaleela makes sense until that disturbing discussion in the end. As a thriller though, it is thoroughly enjoyable – not in the league of, say, Drishyam but entertaining all the same.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
158 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Friday, September 29, 2017


Release date:
September 29, 2017
David Dhawan

Varun Dhawan, Taapsee Pannu, Jacqueline Fernandez, Rajpal Yadav, Vivan Bhathena, Pavan Raj Malhotra, Vikas Verma, Ali Asgar, Manoj Joshi, Anupam Kher, Johnny Lever, Manoj Pahwa, Cameo: Salman Khan

Since Judwaa was an unapologetically slapstick comedy of errors, and the goal of this new release is to cash in on the recall value of that brand, it could have been safely assumed without visiting a theatre today that director David Dhawan would not go all cerebral on us with Judwaa 2. A new generation will perhaps watch this film as a standalone venture, but two questions are inevitable for those who have seen the original. One, which is better? Two, more important: who is better, Varun or the earlier hero, the then successful and now phenomenal Salman Khan? 

Dhawan has positioned Judwaa 2 as a contemporary reboot of his 1997 film featuring Khan in a double role with Karisma Kapoor and Rambha as the female romantic leads. It is the closest to a carbon copy that a remake can get, with his son Varun Dhawan reprising the characters played by the superstar back then. So what we get is Dhawan Junior as Raja and Prem Malhotra, conjoined twins whose surgical separation at birth results in a unique biological phenomenon seen in one in eight million cases according to the Bollywood Book of Judwaa Bachchas – when they are in geographically nearby locations, each experiences the sensations the other is going through and unwittingly clones the other’s actions.

Before you can digest that educational moment, the villain of the story kidnaps one, and through a series of circumstances you would be familiar with if you have watched the earlier Judwaa, Prem is brought up in London by wealthy parents and Raja by a poor woman in Mumbai.

Of course the brothers end up in the same city at some point (London, nicely shot by cinematographer Ayananka Bose). Prem falls for Samara (Taapsee Pannu), while Raja is smitten by Alyshka Bakshi (Jacqueline Fernandez). The confusion caused by their respective lovers and respective enemies being in the same area leads to a chain of mix-ups and mess-ups that Shakespeare might have approved of.

Given that this is the premise, obviously Judwaa 2, like Judwaa, is not an intellectual enterprise. Fair enough. We all need to occasionally let our hair down with a dose of old-fashioned stupidity, and large parts of Judwaa 2 offer silly, mindless laughs.

Even silliness must evolve though, and this would have been a better film if the screenplay by Yunus Sajawal (with dialogues by Farhad-Sajid) had, while retaining the same concept, moved beyond some of the stereotypes and insensitivity that once dominated Bollywood and occasionally lingers in projects such as this. For instance, the main antagonist Charles (Zakir Hussain) conforms to the irritating Bollywood stereotype of the Christian who cannot speak Hindi without saying “God” in place of “Bhagwan”, while a Hindu who visits a church says “God” in the middle of Hindi dialogues, as though “God” is not a common noun but the name of a specific Christian being seated somewhere upstairs in the clouds. This kind of stuff is bearable though – idiotic but not offensive. Far less tolerable is the re-use of a once-popular cliché: a “totla” character as a butt of jokes.

I am not getting all hoity-toity here and saying a speech defect may not lead to amusing situations, but that this team lacks the finesse that, say, Vishal Bhardwaj & Co employed while writing their “main ‘ph’ ko ‘ph’ bolta hoon” protagonist in Kaminey, marvelously balancing humour with sensitivity.

There is a fine line between portraying a person with a disability and turning that person into a caricature. Nandu, played by Rajpal Yadav, crosses that line. To be fair though, Yadav’s Nandu is a toned-down version of Judwaa’s over-the-top Rangeela delivered to us in yet another cringe-worthy performance by Shakti Kapoor. Thankfully too, Nandu gets limited screen time.

The rest of the film is harmless fun for the most part, except when it ventures occasionally again into crude clichés revolving around Dhawan’s assumption that the mere sight of black people should be a cause of laughter, and the abominable terms in which a middle-aged woman – Samara’s mother – is repeatedly described. In one scene, Raja calls her a “khataara gaadi” (dilapidated car) and consoles her because “tu murjha gayee hai” (you have withered).

Sigh. Is there any point in explaining ageism and sexism to David Dhawan? Does he care? Well, never mind him. We should.

With the recent Mubarakan, director Anees Bazmee showed us how it is possible to hark back to the comedies of an era gone by, even dip into stereotypes and trite comedic devices – boisterous Punjabis, twins separated at birth – without resorting to those that should have been retired in the Stone Age. Judwaa skates on thin ice on occasion, but for the most part passes muster without being earth-shatteringly good anywhere.

There are conversations that are genuinely funny, some because they are so hare-brained, and some because the actors make it work with their comic timing. Except for one-off blandness in the form of “Iski jack lag gayee aur main handle nahin kar paa raha hoon” (a line bestowed on Varun) and “Rustom ke Akshay Kumar ki tarah tum chhupe rustom nikle” (which Fernandez is forced to pull off), Judwaa 2 is a fair enough visit to the slapstick genre.

Still, the question arises: why was this film made at all, when David Dhawan could as well have re-released Judwaa on DVD, Blu-Ray etc with added features? (I mean, c’mon, Judwaa 2 even borrows two songs from the earlier film, Oonchi hai building and Chalti hai kya nau se baarah. They are the most attractive part of an ordinary soundtrack.)

The answer lies in two words: Varun Dhawan. This format gives Junior the opportunity to showcase his acting talent by playing two characters with vastly different backgrounds and demeanours in the same film and sometimes in the same frame, display his action skills in a bunch of fight scenes, and dance. Smart move, Daddy. ’Cos your son does all three well.

I’ve enjoyed watching Varun from his first film: he is attractive, has a nice body that goes well with his sweet face (the currently fashionable body-builder look would not suit him), and dances with passion. Though he still does not manage to erase his own personality for his roles (the London-based Prem in Judwaa, for instance, speaks English with an out-and-out Varun Dhawan-style Mumbaiyya accent and diction right down to pronouncing “miracle” as “miricle” and “violent” as “viylent”), he seems like the kind of actor who has what it takes to get there and the desire to work towards it.

The women of Judwaa are of course secondary to Varun. Still, within the limited space they get, they make a mark. Pannu, whose calling card in Hindi cinema right now is her brilliant performance in last year’s Pink, shows here that she is suited to the singing-dancing-swimsuit-wearing-glamour-doll routine too. She is outshone though by Fernandez who has spent most of her short career doing precisely that, but reminds us in Judwaa 2 that she is not the frozen-faced non-actor that too many people take her for. As we saw in 2016’s Dishoom, it is clear here too that this gorgeous young woman deserves a shot at larger roles in comedy.

The fabulous Pavan Raj Malhotra is wasted in a film where the gifted supporting cast is marginal and the focus is entirely on Varun.

Which brings me back to my earlier comment about Varun being the reason why this film was made. The point is underlined by Salman Khan’s cameo in Judwaa 2. It is a separate matter that that scene must rank as the most poorly conceived, amateurishly executed guest appearance by a major star ever, with jarringly bad sound quality to boot. What Dhawan Senior seems to be hinting at through the weird conversation there is that he sees Varun as a future Salman Khan.

Well, I am sticking my neck out and saying the father is shortselling his son with the comparison. Whether or not Varun becomes as big a star as Khan is not something anyone can predict, but he clearly does have the potential. More to the point, he is a better actor and a more flexible dancer than the Khan. Now Daddy, give him a more imaginative film to work in. Those of us who have enjoyed you at your best, know that you are capable of so much more than just “not bad” which is what Judwaa 2 is.

Footnote: The Censor Board asked Dhawan to remove a shot of Lord Krishna dancing and playing the saxophone in the song Suno Ganpati Bappa Morya. It is clear from their directive that they have not understood the ABC of the playful down-to-earthness that is the hallmark of Hindu mythology.

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
149 minutes 46 seconds

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Poster 1 courtesy: IMDB