Friday, December 7, 2018

REVIEW 658: KEDARNATH


Release date:
December 7, 2018
Director:
Abhishek Kapoor
Cast:


Language:
Sara Ali Khan, Sushant Singh Rajput, Nitish Bharadwaj, Alka Amin, Nishant Dahiya, Pooja Gor, Sonali Sachdev
Hindi


Thousands of feet above sea level, an all-male community gathering in Kedarnath is discussing a proposed construction plan that violates environmental norms. “When pilgrims come here to meet their God, it is our duty to ensure their convenience,” says a young Hindu Brahmin, as he waxes eloquent about the benefits of building more shops and a hotel in the area. Mansoor, another youngster in the group, asks how this fragile Himalayan abode of Lord Shiva could bear the additional burden, and suggests instead that the number of visiting devotees be restricted each year to match the already available facilities. A tense argument ensues. “Where did you land up in our midst?” he is asked at one point. Mansoor looks nonplussed. “But we were always here,” he replies.

It is the simplest of responses, yet carries a wealth of meaning in today’s India where the othering of minority communities has been mainstreamed and what is being said is deemed less important than who said it, their gender, their caste, their religious and regional identity. No faith is mentioned by name in this scene and much more is left unsaid than said in the conversation that exemplifies the essence of writer-director Abhishek Kapoor’s new film.

On the face of it, Kedarnath is a straightforward story of the love between Mandakini Mishra (Sara Ali Khan), the freedom-loving, rebellious daughter of a well-off Hindu Brahmin family, and the Muslim porter Mansoor Khan (Sushant Singh Rajput), set in one of Hinduism’s holiest sites in 2013, the year it was nearly destroyed by the flash floods that ravaged Uttarakhand state. However, like all Indian cinema’s most enduring inter-community romances, there is more to this one than what you see on the surface. The film is not just about eyes meeting, young hearts beating and pulses racing across religious divides. It is not even about emotional connects alone, though the bond that forms between Mansoor and his Mukku is sweet and touching. What it is about is true love, pure hearts, innocence and goodness in a time of bigotry, business interests and climate change.

Was the objection to Mukku and Mansoor’s relationship used as an excuse to silence his open challenge to a potentially money-spinning construction project? Would Mansoor’s warning have been heeded if the public’s vision had not been clouded by the distrust whipped up against him on account of his faith, or would self-destructive greed have trumped all else – à la Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People – even if he had been seen as one of them? The screenplay simmers with questions that go way beyond its seeming elementariness.

Mukku is a spunky girl, exasperating in her almost foolhardy wooing of Mansoor that makes one wonder if she is not aware from the word go that she is entering dangerous territory by pursuing him in this deeply conservative town. It is a foolhardiness stemming either from immaturity or the confidence that comes from belonging to a dominant community but not so far having realised what a privilege that is. Either way, unsurprisingly, the initial hesitation is all his.

Perhaps the lure of the forbidden fruit did play a role in Mukku’s interest in Mansoor at first – she is, after all, a firecracker on a rampage against her patriarchal family when we are introduced to her. But as time goes on, she mellows down and feels a genuine connection with this essentially kind soul. Mansoor is guileless and sincerely committed to the comfort of his clients who he transports up to the temple on his horse or in a basket suspended from his head. Mukku is gutsy, funny, bright and committed to a cause that soon becomes his too. That they are intellectually compatible and both devastatingly attractive just makes the flame between them inevitable.

Mukku is not the only brave one in this picture. At a time when Muslims in India are being marginalised and demonised like never before, sadly it takes courage to write a story about a Muslim youth who, quite literally, carries the weight of Hindu pilgrims on his back and lugs them up difficult terrain. Kapoor and the co-writer of Kedarnath’s story, Kanika Dhillon (who gets solo credit for the screenplay and dialogues), are no doubt aware of the messaging in their visual imagery.

It can be no coincidence either that they chose to name their heroine after the river running through Kedarnath. Mandakini means “the calm one” or “the slow-moving one” (our girl Mukku is neither) yet it was the raging fury of her waters that consumed the town during the natural disaster of 2013.

Hindi cinema has featured several inter-faith romances down the decades, but until recent years, the trend has long been to write the man as the Hindu and the woman as the minority community member of the couple. Whether this has arisen from the makers’ own closet regressiveness or a desire to avoid the wrath of Hindu fundamentalists (who, like most conservatives, take a proprietorial view of women) is hard to tell, but Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014) has been among the few mainstream Bollywood films to swim against that tide. Kedarnath joins their ranks this week. That it has been released at a time when Hindutva forces are at their strongest and have (along with mindless mediapersons) normalised the ugly term “love jihad” makes it particularly special. 

For Kapoor, whose stellar direction gave us Rock On!! (2008) and Kai Po Che (2013), Kedarnath is a return to form after 2016’s lukewarm Fitoor. Dhillon, who delivered a terribly clichéd interpretation of a modern, free-spirited Indian woman in this year’s Manmarziyaan, comes into her own as a writer with this film.

Despite the intense circumstances in Kedarnath, the film largely steers clear of loud melodrama. The scene in which Mukku watches without protest as Mansoor is beaten up in her home is one of the few that had no place in this otherwise believable narrative.

DoP Tushar Kanti Ray’s sweeping frames of the pre-floods Kedarnath are breathtaking, never more so than with the camera’s dramatic forward movement in an early long shot of the temple town against the backdrop of majestic mountains. The cinematography and SFX are good for the most part during the floods too, though the occasional obvious fakeness of the SFX-driven turmoil is a letdown.

In keeping with the spirit of Kedarnath, Amit Trivedi’s music is different here from his trademark sprightly tunes. Namo namo is a moving devotional number in Trivedi’s own clear voice. Even the comparatively bouncy Sweetheart is muted by the standards of songs like Gal mitthi mitthi bol from Aisha and Let’s break up from Dear Zindagi.


What gives Kedarnath a further edge is the solid cast, toplined by the aching chemistry between the lead pair. Sara Ali Khan – daughter of Bollywood stars Amrita Singh and Saif Ali Khan, granddaughter of the legendary Sharmila Tagore – makes a confident debut as Mandakini a.k.a. Mukku. She is so convincing and endearing on screen, that it is as if she was born to live before a camera. Hers is the showier role, but Sushant Singh Rajput is no less impressive as the gentle yet fierce Mansoor. In that scene in which Mansoor sings Lag jaa gale to Mandakini, I found myself tearing up and willing the damned cosmos to unite the two hapless lovers.

This is the natural order of things, the way the world was meant to be: men and women falling in love without social interference, humankind co-existing with the rest of the planet without interfering with the environment in the name of development and human welfare, so that no one gets to ask, “where did you land up in our midst?” because you see, we were all “always here”. Point well made, Abhishek Kapoor.

Rating (out of five stars): ***

CBFC Rating (India):
UA 
Running time:
120 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Poster courtesy: Spice PR


Friday, November 30, 2018

REVIEW 657: 2.0


Release date:
November 29, 2018
Director:
Shankar 
Cast:


Language:
Rajinikanth, Akshay Kumar, Amy Jackson, Adil Hussain, Kalabhavan Shajohn, Sudhanshu Pandey, Kaizad Kotwal
Tamil

Note: This is a review of the Hindi dubbed version of the Tamil film 2.0


There was a time when the cheep-cheep of sparrows and other birds would wake us up every morning even in the urban concrete jungles of India. Over time, as humans have persisted in playing havoc with the environment, those soothing sounds have gradually died out of our lives. This travesty of natural justice is, justifiably, a cause of frustration and rage among environmentalists and even laypersons with basic common sense and self-preservation instincts. Now imagine a film writer who understands the logic behind their anger, yet takes the bizarre decision to turn one such green activist into a murderous supervillain determined to destroy humankind for its callous carelessness.

Writer-director Shankar does precisely that in his new film 2.0, sequel to the 2010 blockbuster Enthiran (Robot) which starred Kollywood giant Rajinikanth as the well-meaning and brilliant Dr Vasigaran who built the robot Chitti (Rajini again) for the benefit of humankind. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan played his girlfriend Sana, and Danny Denzongpa was cast as Dr Bohra, who saw technology merely as a means to fulfill his dreams of great wealth. Despite the abundance of Tamil commercial cinema clichés, Enthiran had a fun comicbook quality, a substantial story and absolute clarity about its politics: it was a film on the transmutability of good and evil, and the risks posed by technology in the hands of immoral individuals.

2.0 is mixed up to the point of being downright stupid. As an unexplained force in the film snatches cellphones away from millions of residents of Chennai, the government turns to the scientist community for help. Allow me to revive Chitti, says Dr Vasigaran. But the Home Minister reminds him of the court ruling to dismantle the robot after it had caused death and untold destruction once Dr Bohra tampered with it for his own selfish ends.

When people start dying at the hands of a mysterious being though, there is no choice but to get Chitti back. So far, what we have is a reminder that it is not technology we must fear but humans who misuse it. Point taken.

The ridiculousness of 2.0’s politics surfaces only in the second half. A line uttered early on by Dr Vasigaran, “When people cannot understand something they either dismiss it as a terrorist attack or the work of God,” has potential but goes nowhere. Instead, the film becomes not about machines going out of control (which was a focal theme of Enthiran) but about the need to keep righteous human anger in check.

Bollywood star Akshay Kumar – making his Kollywood debut here – plays the respected ornithologist, Dr Pakshirajan, who gets tired of trying to convince the government, corporates and ordinary citizens to save our birds by cutting down on cellphone use. (Spoiler Alert) Following a series of events, he metamorphoses into a gorgeously ugly, giant supervillain whose aura combines with the aura of scores of dead birds and takes on a physical form constructed by using stolen cellphones as his building blocks. (Spoiler alert ends)

By this stage, Shankar comes across as being increasingly confused about what he wants to say through this film. Sadly, his confusion at the scripting stage plays into the hands of political establishments that, in the real world, are indeed demonising activists, including environmentalists. This is inexcusable.

Though he struggles with his storyline, Shankar does show imagination in the conceptualisation of 2.0’s visual effects and action sequences. Clearly, no expense has been spared in creating them. That said, the glitz and grandeur become boring after a while in the pre-interval portion as the story takes forever to take off and the SFX are beset by repetitiveness, as though a teenaged boy is trying to impress his school buddies with his brilliance. Cellphones being snatched out of the hands of crowds, a magnificent river of glittering cellphones flooding the ground – the sight is awe-inspiring the first time, even the second time, but when the same trick is used again and again, and then again... Oh c’mon, why didn’t someone snatch the toy out of the boy’s hands?

The special effects and stunts pick up only in the final confrontation between Chitti and Dr Pakshirajan, but it is too late by then. Besides, there is no single person in the storyline in whom one can be emotionally invested. Dr Vasigaran operates in the background throughout, Chitti takes centre stage but has more swagger than soul, and it is impossible to dislike Dr Pakshirajan because his cause is actually one worth defending.

Besides, Rajinikanth’s performance is a mixed bag. Even the spotlight on Chitti in 2.0 is driven more by SFX than acting, and the manner in which the star is tapped is decidedly unsatisfying. 2.0 gives him neither the unrelenting bombast of the standard big-bucks Rajini-starrer, nor the understatement he is still capable of as we saw so recently in Pa. Ranjith’s well-conceived, thought-provoking Kaala.

There are only two worthwhile, albeit small, roles among the supporting cast. Adil Hussain lends some dignity to the Minister he plays, and Kalabhavan Shajohn provides brief comic respite from the otherwise slow-moving proceedings as the corrupt, cold-hearted Minister Vairamoorthy.

2.0 is a prime example of the dispensability of women in Indian commercial film sequels. Sana is reduced to a voice on the phone here, Shankar does not even use Rai Bachchan’s voice for her, and the woman is still nagging her boyfriend every single time she calls him while he goes about the important business of saving the world. Since leading women in Rajinikanth films these days are anyway rarely anything but glamorous distractions, she has been replaced here by the lesser known Amy Jackson who plays a dull, impossibly curvy, Barbie-like robot assistant to Dr Vasigaran called Nila. As if she is not clichéd enough, she – the sole woman of any significance here – represents emotion and heart in the plot, while the men represent reason and scientific thought.

Though it is nice to see that a Bollywood hit machine like Akshay Kumar wants to expand his horizons and work in another Indian film industry, it is hard to understand why he chose this lukewarm role in a tepid film that gives him such limited screen time – we get to see him properly only after the interval. Kumar tackles Dr Pakshirajan with conviction, but in the end, the tons of heavy prosthetic make-up and costumes (if they can be called that) overshadow his personality, star persona and acting. 

There is only one department in which Shankar’s thoughts seem to be crystal clear: the bow to Rajinikanth’s primacy in the constellation of male Indian commercial movie stars. As if as an inside joke, a song playing in the background during the closing battle between Chitti and Pakshirajan uses the words “anaadi khiladi” which, while it literally translates into “foolish player” with reference to the bad guy, is also a reminder of the buzzword long associated with Akshay Kumar’s stardom since it has appeared in so many of his film titles. It recurs in the closing song that contains this line: “Anaadi, khiladi, narak mein teri jagah hai khaali (Hey you fool, you player, there is a place waiting for you in hell).” Umm, is this just a coincidence, or was the lyric writer being intentionally subversive?

Be that as it may, after this song comes an epilogue featuring Dr Vasigaran and Chhota Chitti a.k.a. 3.0, which amounts to an announcement of yet another sequel. Considering how steel cold and yawn-worthy 2.0 is despite its top-notch special effects, the thought of more Chittis is hardly worth celebrating.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
UA 
Running time:
146 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: