Monday, January 29, 2018


Release date:
January 26, 2018
Shamdat Sainudeen

Mammootty, Dharmajan Bolgatty, Hareesh Perumanna, Stunt Silva, Adish Praveen, Lijomol Jose, Soubin Shahir

Three men – two petty thieves from Kerala, and a Tamil gangster – are on the run with a stolen diamond necklace. Their precious loot belongs to a man called Simon Mundakkal. As luck would have it, Mundakkal is the ammaavan (uncle) of a senior policeman – James played by Mammootty – and calls on his nephew for unofficial, off-the-books help since the necklace is part of his untaxed, unaccounted-for wealth. James agrees.

Elsewhere in the city, a poor little boy’s posh classmates mock him for his shabby uniform and schoolbag. When he manages to earn some money, he gets himself a new bag and clothes.

Not far from where the child lives, a young woman is being pestered for attention by a man to whom her father offered her hand in marriage many moons ago. Ramya works at an Idea showroom, her stalker is a beauty parlour owner.

These apparently disconnected strands come together in Street Lights, a film that is uncharacteristic of Mammootty’s current filmography dominated by aggressively masculine, star-struck tosh.

Though Street Lights is marketed and positioned as a Mammootty flick, his character does not relegate the rest to the sidelines. When James is around, we are treated to some stylised camerawork dwelling on him, but it is not obsessive like films of the Kasaba and The Great Father variety. On the whole then, cinematographer-turned-debutant-director Shamdat Sainudeen does what very few of this iconic Malayalam actor’s directors have bothered to do for too many years now: Sainudeen tells a story that is not dwarfed by a star fixation, and he gives all the major characters in the film ample space and time on screen.

Dharmajan Bolgatty and Hareesh Perumanna play small-time robbers Sachi and Raju. It is an unusual casting choice, considering their naturally comical screen presence, which serves as a foil to the hard-core criminality of their companion and accomplice Murugan played by Stunt Silva. You know as soon as you first see their faces together that Street Lights is not your regular crime thriller.

The sub-story of the impoverished boy Mani (played by National Award winning firebrand Adish Praveen) provides the film’s strongest emotional pull.

The thread involving Ramya (Lijomol Jose) is the only one that is typical of the hardcore commercial cinema that Mammootty usually inhabits. Her ‘beau’, played by Soubin Shahir, refuses to take her no for an answer, has her parents’ support in his peskiness, and at one point, as she lies back with her eyes closed in a chair in his parlour for a facial, he comes over to take a selfie with her without her permission, as his female staff look on and giggle. In short, he indulges in the sort of obnoxious behaviour that has become familiar in films which happily equate sexual harassment with courtship. The narrative tone used throughout this segment is one of fond indulgence, despite her evident disinterest and disgust.

The social attitude towards his conduct is underlined by the irony of scenes in which he is pursuing Ramya on his mobike while this standard Censor-mandated notice flashes on screen: “Riding two wheelers without wearing helmets is a punishable offence.” And stalking women? This question becomes particularly pressing because the Central Board of Film Certification a.k.a. Censor Board thought it fit to give Street Lights a U (universal) rating. Read: suited for children.

In terms of performances, Shahir is suitably icky playing an icky character who is comedified by the writing. The film may be an unusual choice for Mammootty in many ways, but his acting is somewhat generic. My favourite characters in Street Lights are Raju, Sachi and Murugan. Their group dynamic, the suspense surrounding the cat and mouse game between them and James, little Adish Praveen’s sweetness and the manner in which the three stories finally intersect are what make this film engaging. It is not remarkably memorable, but it is fun while it lasts.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
129 minutes 

This review was also published on Firstpost:


Release date:
January 26, 2018
Jeethu Joseph

Pranav Mohanlal, Lena, Siddique, Anusree, Sharafudheen, Meghanathan, Jagapati Babu, Siju Wilson, Aditi Ravi, Tony Luke

Late one night on the darkened terrace of a Bengaluru nightclub, three men engage in fisticuffs as a hapless woman tries to stop them. One of them suffers a fatal fall off the roof. To save himself from the dead chap’s influential millionaire father’s wrath, another member of the trio blames the death on the third man there, aspiring musician Aditya Mohan a.k.a. Aadhi.

What follows is over two hours of one of the most exciting rollercoaster rides ever to emerge from Malayalam cinema, as Aadhi ducks the police, a ruthless rich man’s wide network and the machinations of the fellow trying to protect himself. Writer-director Jeethu Joseph, who gave us the brilliant thriller Drishyam in 2013 (remade in four Indian languages), offers ample reparation here for his surprisingly slapdash Oozham released in 2016. Aadhi is marked by some clever writing, slick execution, top-notch production values and chases that are so frickin’ awesome, they rival the Bourne films although Mollywood works on a fraction of the budget of an average Hollywood venture.

The film looks good from the word go, but it begins with two needless reminders that its leading man, Pranav Mohanlal playing Aadhi, is the son of megastar Mohanlal. Pranav has acted as a child but this is his debut as an adult. First, we have the credits running over Aadhi in a club singing the title track of the 1980 film with which Lalettan made his debut, Manjil Virinja Pookkal. A few minutes later, Mohanlal himself makes a brief appearance.

While the quality of the shooting of the club scene and the rendition of that still-goosebump-inducing number are top notch, the need for either passage – especially the star cameo – is questionable. Hey we get it: Pranav has a famous Daddy. But to unnecessarily stress and re-stress that point within the narrative is to unnecessarily remind us that doors open far more easily for the son of Mohanlal than they would for the child of an unknown person which, while being true of course, is a disservice to the young man who shows us through Aadhi’s 2 hours and 38 minutes that he has the chops to stand on his own feet now that his surname has given him a headstart over his contemporaries. 

Aadhi’s early scenes establish the easy equation between the hero, his mother Rosy and father Mohan. Although the film is not positioned as a deeply intellectual affair, it is evident from then on that it does not intend to insult viewer intelligence either.

In the first conversation we witness between Aadhi and his mother, we learn that she is a Christian, the father a Hindu, and they eloped when Rosy was just 18. The inter-community marriage sans conversion (Rosy does not change her faith, as is usually expected of women in such situations) and the informal parent-child relationship suggest a liberal family. Yet, when Aadhi jokingly tells Rosy that he intends to bring home a Muslim bride to make a secular point, her face falls although she tries to camouflage her evident discomfort with the idea. That passing exchange is an unobtrusive reminder of how divided Kerala society truly is below the surface, even if it is better off than most of the rest of India in this matter.

Soon, the warmth of Aadhi’s home in Kerala is overtaken by the chill that follows that accidental death on a rooftop in Karnataka, and Aadhi’s musical prowess takes a backseat as life calls on him to make use of his training in the martial art form parkour. The effectiveness of this film comes from the impeccable balance it achieves between its breathtaking stunts and the emotional heft in the saga of a nice guy caught in a tragic situation not of his making, of supportive parents desperate to save him and strangers who step up to risk their all for him.

The basic nuts and bolts of the script may sound vaguely familiar, but the treatment is refreshing, the action unique in the Mollywood scenario and the film as a whole gloriously entertaining.

While the storyline tugs at the heartstrings, the chase sequences could put a heart patient at risk. Pranav and the artistes playing his enemies turn the film into an unrelenting adrenaline rush as they race through back alleys, sprint across rooftops, dangle from verandahs, vault over walls, leap through rather than around various other hurdles and display seemingly superhuman physical skills.

Yet, Aadhi is no superhero. His endearingly human qualities are a far cry from the irritating machoism of most male protagonists in Malayalam cinema these days. He is achingly youthful and scared, and neither the actor nor the director tries to mask the character’s vulnerabilities to appeal to testosterone-ridden sections of the audience. Aadhi weeps with fear and heartbreak, he pukes with fatigue and tension, and even while he seeks to keep his family and friends out of harm’s way, he does not hesitate to call for help when it is evident that he cannot do without it. 

Despite the genre and the fact that the film does not project itself as anything but a mission to get audience pulses racing, it still continues to display its political consciousness in this and other ways. I love the fact that there are Malayalam subtitles embedded in the print for Kannada dialogues, a sign that the maker respects the possibility that his core audience may very possibly not know any language other than Malayalam (too many Mollywood films unfairly assume that their primary viewers understand multiple languages).

The only truly troubling moments in Aadhi come when more than one character blames the woman on the roof for Aadhi’s problems since the men were fighting over her. The second person to accuse her softens the blow by saying she was “knowingly or unknowingly” responsible, but that is not enough in a world that routinely holds women accountable for the consequences of men’s deeds. The fleeting allusion to caste resentments within business families could perhaps have been less fleeting, but that is a minor grouse.

The centerpiece of the proceedings in this film is Pranav’s parkour training. Far from playing spoilsport by demystifying the stunts while showing us the harnesses, green screens and other aids that make such incredible feats possible, the outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage accompanying the end credits provide evidence of Pranav’s – and his co-stars’ – litheness and craft, which is what makes everything so convincing. (It was nice too to catch a glimpse of a female trainer in those shots. I wonder why Joseph did not include a woman among the supporting action artistes on screen.)

Parkour is not Pranav’s only strength. He is sweet-looking and a natural before the camera. Although it is not possible to tell whether he would be able to carry off a film outside the action genre, here he is a perfect fit.

Aadhi is clearly the film’s central character, but make no mistake about this: this is an ensemble film where Joseph’s writing, bolstered by a gifted cast, makes each small role memorable. Jagapati Babu could have gone over the top as the wealthy industrialist who pursues Aadhi with murderous intent after the loss of a son, but he keeps himself in check. The ever-dependable Lena and Siddique bring warmth to their turn as Aadhi’s anxious parents. Lena in particular is so trim and attractive that you know if she were a man (well, frankly, even if she were a tubby man) she would have been routinely getting lead roles rather than being a constant presence as a character artiste in Malayalam cinema.

My favourite people in this film are the poor siblings who go out of their way to help Aadhi when he is in distress. Jaya and Sharath are believable reminders that basic human decency does exist, a point brought out so well sans melodrama by actors Anusree and Sharafudheen. The friendship that blossoms between these three in the middle of a traumatic situation is heartwarming to say the least.

Aadhi is neither a whodunnit nor a howdunnit but a how-he-escaped-from-being-accused-of-it. Considering that almost all the cards are laid out on the table within the first half hour, it is commendable that Jeethu Joseph keeps the suspense going till the end and that he does not resort to any irritating contrivances.

The smashing action choreography – backed by excellent sound design and background music – holds Aadhi all the way up to its nail-biting climactic battle. I found myself letting out involuntary whoops of delight every time Pranav Mohanlal/Aditya Mohan zipped across the screen or smoothly leapt over an obstacle and keeping my fingers crossed for him in a way an audience member only will while watching an artiste who is so lost in his performance that you lose yourself in him. What a fun showcase this is for such a likeable newcomer.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
158 minutes 

This review was also published on Firstpost:

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


Release date:
January 25, 2018
Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor, Aditi Rao Hydari, Jim Sarbh, Raza Murad, Anupriya Goenka

In a scene towards the latter part of writer-director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s new film, Rani Padmavati has a conversation with the mother of Badal, a loyal soldier in her royal husband’s army who gave up his life to save his king. The queen informs the madre that her son is dead. The aforesaid madre refuses to mourn her child’s passing, replying instead that a Rajput who loses his life on the battlefield is not to be deemed dead.

By then, much speechifying about Rajput valour and usool (principles) has already flowed under the bridge on screen. But wait…there is more. “Today I understand why Rajputs are said to be brave,” says Ms Padmavati. “It is because they are born of brave mothers like you.”

Oh Mummy! I almost choked on exasperated laughter in that moment as I sat watching in IMAX 3D in a darkened hall in Delhi, because like so much else in the film, the goings-on in this passage too contradict what its self-worshipping Rajput characters are saying. Far from being an example of that much-touted Rajput bravery, Badal’s end was the result of a foolish and egoistic Rajput king’s foolhardy moves going against the common-sense advice of his far more intelligent wife Padmavati – the king’s stupidity leads to his imprisonment by an enemy ruler, at which point Padmavati displays further intelligence and political acumen in entering the lion’s den and snatching her husband from the jaws of death with the help of those like Badal.

If anyone’s courage should have been celebrated at that point, it should have been the courage of Padmavati who, genetically speaking, was not a Rajput herself but a child of the Singhal kingdom that lies in modern-day Sri Lanka.

Lesson No. 1 from Bhansali’s guide to populist pandering: do not let facts stand in the way of dialogues designed to massage the collective ego of the men in a community you wish to please.

Padmaavat – originally named Padmavati till the Censor Board forced a title change following extremist reactions from that very community – is steeped in such unwitting contradictions. The film tells the story of Rani Padmavati, second wife of Maharawal Ratan Singh, king of Chittor situated in today’s Rajasthan. H.R.H. Ratan encounters Padmavati in an accident when he visits Singhal to procure its famed pearls for his first wife. They fall in love and Padmavati returns with him to Chittor as his bride. Through a series of events, Alauddin Khilji, sultan of Delhi, hears of the woman’s unparalleled exquisiteness and – since he wants to possess every “nayaab cheez” (unique thing) in the world – attacks Chittor to get her for himself. After another chain of events, Padmavati kills herself along with all the female adults and children of Chittor in the practice of jauhar, an old north Indian custom where women would commit suicide by jumping into fire instead of risking being raped by a rival army when faced with certain defeat.

Bhansali’s Padmaavat is based on the 16th century fictionalised poem Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Most modern historians concur that Rani Padmavati a.k.a. Padmini is a figment of Jayasi’s imagination although Alauddin Khilji and Ratan Singh a.k.a. Ratan Sen a.k.a. Ratnasimha are historical 13th-14th century figures and the siege of Chittor did indeed happen, Alauddin’s purpose being to expand his kingdom and not to forcibly take a mythical queen. 

In the year leading up to the release this week, fundamentalist Rajput organisations have committed acts of violence, threatened worse, demanded a ban and in general created a hubbub based on their inexplicable assumptions that this film insults their people. Quite the opposite. Padmaavat is an irritating ode to Rajput bravery which, if you read history books, is as much a myth as Padmavati a.k.a. Padmini herself.

From the very first scene, Bhansali’s goal is clear: to pedestalise Rajputs and demonise the Khiljis, to pander to the larger Hindu Right via Rajputs by slandering a Muslim king.

And so, while H.R.H. Ratan Singh (played by Shahid Kapoor) looks pristine, as if his pyaara sa, gora sa chehra has been newly cleansed by an Emami or Vaseline face wash, Alauddin (as played by Ranveer Singh) is a perennially dirty-faced devil, his chehra forever smeared with what appears to be blood and mud even when he is not in battle. Alauddin’s hair is wild, his walk almost bear-like, his eyes at all times either narrowed to slits or widened to convey his menacing intent, while H.R.H. Ratan looks angelic. If Alauddin wants a woman for himself, he is portrayed as lustful, whereas Ratan’s betrayal of his first queen for Padmavati is sweet romance. Alauddin has sex with another woman minutes before his wedding, rapes his first wife Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari) and beds a prostitute even while consumed with desire for Padmavati, but H.R.H. Ratan makes sweet sweet lurve to Padmavati. Alauddin and his uncle Jalaluddin (Raza Murad) are shown tearing into massive chunks of meat like savages, while H.R.H. Ratan feeds himself delicate morsels of food. Bad Alauddin always wears black and other dark shades, whereas the good Ratan, dons whites, beiges and cheery colours. Wicked Alauddin stomps his feet in laughably animalistic dance moves to the song Khalibali whereas Ratan, dahling Ratan, carries himself with dignity. And get this, in what seems to be Bhansali’s ultimate signifier of debauchery, the nasty Muslim king’s male lover is trivialised – oh no! bisexuality! how terrible, no? – whereas the good Hindu man’s eye wanders with poise and only in the direction of women. Heterosexual promiscuity and infidelity are allowed, no?

There is no pretence at objectivity or nuance in the contrasting portrayals of the two monarchs. This is a literal echo of the average Hindu right-winger’s view of Muslims as horny, carnivorous beasts. Padmaavat is a perfect example of a Hindi film couching its extreme prejudices in grandiloquence and tacky clichés, with those clichés embedded in resplendent frames.

Meanwhile, the gorgeous Ms Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) wears gorgeous lehngas while her gorgeous hair flows in just the right gorgeous wave and her perfect gorgeous makeup remains unsoiled even when she hunts in a Singhal forest or flees Alauddin’s fort. As with all Bhansali’s post-Khamoshi films, this one too is operatic in tone and visually stunning. After a point though, all that flawless beauty – architectural, sartorial and human – becomes exhausting (as it did in his worst film so far, Guzaarish), especially because his biases, his penchant for overstatement and his regressive worldview overshadow all else.

Among the many contradictions in Padmaavat is the fact that it chooses to lionise Rajputs when, by its own admission, Chittor fell because of Rajput disunity and cowardice. H.R.H. Ratan seeks help from all his fellow Rajput rulers but they turn him down for fear of antagonising Alauddin.

The biggest – and most frightening – contradiction though comes in the horribly romanticised depiction of jauhar, although the opening disclaimer states that the film does not intend to glorify the custom. Really? Why then does a closing voiceover, right after the act is shown on screen, seek to deify Padmavati’s ‘sacrifice’? She walks towards the flames, her hair blowing in the breeze, her voluminous skirt swirling about her ankles, her eyes burning with determination, full-bodied music playing in the background, joined by a sea of women clad in bridal red (including – I wanted to vomit when I saw this – a pregnant woman and a little girl) all voluntarily approaching their death.

That anonymous child is the only one in the crowd looking fearful rather than purposeful. I wonder if Bhansali let that shot of her frightened face slip in by mistake, because the rest of that elongated passage is clearly intended to valourise Rajput women. Jauhar was a horrendous practice underlining the belief that a woman’s life is worth nothing if her vagina, the sole property of her husband or future husband, is invaded by another man. Considering that conservatives even in today’s India place greater value on what they see as a woman’s ‘honour’ over her life, it is scary that Bhansali has chosen to glamorise jauhar in his film in a bid to play to the Rajput gallery.

I am only portraying a reality from our past – I can almost hear him say the words. There is a difference though, Mr Bhansali, between portraying a shameful reality and venerating it.

So yeah, everything in Padmaavat looks pretty, but the film has little else to offer beyond that, not even the striking performances that marked out Bhansali’s last directorial venture, Bajirao Mastani, in 2015. Ranveer Singh appears to have bowed completely to Bhansali’s vision of an evil Muslim king. While one cannot argue with an actor seeing a director as his captain, what is certainly worth questioning is his decision to accept this role with the full awareness of what that vision entailed in this case.

Others who have submitted entirely to Bhansali’s line of thinking in their performances are Raza Murad playing the ravenous Muslim, Jalaluddin Khilji, and Jim Sarbh (who was so interesting in Konkona Sensharma’s A Death In The Gunj just last year) here playing a scheming homosexual, Alauddin’s slave Malik Kafur who one of the virtuously heterosexual H.R.H. Ratan’s courtiers describes as Alauddin’s “begum”. Giggle giggle.

Shahid Kapoor as Ratan Singh has precisely one expression on his face from start to finish, which is such a disappointment considering how amazing he was in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014).

Deepika Padukone and Aditi Rao Hydari look great, of course. They are the only ones among the lead cast who manage to eke something out of the stereotype-ridden writing by Prakash R. Kapadia and Bhansali. Although their roles do not give them much space for depth, they remain convincing as epitomes of grace and elegance throughout.

Neither their presence nor the overkill of extravagant spectacle can save this film though. Apart from the tuneful Binte dil and brief snatches of the background score, even the music does not match up to what Bhansali’s films have delivered in the past.

Padmaavat’s disturbing ideology – misogynistic, communal and homophobic – is bad enough. The final nail in the coffin is the lack of chemistry between Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor, which made me long for the Aishwarya Rai-Hrithik Roshan pairing in the equally lavishly produced, vastly superior Jodhaa Akbar (2008). Remember Queen Jodhaa peeping out from behind curtains at the topless emperor? It was a scene crackling with electricity and longing. Watching Padmaavat’s lead couple together though, I could not for the life of me understand why Padmavati gave a fig – or her life – for H.R.H. Ratan.

Rating (out of five stars): *

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
163 minutes

This review was also published on Firstpost: