Saturday, December 22, 2018


Release date:
December 21, 2018
Aanand L. Rai

Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Sheeba Chaddha, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Brijendra Kala, Mallika Dua, R. Madhavan, Abhay Deol

Aanand L. Rai’s Zero is divided into two distinct compartments: one where the screenplay allows leading man Shah Rukh Khan’s naturally energetic personality, comic timing and charm to take flight, and the second in which the film appears to be trying to say something very grave and very deep but fails to lift off. Thank the cosmos for Bollywood’s dimpled wonder, his charisma and enthusiasm undiminished by his 53 years, because without him, Zero has little going for it.

The story takes off in Meerut where a 38-year-old (ahem!) scamp called Bauua Singh has forever been taunted for his physical disability. Bauua (SRK) is of very short stature, but does not allow social opprobrium to dampen his zest for life, his self-esteem or his over-sized ego. He is keen on marriage and obsessed with the movie star Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif). In pursuit of a potential spouse, he avails of the services of a marriage broker (Brijendra Kala). In pursuit of his screen idol –  bhabhi (sister in law),” as his friend Guddu refers to Babita – he enters a contest, the prize for which is a chance to attend a party with her.

Somewhere between long-distance trysts with the Bollywood beauty in movie theatres and at fan gatherings, meetings with his broker and fights with his father (Tigmanshu Dhulia), Bauua encounters the genius space scientist Aafia Yusufzai Bhinder (Anushka Sharma). Cerebral palsy is not mentioned by name in the film but her constrained facial expressions, speech and physical movements tell their own tale. The wheelchair is to the brilliant Aafia what height is to Bauua – she has not
let it clip her wings.

Zero is the latest collaboration between director Aanand L. Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma who have caused box-office storms so far with Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Raanjhanaa (2013) and Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015). Two things have characterised these hits: their misogyny and their connect with small-town India. Unlike Kanpur or Varanasi in those previous projects, Zero’s screenplay does not quite capture the specific fragrance and feel of Meerut. On the plus side, Zero does not hate women – the downer is that it simply does not know what to do with them.

One thing this film does get right is its hero’s frenetic energy and acerbic humour for which Khan proves to be an excellent fit. Sharma, wisely, does not scrub insensitive language out of the film in the interests of superficial – and unreal – political correctness. Life is not a movie review where a critic spends hours trying to figure out whether “dwarf”, “midget” or “vertically challenged person” would be the most appropriate usage, and Sharma understands that. Characters around Bauua in his hometown hurl the Hindi word “bauna” (dwarf) at him and define him almost entirely by his height without a care for his feelings, as most people in the real world sadly would. Crucially though, the writer and director themselves do not view him through a condescending or contemptuous lens. Bauua gives as good as he gets, piercing through the barbs with a tongue that is sharper than a butcher's knife and a skin that is thicker than rhinoceros hide.

Beyond this though, Zero has nothing to offer. Part of the reason seems to be Sharma’s inability to write relatable women who are neither ridiculously eccentric, brusque and self-centred like Tanu nor selfish and manipulative like Zoya in Raanjhanaa. Remove from the picture the animosity towards womankind that oozed out of Raanjhanaa and the othering in the Tanu Weds Manu films, and what you have are the dead bores Aafia and Babita.

Babita gets one interesting scene in which she tells Bauua about her parents. Aafia does not even get that. No doubt Bauua is funny and feisty, but he is also a big jerk with her every step of the way, making it impossible to understand why she falls for him because the mere fact that he is the only man she has met who is at eye level with her is hardly an explanation, although that is what their conversations imply.

Their separate journeys with Bauua are so terribly contrived and intellectually pretentious that I found myself longing for them to exit the frame each time they were there, and to leave him alone with Guddu so that we might enjoy the crackling banter between the two men.

Zero is, no doubt, attempting to make a profoundly philosophical point at the intersection of the protagonists’ physical disabilities and their joint exploration of the universe, but whatever it is is lost in the swirling mists of the writer’s mind.

One point that does come across is the unspoken intermingling of communities evident in Aafia’s name and her parents’ relationship. Subtlety so relevant in these politically divisive times rears its head elsewhere too – this time with clever comicality – in the matter of marginalised communities within dominant groups (Bauua is male and visibly upper caste, but that does not save him from incessant denigration due to his appearance).

Thankfully, Bollywood has progressed beyond the days when Anupam Kher had to go down on his knees to play a dwarf in Shirish Kunder’s Jaan-E-Mann (2006). Bauua’s small size has been achieved reportedly with the same technology as has been used in the Lord of the Rings films and The Hobbit. Some day soon, hopefully the industry will get to a place where it does not need such tech because it has place for actors like the great Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion Lannister in the Game of Thrones series. For the moment though, it is worth celebrating that a mainstream actor, writer and director in this dismally conservative, ableist industry came up with a film that revolves entirely around a vertically challenged man.

That, of course, is not enough. Zero’s storyline is convoluted, confused and dull. Of the female leads, Kaif’s primary job is to look stunning, a duty she fulfills to perfection, while the heavy lifting in terms of acting is left, quite sensibly, to the more talented artiste of the two. Though Sharma totally immerses herself in Aafia’s physicality, there is little she can do to elevate the woman above the dreary writing. 

Khan delivers an endearing performance as Bauua, but has more chemistry with Guddu (played by the unfailingly remarkable Mohammmed Zeeshan Ayyub) than with either lady. The superstar has been in experimental mode for the past three years with films like Fan, Raees and Dear Zindagi that have offered him a chance to explore the actor in him. Those films, flawed though they were, were far far far better written than Zero.

Even Ajay-Atul’s music for Zero is limited. The wistful melody and rousing orchestration of Mere Naam Tu comes in one of its most visually appealing scenes. Issaqbaazi – featuring Salman Khan in a neatly conceptualised cameo – is lively but lacks depth. And Husn Parcham is a big yawn.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Zero is Khan’s willingness to laugh at himself along with Messrs Sharma and Rai. In one scene when asked how old he is, Bauua slips up and gives a figure other than 38. The fact that the character is lying about his age serves as an amusing swipe at a superstar who by and large persists in playing characters much younger than he is and/or starring opposite much younger women. Of course the point would have been more effective and would have come across as more sincere if the leading ladies of Zero weren’t 20 years junior to Khan.

In a sense, Aanand L. Rai’s career path in 2018 serves as a metaphor for Bollywood in a year in which this male-star-struck industry has repeatedly struck gold – qualitatively and financially – largely with films it conventionally considers “small” such as Stree, Raazi, Badhaai Ho and Veere Di Wedding, while hyped-up ventures headlined by major gentleman superstars have too often turned out to be damp squibs. As a producer, Rai threw his weight behind the starless fantasy/thriller Tumbbad which released a few months back and has proved to be a pathbreaker with its solid and adventurous writing that earned it glowing reviews and a welcoming audience. Whether or not Zero rakes in big bucks at the box office, it is a spluttering, tottering affair.

If and when you do your next Zero, Mr Rai, do put the screenplay through the same arduous pressure test to which you would subject Tumbbad. Better still, give us more Tumbbads please.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
164 minutes 15 seconds 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Visuals courtesy:

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


Release date:
December 14, 2018
V.A. Shrikumar Menon

Mohanlal, Manju Warrier, Prakash Raj, Sana Althaf, Innocent, Siddique, Manoj Joshi, Nandhu, Naraina, Kailash, Santhosh Keezhattoor

Is he a congenital shape shifter or a master of disguise with the agility of a fleet-footed beast? Does he fight only in self-defence or is he a criminal messiah of evil? The answers take a while in coming in the new Mohanlal-Manju Warrier-starrer Odiyan, the tale of the last man from a tribe of the pre-electricity era in rural Kerala, said to transform into various animals and attack humans under the cover of night-time darkness.

When the film begins, an elderly Odiyan Manikyan (Mohanlal) returns to his village of Thenkkurussi after 15 years. Through a series of flashbacks that dominate the narrative, we learn of the reason for his departure under a cloud of suspicion following the deaths of two locals. We learn too of the triangular relationship between the poor hero, the mistress of the house he serves (Prabha played by Warrier) and the lustful Ravunni (Prakash Raj). Prabha has a sister (Sana Althaf) who is blind.

A considerable part of the first hour is spent in building up Manikyan’s animalistic avatar in viewers’ minds, and the initial sighting of him in this form is reasonably exciting as a result. He/it is not exactly a magnificent creature, but curiosity around precisely what he/it is and what he/it becomes, especially after we realise that Manikyan does not know the entire truth himself, is enough to sustain the film until that final well-executed clash with multiple opponents.

Audiences across the globe, including India, have bought into the tale of a nerdy kid bitten by a radioactive spider and metamorphosing into a webslinging superhero. We have embraced an interplanetary immigrant from Krypton with superhuman strength, the ability to fly and a penchant for wearing his underwear over a skin-tight jumpsuit. We have turned a bespectacled “boy who lived” and an evil wizard who split his soul to attain immortality into international literary and cinematic bestsellers. What Odiyan lacks is depth and detailing in contrast with these contemporary Western myths transposed on screen and with richly allegorical ancient religious mythology worldwide, including India’s own.

At its heart, Odiyan is perhaps intended as a metaphor for the beast within who could be unleashed for good or evil, depending on the human being it inhabits. Through the medium of the antagonist’s actions, it very obviously also is a comment on how myth and superstition can be exploited by ill-intentioned people. Via Manikyan, it is certainly a reminder of the power and reserves of strength that marginalised communities possess but rarely tap and are usually not even aware of. Harikrishnan’s screenplay does not have the imagination required to further flesh out these angles which have the potential for immense emotional heft when set, as Odiyan is, against the backdrop of a romance across class divides. Besides, the manner in which black (specifically, Ravunni’s complexion) is consistently interpreted as being symbolic of evil, is quite reprehensible. Contempt for dark skin is no doubt a real-world prejudice that could and should be portrayed in films – I am not objecting here to the prejudices of Odiyan’s characters, but to the director’s and writer’s own problematic gaze on Ravunni.

It could be argued of course that all this is a needless intellectualisation of a film that is meant to be just a fun fantasy flick. Well, Odiyan comes across as wanting to be something beyond that. Besides, contrary to expectations raised by its basic concept, there is more story than stunts in the narrative, and that story needed to offer more than it does.

What sustains Odiyan through its nearly three hours running time is the folksy air it manages to build up from the start, the special effects during the few (too few) action scenes, Mohanlal’s physical transformation to play the younger Manikyan – his styling, makeup and visible weight loss – and the pleasure, as always, of seeing Manju Warrier in a substantial role.

Lalettan himself occasionally, though not often enough, wades past the outward trappings of Odiyan Manikyan, past the stylised slow motion shots and close-ups designed for diehard, wolf-whistling fans, and looks inward for this performance, thus reminding us of the fine actor he is still capable of being. Prakash Raj has an imposing presence but overacts throughout.

Warrier, on the other hand, is uniformly good as the lonesome, long-suffering Prabha who has always known that her fate was written the moment she was born into a particular social class and often summons up the spirit to defy that written word.

Although Warrier is 18 years Mohanlal’s junior, and the age difference is a glaring reminder of how commercial Indian cinema continues to believe that women of his age are not worthy of being romanced on screen, it comes as a relief that Prabha is not a passing aside in the storyline like the ‘heroines’ of his films usually are these days (cases in point: Velipadinte Pusthakam and Oppam).

Their on-screen chemistry may not be electric, but there is a comfortable equation there that is mined well in a song sequence featuring both their characters in the open countryside at night. Here in this picturesque, atmospheric scene, the lines between dreams and reality, what is and what might be, blur, such that it simultaneously conveys the joyfulness of a couple being all that they want to be to each other and the melancholic awareness of the hurdles in their path.

This passage, and that excellently choreographed fight to the finish between Manikyan and his enemies exemplify Odiyan’s potential – a potential it has not lived up to. As things stand, it is neither extraordinary nor memorable, but it is engaging enough while it lasts.

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
167 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: