Friday, November 29, 2019


Release date:
November 29, 2019
Aditya Datt

Vidyut Jammwal, Adah Sharma, Gulshan Devaiah, Angira Dhar, Rajesh Tailang

A study of Bollywood’s Commando series could be the basis for a PhD in opportunism. Commando: A One Man Army, released in 2013, was about a loyal Armyman being abandoned by the Indian government when he is caught in enemy territory. Off screen, India got a new government in 2014 and with it arrived the Hindi film industry’s open subservience to the establishment. So Commando 2: The Black Money Trail in 2017 batted for demonetisation. And now, as Islamophobia rages across India, here comes Commando 3 with its cringe-worthy condescension towards India’s Muslims.

The third instalment of Commando, this one too starring Vidyut Jammwal, is directed by Aditya Datt whose best-known feature so far is the Emraan Hashmi-Tanushree Dutta-starrer Aashiq Banaya AapneJammwal’s Karan Singh Dogra this time is on a mission to track down a London-based terrorist running a conversion racket in India that draws innocent Hindu boys to the Islamic fold and brainwashes them into committing violence for Allah along with other Muslims. Buraq Ansari (Gulshan Devaiah) is as evil as a human can be. We first see him heavily veiled. His face is revealed in a scene in which he forces his little son to watch as he brutally murders a man.

Working alongside Karan is his sidekick Bhavna Reddy played, as she was earlier, by Adah Sharma. The mix this time is sought to be revved up by the addition of the British Intelligence agent Mallika Sood (Angira Dhar) who is based on the same prototype that has yielded the Bond franchise’s ‘Bond girl’.

The women in Commando 3 are occasionally given space to display their fighting skills and in that limited time Sharma and Dhar show us how immensely capable they are, but make no mistake about this: the primary purpose of their existence in this screenplay is to compete for Karan’s attention so that while he goes about the serious business of saving the country, we never forget that he leaves la femmes weak at the knees.

The subordination of women to the hero in Commando 3 is nothing compared to the film’s messaging about Muslims. The problem is not with the depiction of a terror network operating in the name of Islam – that such organisations exist must of course be acknowledged; the problem lies with the manner in which this film seeks to hold all Indian Muslims accountable for Buraq Ansari’s actions in a way that the public discourse has never held India’s entire majority community accountable for the wrongdoings of individual members.

Commando 3 is strategic while building its case. It is careful to prepare alibis for itself even as it lectures India’s Muslims about their duty towards the nation at large and their Hindu brethren in particular. For instance, mention is made of beef-related lynchings and other genuine grievances of the Muslim community, which can be held up to anyone who accuses the film of being one-sided. Here’s the catch though: if majoritarian fundamentalists object to the acknowledgement of these crimes by their group, the defence is no doubt a scene right at the start where a Muslim terrorist was shown instigating his flunkeys to kill a calf to stir up trouble. The insinuation is that even the lynchings of Muslims have been the fault of Muslims.

While the principal evil Muslim in Commando 3 spends his time plotting against Hindus, the good Hindu hero waits for a Muslim terrorist to finish his namaz before capturing him. Oh look ye, respect!

(Minor spoilers in the next two sentences) The sermonising directed at Muslims peaks in a video appeal Karan publishes, aimed at inspiring the Muslim masses to thwart Buraq’s plan to attack the Hindu masses. The video and the subsequent scenes of Muslims rising up in response are dripping with a patronising attitude. (Spoiler alert ends) They are also amateurishly written and in your face, epitomised by that shot before the credits roll of a Hindu man and a Muslim man standing shoulder to shoulder right after they together fire a flaming arrow at an effigy of Ravan.

Those who wish to understand the difference between the mischief-mongering by Commando 3 and a factual portrayal of Islamic terrorism would be well advised to watch Anubhav Sinha’s Hindi film Mulk (2018).

Commando 3’s minuses don’t end with its troubling politics. The Indian agents in London come up trumps despite being dumb, lax, over-confident and foolhardy, because these qualities are what the writing team perceives as bravery. (Some people may deem the next sentence a spoiler) For instance, both Bhavna and Karan, despite being undercover agents, blow their own cover early in the narrative to draw the snake out of his hole: she tweets about Karan from her actual ID and he releases a video to the media revealing his identity, both of which are somehow meant to be clever moves. (Spoiler alert ends)

Jammwal, Sharma and Dhar do what is required of them well enough: she and she scrap over him, all three beat up people, they glare, they stare. I experienced a little heartache though at the sight of a fine actor like Gulshan Devaiah reduced to over-acting as Buraq Ansari.

Commando 3 is technically glossy and the fight choreography is slick. The writing though is contrived. The film is filled with lines like this one tossed at Buraq by Karan, “Pehle purdon mein chhupa karta thha, ab mardon mein?” (Earlier you hid behind a veil, now you hide behind men?) as the latter walks towards him surrounded by armed guards, but the dialoguebaazi is tiresome and soulless. Even if this were not the case, it is appalling that the populist stereotypes in the script target an already vulnerable people.

It becomes evident in the end though that none of this comes from a place of conviction. So unsure of itself is Commando 3, that after all its bloodshed and bhashans the end credits run alongside not one but two formulaic song and dance routines.

First comes this kiddish Hinglish number lip-synced by Karan:

Tere peechhe main

Mere aage tu run-run

Kabhi aage tu

Kabhi peechhe main fun-fun

Dekhega jalwa ab toh tu

With my gun-gun

Ek hi toh bachke niklega

Yeh toh done-done.

As if that is not ludicrous enough, there follows Karan dancing with the two women in skimpy, sexy attire, ending on an image of him in silhouette with a Ravan in the background.


Let me try my hand at lyric writing:

Now that this piece is through

I’m gonna run-run

Watching Commando 3

Has been no fun-fun

This series should have stopped

With Commando One-One

Give us a break, please

Just be done-done.

Rating (out of five stars): 1

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
134 minutes 

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Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Release date:
Kerala: November 15, 2019
Delhi: November 22, 2019
Mathukutty Xavier 

Anna Ben, Lal, Aju Varghese, Noble Babu Thomas, Rony David, Binu Pappu, Bonny Mary Mathew, Cameo: Vineeth Sreenivasan

On the face of it, Helen is a survival flick. The protagonist gets stuck in a dangerous space where no one knows she is trapped. Watching her desperate effort to stay alive is a chilling experience made all the more so by the text in the end revealing that her story is inspired by true events. But the film is so much more than just that. 

Helen Paul’s life choices and every aspect of her identity play a role in what  happens to her here. The fact that she is a woman, an independent woman, a woman whose work and social engagements often keep her out of the house late at night, a woman with a boyfriend, a Christian woman with a Muslim boyfriend – all these factors combined result in the tension that ultimately leads to her disappearance and the response to it. 

Helen is a nurse keen to migrate to Canada to improve her financial prospects. Her widowered father Paul dotes on her. Helen juggles English language classes with a job, home management, commitments in the neighbourhood and her love life. She is affable and popular, so when she vanishes, there are many people anxious on her behalf. 

This in itself distinguishes Helen from most successful survival dramas revolving around solitary figures – usually, their central characters have been individuals whose absence is not felt because they are either loners or away from their families or they had unwisely taken off without informing loved ones. The most high-profile of these in recent times, British director Danny Boyle’s Best Picture Oscar-nominated 127 Hours, was about a man who goes hiking in a treacherous canyon without intimating anyone about his plans. The spotlight in that film was inevitably on the mental strength and instincts that helped the hero get back home. Helen is as attentive to the heroine’s decisions within her prison as it is to the chauvinism that led to her plight and even affects the search for her.

Helen is written by Alfred Kurian Joseph, Noble Babu Thomas (who also plays Helen’s boyfriend Azhar) and Mathukutty Xavier. It is Xavier’s first shot at direction, a novel choice for a debut and an unusually perceptive film for its genre. (The next four paragraphs analyse an episode in the film in detail. They contain no spoilers, but please proceed at your own discretion.) Without giving anything away about the the leading lady’s exact situation, let us scrutinise a single episode that illustrates the entire narrative’s subtle but meticulous dissection of Malayali society in particular and Indian society at large. Azhar is out drinking with his male buddies one night when Helen phones to fix up an impromptu date. He is not a very responsible chap, so it is not surprising at all that he drives a two-wheeler without a helmet. This violation of traffic rules is what causes a police squad to stop them, but what makes the greasy cop Ratheesh Kumar stay fixated on them is his objection to two people of the opposite sex out together, and worse, the realisation that they belong to different religious groups. This is why he phones Paul to inform him of his daughter’s whereabouts. 

Note how Ratheesh treats the woman as a protectorate of her family. A genuinely liberal parent would be appalled at the infantilisation of his adult daughter in this manner, but Paul is furious with her instead. Helen’s reaction is just as telling: instead of questioning her father’s right to be angry, she is apologetic. But for what?

Of course none of this would have happened if Azhar had not been a jerk who rode a scooter without wearing a helmet and after consuming alcohol beyond the legally permissible limit, but the point is that Ratheesh makes those contraventions of the law his excuse to bat for gender segregation and parental supremacy, lash out at social non-conformism and intrude on people’s personal lives. 

It is unclear whether Paul is just opposed to inter-community liaisons or balks at the mere idea of his daughter picking her own partner irrespective of community. Either way, it is important that Helen chooses to feature a Christian-Muslim couple rather than a Hindu-Muslim pair, serving as a reminder that while no doubt the communal biases of the majority community ought to be condemned, minority communities too need to be called out for their biases against each other. 

All this emerges from an incident that takes only a few minutes in the film, so you can imagine how insightful Helen is in its entirety. 

Anna Ben, the charming curly-haired debutant from Kumbalangi Nights, proves here that she has the acting muscle to carry a film on her slim shoulders. Her confident turn as Helen is especially impressive since she spends half her screen time all alone and the rest mostly with a seasoned performer like Lal who plays Paul. The latter, in fact, is the only cast member who raises Helen’s pitch a notch a couple of times. For the most part though, he makes Paul believable and loveable despite his flaws. 

Among a capable team of supporting actors, the most significant performance comes from Aju Varghese playing the slimy policeman Ratheesh. The actor should give himself more such breaks in a career dominated by comic roles that are often indistinguishable from each other. His rendition of pride and prejudice in this film froze me to the bone.  

The writing of Helen dips only occasionally, but these  instances do adversely affect the narrative. (Some people may consider this paragraph a spoiler) That accident in the middle of the search for Helen, for one, needlessly piles melodrama on top of already nerve-wracking melodrama. Producer Vineeth Sreenivasan’s cameo feels superfluous and gimmicky. (Spoiler alert ends) The background score needed some turning down. And hey, we understood early in the film that Helen and her Dad are a snug twosome, so there was no need to lay it on thick with a mushy flashback to her childhood and their life-long friendship, underlined with loud music. That stretch and the over-dramatised moments assigned to Paul as the film draws to a close are completely unnecessary. 

These departures in tone aside, Helen is clever in the way it never allows its socio-political inclinations to override its fundamental goal of being a survival thriller. This is a consequence of some shrewd editing by Shameer Muhammad post-interval and Anend C. Chandran’s matter-of-fact camerawork combined with a largely focused screenplay.

Helen’s real triumph though is that even when it separates the heroine from everyone else in the second half, it does not suddenly conjure up a male saviour for her in keeping with commercial cinema’s tendencies nor does it ever stray from being a film about her. I cannot vouch for whether Mathukutty Xavier and Team got their scientific and medical facts right, but I can tell you I almost chewed off my nails worrying about that young woman’s fate. In a year in which the Malayalam film industry has outdone itself, Helen is right up there with the best of 2019.
Rating (out of 5 stars): 3.5

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
117 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost: