Tuesday, April 21, 2020


Release date:
April 8, 2020
Vivian Radhakrishnan
Sujin Murali, Shanavas Sharaf, Rajalakshmi V.V., Rajeev D.H.

It is tough for an independent film without familiar faces to get public attention – even less so when it is not in theatres or on a prestigious streaming platform. Yet debutant director Vivian Radhakrishnan’s Veembu, now available on Youtube, has generated a fair amount of conversation this season. One reason is that actor Joju George unveiled the poster online. Another is that director Midhun Manuel Thomas promoted it on his Facebook page when it was released earlier this month.

Since these artistes are known for devotion to their craft, it is natural for expectations to be built solely on the strength of their support for Veembu. Thomas is just fresh from the stupendous critical success of the crime thriller Anjaam Pathiraa, so his patronage, if it can be called that, is particularly significant here because Veembu too is a thriller.

Now for the bad news. If Messrs George and Thomas meant to be kind, their kindness was misplaced – because Veembu does not deserve them.

At a basic level, the film’s concept is thought-provoking and seems exciting. Veembu means to offer an insight into how the truth is manipulated in the media to suit the powerful while maligning the weak. The journey from premise with promise to full-fledged film is rocky though. Veembu is pretentious, trying really hard to be cool and gives the appearance of being convinced that it has achieved that goal.

Veembu’s protagonists Kinavu and Abukutty are friends in remote rural Kerala. Kinavu is an autorickshaw driver taking care of his old mother who has been diagnosed with dementia. One day, desperate for a large sum of money, he agrees to commit a serious crime. Circumstances go out of his control largely as a result of his own inability to stay focused.

Veembu’s primary problem is that it is more preoccupied with form and structure than content. It starts with a man of small build being tortured by what appears to be a criminal gang. The fellow appeared in a selfie with someone he claims not to know. His captors think he is lying. One of them orders him to describe the circumstances that brought him to this pass as if he is narrating the script of a film. He agrees. That’s how it comes about that we get to hear the story of Kinavu and Abukutty.

The narrative device serves little purpose, the storytelling is over-stretched and the characterisation inconsistent. A man is rough with his elderly parent half way through the film but seems utterly devoted to her before and after that. Time is wasted on extraneous developments, such as Abukutty trying to have a fling with a married woman, that contribute nothing to the character development or the denouement. And by the time that neat twist comes around, involving two intruders and a heavy object, I was struggling to keep my eyes open and care for the people on screen.

DoP Vishnu Vijayarajan does deliver some eerie frames, well complemented by ominous background music. Particularly impressive is the shooting of a man held captive through Veembu. After a while though, these feel like embellishments masking weak writing. No amount of overhead shots of men weeping in a forest as seen through falling raindrops can camouflage the fact that the men are written as outlines without the colours filled in.

In its tone and tenor, from the beginning Veembu feels like a wannabe Angamaly Diaries, but again, no amount of stylisation, lookalikes in the cast and derivative music can give you the panache and heft of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s lovely 2017 film. After watching Veembu, I learnt from Google that Vivian Radhakrishnan assisted Pellissery on Jallikattu and has earned some praise for a recent making-of-Jallikattu video. Clearly, admiration for the boss does not necessarily translate into great art.

From among an inconsistent cast, several actors in Veembu stand out as naturals. Sujin Murali as Kinavu and Shanavas Sharaf as Abukutty are both easy before the camera, and will hopefully get better films in future. Sharaf reminded me of Tito Wilson, Angamaly Diaries’ U-Clamp Rajan, both in terms of looks and conviction. Another charismatic presence is Rajeev D.H. playing a man imprisoned for no fault of his – he is attractive and though his role is largely silent, manages to convey anguish with his intensity.

According to Radhakrishnan who wrote, directed and edited Veembu, the film has been in the cans for two years mostly due to censor troubles. If you can bear the tedium of its 2 hours and 20 minutes, in the end you will discover its troubling politics. Through a raucous monologue in the climax, in the guise of criticising the media – a worthy objective, no doubt – Veembu takes potshots at those who highlighted the communal angle in the rape of a Bakarwal child in Kathua in 2018 and other liberal causes.

In a better-made film, that finale – confused or intentionally illiberal? – would have merited a critique. Veembu is so vacuous and boring, it is not even worthy of anger.

Rating (out of 5 stars): 0.5

Running time:
140 minutes 57 seconds

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Saturday, April 11, 2020


Release date:
April 10, 2020
Ranjan Chandel
Aditya Rawal, Shalini Pandey, Vijay Varma,  Shivam Mishra, Jatin Sarna, Sana Amin Sheikh, Kokab Fareed, Priyank Tiwari

A college-going ruffian in Allahabad operates on a short fuse. He is loyal to his friends, takes on those who cross swords with them, longs to meet the city’s crime-kingpin-cum-political-influencer and falls for a pretty stranger. Nasir Jamaal’s misdemeanours lead to a more grievous act when circumstances are manipulated by an individual who is well-acquainted with the young man’s combustible nature.

Director Ranjan Chandel’s Bamfaad (Explosion/Explosive) stays with Nasir’s battle for survival when life spirals out of control, beyond anything his bravado and a fist fight can fix.

Chandel has co-written this story, screenplay and dialogues with Hanzalah Shahid. The film, which is streaming on Zee5 from today, has already drawn some attention because it is presented by Anurag Kashyap (who Chandel earlier assisted), serves as a debut platform for the son of veteran actors Swaroop Sampat and Paresh Rawal (Aditya Rawal plays Nasir) and is the first Hindi film starring Shalini Pandey who made her big-screen debut in the nationally debated Telugu hit Arjun Reddy (2017).

True to its title, Bamfaad has a fiery start. The striking introduction melds realism, humour and an earthy song. You know it has emerged from the Anurag Kashyap School of Filmmaking when, in the opening minutes in the background, singer Vishal Mishra belts out that exuberant, mischievously worded title track (music: Mishra himself, lyrics: Raj Shekhar). You know the film has been designed as a showcase for Rawal Junior when, during the course of that number, the screen is given over entirely to his lithe frame moving towards the camera as he emerges from a darkened space into the light, a device Bollywood uses only when it sees an actor as larger-than-life-hero material.

Whether Rawal will live up to that expectation is a question for crystal-ball gazers. What can be said for sure is that in Bamfaad he reveals himself to be a natural actor with solid potential. His physique is also a pleasant change from the steady stream of star sons flowing out of Bollywood in the past decade, whose bulging muscles and soulless yet perfect dancing have borne such a strong resemblance to each other that they have come across as clones assembled in the same lab. Rawal is no clone. No way.

The women in Bamfaad’s storyline are secondary players, and Pandey’s Neelam is no different. She is efficient in the role of a quietly assertive woman, but lacks a spark.

The stand-out performers in the cast are Vijay Varma playing a criminal named Jigar Fareedi, and Jatin Sarna as Nasir’s friend.

The first half of Bamfaad is pacey and interesting. Prashant Pillai’s background score is intelligently utilised and the songs are slipped smoothly into the narrative. The big twist in Nasir’s journey is deftly edited and directed, and leaves in its wake considerable suspense over what will happen next.

Sadly, the second half of Bamfaad does not live up to the promise of the pre-interval portion. After that mid-point drama, the writing wears thin. There are two nice turns, both involving policemen, but nothing so exciting as to make the film stand out from the other crime sagas that have populated the Hindi filmverse for two decades now.

Maybe things would have been different if we had never seen Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989), Ram Gopal Varma’s pathbreaking Satya (1998) and Company (2002), or the best of Kashyap and others that came next. Maybe too things would have been different if the past two decades had not brought with them so many memorable visits to small towns and small-town romances in Uttar Pradesh. Anyone following in those footsteps needs to conjure up something truly unusual, inventive and extraordinary to pass muster. Bamfaad works up to a point, but not further.

The writing of the characters’ motivations and their relationships requires more depth, the bows to Allahabad and its culture are sparse, and post-interval it feels as if the director mistook limited energy for a naturalistic storytelling style. 

Still, Hanzalah Shahid and Ranjan Chandel are talents to watch out for. For one, in this era of stereotype-ridden, Islamophobic Bollywood rants like Padmaavat, Kesari, Kalank and Tanhaji, it is nice to see a film in which the protagonist is a Muslim, but is not given any stereotypical markers of the religion, and members of the community are treated as regular humans: some good, some not, some evil, some not.

This is not to suggest that Bamfaad avoids a political comment on the present real-life context in which it has been released. The film does reference the danger looming over Hindu-Muslim equations in today’s India, although that is not a primary theme.

Besides, how can one not make note of artists who can conceptualise a scene in which a love-lorn youth gazing at the object of his affection tells her that pimples look good on her face? He does not say “even pimples”, he simply says “pimples”. Oh the sweet innocence of those words! Because of course on her they are an adornment, not a skin eruption – “that dress looks good on you”, “the new hairstyle looks good on you”, “pimples look good on you”.

Bamfaad is not quite the explosion it was meant to be, but it has its merits and its moments and is an engaging watch.

Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.5

Running time:
102 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Poster courtesy: Zee5

Friday, April 3, 2020


Cinema in the time of COVID-19: an ode to the romance of movie halls and watching films with strangers

The sun was out but it was not uncomfortably warm. Vehicular pollution was not the mass murderer that it is today, so it was natural for my parents to take the kids along – as other families did that day – on the walk from South Extension to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, for a film show. I am not certain of the year (it has to be in the 1980s), but I do recall that happy holiday as we made the trek on a service road parallel to Ring Road, from home to an auditorium on the sprawling AIIMS campus to see Manjil Virinja Pookkal

My sister remembers the film, not the occasion. She was amused earlier today as I recounted details of the outing to her. Such as the fact that it was Dad’s hand I clung to, which means Mum was most likely carrying her in her arms. That the distance felt longer to my little legs than my cellphone’s GPS now tells me it is. And that the screening was organised by a now-long-gone club called Kairali Film Society, no trace of which I can find on the Internet. 

I suspect I can picture it as vividly as if it happened yesterday because this is my first ever memory of watching a film in a theatre. There had been other films before Manjil Virinja Pookkal, viewed with the family huddled around our black-and-white TV set in the days when Doordarshan was our only salvation. This was a different world though, and I remember it all. The mass of people in the hall. The weather outside. A coy Poornima Jayaram. The villainous Mohanlal. The title song about flowers that blossomed in the dew, that I most likely did not understand but instinctively found beautiful. 

Such pleasant reminiscences have been floating around in my mind in the weeks since the novel Coronavirus began keeping me away from one of my favourite haunts: movie halls. Much before the government declared a national lockdown due to COVID-19 (coronavirus disease), my cautious nature had prompted me to practise social distancing, heeding the advice of experts quoted in the global media. This means that March 2020 will go down in history (yes, I did say that, *inserts smart-ass emoji*) as perhaps the first month in a decade that I watched just three films in theatres – each one strictly for reviewing purposes. 

A lot has happened for film buffs since a tiny girl was mesmerised by the moving images on what felt like a colossal screen at AIIMS. Colour TVs came to India in the 1980s, satellite TV followed in the 1990s, over time the stubborn exhibition sector has opened up to a point where, sitting in Delhi, we can now watch films in multiple Indian and foreign languages, not English and Hindi alone, and in recent years, the advent of online streaming platforms has left us spoilt for choice. My work primarily involves writing on cinema, so obviously I am and I am required to be a voracious consumer of films. I have no reservations about watching them on cellphones, tablets, laptops or televisions, at festivals, premieres, previews, upon their theatrical release or online, but if my schedule and budget permit it, I would pick a cinema hall over every other available option any day.

There is something magical about sitting in a large darkened theatre, gazing at a giant screen, savouring the unexplainable, precious solitude of the movie-viewing experience even when watching with a crowd. To my mind, this is why people continue to fill theatres although we all now have cellphones, which makes us all, in a sense, potential theatre owners. This is why theatres will never die. 

When I am lost in a film, I often have a blinkered vision directed at the screen. Sometimes though, it is worth absorbing the sociology and psychology lessons on offer off screen and the pockets of drama among the audience. There was that one time in Gurgaon when a massive family including grandparents and kids turned up for the Hindi version of Delhi Belly, but after an eye full of male butt cracks and Tashi pleasuring his girlfriend, the entire platoon scurried out with many a “Chhee” and “Hawww” and exclamations of disgust. Clearly they had not bothered to check the certification (Delhi Belly was A-rated) or read reviews out of concern for the children in the group, but hey, let’s not take responsibility for our own irresponsibility. Clearly too, the multiplex management, like so many others in India, had not enforced the rating – if they had, children would not have got in in the first place.

Then there was that other time, when a group of what I assume to be Mommies brought a bunch of very small children to a single-screen complex in Delhi for My Super Ex-Girlfriend starring Uma Thurman. (Don’t judge me – I was there for work.) The kids were, understandably, bored by that dreadful film and started running up and down the aisle, until that first scene in which the protagonist has wild sex and ends up demolishing a bed. At that point the little ones froze in wonderment and one of them cried out at the top of his voice, words to this effect, “Mummy Mummy, voh apni boyfriend ko kyun maar rahi hai (Why is she beating her boyfriend)?” Mummy shushed him, the kids continued to be a nuisance to the rest of us, and the show went on.

Sometimes an audience seems like a microcosm of the world outside, sometimes inhabitants of a universe far away. In the summer of 2017, as the results for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections were being announced, I headed out to watch the Malayalam film Oru Mexican Aparatha in a multiplex in a state bordering UP. While the sweep of UP by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party was becoming evident, I was startled and then amused to hear audience members raising the Left’s favoured slogan, “Lal Salaam”, in support of Oru Mexican Aparatha’s Communist hero.

The research for my book, The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic (Om Books, 2012), included watching every single Bollywood film released in a theatre in the National Capital Region in one year. The project resulted in numerous occasions when I found myself alone in a theatre – because there are that many unknown, unmarketed films produced by the Mumbai-based film industry, some terrific, some terrible. Watching the good ones among them all on my own only served to underline for me the romance of the big screen and the reason why I became a critic: to inform people about great films they may not otherwise have heard of or considered watching.

My library of anecdotes – about empty and packed halls, fights I have had with managers to get them to start shows they were hoping to cancel because no one other than I had bought a ticket, parents who refuse to control their restless offspring, and couples making out – is a testament to the number of trips I make to a theatre in a week.

In recent weeks, as dread and uncertainty over COVID-19 have clouded our lives, as the lockdown appears to have unlocked further reserves of online hate, as those depressing images of the impoverished masses trudging hundreds of kilometers to their villages have been unleashed on us, I have, as always, taken refuge in reading, writing, films and TV shows. Now, more than ever before, I am grateful for the likes of Netflix. There is no getting away though from the fact that my glucose is community viewing in a theatre.

Where else can you watch a live show of a couple squabbling over whether or not they should give up on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life? For the record, he wanted to leave, she wanted to stay as I gathered from the fact that they had a furious whispered exchange of words part way through the film, he stormed out, returned to coax her to leave, stormed out again, returned, then stormed out again, before giving up and sinking back into his seat because the young woman refused to budge.

A friend wrote on Twitter the other day that once the Coronavirus pandemic is over, he doubts he will ever again feel safe in teeming public places. Me? I am dying to get back – to hugging loved ones and holding hands, to walking down streets and train stations, to flights and the Delhi Metro, to scouring well-stocked markets and bustling malls. And of course, it goes without saying, to watching films in the dark with strangers at multiplexes.

This article was published on Firstpost on April 1, 2020:

Photographs courtesy: Wikipedia