Saturday, December 23, 2023


Release date:

December 21, 2023


Rajkumar Hirani 


Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Boman Irani, Anil Grover, Vikram Kocchar, Cameo: Vicky Kaushal




There’s always a first time for everything. Your first love. Your first kiss. Your first paycheck. Even your first boring film. 


Now there’s a word I never expected to use for a Rajkumar Hirani venture. Yet “boring” is the aptest adjective for the director’s latest film Dunki that he has also co-written with Abhijat Joshi and Kanika Dhillon. Whatever criticism Hirani’s previous works may have deserved (3 Idiots featured that balaatkaar ‘joke’, it starred a 44-year-old as a teen, it favoured broad brush strokes over nuance as did PK, and Sanju was PR for Sanjay Dutt) none of them could be accused of dullness. Much about 3 Idiots was fun. PK was entertaining and brave. Ranbir Kapoor aced Sanju. Above all these, is the joyous Munnabhai series. Dunki feels like it was made by someone else. 


Taapsee Pannu here plays Manu Randhawa who wants to prove to her Dad that she’s as capable as a son of clearing the family’s debts and reclaiming the large house they lost. Buggu Lakhanpal (Vikram Kocchar) wants his Mum to quit the job she took after his Dad retired, because men leer at her when she wears pants as part of her work uniform. Balli Kakkad (Anil Grover) wants to release his Mum from toiling as a tailor, but sees no future in the barber shop where he’s employed. In this village where the West is viewed as El Dorado, and migration the fix for all problems, they begin single-mindedly chasing their goal of leaving India. 


One of them makes it to London. With no legal route in sight, the others risk death to swim, walk and stow away in vehicles, covering thousands of miles across Asia and Europe to get to their Promised Land. They do this without any idea how they will earn money abroad. They are guided on this perilous odyssey by Hardy a.k.a. Hardayal Singh Dhillon (Shah Rukh Khan). Their story dating back to 1995 is recounted in a flashback 25 years later. 

The film’s title is Punjabi for what are known as “donkey flight” 
methods used by Indians to gain illegal entry into rich Western countries. It’s a well-established term you will find in press reports, because Manus, Buggus and Ballis exist in large numbers. Just last year, for instance, the media covered the tragic tale of Vaishaliben and Jagdish Patel, a married couple in their 30s from Gujarat, who froze to death with their 11-year-old daughter and three-year-old son in a field near Canada’s border with the US. They were in Canada on visitor’s visas, and died while trying to illegally enter the US on foot. The Patels were not impoverished, not from a beleaguered caste or religious minority, not activists or any category of folks victimised by their government. An excellent BBC profile explained that they were in fact a middle-class couple who probably fell for ‘the American dream’ peddled by human traffickers, had most likely not researched the plight of illegal migrants to the US, but succumbed to a bizarre social pressure to migrate that pervades their Gujarat village. 


It would take thoughtful scripting to make a candid yet compassionate film on those like the Patels whose unthinking quest ends in tragedy. The obliviousness to reality of aspiring immigrants from Punjab was captured with a blend of empathy and exasperation in the Canadian Indian director Deepa Mehta’s Heaven On Earth (English-Punjabi-Hindi, 2008). Preity Zinta was remarkable in that film as a woman who leaves the middle-class comfort of her home for what her community deems a prized catch, an NRI groom, only to find that he had hidden the truth that he was struggling for survival in Canada. Heaven On Earth’s heroine was certainly financially better off in Punjab than Manu, Buggu and Balli, but the point is, all four were socially conditioned or pressured not to look before leaping, to emigrate without planning for what lay on the other side of that journey. Unlike Mehta’s film, Dunki does not scrutinise this desperation but romanticises it. 


So, worse than Dunki’s tedium is its political immaturity. The script avoids any tricky ground that would require intricate characterisation. It does not examine why the trio did not pursue options in India with the doggedness that they invested in putting their lives on the line to reach the UK. It does not train a critical lens on the patriarchy that drove Buggu and Balli to prefer possible death over earning mothers, nor have the finesse to envisage a situation where a man may understandably worry about a mother he loves, yet not see nearly killing himself as the only alternative. 


One character says sorrowfully that strugglers like them are driven to do work in the UK that locals do not want to, like mopping floors and scrubbing toilets. These are tasks that Dalits in India undertake (and are often forced to stick with) because upper castes are contemptuous of such jobs, although the latter are known to take them up when in dire straits abroad. Dunki does not stop to look at whether Manu, Buggu and Balli would have been willing to clean floors and toilets in India, and what the answer to that question says about them and the society they come from. 


To effectively address such complex points and still elicit warmth towards the three would have been a challenge, therefore Dunki steers clear of these issues completely. 


The film does not even do enough to generate that warmth organically. Maudlin music is played loudly to manipulate the audience into weeping, since the writing lacks flesh and insight. 


Dunki’s tone deafness to casteism extends to race too. One ‘joke’ involves the trio’s confusion and stress on sighting a black man when they reach what they think is the UK. They are relieved when they spot a white couple immediately after. Cringe. 


Dunki’s arguments favouring illegal immigrants are half-baked, and its poorly reasoned comments on British imperialists unwittingly suggest an equivalence between colonialism and migration. 


It is not clear whether subconscious prejudice or a conscious desire to pander to the dominant national mood is at the heart of certain script elements, or these were just instances of mindless writing. Such as the fact that the violence and sadism that Hardy, Manu and Buggu encounter while crossing borders comes from men in Muslim-majority countries. Or that the only kindness they face in this arduous process comes from a white male judge at their court hearing in the UK. 


(Spoiler alert) Hardy and his companions are told by the judge that they can get asylum in the UK if they claim they faced persecution in India. He refuses, the rest give in. Was this meant to be a meta moment blurring the line between SRK’s character and SRK himself, as Pathan and Jawan repeatedly did? If so, the writers might consider the meaning that scene takes on in a real-world context in which Muslims in particular and minorities at large are expected to prove their loyalty to India while members of the majority community are not. (Spoiler alert ends)


Like all Hindi films aspiring to be mainstream, a romance between the biggest male and female star in the cast is rammed into the script, which brings up the point that the actors playing SRK’s wives and girlfriends are getting younger with each film. Pannu at 36 looks like she might be the nearly 60-year-old Khan’s daughter in reality, and no, saying so does not make this an ageist review – this is a criticism of the ageism that producers, directors and male stars direct at women actors in their 50s who they do not consider attractive enough for a man in his 50s. C’mon SRK, you position yourself as being better than this, so why don’t you do better by women artistes?


The sexual chemistry between Khan and Pannu is zilch, which makes the blaring song “Ho aisa waisa ishq nahin, yeh ishq hai Raanjhe waala” sound ridiculous in a painfully unconvincing romantic scene. The fault lies not with the song, but with the scenario. 


Frankly, the chemistry between all the characters in Dunki is down to zero. 


Still, Pannu gets the space she deserves, which is unusual for a male-superstar-led Indian film (case in point: the short shrift given to Nayanthara in Jawan). She and Grover are good. So is Vicky Kaushal in a cameo. Kocchar and Boman Irani (who plays the English coach Geetu Gulati) can be excused for hamming in their intentionally OTT comedy scenes, but Khan cannot be given such leeway. His over-acting is especially jarring in intense exchanges, and is shown up by successive scenes in which he and Pannu are emotional, she with restraint, he with face all a-quiver. 


Pannu is even given weirdly drastic ageing makeup, causing her to advance what looks like 50 years in 25, no doubt to match Manu with Hardy in the present day. Seriously? 


Someone please revive the more controlled SRK of SwadesChak De! India and Fan, or the star who was comfortable enough with his age to make it look sexy in Dear Zindagi


Dunki’s only truly sharp passage comes early on, cocking a snook at Far Right nationalists’ obsessive reverence for Jana Gana Mana. There’s also fun to be had with Balli’s barbering, Geetu’s classes and the students’ jugaadu solution to their English problem. The latter is hilarious, actually. But there is only so far that these scattered rays of sunshine can take the film. 


For a truly intelligent recent account of an Indian illegal immigrant in the US, try catching Danish Renzu’s heart-wrenching The Illegal (English, 2021) starring Suraj Sharma.  


Dunki is an over-wrought, over-stretched, over-crowded sample of cinematic mediocrity, marked by clunky writing and puerile politics – an inexplicably incompetent film coming from one of the most successful teams in Hindi film history.


Rating (out of 5 stars): 1.75   


Running time:

161 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Friday, December 15, 2023



Release date:

December 7, 2023


Zoya Akhtar


Agastya Nanda, Khushi Kapoor, Suhana Khan, Vedang Raina, Mihir Ahuja, Aditi “Dot” Saigal, Yuvraj Menda, Suhaas Ahuja, Tara Sharma, Satyajit Sharma, Alyy Khan, Kamal Sidhu, Luke Kenny, Vinay Pathak  


Hindi and English


“I get a huge kick out of life. But I just don’t think about politics. What’s it got to do with my life?” Archibald/Archie Andrews asks his teacher Miss Grundy in reaction to his classmates’ concerns that the changes being wrought in their hill station, Riverdale, are driven by corporate interest, not public welfare. The year: 1964. But Archie echoes a standpoint adopted by so many people today too whose excuse for their silence on even fascism and genocide is, “I’m apolitical.”


The other students – all of them 17 – break into a song and dance to address Archie’s apathy, kicked off by Dilton Doiley singing: “In every fold of life, there’s politics.” It is with this lively passage that The Archies perks up, after a disappointingly bland 1 hour and 6 minutes. 


The Archies is the producer-writer-director Zoya Akhtar’s Hindi-English adaptation of the iconic US comic books. As you can imagine from the preceding paragraphs, Archie Comics – a frothy series about American high schoolers – provides just a sliver of a framework for Akhtar, Ayesha Devitre Dhillon and Reema Kagti’s script. The film’s updated politics, the decision to set it among Anglo Indians in north India and the non-stereotypical portrayal of the community are among The Archies’ exciting elements. Sadly, they are not effectively sewn together. The whimsicality Akhtar seems to have aimed at translates into low energy in the opening hour, and while the film picks up in the second half, it never fully recovers from the limpness of the first. 


Archie Comics began publication in the 1940s, revolving around an eponymous American teenager infatuated by the glamourous, wealthy and snobbish Veronica/Ronnie Lodge, and oblivious to the devotion of the pretty, golden-hearted and middle-class Betty Cooper. The vain and good-looking Reginald/Reggie Mantle was a flirt and Archie’s rival for Ronnie’s attentions. The other significant players included the gluttonous Jughead Jones, the muscular dimbulb Moose, the studious Dilton, and Ethel Muggs, a gawky girl smitten by Jughead who was repelled by her. 


In the early decades, “Archie and the gang” rarely rose above these basic characteristics. Their popularity was precisely because of this superficiality: the one-dimensional characters that did not strain the brain, a mild sense of humour, pretty outfits, pretty people, a clueless but non-malicious lead, and for Indian teens up to the 1980s, a glimpse into an alluring foreign land of tiny skirts and ice cream sundaes that were a rare sight here back then. Thankfully, Akhtar and her co-writers’ love of Archie Comics does not extend to the politics of the series that pitted two women against each other for a dull man’s affections, or the reductive gaze on the others. 


The manner in which the Ronnie-Archie-Betty triangle is turned on its head in The Archies is what intelligent adaptations are made of. (Spoilers: In the film, Archie dates multiple women without being honest with them. This quality is not pedestalised here unlike in conventional pop culture. Akhtar & Co’s Ethel calls Archie out for being a philanderer, and when Ronnie and Betty realise he is two-timing them, they tell him he’s not worth more than their friendship with each other.) It was also a smart move to situate the film among Anglo Indians, a community that traces its ancestry to the children of Indian and British parents in the colonial era. This allows The Archies to retain the names of the characters from the American comics – “Dilton Doiley” is a stretch, “Jughead Jones” required a backgrounder, but the rest could well be actual Anglo Indian names. Meanwhile, the north Indian location justifies the English-Hindi amalgam in the dialogues.


For the most part, however, the link between the film and the books is tenuous to the point of being superfluous. Reggie, for one, is nothing like the Reggie of the comics, barring a token allusion to an interest in Ronnie, and an introduction in which he makes out with a woman in a car. Akhtar’s Reggie is socially conscious, an aspiring journalist and a student activist. Sometimes the film introduces a connection to the books and promptly forgets it (the Archie-Ronnie-Reggie triangle, the Ethel-Jughead equation). Some characters are given short shrift (Mr Weatherbee, Pop Tate). Some are present but redundant (Moose). Akhtar and her team also seem not to have aimed for one of the hallmarks of Archie Comics, a sense of humour, unless you count Reggie’s Dad pooh-poohing his son’s prescient remark that comedy can be a career. Ha. Come visit us in 2023, Dad. 


Ultimately, there’s no satisfactory answer to why The Archies is an adaptation of Archie Comics rather than a brand new desi teen drama. This film is also no match for Akhtar’s track record as a director. It has neither the observational power of Luck By Chance, nor the ruminative depth and pizzazz of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do, nor the grit, gumption and visceral energy of Gully Boy. It does, however, come across as a personal work in its own way. 


Zoya Akhtar is 51, which means she was a teenager when Archie Comics were all the rage among Indian teens. She turned 18 in a decade when the country transitioned to satellite television. MTV and the desi youth platform Channel V epitomised adolescent and young-adult coolth in the rapidly transforming India of the 1990s. If The Archies per se is her tribute to the comics, then the casting in part is a bow to the ’90s, with some of MTV and V’s earliest Indian VJs being roped in to play senior characters – Kamal Sidhu is Ronnie’s mother, Luke Kenny is Reggie’s Dad, Vinay Pathak is a villainous neta. When you think of it that way, it’s sweeta sort of love letter to a generation. 


The casting of the young leads seems just as personal to Akhtar. It comes across as a big fat middle finger to the online mobs hurling charges of nepotism at her industry. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that Archie in The Archies is played by Agastya Nanda, grandson of Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, and great grandson of Raj Kapoor; Ronnie is Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter Suhana Khan; in Betty’s role is Sridevi and Boney Kapoor’s daughter, Khushi Kapoor. 


The kids are neither great, nor awful. Khushi and Agastya are cute. She could be special. He lacks verve here, but comes alive while dancing. Suhana reveals a spark during Ronnie and Betty’s face-off over Mr Lodge. She could work on that. Would the trio have snagged such plum roles if it weren’t for their lineage? Unlikely. But it does not make sense to blame them entirely for the narrative’s limited vitality, which is a fault of the direction, although they do contribute to it. 


The rest of the cast are vastly better. The stand-out debutant is Vedang Raina playing Reggie. He can act, he can dance, he is handsome, but most important, he has screen presence and is born to be a star. Yuvraj Menda who plays Dilton and Dot i.e. Ethel are comfortable before the camera. 


The Archies is not a typical Bollywood musical. In terms of structure and sound, it is Bollywood’s nod to Hollywood/Broadway, although the background score (by Shankar Ehsaan Loy and Satya) and songs (by SEL, Ankur Tewari, The Islanders and Dot) are more distinctive and tuneful than what the average Hollywood/Broadway musical delivers. 


The most heart-warming aspect of The Archies is its depiction of Anglo Indians. Up to the 1990s, Hindi cinema inexorably stereotyped Christians, and confined the community to a clichéd notion of Goans and Anglo Indians. Christians almost disappeared from Hindi films thereon. The Archies’ characters are people, not cartoons. By not referencing their religion at all and focusing on their ethnic identity, Akhtar does something Hindi cinema has rarely done before: she points to diversity within a small religious minority. Anglo Indians, after all, are a minority within a minority. 


The diversity in this sub-group is also on display. While most women in The Archies wear dresses, as would have been the reality among 1960s Anglo Indians, note the women in saris and churidar kurtas especially in the opening montage and at the club. Farhan Akhtar’s dialogues are a smooth English-Hindi blend, with the kids mixing both, like city-bred youth across communities, while the adults are shown to have a spectrum of adeptness with Hindi – one parent struggles with “hoyenga” vs “hoga”, the others tease him about it. Sari/kurta-clad Anglo Indians who speak Hindi well are very much a reality, though you would not know that from Hindi cinema of a bygone era.  


The film even snubs its nose at the Right-wing that has always conflated Christians with British imperialists. The Archiescharacters are invested in India’s future and have contributed to our past. Reggie’s granddad, like many Christians, was a freedom fighter. The Archies is thus a lesson in showcasing patriotism truthfully, unlike the Akshay Kumar brand of propagandist cinema.


So, The Archies’ politics is worth rooting for. Normalised minority representation here extends to a gay boy who is not defined by his sexuality. Even the generic storyline is imbued with layers of meaning as it mimics real-world events in India today: big business buying politicians, corporates muzzling the press, and more. The storytelling is too flat for too long though to be redeemed.  


The kids in The Archies were born in 1947, and are 17 in the film. They embody an Independent India, but belong to a community that in today’s India is told they do not belong. The Archies has a lot to say about that and much else, but flubs its tone and tenor. When your source material is almost irrelevant to the point you wish to make, a floundering end product is perhaps inevitable. Akhtar could have heeded Archie’s father’s advice when the boy says he wishes to leave India for England to build a music career. “To make art,” says Dad, “you have to go in, not out.” 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.5   


Running time:

144 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Wednesday, December 6, 2023


Release date:

December 1, 2023


Sandeep Reddy Vanga


Ranbir Kapoor, Rashmika Mandanna, Anil Kapoor, Bobby Deol, Tripti Dimri, Upendra Limaye, Suresh Oberoi, Saloni Batra  


Hindi with some English, Punjabi, Marathi etc 


At one point in Animal, a stark naked Ranvijay Balbir Singh (Ranbir Kapoor in his nth role as a man-child) steps out of his mansion to stroll around the compound. (Don’t get too excited, his body is blurred out.) His team of male bodyguards first gawp at his nude frame, then a frisson of joy runs through them and they raise their guns in the air to let out several volleys of celebratory fire. This goes on till Ranvijay’s Daddy (Anil Kapoor) comes running out of the house to lead him away. The exhibitionism, it turns out, was in honour of a happy turn of events I won’t detail here. Beta, says Dad, I know you want to celebrate, but this is not the way. 

I cannot remember the last time the gifted veteran actor’s dialogue delivery was this strained and this unintentionally comical. Can’t blame him alone. That scene is so ridiculous, the phallic symbolism so in-your-face, the attempt at profoundness so laughable, and the sum and substance of the episode so juvenile that I burst out laughing. 


Ranvijay is fixated on his nether regions throughout Animal. He keeps drawing attention to the area by either pointing at his crotch or baring it or talking about it or griping about his underwear. In one scene, he speaks of both his “penis” and “anus” – his choice of words, not mine. It is all meant to be very very cool.


Animal is directed by Sandeep Reddy Vanga who debuted with Arjun Reddy (Telugu, 2017), and remade it in Hindi as Kabir Singh (2019). Animal – edited by Vanga and co-written by him with Pranay Reddy Vanga, Suresh Bandaru and Saurabh Gupta – seems bent on enraging those who slammed his earlier works. That goal is evident throughout this boring, blood-spattered film – in Ranvijay’s bizarre remarks and deeds, the all-pervasive violence, misogyny and gore. 


So that’s 3 hours and 21 minutes of revenge against those who criticise misogynistic cinema. 201 minutes of a desperate desire to shock and/or offend. 


Don’t be deceived into considering it mindless though. Bloodshed and immaturity may rage across Animal, but make no mistake about this: the film is steeped in messaging about victimhood – male victimhood and an allusion to the majority community too. 


Vanga’s film is a painfully long account of a boy longing for his father’s love. The said Dad is the industrialist Balbir Singh who has no time for his children. His neglect translates into anti-social behaviour and obnoxious cockiness only in Ranvijay who becomes an obsessive son and entitled lover, while his sisters somehow grow into women who don’t resent or bash up all and sundry.


Daddy issues have been the subject of numerous films. The re-release of the iconic Malayalam film Spadikam this February, 28 years after its initial run, was a troubling reminder that male-dominated industries have for decades used paternal rejection to justify and normalise male violence, including a hero beating up a female romantic partner or spouse. Spadikam’s protagonist (Mohanlal) was an anguished soul who repeatedly struck his lover (Urvashi), but it was all portrayed as no big deal. In Animal, Ranvijay is aggressive with his wife Geetanjali (Rashmika Mandanna), going so far as to injure and scar her in an extended scene of violence, but it is all insidiously presented with deftly camouflaged empathy – for him. 


For the zillionth time, let me pre-empt the clichéd question that always comes from defenders of such cinema: violent men do exist in the real world and a violent man can certainly be the central character in a film – the issue here, as always, is the manner of the portrayal, the script’s indulgence towards him, the humour and coolth written into his fictional character, and the various means used to give him an allure despite his violent ways.


The strategised depiction of Ranvijay and his arch enemy Abrar (Bobby Deol) – arriving late in the second half – illustrates how the difference between a film’s gaze on two equally violent characters is used to steer audience reactions to them. Both commit horrifying acts, both treat women terribly, yet there is never a doubt about who is the hero or with whom the director wants our sympathies to lie. Animal may call itself Animal with reference to Ranvijay, yet his animalism is preceded by scene after scene dwelling on his childhood pain, his protective brotherly conduct, his aversion to sexual harassment, his advocacy of marital fidelity and so on, thus establishing him as a traumatised man with innate goodness. By the time his beastly side is exposed, a point has been firmly made that everything he does that is seemingly wrong is in fact done for the greater good. In contrast, the only Abrar we get to know is the brute who kills, rapes and terrorises. 


For good measure, Abrar’s Muslimness is underlined by pointedly mentioning his family’s conversion to Islam. 


If Ranvijay rips up human flesh, it is to avenge an attack on his father. If Ranvijay cheats on his wife (mind you, after lecturing other men when they cheat on their wives), he does it for a noble cause. Poor misunderstood Ranvijay had sex only to save his family, you know. 


Ranvijay assaults Geetanjali and a defence is woven into the script. He proposes that just as there is a first kiss and a first time having sex in a relationship, so also there should be a first slap. And guess who gets slapped first? 


Sigh. Poor misunderstood, suffering, victimised Ranvijay.


Poor Ranvijay who has a solitary wife, and is up against evil, brutal Abrar with three wives. 


Bobby Deol’s Abrar has been shaped in the same mould as Alauddin Khilji from Padmaavat and other fictionalised interpretations of historical Muslim warriors who have dotted Hindi films in the past decade. Abrar eats cake in Animal in the way Padmaavat’s Khilji tore into meat. Abrar tears into his young wife in the way Padmaavat’s Khilji raped his wife. A filthy Abrar barges into a room filled with people and initiates sex with his bride, unmindful of the others’ presence.  


Now contrast this with the mellow tone of the scene in which Ranvijay converses with Geetanjali while examining the bruises he inflicted on her body. 


Note too that the relentless cruelty inflicted by Ranvijay on various people is bookended in this carefully constructed narrative by lengthy scenes emphasising his vulnerable nature. 


So, to circle back to that predictable question, “Violent men do exist, so what’s wrong with a film portraying reality?”, I repeat: yes, violent men do exist in the real world, and the issue here, as always, is the director’s gaze on them and their violence.


Animal brims with an intense dislike of women, outspoken women in particular, and evolved, gentle men. It begins with a derisive use of the word “toxic” in a fable narrated by Ranvijay about a monkey that harassed a princess. The contempt is obviously for the term “toxic masculinity”, popular in the feminist lexicon, that was widely applied to Vanga’s first two films. 


At one point, Ranvijay mocks Geetanjali for complaining because she has to change pads for four days in a month – he claims she complains, we don’t hear her doing so – while he, he tells her, has not complained though his body has been invaded by doctors during a life-threatening situation. Talk about false and stupid equivalences. Periods are a natural bodily function – often horribly painful, always incredibly inconvenient – that every woman bears for every single month of her entire reproductive life lasting for three to four decades. Ranvijay’s condition, on the other hand, is caused by a human aggressor; it is not the biological fate of all men. Here, Ranvijay is a version of misogynists who troll women for using the social media to raise awareness about cramps, excessive bleeding, agonising period pains and the trivialisation of these experiences by society. 


Oddly enough, the determinedly misogynistic Animal writes a feminist element into Ranvijay’s character – he explodes with anger when his brother-in-law roughs up his sister early in the film. There is no progression shown from that scene to his own extreme hostility to his wife. 


Animal’s terrible attitude to women runs alongside a cunning use of India’s religious minorities. 


Abrar and his cohorts are stereotypes diligently being peddled by Hindi cinema to echo the current Islamophobic national discourse. There is even a Muslim man in the picture who is described as a butcher from Istanbul. His sole contribution to Animal is a stomach-churning slaughter of men. 


The Sikhs in Animal are Ranvijay’s brethren and protectors, an extension of a positive stereotype: the fierce, fiercely loyal Sardarji. They are also his allies against Abrar’s marauding gang. All this leads up to a climactic confrontation between shirtless men on an airport tarmac – talk about Hindi film clichés! – in which a kirpan is handed to Ranvijay so that he can wrap up a fight unto death.


A Christian in Animal confuses Balbir Singh’s company logo with the Nazi Swastika. Since prominent Hindu religious symbols are ubiquitous in India, one assumes a Christian was chosen for that episode to play along with right-wing propagandists who project Indian Christians as alien Westerners. Presumably, the idea here is to hint at Hinduism being a globally misunderstood faith. 


Without giving away plot points, I can tell you this much: according to Animal’s underlying philosophy, Sikhs are family and very much in the Hindu fold, Muslims are family that chose the wrong path and are now out to destroy the mother clan, and Christians are the other. 


The mind games played by Animal are packaged in slick production design and cinematography, accompanied by a pulsating sound design, infectious music, and Ranbir’s immersive performance. 


Despite all this, I was bored stiff by the film. 


Startling violence is used here to compensate for a thin, trite storyline. In the first half hour, I was curious about where Vanga would take it, but I spent the remaining 171 minutes stifling yawns at the transparent effort to be disgusting. The camera zooms in on a pulverised human eye. A knife is run back and forth, back and forth, back and forth over a human neck in close-up instead of one swift slash that filmmakers usually favour. 


For the record, Animal is not the most violent film ever made in India. Others have done as bad or worse. It is ugly though – in both its use of violence and in its intent.


Ugly. Hate-filled. Tedious. Self-indulgent. And hawking a loathsome agenda. 


Misogynists insist that feminists hate men, although all that feminists want is gender equality. You know who hates feminist men? Answer: misogynistsYou know who hates men in general? Answer: misogynistsI cannot for the life of me imagine a feminist – female or male – ever conceiving a film that makes men look as foolish, puerile, self-pitying and pathetic as Animal does. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 0   


Running time:

201 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Saturday, December 2, 2023



Release date:

December 1, 2023


Meghna Gulzar


Vicky Kaushal, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Neeraj Kabi, Govind Namdev 


Hindi with some English  

How do you make a film on a national icon whose image of coolth in his lifetime was built not solely on extreme courage and brilliant war-time strategising, nor even just his sense of humour and forthrightness, but also on widely disseminated accounts of his sexist condescension towards a prominent woman politician? The task is especially challenging when the man in question is Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, a beloved Army Chief credited with India’s win in the 1971 war against Pakistan that led to the formation of Bangladesh.


A story that Manekshaw addressed the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as “sweetie” (She: Are you ready to go to war? He: I am always ready, sweetie) has assumed legendary proportions over time, with some fans repeating it as proof of his hipness and daring, while others have sought to deny it, and still others dismiss criticism of him by taking the position that women these days make much ado about nothing. Either way, the anecdote is an intrinsic part of the Manekshaw legend, and a truthful film about him cannot sweep it under a carpet. Would it be wisest for such a film to normalise sexism, or else to examine the subject through a critical, analytical lens even at the risk of irking Manekshaw’s adoring admirers?The dilemma is apparent in Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur that the director has co-written with Bhavani Iyer and Shantanu Srivastava, and is just one of the weak spots in an oddly pallid, superficial biopic. 


(Note: Manekshaw’s daughter has been quoted in the press this week praising the film after seeing two previews. This should put to rest the speculation about whether the “sweetie” saga is true.) 


Like most human beings, Sam Manekshaw was not easily definable. That patronising line to Gandhi is just a fraction of the abundant lore surrounding him, supplemented in Sam Bahadur by another not-so-well-known conversation: Manekshaw in the film tells Mrs G during an official, one-on-one meeting that she can always rest her worried head on his shoulders. Ugh! 


Since the film has not laid any ground for that exchange by suggesting a close friendship between them, his words are nothing less than an instance of over-familiarity and superciliousness that women at workplaces, including women leaders, are acquainted with. This is the same Manekshaw though who is known to have, and shown to have, unequivocally ordered his troops not to harm Bangladeshi women after India’s victory against Pakistan in 1971. To say he was complex, therefore, is an understatement, but Sam Bahadur’s script merely flits over various aspects of his personality and struggles to weave them into a comprehensible, relatable, engaging whole. 


The writers appear not to have come to terms with the troubling eternal reality that contradictory qualities often co-exist within the same person. Instead, in an ostensible bid to justify the unpalatable, they let on that “sweetie” was Manekshaw’s mode of address not just for India’s first woman PM, but for others too, both male and female. Err, talking down to another person does not become okay just because women are not the only ones at the receiving end. This was perhaps an opportunity to scrutinise society’s willingness to indulge distasteful conduct by men in power. Sadly, Sam Bahadur lacks the subtlety to handle this delicate point while simultaneously acknowledging Manekshaw’s incredible achievements.


The film is painfully conscious that its central figure was a giant among men. It declares that he was great, and expects us to believe it because it says so, but fails to distil the essence of who he was and why. In fact, Sam Bahadur is so acutely aware of his stature in Indian history, that initially it underlines a marginal brainwave as though it was an act of unprecedented genius. Later, when Manekshaw is accused of being anti-national, the charge is shown quickly collapsing under the weight of his grandiose pronouncements – this is another opportunity lost, if you consider the parallels with contemporary India, but for that resonance to be conveyed, a film would have to rise above the broad brush strokes that Sam Bahadur favours over nuance and detail.


The script jumps from one milestone in Manekshaw’s personal and professional journey to the next to the next to the next – from his marriage to his triumphs at various postings in the Army before and after Independence, internecine politics, his appointment as chief, 1971, his elevation to the position of India’s first field marshal, and finally, retirement – without getting to the beating heart of the celebrated soldier. It thus comes across as a listing of historical events rather than an in-depth exploration of the person behind the larger-than-life persona. 


If the goal was to offer a primer to students brushing up on their GK before a quiz, Sam Bahadur has served its purpose. As a biopic though, it is shallow.


The portrayal of Manekshaw’s relationship with his wife exemplifies the follies of the script in its entirety. They meet at a party, he is smitten at first sight, he says clever-sounding things, they gaze at each other through a long, moony song as they dance, we gather that they fall in love as that number plays at the party since that’s the purpose served by such musical interludes in Hindi films that feature a ‘heroine’ as a glamorous aside…cut to her in the bedroom of their home gazing at their sleeping child. That is literally how abrupt it is. That the director of the exemplary Raazi and Talvar would deliver a film this poorly structured and this lightweight is surprising.


Mrs Manekshaw, Silloo, gets a defining trait: an inexplicable animosity towards Indira Gandhi even before meeting her. The film implies that Silloo was insecure about Gandhi for no given reason, obviously playing into the stereotype that women don’t like attractive women. Eye roll! The antagonism results in some of Sam Bahadur’s silliest, unfunniest-albeit-meant-to-be-funny moments. It is disappointing that Mses Gulzar and Iyer, who co-wrote Raazi, opted to trivialise women in this film, first by giving an Army wife zero substance beyond her jealousy towards another woman, then compounding that diversion with a flash of what could be either innuendo or a genuine misunderstanding in at least one telephone conversation – presumably designed for comical effect – between Gandhi and Manekshaw. Worse, when he is shown patronising her, she has no reaction. Neither shock, nor confusion about how to react, neither anger, nor amusement. 


Are the writers implying that Gandhi was attracted to Manekshaw because he was a hottie? Can’t say for sure, but they’re certainly implying something. It is as if they could not fathom a normal working relationship between a good-looking, high-profile woman and man. 


No amount of contrived humour, no surface energy, no acting swag or rambunctious patriotic song – all of which we get here – can compensate for this passionless narrative.  


Not unexpectedly then, Vicky Kaushal’s performance as Manekshaw is as slight as the script. In Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham (2021), Kaushal seemed to grasp the freedom fighter Udham Singh’s emotions and motivations. Here, he effectively captures Manekshaw’s posture, gait, intonation and the twinkle in his eye, but never gets past his skin. The fact that Manekshaw had a big personality is no excuse. For a recent example of an actor steering an audience beyond a real-life character’s overwhelming exteriority and flamboyance, Kaushal and the writers of Sam Bahadur would have done well to reference Ranveer Singh’s brilliant, non-caricaturish, immersive turn as the flashy former Indian cricketer Kapil Dev in Kabir Khan’s well-written 83.


The talented Sanya Malhotra (DangalPagglaitKathal) is wasted in Sam Bahadur, cast as an insipid Silloo. So is Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who is unrecognisable after a while as Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan. Fatima Sana Shaikh delivers a stolid, dull Gandhi.  


The film is too much in awe of Manekshaw and too determined to lionise him to do justice to the other stalwarts on screen. Gandhi here, for instance, is nothing like the charismatic woman we saw in the public realm in reality, whose steely will earned her the nickname “Iron Lady of India”. 


Still, Sam Bahadur is not without qualities to recommend. The scenes of military action, for one, are captivating. In a decade when patriotism and even the national anthem have been weaponised by the Right, and Hindi cinema is bowing to prevailing winds by turning accounts of Indian heroes and their achievements into vehicles for chest-thumping desh prem, hatred of Pakistan and the stereotyping of India’s own religious minorities, this film is different. Sam Bahadur representspatriotism, not chauvinism. Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s song Badhte Chalo that runs through the 1971 war in the film is stirring, not jingoistic. This is not Akshay Kumar style aggressive nationalism, nor is it akin to the more polished propaganda of Uri: The Surgical Strike that Kaushal himself starred in. This is Meghna Gulzar style love for the country. This is cinema, not a war cry.  


Even when Sam Bahadur presents a broken Jawaharlal Nehru with Sardar Patel during the 1962 India-China debacle, it stops short of the right-wing ecosystem’s favourite trope that Nehru was a weakling and Patel the strong-willed one in the Cabinet. Their scenes are as broadly written as everything else in the film, nevertheless they are a marked contrast to the comically cowardly Nehru and gigantic Patel in Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1994) and in the current dominant discourse. 


Ultimately though, anything that Sam Bahadur gets right is overshadowed by its sketchy scripting and bombast sans soul in the protagonist’s speech, demeanour and actions. The film tells us Manekshaw tended to downplay his troubles with the signature line “I’m okay”. Okay is not good. Okay is not great. Okay is just okay. Like the film. Sam Bahadur is okay, I guess. Just okay. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 2


Running time:

150 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB