Category Archives: Movie Review

Kaminey – violent, vivid, rocking

kamineyThe ethos of the Mumbai underground is like compost – full of discarded peels and cracked eggshells, ripe-smelling and treacherous underfoot – but rich fodder for the imagination of talented directors. Vishal Bharadwaj is one such wunderkind, and he uses the steaming, stinking pile to fashion yet another cinematic gem.

Kaminey is the story of twin brothers Charlie and Guddu; the former lisps and the latter stammers. Charlie is a small time hoodlum who dreams of one big score which will fund his ambition to become a bookie in the crooked Mumbai race business. Guddu is a hapless NGO worker who gets involved with the sister of a thug-turned-politician. The two brothers loath each other and the busy metropolis gives them the space to avoid any interaction. One day however, Charlie’s greed sets up a train of events that lead to the intersection of their lives in a brutal and bloody finale.

Shot in large part with a hand-held camera in an in-your-face style, Kaminey is a frenetic, raw, and edgy piece of work. It’s not just Charlie’s dreams that are Dali-esque; the cocaine-hazed shootout at the end is equally surreal, as various characters blunder around madly discharging their weapons, not entirely sure whether they are hitting friend or foe.

Kaminey does not insult the viewer’s intelligence for one minute. Towards the beginning of the movie there is a scene in a hotel where multiple territorial interests collide, but the director does not lay out the characters neatly, preferring to let the audience figure it out as the movie evolves. The characters speak a melange of languages, from Marathi to Bengali to some kind of French-Angolan patois and I wonder how the audience in India would follow along without subtitles. This is a movie where you have to pay close attention to figure out all the wheels and angles, and you are richly rewarded for your interest.

The ensemble cast is terrific, as usual, and you figure out how many talented actors there are in Bollywood who never see the light of day except in these occasional gangster movies. Shahid Kapur does a great job as the twins and it is easy to believe that these are two completely different people. His efforts to create a ripped body (there is another surreal scene where the muscles are on display as Shahid races alongside horses) have made his face a little haggard, which feels completely appropriate for the movie.

Priyanka Chopra is a revelation as the fiercely protective Sweety, who will fight like a tigress to preserve her relationship with Guddu. Special mention must be made of Amole Gupte as her dada Bhope Bhau.

Vishal Bharadwaj writes the screenplay and scores the music as he usually does for his movies and it is unobtrusive, melodious and appropriate (the lyrics are opaque, which is a good bet that they are by Gulzar!). The background score is excellent too, as it builds up to a crescendo in key scenes (one, involving a game like Russian roulette is predicted by the music but still painful to watch).

Kaminey’s black comedy had me nervously chuckling throughout the movie, even as I stayed glued to the seat. It is not for viewers who want a feel-good Bollywood masala experience, but fans of Omkara will be delighted.

Kid advisory – Not suitable for kids under 13.

Kaminey

Directed by Vishal Bharadwaj

*ring Shahid Kapur, Priyanka Chopra

My rating : 4 out of 5 stars.

Love Aaj Kal: surrender to the charm

love-aaj-kalI remember waiting to see Jab We Met on DVD, reasoning that a debut film with a hokey, polyglot title was not worth wasting $9.50 on. Boy, was I wrong. JWM was funny and charming, a crazy train ride through Indian suburbia (albeit a pretty glossy one), so watching Love Aaj Kal on the big screen was a foregone conclusion.

It is always a little nerve-wracking to see a successful debut director’s second movie; there’s all the hype, even when you try to discount it.. There’s the memory of previous let-downs(there was really no way Farhan Akhtar could top Dil Chahta Hai-Lakshya was oookay and Don was puzzling). In this case, though, while Love Aaj Kal is no Jab We Met, it doesn’t disappoint.

Director Imtiaz Ali doesn’t break any new ground in terms of plot. It’s a When Harry Met Sally storyline, already plumbed to some success by Kunal Kohli in Hum Tum, also starring Saif. What Ali brings to it is the refreshing treatment that made audiences gush over JWM. For instance, can you recall any recent Bollywood movie where the leads sat staring at each other for a few seconds, the silence speaking volumes for the two of them? Such poetic moments recur through the movie, with Deepika Padukone’s expressive eyes doing all the talking for her, while Saif(playing Jai Vardhan Singh)  babbles like the man-child character he’s perfected in mainstream Bollywood fare. Watch out for another such scene towards the end, at the wedding.

What is it with Saif and these roles anyway? I can count over half-a-dozen movies where he’s essentially playing the same character, a shallow, self-centered jerk who gets reformed at the last minute by the redeeming power of love. He performs his usual schtick without breaking a sweat and is mainly a foil to the lovely ladies on screen.

One of the lovely ladies is, of course, Deepika, whose leggy, coltish grace illuminates the screen. She is a very young actor, but improving with each movie. If she can survive the next five years in Bollywood, she is going to be a very fine performer..she has great potential. Here her eyes and smile cover for her  lack of experience, though she is miles ahead of other female actors her age in Bollywood. Deepika is like the chrysalis of a future Grace Kelly-like actor and I look forward to seeing her grow and develop into the fine thespian she can be.

The other lovely lady is Simran Giselle Monteiro. Jai’s misadventures in love are sympathetically observed by Veer(Rishi Kapoor), who  narrates the love story of his youth to teach the modern Jai a thing or two about what it means to love deeply. His story is told in flashback with Saif playing the younger Veer , and Simran Giselle, his love interest  Harleen.( updated, thanks to friends in India..her credits don’t appear in the film and imdb.com doesn’t mention her either. Giselle, apparently, is a Brazilian model who can’t speak a word of Hindi. Hmmm… that might explain why she has no dialogues in the film!)

Harleen has the simple girl-next-door beauty that makes Veer’s obsession with her completely understandable. Her sepia-toned story is where Imtiaz Ali’s talent truly shines; there are many touching scenes that play like a silent movie, where just the actors’ glances and small movements tell the story.

Pritam’s music, while foot tapping, is actually a bit of a distraction in this gentle movie. The songs break the narrative in a discordant fashion, though I suppose it’s not possible to completely omit them in a mainstream Bollywood movie. Pritam has become somewhat known for being “inspired” by previously composed music, and here the big number “Twist” lifts its base melody from the snake charmer’s theme in Nagin. The song sequences are where you really miss Shahid Kapoor( the hero of JWM) because Saif can’t dance, sala.

The heavily Punjabi Love Aaj Kal spans the NRI globe, staying the longest at Bollywood-friendly UK, with stops at San Francisco( go Bay Area!), Delhi, excuse me, Dilli and Kolkata. I guess we now know which community brings in the most ticket moolah . In a sense, Imtiaz Ali is the true inheritor of the Yash Raj brand of entertainer, though this movie was produced by Saif’s company. And like the better Yash Chopra movies, Love Aaj Kal leaves you in a good mood as you exit the theater. The song “Yeh Dooriyan” stays with you, and even its melancholy lyrics can’t stop you from feeling the satisfaction of being well entertained.

Movie review – "99"

99-21“It’s a crime comedy, it’s a thriller,” equivocated Raj Nidimoru, the co-director of 99, refusing to reveal the plot of his first Bollywood movie on a phone conversation a few weeks ago. But what 99 is first is an entertainer, with the plot a loose device to string together a host of funny moments and clever dialogue.

Sachin (Kunal Khemu) and Zaramud (Cyrus Broacha) are a couple of Mumbai hustlers who find themselves indebted to a gangster AGM ( a very funny Mahesh Manjrekar) after they crash his car. He puts them to work collecting the gambling debts of Rahul Vidyarthi ( Boman Irani) in Delhi after the latter absconds with 20 lakhs of AGM’s money.

That’s pretty much it for the story; the rest is an exploration of the unique cultures of small-time villainy in Mumbai and the pervasive dishonesty of Delhi. Match fixing in cricket is examined, as is the gambling subculture that ripples under every metropolis.

The Laurel and Hardy duo of Sachin and Zaramud bumble and stumble their way through the simple job, clearly at a loss as to what is expected of them but with great bonhomie and good humor, even while they are cracking heads or getting beaten up. Along the way they meet a host of engaging characters who manage to be instantly recognizable without being reduced to stereotypical caricatures.

99 is not a perfect movie. Despite having a thrumming background score that suggests a brisk pace, there are many dead zones. A whole subplot about Rahul’s marital problems could have been excised without making one iota of difference to the overall movie. (I can see why the directors succumbed to the temptation of leaving the scenes in. Boman Irani is just so good in every scene he appears in.) Making the movie shorter by about 30 minutes would have dramatically improved its pacing.

But to the viewer who is patient, the movie offers crackling dialogue, great acting and many screwball comedic moments that make you laugh out loud in a way few Bollywood movies these days do. The cast is just terrific. Kunal Khemu’s unconventional looks don’t detract from the fact that he has impeccable comedic timing and Cyrus is a great foil. Boman Irani steals every scene he is in and Mahesh Manjrekar disappears into his role as the gangster with an ego as big as his paunch. Only Soha Ali Khan as Sachin’s love interest disappoints; she looks washed out and tired, with the Pataudi nose in sharp relief. She doesn’t have good lines and she is unable to bring the effervescence required to stand out in the company of some very fine actors.

Why name it 99? For one, the movie begins in the year 1999, which allows for some technological snafus that move the plot along that would not have been possible today. But the movie’s name refers to the disappointment of getting out at 99 runs, as Sachin and Zaramud keep falling just a little short of hitting that century and making their humble dreams come true.

99 is a treat for the discerning viewer even if there are moments when you wish the movie would hurry along and get to the point. Like Flavors, the directing duo’s first full length feature, this is a sly, smart and witty movie that does not insult the viewer’s intelligence.  If you’ve missed its big screen release in the US, be sure to catch it on DVD.

Heaven on Earth : Unsatisfying

heaven-on-earthDeepa Mehta’s latest is a classic example of what happens when a respected and capable director gets so famous and achieves such international recognition that nobody around is willing to speak the truth to him/her. The intentions of Heaven on Earth( titled Videsh in India) are honorable; domestic violence, espectially in immigrant homes where the bride arrives from India without support systems in place, is a serious issue. The director herself introduces the subject in the opening sequences of the movie.

Chand Grewal ( Preity Zinta) comes to Canada as a new bride, never having met her in-laws before the day she arrives from India. At first her new family seems welcoming and normal but the relationship turns abusive almost immediately. Shocked by her circumstances and powerless to change them, Chand retreats into a sort of fugue state in times of stress, muttering lines from a fairy tale her mother told her as a child. She is put to work in a local garments factory ( the pay of course goes right to her husband) and befriends a Jamaican co-worker who recognizes the signs of abuse and tries to help her out.

At this point the movie veers into fantasy territory. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but viewers familiar with Girish Karnad’s play Nagamandala will figure out what’s coming without any trouble. Chand’s ordeal gives her the strength to leave the marriage.

Preita Zinta gives the performance of a lifetime and surely deserves an award for this. She subsumes herself in the role better that the mainstream Bollywood star can ever hope to do and projects a vulnerability that will bring tears to your eyes. Sadly, the movie does not do justice to the issue she represents. The film has many scenes reflecting Chand’s powerlessness and the lack of support from her family back home, yet suddenly at the end Chand packs up and leaves, passport in hand. Where will she go? Who’s helping her?

Deepa Mehta makes a plea to victims of domestic abuse to reach out for institutional help ( WNI has featured Narika among the prominent advocates for such women in the Bay Area) but nowhere are these important organizations mentioned in the movie. Ultimately Chand finds the courage in herself and breaks away from her situation on her own, a choice not available to many women terrorised by their husband’s families and financially dependent on them.  Also the scenes with the snake are just too far-fetched for this movie which touches upon a real, contemporary and relevant subject..domestic abuse is no fantasy.

Heaven on Earth feels like an indulgence on the part of the director. There is no doubt that Deepa Mehta is competent. Each scene is shot with sensitivity and she is really good at portraying disfunctional families and cruel behavior. But overall the movie does not work. It seems hastily made and feels like it is pandering to the issue of domestic violence.

Delhi 6: Quixotic

delhi-61With Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, one is never quite sure what one is going to get. The former ad maker directed the successful and critically acclaimed Rang De Basanti in 2006 but it took a good five years before that for us to forget the wildly experimental Aks, a nightmarish movie featuring long Hamlet-style soliloquies and body-swapping killers.

Delhi 6 falls somewhere between the two. It has somewhat of an activist message like RDB and uses totems and symbols like Aks. The storyline is thin. NRI Roshan( Abhishek Bachchan) returns with his grandmother to the crowded Delhi district where generations of his family lived, wall-to-wall( literally) with many old friends and neighbors. He gets to experience the chaotic, claustrophobic and closely-knit community his parents left behind when they moved to America and to decide whether he belongs there.

That is about it. The movie is a series of snapshots of life in Delhi( Zip Code 6); the interfering neighbors, the family squabbles, the communal relationships that, despite the avowals of harmony can change from love to hate in a flash.

The film is heavy with symbolism; Roshan is the new India – western-oriented but with a yearning to connect with his roots. His love interest Bittu(played by a charming Sonam Kapoor) is the middle class girl struggling to break free of the shackles of her culture and environment. That she attempts to do so by auditioning for a reality show is a piece of delicious irony. (Television is considered to be one of the driving forces in creating the appetite for material goods that could propel the apathetic suburban India into the new century.) Grandmother Annapurna( Waheeda Rehman) represents the conservative India – affectionate and loving but also religious and superstitious, she is content with letting the status quo be, whether it is treatment of untouchables or communal tensions. “Stay out of it” is her guiding principle.

Then there is the “Black Monkey”. It is a mythical figure that is referred to from the first scene of the movie yet no one ever sees it. The monkey functions as a potent symbol of all the amorphous fears that divide and separate Indians from each other, a mirror to the evil that lies in all of us, a point the filmmaker drives home without subtlety in the form of a madman who carries around – you guessed it – a mirror. The monkey, a source for many comedic moments, is also the catalyst for the shocking denouement of the film. (SPOILER ALERT: Squeamish viewers can rest assured that all is well at the end.)

Delhi 6 is an experimental film and I applaud the fact that movies like that, with no coherent narrative but lots of style can find financing in these times. Perhaps the producers were expecting another Rang De. If so, they (and you) will be disappointed. It is not a film made for box-office success. Rather it is a meandering, nostalgic trip down memory lane, a director’s indulgence that really doesn’t care if you like it or not. The only concession to the audience is the presence the two leads and an ensemble of excellent actors, many of whom have just one or two lines.

Abhishek Bachchan is at his relaxed best. His chemistry with Sonam is great though the relationship is not fully developed in the movie. Vijay Raaz as the abusive local law enforcement is pitch-perfect. Other art-house stalwarts like K.K.Raina and Atul Kulkarni give the movie a polished professional touch.

Delhi 6 is a very well-produced, well-directed and well-acted movie. But those expecting a conventional film with a beginning, middle and end can skip it. It is meant for audiences with the patience and curiosity to explore a different kind of artistic vision.

My Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.

The President is coming: Silly fun

200px-the_president_is_comingOne might wonder why a movie, whose central premise is President George W. Bush’s visit to India, was released after he left the office. But as an Indian American, I was glad to have the distance and be free to laugh at the mockery this movie makes of our last President, glad to have woken up from the nightmare of the last 8 years.

The President is Coming(TPIC) is a clever little movie made in the style of a “mockumentary”, like NBC’s The Office. W made a trip to India in 2006, badly in need of some TLC from one of the few countries in the world where he was still a Big Man on Campus. In India his  ego, much bruised from the fiascoes of Iraq and Katrina, was assured of the balm of sycophancy. While there were a few protests here and there, he received a royal reception in official circles, the kind only a post-colonial  nation with a Raj hangover can offer.

Writer Anuvab( no that’s not a typo) Pal’s fancy was tickled by all the hype and hoopla surrounding that visit, and he set out to imagine a scenario where the 43rd President, in his trademark stubbornness, gets it into his head that he needs to shake a “Young Indian’s” hand.  This leads to a frenzy over which “Young Indian” is to be chosen. In true reality TV style, 6 finalists from various social and cultural strata are chosen to be trained and assessed to compete for the awesome prize of shaking W’s hand.

The finalists are, in no particular order, a Bengali intellectual, a Gujarati stockbroker, a Marathi social worker( a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad, no less!), a call center manager, a rich Paris Hilton like socialite and a techie from Bangalore. they each have their own eccentric reason for wanting to shake hands with the President; as the story progresses, we discover more and more about them.

Yes, the characters are stereotypes, but these are different from the ones we usually see on screen and the humor is biting. I laughed out loud at several moments in the movie, even when the comedy descended to sophomoric levels( this reviewer though Harold and Kumar at White Castle was hilarious).

The entire movie feels like a college skit( same level of raunchiness) but it it still very very funny.  The only recognizable actor is Konkona Sen Sharma as Maya Roy, the intellectual whose superciliousness and ability to quote poetry impress the heck out of Samantha Patel( Shernaz Patel) whose agency has the job of selecting the hand-shaker. But everybody else turns in very fine performances too. Satchit Puranik as the reverse snob Ajay Karlekar( ha!)  is terrific as he expresses bigotry towards women, Muslims, rich people, and just about everybody else.

The characters are all slightly overdrawn and veer towards caricature but the script makes up for it. Kunaal Kapur’s direction stays true to the smart script, which exposes the varied neuroses coexisting peacefully in India.

Worth a watch.

The President is coming

*ring – Konkona Sen Sharma, Shernaz Patel,

Written by Anuvab Pal

My rating – 3 stars out of 5.

Luck By Chance: Pleasant

200px-luckbychanceThere is an axiom in the publishing industry that says ” Write what you know.” Certainly director Zoya Akhtar seems to have taken it to heart in her debut movie, Luck By Chance. Daughter of famous poet, composer and writer Javed Akhtar, Zoya uses the movie industry in Mumbai as a backdrop for the story of a couple of struggling actors who come to try out their luck in the big bad city.

Luck By Chance, which is also written by Ms. Akhtar, stars brother Farhan as Vikram Jaisingh, the son of a prosperous shopowner from Delhi who rejects the family business to pursue his dreams of success in Bollywood. He signs up for the usual classes in singing, dancing, horseriding and martial arts. (As one veteran acting coach points out astutely, it is much harder to be a Bollywood hero than a Hollywood one.) Vikram is distilled ambition, pointed like a laser beam at the main chance, and damn everyone who gets in the way. Vikram meets and hooks up with Sona Mishra( Konkona Sen Sharma) who has conducted a Faustian bargain with a producer to keep her dreams of a lead role alive. How their struggles play out is the subject of the movie.

Farhan Akhtar is great as the scheming Vikram, proving conclusively that he is not one a one-film wonder( Rock On) and that his acting chops rival his directorial talents( Dil Chahta Hai, Don). Despite his brooding looks( I call him the intelligent woman’s heartthrob) he plays the shallow and conniving Vikram very convincingly. A well developed physique adds to the credibility of his ambition.

The same cannot be said for Konkona. She is a superb actress and is as good as ever in LBC, but the premise that she thinks she is leading lady material seems thin. Or maybe not, given the number of girls who probably wash up on the shore of the metropolis, convinced they have what it takes to make it big. Anyway, her looks leave no doubt about her eventual fate.

The movie is well directed and beautifully acted. Rishi Kapoor is terrific as producer Romy Rolly who gets his failed actor brother to direct a movie. Dimple as the typical actress mama is perfectly cast. Hrithik Roshan supposedly has a “guest role” but he takes up a good bit of time as Zafar Khan, the number 2 superstar behind Shahrukh. Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy’s music is melodious.

With Zoya Akhtar’s connection with the movie business, the number of movie types that show up in cameos are too many to list and the opening credits pay tribute to the unknown workers who toil behind the scenes. The montage captures the bemusement of tailors, stuntmen, spot boys and grips as the light is shined upon them; it is a moving segment to anyone fascinated by Bollywood.

But LBC is too subtle, too low key and much too predictable.  You know how the materialistic movers and shakers in Bollywood are going to behave( though Juhi Chawla as Romy’s loving and concerned wife is somewhat of a surprise). Scenes are telegraphed way ahead of time so there is no element of surprise. As coach Saurabh Shukla says to his aspiring actors, “You need to be a little bit larger than life in Bollywood”. The same can apply to this movie. This is not a criticism of realism in film, but  for a movie to catch the audience’s imagination, it must leave them exalted by the experience. Luck By Chance fails to do that, though I would recommend it as a fine debut effort.

Luck By Chance

*ring: Farhan Akhtar, Konkona Sen Sharma, Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, Hrithik Roshan

Directed by Zoya Akhtar.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.