Betaal Review

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Betaal has one of the best opening scenes in an Indian web series. It begins with a bunch of villagers praying in front of a disfigured idol. There is an eerie, repetitive sound of bells banging against each other as the chants of prayers grow collectively. It immediately reminds of you of the world Tumbbad so beautifully constructed and dealt with. The opening credits remind you of the talented Vineet Kumar Singh being the central figure of the series, whom we meet soon after. It is a good, promising beginning and one that promises a new benchmark in the ever-growing Indian horror genre which has come up with some wonderful home-grown stories that find their roots in myths, mythology, and folklore.

But minutes later you realize that the promise you saw in the opening scene of Betaal is exactly the reason why this Indian zombie show is a massive letdown. Instead of becoming a show that utilizes the Indian backdrop effectively, the show starts trying to be like other movies that have effectively used similar backgrounds.

The plot is mildly interesting. A group of Indian military officers is tasked to clear a tunnel for a highway construction project that the local villagers claim is housed by evil powers that should not be disturbed. It is a classic – albeit revisited to death – conflict between the homegrown villagers and the ignorant urban group who are inebriated by the idea of economic development. Vikram Sirohi (Vineet Kumar Singh) is the commanding officer who is smitten by the idea of a higher position at work that his superior (Suchitra Pillai) has promised him. Accompanying him is Deputy Commander Ahluwalia (Aahana Kumra), who is interestingly the only marginally sane voice in a narrative where you are forced to wonder who is more stupid, the dead or the living.

To place the myth of zombies in India’s colonial history is an interesting idea on paper. We have a John Clive-esque (remember the antagonist of Thugs of Hindostan?) Lieutenant General who along with his regiment forms an army of zombies who were contained in the caves for decades. The problem is in the poor writing of the show. The myth, its origin, its larger aim is never explained to us. The show seems to be more interested in moments than a larger narrative.

So we have zombies with red torch-like eyes, crumbling skin, and fangs. The look of these zombies – while a little over-the-top – is quite competent, as is the production design of the show. But these beyond these zombies crowding against a locked door, crawling upside down on the roof and eating humans like hungry savages, there is very little that the show informs us about regarding their backstory.

This absence of a concrete backstory and hence characterization spills over to the human characters too. Vikram is traumatized by a decision he made in the past, and the show refuses to tell us anything beyond him beyond those occasional glimpses of that incident. Ahluwalia has a prominent scar on the right side of her face, but we are never told about the story or significance behind that scar.

All characters here are one-dimensional and naïve. This is especially sad because Vineet Kumar Singh and Aahana Kumra are talented actors, and the camaraderie they share could have become a deeper, more emotionally poignant part of the story in a better-written show. Same goes with an arc involving a little, spectacled girl. Just a couple of weeks ago Paatal Lok thrived on the twinkle-eyed innocence of dogs. Betaal could have done that with the idea of a girl’s innocence confronted against the dark remains of India’s colonial past, but the show never absorbs itself soothingly enough to reach its full potential.

At four episodes of around forty-five minutes Betaal is not a dragged narrative, it is just a narrative that never sinks deep enough to find what it wants to be about. Much like Ghoul (which was much better than this, in hindsight), show-runner Patrick Graham is interested in blending politics with horror in Betaal. It might have been an intriguing idea on paper, but the execution focuses too much on jump scares and too little on the larger idea of colonialism and ownership of the land to become worth the three hours of its runtime.

Now Streaming on Netflix.

Ghoomketu Review

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It is a joy watching actors like Nawazuddin Siddique, Raghuvir Yadav, Ila Arun, and Anurag Kashyap inhabiting an absurdist world without any inhibitions. These actors light up the screen by their sheer presence on-screen. But when they come together for a shoddily crafted, amateurishly written and directed film like Ghoomketu, one is given a quick reminder of how decorating the screen with talented actors cannot account for mediocrity in other departments of filmmaking.

Written and directed by Pushpendra Nath Misra, Ghoomketu chronicles the journey of Ghoomketu (Nawazuddin Siddique), a Masters in Hindi literature, as he travels from a remote village in Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai with a dream of becoming a writer in the Hindi Film Industry. With limited resources, Ghoomketu has thirty days to make it big while his family files a report to find their son which lands on the table of Inspector Badlani (Anurag Kashyap) a lazy, corrupt cop who has not solved a case in fifteen years. He, too, has thirty days before he is transferred from his current police station. Thus begins an absurd story of dreams and detection, hampered by inconsistent, confused writing and direction.

Right after the scene where are introduced to Inspector Badlani, a song chronicling the life of this character plays out against the backdrop of his journey until he joined the police force. The song, reminiscent of ‘Life Mein Fair Chance Kiska’ from Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, is unfunny and used so uncreatively that it leaves no impact on the viewer. The same is true for the narrative of Ghoomketu, too.

Misra knows that the story he is telling is not a particularly new one. Stories documenting the struggles of a newcomer in Mumbai have been done to death, yet it is a theme that can always find something new if imagined smartly. Sadly, Misra puts too much effort into making the narrative unique while never realizing that the intrigue of a story like this lies in its humane touch, not a character breaking the fourth wall or guest appearance by popular faces as imaginations of Ghoomketu’s incomplete scripts.

In doing that Ghoomketu is deprived of a soul – an innocence, that was the most enigmatic part of a film like Luck By Chance or that terrific short-film by Anurag Kashyap starring Vineet Kumar in the anthology Bombay Talkies. Told as chapters from a book on film-writing by a local tabloid editor titled How to Be a Bollywood Writer in 30 Days, Ghoomketu is never sure of its tone and larger thematic ambitions.

At one point it becomes a cop-chase drama, before going back to being a story about Ghoomketu’s struggles, and finally becoming a family drama that uses a strange bird analogy to represent the conflict of Ghoomketu’s relationship with his father. Ghoomketu is a volatile narrative that seems to be obsessed with jumping from one theme to another, trying to maintain a larger light-hearted tone through a couple of attractive performances.

Siddique as the titular Ghoomketu and Raghuvir Yadav as his short-tempered father are especially good in this film that seems more interested in actors who are in a guest appearance than those who are essaying characters that are central to the larger narrative of the film’s story.

Towards the end Ghoomketu seems to be making an interesting point about big actors like Amitabh Bachchan borrowing lines from nameless struggling writers and making them their own. That alone could have been a story that makes searing statements on the issue of plagiarism and copyrighting (something that the Hindi Film Industry has had a long struggle with). But sadly the film uses that interaction palely and does little to find any depth or sense in what could have potentially been a terrific conflict.

Ghoomketu is a film that has the gift of an incredibly talented cast, but somehow it crumbles under its obsession of being different from the generic template of “strugglers’” movies and that ends making it a mockery of its central premise. We are not shown enough of Ghoomketu’s struggle, nor are we shown enough of Inspector Badlani’s professional mediocrity. The film is unconfident of its own story and hence keeps diverting into undercooked subplots. This could have been an enjoyable comedy starring an actor who has championed the art of playing a cold, heartless mafia, but it turns into an insignificant, largely unfunny caricature of the superior, more insightful “struggle” narratives that the Hindi Film Industry has churned over the years.

 

Now Streaming on Zee5

What Are The Odds? Review

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What Are The Odds? delivers what it promises, and that is both the highlight and the downfall of this largely enjoyable, simplistic Netflix movie that finds one foot in realism and another in fantasy, probably saying that both are simply there in our head, and the odds of two meeting forms the larger crux of the film’s story.

We first meet Vivek (Yashaswini Dayama) as she wakes up with an annoying scream, something that is a constant, disturbing presence in the film probably trying to address her tryst with trauma but failing to find authenticity and depth in it. She misses an examination due to an admit-card problem and wanders around the school aisle when she realizes that Ashwin (Karanveer Malhotra), the Head Boy of the school, is being forced to miss the exam too. Vivek takes this opportunity to spend a day with Ashwin, someone who would never even look at a girl like her otherwise.

Hence begins a story of encountering Amol Palekar, a grandmother who has Alzheimer’s and a forty-something singer (Abhay Deol), who is also the narrator of the story. What Are The Odds? is essentially a film about oddities that we refuse to accept as a part of our lives. It is a story of incidents that do not come with a guarantee of logical explanation but a promise of a heartfelt sense of joy.

The problem with What Are The Odds? is not that it is a decidedly simplistic movie. The problem is in the movie’s inconsistent ambitions and occasional aspirations to be something deeper than its basic arc, which is where the film admittedly crumbles. There are instances where the film aspires to be a musical, but it never truly absorbs the essence of a musical. Similarly, there is an entire track that hints at exploring the past of Vivek, but all of it turns into an undercooked resolution which defeats the very point of it.

The performances are all consistently decent with Dayama being especially likable as a school girl once again after essaying a role of a similar age-group in Made in Heaven and Delhi Crime. Much like Chopsticks, What Are The Odds? wastes a very talented Abhay Deol in a role that demands him to look charming and nothing more.

What Are The Odds? is a film about two teenagers who belong to different worlds in the hierarchy of a school world brought together for a day of unexpected, absurd events. The characters of Vivek and Ashwin are simplistic and sincere and their journey a satisfying one, but the same is not entirely true of the movie. The narrative suffers from lazy writing in the name of a simplistic narrative, always making us a pleasing onlooker of the story but never letting us feel like a part of the journey Vivek and Ashwin go through.

 

Now streaming on Netflix

Paatal Lok Review

Paatal Lok

 

Paatal Lok is a riveting example of fiction writing done right. It is a show that reflects our time without picking a side, but always maintaining a larger sense of an apocalyptic grimness in the viewers’ and characters’ understanding of right and wrong. The show teases us into thinking this is Amazon Prime’s answer to Netflix’s Sacred Games, but as the plot unravels like a delicious tale of corruption, contracts, killers, and compromises, one is forced to realize the dedication writers Sudip Sharma, Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta, and Gunjit Chopra have to define the show with its greyness, instantly detaching it from those shallow mentions of this trying to be an answer to a decidedly black-and-white world of Sacred Games.

The brilliance of this show can be found in its casting choices. In casting actors like Jaideep Alahwat, Neeraj Kabi, and Abhishek Banerjee, the show divorces itself from giving a glamourous role to an actor whose very faces gives the audience an unintentional spoiler. In Alahwat and Kabi the film gives us two actors we feel we know but we are never sure of.

The story starts with four criminals, headed by Vishal Tyagi (Banerjee), also known as Hathoda Tyagi, arrested and implicated in a potential assassination of Sanjeev Mehra (Kabi) a leading leftist journalist who has had a history of doing undercover operations, making several political enemies along the way.

On the other end of the spectrum is Hathiram Chaudhary (Alahwat), an inspector in Delhi Police stationed in the Outer Yamuna Branch, which he admittedly calls paatal lok. It is the kind of police station that never gets a significant case. This one is the first Hathiram gets in his long and largely insignificant career.

It is his one chance to make a mark, not for the world but for himself and his son, who is convinced of his father’s mediocrity. Their relationship, along with that of Renu (Gul Panag) forms a meticulous representation of a middle-class dysfunctional family while giving another aspect to Hathiram’s need to be on the right side of this case.

As the plot thickens and we get to see more of Mehra, his wife Dolly (Swastika Mukherjee) and the tangled complexity of his personal and professional life, the idea of paatal and swarg starts to turn on its head. The show is in continuous debate with itself. There is no swarg lok, it establishes quite early, but is there a better paatal lok?

Amongst all the characters, Vishal Tyagi has the most fearsome presence. Banerjee is absolutely brilliant with his piercing gaze as if years of submerged anger coming out in his gaze of hate, searing but also seductive. It sucks us in, forcing us to follow Hathiram’s quest for answers because in each of the four accused we see an innocent human pushed into a life of crime and corruption. They are all members of the paatal lok, but their presence there is proof that the world above that pushed them into this pit hole is probably worse than the paatal lok of crime and criminals.

Creator Sudip Sharma peppers the narrative with some fantastic political anecdotes. From a tearing glance at growing Islamophobia to the constant reminder of someone’s minority status, the power of the show’s political statement lies in its finer details. We are reminded (none better in an early dialogue by Mehra) that this is a different India. The show emphasizes that around 2014 something changed fundamentally in India, quietly reminding us that we are being told a story set in a time when truth and fake, criminals and innocents, journalists and bullets are closer than ever before, often blending doubtlessly into one.

Unlike a police procedural that ends with a certain sense of triumph, Paatal Lok ends with a grim, unchangeable realization. Hathiram, even in his most dynamic moments, is utterly powerless because the mastermind of the game is not a person but the system itself, and there is no escaping a system that works like a well-oiled machine, as described in the show by a prominent character.

Paatal Lok is a show that constantly challenges the moral code of humans. It gives us terrifying images and mesmerizing characters. They are all part of a larger design. They are all striving to find their own swarg and they are all irreversibly stuck in their own, customized paatal lok.

Mrs. Serial Killer Review

Mrs. Serial Killer

 

Long before Joaquin Phoenix mesmerized us with his masterful performance as the titular Joker in the Todd Phillip’s directorial, Sirish Kunder gave India its own Joker. A film about a scientist (Akshay Kumar) returning back to his country (as he did in Jaan-E-Maan, where Kumar again played a scientist) and somehow finds himself in the grips of a planted alien invasion that ended in a poorly digitalized alien dancing to a song in the final scene of the film. That film was one thought, the end of Kunder’s directorial ambitions. But after all these years, he returns with Mrs. Serial Killer, a film that is not parodying its narrative, for a change. Kunder is not making a spoof of the serial killer template (which honestly could have been an interesting turn), instead, we are expected to take this lazy, predictable story seriously. This alone makes this one of the worst films of the year, without accounting for Jacqueline Fernandez’s performance.

The film is about Dr. Mrityunjoy Mukerjee (Manoj Banjpayee) and his wife Sona Mukerjee (Jacqueline Fernandez), a happy couple that is torn into a crisis when the former is accused of being a serial killer – killing unmarried pregnant women and keeping their fetus in a jar. As a gynecologist, Mrityunjoy Mukerjee is an obvious suspect and doctored evidence presented by Imran Shahid (Mohit Raina) a police inspector (honestly we are never told his rank, the film does not find interest in such detailing), in the court further confirms his involvement.

Pushed in a corner, Sona does something so absurd that as a viewer one wonders how was this idea sold to the content curators at Netflix. The stupid idea is given to her by a lawyer Dr. Rastogi, who apparently lives in a mansion that is cut out from the fabric of the one Hritik Roshan lived in Guzaarish.

So suddenly Sona turns into a killer, trying to commit a murder exactly as the earlier ones were to give an illusion that the real serial killer is still out there. She embarks on this journey with her fair share of self-pity, hammering masqueraded as dialogue delivery, and just general stupidity that makes it impossible to make you root for this character or understand the very logic behind this movie.

Kunder clearly wants to make a dark, Joker-esque film about characters who thrive in the grey, but the film is too confused in its own world to come out as anything else but a terrible, terrible exhibition of arrogant misuse of the power you get in your hands when making a film on a platform like Netflix.

Bajpayee is here to just get a taste of what it feels to be in a film where his presence exists more as a plot-point than an actor, while the rest are pretending to be serious about a craft that they forgot to learn seriously when the time was right. Now, they are just hammering against a wall, trying hopelessly to make us find truth in their façade.

Kunder is credited here as the writer, director, editor, and background scorer. It is safe to say that every department of the film he headed has failed in ways that make every film made by his wife seem like an underappreciated masterpiece. Mrs. Serial Killer is a despicable film trying to bet its money on the last thirty minutes, hoping against all hopes that casting a maestro will somehow hide the rest from embarrassment.

 

Now Streaming on Netflix.

Remembering Irrfan Khan

The Hollywood Reporter 2018 Sundance Studio At Sky Strada, Park City

 

When the news of Irrfan Khan’s death came out, there was a strange, surreal numbness that carpeted across every one of us. We have seen people pass away. We have also seen people pass away at a ripe, cruelly young age. There is nothing new, nothing unseen about an artist being taken away too soon. It hurts, but it does not devastate us.

The loss felt personal, like a member of our family had passed away. The grief was stiffening. It made the very idea of life without Khan’s comforting presence on the big screen seem unbearable. We sat in silence, recalling a man’s legacy, both in awe and apology. Awe of what he achieved, and apologetic for the time it took us to recognize what he had to offer.

He was always the person we admired but were a reluctant fan of, for the longest time. The kind whose performances stayed in our minds, but his name deserted our tongue. There were too many Khan’s already. Too many we had grown accustomed to. We did not want to make him another Khan. We saw him as something different. An actor. A performer, beyond his name.

In that we did a huge disservice to the man, depriving him of the recognition he yearned for. But surely this was not the regret of depriving him of the success he deserved that was returning now in the form of this acute, discomforting pain. That weight on our chest as we kept looking at the live footage from the hospital was that of losing not an actor, not a family member, but a part of ourselves.

Khan, in the most unassuming way, was a powerful voice against the establishment that we looked up to. He did not start as one, I assume, but he became one by the very virtue of being who he was. A man from a remote village of Rajasthan, trying to make big in the Hindi Film Industry with looks that would easily make him unrecognizable in a crowd of hundred and a personality that was decidedly laid-back. He was everything a Hindi Film hero was not supposed to be. A hero should standout, both in looks and personality. Khan did not, and in that, he became one of us. A hopeful dreamer who was well aware that he was not cut from the same cloth as those megastars on screen.

He could be a policeman in Slumdog Millionaire, an FBI agent in New York and a deceased poet lover/husband to Priyanka Chopra in 7 Khoon Maaf, but not a hero in the clichéd understanding of the word. What we forgot was that much before all this he played Maqbool in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool, essaying one of the most complex literary characters ever written in a film that had an army of legends surrounding him.

Maqbool, though, was just the beginning. Over the next few years, Khan adorned the face of a person stood against the establishment in front of the camera many times. The most obvious and memorable being Paan Singh Tomar, an iconic antithesis of the Hindi film hero. He went on to wear different shades of anti-establishment characters in films like Haider, Piku and Talvar, mouthing words that we as a repressed, undone population wanted to say.

The characters he played in all these films did not shy away from rising up against the figure of authority, or in case of Roohdar in Haider, against the dominantly accepted façade of truth. Khan spoke of his numbing anger against the structure in his silence. Even in light-hearted films like Hindi Medium and Karwaan, his character stood as a defining presence against the structure.

He, like his characters, was in a constant struggle to fit in, while also being aware of the fact that he was probably not cut out to fit in a system like this. Maybe that’s what made him so lovable; so enigmatic and emphatic. He was just a dreamer – a misfit – who turned the world on his feet by sheer talent. It took a while, as it always does, but when he finally found recognition, he became a symbol for those who fall on the other side of the bracket. In a fast-paced, money-driven world of structured excellence, Irrfan Khan was a calm, comforting presence of someone who we could go back to when we felt distressed. There is no better person you would want behind wheels if you drive from Delhi to Kolkata; no better investigator on a case; or a pen-friend who helps you find yourself when your marriage is turning cold. Irrfan Khan made the ordinary extraordinary, but he did more than that. He turned that silent gaze into a sharp, penetrative stare at the system that defeated him for years. He invented his own style of comedy and aced the art of dramatic conflicts in his own laid back manner, making us realize that there is no right way.

Now, as we live in the shadow of his brilliant body of work, all that remains is his inspirational obsession to find a place for himself. Not by changing his surname in the fear of losing it in front of mightier Khan’s, or trying to imitate another actor, but by simply being himself in the most honest, simplistic ways. Maybe years later when we look at one of his performances, we would meet those beautiful eyes of his and tell our kids – art and rebellion had rarely been so honest.

Optimism in Trapped: An Examination of Isolation

Trapped

 

Vikramaditya Motwane’s terrific survival drama Trapped (2016) is an essential, uncompromising watch in times of lockdown. It is one of those rare films that works literally and metaphorically with equal command. Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao) is a regular office-going young man who is shown as a simple, admirable man. Rao, in what ends up being one of his most accomplished performances, brings a simplistic innocence to Shaurya, which makes the eventual turn of events even more heartbreaking.

In Noorie (Geetanjali Thappa), Shaurya finds that one relationship for which he is ready to take unhinged personal and financial leaps. He wants what most Hindi film heroes want – a life with the girl he has fallen in love with. Motwane mounts the first few minutes of the film with the fluff and calm of a regular romantic film. We are aware that things will turn bad for her but we enjoy the little time we get with these two characters before tragedy strikes.

It is important in a film like this that the core of the primary relationship is strong enough to remain relevant when the tide turns. For Shaurya, the accident (if it all it was one) is a small one. He is stuck in one of the many skyscrapers of Mumbai. A building that is largely empty due to some legal issues. The house he purchases for himself and Noorie (who he convinces for marriage days before her engagement in a terrific nod to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge) is on the thirty-fifth floor, high enough to give them a panoramic view of the city. Also, high enough to become Shaurya’s very own hell.

But much before Shaurya finds himself alone, locked from outside, the film establishes an important aspect of Shaurya’s character that furthers into the narrative as his condition goes from bad to worse. Shaurya brings Noorie to the apartment he shares with three nameless boys and takes her to the bedroom. The room is lit with a red light, reminiscent of the interrogation scenes in Anurag Kashyap’s directorial Black Friday. After all, there is no better confrontation with reality than the act of making love. Shaurya, in the middle of making out with Noorie, talks about them getting married. What they share till now is nothing more than a timely fling. In that moment, though, we see a seriousness dawning between them. Like a hopeless romantic, Shaurya is convinced that he can sort his life in two days and be ready, socially and economically, to marry the girl he is confidently in love with.

This scene is important in the film because it is here that we meet the endearing optimism that defines Shaurya. He is the kind of person who likes to believe he can turn the table in his favour even when everything is going against him. This accentuates the trauma of seeing him do everything he can to survive his closed-door trauma. He does not give up easily, and Motwane builds his struggles as an ongoing, unending failure of every idea he comes up with. He does not make Trapped merely about the claustrophobia of being indoor. He makes it about hope being a constant companion for Shaurya, way more than Noorie, or for that matter, any human can be.

In a scene much later in the film, Shaurya imagines the host of a Man Vs Wild-esque show in the house, telling him about the nutritional power of a cockroach. This is again an important moment in the film. It talks about our ability to go back to our mind palace and find things that help us survive the worst of times. Our survival instincts take control of us and we grow into realizing that food (any kind of food) and water are the only essentials that matter. This is especially visible when Shaurya collects rainwater with a broad smile on his face, storing and drinking that water even when it becomes a breeding space for mosquitoes. Hygiene, morals, and taste buds start taking a backseat. Survival is all that matters. Survival that would lead him to the hope of a better tomorrow.

There is a fantastic sequence in Trapped where Shaurya talks about the things he is missing about the world outside. He starts missing the simplest things, even the things that he would otherwise frown upon. A bus ride that is cramped with people and filled with the smell of everyone’s sweat. In a beautiful sequence, we see Shaurya dancing with a thankful smile in a BEST bus, reminiscing things that otherwise form the worst parts of one’s days. Even then, Shaurya is filled with hope. Maybe that is just who is – an optimist. Or maybe when you are cornered in a place of disadvantage, there is no other way out. Optimism becomes a necessary, undeterred presence.

There can be a case made on why Trapped might be a disastrous choice in times like these. But I feel that the movie is a beautiful reminder of the privileges we continue to have in lockdown. It is a gentle nod to the need for optimism when things start to look bleak and remember that at the end of the day what matters is that you are alive. It is easy to convince ourselves right now that we are in the worst possible situation. Then, it is important to watch a film like Trapped and realize that we are far from the worst right now. I am able to write this, you are able to read it, and that is a privilege few are exposed to. Trapped reminds us that the power of optimism is massive, and sometimes it is important to see a story steeped in a dark, depressing world to find our own optimism and accept our lives with a humble nod to the privileges we are still enjoying right now.