Rajma Chawal Review

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This is probably one of the most inappropriately named movie one could find. There is one scene early in the narrative where Kabir (Anirudh Tanwar), a twenty-something Delhi boy prefers to eat rajma-chawal with a spoon while his father (Rishi Kapoor) insists on eating the same using his hands. This absurd analogy intends to draw the parallel between the two generations and the rest of the film has no relevance to the title of the movie. Also, we finally have a poor film starring one of the Khurrana brothers who have otherwise had a stellar year. But Aparshakti Khurana is not the only talented actor wasted in this film.

Rishi Kapoor has done two films this year that follow an eerily similar template – a story of a father-son duo where the father attempts to bridge the gap between the two and bring purpose and joy in his son’s life. While he played the son in 102 Not Out, here he is the father who is convinced (as is everyone else involved with the film, it seems) that having the right reasons justifies you committing cyber crimes that deserve strict punishment from the law. There is something else that is common between the two movies. Rishi Kapoor is by far the best thing in both the films. The best moments in the film come from the innocence he transcends in his depiction of a lonely father. The fear of losing his son feels real and had the film dealt with his character better, it could have been a manageable watch of an old man struggling to understand his son’s philosophy of life.

In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have Rishi Kapoor of 102 Not Out and Rajma Chawal pitted against each other given how grossly the other actors disappoint this immensely likeable actor in both the films. In Rajma Chawal, though, Leena Yadav seems to be too invested to give her film a “modern” look, which she tries to do at the expense of any significant character development.

It could have worked had this film managed to do that well. But her understanding of youth comes straight out of the Befikre universe. The youth of this country is not only about befriending unknown people on Facebook. An opinionated girl who settles for unconventionality would not kiss a stranger in public just to dodge her ex.

These are convenient stereotypes that Yadav finds in her film to take the narrative forward. These stereotypes are also the reason why Seher (Amyra Dastur) can never become what Vicky as a character became in Manmarziyaan. Both these characters are rebels without a cause, both carry an aura of aimlessness that boils into unapologetic bravado that yields little. But Vicky under a competent director and a terrific actor was a well-rounded character who conveyed his pain when he cried for Rumi. Seher’s cry for Kabir on the other hand never feels real.

As a Netflix original, Rajma Chawal does not ask for the prices of your ticket. It can be, in that sense, a movie you watch when you have nothing fruitful to do in life. But with the new season of Narcos waiting for you along with Manto that deserves a lot more of your time and attention, it is better to skip this rajma-chawal and focus on what your dinner table is offering you tonight.

 

Now Streaming on Netflix.

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Tumbbad Review

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In an era where there is a constant demand for complex ideas and high-concept stories, it is important to have a gentle reminder that compelling narratives can be derived from the kind of stories that we have all dwelled upon in our younger days. Tumbbad is a simple story at its core and it is in doing that – settling for a simple narrative – that it manages to do something that most movies fail to do these days.

While big-budget movies try hard to impress with spectacular visuals, Tumbbad gives us a protagonist whose story one wants to be a part of while delivering on the promise of a visual treat that deserves to be remembered as a benchmark in what can be achieved within a strict budget.

There are two themes in Tumbbad, one that overarches the entire narrative and the other that is a constant, nagging presence, threatening to steal the limelight but never rising above its subtle presence in the story. Greed remains the primary theme that the film clings on to, a character trait that defines Vinayak (Sohum Shah) in his journey from childhood to middle-age.

The idea that runs parallel is that of male sexuality in a world soaked in patriarchy. There are no barriers of age and morality when it comes to making sexual advances towards a woman. So while there is an old man who does not shy away from deriving sexual pleasures from a woman half his age, a boy barely in his teens finds great pride in proposing his father’s mistress for marriage. The world of Tumbbad is one where women are forced into being sex slaves of men who satiate their greed for power and money by putting their masculine courage to test in a deathly act that validates their valour in a time when Maharashtrian men clearly saw themselves as a dismal shadow of the great tradition of Maratha warriors who stand as an epitome of masculinity.

The makers, though, are not interested in exploring the complexities of a set-up like this. Lust is merely a character trait in Vinayak that contributes to his larger fatal flaw of being infatuated by the idea of finding a treasure filled with gold coins. In him we have a Shakespearean hero whose fate is dictated by that one flaw that drives him to uncharted territories. But Tumbbad attempts to go beyond the protagonist here. It looks at greed not as a trait in one character but as a gene that runs in a family – and in turn an entire race.

Earlier this year Ari Aster directed Hereditary, a story of a family sired to a demon named Paimon. That film was structured on a strict, almost inevitable fate of serving the satanic forces. Tumbbad’s world is a little more complex – the lines between right and wrong more blurred than they ever are in a Hollywood horror movie. Characters in Tumbbad have a choice, and it is that choice that makes this a more compelling watch than Hereditary ever was.

Greed is what takes Vinayak on his ill-fated journey, it is also a trait that is not too far away from our reality. He is no murderer that we can identify as someone different from us. Vinayak is us, and it is this relatability that makes his story a believable one even though it is essentially a fantasy-horror. Symbolism in the film stands as a firm critique of the world we live in, a mirror so brutal in its reflection that it makes that overpriced popcorn at PVR look like an extension of the gold coins Vinayak is after in the film, futile but irresistible.

Who are we, then. Are we the greedy Vinayak who is ready to risk all for just some monetary profit? Or are we that demon-god who is cursed with a life of riches only to live neither with glory nor grain – eternally empty. Tumbbad puts the onus on the audience to find these answers. As a story it remains simple, as a philosophical idea, it breaches past your conscious denial of the problems that come with capitalism that we have grown to acknowledge as the norm. The film does not aim to stuff the narrative with too many ideas. It sticks by the simple norm of less is more, and in doing that it triumphs over most contemporary movies that prefer larger ideas over coherent story-telling. What comes out of this Panchatantra-esque story, eventually, is a cinematic experience that would remain with the audience long after the end credits roll.

 

Tumbbad is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Thugs of Hindostan Review

 

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Cinema is a visual medium, a form of story-telling that transports the audience to the universe of that film through mesmerizing visuals. When the visuals are as breathtaking as those in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, these visuals become the protagonist of the story. The power of visuals then takes over and the audience is taken on a journey that leaves them spellbound.

Probably that was the idea that drove Vijay Krishna Acharya towards Thugs of Hindostan, a film that is so mesmerizing visually that its refusal to place one clear protagonist at the centre does not make any difference. Sadly, Acharya’s directorial venture neither has the technical magnificence that Kubrick achieved forty-years ago nor does it have any intellectual depth to keep the audience hooked.

This is one of those films that uses the excuse of a commercial film to overdo everything. So we have Amitabh Bachchan playing Khudabaksh who is yelling on top of a ship after killing a dozen British soldiers. Fatima Sana Shaikh, whose logic-defying five-arrow shot seems to be mentored by Sikander of Race 3. There is Katrina Kaif doing exactly what she did in Acharya’s previous film, albeit in the 1800’s this time. Finally, there is Aamir Khan playing Firangi Mallah, a character that suffers with the same problem that Acharya’s Dhoom 3 siblings faced. Acharya’s love for Khan seems to force him to give too much screen-time to his characters, at the expense of good story-telling. To give credit where its due, Firangi is the most interesting character of the film (a character that under a smarter director in a better film could have been exciting). It is sad that he remains a comical puppet in the film, never having the menace that makes him dark and edgy.

Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s Sanichar also suffers the same fate of being turned into a one-dimensional comical figure. In fact, Thugs of Hindostan would have benefitted from centering on these two characters where we see a more serious insight into their dynamics and journey. Acharya though, is interested in the story of Zafira, a character who gets no lines in the first hour of the film and barely any character arc, yet we as audience are expected to root for her in her moments of vulnerability. Sadly, instead of a sincere look at Zafira’s story, we get a Katrina Kaif song and scenes of Aamir Khan trying to do with Firangi what he did with Munna rather effectively in Rangeela.

By the time the film reaches what is the most predictable climax one could think of, it is impossible to root for Zafira and honestly I felt bad for the surname-less Clive, the antagonist who had to sit through a song where thugs turn into efficient dancers without a sweat. Maybe the director felt Shaikh deserved at least one dance sequence in her two-movie long career.

The film ends with Firangi’s character in focus with a hint of a possible sequel. Somewhere it seems the director lost interest in the revenge story of Zafira and decided that Firangi’s antiques were far more entertaining, making this revenge saga more about Firangi than anyone else. Sadly, Khan’s charm does not make Firangi charming enough in this movie and as an audience I couldn’t care less if Firangi meets a Titanic-esque fate on his voyage, because even if he dies, there is a better version of Firangi in Jack Sparrow who, at his best, is a lot more fun than Firangi ever was here.

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota Review

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Vasan Bala’s directorial Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is a movie that deserves our time. The film is, among other things, a quirky commentary on the idea of machismo that runs long in the history of action films with a protagonist who suffers from a condition that makes him everything that the yesteryear action heroes were – invincible.

Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani), however, is a lot more than just a protagonist who is born to fight. Suffering from congenital insensitivity to pain, a medical condition that makes him feel no pain gives him an outlook on life that is different, exciting and thoroughly entertaining to sit through. In another film, the character and his medical condition could have turned offensive and a mere base from where the director develops this whacky journey of an action film junkie. Vasan, however, never trudges towards insensitivity towards the protagonists’ condition, ensuring it is entertaining but never offensive.

A good piece of art is one that gives its audience space to think deeply about the multiple interpretations that can be made of what is visible on screen. Vasan in what is his second movie after Peddlers does exactly that with Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota without trying to make the film too serious and deep. In fact the film remains a light-hearted film with significant commercial potential while ensuring that it is an intelligent and intriguing watch that never takes the intelligence of its audience for granted.

Each character in the film is, in some way or the other, distanced from the majority. They all have an aspect to their identity that makes them different from the “normal” masses.  The film, though, never turns into a tear-jerking tale of a man coming to terms with his medical condition or a young girl trying to grapple with her shaky career and an inability to stand for herself when it truly matters.

The humour in the film never feels forced and Vasan succeeds in making a movie that remains an admirable homage to the action genre while incorporating elements that critique its treatment in commercial cinema. Raj and DK’s directorial Happy Ending tried to do something similar with the genre of romantic comedy. That film, however, failed in being a consistent satire on how the Hindi Film Industry handles that particular genre. In mocking previous movies of that genre, Happy Ending became that very cinematic experience that it set out to ridicule initially. Hard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is a more careful work of art that is self-aware and therefore a lot more consistent in giving its audience laughs that emerge from an originality that is often lacking in Hindi movies.

In a year that has already given us some wonderful cinematic experiences, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota promises to continue the trend of Hindi cinema prioritizing good quality, content-driven original projects in 2019, and an optimistic thought like that is never a bad  thing to carry with you as you come out of the movie theatre.

Disability and Deception

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Early in a scene in Andhadun, Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana) says that the one advantage of being visually impaired is that it helps you find focus in life. This is an important line if we track the representation of disability in Hindi films. Right from a very sorry representation of disability in Dosti to a more empowering take on the same in the 2015 release Margarita With A Straw, disability has always been shown as a hindrance, a barricade that distances the character with disability from the able-bodied.

Sriram Raghavan, by making a movie where everyone is blind in some way or the other (including the audience) ensures that visual impairment becomes more than a trait of a central character and instead becomes a theme that the film juggles with throughout its running time. Raghavan and his team form a smart balance between giving a realistic representation of disability and using it as a metaphor in the plot, never neglecting one over another.

So we have Akash, a blind piano player who witnesses a murder and in doing that absorbs some secrets that are not his to keep. But he is not your usual character with disability that the audience is expected to sympathize with. In that way, Andhadhun’s treatment of Akash’s character resembles that of Vishwas Prajapati (Akshay Kumar) in Vipul Amrutlal Shah’s Aankhen. Both the characters are surrounded by a conspiracy of which they are mere pawns. They are both intelligent and have grey shades to them that makes them tough to sympathize with. While Aankhen remains a study of three visually impaired men trying to achieve the unthinkable, Andhadhun is interested in exploring the depths of each character’s mind more than the actions they perform.

What makes Andhadun interesting is its ability to be so much more than a film on a character with visual impairment. Tabu as Simi plays the show-piece wife of a yesteryear actor Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan) to perfection. In her best moments in the film, she carries out the most outrageous of moves with such ease that it feels completely possible for Simi to do that. A large section of the story revolves around her, when Raghavan purposefully gives Akash a backseat. Andhadhun, in that sense, is as much a story of Akash as it is of Simi – one impaired visually, the other handicapped by her circumstances.

A film on a subject like disability always moves with the risk of turning into a documentary-like tale on inclusiveness. The best representations of disability, women issues or people with alternate sexuality is when the narrative accepts its characters as they are and never lets go of its focus on the plot. Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani did that magnificently in giving us a female-lead film that never lectured us on feminism (something that Shashank Khaitan’s Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya was guilty of doing). Andhadhun is not a film on disability but a film that has a character with disability. It gives us a peek in the life of a visually impaired man without making the narrative about his condition, and in doing that, Raghavan’s film takes a bigger step in representation of disability than a film that few would watch and fewer would comprehend.

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
– Alfred Hitchcock