Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Begum Jaan  

Deafening Melodrama

Srijit Mukherji’s Begum Jaan is the Hindi version of his Bengali film, Rajkahini, which does not move beyond its interesting premise.

After the British have partitioned India, and the Radcliffe Line is drawn, on the Indo-Pak border, it is meant to cross through a palatial brothel, so the madam, Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) is served an eviction notice, by the Hindu Shrivastav and the Muslim Ilyas (Rajit Kapur), government officials from each side. They used to be childhood friends, but the Partition has divided them, so that Mukherji often has just half their face in the frame.

Begum Jaan’s brothel has a mix of woman of all castes and regions, who have been disowned by their families. The latest addition is a catatonic rape victim dumped at the door by her father.  Begum slaps her out of her stupor and tells the other women to deal with her. The mixed moral messages and hypocrisy of Begum Jaan could fill many pages. A woman who is ostracized by society has no option but to sell her body—Begum was a widow herself—but she has to prove her distaste or unwillingness, by staring at the ceiling when a man is in her bed, and very often break into loud, hysterical shrieks.

Begum, for all her bluster-- and occasional trite pronouncements about a woman’s sorry fate, or a brothel being beyond caste and religious differences-- depends on a man to guard them, and a debauched raja (Naseeruddin Shah—why?) to protect them from the powers that be. Begum Jaan talks of being like a mother to her girls, but does not give them the option of refusing—she throws a reluctant young woman at the raja when he demands novelty.

Compared to the very strong Rukmini Bai of Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (played by the redoubtable Shabana Azmi), from which this film is obviously inspired, Begum Jaan is a wimp.  First of all, when so many citizens of both countries were thrown out of their homes, why is the audience expect to sympathise with a woman who does not want to leave her mansion?  If the film was satirical, or truly tragic, it would still make sense, but Begum Jaan is just shrill melodrama. Why, for instance would a man who has seen his own wife disrobed and murdered, be more affected by the deaths of women who mean nothing to him? Why would a cruel cop be thrown off his track by a girl taking off her clothes?

Pardon the spoilers, but according to Mukherji, when faced with murderous mobs of men, a woman should either strip, or like Padmavati (an old woman – Ila Arun—in the brothel tells stories of legendary women from history), throw themselves into a fire?

Deafeningly loud and cliché-ridden, Begum Jaan falls heavily on the shoulders of Vidya Balan, who speaks in a bass voice and squints through hookah smoke to emphasize her badass credentials, but the character that could have been complex, remains awkwardly superficial.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Mukti Bhawan 

Old Man And The River

An old man has a premonition of death and decides he must go to Benaras to die and attain salvation. With this skein of gossamer thread, young director Shubhashish Bhutiani has woven a delicate film, Mukti Bhawan,  about life, death and human emotions, often leaving the viewer to understand what is not stated.

Dayanand (Lalit Behl—well-cast) bulldozes his mild-mannered son Rajeev (Adil Hussain--outstanding) into accompanying him. A scene in which Rajeev’s wife (Geetanjali Kulkarni) questions him about how long the trip will take, while casually applying moisturizer, indicates that he is under her thumb too, and bullied by his boss and clients as well (he works in a dull, generic looking office). He is a dutiful son, but his relationship with his father is a bit formal, unlike his daughter (Palomi Ghosh) who treats Dayanand like a buddy.

Once in crowded Benaras, they sign up to stay in a shabby lodge, where people come to spend their last days. Mishraji (Anil K. Rastogi—excellent) who runs the place is practical and brusque, but also compassionate enough to bend the rules to help the elderly who come there to wait for death.  Juggling his office work over the phone, and meeting his father’s endless and sometimes unreasonable demands, Rajeev is always harried, but Dayanand makes friends in the lodge, including a stoic lady (a lovely Navnindra Behl), who has been there for eighteen years.

The subject is heavy, but the film is not at all morbid and, in fact, infuses humour whenever possible—a throwaway line, or a look or an unexpected scene—like the wife and daughter visiting because they think the time has come, shopping for saris for the young woman’s impending wedding.  It is through their eyes the exotic side of Varanasi is seen, otherwise, it is mundane life by the river, where people wash their sins as well as their clothes, seen in luminous frames.

Mukti Bhawan is a wonderful gem of a film, that is like a palate-cleanser amidst the noisy chaos of regular mainstream cinema.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Naam Shabana 

Gutsy Gal

It was good idea—making a prequel to Baby, and putting the spotlight on the gutsy Shabana Khan, who had a small role in it. What made a young Muslim girl join a shadowy anti-terrorist cell? And how does she cope in the world of big boys and their relentless violence? The audience would like to know.

But just having Taapsee Pannu, the current flavor of the season (after Pink) star in it, doesn’t necessarily make Naam Shabana a film with a female worldview.  

The first half of the film is about Shabana, the young woman with a troubled past and facing personal tragedy, being lured into the secret unit (women are natural spies, apparently!), initiated into this dark world and trained. The man who runs the agency is the played by Manoj Bajpayee, with a suitably wry expression.

The mission she is sent on it to nab the global drug dealer and arms kingpin (Prithviraj Sukumaran)—why send a rookie when the villain has already killed five undercover agents? That’s just one of the many questions that remain hanging, while Shabana kicks, chops and shoots her way through, but Ajay (Akshay Kumar) turns up to do the heavy lifting, because, as he says, “I have come from so far, let me do some work.” Anupam Kher, Danny Denzongpa, Zakir Hussain and Madhurima Tuli also reprise their roles from Baby, and will, perhaps, be part of future spin-offs in what has the potential to become a successful franchise.

Naam Shabana has some slick action sequences and does the mandatory globe-trotting that every espionage film is required to do. But there’s something paint-numbers about it, that never raises it above ‘timepass’ level; and why let songs slow down the pace? Why the bloated run time for a genre that needs to lean and mean so that audiences don’t get a chance to blink or ask questions?

She has suffered and has reason to be angry, so Pannu is made to play Shabana with steely grimness. There is a certain determination and grace with which she does the many action scenes, but  the guys who so the same kind of work, and live dangerously, don’t look like they carry the burden of the world on their backs. Is that meant to be the takeaway from this film? That if a girl wants to be taken seriously, she has to obey orders and stay focused all the time.

Friday, March 24, 2017


Ghostly Capers

Anushka Sharma has produced Phillauri, and even if the idea is picked from Corpse Bride, she can be given credit for backing an unusual film and offering a break to a new director Anshai Lal.

The film begins with ‘Kaneda’-returned Kanan (Suraj Sharma) being bludgeoned into marriage to his childhood sweetheart Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Kanan is ‘manglik’ and to ward off future misfortune, he is forced to marry a tree, which is then cut down.

The tree housed a resident ghost, Shashi (Anushka Sharma), who now claims to be married to Kanan, whose fixed sour-lemon expression gets worse. The army of relatives gathered for the wedding cannot understand why Kanan is acting strange and muttering to himself, and his to-be bride is furious at his antics. There is a very unfunny scene involving a weary-eyed child domestic helper, who is traumatized by what he thinks are Kanan’s overtures towards him. If it’s not disturbing to see a child as a servant, it is certainly awful to imagine what he has gone through if he is running so scared.

The backstory of the ghost has to come out, so the film jumps between the present and the sepia past, when Shashi secretly wrote poetry for a local paper and fell in love with a carousing, philandering local singer Roop (Diljit Dosanjh)—both going by the pseudonym of Phillauri, which means a resident of Phillaur, a small town in Punjab.

Shashi’s affectionate but stern brother is angered by an unworthy man wooing her. This love story, far more engaging that the Kanan-Anu problems, is beautifully shot and studded with melodious songs. Anushka Sharma and Diljit Dosanjh are also better actors and much more attractive than the modern pair.

The problem with Phillauri is that it is not funny enough to classify as a comedy (too corny) and not emotional enough to touch the heart.  It is watchable, but also quickly forgettable.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


Rusted Parts

In the Nineties, when ‘Director Duo’ Abbas Mustan were at their peak, and making their twisty-turny thrillers with glamorous and grey characters, audiences enjoyed them. The pretty locations, swanky cars, plush mansions and hit music hid the many plot holes.

Now, with the formula creaking at the joints, and no stars to pull the film through, their latest, Machine, is an exercise in futility and unintentional hilarity. The film was made to launch Mustafa Burmawala (Abbas’s son)—at a time when talk of nepotism is rife—and though the young man has done the gym thing, he looks like he has come out of a mould that also spewed out two others in this film, and many others in the ‘struggler’ circuit, who think six pack abs and a good haircut is all it takes. If he has some real acting talent, it was not evident in this film. But if he has to utter lines like, “I will smudge your lipstick, but never your kohl,” who can blame the guy for looking nonplussed at all times?

The film begins with the animated inside of an ear (really!), which makes sense much later, as does the significance of the title. But most of the time, there is no attempt to even link one scene to the next. Why, for instance, does the film open with Sara (Kiara Advani—pretty and vapid) presenting a cheque to a nun? Why is she and the ‘hero’ Ransh (Mustafa Burmawala) car racers, it has no bearing on the story. How come the lead pair is seen in college one day and married soon after? Why is Sara so dumb that she loves and trusts a killer? What is Ronit Roy doing in this silly film in which he keeps asking Mustafa to give him a hug!

The lines are giggle-worthy—a guy shows Sara a video that is proof of a murder. Why didn’t you go to the police? she asks in a rare moment of lucidity. “Because I am a commando,” says the dude (Ehsan Shankar). At some point, Johny Lever turns up eyes popping, nostrils flaring, to add comic relief to a film that doesn’t need his overacting.

The plot borrows from Baazigar, Race and many other films and after a painfully extended climax, has quotes from Swami Vivekanand, Mahatma Gandhi, and Steve Jobs!  Huh?

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