Thursday, August 17, 2017

Toilet Ek Pram Katha 

Loo Talk

There was scope for a satire on the new India, ifToilet Ek Prem Katha didn’t fall into the trap of shrill propaganda.

Set around Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, where computers, smart phones and social media has reached but not the ‘soch’ (thinking) that gives due respect to women. This is the Mathura where once a year women, on Latth Maar Holi, women beat their husbands with sticks; the rest of the year they are ghunghat-wearing, submissive cows.

Wearing fake foreign brands but an Indian inside the skin (he describes himself thus), Keshav (Akshay Kumar) and his chatty brother Naru (Divyendu Sharma) are under the thumb of their Brahmin father (Sudhir Pandey). If he has decided that 36-year-old Keshav has to marry a buffalo to ward off bad luck, and cannot get married to a woman unless she has two-thumbs (“like Hrithik Roshan”), he obeys without question. But lest you think Akshay Kumar is playing a loser, he has flings on the side, with cheerful break-ups.

Outside a train toilet – the loo is the movie’s presiding motif, after all—he meets the sharp-tongued Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar), who is educated and thinks like a foreigner (so she says). She vehemently objects to his stalking and using her picture to promote his cycle shop, but all she needs is a speech in which he says he will take on the world for her, and she is ready to marry him, turning into a ghunghat-wearing housewife.

But even she draws the line at going to the fields at the crack of dawn like other village women, to relieve herself. His father will not allow the construction of a toilet in the house, because it is against Indian culture (really?) so Keshav tries all kinds of jugaad, but Jaya gets fed-up and goes home to her parents. Her father and uncle (Anupam Kher) show their modernity by watching Sunny Leone songs on TV!

Up to this point, the film has a breezy charm, but Keshav’s quest to build a toilet either outside the village or inside the house, gets long drawn out and boring. In order to support the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, corrupt bureaucrats, get a clean chit. They have done their bit, but villagers either do not want toilets, or use the structures built for other purposes. By the time the women of the village have their say, it is too little and too late.

Still, Akshay Kumar is to be commended for doing a film like this, even if the subject was better suited for a short public-service ad, and a large chunk of his audience has never faced this problem. If the writers, director and star can still get people to empathise with Jaya (who get a lot of flak in the film for being educated), then the film would have served some purpose.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Jab Harry Met Sejal 

When DDLJ Met Roman Holiday

Movies seldom go beyond the happy reunion of the opposites who attract each other, for no other reason that they happen to be thrown together. But if the idea of romance is a whirlwind tour of pretty locations, and the happily-ever-after is dancing in the fields of Punjab, then it is definitely outdated.

Princesses and commoners have been circling each other since Roman Holiday (maybe earlier and certainly after) and every film that has a road trip as a love trap has been recycling that film or its Indianised version Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Over two decades later, Shah Rukh Khan playing a Raj named Harinder ‘Harry’ has to escort a young woman around, and even now, he believes white women are use-and-throw, while Indian women are to treated like “delicate porcelain vases.”  Even if the “vase” in this film, Sejal (Anushka Sharma) is a spoilt rich girl with a law degree she has little use for; she is engaged to be married to a rich Rupen, and anticipates the boredom in her married life, so wants to have a look-but-don’t-touch “honeymoon” with the tour guide. She is not, as Harry(she calls him Hairy with a Gujarati accent), says, a “cheapghatiya woman who would run away with the tour guide.” What’s unsaid is that if she were to be that kind of women, he would be 

The confused signals apart,  Jab Harry Met Sejal is several years outdated, and also built on an unconvincing premise.Sejal loses her engagement ring, and while the family returns to India, they leave her behind with Harry to hunt all over Europe for the ring—as if a diamond ring would be under restaurant tables or pavement cracks days later she lost it.  Harry does not want to get entangled with the bossy Sejal, and tries to put her off by saying he is a womanizer. That doesn’t faze her and they are off on the journey—always impeccably dressed and ready to dance after a night out on the tiles (literally).

Sejal claims to be offended that Harry doesn’t find her desirable (“layak is the word she uses), but she also knows that despite all her provocation, he is “safe.” Because in the Imtiaz Ali universe, the sheets don’t get mussed.

Of course, it’s a given that romance happens because the man is lean-mean Shah Rukh Khan, not his overweight buddy and she a glamorous young woman, not a mousy “sister type.”  That he can do this cheesy love story a million times and still not looked bored, is to his credit. Anushka Sharma gives more pluck to Sejal than she deserves. The music, camerawork, costumes are all fine, but the plot was lost long ago.


Bleak City

Gangster movies set in Mumbai have been overdone; it’s time for filmmakers to look for other dystopias and cinematographer-turned-director Shanker Raman’s film Gurgaon has found it in that extension of New Delhi, which is, however, light years apart in spirit.

With its gleaming malls, lavish bungalows and smooth flyovers,Gurgaon has become a metaphor for soulless progress; the development of the Haryana town put money and power into the hands of those who brazenly misuse it, and left behind the unfortunate farmers whose land was grabbed. In a scene in the film an architect shows the model of a new colony to a poor man, who points out that it stands where his village used to be.  

Haryana is, by all reports, a misogynistic society where female infanticide is carried out with impunity. The rich young men swagger sure that their dads’ wealth and connections will protect them.  Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) is one such baron, who is drowning in drink. His son Nikki (Akshay Oberoi) throws money around and has that arrogance that comes from entitlement; his brother Chintu (Ashish Verma) and buddy Rajvir (Arjun Fojdar) silently follow his lead. They are the kind of guys who, when denied entry into a nightclub, kidnap a musician (Srinivas Sunderrajan)  scheduled to play there.

When Nikki needs to repay a bookie, he plans to kidnap his adopted sister Preet (Ragini Khanna), whom he hates since she is his father’s pet. In this male-dominated world, women have little value—the mother (Shalini Vatsa) hovers around cooking and serving meals.

The abduction goes wrong, and while Kehri’s old friend Bhupi (Amir Bashir) tries to track down Preet, the film slowly reveals the family’s past and the crimes that made Kehri Singh what he is. 

The plot is not a whodunit, but an attempt to point out that every action may have an unexpected reaction. And, rather naively in today’s age, it is insistent on punishment for all the wrongdoing. Which is certainly commendable, but also, for one particular character, unbelievable and clichéd. At least two characters, Preet’s white friend (Anna Ador) and the musician are mostly redundant.

What Raman does well, with the help of Vivek Shah’s brooding camerawork, is capture the ominous contrasts of the place, and the lingering discontent of the characters. Tripathi, in a well-deserved lead role, channels a mumbling Don Corleone, but one whose best days are behind him. Oberoi gets the haughty, devil-may-care Nikki down pat, so does Vatsa as the woman who tries to keep her dysfunctional family together.

In the end, what lets the film down is that it is not a pleasant or edifying watch, nor can the audience invest in the fate of any character.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017


Twin Trouble

First the good news:  Anees Bazmee’s Mubarakan is not offensive. No double-meaning jokes or toilet humour. The bad news is that for a comedy of romantic mix-ups, it’s a bit heavy-handed. You can see the gags coming from a mile away, and the only two actors who have comic timing – or are allowed to display it amidst all that noise--are Anil Kapoor and his white sidekick.

Set mostly in London (lots of top shots to prove it’s not Film City) amidst a family of noisy Sardars (are there any other kind in Bollywood films?), it’s about orphaned twins Charan and Karan (a two-expression Arjun Kapoor)—one brought up by his aunt (Ratna Pathak Shah) in London and other other by his uncle in Punjab (Pavan Malhotra). Their other uncle Kartar Singh (Anil Kapoor), is a rich bachelor and their go-to guy to solve their romantic problems.

Karan is in love with Sweety (Ileana D’Cruz), but when his wedding is fixed by his family to a business associate, he does not know how to wriggle out. So he sends Charan instead to meet the girl, Binkle (Athiya Shetty), and her folks in London. But Charan is in love with a Muslim girl, Nafisa (Neha Sharma), and does not have the courage to tell his family.

They both tell Kartar and he promises that he will not let the Charan-Binkle match go through. In the process, his siblings and the twins’ foster parents fight and break off relations. To complicate things, Charan’s match is fixed with Sweety, but he has now decided he loves Binkle and wants to marry her.

All the characters shift to London at Christmastime for the weddings, and run riot there. Kartar has a large farm that he calls Mini Punjab, and that aforementioned lungi-wearing, Punjabi speaking, white valet. Of course, this is reverse racism, but Bollywood does not see the irony. (Kartar’s car bumper reads: Buri nazar wale tera munh gora).

The film has its funny moments, but Bazmee needed to cut the slack, trim the needless melodrama and make it crisp. The best lines are in the promo, everyone knows how it will end, so why stretch it till it snaps, more so because the older actors chew up the scenery and the young actors can all but stand around mouths agape. Athiya Shetty get nothing to do except make cow eyes at Charan.

If Mubarakan achieves something, it is to give NRIs a blingy wedding wardrobe for men and women to copy. And one Hawa Hawa number to dance to.

Raag Desh 

History Retold

There are not enough films on India’s freedom movement, and the role of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army has been portrayed in just a handful of films. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh is about the trial of three INA soldiers, and the whipping of nationalistic fervor at the time. Two years later, India did get independence, and the INA became a footnote in history.

The film has been made out of edited footage from a TV series commissioned by Rajya Sabha TV, which perhaps explains the repetition, uneven pace and inconsistency.  There is a surfeit of information about the INA and the Red Fort Trial of Prem Sehgal (Mohit Marwah), Sarfaraz Khan (Kunal Kapoor) and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillion (Amit Sadh). It is a story that needs to be told, but not in the soporific, history lesson manner that Dhulia adopts.

Netaji Bose (Kenny Basumatray) had the right idea and the charisma to attract thousands to his cause, but his revolution failed, he retreated and was killed in a plane crash (there are several theories about what happened) and his army was taken prisoner by the British.

The noteworthy issue in the story is that soldiers of the INA were a breakaway bunch from the British army and when they fought against them, they were forced to kill their own countrymen. If they were anguished about this, it is does not come across strongly enough. The three men were tried for conspiring against the king and for murder.

Their skilled lawyer, the great Bhulabhai Desai (Kenneth Desai), used historical precedents to get them off the murder accusation, and they were let off on the other charge because the British rulers were afraid of the rage of the Indian public if they hanged the three accused. This is portrayed by some slogan shouting and the refusal of a shopkeeper to serve an Englishman.

The film meanders along, taking in a romance between Sehgal and Captain Laxmi (Mrudula Murari), and comes together a little too late, in the last scenes of the trial and acquittal, but it does not succeed in engaging the viewer emotionally (which the recentDunkirk, did, just to give one example). Leaders back then believed in unity and harmony—Bose does not enter a temple till a Dalit man is allowed inside to, and rubs off a red pooja mark from his forehead so that he is not seen as favouring one religion. This is something today’s divisive politicians need to learn.

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