Review: Aiyaary feels like unending punishment

Aiyaary begins with a lengthy disclaimer stating it is a work of fiction and wasn’t created to hurt the Indian Army’s sentiments in English and Hindi.

It’s true.

Dedicated to the unsung soldiers and aimed at intelligence agents gone rogue and ex-army men turned thugs who speak in weird English accents, Neeraj Pandey’s latest film exists to punish cinephile civilians with its tortuous 160 minutes of tedious indictment and baffling chronology.

Three fourths of Aiyaary is just people walking and sitting, looking at their phones and outside their balconies as if acknowledging the emptiness that is this film.

To be fair, one is offering an early indication of how sluggish things will get when the camera first pans over Sidharth Malhotra staring into India Gate — I am surprised there’s an editing credit at all.

Sidharth plays a third generation soldier, now stealing classified military data like those amateur shoplifters clumsy enough to leave footage on CCTV and for reasons that make him look more juvenile than disillusioned.

His seemingly shady deals with crooked arms dealers throw him on top of mentor Manoj Bajpayee’s hit list.

Apparently, they have some special camaraderie, one that never makes it on screen despite a second half entirely dedicated to flashbacks about one another, of which I remember little someone wanting to eat Maggi.

Aiyaary loves flashbacks like Dennis loves trouble.

Regardless of need or subtext, it finds ways to force a visual of a past no one cares to know.

There are a handful of moments that show sparks of what Aiyaary could have been if not for its stubbornness to stay stiff and safe that neither allows it the potboiler attitude of Ek Tha Tiger nor the gravity of Madras Cafe.

Neeraj Pandey never had an eye for visuals or technique.

In Aiyaary, irrespective of its globetrotting vigour, he doesn’t even try.

What he does do is slap it with a background score filled with jump scare sound effects that have no business being anywhere near a spy thriller, even one as deadbeat as this.

Part of its disjointed narrative, erratically jumping from one scene to another involves Vikram Gokhale’s army chief showing his bribe-offering ex-colleague Kumud Mishra the door.

Mishra, an able actor, is reduced to unintentional comedy when bragging, ‘I’ve been a soldier, a decorated one at that,’ making one wonder his need to deceive.

There’s also Sidharth’s job interview of Rakul Preet Singh, who seems to be something between an IT professional, hacker and compulsive online shopper specialising in illegal fund transfers. The next minute, they’re celebrating birthdays, spinning in the rain and plotting to run out of the country.

Sure, Sidharth looks good in uniform. And in pink lipstick and prosthetic, bearing an eerie resemblance to the British actress Juliet Stevenson. But neither he nor the film has the humour to make a laugh out of it.

Aiyaary assembles a cast of mostly solid actors, including Pandey favourite Anupam Kher in a superfluous role, and then takes great pains to cut them down to size.

Bajpayee can sink his teeth into snappy dudes any time of the day. This is a walk in the park for him, but it’s no fun to see his energetic fury squandered for wishy-washy valour.

All the more conspicuous when Pandey treats treason like a game of musical chairs and doodles a prank of a plot. There’s some talk about the war widows fund, a trump card like secretive air around the sparsely used Naseerudddin Shah, Bajpayee’s domestic life squeezed in awkwardly to no effect and Adil Hussain as a dapperly dressed London businessman treated like the desi mom whose phone no one answers.

It’s a bloated, prolonged mess of misplaced purpose that digresses from military misdeeds to animal cruelty.

By the time I could make sense of any of this yawn, I was collapsing with exhaustion and disinterest. That I learned is not the worst thing when there’s still half a film remaining to roll.

Rating: 1/5

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Review: Black Panther is more than a superhero movie

Black Panther doesn’t have the manner of a regular superhero vehicle.

It’s the first thing you notice and love about the latest Marvel comic book character to get a solo movie and his insistence to be more than a swanky suit and supreme strength.

Over the years, we’ve been conditioned to believe superhero films are only about Caucasians saving the world and striving for higher ideals.

But the Ryan Coogler-directed joyride is as much about launching an underrepresented race into the mainstream seamlessly and complexly as much as it’s about redefining the rules of entertainment.

The African Diaspora comes alive in its robustly designed, costume-lavish, spectacle-ready frame of Black Panther whose story is rooted in the ancient realm of Wakanda.

Rich in vibranium, the formidable metal (and the secret of Captain America’s indestructible shield) its proud, industrious people have cultivated and wielded to create a self-sustained centre of path-breaking technology, Wakanda assiduously maintains a Third World front to deflect unwanted attention from trespassers and troublemakers.

Following the demise of its king in a bomb explosion of Vienna — documented in Captain America: Civil War — Wakanda is gearing up for the coronation of his son and successor, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, smouldering, seductive, sinewy).

Dazzling, dizzying activity unfolds in its effervescent rituals and ceremonial combats against the backdrop of magnificent waterfalls, as the man of the hour emerges victorious despite great odds and stakes his claim to worthiness.

But for all his decorated significance and dilemmas about to be or not to be, it’s the women who protect and assist him at every turn — guiding mother (Angela Bassett), gizmo-friendly sister (Letitia Wright), feisty general (Danai Gurira) and gritty ex (Lupita Nyong’o) — that elevate Black Panther‘s mesmerising disposition into a mind-blowing one.

Basset’s commanding charisma does its job from the sidelines while the cheeky Wright, reminiscent of a young Winnie Paranjpe (remember her in Katha?), brings in unexpected adorability to the nearly forgotten sibling equation.

Nyong’o is the picture of effortless feminism whereas Gurira’s blustering swagger demands a cinematic platform of its own.

It wouldn’t be unrealistic to say that the women of Wakanda and not vibranium as its greatest asset and in an alternate universe, they’d be ruling the universe probably with the warriors of Amazon (look up Wonder Woman) by their side.

Black Panther has tons more revolution on its mind — for black lives, for Hollywood, for comic book universes. It’s an eventful screenplay and a supremely engrossing one.

The director of Fruitvale Station and Creed marries indie punch with blockbuster bluster to throw up a Bond-like enthralling car chase in the splashily lit-up streets of Busan, a late night rescue operation in the shadowy jungles of Nigeria, a surreal dream starring tree-bound panthers, northern lights-inspired skies in the psychedelic vein of Alice in Wonderland and an unfortunate family dispute that harks all the way back to 1992 in Oakland, America.

Under Coogler’s direction, T’Challa must contend with the conventional face of villainy (trust Andy Serkis to have a blast even when a caricature) as well as confront an adversary (more power to Michael B Jordan) backed by valid reason.

What lends these conflicts authenticity and individuality is Coogler’s refusal to pick sides or resolve the matter of identity, entitlement and privilege in context of African and African American conclusively.

Somewhere, the ethnic overture in Black Panther is so deliberate and overpowering, it makes the presence of Serkis and his Hobbit co-star Martin Freeman seem like forced inclusions.

This is a spirited but emotional origins story — of a king learning the predicaments of power, a son overwhelmed by the idea of filling his father’s shoes, of co-existence and divide that is defined by colour and discriminated by history. And that it’s just as dedicatedly fun doubles the pleasure of it all.

Rating: 4/5

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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The Shape of Water Review: Spellbinding Ode to Impossible Love

Guillermo Del Toro sees people. And monsters.

He dives inside souls and seeks out beauty from the grotesque like rare pearls that’d be little more than mothballs to the unfeeling eye.

It’s probably what sparked his desire to see a romantic union between the tragic aquatic beast in the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Julie Adams.

‘You wouldn’t understand. You couldn’t understand. Not if you tried your whole life,’ bemoans an exasperated voice at a character incapable of such sensitivity. Fortunately, his inadequacy doesn’t come in the way of savouring The Shape of Water, Del Toro’s spellbinding ode to impossible love.

A poetic darkness and undisguised exuberance paints almost all his stories, but the sublime sentimentality of his latest, nominated for a whopping 13 Oscars, is the most evolved his film-making has ever felt.

Beginning with Alexandre Desplat’s haunting melody, evoking the enchantment of the Pan’s Labyrinth lullaby, and a voiceover serving as a foreword, a technique rather favoured by Del Toro, the sight of water fills its every frame and not just the title.

Water is to this film what ice is to Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s romantic fantasy that frequently comes to mind as its potential for impracticality grows.

From eggs boiling in a pot and a splashing bathtub to the daily thoughts of her calendar (‘Time is but a river flowing from our past’) and the manner in which Eliza (Sally Hawkins, you’ll be the one speechless after witnessing her perfection) was first discovered, water seems to write out her destiny and encounter with an amphibian man (Doug Jones, wearing latex like second skin) at the research facility she works for as a cleaner.

Eliza bears sharp scars on her neck and does not speak.

There’s a spirit in her silence that communicates she may be lonely but not without support.

The latter comes to her in the friendship of an ageing gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins juggles failure and friendliness with seasoned ease) and sharp-witted black co-worker (Octavia Spencer at her humorous best).

Deliberate in its politics, The Shape of the Water makes a valid case for pertinent issues by weaving the degree of discrimination in America’s Cold War-afflicted ambience reeking of white supremacy and disregard.

This is as much a fairy tale as it is about the eternal subjugation of marginalised outcastes at the hands of bigoted authority.

The year is 1962. The location is Baltimore.

With the arrival of a mysterious merman in the military lab, Eliza’s daily routine finds a welcome distraction in his enormous appetite, scaly texture and aquamarine eyes.

Del Toro revives and upgrades the creature from Black Lagoon and acknowledges his South American origins before gifting him a consummate romance and thereby fulfilling his childhood fantasy.

On first glance, the creature is fierce to behold. But there’s something gentle, almost human, about his lips and ballooned gaze that makes Eliza’s attraction not just fathomable but oddly sensual too.

The intensity of their passion is confirmed every time his skin breaks into an iridescent glow revealing the peak of his peace and her joy.

Romantic to the core and a master of visuals, Del Toro immortalises their togetherness with gushing sentimentality inside an empty movie theatre celebrating two of his biggest loves — cinema and monsters.

The Shape of Water is full of marvellous details and poignant insights about the human condition and its curiosity for ‘intricate beautiful things’, one that is actively threatened by Eliza’s racist boss, who in Michael Shannon’s sophisticated savagery, achieves frightening authenticity.

As the real revolting figure of the plot, obsessed with keeping his scrupulous record of getting the job done as intently as The Shape of Water is with the colour green, Shannon keeps the action taut and tense with his volatility.

Although his condescending attitude towards his subordinates borderlines on overkill, it works on account of his innate haughtiness.

Another fascinating character in the tale is Michael Stuhlbarg’s sympathetic scientist caught between his patriotism and profession. His hawk-like eye on Eliza’s activities and polite feud with Shannon lead to the movie’s most thrilling bit — the creature’s freedom.

Even if the intelligibility of his rescue is almost miraculous in its estimates, it’s one you pray for so, SO ardently, like you once did for ET.

Del Toro hits a cinematic nerve in capturing an enduring love for the oddball, the beauty in the bizarre and, most importantly, reminding what it’s like to have what one wished for since a kid — a happy ending.

Rating: 4/5

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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