Revisiting the REBELLIOUS rang of romance in Silsila

No Holi celebration since 1981 is complete without the sound of Amitabh Bachchan’s Rang Barse Bheega Chunarwali blasting off the speakers.

The mischief in his durable voice spewing racy, adulterous, suggestions and reveling in the after-effects of potent bhaang to serenade his much married muse in a gulaal-painted stupor while their shocked spouses look on is the quintessence of Yash Chopra’s Silsila.

And the indecorous rituals of Holi.

Lines are crossed, clandestine romances come out in the open and embarrassment and heartbreak struggle for first place as the high-spirited festival of Holi, synonymous with flirting and horseplay, becomes much more than friendly fooling.

That song, penned by poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan, is a mini summary of Chopra’s much-hyped take on extra-marital affairs best known for the cast of Amitabh, Jaya Bachchan and Rekha — both its prize and problem.

Lasting about 10 minutes, the crucial Holi sequence begins with Rekha wondering, ‘Holi ka rang dekhkar pehla pyaar kyun yaad aa jaata hai‘, Jaya noting ‘Is desh mein pati premi nahi hote‘, makes headway in Bachchan cutting loose and, finally, Sanjeev Kumar commenting ‘Kai rang pakke hote hain‘ to imply he knows about her affair.

Slyness is the soul of Silsila. Although only Amitabh Bachchan’s Amit is a playwright, nearly everyone speaks like characters of a drama. Every dialogue is poesy and means to insinuate more than what is spoken. Often alluding to a person’s state of mind.

When Amit dismisses a wound as kharash, his wife explains, ‘Kharash toh aur buri hoti hai. Na zakhm nazar aata hai, na dard ki kasak jaati hai.’

It is a gorgeous line like many others written by Sagar Sarhadi and Silsila happily resorts to romanticism to distract us from the ensuing poppycock. Irresistible and frustrating in equal measure, it feels like a self-aware, shrewd vanity project playing on our unnatural curiosity about celebrity lives.

The very idea of AB, Jaya and Rekha sharing a frame screams sensational. It has been over three decades but public interest in their alleged triangle refuses to die. You can only imagine what a big deal it was in 1981 after Jaya and Rekha replaced the original choices Smita Patil and Parveen Babi. But in trying to tease the viewer and toe the line between speculated and make believe, Silsila oversells its premise.

Part of the problem is the writing. It is all over the place. Chopra’s best romances are a beautiful blend of breezy courtships and intense conflicts boosted by a sound narrative and pretty aesthetics. Even at their most melodramatic, they are brimming in conviction. 

Silsila‘s sluggish pace and weakly written roles fail to live up to the boldness it promises. No wonder it wasn’t a success.

Of its 180 minutes, the first hour is devoted to AB wooing Chandni (Rekha), a stunner he met at his best friend’s wedding, with roses and romantic letters recorded in a cassette. Picturesque dream sequences in tulip fields of Amsterdam and midnight walks in uncharacteristically safe neighbourhoods of Delhi against Shiv-Hari’s breathtaking melody and Javed Akhtar’s dreamy lyrics raise a toast to their scorching passion.

The focus then shifts to an extended bromance between him and Shashi Kapoor — how cool is that a guest appearance gets top billing? Their drunken merrymaking and showering sessions labours to highlight a camaraderie so significant he’ll agree to marry the latter’s pregnant girlfriend after he dies in air combat.

Jaya Bachchan plays Shobha, a woefully, weak-willed person belonging to the Mere liye pati pyaar hi nahi, parmeshwar hai school of thought, practically begging for sympathy by saying things like, ‘Who’ll marry me now?’ After all this, she has the audacity to claim, ‘Main itni kamzor nahi ke doosron ke sahare jeeon.’ It is painful to watch her humiliation especially because how dignified and understated she actually is.

The women of Silsila are pure cardboard. Rekha looks like a goddess, absolutely divine in her flawless makeup and ethereal wardrobe — the classic Yash Chopra dream but ask her for some spine, there just isn’t any. If the women are sorry figures sans any agency, the man they are declaring a war of pyaar versus vishwas is foolish beyond compare.

 

For an evolved writer, believe it or not, an Academy Awards nominee at that as Sushma Seth announces, Amit behaves like an impossible teenager who first makes silly decisions, regrets them almost immediately and wants his life back just the way it was at the expense of hurting everyone in it.

Despite these glaring flaws, Silsila is immensely watchable.

Chopra’s plush sensibilities turn every frame into a postcard beauty and mellifluous gem. Affluence abounds as the scenes and songs shifts from five star hotels and world-famous gardens to sprawling kothis and their elegant interiors. Injecting life into its cosmetic allure are actors seasoned enough even to make sense of its contrived complications.

The sight of AB reciting poetry, his lived-in intimacy around Jaya, undeniable chemistry with Rekha does a good deal to damage control for its super selfish on-screen avatar. But it is Sanjeev Kumar’s gracious better half walking away with all the sympathy and glory.

When it comes to the rest, Silsila refuses to let them be. Sure, it is 1980 and Indian society’s hawk-eyed, judgmental, moral police is brutal in its scrutiny, even towards those who can afford private choppers.

Undecided between its regressive and rebellious impulses, Chopra burdens the society-defying aspiration of his leads with moralistic repercussions and a guilt that doesn’t feel authentic. And its need to drive that last minute by tossing in a Punju aunty instructing how ‘Aurat ka maan maa bankar hi hai nahi toh woh aadhi aurat hai‘ is pure cringe.

So by the final scene, Chopra is back to his favourite accident ruse to control the fate of its characters and thrust them into a marriage that is right not romantic.

Silsila didn’t work. But its roaring rang of romance continues to colour every single Holi.

This column was first published on rediff.com.

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Review: Akshay and Action are Kesari’s strengths

21 Sikh soldiers against 10,000 Afghan tribesman — it’s a staggering statistic and splendid premise for a full-bloodied action film.

A feat Kesari not only honours but delivers too if only you’ll be patient.

The year is 1897 and the guidelines of a Bollywood historical insist on delaying the deed in favour of hackneyed subtext and tedious sentiment. Shot against the picturesque backdrop of Spiti valley’s majestic snowy mountains and craggy landscape, Kesari would be a lot more taut and short than its 150 minutes if its building up for battle revealed more strategy than shenanigans. And so no matter how much uniformity it projects, this is, ultimately, an Akshay Kumar vehicle. He even changes into a saffron turban in case you miss the point.

From his gallantry when he rescues an Afghani girl from getting executed, his wounded patriotism on being humiliated by the evil British officer, his team spirit as he takes charge of the 36 Sikh regiment at Saragarhi to his secular beliefs as he builds a mosque for the local tribesmen, Kesari devotes a significant chunk of its script to brandish Akshay’s might as the dauntless, magnanimous, Sardar, Havildar Ishar Singh.

To his credit, the actor is a picture of restraint and righteousness as the worldly-wise Sardar on a mission.

Anurag Singh’s fictionalised take on the Battle of Saragarhi, where a small group of Sikh soldiers in the British army laid their lives down while fighting an overwhelming enemy pays rich tribute to the Sikh community, their valour and religious dogmas.

As its most virtuous embodiment, Ishar Singh instructs the cook to offer water to the injured, whether one of their own or the enemy. But it is his almost spiritual outlook towards combat where the imprint of his teachings shows most favourably.

The cardboard adversary is on the other side of the extreme. If the British are toffee-nosed bosses getting their kicks out of demeaning the ghulams, the Afghanis are one-note barbarians misusing religion to incite violence.

There is no middle ground in Singh’s black and white shades of conflict. Instead, customary scenes of comedy and romance squeeze their way in until Kesarican truly take off. Parineeti Chopra, as Ishar Singh’s wife, has imaginary gupshups with him and has precious little to do. But his 20 other home-sick companions at Saragarhi receive just about enough attention for us to feel bad when they fall.

Once the battle gets rolling, Kesari jumps into high-octane mode. Though heavily outnumbered, the rifle-ready soldiers assume their positions to guard the fort swarmed by opponents.

They know how it’s going to end. You know how it’s going to end. But the raw bravado at display, the high-pitched intensity and the relentless urgency of the events kept me on the edge of my seat.

Things get down and dirty by the end. The carnage by the door, pile of corpses used to clamber atop, a wall scribbled in casualties, swords skewering man after man, the upshot is more bloody than kesari.

Rating: 3

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Review: Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is a must watch!

When I first watched Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota at a film festival last year, I enjoyed its zany nostalgia imprinted in the solid pop culture values of a movie buff from Matunga. When I watched it again, it only reconfirmed how original his film-making voice is.

Director Vasan Bala’s mind is a field of dreams where spotless childhood memories come alive alongside visions of quirky ingenuity. He has an eye for seeing what was always there, but in a way that gives it an entirely new perspective. He has an ear for music that’s fun, funky and flows with the narrative.

Though Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota Hai is awash with nods and tributes, it’s much too creative and humorous in its treatment of those motifs to be branded the handiwork of a fanboy. For those of us who subscribe, cinema is a lifelong obsession that starts on early. Whether its inspiration is Bachchan or Bruce Lee, the faith of a knee-high cinephile is etched in stone.

Bala honours a good deal of that untainted optimism in the adventures of a man faking an ‘ouch’ every time he gets hurt owing to an incredibly rare medical condition — congenital insensitivity to pain. It’s a telling title and delightful subversion to the Big B’s famous dialogue from Manmohan Desai’s Mard.

When we first meet Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani), the boy from the ‘burbs is holding off a band of baddies charging towards him like raging bulls in slow motion. Newcomer Abhimanyu exudes an easy vibe and unmanufactured naiveté that is disarming even with, if not because of, all the eccentric energy enveloping him.

Sporting maroon Adidas athleisure and blue Onitsuka Tigers, a fashionable first impression is cut short to focus on a flashback featuring Chiranjeevi grooving to a 1990s earworm. Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan pop up too and inadvertently provide hilarious insights on fan theories.

Retro cues are abundant in scenes of schoolboy Surya dressed like a steampunk pilot and lugging about a hydration backpack, mouthing battle cries fashioned from Govinda and Chunky Pandey-starrers, the various weapons of destruction sneaked into a perilous geometry box or the girl he befriends as a kid until faith and fathers tear them apart.

Whether his unique ailment triggered by a tragic backstory turn him a superhero or not, his voracious consumption of VHS tapes, mostly martial arts movies, has turned him into a steadfast believer of unbridled daredevilry and wannabe vigilantism. Dehydration is his kryptonite but a paranoid daddy’s refusal to release him from a confined existence has only reinforced his Peter Pan ardour.

As has Surya’s Ajoba (a quaintly endearing Mahesh Manjrekar) whose liberal grandparenting addresses both — his fighter dreams (in slangy code words) and pubescent desires (in Sahe-Lee suggestions) leading to much mirth in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.

Its winsome attributes escalate when Radhika Madan’s Supri swoops into the frame. Her introduction set to the tunes of Nakhrewali, both old and new, is a fitting acknowledgment of her spunk, one she amply demonstrates while pounding a bunch of molesters, leaving both Surya and the audience gobsmacked. That scene where she rapturously gushes about the pleasures of itching though is simply priceless.

The refreshing absence of melodrama in its bachpan besties reunite as adults trope stays true to Bala’s consistently idiosyncratic tone. But it’s not like Mard shies away from showing heart. Rather, it’s full of characters accepting their disorder, disability, limitations and conditioning willing to work their way around it.

Like Madan is a curious contradiction. A karate expert who can beat the daylights out of wrongdoers stays mum about her NRI suitor’s shabby treatment for the sake of her sickly mother’s treatment. I am nothing, she confides to her mother (a empathetic Loveleen Mishra lending dignity to a troubled part) in one heartfelt scene.

Except she is and Karate Mani agrees.

Gulshan Devaiah’s one-legged karate instructor as well as his evil twin, Jimmy are Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota‘s biggest trump cards. His keen attention to both ensures their distinction proving his versatility and Bala’s talent for tapping unique facets of the actor’s personality, something you’d see too if only his directorial debut, Peddlers would receive the release it deserves.

A crackling recap of what prompted the Mani-Jimmy hostility finds its pitch perfect expression in a rollicking ode to S P Balasubramaniam’s inimitable playback skills. Karan Kulkarni’s songs are a hoot, a sentiment that is repeatedly resonated in the course of its 137 minutes running time.

Bala creates a world so mad yet meticulous and unlike no other (When was the last time the hero wanted the villain’s address?).

The chalk and cheese siblings’s growing animosity, friends reconnecting atop their old terrace aptly abandoned for redevelopment purposes, a wacky action set piece inside a security services building whose aged custodian is a scene-stealing Mama evoking MTV days of yore and a royal rumble that begins with funniest piece of fart gyaan, reality and whimsy collide non-stop in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.

Vasan Bala has fun through and through.

People trip down the stairs, dash into vehicles, slash their palms, break their lip, swallow scalding hot water but pain is what you make of it. Who knows this better than a man trying to make a film? As Chiranjeevi reminds us in that flashback before, ‘It’s a challenge!’

Rating: 4

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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