Review of Kenneth Branagh’s sentimental, splendorous Cinderella!

CinderellaMost fairy tales conclude on such a delightful note, it’s easy to ignore the drudgery that paves the path of dream-come-trues. Even at its most simplistic they signify something truly profound — magic doesn’t simply fall in your lap, you have to earn it.

There’s an everlasting charm (and serious box-office potential) to this theory and umpteen successful adaptations, on paper and celluloid, attest it amply.

And so, after 101 Dalmatians, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, Disney doles out a live-action throwback to its iconic 1950 animation Cinderella, based on Charles Perrault’s 17th century fantasy.

It’s among the first fairy tales I read alongside the Russian Kolobok and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. If Kolobok had me pining for sweet bun, The Little Match Girl inspired premature melancholia but Cinderella made me want to swirl in a sparkly frock, slip in a pair of glittery shoes and look at pumpkins as little more than a source of fibre and vitamins.

You see, even kids without mistreating stepmothers and cantankerous siblings have bad days and the miraculous intervention in Cinderella offered much welcome comfort.

Except, as opposed to books, which allow you the liberty to become her and paint her with your own personality, movies are always about the bippity boppity boo, also one of the greatest gimmicks in children’s fiction.

What I love about Kenneth Branagh’s extravagant vision is he gives us a Cinderella that’s got a little more spirit (and penchant for horse-riding) if not the hand-drawn delicacy or singing prowess of her animated avatar.

A willowy Lily James (Rose from Downton Abbey) plays the heroine of many a young girl’s dreams with an enthusiasm that dazzles the screen, but is mindful of not stretching it too far. She’s trained for compassion, especially towards computer-generated rodents, by a mother whose last words of wisdom — on courage and kindness — she holds on to like a blessing, one she chants regularly, zealously.

Obviously meant in good faith for the young audience in the theatre, the lesson does strike as bit of a nag when reiterated constantly through the course of its 113 minutes.

Cinderella3 Developing a fairy tale’s concise, known-to-all contents into a nuanced drama takes skill and Branagh showcases his, through Cinderella’s splendorous, sentimental retelling.

He doesn’t miss a single detail. Like when Cinderella learns his father (a warm Ben Chaplin) wants to remarry, her face first turns pale but she quickly composes herself and welcomes the decision. She sees the world not as it is, but as it could be, we’re explained right at the onset. It’s the sort of sunny optimism that sits well with the genre. But there’s cynicism and cunning too – in the form of Cate Blanchett’s icy Lady Tremaine.

Mean was never this majestic. Wearing aloofness like an asset, Blanchett brings out the cold, hardened soul beneath a glossy veneer and velvety gait. There’s so much wicked drama in her sarcastic jabs, it makes Cinderella’s compliance incredibly convincing. Except some unfinished sentences and glazing moisture in her opaque, insecure eyes imply, “she too had known grief but wore it wonderfully well.”

Why such a sophisticated lady, even if revolting in her thoughts, would raise her two daughters to be such witless dolts (Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera are suitably skittish) is something I’ve often wondered.

Costume designer Sandy Powell is as much at the helm of Cinderella’s success as Branagh and his two leading ladies in conflict.

Her creations exude bold flamboyance for Lady Tremaine, kitschy candy hues for her girls, might and magnificence for Helena Bonham Carter’s fleeting Fairy Godmother and, above all, a joyous celebration of a girl’s grandest dreams and romance in the iridescent blues of Cinderella’s spellbinding 12-layer gossamer gown that goes best with a pair of gleaming glass slippers. Powell tailors more than a dress, she creates a person.

CinderellaVisually, too, the feel-good confection transports the viewer into a land of scenic countryside, baroque ballrooms, elegant mansions featuring swan-shaped chandeliers, vibrant bedrooms with flowery-patterned wallpapers, dimly-lit attics and plump, pouting rose gardens sprouting from the superlative imagination of production designer Dante Ferretti.

The latter is where Prince Charming (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden lives up to the title) has a moment alone with our titular beauty during the all-important ball.

“Glass slipper?” he asks with a tinge of disbelief. “And why not?” she counter questions, as if momentarily possessed by her director and theatre veteran Branagh responding to all the criticism hurled at him for taking on lesser (read big-budget Hollywood) films?

Cinderella is certainly destined for business. But because it’s in able hands, it doesn’t ruin your association with the classic by merely recycling what you already know. What it does is remind you of that forgotten virtue called grace and the timeless thrill of watching a garden pumpkin turn into a golden chariot.

Stars: 4

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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NH10 is a compelling watch until its underwhelming climax!

NH10Night seems to transform Gurgaon’s claustrophobic traffic into a magical bokeh of glimmering signal lights where aloof skyscrapers line up to embrace.

There’s deceptive comfort in its inanimate vibrancy.

For a long time the camera reports this urban scenery, forming the evocative view of a car window, against the tête-à-tête between a husband and wife driving to a friend’s bash. We don’t see their faces immediately– only giggling, whispered exchanges from a strictly private conversation.

But as night grows older, it gets dark. And dangerous.

Navdeep Singh’s NH10 ventures into an unsafe, unsettling space where shock quickly changes into survival and the brutality of a world you dreaded about from the fringes punches you right in the face.

Singh took Chinatown’s template to Rajasthan and moulded it as Manorama Six Feet Under. In NH10, he borrows the basic framework of Eden Lake and sets it in Haryana. He does a nifty job of it too until the problematic third act.

NH10 does what a good thriller ought to, without wasting a single second. He gets us acquainted with Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam is affable but doesn’t look short-tempered enough for the part) — well off, working professionals married to one another, people we are supposed to invest in right at the onset. They exude charm, humour and familiarity; you wouldn’t want a fly to hurt such nice folks.

Ten minutes in the movie, Meera’s attacked by a bunch of hoodlums while driving back alone from a late-night party but narrowly escapes owing to her presence of mind.

Yeh shaher badhta bacha hai ji. Kud toh lagayaga hi,” is the only ridiculous explanation an apathetic Gurgaon cop can offer. It’s terrifying how easy it is to believe the authenticity of this scene. As is the rudeness of the security guard who makes life hell if one holds a no-parking space for a second longer than his patience.

Singh also unflinchingly observes the disturbing misogyny that prevails in North of India as well as the game of genders but expresses it better when not forcefully creating moments to highlight it.

Like the scene where Meera’s colleague randomly remarks on how women have it easy following a presentation gone well. But he scores in the subtlety with which he conveys Meera’s disappointment and Arjun’s guilt over the afore-mentioned mishap.

A change of scene beckons. Arjun and Meera head out for a getaway trip to celebrate the latter’s birthday. If you’ve seen a bleeding, blasting Anushka on the poster of NH10 with a tagline that reads ‘No Turning Back,’ you know it doesn’t end in a picnic. It does not.

Navdeep Singh’s build-up to the horror is striking and, more importantly, chilling. A stranger taps on the windscreen and the camera zooms above the text of the passenger side-mirror – “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” even as the car moves away from his ominous figure. A Turkish nazar charm dangles furiously as if to warn the travellers of the danger lurking ahead. Even an innocuous cup of chai covered with wrinkled malai on its surface smacks of toxic air.

Eventually a violent fight involving honour killing drags the duo unwittingly into it. What makes it frightening is the plausibility, the commonness of such extreme ideology and the social acceptance of this savage lifestyle.

Things get awry and hopeless. Meera is forced to fight to escape, to rescue, to survive and to retaliate. And Anushka Sharma confronts the worst day of Meera’s existence with steely nerves and throbbing intensity. It’s a role that expects her to constantly change emotional pace and strategy but co-producer Anushka delivers it with a veteran’s accuracy.

An underwhelming climax, sadly, dilutes the triumphs of the stark thriller.

NH10Its consistently realistic tone plummets into standard avenging angel territory full of over-the-top theatrics and stylised rage. Moreover, this compulsive need for a last word kills the impact of many a strong, better-off-silent scenes in Hindi films.

There is an interesting standalone moment between Anushka and Darshan Kumar (quite a range from Mary Kom to NH10, I’d love to see more of this guy) as she lights up a smoke and observes him struggle in a body language that’s uncannily Bachchan. But in context of the film, it just doesn’t sync.

What matters though is NH10, even in its inspired form, is a reality we both live and deny.

Are men the protectors? Can women protect themselves? Are men the enemy? Are women the enemy? Will we ever get past caste, creed and gender? Are cities worse or villages? Is India too convoluted? Is anyone safe?

NH10 doesn’t provide easy answers. Can anybody?

Stars: 3

 This review was first published on rediff.com.

 

 

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Review: Dum Laga Ke Haisha will win your heart!

Dum-Laga-Ke-HaishaWe like to think of ourselves as special. We like to believe we deserve someone special. We mistake special for perfection. When we realise what it truly means, we come of age.

Writer and director Sharat Katariya’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha tells the story of two such people – Prem Prakash Tiwari (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Sandhya Verma (Bhumi Pednekar). But the beauty of his narration is how intimately it soaks in the milieu, the mood and the melody of its time – 1995, Haridwar.

Katariya doesn’t allow himself to be burdened by his choice of venue and its sanctified reputation. Tourists or temples aren’t forcibly filling the frames. Instead what we witness is the everyday aspirations of lower middle-class Haridwarians, their congested homes, unseen bankside views of Ganga, tiny shops lined across potholed streets, a gorgeous, grand library and old-school workout clubs.

Two decades behind in time, it’s a different world, this Haridwar. Don’t let the cow enter the shop, warns Prem’s father (Sanjay Mishra) quite matter-of-factly to his petulant son preoccupied in recording mixed tapes for customers. Humare yahan mann pasand gaano ki recording uchit mulyon pe ho jaati hai, reads a note on the glass door of their dingy store.

A Kumar Sanu fanboy, Prem ceases to be Lappu, as his family address him, once he puts on his headphones and compiles music with utmost dedication. He’d probably make a great music jockey but the half-sweater and ochre pants-clad high school dropout is much too Lappu, er, weak-willed to make something of his half-baked ambitions.

All his hopes for a Princess Charming are dashed when financial crunch in the family pressures him into marrying a plus-size belle during a mass wedding ritual. Sandhya’s educated, job-ready credentials make her a perfect fit for his circumstances if not heart.

While our perky bride seems to make the most of it, Prem gets nauseous by the second. Their 111-minutes long journey (deft editing by Namrata Rao) from awkward to awe-inspiring is why this adorable romance is a must watch.

Hindi films aren’t exactly known for their sensitivity where overweight characters are concerned but Katariya builds his leading man’s embarrassment over his big bride with thoughtful nuances. And Khurrana gets the tone of this smothered, vexed but essentially vulnerable chap just right. In trying not to play hero, he becomes one.

His co-star and Yash Raj Films’ latest discovery Bhumi Pednekar is quite a find. Nicely done for a brand that kick started the size zero trend, YRF. Dum Laga Ke Haisha banks on Bhumi to make her character accessible enough to relate yet spirited enough to inspire.

The newcomer doesn’t let you down and renders Sandhya worth rooting for, racing for. If her feisty side tackles her new home singlehandedly, the incorrigible romantic cannot resist catching fond glimpses of her grumpy husband from the corner of the eye.

Dum-Laga-Ke-Haisha-Having said that, there’s a scene where Prem behaves like a complete jerk around Sandhya. She doesn’t take it lying down either. It’s a stunning instance of how poorly demonstrated displeasure can quickly snowball into irreconcilable differences. Dum Laga Ka Haisha is a series of such riveting moments that make you moist in the eye and chuckle with joy.

Speaking of the latter, there’s a funny sequence where Sandhya tries to seduce her stiff significant other into submission by setting up the mood armed with Disclosure VHS and silky nightie.

This isn’t the only droll part. How Prem’s mom (Alka Amin) reacts to it is.

Amin’s comic timing is priceless at all times. As is Sheeba Chhaddha’s sharp-tongue aunt and her believable, melodrama-devoid household squabbles with Sandhya.

Here it must be added that Katariya receives solid support from his cast and crew.

Quite a few from Team Ankhon Dekhi collaborate. Sanjay Mishra is reliably crusty; Seema Pahwa is perfect as the hassled, small-town mom, Chandrachoor Rai, Mahesh Sharma do well as Khurrana’s sneaky and supportive cronies respectively whereas Shrikant Verma steals quite a few scenes with his chaste Hindi punch-lines (Hum toh thehre pracheen Bharat ke avshesh) as the wisdom-spewing Shakha Babu.

Dialogues are sheer joy of this experience where “moti saandni” and “stree sukh ya shararik vivashtha?” happily co-exist.

As with Ankhon Dekhi, Meenal Agarwal’s production design is authentic in its depiction of life in the heaving interiors. It’s a vision cinematographer Manu Anand beholds and beautifies in compositions of bright marigold strings adorning pale green walls that linger on like the aftertaste of this film.

I wasn’t too thrilled by the background score, which wears strong heard-before air to it and often overlaps the actual sounds of a scene. No complaints from Anu Malik’s soundtrack though. Moh moh ke dhaage’s dulcet tune and Dard karara’s retro vibes, penned by the versatile Varun Grover, cover quite a spectrum.

Maybe it’s a tendency to look romantically at the decade that’s closest to you but the 1990s were a fanciful decade. DD’s iconic Mile Sur Mera Tumhara trills in the background, Shah Rukh Khan stutters for Kiran on cable television, Kumar Sanu is the closest we get to divine intervention –yet Dum Laga Ke Haisha is subtle in the nostalgia it invokes, it has to be; the characters are living in the moment not basking in its influence.

Watch this utterly warm film and relive it with them.

Stars: 4

This review was first published on rediff.com. 

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Score bore: Ab Tak Chhappan 2 review

Ab Tak ChhappanWill he? Won’t he? There’s an attractive unpredictability to Nana Patekar’s contemplations on celluloid. It adds to his edge, calm and madness, or should I simply say – range.

A decade ago, when he played encounter specialist Sadhu Agashe in Shimit Amin’s slick Ab Tak Chhappan for the first time, he realised this virtue to its fullest potential revealing a refined facet of his real, rough persona.

At 64, he steps into the maverick cop’s shoes for a sequel, helmed by stunt director Aejaz Gulab, relying on his instincts to ginger up an unexceptional script. I don’t doubt Gulab’s regard for the original (and its drumstick references) but he’s completely out of his league as far as the generic follow up is concerned.

Gone is the crisp pace, the gritty gyaan, the deadpan violence, the crucial parallels of a cop’s personal and professional extremes that distinguished Ab Tak Chhappan from other films of its genre, an approach seen as recent as Rani Mukerji’s Mardaani. This one’s full of muted expletives, a crummy reproduction of the cat-and-mouse phone calls between cop and crook, cheap production values and crotch-obsessed low camera angles.

Gulab labours to establish the need for Agashe’s comeback — the first fifteen minutes of the sequel are dedicated to convincing the Goa-retired vigilante how his return is the only way Mumbai’s police force can save face and curb down increasing crime rates.

Agashe, I don’t blame him, is comfortable around his blissfully bucolic setting – frying fish in an open air kitchen, playing marbles with local kids, paddling a boat in unpolluted waters and slicing off fibrous coconuts for tender malai. He’s a lot more sociable around his son Aman (same kid all grown up, Tanmay Jahagirdar) now; they bond over piano and omelettes in indifferently written scenes.

It takes just a lame ‘my dad is a cop not fisherman’ prodding from Aman to propel Agashe back in business. This time a surly Ashutosh Rana fills in for Yashpal Sharma’s jealous junior while wheelchair-bound Raj Zutshi is at the receiving end of Patekar’s telephonic barbs. They’re the comic relief in this drivel.

Ab Tak ChhappanGul Panag plays a bespectacled crime reporter in blue shirts, jeans and smoky eyes – it’s the most uniform aspect of her performance. Dilip Prabhavalkar and Vikram Gokhale round up as khaki-clad politicians.

You know where this is going already, don’t you? Sadly, Ab Tak Chhappan 2 is so terribly obvious in its deviousness, there’s not even a smidgen of surprise to expect.

Nana Patekar tries to hold it all together with an alacrity and prudence that deserves a Denzel Washington framework but keeping his head high is the best he can do in the face of predictable easy targets and turncoats. It’s time to stop keeping score.

Stars: 2

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Jawani Diwani: Frothy, fashionable ode to the ’70s!

A still from Jawani Diwani.I am a sucker for nostalgia, be it mine or someone else’s.

So it was quite a treat to watch a film about a bunch of college-goers, played by actors from my parents’ generation, with my mother in tow.

Narendra Bedi’s 1972 campus romance Jawani Diwani, starring Randhir Kapoor and Jaya Bhaduri, captures the exuberant air of the flower power generation against a classic Bollywood narrative and Rahul Dev Burman’s rollicking soundtrack with such unapologetic abandon, there’s little to complain.

Here rebellion is attractive and responsibility is not. Lecture-ready parents don’t understand or try to bridge the disturbing lack of communication. They’re either a victim of their own conditioning or preoccupied with office to do the needful, feel teachers.

Except Jawani Diwani, produced by Ramesh Behl, is much too flamboyant, fashionable and frivolous to stray from its cheery pace and dwell excessively on the afore-mentioned problems of youth.

It’s a costume drama, really — an ode to the psychedelic seventies that gets all its heart and beats from RD’s sound — one so eclectic, pulsating, melodic, sexy and ageless.

Lyricist Anand Bakshi adds to the sensuality (Kaliyon ko khilne se pehle nahi todte) and sweetness (Dekh ke bas ek hi jhalak ho gaye hum paagal) blissfully oblivious of its remix potential.

A still from Jawani Diwani.There isn’t much in terms of plot.

Randhir Kapoor falls in love with well-heeled Iftekhar’s daughter (Jaya B) over orchestrated bike breakdowns and group antakshris. That’s a problem because decades ago, his elder brother (Balraj Sahni) married Iftekhar’s sister (Nirupa Roy) against his wishes and strained ties for good.

Director Bedi realises where the real masti lies and focuses on the college banter involving Randhir’s boisterous gang of friends (includes a kurta-clad Paintal, a girl nicknamed Bhaijaan), on-going rivalry with Narendra Nath’s show-off Reggie and the numerous pranks and bets they engage in, to win over the pretty new admission (Jaya). This would go on to become a beaten-to-death pattern of how college kids behave in films to follow.

As an aside, this ‘all play no work’ college you see in Jawani Diwani is the prestigious engineering establishment, IIT Bombay.
Jawani Diwani prides itself on casting against type.

A K Hangal’s straightforward principal is a far cry from his pleading, poor guy roles.

Nirupa Roy refrains from her tear-jerking tactics to deliver the toupee-sporting Sahni’s no-nonsense better half. She’s whistle-worthy cool in the scene she ticks off her husband for going in martyr mode, “Is ghar ke liye tumne jo kuch kiya hai tumhara farz tha. Maine jo kuch kiya hai mera farz tha, kisine kissi pe ehsaan nahi kiya. Phir kabhi apni kurbaani ka bhaashan mat dena.”

Satyen Kappu as Randhir Kapoor’s goofy uncle proves there’s more to him than a glum face.

A still from Jawani Diwani.Bollywood’s beloved cop Jagdish Raj shows his comic chops in the hilarious “Tumhare kitne baap hain?” episode wherein Kappu, Viju Khote and he land at Iftekhar’s home simultaneously insisting they’re RK Jr’s dad.

Even if Kapoor is tailor-made as the imprudent brat who gets away with a lot of mischief flashing those puppy dog eyes, Jaya Bhaduri gets a hip makeover in bell sleeves, bell bottoms and bouffant, mouthing lines like, ‘Dil toh is tarah bheja hai jaise bijli ka bill ho.’

That same year the actress also appeared in Gulzar’s Parichay in an aesthetic she’s most identified with — sensitive, sensible and substantial.

Her kitschy clothes and elaborate hairstyles lack the effortless chic of Zeenat Aman and tagging along a rag doll (a prop to signify her motherless, affection-deficit upbringing) to college is creepy even for the seventies. Amazingly though, the lady pulls off the charade and never runs out of good humour lending Jawani Diwani its madcap edge.

Both in their mid 20s then, she shares a fizzy chemistry with the frolicking, flippant Kapoor. The man’s a bouncy ball of impulses whether he’s reading love letters perched on a toilet seat, stomaching jokes about his flab or bringing out the claws at his favourite foe with comic contempt, “Woh Benny ka bacha aaj kutte ka bacha ban gaya hai!”

If this brand of scorn feels familiar, you’re probably a Kader Khan fan like yours truly. Jawani Diwani is his first film as a writer. In an interview to rediff.com, he reveals he made Rs 1,500 on this assignment, which led to an offer of another campus caper, Khel Khel Mein.

A still from Jawani Diwani.Regardless, extra brownie points to the Ponga Pandit hero for doing complete onscreen justice to Kishore Kumar’s animated fervour in Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani, Saamne Yeh Kaun Aaya, Agar Saaz, Jaane Jaan and Nahi Nahi in a way that can only be topped by the legend himself.

His co-singer Asha Bhosle impresses no less showcasing her vocal range in one of my all-time favourite ditties from the RD-Asha oeuvre. The part where she inquires Tum Kahaaaan? (Jaane Jaan Dhoondta) is in equal parts hot and haunting. As is the underrated Hai Tauba Mujhe Tune. Not to forget the trademark Asha touch Nahi Nahi (a solo composition she previously rendered in Bengali as Chokhe Chokhe Kotha Bolo, Sonar Juti) receives in the form of her coy ‘Na-na-na’s.

It’s these magical details, like RD’s ‘rrrreeeraaataraaaturrrraaa-isms’ bubbling in the background when the actors make their way into a brightly lit nightclub that Jawani Diwani finds its essential repeat value.

Like I emphasised earlier, the romp’s prime objective is to entertain. The characters aren’t particularly bright or brave except Balraj Sahni who acts as the voice of reason after his jobless kid brother elopes to settle in domestic bliss with his minor girlfriend.

A still from Jawani Diwani.When the script runs out of romantic schemes, it doles out familial conflict and student activism as an afterthought but, thankfully, wraps up speedily to overstay its welcome.

Director-producer-composer troika of Bedi, Behl and Burman tried to recreate the breezy romance of its Jawani Diwani jodi, once again playing characters called Vijay and Nita, withDil Deewana but it didn’t meet with success.

It doesn’t matter now. What matters is that you’re young just once. And to look back and smile at that time, its colourful reminder in film and how it made you feel is the next best thing.

This column was first published on rediff.com.

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