Bohemian Rhapsody Review: Mercury Rising!

Farrokh Bulsara was an insecure man. He didn’t enjoy discussing his background. He was uncomfortable about his Indian Parsi roots and immigrant parents. He was conscious of his conspicuous overbite. He was confused about his sexuality. He sought a special identity. He changed his name and never stopped reincarnating.

Farrokh Bulsara wasn’t another young bloke trying to fit in or be cool. He was a charismatic figure consumed by his music and melancholy. Someone who not only understood his art but revelled in it.

Music empowered him and while he was in studio or stage, his insecurities ceased to matter. But he belonged to a time that shamed his desires and fuelled his anxiety leading to both — intense isolation and chartbusting creativity.

A legend of the latter whose steady supply of anthems made us feel, free and fly.

To the world he was Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant frontman of Queen. A band he not only named, but also imprinted with his eccentricity until Queen was Freddie Mercury and Freddie Mercury was Queen. Through his extraordinary talent, he created an identity so larger-than-life; nobody could resist or deny its might.

Bohemian Rhapsody celebrates it to the hilt in this glorious, unabashed love song to the man and his music.

Its compromised accuracy, dramatic licences and often distant, demure documentation of Mercury’s intimacies — repeated biopic offenders — cannot not draw me away from the magnificent passion of Queen’s music making or Rami Malek’s meditative brilliance and ballsy embodiment of the British singer’s soul and showmanship.

Bohemian Rhapsody, which retains director Bryan Singer’s credit even after he was fired over his unprofessionalism and replaced by Dexter Fletcher for the final leg of production, plays by the numbers. It is what the music label executive (a scruffy Mike Myers) recommends, ‘Formulas work. Let’s stick to formula.’

Keeping that tradition, the film follows Mercury’s meteoric rise in scenes that quickly tick off chapters of his early life — baggage handler at Heathrow airport, victim of racism, aloof family ties, bumping into his future band mates Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), impressing them with his incredible vocal range and an instant connection to the woman (Lucy Boynton) he deeply loves and looks up to.

It is a dissatisfying context towards an epic life that won’t matter to fans who already know everything, fans who don’t mind the liberties and fans who respect Mercury’s wish to ‘want people to work out their own interpretation of me and my image’.

Truth be told, Bohemian Rhapsody, mirroring the character of the most eclectic song of Mercury’s career, changes its tone and texture as per whim.

Essentially though it is two stories — a musician who really cares about his craft and connecting to his audience and the difficulty of being homosexual in a conservative era.

Continuously dangling between enthused and confused, Mercury engages in (surprisingly downplayed) hedonistic activities to distract his mind, masquerade his frustration. His amused, unruffled surface betrays the hostility he encounters or the illness he conceals. But his writings trace his anguish — I’m easy come, easy go, little high, little low.

‘Come to me when you learn to love yourself,’ a future lover tells Mercury. Even at its most rocky, it is interesting to note how Mercury’s romantic relationships shape him. Somewhere his original insecurities still haunt him and allow people to assert their influence for better or worse.

Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t dwell in it too much, but Rami Malek’s forlorn eyes and needy body language captures it to precision. He is unbelievably good at evoking Mercury’s electric stage energy as well. From big haired androgynous rockstar in shiny bodysuits of the 1970s to cropped hair, chevron moustached, vests and jeans clad performer rocking the 1980s, the actor is simply livewire.

I challenge you to not feel anything but tears and goose bumps at the end of its awe-inspiring finale, a breathtaking recreation of the 1985 Live Aid concert.

The drama leading to that moment is mostly made up. The drama to follow is pure magic. Bohemian Rhapsody‘s crowd-pleasing nostalgia cheers Freddie Mercury’s exhilarating sound and infectious power play with such all-out gusto, you WILL break free all over again.

Rating: 3.5

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Mohalla Assi Review: All sound, no fury

An ancient city, both proud of and burdened by its heritage steeped in religion and spirituality, culture and casteism — Varanasi, Benares or Kashi — is far too complex and conflicting to explain in a few words.

In Dr Kashi Nath Singh’s Kashi Ka Assi, a novel spanning various decades and countless discussions, a good deal of time is devoted in observing the shifting mood and mind-set of residents of Assi, a prominent neighbourhood on the ghats of Kashi. What lends it distinction is the everyday politics and expletives-laden language.

The colourful character and cynicism of their provocative dialogue and the dilemma it carries is somewhat lost in Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s rambling, rabble-rousing adaptation for the big screen.

A dated air envelops Mohalla Assi‘s film-making, which chronicles the changes transpiring at the end of the 1980s, heading towards the new millennium, especially when its characters speak for effect, and are aware of its audience.

Strewn with protagonists shaped by their unique prejudices and principles, it labours to isolate Varanasi’s hallowed identity and devout atmosphere. By the banks of the holy Ganga, an entire community engages in the business of prayer and dharma.

There are pandits chanting scriptures, conducting rituals, supervising ceremonies or teaching Sanskrit in the tradition of their staunch Brahmin ancestors.

There are retired professionals and flag bearers of Hindutva defending and discussing the city’s politics and slow demise over bhaang and chai at a regular haunt — a thinking man’s adda.

A smarmy tourist guide speaks glibly of the land of mistakes. He means mystiques. ‘It’s all the same,’ he insists before rattling off some more paradoxes and marketing its magnetism to foolishly grinning foreigners seeking culture and cannabis in equal measure.

A little farther off the ghats, a pair of housewives share their woes and worries while going about their daily chores revealing a connection to society behind closed doors. 

If one’s husband and his complete lack of scruples is proving advantageous, another’s bigotry and refusal to adapt around an evolving socio-economic structure is leading to penury.

Their domestic ups and downs alternate as the central and peripheral arc overlapping several others.

Philosophy, politics and practicality cross paths in Mohalla Assi‘s ambitious premise. Except it is directed in such an unwieldy fashion that instead of rich satire, what emerges is a lumbering flab of incoherence and opinion glut.

Dwivedi stuffs in abundant history and point of view. Despite the credibility of its information or plainness of its bias, the action unfolds much too haphazardly to truly appreciate.

Between Mohalla Assi‘s commitment to the politics of religious ideology, rampant globalisation, fraudulent god men, fumbling governments and the impact of a poor pandit‘s stubborn social stand on his family and the struggling panda community, the experience is awfully cumbersome.

Assi’s trademark profanity occupies every sentence of the movie. But if it sounds more contrived than crude, blame it on the actors and how consciously they deliver them. There’s simply no sur to their swearing.

Sunny Deol is terribly miscast as the stuck-up pandit spearheading a kar sevak rally, resisting foreigner lodgers and moaning about the declining demand for Sanskrit teachers. More parrot than priest, he appears to be reading out his lines from a teleprompter.

Amidst Mohalla Assi‘s space of stagey, inconsistent performances, Sakshi Tanwar brings out the insecurities and irritation of her confined authority with spark and sass.

Dwivedi’s knowledge of language, clarity of thought and profound understanding of India’s value system has defined his creativity. It is most striking only when the film takes a break from its endless yak yak to question and not answer.

Is Varanasi dying, evolving or compromising? Do its denizens offer allegiance to faith or seek freedom from it? Is God’s omnipresence a matter of relief or argument? Is Mohalla Assi worth the trouble?

Rating: 2

This review is first published on rediff.com.

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Review: Pihu plays on our sympathy

One of my mother’s worst memories is when I got locked out in the next-door neighbour’s apartment and clambered my way to the balcony ledge.

It was on the second floor. The balcony had no grills. And I was 18 months old.

The ordeal she went through, until a brave young resident volunteered to climb up from outside and rescue me, is something she wouldn’t wish upon her worst enemy.

Not all such episodes are freak accidents.

Often adults don’t realise the repercussion of their actions on the child and how it can put them in harm’s way. Director Vinod Kapri looks at this grave possibility around the experiences of a two-year old (Myra Vishwakarma) in Pihu.

The premise is stuff of dark thrillers, a real-time horror, which is somewhat thawed by the cuteness and curiosity of the titular tot at its centre.

Pihu‘s innocuous opening credits build around the clamour of a birthday party and animated chalk doodles give little indication of the trouble ahead. The morning after begins on a cruel note for Pihu. But the tragedy is lost on the little girl.

Too young to understand why her “Mumma” won’t respond to her cries or demands, she wanders about her duplex apartment alone and oblivious to its increasingly danger prone surroundings.

A scalding-hot iron, loose stack of electrical wires, a relentlessly running tap, toxic bottle of phenyl, broken pieces of glass and a dangerously bare balcony of a high rise, Pihu is walking through a minefield in her own home. The microwave sequence, in particular, is daunting and nauseous.

Her mother’s still state and a pile of pills scattered on the floor tell its own story. As do the bruises on her face and wrist. The mirror bears a burden far brutal than this family’s reality whose happier times only reflect on walls and frames.

Her father’s angry phone calls and family friend’s apologetic tone does not confirm what we sense is deceit or suspicion. Pihu plays on its intrigue and our sympathy.

Kids are a vulnerable lot after all. They need constant care, attention and protection. It is interesting to see how a two year old will survive in an environment devoid of ‘Don’t do this’, ‘Stop’, ‘This is too dangerous’ or ‘You are too small’.

The potty-trained, remote control-operating Pihu does surprisingly well. 

Though it runs only 90 something minutes, Kapri fails to sustain a sense of real terror around the crisis. A lot of it looks orchestrated; the dubbing is sloppy and the ease with which Pihu overcomes her boo-boos would be a lot more believable in an Incredibles movie.

Despite its shortcomings, Pihu is an experiment worth encouraging. It may not be a flawless work of film-making but it has something valid to say about lousy parents.

Rating: 3

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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