Thank you for that smile, Shashi Kapoor

Only last week I wished Aseem Chhabra, my colleague and author of the Shashi Kapoor biography The Householder, The Star, on his birthday with a gif of the charming star flashing his famous smile and flooding the frame with flowers.

Now as I receive the sad news of Shashi Kapoor’s passing, the same marvellous, melting smile appears before me.

Undeniably attractive as he was, his crooked smile — one that made women go weak in the knees — symbolised the beauty of imperfections to me.

When I was a kid, I was terribly conscious of my irregular set of teeth but seeing Shashi Kapoor laugh so wholeheartedly despite it inspired me to embrace my defect as my distinction.

Although he graduated to playing supporting parts by the time I woke up to movies, my love for vintage fare ensured I was familiar with his stardom from back in the day.

I still remember how my next-door neighbour Chhaya Aunty would transform into a giddy schoolgirl talking about him. And the fact that he responded to her fan mail with a letter turned her into an even bigger fan. Often she would share the gratitude expressing contents of her carefully preserved letter with me.

Shashi Kapoor was a born star. Two of his earliest performances, playing a knee-high version of big brother Raj Kapoor in Aag and Awara, confirm it most ardently.

But it’s the imagery of him as the boyish, bashful adult serenading his sweetheart with a lilting song that struck a chord on screen. Personally though, it’s his thinly veiled sarcasm in Sharmilee‘s Kaise kahen hum pyaar ne humko kya kya khel dikhaye that impressed me more.

From fluffy musicals woven around the routine rich-poor conflict and maudlin misunderstandings in hits like Jab Jab Phool Khile, Sharmilee, Kanyadaan, Haseena Maan Jayegi, Pyaar Ka Mausam, Pyaar Kiye Jaa, Abhinetri, Waqt and Aa Gale Lag Ja to happily filling in the runners-up slot in Amitabh Bachchan centrepieces like Namak Halal, Do Aur Do Paanch, Deewar, Trishul, Kabhi Kabhie, Shaan, Silsila, Suhaag, Shashi Kapoor’s career followed a safe but significant path.

Mere Paas Maa Hai
— one of the most immortal words spoken in Indian movie history came out of him.

His efforts to cross over internationally in Merchant-Ivory’s The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah and Bombay Talkie as well as Conrad Rooks’ Siddhartharevealed an aesthetic and sensitivity profoundly missing in his portrayal as a Hindi film hero.

He personified the kind of debonair charm, sublime sensuality and unabashed romance women fantasise about. But 1960s Bollywood was an awfully demure decade and few filmmakers could handle forget exploit his ripping sexuality until Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Kabhi Kabhie came along.

I didn’t care much for Satyam Shivam Sundaram‘s explicitness or remorse but Shashi Kapoor’s insight in Yash Chopra’s sophisticated understanding of mature relationships is rather special in its reflection of the evolved, non-judgemental male unconcerned by his wife’s romantic past.

Known for his deep affection towards his significant other and soulmate Jennifer, Shashi Kapoor’s performance comes from a place of truth.

Shashi Kapoor came into his own once he turned producer and roped in avant-garde directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Aparna Sen and Girish Karnad to create for him resulting in masterpieces like Junoon and 36 Chowringee Lane.

Saddled with a lover boy image for years, he grabbed the chance to shine in striking avatars in latter years — Junoon, Kalyug, Vijeta, Utsav, New Delhi Times, In Custody with heartbreaking melancholy and lasting intensity.

His commitment to grotesqueness and radical transformation in Utsav was particularly effective.

Odd as it may sound, I even relished his directorial debut in flop Indo-Russian fantasy, Ajooba for its quirk, audacity and ambition.

One of the most handsome, pleasant personalities to grace celluloid, the only time I was sad to see Shashi Kapoor was when I saw him in real life.

It was at Prithvi theatre, a haven for theatre he created so lovingly with his wife, where Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar were performing Kaifi Aur Main. He sat on a wheelchair, solemn-faced, still as stone, as if oblivious to all the activity and awe around him.

I saw him again, inside the elevator at the Kokilaben Ambani hospital, where I was attending to my ailing mom and he was visiting for presumably a check-up. I was extremely stressed out those days. And perhaps he could see it too.

We looked at one another. He smiled at me as though saying he understands. His crooked teeth weren’t visible. I smiled back and showed him mine.

This column was first published on rediff.com.

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Firangi: Kapil Sharma is neither fun nor funny in this overlong period drama

Every time comedian Kapil Sharma opens his mouth, you expect the mandatory ‘boing’ sound or a laugh track to go off. What was exasperating on his television show is plain embarrassing in a period drama that insists you take him seriously.

Who are they kidding?

Sharma is never winning the Hugh Laurie medal of versatility.

He could barely pull off a Govinda in the polygamous farce Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon.

With Firangi, a pre-Independence mishmash of romance and drama, which he produces and stars in, he confirms he’s no Shah Rukh Khan either.

At best, a serviceable buffoon with a flair for repartee, Sharma is awfully limited in his humour and screen presence to perk up this half-decent premise.

Mostly though, he’s woefully miscast in the role of an earnest villager engaged in an old-fashioned courtship of stealing glances and embroidering birds on a quilt to communicate his intentions to his shy, stereotypical sweetheart (Ishita Dutta).

His Mangat Ram aka Manga is a good-for-nothing bumpkin turned British orderly kicking his boss in the rear for a living and cooking lies to win over his phulkari-clad ladylove’s Gandhian granddad (Anjan Shrivastav) and his burly bunch of supporters across the neighbouring community.

On the side, Kumud Mishra’s debauched Raja Sahab and Edward Sonnenblick’s opportunistic British officer Daniels are hatching a scheme to set up a factory by illegally evacuating the village inhabitants.

Part of the deceit includes a marriage of convenience between the raja’s Oxford-returned daughter (Monica Gill) and Daniels.

After Manga realises he’s unsuspectingly responsible for facilitating these events, Firangi swoops onto a beaten path of betrayal, melodrama, atonement, trickery and triumph.

Directed by Rajiev Dhingra, who has previously worked in Punjabi cinema, Firangiis set in the early 1920s and opens with Amitabh Bachchan’s booming baritone narrating the scene of Angrezon ki ghulami with the same vigour and familiarity he exercised in Shatranj Ke Khilari and Lagaan.

Although Firangi follows a straightforward script, there are echoes of many other films to be found.

One gets a sense of Lagaan‘s ‘United we stand’ ardour, 1942: A Love Story‘s allegiance to British versus Gandhi-inspired swadeshi fervour, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge‘s sneaky, hoodwinking approach, to name a few.

What Dhingra’s creativity lacks in sumptuousness is somewhat compensated by the authenticity of the milieu that comes alive in its supporting cast.

Mishra’s character, for example, is a wholehearted caricature, but his obvious pleasure at going overboard somehow injects it with a quirkiness the writing sorely lacks.

Unfortunately, the ladies have precious little to do as the man they champion preens and ploys to play their knight in khakhi uniform.

Firangi‘S persistence to club romantic overtures, non-cooperation movement mania, 19th century naivet√© and con-adventure spunk in its 160 minutes running time proves to be its undoing.

That’s just too much to take in a movie that neither wants to be fun or funny.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Murder On The Orient Express Review: Poirot steers a star-studded mystery

Dame Agatha Christie is a hallowed figure in my home. Not one unkind word will be tolerated against her. But I am not the source of this bias.

One of my earliest childhood memories is unsuccessfully trying to pull away from the hands of her biggest fan — my mother — a copy of the Christie mystery, Appointment With Death.

Although I’ve read a few of the bestselling English author’s crime novels and enjoyed Margaret Sutherford and David Suchet’s portrayals of her celebrated detectives, Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot, I cannot claim to be a fangirl like my mom.

Nevertheless, Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-nominated (it won one for Best Supporting Actress) adaptation of one of the writer’s best works, Murder On The Orient Express(1974) is staggeringly strewed in its manipulations and ingenious in its finish. ‘No clear clues to follow and everyone’s a suspect and innocent at the same time,’ is how my mother always describes it.

Naturally, I was rather curious to see Kenneth Branagh’s take on the murder mystery as both detective and director.

Lumet’s version is doused in charm, cunning and spry wit. It is unequalled and gratifying no matter how often one revisits. If Branagh is burdened by this realisation, he doesn’t show (The final scene suggests he’s gotten quite comfortable in the role). Rather, his attempts to lend a famous, familiar premise its individuality and scale in creatively composed shots are commendable, if not completely helpful.

Murder On The Orient Express isn’t a typical whodunit and a part of its pleasure lies in the dialogue and scrutiny it invites across characters belonging to varying social strata stuck in a stately yet increasingly suffocating ambience of a stalled luxury train.

Suspense not sensation fuels its setup, a ploy that has all the advantage on paper but demands movie star magnetism and vintage glamour to entice on silver screen.

Like Lumet, who furnished the frames with a legendary cast (Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave), Branagh spearheads a starry line-up featuring everyone from Judi Dench to Johnny Depp.

Branagh’s Poirot sports better hair and a bigger moustache, but his Shakespearean eloquence clashes with his Belgian transformation. He’s also the most sentimental Poirot probably ever got — sighing at the image of what appears to be a long lost romance, giggling like a school girl over the contents of A Tale Of Two Cities and wistfully reflecting over the fractured human soul.

All those trademark fair and fastidious qualities are still there but his intense quirks and loathing for ‘imbalance’ are toned down to fashion a Poirot whose heart is as active as his little grey cells and one who’s smugly aware of his pop culture significance.

You simply cannot question his effortless deductions of complex crime scenes. The kind that transpire when you’re on board the plush and packed Orient Express, traveling from Istanbul to London, stranded in the snow-covered Yugoslavian landscape following an avalanche.

Apart from the sleuth, passengers include Penelope Cruz as a god-fearing Spaniard, Willem Dafoe’s haughty professor, Daisy Ridley’s affable governess, Johnny Depp’s shady art-dealer, Josh Gad’s skittish secretary, Derek Jakobi’s unusually accommodating valet, Judi Dench’s uppity Russian princess, Olivia Colman’s anxious caretaker, Leslie Odom Jr’s soft-spoken physician, Tom Bateman’s dynamic in-charge and Sergie Polunin and Lucy Boynton as the secretive Hungarian diplomats.

Everyone’s splendid and tailor-made for the part but Michelle Pfeiffer’s impetuous, boisterous and meddlesome wealthy widow stands out for her gumption.

En route, one of them is brutally stabbed to death and Poirot is commissioned to figure out who did it.

Individual interrogation of the suspects and startling discoveries about the victim mark the pursuit of killer, whilst clubbing the murder to a previous crime.

Often the sluggish, digressing pace of these procedural interactions dulls the buoyant mood it worked towards. Another downer is Murder On The Orient Express offers a rather cursory understanding of the motives that justify its unique climax.

If it were not for the talent involved, the reworking would descend into a good-looking journey of done-to-death red herrings. But, in their discerning presence and shrewd nuances, it offers an intrigue worthy of Poirot’s investigation and our time.

Rating: 3

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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