Rani Mukerji turns into Liam Neeson for Mardaani!

A still from Mardaani.Jis duniya mein maa-behne rishte nahi gaali hain. Uss duniya se maryada ke rishte saare todungi,” screams an eye-catching tagline of Mardaani’s poster.

You’d think there’s a point behind this relatable sentiment? But no, five minutes into the film and Rani Mukerji barges into a goon’s house and hurls a no-holds-barred expletive at the concerned. Sometime later, she cusses at another in the same vein.

The words ‘Maa’ and ‘bahen’ feature alternately. I don’t need to elaborate in what context.

Director Pradeep Sarkar’s latest offering is keen to project itself as a thought-provoking woman-oriented subject sensitive to the escalating rate of human trafficking by centring its entire story around a lady cop.

What it really is though but a middling action thriller engaging a cat-and-mouse game between a shrewd crime branch officer (who happens to be a woman) and a demented young man running a vast sex trafficking business. Just imagine a bland version of Liam Neeson’s Taken starring a screwy villain who conveys a disturbing degree of both calm and quirk fashioned in the mould of another Hollywood script.

Mardaani travels between Mumbai and Delhi to unravel a kidnapping case assigned to senior inspector Shivani Shivaji Roy (Mukerji) who discovers some potentially whistleblowing information.

Shivani doesn’t completely fit the standard ‘no-nonsense cop’ description. When her superior reprimands her on the phone for conducting a reckless raid, she jokes, “Arre koi boss ki biwi ko shopping karwao.

She’s not much for subtlety either – not batting an eyelid before reminding a flower-seller girl she rescued, how her uncle would have sold her off if it weren’t for Lady Singham.

And like last week’s Rohit Shetty sequel, this too has a scene featuring a evildoer getting thrashed while the cop rattles off a list of Indian penal codes. This time, the background score isn’t as ear splitting but amply indicative of the sequence’s crowd-pleasing tone.

When the aforementioned girl goes missing, Shivani goes on a wide scale hunt/trail while communicating with the offender (Tahir Bhasin) on the phone.

The moment where she challenges to catch him within 30 days holds up a genuine opportunity for a fascinating dialogue between good versus evil. But it is wasted for juvenile sledging and clunky dialogues (Gopi Puthran) like, ‘Under-19 team ka baarvhaa khiladi/Kya ada kya jalwe tere Paro?’

The A-certificate is accounted for unsettling glimpses of life in the flesh trade and liberal use of swearwords by Rani but Mardaani like most so-called realistic films fails to convince it’s not for effect. Case in point –a minor is forced into intercourse by an aged foreigner and a close-up of her misery cuts to a lingering shot of a symbolic white lily.

At its crisp pace (Sanjib Datta) of less than two hours, Mardaani is harmless if not hard-hitting viewing and tries to cram up as many elements – political-criminal nexus, Nigerian drug mafia, flesh-auction clubs and an Abbas-Mastan-inspired twist till its arrives to its convenient finish.

Figuring in most scenes from start to finish, this is Rani’s show. It’s not her best performance but the actress exudes unfazed toughness and refrains from making the same mistakes she committed in No One Killed Jessica.

Mardaani poster.Underplaying her gutsy, rough-talking Shivani gives her character a slyness, which is not enough to distract us from her perfectly falling bangs (Rangeela’s Steven Kapoor would approve), salon-ready plaits and curled-up eyelashes but ceases to matter if you view Mardaani like a glamorous not gritty thriller.

Jisshu Sengupta who plays Rani’s doctor husband has two lines (Happy Birthday, Chhodna mat saalon ko) and one important scene where you can barely see his face. Bottom-line, he doesn’t register.

Her on-screen nemesis fares much better. The eerie nonchalance of Tahir Bhasin’s voice and the gruesomeness it means to achieve compliments his equally loathsome smile. What makes him so real (and hence creepy) is how just-around-the-corner he seems.

Contrary to what its title suggests, gender is never brought up in Mardaani to make a point. There’s no verbal validation from Rani’s character to assert her strengths or her weakness because she’s of a certain sex.  If also the script weighed more in intensity of thoughts than stagy heroics and simplistic resolutions, it could do a lot more for women in the film industry if not society in general.

Stars: 2.5

This review was first published on rediff.com. 

 

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Singham Returns has its whistle-worthy moments!

Singham ReturnsAt some point, super cop Bajirao Singham takes off his shirt and smacks it on the chief minister’s palm.

That’s a Rohit Shettyism for resignation.

Without any second thought, his superior and subordinates in the room, building, neighbourhood and entire Mumbai city follow suit

That’s a Rohit Shettyism for, um, the force is strong with this one?

Even if unabashedly playing to the gallery and formulaic to its core, Singham Returns offers quite a bit to whistle about with its steady supply of straightforward action and a hot-headed hero who delivers a punch with a fist and a line.

It doesn’t hold up to its potential in entirety, tumbling drastically in the middle to incorporate recognizable tropes and clichés. The final pay off is a bit tame for my liking but as long as it doles out generous scoops of unpretentious masala and corn, it works just fine.

Only this time its titular hero Ajay Devgn doesn’t get to parade his bare, strapping torso like a glossy, egg-washed croissant to get our attention. On the contrary, his love interest (played by Kareena Kapoor Khan) pokes fun at his chestnut-dyed hair while his underlings quip about his growing umar.  Considering the filmmaker got Shah Rukh Khan to play a 40-year-old in Chennai Express, Shetty seems well-equipped in the art of embrace-your-age within Bollywood’s ageing superstars.

Regardless, Devgn’s power-packed slam bang is a lively reminder of his daredevil roots. Crafted along the lines of a 1990s no-holds-barred action, it’s a relief to watch the actor in a skin he’s most comfortable in. Except when bitten by the Satakhli bug, Devgn keeps it low key and reserves his stamina for moments of brute force, vigorous bang bang and swaggering in slow motion.

Its fairly uncomplicated plot pits the self-styled cop Bajirao Singham against yet another agent of crime and corruption. Amol Gupte’s sleazy, swindling, wiry-haired god man and Zakir Hussain’s jumpy politician play the wily twosome whereas Anupam Kher and Mahesh Manjrekar represent the fair face of politics.

As if to underline the distinction, the good guys are picture of composed grace whereas the baddies perform a cheesy romp of exaggerated notoriety.

Despite these excesses, the first hour goes off like a breeze primarily because Shetty keeps the events relating to one another compact and gripping. Not too many cars (by Shetty standards) toss into mid-air but there are enough explosions, shoot-outs, vans/trucks clashing into one another.

Singham ReturnsThough marginally better, Singham Returns is plagued by the same problem as the first one. It slows down in the middle to accommodate an obligatory romance with Kareena. For an actress whose presence comes through even when she’s a blurred out mute spectator in the background, this is hardly the film to be.

Cast as Devgn’s loud, glutton girlfriend, Kareena, to her credit, keeps it spunky till the script makes her jarring (calling a North Eastern boy selling chowmein ‘Made in China’ is not even remotely amusing). Her director seems unsure about how to use her here. There are scenes where she’s simply not required — Singham’s work place or encounter sites — but it’s like Shetty has to justify her inclusion at any rate.

What’s further grating is the raucous background score, alternating between clanking cymbals to loud Singham chants and the contrived usage of poorly rehearsed Marathi by its lead actors.

Ultimately, Shetty’s crowd pleaser antics boosted by Devgn’s blustering machismo and a hilarious hat-tip to CID make up for the earlier melodrama and a done-to-death twist concerning the all-important witness.

Is that good enough? Wrong question. Is it entertaining enough? Er, yeah.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Anand Math and its immortal chant of Vande Mataram

A still from Anand Math.‘We are here to rescue you,’ a British officer explains to a local village woman “because your people don’t like its ruler.”

‘You don’t need to poke your nose in our internal matters,” she scoffs.

The tone of this exchange, which appears in the latter half of Hemen Gupta’s 1952 nationalistic drama Anand Math, is mild but the unsettling reality it purports is not.

Adapted from Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s classic novel Anandamath, the period film’s objective is to bring focus on what is perhaps the first-ever Indian revolt against the British.

Banned for its ‘inciting’ contents during the Raj, the book and its historic hymn, and our National Song, Vande Mataram rose to national eminence during India’s struggle for independence. There’s considerable debate regarding the novel’s communal undertones but the film avoids any hint of deliberate bias.

A still from Anand Math.Anand Math is set in the late 18th century, where following the Battle of Plassey the British East India Company has secured rights from the decadent Nawab Mir Jafar to collect revenue in Bengal, where it would eventually set up its capital and begin full-scale administration.

The Nawab is a willing puppet in British hands, immersed in wine and women, even as they take reign of India and loot its public. Unmoved by the aftermath of a catastrophic famine, which brings down the impoverished and affluent on the same level of misery, they’re strictly concerned with the business of wealth and profit.

Such extreme apathy leads to wild unrest among the impoverished and starving as revealed in the disturbing images of death, devastation and a desperate scrimmage for food in a man eats man scenario.

Against such severe backdrop and frame of mind begins the story of Sannyasi rebellion. The ascetics or santan sect is a monastic albeit militant society, led by Satyananda (Prithviraj Kapoor), observing abstinence of every kind to fulfill their single-minded goal of freeing the mother (motherland) from the clutches of British.

Anand Math follows a distinctly spiritual chain of thoughts. In today’s time it may seem, depending on the viewer’s level of sensitivity, antiquated or overtly profound.

A still from Anand Math.Bankim Chandra perceives the nation as the divine mother, thoughtlessly handed over to outsiders for personal gain. And only her children can atone for the sins of their ancestors by dedicating their lives to her cause.

The escalating and emotionally charged chants of Vande Mataram, performed and composed by Hemant Kumar to awe-inspiring perfection amplify this time and again during the movie.

Lata Mangeshkar’s entrancing, passionate version of it explodes with the intense, infectious sense of patriotic ardour she has become synonymous with.

Hemant Kumar’s earliest works for Hindi cinema lends Anand Math the rich strokes of stirring sounds that become its inspiring soul.

A still from Anand Math.During the course of British brutality, Satyanand takes a ruined King Mahendra (Bharat Bhushan), his wife Kalyani (Ranjana) and their infant daughter under his wings. Mahendra joins his ascetic cult along with Satyananda’s chief disciples Jivananda (Pradeep Kumar) and Bhavananda (Ajit) when he believes Kalyani and his girl to have died from poison consumption.

In Satyananda’s absence, as he travels far and wide accumulating man force to stand up to enormous British armies, Kalyani is secretly taken in Bhavananda’s care who’s clearly distracted from his mission by her attractive (even if indifferent to him) presence. Meanwhile, Jivananda asks his sister to raise Kalyani’s daughter.

Here the track shifts to Jivananda and his wife, Shanti (Geeta Bali), childhood sweethearts craving for each other’s company but bound by duty and oaths. In a weak moment, he succumbs to her warm embrace, which, as per the Santan doctrine, is punishable by death.

Quite a harsh penalty for such innocuous *crime* you’d say? So does Shanti. As opposed to the subservient Kalyani who voluntarily gulps down poison to get out of her husband’s way, fiery Shanti protests and questions such “vidhaan.”

The dilemma of a married couple unable to stay together, unwilling to stay apart is captured believably in Pradeep Kumar and Geeta Bali’s spontaneous distress.

Even when she comes to terms with her fate, Shanti doesn’t mop around. Instead, dressed up as a young monk, she participates in her husband’s revolt against the British even to the extent of sneaking inside the enemy camp to seek information –a perfect opportunity for Geeta Bali to showcase her comic prowess.

A still from Anand Math.Though the graph of her character is a tad erratic, alternating between forlorn and fizzy, Geeta Bali’s charismatic screen presence, especially when she’s facing her real life father-in-law Prithviraj Kapoor, makes for a compelling watch.

Kapoor’s seasoned persona shines through a role that demands a balance of theatrics and wisdom.  Except, no thanks to poorly preserved audio and prints, it’s often difficult to follow his gruff speech.

Often though, Anand Math‘s simplified portrayal of complex relationships robs the narrative of the heft it means to project.

Hemen Gupta who also directed the acclaimed Balraj Sahni-starrer Kabuliwala, constructs the third act around niftily executed battle sequence between the Santan and the British. The battle scenes may not possess the grandeur of Sohrab Modi’s Sikandar  but conveys the zeal of a driven underdog.

Anand MathThe sensibilities and sacrifices of men and women from the 18th century do not correspond with the liberal but pragmatic outlook of today. But the ethics and essence behind the freedom every individual wants to enjoy remains the same.

Even as Shanti wails the loss of her dear one, Anand Math underscores the value of purpose above person — this small-scale uprising will trigger large-scale revolutions for years till the nation finally becomes free.

Yet there’s a tinge of sadness as a voice bemoans in the background “lekin Vande Mataram kahan?” Even I would like to ask the same.

This article was first published on rediff.com

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Robin Williams is forever!

Robin WilliamsRobin Williams is no more? How can Robin Williams be no more?

As the ubiquitous funnyman of Hollywood, he’s made me laugh so much, so hard and so often. But today when I woke up to the cruel realization of his passing away, I keep wondering why and how. It’s simply too unexpected, an inevitability I never deemed possible.

For a kid growing up in the 1990s, Robin Williams is an unforgettable presence — a larger-than-life figure whose goofy horseplay and tireless energy could transform the screen into a centre of delightful mumbo jumbo.

Every single one of us fell in love with his big, blue, bouncy avatar as Genie, so much more than an eager-to-please ancient sprite residing in a lamp. Williams’ relentless bombardment of jolly impersonations and pop-culture references in the Disney animation Aladdin is stuff of sheer joy. Even though it’s only a vocal part, he thrusts abundant personality, correction, personalities into a supporting character to find a place of pride among the likes of Jiminy Cricket, Baloo and Tinker Bell.

It was Barry Levinson’s whimsical Toys where I first saw him in live action. Despite the film’s strange ambiance, Williams exuded an instant likeability and sense of humour, which I very much appreciated.

And then followed Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji, Hook, Nine Months, Flubber, Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man– what a hoot! I was their target audience and with cable television’s boom, I helped myself to multiple servings of his funny, feel-good fluff.

But it wasn’t until Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage, one of my all-time favourites, that I truly understood the depth of his capabilities as well as the strength of his charisma.

Though he has worked on several blockbuster comedies before, his flawless timing and pungent wit as a gay drag nightclub owner juggling between his touchy boyfriend and anxious to marry (a conservative politician’s daughter) son is another league.  The scene, among many hilarious others, where he tells Nathan Lane with mild, unfeigned surprise, “I just never realised John Wayne walked like that” is a testimony to his vast comic genius.

I looked up his oeuvre and rented movies — Dead Poet’s Society, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting — that showcased his prowess not merely amplify his stardom and discovered this luminously sensitive, supple and insightful Robin Williams.

There’s something inexplicably soothing about the visionary characters he essayed. That its impact exceeded well beyond the screen, allowing many of us to heal in its brilliance, is an achievement I attribute to his magic.

Though the last decade and a half is filled with indifferent drivel, which disconcerted and distanced even his most vehement admirer, it’s his frighteningly stark portrayals of complex, convoluted people in Christopher Nolan’s underrated Insomnia and Mark Romanek’s stunning One Hour Photo that further reveal the range of his fascinating versatility.

When a man puts out so much creativity in the universe, he cannot cease. He cannot be no more. So I am going to plonk an imaginary red nose and toss a flubber in the sky and it reads — Robin Williams is forever.

This tribute was first published on rediff.com.

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Entertainment: Mostly garrulous, occasionally comical farce

A still from Entertainment.Akshay Kumar’s latest comedy, Entertainment revolves around a multimillionaire golden retriever of the same name and endorses Vidya Balan’s opinion of movies clicking solely on the basis of “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.”

Alright then, why not assess its merits on the basis of what entertains and what does not.

1. In the beginning Akshay hams so much, it’s like he’s developed epileptic seizures while undergoing some extreme shock therapy. Few scenes later, he’s reacting to a real one as if to tell me the difference.

Entertainment= 0. Exasperation= 1.

2. Darshan Jariwala dancing to a Shahid Kapoor number and actually getting the steps all right. That’s another fun tribute close on the heels of Salman Khan’s Saat Samundar jig in Kick.

Entertainment= 1. Exasperation=0.

3. Whether one has a taste or tolerance of pedestrian humour or not, there’s no doubt writers turned directors — the sibling duo of Sajid-Farhad – adore commercial movies to the core.

Entertainment is unapologetically filmi in its trappings, treatment, thought — every word uttered by a character is either a reference to a movie or a movie star. (“I Rajni can’t believe it.” “ Iski Shradha Kapoor ka toone Aarti Chabbria kar diya.”)

It’s the kind of arbitrary, bird-brained humour that yanks a forced snicker or two.  But an over-animated Krishna Abhishek stretches the shtick too long, MUCH too long, to not get on one’s nerves.

Entertainment= 0. Exasperation= 1.

4. With the appearance of its four-legged titular attraction, one expects some frolic but the famously fun-loving breed is relegated to the sidelines with little to wag about.

As the wealthy heir of a deceased diamond merchant and thereby bone of Akshay’s contention, Entertainment is employed purely for aww value. And so by the virtue of being a cuddly furry-wurry brown ball of cuteness, he gets away with in Krishna-speak both “sympathy and sampathi.”

Entertainment=1. Exasperation=0.

5. His fellow canine mates, ranging from Bulldogs, Pugs, Alsatians, Rottweiler’s and St Bernard’s, who show up in great numbers to deliver humour that’s literally below the belt, are sad reminders of how animals are regularly used in poor taste even in movies that claim to protect their interests.

Entertainment=0. Exasperation=1.

6. Speaking of crudeness, Entertainment is no kiddie flick. Unless it’s okay for children to sit through double meaning innuendoes about ‘suhaag raats’ and visuals showing a famished baby mistaking his overweight daddy for his, yikes, mommy.

 Entertainment=0. Exasperation=1.

7. Sajid-Farhad’s over-the-top, unsubtly parodying tone and screechy, rhyming dialogues has long dominated the tittle-tattle of many of their writing assignments. They follow the same principle as directors too.

If only they understood that asking their actors to scream loudly with vigorous expressions till all their veins burst cannot make a joke, already repeated nine times in the movie, any more funnier.

Kudos to Entertainment — played by a golden retriever named Junior, for exhibiting such extraordinary restraint amidst the ensuing cacophony.

Entertainment=0. Entertainment the Dog=1.

A still from Entertainment.8. The plot is basically a series of schemes, where the objective changes from dog to dodos but always leads to a slapstick scenario –people falling off buildings/branches, gulping down poison, getting stabbed by multiple knives (without oozing a single drop of blood) and burning themselves with a hot iron press and still no harm done.

This offers a few droll moments before the monotony quickly sets in.

 Entertainment=0. Exasperation=1.

9. What’s a real relief is that Prakash Raj doesn’t dilate his pupils, Sonu Sood holds back his snarl and Tammana is surprisingly tolerable as the deliberately contrived soap star.

Even if the villains of the Dabangg franchise appear visibly chuffed to play comic book villains with a Karan Arjun fixation, the gag gets tired after a while.

Entertainment: 1. Exasperation=1.

10. Entertainment is best when it isn’t trying to drag laughs out of us with its hopeless attempts at wit. Seriously, a troika of lawyers called Sanjay Leela Bhansali is humorous?

Instead Mithun Chakraborty’s whimsical comic track, where he’s desperately seeking wealthy suitors for her daughter works. Like when he tells his daughter she’ll like the guy he’s picked this time because her favourite colour is yellow and so are his teeth. Juvenile? Yes. Funny?  Somehow.

 Entertainment=1. Exasperation=1.

11. What’s nowhere close to amusing? The fan riddle. Is it male or female, Mithunda inquires. He means to ask — Bajaj or Usha. Ugh.

Nor is Akshay’s miserable attempt to recreate Mehmood’s iconic Pyaar Kiye Jaa scene. The whole point is lost if the sound effects are generated synthetically as opposed to the comic legend’s natural voice wizardry.

 Entertainment=0. Exasperation=1.

12. Akshay redeems himself in the second half by relishing Entertainment’s out-dated filmmaking in a tone that is reminiscent of Mr and Mrs Khiladi’s “Bache Ki Jaan Lega?” There’s genuine affection in him for the dog and it lends the otherwise hollow Entertainment a stroke of emotion.

Sajid-Farhad’s first film is mostly a garrulous, occasionally comical farce that intermittently serves as reminder that in the search of “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment” one can always rely on the delightfully loony Johnny Lever.

Stars: 2

This review was first published on rediff.com. 

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