Thank you for the laughs, Kundan Shah!

When my father passed away in the late 1970s, my brother was only four and his fledgling understanding of grief took comfort in ‘at least, he watched Sholay.’

There’s so much value attached to certain films, experiencing it can offer a mysterious sense of satisfaction, the kind you want to share with a like-minded loved one.

One of my living regrets is he didn’t live to see Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which released a few years later. Knowing his socialistic leanings, I am sure my father would have appreciated it just as fervently.

Kundan Shah’s splendid satire is a national treasure that I’ve adored and quoted from for as long as I can remember.

I laughed at its scintillating humour, marvelled over its free-spirited artistry and wowed at its insane behind-the-scenes reality. But the disconcerting reality disguised in Shah’s farce wasn’t lost on me. Although it came out in 1983, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaromirrors the depressing state of affairs like it was shot yesterday.

Except Shah’s humorous touch makes the darkness of unsettling discoveries like ‘Iska matlab hai laash humare peeche hai’ easy to bear.

‘For me comedy is when you try to survive through your wit,’ he once said.

What unfolds is a tragicomic circus of useless virtue up against inevitable defeat and impossible progress, which masterfully culminates into a boisterous Mahabharata parody towards the end.

The first time I saw it on Doordarshan, I was only a child but have vivid memories of sitting before my next-door neighbour’s Crown television set on a straw mat along with two other kids my age. At that time, Shah’s scathing commentary on the country’s corrupt socio-politico system went over my head but D’Mello’s ‘Thoda khao thoda pheko’ antics inspired me greatly every time a suspicious looking veggie was served on the plate.

I saw it again and again till I lost count and Vinod, Sudhir, Ahuja, Tarneja, Ashok, D’Mello/Draupadi became an indelible part of my cinephile journey.

During my daily commute to St Xavier’s College, every day I stood on the exact spot as Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani — the scene where they’re arguing about boarding a local without ticket at Marine Lines station — I would feel like I’ve stepped inside movie history.

Shah’s next directorial effort for silver screen, Kabhi Haan Kabhie Naa, a 1994 rom-com set in Goa, is hands down my favourite Shah Rukh Khan movie. Its feel-good fervour comes alive in underdog SRK’s upbeat, underhanded and unsuccessful efforts to win ‘Anna’ whilst struggling to make his conventional dad see his vocation lies in music.

Shah draws on the actor’s strengths and innocence in such a sublime fashion, it’s a personal blow when his heart breaks and the best feeling ever when he’s rewarded with a prospective sweetheart in Juhi Chawla’s surprise cameo.

There’s an attractive fallibility and moral compass to his protagonists in both the films that compels us to relate with and root for them.

Sadly, no other film he made after it could match up to this magic. Whether it was because of lack of support from the business-driven industry or plain creative exhaustion or both, I rather not say. But his dissatisfaction is pretty obvious in statements like, ‘I love to make small films, but no one gives me the chance’ or ‘There is a kind of restlessness. This is because I know I can do better.’

What I do know is, even though I was bored out of my wits by Hum Toh Mohabbat Karega, thought little of Dil Hai Tumhara and cringed through Kya Kehna, the lacklustre quality of his later work did not reduce my respect for his most loved gems on celluloid.

Or television.

Week after week, a school-going me relished the bubbling wit and spontaneous emotionality of middle-class struggles and everyman conflicts in Doordarshan classics like Nukkad, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi or Wagle Ki Duniya.

Many years have passed and I no longer remember the episodes in detail. But I do remember the smile they brought to my face or the uncomplicated times they represent. A part of me still lingers in those warm, secure memories.

And so it was a rather special moment to see my byline featured alongside Shah (external link) for a special issue released by the Indian Screenwriters Conference, where both of us, besides a bunch of others, contributed an essay. While I discussed the portrayal of common man in cinema, he penned a tribute to the great humourist Sharad Joshi, with whom he collaborated on Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and I knew as my mom’s editor in Hindi Express.

After I became a journalist, I had the opportunity to watch Shah in action on the sets of Ek Se Badhkar Ek where I was scheduled to meet Suniel Shetty for an interview. His mild-mannered and unassuming disposition stood out in a crowd of make believe as he patiently explained a scene to the heroine Raveena Tandon. It would be another five years before Ek Se Badhkar Ek would see the light of the day.

I bumped into him again during a press conference for Dil Hai Tumhara. He appeared more resigned than relaxed and unlike his chatty cast has little to say.

I am sad he’s no more. I am sad he couldn’t celebrate his 70th birthday. I am sad he couldn’t make the kind of films he wanted.

But I am also grateful.

He made me laugh. He made me cry. He made me believe in Hum Honge Kamyab and the power of a shooting star.

This column was first published on rediff.com.

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Chef: Saif shows fine form in a bland celebration of the culinary arts

Chef begins in the heart of Delhi’s chaat heaven with the sight of a young lad enjoying a crisp, piping hot aloo tikki. Its tangy, spicy flavour leaves such a deep impression on the Chandni Chowk inhabitant’s taste buds he decides to run away from home and seek the secrets of culinary arts. 

In the next scene, the boy is a disgruntled head chef of a New York Eatery, a position he’s about to lose for socking a customer’s jaw for criticising his cooking. 

Despite the dubious turn of events, it’s essential we believe Roshan Kalra is a burned-out kitchen whiz who has seen better days and Michelin stars. 

Played by Saif Ali Khan — an actor not far from this narrative — Roshan acquires a sympathetic air and touching authenticity in his quiet contemplations of achieving a professional breakthrough. 

To shake off the sudden slump, Roshan makes a trip to India, more specifically Kochi, where his ex-wife (Padmapriya Janakiraman) and pubescent son (Svar Kamble) reside. They aren’t the only ones. His complicated family man status quo extends to his father, still sore about his ‘bawarchi’ aspirations. 

There’s a natural awkwardness to Roshan’s early interactions with his former missus and offspring. It’s as though he’s overcompensating for his long absences by trying too hard.

‘You’re funny,’ his son observes.

‘No, just middle-aged.’ 

Chef uses Saif’s quickness for pithy wit with flair.

Even after the film slips into rom-com space and an irresistible rival in the shape of Milind Soman pops up to threaten his place, Saif goes easy on his boyish imagery, retaining it just enough to look back at his Dil Chahta Hai days with grace and glee. 

There’s a laidback vibe to Raja Krishna Menon’s remake of Jon Favreau’s scrumptious indie fairy tale that lays more focus on the father-son bonding than the adventures of a food truck start-up. 

Devoid of schmaltz and distasteful stereotypes, their affection grows over time as they bond against the backwaters of Kerala, the Golden Temple in Amritsar and Goa’s hotspots discovering an appetite for idiyappams, tomato chutney and poi.What I liked most here is its willingness to allow these characters to gently savour this renewed intimacy.

Saif is an easy fit for the chilled-out dad as is Svar Kamble in his breezy portrayal of an easy-going, regular kid. But the unruly mop of Mowgli hair he’s made to sport doesn’t do justice to his simple charm.

As his mum, Padmapriya Janakiraman, reminiscent of a young Nandita Das, looks more equipped than her well-meaning supporting role allows her to be. Chandan Roy Sanyal’s contribution as Roshan’s cheerful sidekick adds its share of optimism to the cosy picture.

Chef beams in the genial aura of these sweet, grounded people, their earnest interactions and humble successes. The frames capture their gorgeous homes, vivid moods and photogenic travels with the enthusiasm of a fertile Instagram account.

The songs by Raghu Dixit lilt in joie de vivre. 

Yet for all the promise it holds, Chef never really becomes the comfort food for the soul or eyes.

In a premise begging for food porn, there’s a shocking scarcity of sensory pleasure or vision. You’ll see more gastronomic delights in the two-minute trailer of the original Chef than in this entire movie. 

Saif slices onions, shops for pumpkin, douses fettuccine in garlic infused olive oil, dribbles over chhole bhature and insists quesadilla, he calls it rottza, is his invention. But his love for the medium is scarcely and plainly demonstrated in Chef’s frustratingly distant look into the gifts of cooking. 

As if the lacklustre choice of dishes isn’t disappointing enough, the camera won’t even allow me a decent look at the chutney in making.

Thankfully, there’s Milind Soman — short of appearing on a plate, the ridiculously good-looking hunk does everything in his power to make up for its lack of yumminess. 

Chef’s journey is about realising the importance of doing what one wants over what one needs and amusing in the nature of creativity in the age of social media. But in this droopily written scrap-of-life and far-from-faithful recreation, we never get a sense of what’s eating Roshan Kalra.

Grown up angst is a valid and neglected aspect of our storytelling. Except Menon’s digressing exploration of it feels more dull than delicious.

This review is first published on rediff.com.

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Super Filmi Week: Prepping for Padmavati!

Prepping for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati, remembering Rajesh Khanna and Raaj Kumar’s exclusive tramp club and picking Ranbir Kapoor’s best performance in my Super Filmi Week.


As I behold the cinematic pomp of Padmavati‘s posters, I am convinced its director Sanjay Leela Bhansali dreams with his eyes wide open.

Not everyone may be a fan of his opulent ways but there’s plenty to get excited about this 14th century costume drama starring Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor and Ranveer Singh.

Whether it adheres to Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic Padmavat or speculates over its protagonist’s existence in the manner of Galadriel’s ‘history became legend, legend became myth’ allusions is immaterial. This is, first, a fascinating story of love, lust and honour. And given Bhansali’s eye for splendour, one hopes for nothing but movie magic.

To whet my curiosity, I dig into some earlier adaptations of how one glimpse of Chittor’s renowned beauty Rani Padmavati drives Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji crazy enough to lay siege on her home and husband Ratan Sen’s empire.

Jaswant Jhaveri’s Maharani Padmini (1964) opens with a poorly structured ‘apology’ that mentions ‘it has bridged over certain prejudices of history dictators and flattery made by historians so as to treat this subject on purely logical lines.’

Stuffed with an indifferent soundtrack and stagy performances (Anita Guha, Jairaj, Shyama and Sajjan) the trick to enjoy this hotchpotch of severed heads and knee-high martyrs is fast forward all the songs.

On the other hand, Shyam Benegal’s artistic account in Bharat Ek Khoj plays out in Om Puri’s imposing presence as Khilji and Rajendra Gupta’s strictly adequate Ratan Sen. Seema Kelkar’s insipid portrayal of the pretty-faced catalyst though is a complete downer.

What’s not is Bhansali’s association with the episode. The director worked as one of the editing assistants on Benegal’s magnum opus for Doordarshan.

Tuesday

Once I wrote about things we no longer see in Hindi movies. Every now and then I keep finding more stuff to add to that list.

Here’s a brand new one — the beggarly face of guilt and regret.

Heartbreak is tough, especially when you are responsible for it. But in the good old days, the hero was condemned to eternal damnation. He could never stop atoning for his mistakes until he resembled a destitute yeti wrapped in a lowly shawl.

Depiction of such extreme remorse can be found in the final scenes of Rajesh Khanna’s Aap Ki Kasam, Raaj Kumar’s Lal Patthar, Jeetendra’s Mere Huzoor and Sanjay Dutt’s Sahibaan.

Wednesday

At a theatre close to home, I rush to catch an early morning show of Mahesh Babu’s latest Telugu masala, Spyder. Given how maligned and misunderstood the genre is, it’s always nice when someone understands its potential for riveting cinema.

Spyder is a classic take on the good versus evil conflict where director A R Murugadoss pits its clean-cut hero with a creepy-smiled villain in a manner that’s evocative of the Batman-Joker dynamic in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Except it’s not Bruce Wayne but the bad guy’s murky backstory and the evil it extends into in S J Suryah’s delightfully showy performance that lends Spyder its true edge.

It’s as I said in my review, ‘Some stories never get old if told well.’

Thursday

It’s Ranbir Kapoor’s birthday!

To mark the occasion, I compiled a list of ten of his best performances ranging from Rockstar to Rajneeti. As the results of the poll show, most people I asked answered Barfi, Rockstar and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year.

I can see why.

I, too, love how Ranbir disappears to become Harpreet Singh Bedi in Rocket Singh, the affection in his eyes for Priyanka Chopra when she doesn’t move during his odd friendship test in Barfi and his muddled state of mind as he talks to Kumud Mishra in the middle of a fast growing crowd of admirers in Rockstar.

Daddy Rishi Kapoor may not approve of his box office unsafe choices but the 35-year-old has set the bar high enough for fans to expect his films to be as solid as his acting.

Friday

There used to be a time when audiences happily lapped up half a dozen songs and a crazy mix of action, romance and comedy picturised on popular stars and foreign locations.

David Dhawan has recycled the formula for years now. From Judwaa to Judwaa 2, his filmmaking has neither grown nor changed. Except he’s still laughing his way to the bank, so what does that say?

While watching the shoddy remake, I am struck by the diligence with which his offspring impersonates its original star Salman Khan.

Like I wrote in my review, ‘You can almost hear David instructing his son, ‘Beta Varun, do a Salman.’

‘How does Govinda say that line?’

The upshot is a compliant son and committed mimic foregoing his individuality to assume the skin of two actors David has worked with most prolifically.’

Saturday

I’ve just finished gulping down a glass of milk and lift my cell phone from the bedside to check the time when the news of Tom Alter’s death flashes before me in a text from work.

Sometime back, I asked the folks on Twitter to name a celebrity they don’t know personally but believe must be a genuinely good person in real life. I do believe Tom Alter — the Indian who played foreigner — would qualify as one.

What a warm, well-spoken and well-informed figure.

My earliest memory of him is Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, where he plays a typically nasty British officer. He’s a lot friendlier in Satyajit Ray’s I where the difference in the two director’s sensibilities is a case study in ends of a spectrum.

Alter is exquisite in the scene he translates Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s poem for Richard Attenborough’s General Outram:

Wound not my bleeding body 
Throw flowers gently on my grave.
Though mingled with the earth I rose up to the skies. 
People mistook my rising dust for the heavens.

RIP, Sir.

Sunday

The most pleasant day of the week begins with the sight of Manorama and Om Prakash coming dangerously close to ruining Lamhe for me.

And ends with a drab inaugural episode of Bigg Boss 11 hosted by a sleepy Salman Khan who looks like he’s had enough of engaging with publicity-hungry loons.

Can’t say he’s the only one.

This column was first published on rediff.com.

Previously:
Alia, Bhumi, Kriti, Shraddha’s Sisterhood of Travelling Pants!
Kudos to Kangana
Gulzar’s gussa, Tendukar’s tears
When Akshay met his scientist fan
John Wick’s Amar Akbar Anthony moment
When the bride cried Sallu
Imagining Ranbir Kapoor as Balraj Sahni
Long live Aamir’s Model School Pajamachaaps
King’s Speech by SRK
Getting ready for the Baahubali juggernaut 
Super filmi week with Hit Girl Asha Parekh
Feasting on Achari Alia, Mastani Papdi!
Grace under fire
More power to Anushka Sharma
Rishi Kapoor’s page-turning debut!
Picking Jedi skills from Amitabh Bachchan
Mera wala Shah Rukh
Ranbir-Ranveer, sigh sigh!
When Tabu struggled with a 500 rupee note
Of post-festival blues and toilet titles!
Finding links of life in Dhoni’s Ranchi and Madhuri’s Mujrim!
Inside Dharmendra-Hema’s intensely private world
Power of Pink
The irrepressible cuteness of Pooja Bhatt
Indradhanush was our Stranger Things
When Saif Ali Khan wore Rishi Kapoor’s sweater
Getting nostalgic about the 1980s, Winona Ryder & Kishore Kumar
Rediscovering Gulzar’s Ghalib & finding Free Love
Applauding NTR’s Superman on screen!
Tripping on A R Rahman
A millipede and Kimi Katkar’s monsoon romance
Udta Punjab, worst casting decisions, and naheeee…!
Of warring Khan bhakts and meeting Mogambo!
Ranbir’s forgotten romance in Bachna Ae Haseeno
Funnier than Aishwarya’s lips
Clashing superheroes and crying Khans
OCDing on Neetu Singh’s LPs!
Garam Dharam, Mantrik Origins, Rockstar Cruise
 

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