RRR review

Everybody knows how cruel the British empire was. But who knew they loved body art so much they would risk everything to keep a tribal kid hostage for her tattoo creating skills and provoke a tribe’s ire.

Director S S Rajamouli has a knack for crafting mega visuals and captivating cinema out of wacky plots and overarching ambition but in RRR, it feels like he came up with the idea at a birthday party, where you have those tattoo artists sitting in one corner and drawing colourful designs on every child’s hand.

Except in RRR, the roles are reversed.

It’s the 1920s and India is yet to gain Independence when a pre-teen Gondi tribe girl’s nightingale voice and afore-mentioned tattoo talent catch a bossy, beastly British lady’s (a hilariously hammy Alison Doody) eye. She decides to make off with the kiddo resulting in much hysteria and heartache.

This instance of injustice is the trigger point or as Rajamouli dubs ‘The Story‘ of RRR — short for Roudram Ranam Rudhiram or Rise Roar Revolt, depending on whether you are watching the Telugu original or Hindi dubbed like I did.

What follows next are chapters called The Fire and The Water, personified by Ram (Ram Charan) and Bheem ( NT Rama Rao Jr) across overblown introduction scenes and ear-splitting background music.

If Ram’s daredevil British officer singlehandedly overcomes a crowd of thousands to nab a protestor, Bheem is the local Tarzan who bathes in blood and bare-handedly takes on the wolves and tigers of the jungles he inhabits. Among his other gifts, Ram is a master shooter and archer, can do pull ups despite fractured knees and fight a battalion while perched on a man’s shoulder. Bheem can make lac bangles within minutes, whip up herbal medicines in forest or streets and navigate through a battalion with a man perched on his shoulders. They know Morse code, drums and dancing. And man, can they fly!

Ram is fire, Bheem is water. Lest we miss the symbolism, the pre-interval bout has one charging towards another holding a fire torch and water hose. All the action unfolds in Delhi and thereabouts that looks a lot like how Delhi and thereabouts would if shifted to South of India. Likewise, Ram and Bheem are only superficially inspired by real-life Deccan revolutionaries Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem. Neither their hijinks nor their ‘Har haath mein hathyar hoga‘ philosophy bear any resemblance to the freedom fighters not only reimagined by the Rajamouli brand but portrayed as best friends too.

When the twain first meet, they are saving a kid from drowning, which involves a horse, a bike, a rope, bridge and a whole lot of balancing act. (Actually RRR could add an extra R for rescue, it’s all everyone does in the movie — central plot, sub plot.)

In the next scene, they are scaling a coolie red-coordinated human pyramid for no rhyme or reason. Amidst many such moments of spectacle-sans-context and giant platters of egg biryani, they turn BFFs. There’s no actual dialogue or bonding, but one song and enormous eye contact later, a bromance to die for is professed.

RRR rests on their contrived friendship, pitting a desi British officer with a promise to fulfill and the abducted kid’s saviour as friends and foes. It’s a standard 1980s yarn of two-hero fare where best friends harbour secrets whose discovery causes misunderstandings until they realise they are after the same endgame.

Ditto for patriotism, which harks back to the era of campy Bob Christos embodying a villainy (Ray Stevenson) that raised Mard and Kranti‘s ‘so bad it’s good’ quotient. Except revisit that aesthetic sans the humour and its Thugs of Hindostan catastrophe all over again.

‘Every brown wanker thinks he can dance,’ grumbles a gora suitor, unable to digest the belle of the ball, ignoring his blue-eyed good looks for Bheem’s scruffy charms. A vigorous desi dance-off follows, the British are humbled and another ‘item’ is checked off RRR‘s list.

Barring the kindly English Rose (Olivia Morris) who’ll help the hero and arouse no one’s suspicion, every single British character is a growling caricature whose love for torture and whiplashes gets the extra cheese treatment under Rajamouli’s exaggerated vision. So it’s not just *any* whip Bheem receives a lashing from. But a super spiked edition, the kind reserved for a certain Thakur’s shoes.

Trembling in blood and pain, Bheem grabs this opportunity to sing and stir revolution within the sleepy crowds. This is Rajamouli after all. The man will show coronavirus vaccines can be produced from cotton balls and we’ll buy it. But RRR is a complete misstep.

What ought to be audacious looks far-fetched. A copious amount of blood, beating, crying, saving, sacrificing, nationalism fills up its staggering three hours running time. Emotions run sky high, but you feel nothing. People on the good side, people on the bad side are tossed, battered, crushed, pummelled, beaten, bitten, strangled, whipped, shot, stabbed, there’s no end to all the chasing and bleeding, streams of it literally, but the excesses get tedious to bear.

Unlike Baahubali or Eaga which had fantasy, mythological or supernatural backgrounds, such over-the-top is misplaced in RRR‘s action-packed objective of friendship and revolution.

Instead, the constant supply of flying men no different from gymnasts and trapeze artists and horses, cheetahs, tigers, wolves, snakes lend RRR the air of a ciRRRcus.

Technically too, RRR is no great shakes. The CGI is uneven and VFX overkill robs the adventure of any raw, organic texture. One could disregard the lack of period detailing in sartorial terms but watching a character roam about markets with a Yashica camera around her neck when it didn’t come into existence till 1949 is baffling. There’s also the problem with the on/off Hindi voiceover translating the English lines. It’s inexplicably erratic, like a defective radio whose volume comes and goes on whim.

RRR‘s two pillars — NTR Jr and Ram Charan — submit themselves fully to Rajamouli’s imagination. NTR Jr is perpetually in overboard mode and his ‘Bhai Bhai‘ ardour gets overbearing at places.Ram Charan exudes charisma and stands tall himself despite the flighty manner the screenplay makes him jump between moods. Though they exude fabulous energy in their respective parts, the chemistry is just not there.

The women are perfunctory. All they have to do is look sparkling at all occasions as snivelling supporters or casualties of violence.

Morris walks the cliché ‘Don’t call me Memsahib’ route. Alia Bhatt slips in ‘Sita’ mode awaiting her ‘Ram’s return in an extended cameo that seems even more undeserving of her talent after the success of Gangubai Kathiawadi. Ajay Devgn as the rebel leader forming the backstory for Ram’s retribution, is back in another guest appearance after Gangubai. His calm and restraint is a welcome relief in an otherwise breathless session of crash, bang, boom.

Bikes are tossed. Bombs are tossed. Brits are tossed. RRR throws so much from all directions and yet I left the theatre feeling nothing.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Jalsa review

Futility of violence and power of pardon are powerfully enforced in Gandhi’s beliefs that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

But should magnanimity always be the burden of the marginalised?

The question looms large in Suresh Triveni’s Jalsa, which has the air of a thriller but is really a politically-driven movie, offering a great allegory for the times we are living in.

A climate of communal hatred has infected the air and is so rapidly rotting the system of humanity where even the righteous truth seekers will find themselves off their high horses when confronted by their own bias.

Jalsa, co-written by Triveni and Prajwal Chandrashekhar, addresses the lopsided distribution of power and privilege through the prism of class and religion pitting the advantaged Hindu against the Muslim minority where one enjoys complete autonomy to err, deny or atone while the other not only gets the short end of the stick but also must bear the onus of showing grace under fire.

It’s also the story of two mothers whose ferociously protective instincts for their children colour their fears and conscience.

Jalsa is profoundly intense, a mood it willfully sticks to through its late night scenes for ill-fated accidents or a turbulent climax soaked in rain and storm. And one of the first things that strike about Triveni’s complete departure from the feel-good Tumhari Sulu is its impactful sound design.

The monochrome opening credits roll against the unseen hustle-bustle of markets and noise of fast-moving traffic and honking vehicles but as the activities of day descend into the quiet of night, just one loud crash is enough to silence the heartbeat.

We revisit the horror of a hit-and-run scenario over and over again as the truth reveals itself in all its murky glory (as well as the mystery behind its festive title.)

A teenage girl is run over by a car whose driver is too scared to stop and help.

We learn the girl (Kashish Rizwan) is Rukhsana’s (Shefali Shah) daughter.

Rukhsana is a cook at Maya Menon’s (Vidya Balan), a hotshot television journalist in Mumbai known for scooping out uncomfortable truths from playing hard-to-get interviewees.

When we first meet Maya, she is in the middle of a LIVE talk that has reached an impasse since neither party is willing to budge from their positions ensuing in a social media uproar.

She knows she’s powerful enough to get away with it.

Her mildly irate boss (Mohammed Iqbal Khan) does too.

There’s a mildly flirtatious undertone to their relationship.

It’s clear they share a comfort zone, a history — he takes care of things, she’s the golden goose of the network.

Jalsa lets us decide if we want to read more into their mutually beneficial relationship.

Point is he doesn’t throw a fit when she drowns out his protests in deafeningly loud rock music. She does that a lot, quashing the noises in her head by turning up the sound of her speaker.

Little does Maya know the truth slogans she surrounds herself in will return to haunt her when she is torn between investigating her cook’s daughter’s accident or nipping it in the bud as the consequences can hurt her too.

Once the voice of justice, she can no longer even bring herself to utter the word as Jalsa explores the irony, the hypocrisy through a web of corruption and compromise once again proving hamam mein sab nange hain.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Rukhsana looking after Maya’s autistic son (an impressive Surya Kasibhatla) with whom she and her similar aged son (Shafin Patel, another solid performance) share a fond equation.

They play Tekken, share egg curry, but the idea of social equality they project is, ultimately, hollow lip service. This is what Jalsa is driving at.

A sub-plot involving an awkward intern’s (Vidhatri Bandi) investigation and a retirement approaching cop (Shrikant Mohan Yadav) running helter-skelter to wrap up the case lends flesh to the proceedings. But the pillars of this conscience tale are always Maya and Rukhsana.

Being a woman is never easy — irrespective of ethics or economy.

Maya is separated from her husband (Manav Kaul fatigue as a cheerleader for single, strong women is finally kicking in) and lives with her fiery mom (a dynamic Rohini Hattangadi) giving a glimpse into their Paa-like household only it’s a lot darker and dysfunctional.

Rukhsana’s husband is a frail, feeble figure leaving her to tackle all the judgmental ‘What was your girl doing so late at night with a boy?’ inquiries of curious, community aunties. The spaces they inhabit could not be more real or contrasting. And Triveni has a knack for authenticity in a way that enriches the storytelling and setting.

Both Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah are powerhouse talents and are tailor-made for Jalsa‘s overwrought premise.

Vidya’s Maya is complicated — she is uptight, unbending, arrogant and bottled up. When such a persona experiences guilt, it can be quite an ordeal. But Shefali’s Rukhsana is tougher than she gets credit for and her resentment over it leads to simmering drama as well as explosive outbursts.

The only problem with Vidya and Shefali’s impassioned act is they tend to get so highlighted, as though they are the only two people in the story feeling all the emotions and nobody else’s stress matters.

Like the person accompanying Rukhsana’s daughter when the accident happened.

Or even their families.

Both are mothers to sensitive, discerning sons, they definitely have an understanding of the stress in their lives, which indirectly affects them too.

Jalsa creates a platform for their incredible talent but refuses to delve on the repercussions.

Despite the plot’s incriminating tone — peak effective in a symbolic moment where a huge tarpaulin cover is thrown over a press car — Triveni is somewhat protective of his imperfect protagonists and wants to give them a shot at redemption.

The entire film is a lead up to a confrontation between wrong and wronged, but when the moment finally arrives, Jalsa leaves us in the cold and to mull over the state of things.

Jalsa streams on Amazon Prime Video.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Jhund review

Only a man who has Mera Baap Chor Hai tattooed on his wrist in his childhood can understand where the adolescent anguish of ‘Gutter Ki Naali Se, Public Ki Gaali Se, Raaste Pe Aaya Yeh Jhund Hai‘ is coming from.

In Jhund, Amitabh Bachchan leads a ragtag team of underdogs to victory. He IS Vijay after all. And writer-film-maker Nagraj Popatrao Manjule magnificently manifests his fanboy nostalgia towards Bachchan’s zeitgeist alter ego and anger into a winsome movement championing the cause of football-playing slum kids.

One of the director’s favourite films of the superstar, Satte Pe Satta, is a subconscious role model for its many crowd-pleasing moments. Quite like the driving force behind the sibling pack of Satte Pe Satta, Bachchan takes charge of an unruly bunch and their ‘chain kuli ki main kuli ki chain‘ frenzy. When offered ‘daru‘ he blushingly declines and says he’s quit drinking — ‘kharaab hai‘, evoking his iconic ‘daru peene se liver kharab ho jaata hai‘ drunken scene. He wears the same disappointed look when the motley crew let him down, prompting them to straighten their act. His emotional appeal before the judge to give delinquents a chance is no different from the mawkish excuse he makes for his roguish brothers before Hema Malini. A jhopadpatti brat goes by Babu as though Manjule is doffing his hat at the green-eyed doppelganger of Bachchan’s in Satte Pe Satta.

It’s obvious Manjule wrote Vijay Bokade with Bachchan in mind though his inspiration for the character comes from another Vijay, Vijay Barse, whose real-life efforts and work at Nagpur NGO Slum Soccer provides underprivileged youngsters a shot at rehabilitation and prospects.

Manjule’s film-making aesthetic is rooted in real and never once minces words on the subject of caste and its disturbing foothold on society. Be it FandrySairat or the recent Amazon anthology Unpaused: Naya Safar, they all lay emphasis on the matter of Dalit identity.

Jhund‘s triumph-of-spirit pursuits do not forget the significance Dr Ambedkar holds in these parts when the entire neighbourhood jumps to join a colourful celebration in his honour. But festivities can achieve little in absence of progress, Manjule shrewdly notes while critiquing the systematic disparity and deeply ingrained antipathy towards the riffraff.

On the surface, Jhund looks like a sports drama about the proverbial dark horse winning against all odds.

But winning is never the point. It’s about opportunities and mostly the lack of it when it comes to society’s marginalised. Chances are all the more slim when its seekers are chain-snatching, mobile-stealing, glue-sniffing thugs, junkies, scrapyard pickers and eve teasers sporting cheap fashion, highlights in hair and DANGER on their bike’s license plate.

The vibrant louts of Nagpur’s Gaddi Godam slum region are forever engaged in scuffles and fights. It’s a somewhat romanticised portrayal of juvenile hooliganism, the impact of which is heightened in Ajay-Atul’s booming beats and Saket Kanetkar’s exhilarating background score.

The musicians deliver a cracker of a soundtrack that shows a standalone understanding of Jhund‘s ideals across Amitabh Bhattacharya’s potent lyrics. Be it the duality of Laat Maar or spirit of Baadal Se Dosti or his delightful use of Maharashtrian slang for ethnicity not swagger.

A fairy tale is set in motion when a retired sports teacher sees the kids playing football with a plastic drum in the rain. All of a sudden, they cease to be ruffians.

Cinematographer Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti ardently captures the glory these grubby faces are capable of, apart from his evocative use of drone cameras to highlight the distinction among the social classes.

There’s talent in the ghettos, but no platform nor guide. Vijay volunteers to help them cultivate a love for their inborn gift and test its merit by openly challenging naysayers, a la Chak De! India. Like in the latter where Shah Rukh Khan’s coach proposes a contest between his all-girls hockey team to take on the boys, Vijay organises a sadbhavna match between his barefoot litter and the nearby convent’s cool kids in jerseys.

Though Team Gaadi Godam arrives looking like a funky ad of United Colors of Benetton, the ensuing hilarity, horseplay and turning of tables is just the sort of mood Jhund is rooting for.

Once the kids have tasted blood, they want to keep playing. Not for money. Not for glory. But for identity. Vijay embodies the role of hope and course correction that the privileged need to assume for the misguided and marginalised to find their place in the sun.

Hum Ko Duniya Ne Roj Dekha Hai. Phir Bhi Andekha Jhund Hai,’ cries a line in Jhund‘s title song.

Manjule pauses and lets these voices — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, a watchman from North East, young girls refusing to remain pigeon-holed in clichéd ideas of gender specific roles — have their say. If hearing these young boys and girls open up — awkwardly, incoherently — never feels manipulative, it’s because of the sheer authenticity of their being.

These voices are coming from a place of truth; these aren’t a professional actor’s insightfully performed, meticulously rehearsed impulses. The tan is real. The accent is organic.

Saare Jahan Se Acha‘s patriotic tune plays on cue and evokes the idea of India. Except its significance is lost on the ‘Bharat matlab?‘ wondering child. Their lives are so trivial in the bigger picture; they don’t have the time to mourn when one’s gone too soon. The coldness hits hard.

But Vijay’s altruism pushes him to expand the scope of their breakthrough from local to national to international.

One that Don (a terrific Ankush Gedam), the most prominent amongst the jhund struggles to be a part of no thanks to his constant brush-ins with law (fuelled by mischief monger Akash Thosar). He’s not the only one bending over backwards to procure a passport.

A girl (Rinku Rajguru puts in a small but significant appearance) from Pahada village goes through painful degrees of red tapism while mother of three girls Raziya (Raziya Kazi) learns that leaving her son-obsessed husband is proving detrimental in processing paperwork.

At nearly three hours, Jhund has a lot on its mind. One of them is to remind us that Mumbai is not the rest of India. Manjule addresses the casteism, elitism and sexism but also acknowledges that sometimes something as trivial as the language of emojis can transcend class.

Respect begets respect. It is as simple as that.

Manjule’s enthusiasm in directing his childhood hero is evident in Amitabh Bachchan’s start-to-finish authority. Playing a character put off by the idea of retirement is becoming on Bachchan. A few months away from turning 80, this is his third release since the pandemic.

Hands in pocket, eyes firmly focused on his mission, conviction inks his speech while his serene, sensitive portrayal has a calming effect on the kids and Jhund. Vijay is a big guy now, but the world is still not done saving.

Jhund‘s spunk lies in its many, many peripheral characters — Don’s smart alec bestie in a red cardinal inspired hairstyle, the henna-haired enthusiast’s breathless commentary, the ganja-peddling washer woman, the knee-high punk sporting a Batman tee and barrels of attitude. Manjule too appears in a small role as the scrapyard owner.

Jhund revolves around football, but it does not build itself around a thrilling match. Sometimes the greatest goal a man can score is to toss the knife in the trash can.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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