Udta Punjab -Stunning, hard-hitting and an absolute high!

* * * 1/2

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Alright, so this is a brilliant work by Kashyap and co, though it makes you uncomfortable and concerned about more than one cause.

  • The problem that the movie very effectively portrays – that of drug menace in Punjab. Reading about it print is different from watching it unfold in front of you, and the movie makes you very uncomfortable about the situation in the state. But more than anything, it makes you aware (and in a much better way than those anti-smoking ads before the movie) of how substance abuse is injurious to health and life!
  • The problem that the movie inadvertently drew attention of the country towards – the actions and logic (or lack of it) behind them of CBFC, voiced by our very own Mr. Nihlani. It is strange to think that someone could perceive this movie as promoting substance abuse, verbal abuse or defaming Punjab. This shamefully points towards a severe handicap in artistic understanding, or worse, a political hidden agenda.

Abhishek Chaubey, who already impressed the critics and audience with his Ishqiya franchise, ups the ante here and succeeds in giving the audience a film which is cool, fun, entertaining, explicit, bold, socially relevant, and technically brilliant without ever being preachy. Despite having easy temptation to fall into the trap, the movie not for a single moment glamorizes drugs and that is a major achievement. Yes, there is a lot of cussing but nothing seems unjustified or out of the place given the characters and their milieu. Infact one shudders to think what the CBFC would have made of the movie if the makers hadn’t gone to the court.

The film tells the stories of 4 characters in a drug laden Punjab. Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a coke snorting rockstar idolized by many in the state, Sartaj (Diljit Dosanh) a cop living in cartels with the drug mafia and police until his own family gets affected by it, Preet (Kareena Kapoor) a doctor and drug rehabilitation worker who along with Sartaj tries to fight the problem, and an unnamed Bihari migrant worker (Alia Bhatt) whose encounters with the powder lead her places,  not all being the ones where she’d have wanted to. Though all the performances are good, stars of the show are definitely Alia and Shahid (arguably, in that order). Alia Bhatt has to be seen to be believed. The way she has modified herself completely- right from accent to body language, she is a revelation. Hats off to the young actor, she is no more a student, rather actor of the year! Shahid Kapoor excels once again his role, bringing alive both the madness and humane side of the rockstar. Diljit makes an impressive debut and is very likable. Amit Trivedi scores big again, and the way music has been integrated into the script is commendable. The abuse-laden dialogues are as real as they get hence are effective in conveying the intent of the story.

To nitpick, the first half cold have been a bit more clear, the deliberate steps to say ‘’drugs are bad’’ often come into the way of story-telling. Also, a particular sequence in the end seems to be a deliberate attempt to take the story in a certain direction instead of flowing free and organically. But even with these, Udta Punjab scores high, scales new heights and makes you care for the characters, people and the beautiful state in a strong way.  Go watch it, not to be missed at any cost!

Neerja – Soars high

* * * *

Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Shekhar Ravijani, Yogendra Tiku

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Just a few weeks ago, we had a movie based on a real life incident which tried its best to create a hero, often forgetting the thin line between creative liberty and distortion of facts, yet at best emerged as an average fare which sailed through thanks to the nationalist flavour of the week. This week debutant director Ram Madhvani shows us how it is done. Simply put, Neerja soars high, and before landing at its rather tragic destination, makes you feel for the lead character, Neerja in a way so strong that it is a testimonial to the power of cinema, or to be precise, good cinema.

That Neerja Bhanot’s story is inspirational and the young woman did something extraordinary is an established fact. But often good stories do not result in good movies, and thankfully this is not one of those cases. The movie tells the story of a (yet to be) 23 year old Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor), who lives with her doting parents (Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku) brothers. Post a successful modelling career, she has just got her first opportunity as the head purser in a Pan Am flight directed to Frankfurt via Karachi. Amidst the ill-fated plane that gets hijacked, her past consisting of an abusive marriage that haunts her, and supportive parents, how Neerja shows exceptional courage and human spirit forms the crux of the story. The makers get the 80’s set up right, though the Rajesh Khanna reference is overdone at times. Also, a few of the Bollywood clichés about parents could have been avoided in an otherwise realistic movie. Thankfully, the director doesn’t waste much time in build-up, and is very effective in maintaining an atmosphere of tension and distress throughout the movie. The moments before the main event kicks in work well to establish the characters we care for, before the calamity strikes. Once we are in the plane, there is no looking back. The fear is almost palpable, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats throughout, despite knowing what is about to unfold; and when is does, it is heart wrenching. It is probably the saddest that you’ll feel at the movies in a while, (except the times when your choice of the movie makes you sad) and that’s the power of this beautiful story, told in a very powerful way.

Sonam Kapoor must be applauded for her choice of the movie, for this might very well be the career defining role for her. While there were doubts about how well she could pull this off, there is no denying that this is her best work yet. In a role that demands a lot from her – looking picture perfect as an air-hostess and channeling her inner strength on screen, she excels. In the scenes where she is about to break down and yet derives strength from her past, she is exceptional.  Shekhar Ravijani and Yogendra Tiku play their roles well. However, expectedly the performance which breaks your heart, and is sure to move you to tears is that of the veteran, Shabana Azmi. Her reactions when she gets to know of the hijack are priceless. And then there is the climax speech, which is bound to make everyone reach out for tissues. The music, cinematography and dialogues are all controlled, devoid of any unnecessary frills and offer able support to the emotional core of the movie, the main strength of it.

Emotional core, a necessity for any work of art, yet a rare phenomenon in our industry. Movies like Neerja show us cinema can do more than giving you a good time and making you laugh. This is a story which deserved to be told, and has been told in such a real manner that it is often uncomfortable. But then, comfort isn’t the point of art, well not always.

Must watch.

Bajirao Mastani: A visual , artistic and royal beauty K. Asif would be proud of

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* * * *

Mesmerizing palaces, fountains and chandeliers, alluring classical dance numbers, royal court and pride,  shayaris and constant references to the moon and Gods, epic battle scenes and a forbidden love – if all this reminds you of Mughal-e-Azam, then come and  relish with absolute delight and almost palpable sense of pleasure, this visually enchanting, dramatically appealing and artistically satisfying saga of love made by a man who obviously is in love with his art, our history and the K. Asif classic. Bajrao Mastani, in a very assuring way, is Sanjay Leela Bhansali in his top form, weaving his own version of a world that existed only in the pages of history, with cinematic liberties and imaginations, but nonetheless with absolute finesse. The result is almost a cinematic masterpiece. This could very well be the Mughal-e-Azam of this generation.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has always been associated with beautiful imagery on screen – of grand sets, classical music, larger than life situations and performances. But of late, he has been accused of overindulgence in these show pieces and losing the plot somewhere in them – Guzaarish, Saawariya or RamLeela. But here he reminds us of the stuff he is capable of. While each and every scene of the movie is a beautiful painting, all the dance numbers are a lesson in elegance, class and royal charm – the beauty of the movie lies mostly in the screenplay. The story of forbidden love between Peshwa Bajirao (Ranveer) and a Muslim warrior princess Mastani (Deepika) and a dutiful wife Kashibai ( Priyanka) has been weaved beautifully, albeit with significant creative liberty. But when the result is as magnificent as this, one can’t really complain, not after the loud disclaimer at the start, which seems an afterthought of the protests. There is too much to love and marvel over here. The obvious – the amazing sets of Bajirao’s courts, palace, Mastani Mehel and ofcourse that beautiful ode to Mughal-e-azam’s Sheesh mehel – Aaina Mehel, and the musical confession of love in court – Deepika does an Anarkali, and succeeds at it. The music is soothing, melodious and true to the spirit of the movie. The dialogues, full of poetry, shayari and references to Radha, Krishna, Chand are equally effective and transport you to a different era altogether.  The war sequences are choreographed aptly, though never being the focus of the screenplay. The dance numbers add to the allure of the entire set up, and the leading ladies perform beautifully. The story does not restrict itself to only romance, but also weaves in a significant amount of social commentary, very relevant to today’s time, without being preachy. The performances are top notch. While Ranveer is no doubt excellent, with his accent, body language and expressions, the ladies steal the show. Deepika as Mastani shines, quite literally. Her eyes speak volume, convey the determination and love that grows within her, and needless to say she looks a million bucks. Priyanka has an understated role, but the gravitas she brings to it shows the level of her art. The controversial Pinga song might not be accurate historically, but nonetheless is a high point of the movie, a delight for the fans. Also commendable is the way in which the makers keep the on-goings progressive, and avoid the trap of portraying the love, the infidelity as excessively glorified. The dilemmas of the Peshwa, as well as the attempts of Kashibai to come to terms with the situation are dealt with very sensitively and it is impossible not to feel for all the characters.

In this era of mind-numbing tailor made blockbuster movies bereft of any sense of art, aesthetics or basic decency, at the end it comes down the viewers. The course of cinema is determined by the choices we make as audience. This one is a gem, designed not to make a quick buck, but for the love of art of cinema, for a tribute to an immortal movie classic, and most importantly, for the romantic within all of us. Go for this one, for movies like this are not frequent. As K Asif would agree, often it takes half a century to come up with one.

Tamasha : Musings of a master storyteller

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* * * 1/2

Once upon a time in Bollywood, the usual enemies of love were external – parents,  goons or evil relatives, love was a solution to life’s problems, and a destination in itself. Then came people like Ayan Mukherjee, Shakun Batra, Imtiaz Ali and love became an instrument to self-discovery , and had to face bigger battles- that with self, thoughts and beliefs. Interestingly, Ranbir Kapoor has been a frequent part of such stories, and Tamasha adds an illustrious feather to that hat. This is a beautiful cinematic experience, not so much a commercial love story, but a story of stories, metaphors, soul searching and ultimately, love helping you discover them all. Imtiaz Ali excels with this intense and passionate tale of defying conventions and finding your own story, and comes up with a cinematic triumph!

Tamasha is an experience, a theatrical presentation which uses the metaphor of story-telling beautifully and weaves a character and story about whom you care, and in the process start thinking about your own life and dreams. Why always the same story – the film questions frequently, while also reiterating the fact that most stories, across cultures, nations, times are similar at the core, and all our stories are somewhere a mix of that, but we need to find that within ourself. In a key moment of the film, the moment of realization, the protagonist realizes that it was nothing else but fear that had been stopping him from finding his own story, living his own dream. The strength of that one moment is enormous, and elevates the movie to a different level. The movie tells us the story of a Ved (Ranbir) , who has grown up listening to stories, and lives through them. Unable to separate real life from the stories he hears, when he is forced to give them up and follow the same journey as everyone, he loses his own self and becomes what is expected of him by the society. How a trip to beautiful Corsica and a meeting with Tara (Deepika) changes his life and makes him discover his real self, forms the crux of the story. It might sound a bit high minded, pretentious and first world, but it isn’t. Infact one of the characters says, jinki life me koi problem nahi hoti, wo khud problems create karte hain, and sadly many people especially in our country might agree to that, and that irony itself drives home strongly the point of this movie.

Hence, in no way this is a safe movie to make and be a part of. Imtiaz Ali must be applauded for sticking to his beliefs and coming up with movies which have a strong voice and something to say. But more importantly, it is Ranbir who deserves praise for his strong performance, which once again shows why he is regarded as the next superstar, and despite seeing a few failures has not given in to the safe commercial choices in cinema. His portrayal of Ved is perfect and leaves you spell bound. Deepika shines too, though her role has not been defined clearly and also treated often as secondary to Ranbir’s. A R Rahman is magical as always, adding the required pathos and volumes to silences. The camera beautifully captures the beauty of Corsica and lanes of Hauz Khas Village in Delhi. In second half the movie does meander for some time, and some might find the pacing slow. But with all its ideas of self-actualization and being true to self, the movie does manage to find a middle path between reality, practicality and romanticism, and that’s the best part of the story. Because, how many of us have really been stopped from pursuing our dreams by our parents, or lack of money? More often than not, it is only our fear of breaking the convention, leaving the comfort zones which restricts us. Tamasha teaches us to forget the fears, live our own story, and question, why always the same story!

Go for it, absolutely!

Prem Ratan Dhan Payo: Scary demons of a bygone era

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1/5

Imagine the following scenes, set in a mansion which looks like a cross between royal palace of the Mughals and a five star hotel, and the characters dressed in heavy jewelry, saris, lehengas, kurta payjamas and pagdis, with swords for accessories.

  1. The king and his sisters reunite, hug and make peace. The soon-to-be-queen of the king can’t control her happiness and runs through the entire corridor and stops near a golden pillar to breath heavily, with her chest doing a hundred sit-ups, and covers half her face coyly, contracts her eyes and runs again, only to be joined by a hundred fellow dancers and break into a dance number
  2. The girl’s mother says, – we have a tradition where in return of a gift, we also give a gift, and here is your gift- and enters the girl. Okay.
  3. The king stands and waves from his balcony, and on the grounds, the people of his city stand cheering and waving the flag (?) of his ‘kingdom’, and going by the iPhones on display the year is definitely not 1850.

If the above description has not scared you already, sample this. There is a special area (playboy mansion, anyone?) which is for the king and queen to spend some ‘quality time’ together. The king’s doppelganger jokes about it too, quality time ke liye room kam pad gaye they kya?, though later when the princess is seduced enough by 4 days of considerate behaviour by the ‘King’, she herself asks him to write on her back,( meri peeth pe likhiye) with a feather.

Yes, it is that bad, all of it. This is the kind of cinema which makes you wonder if the makers ever saw what they were putting in cinemas, and worse, makes you question your own judgement in choice of movies, and makes you worried if there are people around you who actually like this.

Suraj Barjatya has never been a great director. He made two good films, which captured the mood of a changing nation, a nation opening to liberalization and the influence of west and at the same time struggling to establish an identity of its own culture amidst it, and those two movies came just at the right time and hence got catapulted to legendary status. But his later movies, all of which were bad critically and either moderate success or washouts at the box office, showed his severe limitations as a filmmaker. Grey isn’t his area, he is a man who believes in white and black. The morals and Indian sanskaars on which the movies tries to weave a story around seem very dated and out of sync with the times. The movie tells the story of a commoner Prem who has a crush on a royal Princess, and luckily he is a lookalike of the Prince to which she is engaged. Predictably, a case of exchanged identity occurs and the bhai with a golden heart solves all problems of the royal family (which are as clichéd as one could fear). All this would be forgiven if the resultant was even remotely entertaining, but it is far from it. There is a terrible lack of consistency in the way characters act behave and speak. Which royals travel actually by a chariot in today’s age? Why do the citizens start looking like coming from a Mughal era at times? Add to these, some terrible VFX, and really bad acting (overacting) from the leading man, and you have a perfect disaster for the festival.

If you love your family, take them for a lunch instead, that will definitely not give them a headache and nausea.

Pyaar ka Punchnama 2 : Double the bias, double the fun – This one ups the ante!

* * * 1/2

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The best works of art are those which make no pretension of being impartial and free of bias. Hence, label this movie (like its predecessor) misogynistic but the makers open their line of attack with a full throttle and boy, they score again and how!  You may agree or disagree with the view, but the credit (or a well-intended blame) lies in how convincingly, and of-course entertainingly they manage to present it on celluloid. That’s precisely where the original succeeded, and became a cult classic with time. The good news is, the sequel (though it could have been called a remake as well!) despite following the set template and caricatures of the original, is equally hilarious and identifiable! The feminists, and a majority of the fairer sex might get heavily offended, but as they say, why should girls have all the fun? So, this one could be a version of the male kitty party, where (pardon the crassness) the ‘dogs’ get to bitch! The purists might argue that the real life women are not as contriving or manipulating, and they won’t be wrong. But then, this movie is a boys’ party – where they all are sure to relate to a few sequences and sufferings. Even the women might, reluctantly, identify more than once with the behaviour on display by the girls. That the women in the movie are entirely made up of those fallacies is indeed a flaw of the script, but the makers being clear in their intention, can’t really be judged for that. Infact so convincing is the story, that at no point you feel hatred for the girls, since none of the things girls do seem outlandish or unheard or unseen of, only an exaggeration and amalgamation of all the female traits you might have come across.

The actors do a fairly good job and you instantly believe in their world. The girls in particular, despite having heavily stereotyped roles, prevent their characters from being annoying caricatures. With the ground already established in the original, the movie takes time to explore some urbane concepts of modern relationships in detail – money splitting, the girl having a male best-friend and ofcourse the troubles of social media ‘updates’. All these concepts take the movie a few notches up from the previous, in terms of detailing. The technical aspects of the movie are good, making it look classy and chic. The songs are few, thankfully, and the much acclaimed monologue of the prequel is repeated with a longer air time, though it does seem a bit stretched.The hilarious spoof of the anti-smoking ad before the interval, or the hooking up of the 3 couples.are some sequences which show the skilled touch of the director.

If you are a guy, chances are pretty high you will love this (though the ‘bribe’ might not let you admit that), and if you are a girl, you’ll love to hate this one. Definitely a one-up on its prequel, this one is a must watch.

Masaan : Redemption, Art and Banaras

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* * * *

The darkest spots are often beneath the flame. Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi- the religious capital of India, the oldest living city of world, the home to Shiva might draw people from all over the world with the lure of nirvana, of witnessing a living museum of the times as old as the Ganga and as new as the latest McDonalds menu blending together, but when left alone, it often burns along with the funeral pyre on its ghats every day, in hope of resurrection, in hopes of setting itself free. The only problem being those shackles often are an inseparable part of its identity.

Masaan as a movie transports you to the insides of a city, which is known as the gateway to moksha and ironically becomes a cage for itself. The movie might be based in Varanasi on the banks of the Holy Ganga, but the context extends easily to the majority of our society. However, staying true to its setting, the movie not only does justice, but includes the holy city and river as an inseparable part of the story so that they emerge as the most important characters of the story. A city with religion as the major source of income and least opportunities for those chasing their dreams in a non-spiritual world, a city with most number of tourists from across the globe but itself still battling with the old definitions of morality defined by the societies that existed on these very riversides, a city with a sprawling growth of educational institutions but preparing the young minds so that they have no option but to fly away from the city to achieve their dreams, a city which might beam at the dream and ‘plans’ of a metro train but is yet to experience a road devoid of craters- there is no dearth of ironies here. The movie explores in such a set-up, the minds of its residents, 5 of them who struggle to break the shackles, fight with others and themselves to question the definitions of right and wrong. And when, as an audience, you find asking those questions to yourself, it is an example of immense power of cinema, and that’s where Masaan soars.

It is a city where romance might still be done in hushed tones, hearts exchanged on pretense of stationery and a young couple engaging in consensual sex in a closed hotel room might be the cause of scandal- but that does not mean the aspirations and dreams are limited and caged like the moralities. Just that the manifestations are different. When Devi Pathak decides to explore her sexuality with her friend from the coaching institute, in all her sensibilities and righteousness she (and hopefully, the audience) is convinced that she is doing no wrong. When Deepak falls in love (the loves story being one of the most subtle and beautiful in recent times) with Shaloo who is from a caste deemed ‘higher’ in the social order of archaic times (but very much present day as well), he somewhere has a flicker of hope, ignited by the education he had that the girl herself won’t give in to such beliefs, a hope which is very well lived, as a symbol of the changing winds of the society. When the old man trying to make money for his and his daughter’s honour succumbs to the need and lets the kid dive in the river for money, the conflict in his heart is palpable, and you can’t decide what is right.

This could have been a film much less than what it is, if not for the metaphors dispersed throughout in the context of the city and river. Despite being about death, loss and mourning the film never looks at the city in a negative tone, but only in a redemptive and caressing look. The camera doesn’t focus on the touristy and airbrushed visuals, but portrays the city in all its glory and shame, leading to a touch of reality never before seen on celluloid. The performances are brilliant, but the one who really stands out is Vicky Kaushal in the role of Deepak. The scene where is breaks down with his friends haunts you for hours after the movie. The authenticity of the dialogues, milieu, locations and accent is perfect and acts as a powerful support to a heart wrenching story. The soundtrack by Indian Ocean deserves special mention. It blends in the movie and gets lost in lanes of the city filling it with the feeling of poise. The camera makes love to the city of Benaras like never before. The ghats, temples, funeral pyres, durga pooja, local markets, restaurants – all come alive in a way cinema has never seen. But the real hero is of course the writer and director, who have managed to pull this haunting tale in a way it’s hard to stop thinking about it for long.

Take a bow!