Wrong Side Raju

Ten minutes into Mikhil Musale’s Wrong Side Raju, everyone in the auditorium who knew rudimentary Gujarati (including this South Indian reviewer, born and raised in Gujarat), forgot that they were watching a Gujarati movie. This is a good thing as well as a bad thing. Good, because the look, feel, vibe and overall production quality of this movie is at par with most mainstream ‘bollywood’ movies. Bad, because this movie is so reminiscent of a small budget ‘bollywood’ thriller that I won’t be able to cut this movie the slack I usually reserve for regional films. For me, Wrong Side Raju is almost a Hindi movie dubbed in Gujarati. And when I look at it like that, the movie leaves me satisfied, but not delighted.wrong_side_raju_poster

The film is ‘inspired’ by an actual hit-and-run case that transpired in Ahmedabad couple of years back, involving an influential doctor’s son. The Raju of the title is played by Pratik Gandhi who channels his inner Dhanush quite well and hits the right notes almost till the end (more on the end later). Raju is a driver by day for advocate Amitabh Shah (Asif Basra, an inspired and spot-on casting choice by Mr. Chhabra), and a teetotaler bootlegger by night. He gets smitten by the French ‘friend’ of his boss’ son Tanmay and gets embroiled in a cover-up when a midnight accident happens. The rest of the plot details will require a ticket.

The first half is breezy, albeit a little slow. The songs by Sachin-Jigar are top notch (specially the ode to Amdavad in the beginning). The love story between Raju and his ‘Saily Medam’ is too convenient, inconsistent and contrived. I can only hope that young Gujaratis don’t start finding parallels every time a foreign tourist warms up to them. Post interval, the plot gains a lot of momentum. So much that it becomes difficult for the writers to bring it safely to a stop. So they crash it into a wall instead. The audience around me went gaga over the twist in the end, but I personally found it ‘meh’ at best. It was a deus ex machina. Nothing that the characters say or do throughout the movie will prepare you for what the characters say that they did in the end. I really wish that the film had a more bitter-sweet, little won-little lost Phantom-esque end.

Wrong Side Raju marks Phantom Films’ foray into Gujarati cinema; and the Phantom stamp (especially that of Anurag Kashyap) is visible in most of the scenes involving the police. The main investigating officer, played by the brilliant Jayesh More, is ruthless and funny in equal measures. There is the usual banter between officers and hawaldars reminiscent of Ugly. The police are still enamoured by the powers of the mobile phone including its ability to take ‘pothyu’ (selfies in Phantom Gujarati). But on the plus side, the Phantom marks are also visible in the taut and almost accurate police procedural and judicial sequences. I really enjoyed watching an on-screen lawyer manoeuvre against bail by having the charge sheet filed in record time.

But while the special touches of Phantom are a welcome change, I must warn the new-age Gujarati film-makers to be a little careful while dealing with an all-wish-fulfilling devil. Gujarati films in the last 4-5 years have no doubt rebounded with a vengeance, but are on the verge of trading their souls and becoming Hindi films dubbed in Gujarati. There is a fine line between making a slice-of-life urban film and typecasting that life. There is more to an urban Gujarati than just yearning for alcohol, dealing with bootleggers, dreaming of ‘bijness’ or ‘amerika’ and doing the garba. At least I would like to believe so.

All in all, Wrong Side Raju is a decent thriller that has many moments that are well done and an end that is medium rare at best. Watch it once, because there are less chances of a just-released Gujarati film coming to a television channel near you.

Airlift – Of Human Endeavours and Misplaced Patriotism

Some stories are remembered for the message they convey; some are remembered for the messages they are perceived to convey. Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift, an otherwise fine film with great performances, will go down in history as an Indian patriotic film – which is rather unfair to both; the film as well as the concept of patriotism. airlift

Airlift is the story of how India mounted the largest human evacuation in recorded history when it airlifted around 170,000 Indians from Kuwait in 1990. The only problem is, the actual airlift and India’s contribution to the effort constitute hardly 10 minutes of the film’s runtime. The rest of the 110-odd minutes are dedicated to how a small group of Indian businessmen helped sustain and mobilize thousands of Indians in a war-ravaged country. This reminds me of Gadar – Ek Prem Katha, a jingoistic extravaganza that is still regarded as a patriotic film because Sunny Deol shouted “Hindustan zindabad tha, zindabad hai aur zindabad rahega” and pumped off a bunch of Pakistani soldiers when all that he was actually doing, was just saving his wife and son.

This band of businessmen is headed by Ranjit Katiyal (an imaginary character brought to life by Akshay Kumar in what is probably his best performance to date). He is a ruthless Kuwaiti businessman of Indian origin, who loathes everything Indian for the first 10 minutes of the movie and then has a change of heart when he realizes that so many people are looking up to him as a messiah now that the Saddam has hit the fan. In this effort, he is a supported (initially reluctantly and thereafter vehemently) by his wife, Amrita (played by Nimrat Kaur, who is understatedly fabulous). There is a also a whole host of supporting characters played by fine actors like Kumud Mishra, wildcards like Purab Kohli and theatre artists like Prakash Belawadi (whose character George is so damn irritating that I ended up loathing him more than the funny and puny Iraqi major). Rather unfortunate that Mr. George has more role in the movie than India does.

The story is gripping and very efficiently told. The tension peaks at the right moments. The dialogues are very effective and the frames are very nicely set by Priya Seth. I guess there is a lot of talk going around that Airlift is India’s version of Argo. Well, I haven’t seen Argo but it surely reminded me of Schindler’s List. Like that Spielberg classic, Airlift is also a story of how a few with will can find a way for many to survive – which is wonderful, engaging and definitely worth a watch. But let’s not call it a patriotic film just because it released on a Republic Day weekend. So did Kya Kool Hain Hum 3!

Rating: 8/10 (just pray that you don’t get any surplus KKHH3 crowd in your auditorium.)

Phantom

As a 30-year old Indian born and brought up on a steady dose of Bollywood, I believe that I am a patient, low-maintenance and forgiving movie-goer. I have endured and enjoyed a wide variety of mediocre films – the ones that showed a lot of promise but were let down by absurd casting decisions (Ajay Devgn’s Drishyam), ones that had the right cast and story-line but somehow just gave up in the last hour (Ishaqzaade and Badlapur), films that just wanted to make a quick buck by positioning themselves as a new-age entertainer but were inherently as regressive as they get (Any Karan Johar or Imran Khan movie you can think of), even films that were downright stupid (Aiyya). So you see, I’ve been through a lot and if a gun is ever pointed to my head, I’d even find one or two redeeming factors about these movies. But films like Phantom would rather make me urge my captor to pull the trigger and get it over with. Phantom is a classic example of the worst kind of cinema (according to me, of course), the lazy kind; the kind where no one gives a damn about what they are doing.

Let’s just cut to the chase. Phantom starts out like Rambo (there is even a reference of the movie/character by one of the characters in the second half) and ends up trying to be Steven Spielberg’s Munich. And it fails marvelously at both. Now, I don’t hold Spielberg on a pedestal and say that his movies should not or cannot be remade. Akshay Kumar’s Baby and Arjun Rampal’s D-day had pretty similar ‘eye-for-an-eye’ story arc, but were still pretty entertaining movies because (i) some thought had gone into the characterization of the ones seeking revenge and the atrocities being avenged for, and (ii) they had a couple of key sequences that were gripping and/or entertaining. Kabir Khan’s Phantom bothers to do neither.

The film has a forward-backward timeline that comes across as an editing gimmick. The whole ‘story’ could have been told in a linear manner without any loss in meaning or experience. The top guy at R.A.W is swayed into mounting a one-man revenge squad to avenge 26/11 (7 years later, no less) by a rookie played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub (a fine actor saddled with a terrible, unintentionally comical role).

The one-man revenge squad is, of course, our Saif Ali ‘Rambo’ Khan. He is an ex-army man who has a history that the audience never cares about (and neither is it made to). There are a couple of scenes that randomly give him the targets (why are they even using a projector to show pictures that are already there in every news portal possible?), some passports are handed over, a mobile phone is given (with specific instructions not to call back) and a wad of cash is thrown in. No other form of training or reconnaissance is needed (He’s an ex-army man, he’d be well-versed with all the intricacies of espionage, right?).

Our man, then goes about doing his thing across countries ranging from UK, US, Syria and finally, Malerkotla… err.. Pakistan. He knows exactly what to do, because he has read the script (let’s assume that there was one), he has no clue how to emote (because Rambo Khan can’t and no script can teach him that). In these missions, he is helped by Katrina ‘unnecessarily super-hot’ Kaif, an ex-RAW agent now working with an international defence contractor and one whose middle-class insurance agent father living in Colaba used to take her to Taj for tea and pastries (you see, insurance agents earn a lot.. even the middle-class ones).. Every assassination is conveniently plotted and childishly executed.. The audience is spoon-fed every bit of information after it has been thoroughly dumbed down (God forbid if someone in the audience didn’t understand an important plot twist). The result: a movie where the audience understands exactly what is going on, it can in fact predict what is going to happen and yet doesn’t give a damn about any of it. Bravo!

Let me take this opportunity to just call a bluff. This movie wasn’t delayed because there were post-production issues (there is so much wrong here at the production level that no amount of post-production can solve it). It was intentionally delayed because Kabir Khan finally bothered to look at the finished cut and thought “Oops! Can’t release this before or along with Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Let’s just serve this later like sada hua chinese manchurian served after 5-6 rounds of whiskey so that no one knows what they’re being fed.” Well, Mr. Khan, I, unfortunately, was sober and I know bloody well what you served me. And that is all that I have to say about that.

Dil Dhadakne Do

Every film is a conversation between the maker and the audience. Sometimes this conversation is one-sided – like when the wonderful craft of Christopher Nolan makes Interstellar or Inception, acts of tremendous oratory where we stop asking questions about the ‘How’ and ‘Why’ and just submerge into the world created by him. Sometimes this conversation is passive – like the Matrix series that awe us with their scale and CGI but leave a bitter after-taste of incredulity; questions that wear out the film’s beauty over a period of time. Or when the skill of the director and the actor is so massive that it takes away the attention from the underlying inadequacies in the script or characterization while the film is being watched, but they dawn upon us after coming and one feels frustrated and ignored – films like Badlapur.

But then, ever so often there comes a film that engages the audience on a real-time basis. It answers the questions in such a way that it challenges and eggs us to ask even more. Dil Dhadakne Do is one such film. Writing about a film that released over a month back, can’t really be called a review these days. Month-old films are part of history, provided they are worth remembering in the first place. So this article is less of a review and more a sharing of experience.

Dil Dhadakne Do is a delightful romedy drama about a high-society but dysfunctional family. Dysfunctionality is a highly subjective and rarely filmed concept in India. That is because most of the behaviour that makes a family dysfunctional, in the western sense of the term, are quite accepted and commonplace in the Indian society. We believe that pyaar and takraar go hand in hand and that “husband-wife me aise problems to hoti rehti hain”. So the flawed nature of the Mehra family comes to fore only as the film progresses.

The family in question is the Delhi based Mehra khandaan with patriarch Kamal Mehra (the wonderful Anil Kapoor who seems to be ageing with enviable grace), his wife Neelam (the absolutely mesmerizing Shefali Shah who changes expressions with chameleon-esque ease), their children Ayesha (a fabulous Priyanka Chopra who doesn’t seem to be getting due appreciation in Bollywood these days) and Kabir (a wildly entertaining Ranveer Singh who keeps you guessing whether you are seeing Ranveer portray Kabir or Ranveer being Ranveer) and their dog Pluto Mehra (voice by the terribly irritating Aamir Khan mouthing inane dialogues surprisingly written by Javed Akhtar). Like most Zoya Akhtar movies in the past, this is also a travelogue (Although I don’t imagine Turkey and Tunisia benefiting from this movie as much as Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara helped tourism in Spain). So Kamal and Neena are ‘celebrating’ their 30th anniversary by taking a whole baaraat of characters on a Mediterranean cruise. What happens next has unfortunately been described in great (and unnecessary) detail on the wikipedia page of the film.

While watching the movie, some of the questions that came to my mind were:

Kabir Mehra has everything – a private plane to unwind from day-to-day ‘stress’, a seemingly successful career that is being handed over to him on a platter, an incredibly chiselled torso for which he is apparently not doing much workout. Yet he seems lost and unhappy. Why the hell would he be unhappy? This question was partly answered in the first 15 minutes during the meeting with the Sri Lankan company and more emphatically during the epic gym sequence where father Kamal shows his son his true worth using all the bluntness he can summon.

Ayesha Sangha (née Mehra) is married into an affluent family, has her own business to give her that sense of individual success and a husband Manav (a sadly caricatured Rahul Bose) who may not love her family (or her dog) but seems to love her. Yet she is unhappy and thinking of a divorce. Why the hell would she be unhappy? This role could have well become the obnoxious Rani Mukherjee character from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna who just can’t tolerate Abhishek Bachchan although he seems like a pretty decent guy. Fortunately it was not; thanks to the “I allowed her to do her business” statement by Manav, Ayesha’s interaction with childhood friend Sunny (Farhan Akhtar in a special appearance), and the breakdown she has with Manav after the interaction.

Neelam Mehra has been a wife for 30 years and a mother for almost equivalent number of years. She has a buzzing social life outside and a comfortable life at home. Yet she is continuously fighting with Kamal and unhappy about something or the other. Again, why the hell would she be unhappy? I simply loved getting to know the character of Neelam, especially because it was played by an incredible Shefali Shah. The times when she valiantly tries to smile through her tears and put up a façade of celebration, the time when she binges on the cupcakes trying to come to terms with the promiscuity of her husband, and the time when she finally tells Kamal that she didn’t leave him because she probably didn’t have anywhere else to go. These sequences stayed with me long after the movie got over.

There were many such instances where a question came to my mind and it got answered either by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s story or Farhan Akhtar’s dialogues. It was wonderful ‘talking’ to them. But more heartening was the fact that today morning, I was still having a conversation with myself about the movie. And I realised that most of my questions about the characters cropped up because of my subjective understanding of true happiness and its source. You see, true happiness doesn’t stem from what you have. It comes from how effectively they satisfy your hunger for what you want. You may have all the luxuries of the world, but if it is not something that you want, then it won’t give you happiness. Our doubts over the seriousness of other people’s problems comes from the fact that we judge them on the basis of what we think they’d want in life. If only we devote a little time towards understanding what they actually want in their life, we would be a lot more effective as family members, friends or movie audience.

Dil Dhadakne Do was entertaining and engaging while it lasted, and enlightening thereafter.

Margarita, with a straw

Before you read my views on the film, I feel that you should know where they are coming from. I have always been slightly uncomfortable in the presence of people with disabilities or special abilities. And this frankly has got nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I know in my mind that the last thing these people need is pity or sympathy but my heart is somehow pre-programmed to feel bad. So, in this constant tussle between my rational mind and an emotional heart, my behaviour becomes very awkward. I don’t know which words to use while talking; is ‘differently-abled’ still an acceptable term or have the pseudo-empathizing intellectuals come up with a new term? I don’t know if my look will be misconstrued as gawking? Will a gaze that lasts a second more or less make them more or less conscious of themselves? Does this make me a bad person? I genuinely don’t know. Does this make me less of a good person? Perhaps. And so with these behavioural disabilities of my own, I entered the screening hall to watch Margarita, with a straw.

I won’t lie. There were some aspects of the movie which were difficult for me to watch. There were quite a few scenes in the film where I genuinely (and quite apologetically) felt bad for Laila Kapoor, a young woman with cerebral palsy (portrayed wonderfully by Kalki Koechlin). My heart (and in one particular scene, also my eyes) brimmed up for Aai, Laila’s strong and supportive mother (brought to life by Revathi, like.a.boss). I came out of the hall, disturbed. I didn’t even feel like discussing the film with my wife; my patient co-passenger in all my cinematic excursions – good and bad. I just came home and slept.

When I woke up today morning and thought about the film, I didn’t remember the story of a girl with cerebral palsy. I remembered a scene where a girl feels disgusted with herself because she has to depend on people for seemingly simple everyday activities; I remembered a scene where a girl strangles and buries her emotions inside her because they are not reciprocated by the guy she is attracted to; I remembered a scene where a helpless mother looks on quietly as her daughter talks about dreams which she believes, will never come true; I remembered a scene where a person tells the girl that she is genuinely beautiful and she laughs it off incredulously because she believes otherwise; I remembered a scene where a girl is coming of age and is truly confused about where her passions lie; I remembered a poignant scene where a mother removes the façade she wears all day and comes face to face with a sad reality in her life, how she breaks down and how her cheeks redden up within moments. I didn’t remember the motor neuron disability. I didn’t remember the visual impairment. I didn’t remember the cancer. I just remembered the people and their stories. Stories that are universal to us.

This, I feel, is the true beauty of this film. Here is a film that finally portrays people with disabilities without painting them with broad strokes of pity. It portrays them the way they see themselves – as humans. Humans capable of falling in love, capable of having a libido, and capable of not feeling sorry for themselves. And just for that, Margarita, with a straw is worth a watch. Director Shonali Bose, I thank you for this film. I may not be able to watch this film again (in the same way that I’m not able to watch Ek Duuje Ke Liye and Sadma), but I’ll always carry it in my heart.

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