16 Feb 2018

Movie Review: Aiyaary: Passable Army Drama, Lacks Pace, Thrill & Tension

Major Jai Bakshi (Sidharth Malhotra) is declared a traitor by his covert army unit headed by Colonel Abhay Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) for conducting unauthorized surveillance on high profile people and disappearing without a trace. Jai flees to London with his girlfriend Sonia (Rakul Preet Singh) with shocking army secrets that threaten to bring down India's government and expose corruption in the Indian army.

Meanwhile, the Indian Army Chief (Vikram Gokhale) is offered a huge bribe by Retd. Lt. General Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) for allowing the purchase of overpriced foreign weapons. On the army chief's refusal, Gurinder threatens to expose Abhay's covert operations and the off-the-books expenditure incurred on the secret unit. Jai is allegedly Gurinder's informer. Abhay must track and kill Jai to save his team and restore Indian army's honor.

No Central Theme 
Considering that the premise takes some explaining, Neeraj Pandey begins Aiyaary on a promising note, dispersing tantalizing clues. But the film never takes off, except as mildly engaging "true events" inspired drama. There are barely any thrills, zero tense moments, and no sense of danger. We barely connect with the characters.

Two Striking Aspects 
Slow-motion dulls the impact in almost every scene where it is so repeatedly and stubbornly used. On a film devoid of any action set-pieces, slo-mo makes for a redundant, irritating effect. The film needed silent bits between the relentless background music to build any kind of tension. The silences are woefully missing. No edge-of-the-seat entertainment here as in Pandey's Special 26 (2013) and Baby (2015).

The ever-competent Manoj Bajpayee does most of the heavy weighting. But there is no engaging story to back his character, a Kashmir army anecdote lacks insight. Siddarth Maholtra lacks intensity and lazily strolls through with his customary cuteness and urban sophistication. His performance is a big letdown.

Rakul Preet Singh is earnest in the teeny bit role. Naseeruddin Shah culminates the movie with a rocking performance, lifting an otherwise sketchily written part. Bit acts by Anupam Kher, Adil Hussian and especially Kumud Mishra are watchable.

Too Many Threads
Aiyaary may be a faithful retelling of true events, but there is no direction at its core. Unlike Pandey's striking debut A Wednesday (2008), Aiyaary goes round in circles without arriving at any strong, resonant conclusions.

Greedy arms dealers, corrupt army men, derby betting watchman, a rogue agent, faithful girlfriend, opportunist media, sly informers...it is the case of too many and too much to be packed into one film.  At best, the film would have worked as a tense action-based thriller with a bit of the present story premise.

As for the fabled shapeshifting form (Aiyaar) that the film title takes after, the symbolic impact barely registers.

Aiyaary is passable, sincerely made, but ends up as a dull thriller that never lifts off the screen.

9 Feb 2018

Movie Review: Pad Man: Superb, Gripping Social Drama

Based on the incredible life mission of Arunachalam Muruganantham, Pad Man is a largely impressive reinterpretation of single-mindedness in an earthy North Indian setting.

Newly married mechanics-inclined Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) is appalled at his wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte) using a dirty rag cloth during her periods. He finds buying a branded sanitary pad too expensive, so out of love and deep concern, he sets about making a cheaper sanitary pad from local raw materials. The troubles for Lakshmikant or Lakshmi begin then, as he is up against prejudice, taboo and shame. He is labeled a pervert and an outcast. Will Lakshmi continue to pursue his mad passion, against all odds?

Straight, Sincere, Funny Treatment   
Writer and director R.Balki borrows faithfully from Arunachalam's life and transplants the real Tamil Nadu background to a village in Madhya Pradesh with great conviction. Pity that a superstitious,  outdated and orthodox setting needs no specific Indian geographical setting. Ignorance and prejudice are widespread, more than ever.

Inclined to mix impressive witty comedy, urbanite-engaging drama with an emotional overdose in notable films like Cheeni Kum (2007) and Paa (2009), Balki finds the right story to balance what he does best. The result is an overwhelmingly entertaining social drama that ticks all the right boxes.

One of a Kind
Pad Man towers over last year's similarly themed Toilet: Ek Prem Katha because it doesn't preach and force the message down our throats. It is less of a social loudspeaker and more of a deep, funny,  witty, connecting movie on the larger implications of using something so often ignored - sanitary pads.

Akshay Kumar 3.0!  
How Akshay Kumar has evolved to be one of the finest actors of our time is as much of an inspiration. His take on the mad, passionate Lakshmikant is sincere, grounded, balanced and earnest.

Watch how Kumar nails the modesty, the vacuum of fighting a lonely battle, that single tear flowing down his face, bang on clueless expression to Amitabh Bachchan's English speech and the rocking 10-minute United Nations monologue. It is one, big, skyrocketing performance. I have come to respect Kumar's rise as an actor, in Pad Man he installs himself as a serious acting heavyweight.    

Contrasting Female Vibes 
Balki bridges the rural-urban divide in Radhika Apte's impressive rendering of a vulnerable, teary-eyed, superstitious wife. He offers a tabla player exponent and high-flying MBA graduate in Sonam Kapoor's sporting take on Pari. The contrasts work but the Pari-Lakshmikant love premise could have been handled better.

A Few Misses
The love triangle adds unnecessary lather to the proceedings. Yet Akshay Kumar's sublime touch makes even the love story digestible. A minor quibble is the out of place, synchronized dance sequence celebrating a young girl's puberty. Thankfully, it is a teeny-weeny hiccup.

Don't Miss It 
Powered by Akshay Kumar's career-best performance to date, and a strikingly different story to tell, Pad Man connects in the most intimate, humorous and empathy-driven manner, like few commercial films do.

29 Jan 2018

Movie Talk: Padmaavat: Surprises and Conflicts

Irrespective of the controversies, Padmaavat had a rocking trailer, showcasing glimpses of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's flair for detailing and sheer beauty. After finally catching up with the film, a lot of things stuck out for me:

Rajputs as Heroes, Khiljis as Villians  
Did Bhansali change the screenplay after the initial protests? The way Rajputs are praised sky high in Padmaavat, you may well believe that Bhansali will join the Karni Sena soon. Contrast it with Khiljis depicted as savage, dishonorable, uncultured and power-hungry. Its a Ram vs Raavan fight, as Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), is made to say in the film.

Star Power Over Story 
Clearly, attempts have been made to balance Shahid Kapoor's and Ranveer Singh's star power, at the expense of story and logic. How else do you explain Alauddin Khilji walking in alone into Chittor, making an atrocious demand and still getting away unhurt? How about Ratan Singh citing honor as a reason to return the favor and visit Alauddin's tent unarmed?

That an escaping king would find time to taunt his tormentor before escaping in elaborate exchange of dialogues is hard to believe. The final sword fight is almost a lazy skirmish, but for some moments. It is a Shahid-Ranveer compensatory fight rather than a Rajput-Khilji faceoff. These clearly compensated elements cut off any chances of a fine film.

Padmavati Appears and Disappears 
This was supposed to be Padmavati's film, right? But for the final 15 minutes, we get little of Deepika Padukone. She is resplendent at the start, followed by the decorous Ghoomar song sequence, and is then reduced to giving Shahid Kapoor loving, faithful glances. We have no hint at Ratan Singh's journey either.

Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) is the only character with an elaborate backstory. We clearly see where he is coming from, unlike Ratan Singh and Padmavati. Add to that Ranveer's madcap performance, no wonder Alauddin's deplorable, menacing character engages and connects to a greater degree.

Mass Suicide as a Brave Act? 
I was stunned by the final mass self-immolation scene. In the context of the movie, it is heart-rending. But as we see Padmavati stepping into the CGI-created flames with a smile, the modern context to it is alarming. So, if all your men are all dead and the enemies are sure to ravish you, the only way out for women is suicide? Mixed, dubious signals here.

The Final Question 
So did Bhansali make major changes to the story and the approach after the initial protests? What role did the mass coercion and Karni Sena threat play in making Padmaavat a lesser movie? We can only wait for the filmmakers to speak out some day in our so-called democratic country.

28 Jan 2018

Movie Review: Padmaavat: All Honour and Grandeur, Weak Story

Padmaavat is a film to be enjoyed on its merit, despite the atrocious demands of covering up Deepika's bare waist, the alleged deleted scenes, and lengthy disclaimers.

The Honourable Tale
Rajput King Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) falls for Singala Princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) and they are soon married. Meanwhile, in distant Afghanistan,  Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) gets his uncle, the reigning Khilji king (Raza Murad) murdered to ascend the throne.

Back at Chittor Fort, Ratan Singh banishes the royal priest Raghav Chetan for playing peeping tom on the couple. Enraged, Chetan travels to Delhi, enticing Alauddin by describing Padmavati's beauty to attack Chittor. War looms and Chittor's fate seems sealed against a larger Khilji army.

Wafer Thin Plot, Hindi Film Dialoguebaazi 
Despite the detailed grandeur, gorgeous set design, and painstaking costume design, Padmaavat lacks a strong story. The face-offs between Ratan Singh and Alauddin plays on the Shahid-Ranveer star status rather than logic. Both kings enter each other's territory unarmed and alone. An escaping king still finds time to part with his subdued rival on a dialogue-laced note, just because he wants to.

The CGI is unimpressive and just about holds, disappointing after what we witnessed in SS Rajamouli's Bahubali (2015) and Baahubali 2 (2017) movies. The mountains, soldiers, the funeral pyre and falling soldiers all look unreal. The action is brief and impressive in bits, though the final Rajput-Khilji fight is mockingly contrived with Shahid-Ranveer trading obligatory blows in turns.

What Works? 
The performances, atmosphere, songs and background score hold the film. Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone are both compelling, but they don't get as much to work with as Ranveer Singh does. Ranveer, clearly enjoying himself, nails a difficult part with menacing, intruding darkness, his character keeps the film above average.

Jim Sarbh makes a decent act of an underwritten, punishing role as a deviant Khilji slave. Aditi Rao Hydari is lovingly efficient in her bit part as is the baritone veteran Raza Murad. Anupriya Goenka is consistent, though she falters in a key scene.

Rousing Finale
It is in the final dialogue-less 15 minutes that the film comes alive. The film does end up glorifying self-immolation as a heroic tradition. But seen as a fictional film, this part is both poignant and arousing and makes up for the film's many flaws. Takeaways from the Ketan Mehta classic Mirch Masala (1987) add to the stunning climax.

The Controversy, The Irony 
Bhansali is clearly partial in depicting Rajputs as honorable, brave, upright warriors and the Khiljis as murderous, cheating, savage barbarians. So what was the rogue and coercive Karni Sena opposing? Bhansali is totally on their side here.

Padmaavat is a decent historical entertainer that does not build on its premise. It is an attempt in decorated epic-ness but lacks a layered story. Watch it in 2D, the 3D is just a marketing afterthought.
For me, the best Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie is still that classy love triangle Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).