Dear Zindagi (2016)

This isn’t perfect as a film, far from it — our heroine (Kauri, or “Koko” for short, played by the lovely Alia Bhatt) spends much of the time acting like an entitled brat, for which there’s an explanatory backstory near the end which is far too neat and allows for a perfunctory ending that stretches credulity — but I really liked this film. It has its heart in the right place. Maybe it’s better to say what it’s not: it’s not a film in which a wayward heroine is cured by a hunky love interest (though the reliable Shah Rukh Khan does play a key role as a therapist, while the film at one point even suggests Kauri may be lesbian, and there’s a little coda that plays with gender identity); and it’s also not a film that stigmatises mental health issues (even if I don’t believe Khan’s therapy sessions at all). It has visual flair, and I really wished Kaira’s job as a cinematographer were more developed than the opening half hour, but it shows plenty of promise.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Gauri Shinde | Cinematographer Laxman Utekar | Starring Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan | Length 150 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Monday 28 November 2016

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Sanam Teri Kasam (2016)

For all the rippling abs and tattoos sported by hero Inder (Harshvardhan Rane), there’s something old-fashioned to the way this film plays out (which may perhaps be due to the fact that there have been several films of this title over the years, not that their plots seem to bear much similarity). It’s a romantic melodrama, in which two neighbouring young people from either side of the metaphorical tracks fall for one another. Saraswati (Mawra Hocane) is a frumpy librarian (of course!) from a good family whom nobody wants to marry, and Inder is a sexy ex-con with a very long line in laconic brooding and trouble committing to relationships (although there’s a hint that he may have a backstory of privilege). When they are caught talking in his apartment (she wants a makeover to snag herself a business school graduate), her father dramatically severs all ties and performs funerary rites for his now-dead-to-him daughter.

To be honest, for all its big soap-operatic storylines, the film largely had me in its thrall up until the interval. Hocane is delightful as the dowdy Saru, with big dorky glasses looking for all the world like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries (2001; a masterpiece, of course). This does all mean that inevitably there will be a makeover scene, and there’s a song and dance to go along with it that’s quite fetching. Meanwhile, the film spares no effort in showing quite how ripped and sexy Inder is, as he’s constantly caught topless (certainly, he’s never without at least three buttons undone on his shirt), or doing pull-ups in his apartment, throwing glances Saru’s way and even joining the library so he can bump into her. Naturally Inder has feelings for Saru that go beyond her looks, but he isn’t able to express himself (because backstory… it all comes out later on), and so every time they’re together (which is most of the time), there’s a whole lot of longing looks and sultry gazes off camera, eyes filled with conflicted emotions — you know the drill, really. Their relationship feels even a little transgressive, as they fall in love in spite of their families’ wishes (both have strained relationships with their dads, and that’s a big issue in this film, and one imagines in wider Indian society).

It’s just that the last third wraps things up just a little too neatly. Things take a sudden tearjerking turn as an illness plot is introduced, seemingly to punish Saru for her feelings (or maybe to punish her father). Needless to say, the patriarchal needs of society are healed, and it’s too bad for our lovers. Sure, doomed love is a plot as old as time, but when you care about your characters, sometimes you hope for something more.


Sanam Teri Kasam (2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Radhika Rao and Vinay Sapru | Cinematographer Chirantan Das | Starring Harshvardhan Rane, Mawra Hocane | Length 154 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 9 February 2016

Irudhi Suttru (aka Saala Khadoos, 2016)

There’s plenty of life left in the boxing drama (the recent Creed proves that), even when it’s told about women’s boxing or from a woman’s perspective — hardly unfamiliar to those who’ve seen Million Dollar Baby (2004) or Girlfight (2000). This Tamil/Hindi film (it was made in both languages and released under separate titles) takes its place in that lineage and though it may lack the big budget of its Hollywood counterparts, it proves itself the scrappy underdog — not unlike its star, Madhi (played by Ritika Singh), who lives in poverty in Chennai, making money by selling fish, but shows enough promise in the ring to interest trainer Prabhu (R. Madhavan). Madhavan is clearly the star here, and its mostly on his beefily charismatic presence that the film coasts — his character is down on his luck, he drinks and smokes (vices which merit an on-screen statutory health warning in Tamil Nadu it seems), and is constantly fighting against the corruption within the sport’s administration which seeks to sideline him and his charges. Singh, meanwhile, is called on to be little more than angry and scowling for the first half, before finally finding a measure of inner strength and resolve towards the end.

In the end, the film leans rather too heavily on clichéd tropes, among which are frequent use of desaturated slow-motion footage to call back earlier moments in the film, not to mention plentiful montage training sequences — though one or two of these come closer to energetic dance numbers, which makes sense given its Indian production context. It’s not the most satisfying film in the end, but it has enough spark within it to make it an enjoyable enough watch.


Irudhi Suttru (aka Saala Khadoos, 2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Sudha Kongara Prasad | Cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan | Starring R. Madhavan, Ritika Singh | Length 109 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Monday 1 February 2016

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)

As a period-set detective film, this looks fabulous, as if a lot of money has been spent to recreate a sense of Calcutta in the 1940s. As the title character, Sushant Singh Rajput looks the part, fresh out of wherever detectives go to the school and eager to work. Aided by his geeky-looking sidekick Ajit (Anand Tiwari), Byomkesh soon comes up against a cabal of nefarious sorts. The film is heavy on plot, and if you’re not paying attention, you’re liable to lose track of who’s doing what to whom for what reason — and I’m not always convinced it’s particularly interesting if you do keep track — but just on the handsomeness of the sets and the costumes, this is a pleasant enough film to pass the time.


FILM REVIEW
Director Dibakar Banerjee | Writers Dibakar Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar (based on the novels Satyanweshi and Arthamanartham by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay) | Cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis | Starring Sushant Singh Rajput, Anand Tiwari, Swastika Mukherjee | Length 147 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Friday 1 January 2016

Shaandaar (2015)

Like many a Bollywood romcom (at least of the ones I’ve seen this year), this is glitzy, glossy, silly and set in an magical exotical foreign wonderland. Which would be Yorkshire, obviously. So we get the mist hanging close to the green fields, horse-riding and tweedy ensembles, people rolling around in Rolls’s, and humble homes straight out of Downton Abbey (although it seems the main mansion setting was filmed in Poland). There’s a dance sequence set in a barn, where everyone’s dressed up in their best Barbour, while the bride-to-be (Sanah Kapoor) jumps up on some kind of draycart outfitted with handpulls and bottles of real ale. It is, if I haven’t covered this already, dreadfully silly. But that’s fine, really, or at least it’s fine with me. The film is at least up-front about its wistful magical dream world, as via a short animated sequence it sets up how our heroine Alia (the winning and delightful Alia Bhatt) can’t ever get to sleep and has dreams drawn for her by her apparently-adoptive father Bipin, played by Pankaj Kapur, the actual father of the film’s male lead, Shahid Kapoor (playing wedding planner Jagjinder Joginder). There are periodic little outbreaks of this kind of animated fantasia world, but mostly the suspension-of-disbelief is at the vast enormity of the grandness or the blinginess of the bling (the gold-plated Magnum revolver constantly waved around by the film’s nominal bad guy, Mr Fundwani, is only the most ridiculous — that is until a diamond-encrusted pump-action shotgun arrives). It doesn’t all work — there’s a pair of txt-speaking girls whose stereotypical vapidity quickly gets wearing — but when it does, as in a fantastic battle-of-the-sexes dance number, it really can be quite special. Somehow by the end (just of that song, frankly), they’ve managed to lampoon laddish bantz, fat-shaming, rape culture and fit in a line about the groom-to-be being a “misogynistic prat” (although even he turns out to be not irredeemable). After a string of serious-hued nonsense, it’s refreshing to find this level of escapism, but I concede not everyone may be so charmed.


© Fox Star Studios

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Vikas Bahl | Writer Anvita Dutt Guptan | Cinematographer Anil Mehta | Starring Alia Bhatt, Shahid Kapoor, Pankaj Kapur, Sanah Kapoor | Length 144 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 2 November 2015

LFF: Nil Battey Sannata (The New Classmate, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director who stayed for a Q&A afterwards.


The New Classmate is undoubtedly a polished and beautiful work for a first-time director and sits easily alongside other more prominent Indian films with larger budgets and bigger stars. It sets up an emotion-filled story of a single mother, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), trying to raise her daughter Appu well, but finding it difficult because of all the work she is forced to do in order to afford schooling and put food on the table. Appu is failing at school, and seems to resent what she sees as her mother’s menial working life, leading Chanda to want to better herself as well, and so she enrols at the same school as her daughter. In a more simplistic film, perhaps, this is where comedy might ensue, and although there’s plenty of light-heartedness on display (and a broad comic turn from the school’s principal), the mother’s move into her daughter’s school setting is actually the catalyst for some far more nuanced drama around what it means to succeed at school and how this can lead to dreams of a better life. For all that is excellent in the film, and particularly Bhaskar’s spirited performance (much though she looks too young to have a teenage daughter), it does all feel a little bit sanitised at times. Their world seems to be one of grinding misery and poverty, but it’s shot in a way more befitting the director’s advertising background, with a sheen of sumptuous colours and beautiful textures — but then again, this is unashamedly a family-friendly melodrama which follows a traditional structure of conflict and resolution. Perhaps instead it’s best to embrace it as a mother’s emotional journey in order to protect and nurture her daughter.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari | Writers Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Nitesh Tiwari, Neeraj Singh and Pranjal Chowdhary | Cinematographer Gavemic U Ary | Starring Swara Bhaskar | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 14 October 2015

Brothers (2015)

During this, my year of inadvertently watching more Indian films than I’ve managed in the rest of my life thus far, I’ve frequently come to wonder what explains the fact that so many of them are so tonally indistinct — whether travelling around, shoehorning in scenes of overblown family melodrama or pummelling action, and cuts to undermotivated dance sequences shot like music videos. Of course, what I’ve been struggling to realise is that it’s because they are literally made for everyone, so have to work to keep a wide audience interested. Brothers is little different from the rest in this respect, and while this could be a taut action film focused on its titular protagonists (and its second half largely functions as such), it instead spends a lot of time building up the brothers’ home life and weak father figure Gary (Jackie Shroff), with detours into some overt weepiness when it comes to their mother’s backstory.

Basically, David (a very capable performance by Akshay Kumar) is the elder half-brother to Monty (Sidharth Malhotra), who have fallen out over the years largely due to the actions of their alcoholic and violent father, released from prison at the film’s start (which incidentally features a glorious scene of overacting using just hands). This story is unfolded in flashback, and relatedly there’s a particularly fine coup de théâtre at an emotionally-charged funeral, in which the key actors and their younger selves stalk around a grave. In fact, the technical credits here are uniformly excellent, with some fine cinematography, the finished film all largely put together with verve. In any case, these two brothers have grown up learning to fight on the streets, and their skills are targeted by a new mixed martial arts (MMA) league being started in India. This is the focus of the film’s post-intermission second half, as the tournament progresses, and there’s very little spoiler factor in telling you that it moves towards a climactic showdown in the ring between the two brothers.

The film’s failings are not so much in the tonal changes (though they take some getting used to), as in some of the more boneheaded plotting, whereby certain key events are supposed to come as a surprise (that these two fighters with the same unusual surname are both brothers seems unknown to the MMA league’s organisers, for a start). The role of the father also doesn’t fully ring true, as I would think his actions certainly seem worthy of a far harsher judgement from his sons. And yet the action scenes have a kinetic quality that never quite lets up, no matter how outlandish the matches, and the acting from the two lead characters is both charismatic and subtle when it needs to be.


© Fox Star Studios

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
CREDITS || Director Karan Malhotra | Writers Ekta Pathok Malhotra, Garima Gupta and Siddharth Singh [as “Siddarth-Garima”] (based on the story of the film Warrior by Gavin O’Connor and Cliff Dorfman) | Cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi | Starring Akshay Kumar, Sidharth Malhotra, Jackie Shroff | Length 156 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 17 August 2015

Jaanisaar (2015)

As a sweeping period romantic epic set in the 1870s in the historical province of Awadh or Oudh in North India (the modern Uttar Pradesh), this hits all the requisite costume and set design boxes. After all, the resources of Bollywood film production can at least be relied on for exquisite costuming. The cinematography too is pretty lush, heavy on the soft-focus settings and filming in grand old buildings — even if there’s some use of slightly dubious landscape paintings as backdrops in the nabob’s stately home. Speaking of him (and I’m not sure “nabob” is exactly the right term, what with my admittedly not being much of an expert on this historical period, to say the least), the very English Mr Cavendish is a proper stage villain, all but twirling his moustache as he plots the division of the region, which is split between Hindus and Muslims, whom it is suggested have been living side by side in relative harmony up until this point. Our hero is a Muslim, Ameer (Imran Abbas), recently returned from receiving his education in England and dressed up as the colonial puppet ruler, who only slowly comes to comprehend the devastation wrought to his region by the English. His tutor in this regard — and eventually his love interest — is Noor (Pernia Qureshi), a dancer and stately courtesan, keen to overthrow the tyrannical outsiders. Everything progresses from here by episodic means, woven together by director Muzaffar Ali, who also appears as a mysterious elderly figure pulling strings in the background, though the action never really seems to spark off as it should do. The acting (and dancing) is restrained and elegant, almost too much so for the roiling melodrama of the setting, and it’s only Cavendish who seems to betray much anger (disconcertingly, this is largely directed at his mistress). While Jaanisaar is certainly not withouts its merits, it seems almost too bloodless to do justice to such a tumultuous period of history.


© Kotwara Studios

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Muzaffar Ali | Writers Javed Siddiqui, Shama Zaidi, Ruchika Chanana and Muzaffar Ali | Cinematographer Gianni Giannelli | Starring Imran Abbas, Pernia Qureshi, Muzaffar Ali | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Thursday 16 July 2015

Second Hand Husband (2015)

As my knowledge of popular Indian cinema is still in its infancy, my understanding from commentary I found on the internet is that this film is a Bollywood (i.e. Hindi language) debut from Punjabi director Smeep Kang, but otherwise bears the stylistic imprint of films from that part of the world (the north-west of the country and Pakistan). It stars Punjabi singer Gippy Grewal as dashing divorcee Rajbir looking to remarry the sensible lawyer Gurpreet, though the actor playing her (Tina Ahuja) almost fades into the background, since most of the comedic to-do is given over to Rajbir’s philandering boss Ajit (Dharmendra, a stalwart of both Hindi and Punjabi cinema) and his ex-wife Neha (Geeta Basra), a colourful figure who is set on Rajbir’s alimony payments. There’s little point in me trying to recount the plot, which involves all kinds of slapstick endeavours by Rajbir to set up Neha with a new husband (not to mention playing match-maker and breaker with Ajit, Ajit’s wife, the local police sergeant, and others). Even the film seems to whizz through the various possible pairings with undue haste and little attention to believability, stopping entirely at one point, as is customary, to fit in what amounts to a music video. It’s probably a stretch to have set up the almost 80-year-old Dharmendra as a charming lothario, much though he’s looking good for his age, and too many of the slapstick setpieces are a stretch even for a script this slapdash. Added to this the comedy musical cues start to get wearing over the length of the film. That said, it coasts through on the photogenic charm of its leads, making it difficult to take against it too strongly.


© Gakhal Brothers Entertainment

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Smeep Kang | Writers Smeep Kang, Shreya Srivastava and Vaibhav Suman | Cinematographer Manoj Shaw | Starring Gippy Grewal, Geeta Basra, Dharmendra | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Thursday 16 July 2015

ABCD 2: Any Body Can Dance 2 (2015)

The most obvious point here is that Bollywood dance film ABCD 2 is hardly sparklingly original, though bringing together the modern dance film genre with Bollywood’s strong tradition of dance does seem like an obvious step (and indeed this is a sequel to 2013’s ABCD: Any Body Can Dance). So here we have a group of young dancers, led by Suresh (Varun Dhawan) and Vinnie (Shraddha Kapoor), who are at first disgraced on national TV, and then must compete at the World Championships in Las Vegas to redeem themselves, tutored by the older and mysterious Vishnu (Prabhu Deva). It steals influences most obviously from the Step Up series (whose entry last year, Step Up: All In, went to Vegas too), but also fairly liberally from most other recent young-people-compete-for-success-against-the-odds films like Pitch Perfect 2 (the bad guys are always Germans), StreetDance and Bring It On, amongst plenty of others. It’s a Disney film, so even the darker plot strands (like Vishnu’s alcoholism) never rise much above the anodyne, and everything inevitably turns out pretty well for everyone, but along the way it’s difficult to fault the infectious cheerfulness of the young cast in their many dance (and some song) sequences.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Remo D’Souza | Writers Tushar Hiranandani and Remo D’Souza | Cinematographer Vijay Arora | Starring Varun Dhawan, Shraddha Kapoor, Prabhu Deva | Length 154 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 24 June 2015