गल्ली बॉय (Gully Boy, 2019)

It wouldn’t be right to do a themed week around the musical and not cover at least one Bollywood film, an industry whose entire production in every genre seems to be somehow informed by the genetic material of the musical. It just so happens that some of them are rather closer to the form than others, and this film is at heart a film about music and the performance of it, as well as being something of a musical.


I suppose I was primed beforehand to be resistant to what appears (and, to a certain extent, is) the Bollywood reimagining of 8 Mile, with its aspirant rapper Murad (Ranveer Singh), who has to be coaxed into performing and then finds himself on stage trying out for the big time, with moneyed half-American hangers-on tempting him with their aspirational lifestyles. But really, this is a film that’s far more in its element when it’s dealing with the slums that Murad has come out of, about his secret relationship with Safeena (Alia Bhatt, whom I adore) — whose family are wealthier and whose parents would never consent to their being together — and about the difficulties he has just trying to live his life. After all, he has friends who are mixed up in carjacking and drug dealing, and so their easy access to money at times becomes too tempting. In some ways, class seems even more ingrained into the Indian films I’ve seen than in any other cinema, and it’s explicitly addressed here by the director Zoya Akhtar, as are the double-standards of Murad’s father, who has married a much younger second wife and then treats his first one badly — his actions are hardly excused, but we do get a glimpse into the grinding poverty and lack of opportunities he’s been given in life, and the extent to which he has given up hope of it ever changing. Given the film’s big-budget production background, none of this context was ever likely to be as gritty and depressing as it could be, but all the themes are very much there. Still, for all that, and for all the enjoyment in its big musical competition scenes, any lead character who could even think about cheating on Alia Bhatt will never fully have my sympathy.

Gully Boy film posterCREDITS
Director Zoya Akhtar ज़ोया अख़्तर; Writers Akhtar and Reema Kagti ৰীমা কাগতি; Cinematographer Jay Oza जय ओझा; Starring Ranveer Singh रणवीर सिंह, Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 20 February 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)

My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)”

डियर ज़िन्दगी 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.

Dear Zindagi film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gauri Shinde गौरी शिंदे; Cinematographer Laxman Utekar लक्ष्मण उतेकर; Starring Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट, Shah Rukh Khan शाहरुख़ ख़ान; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Monday 28 November 2016.

सनम तेरी कसम 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 film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Radhika Rao राधिका राव and Vinay Sapru विनय सप्रू; Cinematographer Chirantan Das चिरंतन दास; Starring Harshvardhan Rane హర్షవర్ధన్ రాణే, Mawra Hocane ماورا حسین; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 9 February 2016.

இறுதிச்சுற்று Irudhi Suttru (aka साला खड़ूस 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)CREDITS
Director/Writer Sudha Kongara Prasad சுதா கொங்கரா; Cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan शिवकुमार विजयन; Starring R. Madhavan माधवन, Ritika Singh रितिका सिंह; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Monday 1 February 2016.

डिटेक्टिव ब्योमकेश बक्शी! 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.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! film posterCREDITS
Director Dibakar Banerjee दिबाकर बेनर्जी; Writers Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar दिबाकर बेनर्जी (based on the novels সত্যান্বেষী Satyanweshi and অর্থমনর্থম Arthamanartham by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay শরদিন্দু বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায়); Cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis Νίκος Ανδριτσάκης; Starring Sushant Singh Rajput सुशांत सिंह राजपूत, Anand Tiwari आनंद तिवारी, Swastika Mukherjee স্বস্তিকা মুখোপাধ্যায়; Length 147 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 1 January 2016.

शानदार 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.

Shaandaar film poster CREDITS
Director Vikas Bahl विकास बहल; Writer Anvita Dutt Guptan अन्विता दत्त; Cinematographer Anil Mehta अनिल मेहता; Starring Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट, Shahid Kapoor शाहिद कपूर, Pankaj Kapur पंकज कपूर, Sanah Kapoor सनाह कपूर; Length 144 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 2 November 2015.

निल बट्टे सन्नाटा 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.

The New Classmate film posterCREDITS
Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari அசுவினி ஐயர் திவாரி; Writers Tiwari, Nitesh Tiwari नितेश तिवारी, Neeraj Singh नीरज सिंह and Pranjal Chowdhary प्रांजल चौधरी; Cinematographer Gavemic U Ary गैविमिक यू एरी; Starring Swara Bhaskar स्वरा भास्कर; 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.

Brothers film posterCREDITS
Director Karan Malhotra करण मल्होत्रा; Writers Garima Gupta and Siddharth Singh [as “Siddarth-Garima” सिद्धार्थ-गरिमा] (based on the story of the film Warrior by Gavin O’Connor and Cliff Dorfman); Cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi हेमंत चतुर्वेदी; Starring Akshay Kumar अक्षय कुमार, Sidharth Malhotra सिद्धार्थ मल्होत्रा, Jackie Shroff जैकी श्रॉफ; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 17 August 2015.

जांनिसार 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.

Jaanisaar film poster CREDITS
Director Muzaffar Ali مظفر علی; Writers Javed Siddiqui جاوید صدیقی, Shama Zaidi شمع زیدی and Ali; Cinematographer Gianni Giannelli; Starring Imran Abbas عمران عباس نقوی, Pernia Qureshi पर्निया कुरैशी, Muzaffar Ali مظفر علی; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Thursday 16 July 2015.