Tag Archives: Action

Battle Hits and Myths

BAAHUBALI 2—The Conclusion.  Director: S. S. Rajamouli.  Player: Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Sathyaraj, Ramya Krishnan, Anushka Shetty, Nassar, Tamannaah.  Music: M. M. Keeravani.  Telugu with Eng. subtitles.  Theatrical release (Arka Media Works)   Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

Where we left off two years ago, a virtual century in box-office parlance–Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) had muscled out all but one or two of the biggest Hindi language movies to clinch a top spot on the Indian cinema box office food chain. In a breezy two years later, along comes Baahubali 2The Conclusion, the would-be crown jewel to what was only the crown. Even with its opulence, flashy costumes, epic story-telling and gimmicky showiness, while Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is better filmmaking, it falls a little short of what Baahubali: The Beginning spoiled us to expect.

Continuing the adventures of Amarendar Baahubali (Prabhas) in the mythical kingdom of Mahishmati, Queen Mother Sivagami (Krishnan) is soon to declare the new regent for the crown.

Baahubali, ever the outsider, has heroics and dashing good looks going for him while Bhallaladeva (Daggubati), the wily scion of Prime Minister Bijjaladeva (Nasser), stands to lose more if he does not play palace shenanigans. Enter the gorgeous Princess Devasena (Shetty), she who is romantically betrothed to Baahubali and who may be victimized by Bhallaladeva’s mischief making. No story this dramatic can end without a good fight. And sure enough, this vast chess game can only end in a winner-take-all cosmic battle.

Director Rajamouli and team bring to play often show-stopping and cutting edge theatrics and action sequences. Like with Hollywood’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Greek-era action entry 300—movies that Baahubali 2 brings to mind more than once, for the most part there is seamless interaction between mortal fighters and the fauna they encounter—be it horses, elephants, wild boars, gaurs or even bow and arrow. The action-sequences flow and are physically plausible. The palace riches shine with royal elegance and nifty waterfalls still flow.

So why the skittishness on my part, you ask? Well, Part 1 was fluid in just about every aspect—from the natural looks of the ethereal waterfalls to neon bright colors that looked ready to peel off the large screen to lead Prabhas’ studly muscle-flexing–alright, there was swooning in Part 1 when Prabhas’s Baahubali single-handedly and effortlessly hoisted up the massive stone Shiva lingam. In Part 2, those same elements—dressed up even spiffier appear a little flat and the animals just don’t move like they should. Also M. M Keeravani’s Part 2 score is good but not great. While T. Sreenidhi and V. Srisoumya’s “Kannaa Nidurinchara” and Daler Mehndi and Mounima’s “Saahore” are catchy, Part 2 has no signature hook that stands up to the rousing orchestra of the “Dhivara” number from Part 1. We want to be wowed and we end up settling for oh-that’s-very-nice instead.

From it’s infancy, Indian cinema culturally gravitated towards popular mythological stories that the masses could relate to. Early standout proto-Indian movies Raja Harishchandra (1913), Lanka Dahan (1917) and Sairandhri (1919) all borrowed elements of Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. For Bombay-based filmmaking, the love affair with Indian cultural standard-bearers lasted well into the last century and eventually transferred almost entirely to television. For film houses in southern India, however, the mythological well never quite dried up and the incredible success of the Baahubali franchise is testament to the vitality of that genre.

And how phenomenally it has paid off! Rolling out with a 9,000 screen global debut–by far the biggest ever for an Indian movie–Baahubali 2 has outdone even Baahubali 1. At press time, this cash cow has garnered approximately US $300 million (about 2 billion Indian Rupees) in four Indian languages—it was filmed in both Telugu and Tamil during the same filming and dubbed into Hindi and Malayalam versions. This massive box office take exceeds even the combined lifetime collections of the next three box office top ranking Indian movies, including Aamir Khan’s Dangal, which is now at No. 2.

The fit-for-a-thesis perfect alignment of incredible word of mouth, industry buzz, incessant promos and free publicity surrounding the ginormous loot that traded hands for pre-selling of satellite-TV rights transformed Baahubali 2 into that perfect craze–face it, it is a craze–where otherwise frugal cinema goes skipped, strolled or raced to line up to pay up to $40 in the US and a jaw-dropping $60 per ticket in some Indian multiplexes. Baahubali 2 has singlehandedly turned the economics of movie making in India topsy-turvy. This movie has changed Indian cinema!

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.         

Eminent Dominatrix

Eminent Dominatrix

BEGUM JAAN.  Director: Srijit Mukherji.  Players: Vidya Balan, Ila Arun, Naseeruddin Shah, Rajit Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi, Chunky Pandey, Vivek Mushran.  Music: Anu Malik.  Hindi with Eng.  sub-titles.  Theatrical release (Vishesh Films)Begum Jaan, Movie

The ill-advised, ill-defined and ill-executed dividing of what was British India into India and Pakistan and smaller neighbors was a monumental event in the history of the Indian subcontinent, perhaps even more damaging than any war, including the two World Wars. Partition, as it became known, uprooted, shattered or downright destroyed the lives of upwards of 15 million people.  By any measure, truly a giant human flood. The impact of that seismic event is a daunting task to juxtapose over the plight of a whorehouse that finds itself straddling the invisible line that will soon become a boundary.

And yet, Mukherji’s ambitious entry aims for exactly those coordinates on the geopolitical map and comes darn close to succeeding. Remaking his own Bengali original Rajkahini (2015) and moving the late 1940s Partition-era stage from what was then India-East Pakistan border over to India-West Pakistan border, the evocative script lands with a gut-punch. A group of surveyors from India and Pakistan, jointly tasked with tracing the imaginary line that far-removed mid-level British bureaucrats contrived, stumble upon a rather large whorehouse smack on their survey line with the occupants, led by the iron-willed Begum Jaan (Balan), refusing to budge. It is, after all, their home. Eminent domain be damned.

In mismatches, the burden of proof perennially falls on those with a shorter reach. By day time, the Begum and her adopted brood put up with jabs, insults —or worse—hurled by upstanding village torch-bearers feigning moral outrage.  By night time, in reprising millennia old hypocrisy, more than a few of those same flame-throwers come knocking on the brothel’s doors flashing money. In this locale, the social strata occupied by both large niches are taken at face value and passed down as “tradition.”

Malik’s score is perhaps his finest ever.  Malik, somewhat of a border-themed specialist (Refugee, Border, LOC: Kargil), working with Kausar Munir’s excellent lyrics, orchestrates keepsake music. As a showstopper, the great—and increasingly reclusive—Asha Bhonsle lends a lilting, aged romance to “Prem Mein Tohre.” Even old man Time makes an exception by pausing when this dame sings. Kavita Seth’s reprise of this same tune is also no slacker. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Sonu Nigam comprise incongruent vocal ranges and their tandem “Aazadiyan,” while a good tune, feels limited on both ends.

The emotional tug of Kalpana Patowary and Altamash Faridi’s “O Re Kaharo,” however, gives powerful voice to a socially encumbered woman’s call to a passing wedding party asking them to stop at her doorstep knowing full well that will never happen while Arijit Singh elevates “Murshida” with a pathos of thwarted love. Then there is Singh and Shreya Ghosal re-touching “Woh Subah,” which re-ignites an uplifting, subdued hymn to charting one’s destiny much the same as the Khayyam-Sahir Ludhianvi 1958 original “Woh Subah Kabhie to Ayegi,” by Mukesh and Asha Bhosle which extolled socialist virtue. “O Re Kaharo” and “Woh Subah” are twin peaks on Malik’s sumptuous score.

The roles are mostly carved up fairly nicely.  Kapoor and Vidyarthi are opposing map-drawers wielding the shots–one Hindu and one Muslim–who are also scheming, jingoistic prototypes of entrenched prejudices. Mushran is a mousy well-wisher making frequent stops at the Begum’s abode while Pandey is a thug whose violent tactics may force Begum Jaan and her fold to take up arms. As housemother to the women in the brothel, Ila Arun’s Amma is also Begum Jaan’s closest confidant and does so well.

Balan can emote, beguile, charm and seduce with ease. The boon of earthiness in her mere presence, something few A-listers can match; she can disarm just about any patron refusing to pay or any strong-arming two-bit uniformed sap that lands on her doorstep. Balan’s presence, however, comes on too strong. There is more of I-am-Vidya-Balan-hear-me-roar than there is of I-am-Begum-Jaan-hear-me-roar. Balan’s takeover is unabated by the absence of a single strong male lead as counter-weight. There is Shah. In a limited role, however, he is the suave, over-the-hill lecherous local prince personifying old guard nobility suddenly put on notice by shifting political headwinds. Hardly a match for Balan’s hookah-puffing virtual dominatrix.

EQ: B+
Aniruddh Chawda

SRK Looms Large In “Raees”

Raees rides shamelessly on the tough and broad shoulders of Shahrukh Khan. Khan, being the dynamic performer he is, takes on the responsibility like a gallant hero but manages to save only as much as sheer presence and charisma can save, of an essentially lazily written film.

That is the main problem with the film. That it takes Shahrukh Khan and fails to make a mega event out of the proceedings. It is happy to keep everything and everyone except SRK ordinary, even the amazing Nawazuddin Siddiqui and lovely Mahira Khan. All eyes are on him, all spotlights on him and although he shines through, all guns blazing, thoroughly enjoying himself in a film best described as tepid, it’s not enough.

Despite being the hard-core mainstream, big-budget entertainer it is, Raees, the film somehow manages to forget that larger the star not only must larger be the mounting, but also the padding, and stronger must be the world he emerges from and merges into. If the world falls there is little the star and his star-power can do to save the ship except extract wolf whistles at isolated moments.

And this world that SRK as Raees inhabits is fortunately full of good actors but in generic roles, rendered almost useless in a generic world. From Mahira Khan who manages to hold her own opposite SRK, to the inimitable Nawazuddin Siddiqui who plays the tough, upright cop exquisitely, to Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub who infuses life into the staunchly loyal friend prototype – all these essential characters remain at the periphery and worse, generic.

SRK looms large, as he rightly should, but among a mayhem that is little more than a half-baked story about a bespectacled, bootlegging Robinhood who hates to be called ‘battery’ (coz of his specs) and launches into the usual Rohit Shetty style acrobatics to prove a point, which is his raw machismo. On that scale SRK gets full marks but stop to ask him what is this golden-hearted Raees all about and he’d probably look back at you with his kohl-rimmed eyes and simply mesmerise as you his comeback. That’s how the film works.

And it is really unfortunate because the mix does get interesting when he is pitted against Nawaz’ honest cop (even as Deewar plays in the background in the film). Nawaaz, with his foot firmly in his character and SRK in his own presence, spark off a rich potential of moments that fructify few and far between. Similarly, he strikes a refreshing chemistry with the much-younger Mahira Khan who is every bit as vibrant as him but without a character or arc that would raise any level of interest in her presence in the film.

It’s been a while since our films have changed and a while since Shahrukh has changed too. But the more Shahrukh changes the more he remains the same. That’s the joy of it and the pain of it too, and it shows up both ways in Raees.

Producers – Farhan Akhtar, Gauri Khan, Ritesh Sidhwani

Director – Rahul Dholakia

Writers – Rahul Dholakia, Harit Mehta, Niraj Shukla, Ashish Vashi

Cast – Shah Rukh Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mahira Khan

Music – Ram Sampath

This review first appeared in Indian Entertainment Online

Children’s Classic or Colonial Fantasy

I am glad I come from that vanishing generation which actually read books in­stead of waiting for the movie. Other­wise I might have thought that The Jungle Book was the story of the romance between a young man brought up in Indian jungles and the British woman who brings him to civilization.

Actually, the book Rudyard Kipling wrote was about a boy named Mowgli brought up by wolves and his battle with a tiger named Sher Khan. But the new Walt Disney movie tosses that story to the wolves and comes up with its improved 1990s version, complete with a treasure hunt, some romantic interest, and in­evitably the Indian rope trick. The folks at Disney still call it Rudyard Kiptillg’s The Jungle Book, though Kipling would probably have not recognized the story as one he wrote.

Movie poster for Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1994)
Movie poster for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994)

He would not have recog­nized the hero either. Mowgli, the little Indian man-cub, has grown into the strapping Jason Scott Lee. While Mr. Lee’s glis­tening pectorals and flat abdo­men (developed no doubt at the Walt Disney Jungle Gym) are in­deed impressive, he is no Mow­gli-for the simple reason that he docs not look Indian despite the liberal daubs of shoe polish.

While I am aware that the studio conducted several open casting calls for Mowgli, it is un­pardonable that they could not come up with a South Asian to play the role. It is amazing that the Indian-American commu­nity–which now numbers al­most a million, a not insignificant size-has not protested this. The East Asian American community was vociferous in its condmena­tion of a similar casting mishap for MissSaigon.

What is even more unpar­donable is that this film’s produc­ers and executive producers count a few Indians among them. I believe they owe us all some answers. Would the same pro­ducers give the role of a classic American icon like Dennis the Menace to a South Asian actor? But for Mowgli, anyone with tawny skin and black hair is deemed good enough. One Asian is as good as another anyway!

The film uses real animal ac­tors (in fact, it has more animal trainers than animals in the cast). While the animals art: very ex­pressive–from the monkey hordes to the dancing bear–they cannot do as much as they could in Kipling’s imagination. So the story is changed into Mowgli’s introduction to civilization, his learning to speak, dress, and dance.

A still from the 1994 movie of Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli and the real bear used to play Baloo
A still from the 1994 movie of Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee) and the real bear used to play Baloo

As this story slowly takes cen­ter stage, we are sometimes left wondering if we are watching The Jungle Book or some curried version of My Fair Lady with Monty Python alumnus John Cleese attempting to provide some comic relief by playing Henry Higgins to Jason Scott Lee’s Eliza Doliltle.

While racist and imperial­ist overtones color much of Kipling’s work,The Jungle Book was less tainted because the original story did not have any sahibs or mern­sahibs in it. In this new version, British India comes gatecrashing into the story, and here the film­makers, perhaps unwittingly, in­troduce their own brand of ra­cism.

The Indians in the cast are the foot soldiers of the movie, the fillers in the crowd scenes. Apart from two slimy villains, we hardly meet any of them, let alone remember their names. In­terestingly, while the evil Indians have the “wery vickcd” accents, the few good ones like Mowgli’s father sound like they went to missionary schools.

But when not doing things all genuine Indians are supposed to do-like walking over burning coals or rope-charming-the In­dians in the movie sometimes do the most unlikely things. In an initial scene we see Mowgli’s widower father offering a red hi­biscus to some nameless woman and then attempting to kiss her–­in full view of everybody, includ­ing his son! Gosh, those hot­blooded natives-and in Victo­rian times, too!

A still of Colonel Geoffrey Brydon (Sam Niell) and Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee)
A still of Colonel Geoffrey Brydon (Sam Niell) and Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee)

The scenery is breathtak­ing. The deaths gory. The treasure fabulous. The Jodhpur palaces majestic. Ele­phants trumpet and tigers roar. The British maiden is winsome. And in deference to our politi­cally correct times, Mowgli deliv­ers little homilies on the evils of hunting for pleasure and asks wide-eyed soul-stiffing ques­tions like “What is hate?”

Director Stephen Sommers pulls out all stops–from a little cuddly bear cub to a dancing orangoutan to death-defying stunts. Watching little Mowgli’s edge-of-the-seat ride into the jungle on his flaming horse-carriage, I felt I was on a Disneyland ride. Perhaps next summer visitors to Disneyland will in fact get the Jungle Book ride. And with that the Jungle Book experience will be complete. You’ve seen the movie. Now experience the ride.

But once there was a man named Rudyard Kipling and he wrote a book, a very different book.