A brutal serial killer on the loose, a city on edge, and a cop who will leave no stone unturned to find the killer can be nicely folded into a made-for-TV movie. Give the same devices to respected filmmaker Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur, That Girl in Yellow Boots) and the results could take one of two opposite outcomes. The end product could well be an imprecise and yet pricey salute to bygone era, say, Bombay Velvet (2014), or something else. Raman Raghav 2.0 has Kashyap drawing up an incredibly captivating, small-budget and chilling entry fueled by adrenaline and a dose of heebie-jeebies.
In the late 1960s a real life serial killer, eventually known as Raman Raghav, terrorized what was then Bombay. In addition to gaining notoriety as India’s most infamous serial killer, Raman Raghav also became a celebrated and morbid case study into a psychopathic mind operating in pretty much an alternate reality. Taking loose, major departures from that real life outline, Raman Ragav 2.0 provides a modern update with a twist of two tossed in.
As far as killers go, the main suspect in the brutal bludgeoning killings appears to be a certain Raman (Siddique), a down and out, shadowy figure who lives in the night (or does he stalk the night?) and could be schizophrenic. Cold on his trail lurks Inspector Raghavan (Kaushal), who finds himself both drawn to the killer’s brilliant persona as much as he is repulsed by the brutality of the killings. The killer, whoever he is—for there is circumstantial evidence placing Raman with loose alibis from time to time—likes to taunt the police by leaving behind, often bloody and horrific clues.
Perhaps Kashyap is most in command working with limited budgets where he can micro-manage to a greater degree than when he can wield large budgets. For Raman Raghav 2.0, a story Kashyap co-wrote with Vasan Bala, Kashyap resorts to what can only be described as guerilla filmmaking, which calls for shooting in actual, often off-street, settings and, sometimes, even without permission. Gone are the plush studio interiors where even grime can look polished. Here, the grime will not cleanse easily and the tenement sounds and traffic noises are real. Unlike larger budget entries that may have dozens of mostly-pricey takes most of which end up on the editor’s floor, Kashyap shot hundreds of scenes, over days and not months. The amazing result is an expanded span of controlled settings that give a larger impact to the story then its limited purse would otherwise signal.
Like with Navdeep Singh’s brilliant NH10 (2015), the fear lurks (mostly) in a subterranean maze that is Raman’s reality. In NH10, an ominous and symbolic revenge is delivered in a scene involving a wronged woman deliberately dragging a thick metal rod against the pavement. The dragging metal screech is angry, cantankerous and promises violence to a brutal finish. Twisted logic is intertwined with guilty satisfaction in the means to that end.
That scene was an antithesis to what Raman Raghav 2.0 lashes out with. Here, a metal rod grinding on pavement, in an apartment lobby or in a dark alley, raises both fears and anticipation of mayhem. Surely, whoever swings this rod can’t be all that bad, can they? And yet, no rays of sun, no birds chirping or the break of dawn await the ritual. There is only more darkness.
The other side of the coin to Raman’s seedy world is Inspector Raghavan’s parcel. Even though slightly more disciplined under the guise of law, Inspector Raghavan is not beyond resorting to full-fledged torture to extract the truth, whatever it may be, from Raman. Well played by Kaushal, Inspector Raghavan wants to, no, needs to, solve the perplexing serial killer case. His broken moral compass points to a man who strayed beyond his mission some time ago. What is lacking is two strong characters engaging with each other. Instead they mostly engage with their environment.
Siddique’s application to the role is stunning. His Raman effectively views himself as an animal that is settling a warped cosmic “score” where he is judge, jury, and executioner. His psychopathic outbursts are harmonized with a narrative where he is both a victim and the perpetrator. His most chilling legacy, in addition to an especially creepy ghoul-pose in the publicity poster, is the built in anxiety that subtly taps into the imagery of masked contemporary terrorists. Bravo!
FAN. Players: Shahrukh Khan, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Deepika Amin, Yogendra Tiku. Director: Maneesh Sharma. Music: Shankar Ehsan Loy. Hindi with Eng. sub-tit. Theatrical release Yashraj Pictures
Shahrukh Khan movies of late have veered towards over-the-top film extravaganzas, often too big to fit even in a circus tent (especially Happy New Year). Khan the Actor was increasingly in danger of being replaced by the Khan the Star or Khan the Performer. To get back on track, Khan turned to Yashraj to devise a vehicle that would allow him to do an about-face. Even though it feels disconnected at times and falls flat as a fake biopic, Sharma’s Fan finally signals a return of Khan the Actor.
In a double role, significantly enhanced by prosthetic facial realignments, Khan is carved up into two strikingly disparate characters. One Khan is Aryan Khanna, the complacent, fabulously rich Bollywood superstar who has become the master of his domain. The other Khan is Gaurav Chandna, a lookalike and rabid New Delhi fan obsessed with the silver screen demi-god. Gaurav will do anything to be noticed by his “hero” Aryan Khanna. He is brushed off by the superstar during their first encounter, and Gaurav vows to somehow get even with the superstar.
Despite Khan’s decent performance especially as the fan Gaurav in the role of a twisted, first rate stalker—the view of Khan as Aryan Khanna is sometimes uncomfortably close to Khan’s real life. Khan in one of his two roles is on the screen about 90% of the time. A saturation point starts to creep in when Khan the star is informed by top Indian diplomats in London, where Gaurav’s vitriol has him posing as Aryan Khanna. This leads to international ramifications, and Aryan is now pretty much on his own in solving his stalker problem.
Really? For all his resources, this hugely successful, very rich man is left on his own to fight the bad guy. The constant reminders about Aryan’s success or Gaurav’s depravity begin to feel creepy in their dystopian take on the perils of stardom. We certainly don’t want to be the amoral Gaurav who lies his way into posing for a lifestyle he clearly will never have. On the other hand, if being a huge star means you are man-handling riffraff at sudden, scary and sometimes violent turns, the glamor of stardom takes on a black veneer.
The Varun Grover-penned Jabra Fan is a catchy and popular tune in search of a movie.
Released in about a dozen languages with slightly altered lyrics, the song has become quite popular. Like Phantom earlier, Fan is also a movie without songs. The token song is offered as a companion music video. Now, this appears to be a trend. To lend gravitas to a weighty script, some moviemakers skip songs in the movie and still get to call the song one of their own.
In the hands of Yashraj, the production values are excellent, and the staging of sequences from New Delhi (where Gaurav’s humble origin story is rooted) to Mumbai (which is saturated with Aryan Khanna posters) to London (with uncaring British police who pretend to not know who Aryan Khanna is) to Dubrovnik (a wonderful red tile roof top chase scene) are eye catching.
Sadly, with Khan in split personas chewing up so much reel estate, Pilgaonkar as Gaurav’s girlfriend and Amin and Tiku as Gaurav’s parents, have severely curtailed roles. By all counts, Khan is highly successful. Some sources place his net worth at $600 million, the second highest in the world amongst actors (behind American actor Jerry Seinfeld). With his standing in the field, and potentially hundreds of scripts to choose from, why would Khan opt for a story that is essentially a bonfire of self-adulation unless it is to say this to his legions of fans: Love-me-but-don’t-love-me-too-much. Nothing else fits. EQ: C+
JAI GANGAAJAL. Director: Prakash Jha. Players: Priyanka Chopra, Prakash Jha, Manav Kaul, Ninad Kamat, Rahul Bhat, Murli Sharma. Hindi with Eng. sub-tit. Theatrical release (Play Entertainment)
Jha’s original Gangaajal (2003) was a loose, bloody re-telling of a real-life news story from the late 1970s. It waved a terrific corruption-themed red flag featuring a solid cast that included Ajay Devgan, Gracy Singh and Ayub Khan. More than a decade later, Jha returns with Jai Gangaajal, which wants to not only pose as an evocative titular progeny but also would be quite content tapping into even one-half of the critical or box office creds of the original. The powerful thrust behind “Gangaajal” in the movie title, however, dissipated even before the original movie was released. Jai Gangaajal, warts and all, mind you, and certainly not a bad offering, may have been a better movie had it been called something else.
Borrowing major story line chapters from the original movie, the arrival of the new anti-corruption cop Abha Mathur (Chopra) in a rural north Indian constabulary is seen by the local criminal overlords as a mere nuisance that will surely last only until they can pull the right strings to get Inspector Abha, a rookie, transferred out. Not so fast. For one, there is a huge election—rigged— coming up, which adds a serious wrinkle to the time-table for any string-pulling shenanigans the local goons can muster. For another, Inspector Abha—who raises eye brows not only for her tough stance but also because she is a woman calling the shots in a shallow pond filled with downwardly mobile men—may just prove to be a much tougher foe than any of the low life alpha males are expecting.
Prakash Jha has a solid reputation for crime thrillers that sometimes follow realpolitik, socially charged news stories. Often set in his native Bihar state, Jha’s movies—from Damul (about indentured laborers), Mrityudand (misogyny), Aarakshan (affirmative action) to Satyagraha (corruption)—may register highly reactive in their treatment of those topics. Despite that trend, because some of Jha’s works become box office and critical hits, they have more or less become a fictionalized big screen chronicle of those larger conversations.
The onscreen etymology of the title is sad. Gangaajal—literally “water from the Ganges” or Hindu holy water—is a sick dystopian allusion to a horrifying practice from the 1970s when some real life policemen in Bihar, which lies along the Ganges, in hopes of discouraging convicted repeat offenders, would pour acid into the eyes of the about-to-be-released ex-cons to permanently blind them. A new term was thus added to criminal folklore.
The most unusual aspect of Jai Gangaajal is Jha directing himself in the role of Inspector Abha’s wayward lieutenant B. N. Singh. The corruption in police ranks, for which Singh is often the only witness, follows a strict regimen of tit for tat and racketeering on a grand scale and Jha does a surprisingly credible job in that role. Kaul as Babloo Pandey, the local elected official and Kamat as Babloo’s brother, along with Sharma as cross-dressing mafia enforcer Munna Mardani lend hands in rounding out a cast that is often rife with stereotypes.
The decidedly non-original script hurt. Jai Gangaajal is not as good at examining political graft as Priyadarshan’s Aakrosh (2010), Jha’s own original Gangaajal or anything from Shyam Benegal in the 1970s. The only fuel to tolerate a story that drags at times is Chopra. On the one hand, Chopra is just too beautiful—former Ms. World, super model and recent winner in the U.S. of the popular People’s Choice Award for Best Actress in New TV Series for her lead role in ABC’s hit show Quantico—to be found anywhere within a few hundred miles of a penthouse or a runway.
Her Inspect Abha is determined to wipe out the rot she sees around her. She has no personal life to speak of and only a mother who is increasingly afraid for her daughter’s safety after Abha entangles with the local criminal hyenas. A strong woman in a forceful cop role—think Rani Mukherjee in Mardani (2014) or Tabu in Dhrishyam (2015)—is always welcome. Chopra, however, is not the problem here. Jai Gangaajal simply melts at first contact with script-writing acid.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
GHAYAL ONCE AGAIN. Director: Sunny Deol. Players: Sunny Deol, Zoya Khan, Om Puri, Shivam Patil, Aanchal Munjhal, Narendra Jha, Manoj Joshi, Diana Khan, Abhilash Kumar. Hindi with Eng. sub-tit. Theatrical release (Reliance)
Even among sequels, Deol’s Ghayal Once Again and Prakash Jha’s Jai Gangaajal stand out for continuing a narrative that started—in film speed —more than 10 years ago for each of them. The original Ghayal (1990) was Deol’s Rajkumar Santoshi-directed entry that wowed both critics and the box office as a valid action adventure with a purpose. It was Deol’s biggest hit untilGadar (2001). Even if over-the-top in its action delivery, Ghayal Once Again fits Deol’s onscreen persona like a glove and flexes just enough muscle to please the legions of die-hard Deol fans.
Picking up 25 years after the original story ended, Ajay Mehra (Deol), having served a jail sentence for killing a mobster, now runs a small independent newspaper. Ajay’s exposés on connecting dotted lines between certain captains of industry and the underworld are perennially embroiled in controversy. The sudden death of his retired old pal Inspector Joe (Puri), draws attention to college-student Zoya (Diana Khan) who may have accidentally captured Joe’s murder on her smartphone. With a band of cunning students on the one hand and well-connected gangsters who unleash their full underworld army to retrieve the video on the other, Ajay may be the only savior that can help restore order.
Pushing sixty, this heavily hair-dyed version of Deol has slowed down only a little—in large part due to camera angles that capture both facial anger and threatening (to the bad guys) poses at just the right juncture. He also nicely delegates a lot of the running around to the college group who threaten to make the video viral. There are secret hideouts and shopping malls where tween-somethings know the retail maze like the back of their laptops. The hot cell phone could be just about anywhere!
As the retired cop Joe, Puri is in fine form—but as is often the case, Puri is not utilized fully. His full acting chops are best seen in non-Indian movies. In most Indian movies, Puri is just another character actor. Zoya Khan as the psychiatrist that Ajay turns to for help with repressed rage from long ago and younger performer Patil and Diana Khan all remain true to their roles. Even Meenakshi Seshadhri, who played Ajay’s wife in the original Ghayal makes an appearance in a pivotal scene. For the most over-the-top touches—this is after all an action movie —there is Jha as the media tycoon Raj Bansal and Kumar as his son Kabir. This father-son duos’ megalomania pervasively corrupts everything they touch.
Released under Deol’s own Vijayta Films banner, effectively giving Deol full control over most every aspect of the movie, Deol’s instinct for zeroing in on key demographics is apparent in how the narrative comes across. In a hyper-connected planet in tune with a younger demo, there is ample and frequent use of smartphones, videos that go viral and cell coverage geography that plausibly teeters on and off to fit the escape-in-a-cinch pacing in the second half of a somewhat uneven delivery.
The other go-to demo that has been Deol’s bread and butter since Deol’s hit debut in Betaab (1983) are the legions of Deol fans primarily in Deol’s native Punjab. The Deols—Sunny, his brother Bobby and their father, the veteran actor Dharmendra—are virtual box office demigods in Punjab.
This key demo, one of the most well-defined in all of Indian cinema, helped turn Deol’s onscreen character’s call for patriotic and ethnic pride in Gadar into a blockbuster phenomenon. Thanks to this smart marketing, Ghayal Once Againhas become a sizable box office hit. So much so that Deol is contemplating a third installment down the road. If smart demos and tuned-in scripts will be used with such ferocity again, we may just not mind.
AIRLIFT. Director: Raja Krishna Menon. Players: Akshay Kumar, Nimrat Kaur, Sameer Ali Khan, Inaamulhaq, Purab Kohli, Kumud Mishra. Hindi with Eng. sub-tit. Theatrical release (Prateek Entertainment)
Saddam Hussein’s ill-fated takeover of Kuwait in 1990 caught the world by surprise. The fast-changing events during the invasion—random confiscation, arbitrary imprisonment, rape and pillage by Iraqi troops—suddenly left thousands of migrants (along with locals) in fear for their lives. Faced with what was perceived as indifference by the Indian government, over 170,000 Indian nationals found their fates hanging in limbo as well. Shrewdly recounting that seismic event in Kuwait’s history, Menon’s engrossing and sometimes zealously flag-waving Airlift is satisfyingly entertaining.
Set in Kuwait City in 1990, business man Ranjit Katyal (Kumar) has his hands full with running his diversified mini business empire. The first report of the Iraqi invasion, therefore, is dismissed as a border skirmish, commonplace in the region. As fighting and looting breaks out in his neighborhood, Katyal ends up at his office and then at a business warehouse where 500 Indians soon gather. As the crowd gets larger and efforts at an organized rescue run into dead walls of dismissive Indian officials, Katyal finds himself smack in the center of the chaos.
Kumar’s well-acted Katyal is at first highly reluctant. He is a free-marketer first and would much rather tend to his business dealings and luxury desert living then to get involved in any kind of an organized rescue. He would just as soon pack off his wife (Kaur) to a safe haven in London.
At the outset, he is shown somewhat removed from his Indian roots and looking down upon “them,” the not so well off toiling masses of migrants. After some scary run-ins with the advancing Iraqi soldiers—a few of whom are barely teenagers—and witnessing the horrors of war first hand, Katyal undergoes an epiphany and steps in to coordinate a massive rescue by any means necessary.
The other noteworthy performance is by Inaamulhaq, an underrated actor who did a wonderful job as the Hindi-movie crazed Pakistani buffoon that bonded with a clueless Indian counterpart who accidentally crossed into Pakistan in Filmistan (2012). Like any good devious invader, Innamhulaq’s Major Zayd in Airlift is an unabashedly corrupt Iraqi officer who appears harmless and personable at first and yet holds the sinister power to pull the strings to large events unfolding in Kuwait. He is a heavily-accented, seedy amoral counterpart to Kumar’s Satyal and is a delight to watch.
The soundtrack hits higher notes with Ankit Tiwari and Arijit Singh’s tandem number “Dil Cheez Tujhe Dedi,” a playfully Arabesque party song in search of belly-dancing and a hookah-bar. Arijit Singh and Tulsi Kumar’s “Soch Na Sake” is easy on the ears. The thematically patriotic and earthily sentimental touches to Amal Mallik and K.K’s “Tu Bhula Jise” has a hook that taps into re-discovering one’s roots. Much like Pankaj Udhas’s “Chhithi Ayee Hain” from Naam (1986), which was also set in the Middle East, the songs and the lyrics shine like a beacon for restless expats longing for home.
Katyal’s story touches on failed repeated attempts by Katyal’s team to reach Kuwaiti officials, all of whom appear to have mysteriously disappeared, and Indian officials, all of whom want to get Katyal off the phone as quickly as possible.
He tries the Jordanians, who will help only if India grants travel guarantees, which may not come soon enough. Katyal’s dimming hopes rest solely on his success at navigating the back channels of India’s infamous bureaucratic red tape and finally reaching an agreeable functionary (Mishra). The rescue—it did arrive —was a huge undertaking that involved Air India and Indian pilots agreeing to enter dangerous air space. More than 400 flights were launched, which went on record as the largest civilian air rescue ever.
The volatile politics of the Middle East habitually ensnare governments, armies, insurgents, terrorists and even a superpower or two. That list no doubt would include the millions of ordinary people—including migrants from nearby India—whose lives were uprooted by larger-than-life events, some of which were fueled by violence.
Despite a generally favorable eye on Kuwait, Airlift ended up being banned from releasing in Kuwait.
Like Ram Madhvani’s steller Neerja, which is another re-telling of real events from recent Middle East history, Airlift also hinges on one courageous individual mustering courage to stand up to bullies. Like Neerja, that is reason enough to root for a successful Airlift.
NEERJA. Director: Ram Madhvani. Players: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tikku, Jim Sarbh, Shekhar Ravjiani. Hindi (and Arabic) with Eng. sub-tit. Theatrical release (Fox)
The real-life story of Neerja Bhanot, a heroine during a 1986 plane hijacking in Karachi, transforms a young unassuming flight attendant into a celebrated figure in India, Pakistan and also the United States. Re-told three decades later, Madhvani’s phenomenal Neerja captures a hair-raising and empowering snapshot of a strong woman whose bravery helped save countless lives in the precious hours following hijacking.
With Saiwayn Qadras’s (Mary Kom) razor-sharp script, the stage is set by two parallel timelines that converge at the most inopportune moment. The civilized arc traces a middle-class suburban Neerja who is playfully obsessed with Rajesh Khanna movies, dabbles in modeling and works as a fight attendant. The not-so-civilized alternate arc follows four Palestinian terrorists as they prepare to raid the plane upon arrival in Karachi. When the plane is raided and the pilots—tipped off by Neerja—escape through a cockpit hatch, all hope appears lost as almost 400 passengers find themselves at the mercy of machine gun-toting belligerents.
Mitesh Mirchandani’s taut camerawork shows only one side of the story at a time.
In the crucial early hours of the incident, a camera that is off-kilter underlines the uncertainty and sense of danger.
The onboard danger is inadvertently intensified by Karachi airport security who are well-intentioned, but overwhelmed by lack of preparation. With rescue commandos nowhere to be seen, at least initially, all signs point to a potential disaster in the making.
With marvelous editing, the two sides of the story—with flashbacks to Neerja’s family life, her supportive parents (Azmi as a distraught mom and Tikku as a distressed father), her escape from an abusive marriage and possible new beau (Ravjiani)—convey volumes without hinting at what will happen. The flashbacks to celebrations of ordinary events—birthdays (with Rajesh Khanna era music, of course)—serve as reminders to the very not-so-ordinary real danger Neerja finds herself in and exactly just how much humanity is at stake.
In a different pre-9/11 geo-political setting, Madhvani’s movie also singularly indicts the lax airport security in Karachi. The flimsy veneer—the bad guys pose as Libyan diplomats and are wearing full airport security uniforms—is made so much easier because the perps so easily blend into airport fauna. As a result, the terrorists practically stroll onto the runway where a massive Boeing 747—Pan Am Flight 73 originating from Bombay and going to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt—waits in repose like an unprotected flyable super-fortress.
Sarbh’s nascent terrorist has serious anger management issues. His 60-second mid-ship meltdown, an intensely private exhibition of frustration at events that don’t quite pan out as expected, is all the more terrifying given the trigger-happy mode he has exhibited ever since a pre-attack gathering in a Karachi dump for a possible martyrdom final prayer. His unpredictable posture becomes as much of an artifact of the hostage drama as his periodically cocking of an automatic pistol at Neerja’s forehead.
Kapoor’s jaw-dropping turn as Neerja inhabits an unlikely figure. She does not set out to prove anything and yet figuratively becomes the face of any hope there is against the terrorists successfully commandeering the hijacked plane to Cypress. For the terrified passengers, Neerja’s protective instincts—hiding the passports of all Americans onboard, surreptitiously readying a scared passenger to possibly opening an emergency exit, comforting children traveling without parents and a mother who has lost a son—are exhibited with an unscripted spur-of-the-moment, us-or-them urgency that gradually elevate her from lead flight attendant to messiah in uniform.
After Bhaag Mikha Bhaag (2013), Khubsoorat (2014), Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015) and now Neerja, Kapoor’s career is on the uptick. With such a forceful presence in what is essentially a solo-female movie, Kapoor may join Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut as rare female stars with successful solo-female Hindi movie box office hits. Neerja showcases outstanding writing, directly and acting. Even though fates had been sealed long before the writer’s first drop of ink touched paper, a halo lingers from the commendable energy Kapoor channels into her Neerja. Others could take lessons here.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
WAZIR. Director: Bejoy Nambiar. Players: Amitabh Bachchan, Farhan Akhtar, Aditi Rao Hydari, John Abraham, Manav Kaul, Neil Nitin Mukesh. Hindi with Eng. sub-tit. Theatrical release (Reliance)
Ever since it’s advent in India more than 1,500 years ago, chess has evolved as a powerful tool for testing one’s discipline to anticipate the opponent’s moves. The symbolism of chess pieces—each with its own highly precise movements that can only be overcome by the next hierarchical piece—is a teasing play on power and cunningness. For their part, scenarists have woven chess strategy and chess pieces into elaborate plot lines since ancient times. In Nambiar’s well-made and thought-provoking terrorist conspiracy riddle Wazir, a real life chess match is afoot and the wrong outcome may well invite total mayhem.
Set mostly in Delhi, the name of the game is male bonding as a most unlikely pair of virtual single men find common ground while poring over a chessboard. One guy is anti-terrorist cop Daanish (Akhtar), who is taking time off as he recovers from the recent death of his young daughter. The other is the wheelchair-bound retired teacher and chess expert Pandit Omkar Dhar (Bachchan), who is, coincidentally, also mourning the loss of his daughter. Over a game of chess—Daanish is learning the game from the retired expert—both men find common threads to their stories. Not only did both men’s daughters know each other but they also had the same friends and frequented some of the same places. Could this be sheer coincidence?
Daanish has bankable insider connections; chief amongst those is superintendent S.P. (Abraham) whose team is chasing down the same bomb conspirators while assuring the safety of rising political star Minister Qureshi (Manav). Pandit, on the other hand, provides a sounding board for Daanish not only to get him back to work but also possibly help him reconcile with his estranged wife Ruhana (Hydari). Pandit may be wheelchair bound. His mind, however, appears to be doing figurative wheelies.
The clever script by Abhijat Joshi and Vidhu Vinod Chopra (who also produces) creates a mood of distrust early on. Because there is death—and death at a young age at that—at the root of what appears to be driving both Daanish and Pandit, the script can’t help but offer a sympathetic eye towards the two fathers. It’s the others characters we gotta worry about. For added uncertainty, there is the diabolical, mysterious Wazir (Mukesh), a ruthless, shadowy assassin linked to the bombing conspiracy that, out of the blue, zeroes in on making nocturnal rounds of Pandit’s house in a very scary way.
Ever since Chopra roped in Akhtar and Bachchan together in Lakshya (2004), he had been toying with the Wazir storyline with Akhtar and Bachchan. That casting pays off. Akhtar, who put on weight for the command-in-lead role here, and Bachchan, in his wheelchair-bound scholarly best, offer an unusual stamp of male bonding against a background of chaos. As the distant estranged spouse, Hydari does a decent turn and while Abraham’s role is limited, Mukesh’s knife-wielding night prowler is downright creepy.
On an eclectic soundtrack, with many lyricist and music directors making contributions, the standout tunes are Sonu Nigam and Shreya Ghosal in Shantanu Moitra’s “Tere Bin,” a heartfelt lilt to a loved one and also Ankit Tiwari’s “Tu Mere Paas,” about loss, which the singer also provided the music for. For added measure, try Bachchan’s rich baritone anchoring “Khel Khel Mein.” This song’s ominous lyrics and sizable thematic appeal rounds off a good score.
Nambiar, who earlier made the note-worthy three-in-one David (2013) featuring Mukesh as a lead, has a trick or two up his sleeve here. As Daanish and his team shuttle between Delhi and Kashmir, where Minister Qureshi is giving a speech and also exactly where the cryptic Wazir threatened violence, the mission may necessarily need to change from a race to protect a VIP to a frantic effort to restore public safety. The big reveal at the end—and mind you, it may pop a surprise—is a twist that departs from Hindi movie conventions on several different and satisfying levels. Take notice!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
As one of the most-talked about Hindi filmmakers of modern era, Bhansali’s works have included noteworthy movies some of which were huge box office hits (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, Black, Ram Leela, and Guzarish). Bhansali’s pet project since Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) was Bajirao Mastani. Finally seeing the light of marquee during Christmas in 2015, Bajirao Mastani, a period costume and action-adventure epic, achieves both a box office juggernaut and makes a commanding artistic statement.
Faced with fractures from possible overreach into huge sections of the sub-continent, the expansive 18th century Maratha empire, based in Pune, urgently needs a new Peshwa (prime minister). Overcoming strong rivals with a show of successful military campaigns and single feats of bravery, the dashing Bajirao (Singh) clinches the much-coveted post. On one such military campaign, Bajirao comes to the aid of the beautiful warrior-princess Mastani (Padukone) and gets drawn to her even though he is already married to the influential and equally beautiful Kashibai (Chopra). The concept of a flawed leader who is at a major crossroads of his life is the stuff of legends. On that level Prakash Kapadia’s script posits Bajirao as a conflicted man, a lion caught in the doldrums of a personal winter. Or more precisely, his world forces him into conflict he can’t easily navigate. The battlefront emissary, a shrewd war tactician and by all accounts a hardy and brave warrior, strangely, is more-or-less at peace when he is vanquishing his elephant-back or horse-back foes in the empire’s far-flung vistas.
The other, more urgent, battle Bajirao must overcome is on the home front, where Bajirao’s secret marriage to Mastani makes not only Kashibai unhappy but has the entire capital in an uproar. There are also the palace politics of Mastani’s arrival into the household, albeit at first housed with courtesans—thanks to the icy reception from Bajirao’s mother (Azmi). Then there is Bajirao’s political nemesis (Pancholi) who harbors a hidden agenda. Finally, the fact that Mastani —who has a Rajput father and Persian mother—is of Muslim background is used as a ruse by the local priestly class to instigate the nobility against Bajirao.
A sizable boost to Bajirao’s success has to do with music. Bhansali, who previously scored the soundtrack for Guzarish and Ram Leela, again takes up the baton. The result is a spell binding score that more than once touches light classical ragas, especially “Mohe Rang Do Laal,” a duet with Pandit Birju Maharaj and Shreya Ghosal and Ghosal’s “Deewani Mastani.” The hit “Pinga” duet, choregraphed superbly by Remo D’Souza, is a fetching tandem dance featuring both Padukone and Chopra in a dazzling explosion of sights, colors and sounds.
The box-office results for Bajirao have been nothing short of amazing. As if validating the raves, there was the near sweep of many of the popular industry awards. Now that Filmfare gives out its famed awards in early January for the previous calendar year, Bajirao won Best Film, Best Director (Bhansali), Best Actor (Singh) and Best Supporting Actress (Chopra). In an amazing achievement, Bhansali’s film won nine out of the 12 categories it was nominated for. In the Awards’ 61-year history, only three other movies have won more Filmfare Awards; Bhansali’s Black (2011) won 11, while Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Bhansali’s Devdas (2002) each won 10.
Bhansali and a small army of artisans and craftspeople make it seem effortless. Sriram Iyengar, Sujeet Sawant and Saloni Dhatrak’s gorgeous set pieces evoke upper crust chivalry from an era when tradition ruled and stepping out of line was tantamount to treason. The period precise sensibility is extended to first-rate culturally-appropriate costumes for both Mastani with her Mughal gowns and Kashibai in her queen-like Hindu attire. While the lingo at times gets annoying going from street-wise Mumbai Hindi to classical Marathi, the eyes are too busy chewing up the scenery.
Based on respected Marathi writer Nagnath Inamdar’s historic (and fictitious) novel Rau and set on southern India’s vast Deccan Plateau during the 18th century when the Mughal empire was generally in decline and the Maratha empire was in its glory, Bhansali’s Bajirao captures the historical imagination like few other recent Hindi movie entries. While the historical Bajirao, Mastani and Kashibai were real life figures, Bhansali goes to pains to point out that this movie is a work of fiction. Fiction that is worth standing up and cheering for!
2015-An incredibly profitable year at the box office for Hindi movies-can be summed by at least a dozen entries that were significant hits and three movies that combined to smash just about all previous box office records (PK, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Bahubali: The Beginning). As Hindi movies continue to expand their presence into new corners of the globe, the international box office hauls become proportionally larger. Here are some highlights of noteworthy entries:
1. BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN The definitive pan-sub-continental road movie emerged from the highly unlikely hands of Salman Khan and his SKF Studio. Khan’s screen charisma has never been in doubt. What was lacking in his repertoire was an entry that would string together social, comical, adventure and political elements. The bigger-than-big box office that awaited Khan’s country bumpkin who agrees to take a little lost Pakistani girl-a role nailed by pint-sized newcomer Harshaali Malhotra-back to Pakistan by foot, bike, truck, bus and sometimes even in drag made a splash that could not be avoided.
Director Kabir Khan and Salman Khan use a lightly comic, lightly political and lightly just about everything movie only to top it off with an emotionally electrifying ending that virtually guarantees tears for even the most jaded viewer. Bravo!
2. BAHUBALI: THE BEGINNING A new granddaddy of epic costume dramas has finally been anointed. S. S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language original was dubbed into several languages and became the first non-Hindi language Indian movie to pulverize international box office records previously held almost exclusively by Hindi language movies. Propelled by highly evocative posters that borrowed from Hindu mythology and spiced up by star Prabhas’ ample physique both promised and delivered a come-hither look that became a box office and critical sensation. Already the third highest all-time Indian box office champ (behind only PK and Bajrangi Bhaijaan), the highly captivating battle scenes featured flying daggers and horseback chivalry that tapped into historical epics from a nearly-forgotten era in Indian filmmaking history. Finally, a spell-bending, state-of-the-art juggernaut worthy of global standards and a movie that fans of Indian movies of all stripes, anywhere could cheer.
3. NH10 Outwardly a road movie that goes way off track, NH10 was a taut fish-out-of-water jolt that touched raw nerve endings in the wake of shocking recent headlines. A professional couple from New Delhi, played by Anushka Sharma (who also produced) and Neil Bhooplam, taking a much-needed vacation by car and ending up having to fend off a cabal of rural road crazies offered nail-biting thrills from the get-go. Even though there is ample violent content here, the real stick-out point is the brilliant exploitation of an unrelenting undercurrent of aggression that soaks the script. Made on a smaller budget, director Navdeep Singh and writer Sudip Sharma’s engrossing story emerged profitable by tapping into everything from the income gaps between New India’s urban elites and disenfranchised rural population to institutional misogyny and the perverse notion of “honor killing”-all under the tight grip of a microcosmic feudal setting.
Lesson learned: Do not cross a widow out for revenge! 4. DETECTIVE BYOMKESH BAKSHY Dibakar Banerjee’s big screen treatment of the famed fictional detective created by Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay succeeded where Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet couldn’t muscle through.
Against a tumultuous backdrop of WWII intrigue and a fast changing subcontinent on the verge of gaining independence, a rooming house in the Hooghly area of what was then Calcutta becomes the vortex of very strange goings on. Fortunately, the good guys have on their side the sleuth Bakshy (well played by Sushant Sing Rajput) as the city becomes gripped by a vast conspiracy involving land-owning Indian gentry, British overseers and even Japanese spies. Floated by the Yashraj banner-which is already planning a sequel for the budding franchise-Banerjee’s movie showcased a great city with a beautiful retro-feel makeover that gets right the period setting and even sari fashions. Finally, a smartly made, thinking-cap-on movie that was fun all the way.
5. PK Filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani (Munnabhai) and Aamir Khan’s extraterrestrial comedy-adventure was at heart a satire of mass religion and false prophets. Khan as a, naked-at-first, otherworldly visitor who goes from an unblemished child-like innocent and someone who knows nothing about earthly manners to picking up local habits and gradually falling from (mortal) grace was a marvelous reflection on prejudice and xenophobia. Due to intra-galactic delays, the folks on Pluto just heard that P.K. also now has the biggest all-time box office of any movie from India. While P.K. is not the greatest Hindi movie in recent times, it offered a transformative moment captured in the anti-glow of today’s biggest and darkest headlines-an acknowledgement of a clash of cultures within the human family.
6. DIL DHADAKNE DO Zoya Akhtar’s seven seas romantic comedy set almost entirely on a cruise ship superbly balanced the wave motion while wringing through wet sordid upper-crust angst to dock into a surprisingly astute and slam dunk fun formula.
Boosted by a huge A-list cast that included Shefali Shetty, Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma, Farhan Akhtar, Rahul Bose and Zarina Wahab-perhaps the greatest roll call since Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)-Dil Dhadakne Do also benefited from capturing lusciously exotic far-flung locales that wisely never supplant the affairs of one-percenter Mehra family helmed by patriarch Kamal (Anil Kapoor). Even though Dil Dhadakne Do spotlights a top income family feud, future film classes may single out this movie for evidencing the expanding vacation destinations available for India’s booming middle class.
7. DHRISHYAM Nishikant Kamat’s tense family drama pivoting from an accidental death was a remake of Jeetu Joseph’s 2014 Malayalam entry of the same name. Remade with remarkably success in altogether a half-dozen other Indian languages, all of which amazingly proved to be box office and critical success, here was a script no one could resist. A middle class family headed by Vijay Salgaonkar (Ajay Devgan) finds their lives turned upside down when their high school age daughter is blackmailed by a classmate. The well-made drama draws from the battle of wits between a tough police investigator (played by Tabu) who is inexplicably allowed to take the lead in chasing down the disappearance of her son as Vijay steadfastly coaches his family through the biggest upheaval in their lives. The existentially-charged ending fails to fully appease just about everyone involved with the viewer then left to decide the outcome on their own.
8. PIKU A familial tug between daughter Piku, played by Deepika Padukone, and her perennially-constipated and aging father Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) takes center stage in this Soojit Sarkar comedic drama. The primary focus is the shifting role of the daughter, a successful Delhi architect, now being the breadwinner for a parent who is becoming increasingly unhinged given his obsession with his constipation. Strongly supported by Irrfan Khan as a taxi driver who unwittingly agrees to take the daughter and the ailing father to Kolkota so they can sell the family home there, the road trip becomes the metaphor for a journey to unplanned destinations. Khan, who had a fantastic year in movies with four releases (Piku, Talvar, Jurassic World and in Aishwarya Rai’s comeback entry Jazbaa) getting a role where he romances Padukone is a terrific uptick and a nuanced change in what a possible male love-interest can or should be in Hindi movies.
9. TALVAR Based on a 2008 real-life story about a double-murder near Delhi, Meghna Gulzar’s credible treatment of an account where the “reality” of the narrative gets instantly muddied by inaccurate or incomplete eye witness accounts of key players, Talvar made one pause for contemplation. In a legal system where only one judge has to be convinced on life and death matters and where circumstantial evidence counts every step of the way, the circumstances certainly point to an educated married couple (Konkona Sen Sharma and Neeraj Kabi) who may have killed off their teenage daughter and the family chauffeur. The movie also features Irrfan Khan as a shrewd investigative cop who gets brick-walled by the botched early-arriving local cops that unknowingly tempered with precious evidence. Much like Dhrishyam, the movie had an ending that satisfied few and makes everyone uneasy.
10. PREM RATAN DHAN PAYO Rajshri Studio and Salman Khan together have intermittently lit up the holiday season box fireworks going back to Khan’s breakout hit Maine Pyar Kiya in 1989. Wholesome and family-viewing appropriate-compared to the intermittently violent NH10-director/script writer Sooraj Barjatiya’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo hits the right notes in balancing family-first palace shenanigans and romance. The stunningly opulent song sequence choreography-especially Palak Mucchal’s catchy title tune- is on par with Bahubaali. The last time two Salman Khan entries made any year end shortlist was when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister! For naysayers who deny that Hindi movie stars are treated like royalty, consider this. Sonam Kapoor’s personal nutritionist-nutritionist-gets an entry in the credits. Why exclude kindergarten teacher, milkman or mailman? Can’t we just stick to movie making? Puh-leese!
Special salutes: Best soundtrack of the year: “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.” Most anticipated upcoming movie: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani. Worst movie consideration: Mr. X (3D) On to 2016. Happy movie going!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.