Monday, June 7, 2010


Raajneeti has many good elements to it and some very bad ones. Add the pros and cons together and you find that the movie as a whole just about lifts itself to above average (2.75/5). Previous movies of Prakash Jha that I have caught, Gangajal and Apaharan showed a side to Indian politics and life in general that one does not get to see otherwise. Raajneeti disappoints by doing this to a very limited extent. Yes, there are some moments and themes which are captured anew, but the overwhelming sense one gets after sitting through the movie is, "I've seen this elsewhere before". I am not panning the movie, but I felt a bit let down with the singular lack of originality. One might argue that it is merely an adaptation of the Mahabharata; but the very point of an adaptation is to be original - to try and interpret a good script afresh and on this count, the film fails.

On the face of it, Prakash Jha extracts very good performances from all his actors, including the lovely Katrina Kaif. Manoj Bajpai and Ajay Devgan outshine the rest, capturing to some extent the layers to the Duryodhana and Karna inspired characters. There is a subtlety to the rapidly paced movie which I liked, some of it visible only to the discerning, examples being the scene where Indu (Katrina Kaif) is watching TV (how many people actually know the Mahabharata sub-text well enough!) or where Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgan) walks in on a funeral to his mother's presence.

I love the Mahabharata. And they say of that grand and immortal epic, that it encompasses all. Given the enormity of the challenge, the narration starts off as well as one can expect. Jha does a very good job of mapping where the myriad characters stand in the story. The parallel of dynastic politics (an irrepressible trend in India) where brothers often fall out much like in the Mahabharata is a good one, but something goes awry along the way. In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana is driven by ambition and the Pandavas by a sense of righteousness (if you don't want to elevate it to dharma). By changing around a virtue driven war to one driven by revenge, the plot nose-dives into a bit of a mess.

The senior party leaders are fill-up-the-gap actors whose characters, while efficient, seem to lack the charisma that dynastic party leaders would normally have but the huge side-cast (in addition to the enormous main cast) is very good in general. Arjun Rampal does his bit as a brash aggressor well. Ranbir Kapoor plays the game-changer and Nana Patekar, the mentor and string-puller but the blurred lines of separation between Krishna and Arjuna (and a bit of Bhishma?) is slightly confusing. The Krishna-esque omnipresence of Nana Patekar (who is good otherwise) that was probably meant does not come through strong enough. One of the best elements to the character of Arjuna is the restlessness and uncertainty in his mind (and the consequent vulnerability). This adaptation let itself down by not bringing this to the fore. How did the PhD academic (Victorian poetry??!) transform into a ruthless politician? Ranbir Kapoor gives no clues and instead plays his character with glazed eyes as if Sid had woken up and turned into a serial killer with no conscience. This improper character resolution also throws up his eventual retreat from the scene, surely an anomaly, given that he takes to politics like a duck to water, together with the fact that the American call is bizarrely extinguished mid-way?

Which brings us to Katrina Kaif. She plays her role well enough, but it is much ado about nothing as her character adds little to the central plot. Her story is not of any real life political leader, nor does she resemble much, that insulted woman who stimulated the blood-thirst for the eighteen day war. The difficult attempt to adapt Draupadi to the modern day has led to some of the dialogue plumbing ridiculous depths. The few seconds of night-club romance / item number between Ranbir Kanpoor and Katrina Kaif richly deserve to be edited out. But the single worst scene was clearly the Kunti-Karna (lack of) adaptation. The entire fact pattern (as opposed to the emotion) is imported giving disastrously comical results. When Bharti (Nikhila Trikha) goes to negotiate with her lost son, Sooraj Kumar, even offering the coveted post, one is left staring in disbelief - wait a minute, is this a spoof of some sort? A comical farce?

One more point to note. How does the run up to one election make allowance for so much and then some more: it almost seemed as if all chief-ministerial candidates are blown to bits (à la the Godfather) and then substituted. And is the victor in a democracy the survivor of electoral politics or of the bullet? To sum up, the problem with the story is not that it is too complex, but that it is not thought out well enough, especially the latter half. In fact, it exhibits an incomplete understanding of politics by reducing it to a bilateral gang war, something only a simpleton can view politics as. Yes, clever schemes are devised, surprises are sprung, deals are struck and men and women are used and disposed. But no, one can't keep bumping-off party presidents and challengers, "till there were none". Raajneeti, the movie descends to mob-neeti and insults the contoured nature of politics; and this is something born, not by design, but out of confusion and unoriginality.

A more careful incorporation of the principles of raajneeti would likely have saved us much of the bloodiness, provided a more exciting finale despite the lack of brutal finality, and given viewers a far better film about politics. There are some movies which one can call a fresh breath of air. Raajneeti is anything but.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Name is Khan

Karan Johar's latest offering is painfully bad. On three previous occasions I had watched his movies and left with a confused aftertaste. Yes, I never thought that K2H2, K3G or KANK were delightful, but they entertained and despite myself, I liked them somewhat. That basic bollywoody Indian in me at some deep and dark level appreciated the rona, dhona and gana. And the dramatic, filmi moments were well, dramatic and filmi and I could live with that. MNIK is another story altogether. It was, I was told to my perturbation, a reflection of the maturation of a previously juvenile film-maker, an attempt to narrate a serious tale. Then I was reassured that nothing much had changed: it was a love story more than anything else. Then Bal Thackeray decided to offer some free publicity for the movie. Some thought it would be a patriotic thing to watch. Rubbishing that, I checked it out, just as I would any other big ticket Bollywood fare.

Rizwan Khan tries to get on a flight in America. Something is different about him. He arouses suspicion. But he is checked and let go of. Thus begins a journey through the country to try and find the President as he writes his past in his diary, tracing his journey from Mumbai to San Francisco. Khan, it turns out, is born with Asperger Syndrome, something that is explained to us, annoyingly, in bits and pieces. He grows up with his mother's love, moves to the new world, learns to live in a new city, falls in love, marries and settles down. The world shakes as the twin towers collapse, and the little lives of the Khans bear the brunt. Rizwan sets out again, an even more confusing (and attemptedly endearing) journey this time. It is a movie clearly inspired by Forrest Gump (that absolute gem!), but the inspiration is at a very shallow level. The themes (Autism, Muslims in the post 9/11 world) are global, but again too shallow. The lack of depth is reflected by the somewhat jumpy shifts, the story moves from scene to scene without really connecting the dots.

There are a few saving graces, but too few. Noteworthy positives are the cinematography and the acting in general, but the music leaves little impact. Shahrukh Khan has acted well, and provides enough "innocent" moments for his fans to go, "aww...he's so cute, he's so sweet...!" (yuck!), but well, he is still Shahrukh Khan. Neither the director nor King Khan can resist the impulse to portray the star rather than the character. Just as well. It might have saved their skins, for I don't think anyone else could have got away with playing a character so superficially. I have respect for Shahrukh Khan. He has presence, talks amusingly and gives the impression that he is a smart person. But I hope that he wakes up and decides to involve himself in the screenplay rather than float insensibly astray.

Kajol is good, but her character, and hence the plot, a little improbable for a woman who loved her husband even after being awakened to the dangers of his surname. The side cast including the children, the white actors and the black actors deliver neat performances, but they are mere pawns in the attempt to evoke artificial bollywood-type emotions, rather than characters who flesh the story. Another thing bothered me: The American Government is shown to be not much better off than the Indian Government. Civil liberties are flouted with ease. Disaster struck villages in Georgia are left to the mercy of Rizwan Khan and family from San Francisco. How then, in the grand scheme of things, is it still a fitting climax that his moment of glory is his audience with the American President who condescends to pick him up from the crowd and then patronizes him uglily?

Karan Johar: Your movie is bad even by your poor standards. It fails to entertain. If you want to grapple with serious issues, make an effort to deal with them properly. If you just want to tell a story, do so. Don't make a pretence of doing both while doing neither. I look back at what I put myself through, and while it could have been a reasonable film, there are way too many contrivances. Your movie is unconvincing, fake and just not told well enough. Two stars for you.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Three Idiots

Coming from the maker of two classics – what I describe as the triumph of good cinema – Lagey Raho Munna Bhai and Munna Bhai MBBS, it is not too optimistic to expect another gem. Three Idiots delivers for the most part, but not quite. It is a fun film which entertains and delivers its message quite well but so many ingredients are thrown into the pot that the plot thickens to virtual solidification.

Idiots is a coming of age story of three engineering students based very loosely on Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone. The book is a simple but personal story spun straight from the heart of an IITian contouring it with all the delicate details only an insider who’s lived the tale can tell. The script diverges by adding a few twists to the plot and pulls out of the hat an ideal – do what you love to do – which was absent in FPS.

“To thine own self be true, and it shall follow, as the night the day”, is an excellent message to be giving to the Indian masses; maybe a bit late in the liberalised day, but still extremely relevant and Hirani and Co. need to be lauded for that. I suspect, though, that the makers were not very keen on delivering the excellence message point blank, and sought instead to make it more palatable to the masses by introducing cheap comedic aspects, many a time too loud for audiences with refined tastes.

While tapori humour was almost perfectly in place in the Munnabhai movies, light blue men’s underwear, across the toilet conversations and electrified micturition seemed quite uncalled for in a movie, which had already diverged from narrating the honest college struggle. Idiots has about seventeen different plot elements, engaging, but compromising, I feel on the integrity of the central plot. Taare Zameeen Par, Khan’s 2007 Christmas movie is a brilliant example of what can be done if you choose not to pander to the LCD.

Aamir Khan has managed to pull it off – to no one’s surprise he delivers a strong performance as Ranchoddas Chanchad but where he amazes is that he actually looks younger than Kareena Kapoor. Madhavan, does not quite come through with the same grace, but he is excellent with emoting and his portrayal of Farhan Qureshi is quite convincing. In any event, the rapidity of the plot seldom lets your mind wander in the direction of the actors’ ages. Sharman Joshi is good in parts, but does not leave much of an overall impression, perhaps because his character is not fleshed out fully.

Boman Irani as Professor Viru Sahastrabudhhe, the difficult old antagonist, Kareena Kapoor as Rancho’s love interest are good but their characters lack strong cores. The professor's character in particular bends, wilts and mindlessly dances to the requirements of a masalaic movie. Virus may be an obstinate old fool, but if he loves his subject why does he hate his students so much (even Rancho who tops consistently) and callously watches students commit hara kiri as if he were some evil incarnate? Worse still, does it require a personal favour for a teacher to recognise the brilliance of a student? Omi Vaidya as Racho's student counterpoint Chatur "Silencer" Ramalingam sometimes feels like an irritating caricature. Mona Singh as Mona is nice but has slightly too much kicking around going on inside and around her.

Shantanu Moitra's tunes are catchy but not memorable, as with most music these days. The use of some techniques, akin to European cinema, particularly black-white sequences and character detailing is a very good attempt, but does not flow completely naturally. The parody of poverty, though very well done, does not sit very comfortably in the movie for me, for the reality of poverty in the family is that it breeds fear. Somehow, Raju’s suicide attempt and his mother's tears seem insufficient to free him from that trap plaguing young Indians and leave a vague feeling of irresolution.

In spite of all of the above, and the failure to match the extremely high Hirani-Aamir expectations, I will choose to thrust my palm on my heart, say “All-Ij-Well”, and give the movie a 3.5 star rating out of 5.