Friday, February 26, 2010

Starring: Farhan Akhtar, Deepika Padukone, Ram Kapoor, Shefali Shah
Director: Vijay Lalwani

The single-most important challenge while attempting a thriller is to keep it engaging till the end. On that count, Karthik Calling Karthik most definitely succeeds. It makes for edge-of-the-seat entertainment and the suspense is maintained throughout. This itself should be as a triumph of sorts for debutant director Vijay Lalwani, considering that we haven't had a decent thriller from Bollywood in ages.

In terms of template and treatment, the film is recogonisable as a Farhan Akhtar venture. And yet, KCK feels like a slight departure from Farhan's other films because he is required to deliver a real performance here. And he does not disappoint!

Karthik (Farhan Akhtar) is a geeky, shy guy who gets shabbily treated from people around him, especially his boss (Ram Kapoor) who loads him with work. He is secretly in love with co-worker, Shonali (Deepika Padukone) to whom he regularly writes emails but saves them as drafts. Like in Rocket Singh, here too, Karthik gets bullied by his boss and is ultimately fired from his job. Tired of his hopeless situation, he is about to consume sleeping pills when the phone rings and the caller identifies himself as 'Karthik' . He calls everyday at a set time, giving the other Karthik forceful advice on how he can transform his life. It works, and for a while everything seems perfectly on track for him. Until it all starts to go awry again.

The concept is intriguing, even if some of its inspiration may have come from an episode in Twilight Zone called Shatterday, where the alter ego takes over the other person's life. The suspense and thrill is kept alive because the story is treated as a psychological drama, which on some levels explores the complexities of the human mind. Childhood guilt makes Karthik believe he deserves to be treated badly. When the guilt is gone, and he finds assurance and well-meaning advice from his 'caller', his whole demeanour changes.

The explanation to why Karthik gets these calls is fairly easy to surmise, but director Vijay Lalwani brings in a twist that ensures that the thrills and chills stay till the end. The drama that ensues is a fairly compelling one, but the revelation is flimsy and hangs on a mere technicality. It makes the film seem a bit trivial almost.

The epilogue is another downer. The Farhan-Deepika love story has its moments, but the romantic parts are more asserted by the srcipt, than genuinely felt. The only way Farhan seems to know how to court a woman is by keeping some PJs handy. This is a trick he's employed so many times in his celebrity shows that it appears altogether tiresome in the film. The music by Shankar Ehsaan Loy - though fabulous- has little use and acts more as a needless diversion.

Deepika looks ravishing, but there is nothing to differentiate her performance here from the one she gave in
Love Aaj Kal or Bachchna Ae Haseeno. The actress shows very little variation in her expression or voice, and there is an iciness and lack of empathy about her act that makes her appear too distant. Which is why, the emotional ending does not ring true.

On the other hand, Farhan Akhtar is extremely effective in his role, especially as the nervous and vulnerable Karthik. This is a role that is far from his comfort zone and he convincingly pulls it off.

The direction by Vijay Lalwani is understated, fluid and fairly assured, with very few rough edges. He knows how to create realistic drama in a seamless manner. Importantly, he can keep the audience glued to their seat.

Stars: ***

-Sandhya Iyer

Friday, February 19, 2010

Toh Baat Pakki

Starring: Tabu, Sharman Joshi, Vatsal Sheth, Ayub Khan, Yuvika, Himani Shivpuri

Director: Kedarh Shinde

At a time when most of Bollywood is mostly dominated by large-scale extravaganzas,
smallish films exploring a middle class ethos can be charming to watch, if they care to etch their characters with care and depict the ordinariness of life in interesting ways. Toh Baat Pakki unfortunately is too TV ish in its treatment and sensibilities. It peddles ideas about marriage that went out of fashion even before Ekta Kapoor struck with her saas-bahu serials. Also given director Kedarh Shinde's background with theatre (he's directed Marathi films and plays), he tends to make his situations and characters look too staged and even loud on occasions.

The film is an average comic-drama that stays mildly engaging in its first half, but peters out completely in the second, ending up as a lame effort overall. The only memorable character in the film is Tabu as the shrewd, calculative match-maker for her sister. One sees traces of Rekha's Khoobsoorat character in the manner in which she manipulates familial situations. There's also a cue taken from Sridevi's Judaai character in its comic tone, though Tabu's meanness essentially arises from the universal selfishness that is felt by most when it comes to the interests of one's near and dear ones. It's not a very subtle or nuanced character, but given that our leading ladies are usually portrayed either as paragons of virtue or as vamps, it's nice to see some grey shades, and Tabu is clearly enjoying herself to the hilt here.

The story looks more apt for stage in the manner in which the action takes place in one house, with characters moving in and out of rooms. Rageshwari (Tabu) is well-settled into her middle-class life with her husband (Ayub Khan) and kids. She has dreams of seeing her sister, Nisha (Yuvika) married to a well-off guy. She sets sights on Rahul (Sharman Joshi) who is studying for engineering. Nisha too begins to like him, and all seems well. Enter Yuvraj (Vatsal), a manager with a secure pay packet and Rageshwari decides to do an about turn. Without the slightest compunction, she gets rid off Rahul to accommodate Yuvraj.

The second half is about how Sharman's character uses his wits to outdo Tabu and prevent Nisha from marrying Vatsal. Most of it is anyway reminiscent of Amol Palekar's Chit Chor and its utterly poor remake, Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon. There is no real conflict, as there isn't much to choose between Yuvraj and Rahul in the first place. Also, Tabu's hastiness in making a match and then breaking it off hardly seems convincing. She's also too emotionally detached throughout so many situations don't ring true.

The second half is a total let-down. Sharman's plans of doing a one up on Tabu is made up of all lame and predictable stuff. Most disappointing is the manner in which Tabu's character abruptly has a change of heart .

The film is also full of continuity errors. The colour of Yuvika's salvaar kameez miraculously changes when she comes out of a temple in the same sequence. The story you are told happens is a North Indian town, but you spot shops with Tamil sign boards and there are also coconut trees all around.

The film is quite forgettable, expect for a good performance from Tabu. It's also nice to see Sharman again after his ace act in 3 Idiots. He is good here too, but has a poorly written part. Vatsal has nothing much to do. Yuvika is a looker, even if her acting skills are not really tested.

Overall, a very average film.

Stars: **

- Sandhya Iyer

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: My Name is Khan

Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol
Director: Karan Johar

What happens when you try to take a leap higher than what one's legs can allow? You obviously fall. With My Name Is Khan, Karan Johar tries his hand at a subject that he is clearly not equipped to handle. But like an overzealous eater who orders too much without judging well his appetite and constitution, Karan decides to go to the radical extreme of the fluffy entertainers he's done so far, and packs in every weighty theme out there. The result is a half-baked film that is neither serious in its tackling of political issues nor entertaining. In fact, MNIK is naively propagandist, made with the single-minded purpose of portraying its lead actor as a messiah for the humankind.

For the kind of epic film that MNIK hopes to be, it had to be emotionally moving and inspiring. The incidents needed to be organically born out of the story, the romance needed to be more rooted and real. This is not the case, as both scriptwriter Shibani Bhatija and Johar indulge in heavy narrative bullying, creating contrived situations to meet their ends. It's almost like these two people smugly assume the audience to be on the same page as them, even when they are not. This is especially true in the second half, where the film's autistic hero, Rizwan is put through all kinds of grueling trials to show him as the paragon of virtue and humanity. So even as all the characters in the film cry buckets seeing him saving katrina victims on television, or go misty-eyed when he finally gets to meet the US President (how cringe-worthy this scene is!), you sit there in the audience feeling bored and non-plussed. The only thing worse than emotionally manipulating your audience is to be caught doing so.

Still,the first half is somewhat tolerable. You never know why SRK has aspergers or what its larger significance in the film is, but the actor works his charm in some of the scenes with Kajol. Their brief courtship and marriage is not a very plausible scenario, but there is something touching about the way Kajol accepts him into her life. She marries him not because she is in love, but perhaps because she believes a man like Rizwan deserves his share of love and happiness. The film is not bad till this point and if this relationship would have been explored further, it might just have made for an interesting story.

But then 9/11 strikes and the film derails completely. There is no depth in the conflicts that arise from hereon. Why would Kajol shun her husband for his religion at such an emotional point in her life? Racism was not born after 9/11. Yes, the situation grew worse, but when a liberated Hindu woman marries a Muslim man, one fairly assumes she she is mentally prepared for the same. In any case, this basis of Rizwan's long journey is unclear and unconvincing. Since the motives are weak, you are not emotionally moved and the film starts to seem incredibly lengthy and tiresome.

While the story itself doesn't quite work, it is the 9/11 and American backdrop that induces a great deal of ennui. It says nothing that has not been said before. We've had Khuda Ke Liye and New York – both superior to MNIK and in America itself there have been several films made on the subject. So why make something on a similar theme when you have nothing new to say?
Again, looking at the amount of English used in the film and the backdrop used, obviously Karan is looking at a global audience. But what can be taken home by any audience in any part of the world from so simplistic a film. It does not even pose the right questions, forget offering solutions.

As for the performances, SRK is earnest and tries to infuse his character with some life. But it's not a role that entirely makes sense, and he's put through some really awkward situations in the film. The actor is one of our most charismatic stars and when he's cast in a good role and film, he's very effective (Chak De India!, Devdas). But in this case, the script lets him down and he must take some blame for green-lighting a project such as this.

Kajol is loud, over-excited and constantly screeching. She is on a different pitch and level from the rest of the film.

Karan, you are great with light stuff or even ones looking seriously at relationships (I think KANK was an interesting failure) , but keep away from the activism. Classic happen, they can't be manufactured.

Stars: **

-Sandhya Iyer

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine's Day

Starring: Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Hector Elizondo and Shirley Maclaine among many others

Director: Gary Marshall

Valentine's Day is like one of those dates where you sit through disinterestedly without much caring what comes out of it. And this is not what one expects from a luscious-looking ensemble film that brings together so many A-list actors. The rom-com is curiously low on ambition, and ends up being neither a comedy nor an emotionally engaging experience. It's not that the film is annoying or anything and in a charitable mood, one might even find it passable, but there's no denying that the script is vacant in originality and overall, very bland.

The day is Valentine's Day and the setting is Los Angeles. Reed (Ashton Kutcher), a florist, proposes to his girlfriend (Jessica Alba) but she isn't ready to make the big commitment. His platonic friend, Julia (Jennifer Garner), is traveling to meet her lover, Harrison (Patrick Dempsey), whom she doesn't know is already married. Then there's Jason (Topher Grace) who isn’t aware that the girl (Anne Hathaway) he's interested in moonlights as an adult phone entertainer even as she works as a receptionist for Paula (Queen Latifah). Estelle (Shirley Maclaine) confesses about an affair she had to her long-time husband Edgar (Hector Elizondo). Holden (Bradley Cooper) interacts with a soldier, Kate (Julia Roberts), during their six hour long plane journey. Then there are two different young couples, one a dim-witted set of lovers eager to exhibit their love to the world, while the other one attempting to lose their virginity. Kelvin (Jamie Foxx) is a sports TV reporter unwillingly covering Valentine's Day.

There are many such threads in the film, all of them chaotically overlapping. Even though there is no real originality in the idea of showing different set of lovers and their situations, it could have still worked out to be an interesting enough film, if only some life would have been breathed into the characters and their situations. Neither are there any great insights on love nor does the film induce anything more than a mild chuckle on a couple of occasions. For most part, the characters are just too lovelorn and mawkishly sentimental for you to be interested in their individual stories. Moreover, the screenplay is too overstuffed, unstructured and unfocused for one to be invested in the film. The last 30 minutes is especially tedious and wobbly.

There are only a couple of stories that hold your interest and this is completely thanks to some of the superb performances. The Anne Hathaway part is nice, so is the one with the senior couple. Hector Elizondo in a restrained performance is quite superb. Julia Roberts has a miniscule part and she seems to have done the film as favour for her Pretty Woman director.

This is not to say that the film is a disaster or anything. But it's a bit odd that director Gary Marshall should take such a large star-cast and make something so completely ordinary.

Stars: **

-Sandhya Iyer

Friday, February 5, 2010

Film Review: Striker

Doesn't pocket the Queen

Starring: Siddharth, Ankur Vikal, Aditya Pancholi, Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Nicolette Bird

Director: Chandan Arora
Stars: **1/2

Chandan Arora is the man behind two of the most criminally underrated films of the past decade -- Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon and Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh. His third, Striker unmistakably has some of the strengths of these two earlier films. But this coming-of-age tale, though moderately engaging, is never entirely satisfying or emotionally stirring as it could have been.

The film is a clear departure for the director from his past work, as he recreates the chawls and crannies of Malvani, a fishermen's colony in Malad. There is a sense of communal harmony and people for most part co-exist happily here. The story is based in Bombay of the 80s and 90s – a period of great churning. Today the city which looks to be in the advanced stage of decay, was then a place pregnant with possibilities.

Surya (Siddharth) is a sickly child who is confined indoors often. His elder brother introduces him to the game of carrom and soon, Surya becomes a champion of sorts. As he grows up, he gives up the game and makes plans to go to Dubai and make enough money for himself and his family. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a ravishing Muslim girl in his neighbourhood, Noori (Nicolette) (along with the gorgeous music, this is a wonderfully shot portion). But neither his love life nor his Dubai plans come to fruition. It is at this time he meets his childhood friend, Zaid ( Ankur Vikal), who acquaints him with Jalil (Adiya Panscholi), the local goon, who among other things, also bets on carrom. Surya gets sucked into this world and along with Zaid starts to live on the edge. His enmity with Jalil escalates, and ends in a high drama when the flames of the communal riots of 93 look to engulf Malvani.

The setting is authentic and the attention to detail is impressive. The director breathes tremendous life into his lower middle-class characters and their homes. There is a great lived-in feeling about the place, so much that you almost feel the wafting smell of pomfret reaching you. Even the infamous era of Bollywood is evoked with a Govinda-Kimi Katkar song of the 80s. The mood rightly denotes a sense of expectancy about the future.

While Chandan Arora gets his setting right, the story itself lacks the requisite punch. Carrom is used as a metaphor to indicate the protagonist's highs and lows. But this doesn't come across in the film and ends up being just an excuse to have a fresh, untried backdrop. It could well have been a game of 'Snakes and Ladders' (and Surya says this in the film too) and it might have been more apt. This lack of metaphorical resonance is one of the biggest problems with Striker.

The film could have become a pointless excercise, if it were not for the current scenario in Mumbai, where everyday the city is threatened by some form of terror or the other. And yet, the director's depiction of the villain in the film doesn't evoke much interest, because he is presented as a completely black character. Jalil is singlehandedly responsible for every small and big calamity that strikes our hero (!). He wears a black kurta at all times, so as to not leave any doubt in your mind about his character. Surya is the underdog who takes on the might of a Jalil. It could have still been interesting, but such a scenario has already been portrayed in the Aamir Khan starrer Ghulam, isn't it?

Also, in some instances, things come to a head quite suddenly and inexplicably in the film. It's a bit extreme to see Jalil beating up Surya's brother during their growing up days for no reason. Similarly, Surya's lady love vanishes from his life forever the day her father spots them together in a local train. The pre climax where there are deaths also apears too sudden.

One has to say though that the film could have turned infinitely superior with a more talented lead actor. For the kind of complex role this is, Siddharth's poor diction and dialogue delivery constantly work as an impediment. Also, the only way he portrays his angst and frustration is by huffing and puffing all the time. The scene stealer turns out to be Ankur Vikal as the 'lukha' with a proclivity for mischief. Aditya Panscholi is good, but is stuck in a thankless unidimensional role. Vidya Malavde hams it up.

Many of the weaknesses prevent the film from being the cathartic and uplifting story that it could have been. It succeeds in parts, but overall, doesn't quite hit the mark.
- Sandhya Iyer