Singapore (1960)

Singapore

Singapore may not be one of Shakti Samanta’s best films, given the gaping plot holes and rather slow start, but his first film with Shammi Kapoor still entertains with plenty of good songs and a competent support cast. Like many of Samanta’s early films, Singapore is a mystery thriller with the usual assortment of criminals willing to kidnap and murder to get away with their loot. Where it falls down is in trying to spin together too many threads with the underlying story rather lost beneath the extra flourishes. The additions also defuse much of the tension, which isn’t helped by a distinct lack of chemistry between Shammi and his co-star, with the result that the film initially feels rather flat. However Shammi’s uncharacteristic restraint doesn’t last for too long and there is plenty of his trademark craziness to liven up the final scenes.  Add in a dash of Helen, Shashikala and Padmini, the gorgeous Maria Menada and the exotic locale, and Singapore is worth at least a one-time watch.

The film opens with Ramesh (Gautam Mukherjee) and his girlfriend Shoba (Shashikala) meeting in a club in Singapore. As Shoba happily learns that Ramesh plans to stay in Singapore, their conversation is being closely followed by local gangsters Chang (Madan Puri) and Kapoor (Rajan Kapoor) at a nearby table. Also listening in, by way of a hidden microphone in the lamp is Shoba’s uncle Shivadas (K.N. Singh), but despite all this effort the only information Ramesh gives out is that he has found a treasure map and as a result won’t go ahead with the sale of his boss’s rubber plantation. That boss is Shyam (Shammi Kapoor) and later that night Ramesh finally manages to contact him by phone. However his conversation is interrupted by two shady characters that kidnap Ramesh, although they don’t manage to get their hands on the treasure map. Left to wonder what has happened to his friend, Shyam boards the next plane to Singapore, and the hunt is on!

Samanta does seem to delight in giving his characters rather ridiculous names, and Shyam is met at the airport by his company secretary Cha Choo (Agha) and in the office by the typist Chin Chin Choo (Lilian), which at least does invoke memories of Howrah Bridge. Shyam also meets Lata (Padmini) and initially confuses her with Shoba since he has been told that Ramesh’s girlfriend dances at the New India Club and naturally assumes that the dancer she sees is Shoba.  I’m not sure what the point of the confusion is, other than as an introduction to the family and as a way to ensure Padmini gets to dance. However it’s worth the convoluted storyline as Padmini does look absolutely gorgeous here and really shines when she is dancing.

While in Singapore, Shyam is also pursued by the beautiful Maria (Maria Menada) who met him on the flight from India. Maria seems overly interested in Shyam’s affairs, and since it’s revealed almost from the start that she is involved in the plot to steal the treasure I expected a little more from their relationship. However mostly this is just another complicating plot thread that has a lot of potential that is never fully realised, although Maria Menada is excellent as a villainess.

There has to be a love story of course, and Shyam and Lata fall for each other on their first meeting. There isn’t great chemistry between Padmini and Shammi, but they do have a couple of good songs together where there seems more empathy and at least they seem to be enjoying themselves. I love this one where they dance through a number of shops before Padmini pushes the dancers into the pool at the end, seeming totally delighted as each one drops into the water while Shammi prances along behind her. Oh My indeed!

Meanwhile, Shyam is still trying to find Ramesh and uses the tape recording of their last phone conversation to track down a musical cigarette case which may have the answer. This part of the plot is perfect – naturally Ramesh records all his phone calls, and why wouldn’t a cigarette case in the shape of a Vat 69 bottle also be musical – but once Shyam finds the map things start to get unnecessarily complicated. This slows down the action and the film starts to drag while various embellishments are added to the plot.

Shyam uses the map as bait to try to lure out the kidnappers, and in the ensuing chase has to hide out from some of the gang in a village. Obviously he has to escape their notice and what better way to remain inconspicuous than to dance and sing with Helen? Naturally this is the best way to escape detection!

Shoba is kidnapped too and there is a convoluted thread involving Shivadas who may or may not be dead, although it doesn’t really seem to matter in the end.  Eventually Shyam infiltrates the gang as an assassin from Kabul, which gives Shammi licence to unleash the crazy and the pace of the film finally picks up. I wish the energy in the last scenes could have been present for the whole film, but at least  the film ends on a suitably chaotic note with the inconsistencies in the plot swiftly swept aside to concentrate on the final action sequences.

The main reason to watch Singapore is of course Shammi, who looks fantastic throughout whether he’s romancing Lata, cavorting around the dance floor in disguise or fighting off numerous villains as required. His Shyam is suave and sophisticated, romancing the ladies while out and about in Singapore and easily charming Lata on one hand while elegantly turning down Maria on the other. At least until his disguise kicks in, when he becomes totally OTT Shammi and revels in his persona as a gun for hire. My favourite kind of Shammi!

The support cast are all solid, despite the erratic storyline and gaping plot holes, and Agha is impressively competent as Shyam’s sidekick.  I can’t remember noticing him much in other films of the era, but here he provides some gentle comedy without disrupting the flow or resorting to slapstick. Padmini looks gorgeous and at least has a couple of good dance numbers even though disappointingly her character has very little to do in the second half. Although Singapore isn’t a film I will watch over and over again like Chinatown, I do like the songs from Shankar-Jaikishan, particularly those included here along with Tum Lakh Chhoopana Chahoge, Tu Kahan Kho Gaya and Dhoka Khayegi Na Yaron Ki Nazar for some classic Shammi dance-floor magic. As I said at the start, not one of Samanta or Shammi’s best films, but there is still enough to enjoy to make Singapore worth a watch. 3 stars.

Funky Bollywood

Funky Bollywood_Cover art

Funky Bollywood – The wild world of 1970s Indian action cinema (A selective guide)

I was chuffed when Todd Stadtman kindly sent me a review copy of his book. Not just because the book is fabulous (What a relief! I don’t have to be polite – it is really well done!), but also because Todd is the reason I first watched Pistolwali. A debt of gratitude of such magnitude is nigh impossible to repay.

 

Stadtman intends Funky Bollywood to be ‘the “gateway drug” into the world of Indian action cinema’, which is one of my favourite worlds. If you don’t know where to start, Todd’s guide could help you decide how to first dip a toe into the waters. If you’ve been there done that, enjoy the quips and asides as you spend time with some familiar faces.

Saturated with colour and illustrations, dotted with random facts and wry observations, the book has one thing that a masala film can often lack. Logic and structure. Opening chapters give a brief overview of the who’s who of the era, and has an excellent additional feature I would like all DVD manufacturers to adopt post haste; symbols representing recurring themes found in each film.

Funky Bollywood_The Key

Imagine how simple it would make selecting a film if you could pick the one with Helen, a lair and some separated siblings? I know that around 60% of the time you could select ANY 70s Indian action film and get that combination but sometimes I don’t want to take a punt. Amusing and insightful reviews of select film make up the remaining chapters.

Todd’s glee at the best (and not at all the best) films of the era leaps off the page. It’s a little like watching a film with a friend who knows what’s going to happen next and can’t wait to see your reaction. I particularly enjoyed the section on spy films and westerns as they also included a few of my Telugu favourites. There is a persistent spelling error (Telegu for Telugu) that belies the detailed and well researched content, which made me a little sad. But this is clearly a labour of love and a lot of attention has gone into every page.

Funky Bollywood_insightful

Like a really good masala film, Funky Bollywood is wildly entertaining and you might even learn something along the way (probably nothing to do with medicine or science, but other stuff). My cunning plan is to leave it lying around at home and wait for the unwary visitor to pick it up. I’ll have Parvarish in the DVD player before they know what hit them!

If you’d like your own copy, it’s available on Amazon or via the publishers Fab Press. And do pop over to the official Facebook page and say hi to Todd!

Kill Dil (2014)

Kill Dil

I had high hopes for Kill Dil. I like Ranveer Singh and Ali Zafar. I enjoyed Shaad Ali’s previous films, even the fairly nonsensical Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, and hey – Govinda! So, surely all these elements would be great together? Well, not so much. Kill Dil isn’t terrible, but it just isn’t as good as it should have been, mainly due to the shallow and poorly developed story. I don’t have a problem with the 70’s style masala plot, or with the Urban-Western style of Kill Dil, but I do prefer to have some plausibility in a romance and at least a smidgeon of logical possibility in the storyline. Both are conspicuously absent here. At least Ranveer, Ali Zafar and Govinda are all very watchable, while Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s exuberant songs are a definite plus, so even if the sum isn’t as great as all of its parts, Kill Dil is still worth a look  if you just sit back, leave logic at home and watch the spectacle.

The story starts with shades of Gunday as Bhaiyaji (Govinda) finds two babies in the rubbish and decides to raise the kids himself, despite the fact that he’s a gangster who kills people for a living. Somehow the orphans manage to survive, although they learn how to shoot a gun almost before they can walk and both drop out of school to work for Bhaiyaji as assassins for hire. Tutu (Ali Zafar) is apparently the elder, although how Bhaiyaji worked that out is anyone’s guess. He’s the quiet, less flamboyant and more brooding one who seems a little more aware of the risks but still seems content in his work. Dev (Ranveer Singh) is more exuberant, and with his bouffy hair and leather bomber jacket he’s actually a bit of a dork. The two brothers live together, work together and party together, but still have a lack of worldliness when it comes to anything outside of murder.

While out clubbing one night, Dev saves the life of Disha (Parineeti Chopra), a millionaire who gave up her degree in medicine to help rehabilitate criminals. Um – what? Disha is portrayed as the quintessential  rich party girl and the idea that she works as some kind of social worker is ludicrous. Yet it becomes even more ridiculous when Dev falls in love with Disha and is inspired to give up his life of crime for love.

The question is will his life of crime, and specifically Bhaiyaji, be willing to give up Dev?

Although the film starts off with both Dev and Tutu having roughly equal amounts of screen-time, as the story unfolds, Dev takes centre stage. Ranveer Singh is excellent and veers between annoyingly hyperactive, sweetly naïve and ultra-cool, often during the same dialogue. Although his transformation from gangster Dev to insurance salesman Dev is by the numbers, Ranveer is charming and charismatic throughout, even as his look becomes ever more conservative. He is brilliantly energetic in the songs, despite some truly dreadful styling, and if the song placements are often abrupt and odd, there are at least plenty of them, which keeps the amusement level relatively high.

Ali Zafar’s Tutu is the stoic friend who warns Dev about the possible consequences of Disha discovering his past and who is left to try and pacify Bhaiyaji when Dev is off romancing. Unfortunately, he’s not particularly successful at either task. However the relationship between Dev and Tutu is well portrayed and Ali Zafar and Ranveer Singh do have good chemistry together, even if it doesn’t get close to the Shashitabh ideal of bromance. Parineeti Chopra on the other hand has one of the most pointless and nonsensical characterisations I’ve seen, which is not helped by a complete lack of chemistry in her romance with Dev. She’s portrayed as a shallow character and is not just an unbelievable persona, but her style of behaviour makes her character essentially unattractive. Ultimately Disha seems an unlikely partner for Dev in every possible way and apart from this one fantasy song (which is still more about the styling and Ranveer’s increasingly unfortunate coiffure), the romance is fairly limp and ineffectual. It’s frustrating, since Parineeti looks fantastic and seems as if she is capable of so much more, if only she’d been given a chance!

As an occasional relief to all the posturing, Govinda is refreshingly straightforward as Bhaiyaji. He doesn’t do anything particularly gangsterish, apart from hand over pictures of the next victim to Dev and Tutu, but he does growl and look appropriately menacing when required. Even better, he does get to break out his dance moves and proves that he hasn’t lost any of his old mojo. However not even Govinda can breathe some fire into the flimsy story by the end, and Bhaiyaji’s response to Dev’s defection is disappointingly weak.

Kill Dil then is a bit of a disappointment. While the cast all try as hard as they can to look cool, and do look as if they had a great time during filming, they are let down by poor character development and the unreasonable story. However despite feeling frustrated by the character of Disha and annoyed by the paucity of scenes involving Govinda, I still did (mostly) enjoy the film. Ali Zafar and Ranveer Singh are very cool dudes here, and I liked their partnership. The songs are also improved by the colourful choreography and Ranveer Singh’s energy and joie de vivre is contagious. Perhaps one more for the fans, although it is worth a look for even just the brief glimpse of Govinda back in top form.

Khal Nayak

Khal Nayak poster

Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak is a fairly predictable cops and robbers story twined with references to the Ramayana which adds depth and resonance.  There are some excellent performances, stylish visuals and excellent music. But at a shade over 3 hours, the pace is stately to the point of plodding and there is too much emphasis on the meaning, and not quite enough on the drama.

Ram (Jackie Shroff) is assigned a case to bring down a terrorist organisation. Ballu (Sanjay Dutt) is the poster boy for Roshida’s (Pramod Muthu) gang. When Ballu escapes from jail, Ram is accused of neglecting his duty to go spend time with his girlfriend Ganga (Madhuri Dixit). When what looks like every policeman in India is put on Ballus’ trail with no success, Ganga finds a way to infiltrate the gang. She sees that Ballu is not quite as bad as he seems, although he is far from being misunderstood. Eventually the police close in, and Ganga is caught between Ram, duty, and her empathy with Ballu.

Madhuri looks stunning and delivers a strong and engaging characterisation. There is nothing simpering or weak about prison officer Ganga. When she sees an opportunity to help Ram restore his reputation, she asks for his support. Then she does it anyway. When she sees Ballu needs medical help, she just goes and gets a doctor because it is the right thing to do. Madhuri does some wonderful deliberately bad acting when Ganga, having captivated Ballu, joins the gang and goes on the run.

Then in Aaja Sajan Aaja she is simply incandescent as she dances for her Ram. Madhuri was also lucky as Ganga dresses in Indian attire, not the hideous synthetic 80s gear that Ballu wears when he tries to impress.

 

Sanjay Dutt is so very good in some scenes that it makes me angry at how bad he is for much of the film. He adopted a range of bizarre grimaces and physical tics that I think were meant to emphasise the animal side of Ballu, but just made him look ridiculous and clumsy. When he dropped the exaggerated mannerisms and just channelled the emotions, he was compelling and raw. While asserting his ownership of Ganga, Ballu accidentally defends democracy and becomes a Nayak for those people. His awakening to being respected and enjoying that feeling was nicely done, even though there was a lot of literal flag waving to make sure the point didn’t escape unnoticed.

Jackie Shroff is perfectly competent as Ram, and only tries to tear his clothes off once so that was good. For my money Ram is the least interesting character. He knows he is right, everyone knows he is right and he is not averse to using extreme force against Ballu to prove how right he is. While there is an interesting dynamic between hero and villain, there is minimal character development for Ram. A relationship between Ganga and Ballu would be a Very Bad Idea but I thought marrying Ram could be a bit suffocating.

The Ramayana elements were more obvious to me on a recent re-watch than when I first saw it, particularly the twists on that narrative. I couldn’t help but compare this with Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan (which I greatly prefer to the Hindi Raavan). In Raavanan, Ram revealed his darker side and could become as Ravana but Khal Nayak seems to say rather that Ravana has the potential to be Rama. I liked that the question of what makes a hero or a villain was articulated and that this was more than a glorification of Rama. Ganga didn’t sway from her beliefs when she was frightened, and kept her faith in Ram. Ram wanted to believe Ganga but society and the law demanded she was still put to trial. I was annoyed that she had to have her virtue validated by a thief and murderer, a man so despicable in the eyes of the law that he had besmirched her just by his proximity but whose word was still worth more than hers. I know she is Sita and he is Ravana, but still. The film plays with some of the conventions especially around the notion of hero and villain. Ram is also helped by Ballu’s testimony, his reputation restored by the hand of a sinner.

Ghai doesn’t quite go the whole hog but he does use a range of staple masala ingredients and has a lush visual style. Ram and Ballu have bloody fights that crash through walls and take to the treetops. There are long lost childhood friends and dreary paeans to motherhood. There are coincidences, speechifying and tearful reconciliations galore. The evil mastermind Roshida has a nasty disposition and lots of cats who do a fabulous job of reacting to stuff.

Rakhee gets a lot of screen time as Arti, not all of it crying. Neena Gupta makes an impression as the striking Champa. Ramya Krishnan is charismatic as Ballu’s girlfriend Sophia, and also gets both versions of the title song. What a waste to have her in such a small role, but how great to have so many powerful actresses in one film. The female characters are strong and quite distinct, but Subhash Ghai stays firmly within the conventions of 90s masala so none of them break the mould of Ma, the friend, bad girl etc.  Oh, and Anupam Kher does his customary shtick as Pandey the prison warden.

There are interesting observations about the conventions of parenting and filial behaviour. Ganga tries to evoke Ballu’s sentimental side by talking wistfully of how much he must love his Ma and how hard it must be for him to live on the run. He calls Ganga out on trying to manipulate him through sentiment, but he rejects that as unimportant to him. Question – If a villain shouts ‘Ma!’ in his sleep and there is no one to hear it, does he have feelings?

Mind you, when Ballu is beating Ram up because why not, Arti hits Ballu for assaulting Ram, Ballu shoves her so Ram belts him for hitting a Ma, then Ballu fights back and Arti comes back at him to stop him using violence.  A move straight out of the Nirupa Roy Filmi Ma Manual.

The songs are extensions or amplifications of the narrative as well as being beautiful and usually pleasingly melodic.

I am not so fond of that title track, although it does epitomise early 90s style and Ramya Krishnan works that beaded gear for all it’s worth.

Khal Nayak-Fruitbat

I had to pity choreographer Saroj Khan. Between Dutt’s own ‘dance’ style and the outfit given to Ballu in the final song, he looked more like a demented fruitbat. Seeing Ballu and the boys try their seductive dance moves on Ganga was highly amusing. But she choreographed some beautiful dances for Madhuri. I went to see the Temptations Reloaded show up in Sydney last year, and the roof nearly came off when the opening bars of Choli Ke Peeche played.

The first hour of the film could be condensed to around 20 minutes with no great loss, but things get much more interesting once events are set in motion. While it is a visually strong and often darkly dramatic film, the pace suffers from Ghai’s concentration on symbols and stylised elements rather than closely following the emotional arcs of the characters. Very much worth watching, but some patience is required. 3 ½ stars!

Madras Cafe

Madras Cafe

I’m not normally a fan of films that deal with the subject of war, but I found the combination of Shoojit Sircar as director and the backdrop of the conflict in Sri Lanka intriguing enough to warrant watching Madras Cafe.  The film is a world away from his last film, Vicky Donor, but Shoojit Sircar shows a similar attention to detail in this realistic and gritty political thriller.  The film begins with a disclaimer which states that Madras Cafe is a work of fiction, but even with the little I know about the Indian involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict, the story seems heavily influenced by real-life events of the time.  The story deals with the build-up to the assassination of the Indian ex-Prime Minister and owes more to Hollywood drama than the more usual Bollywood tale of an Indian army hero who single-handedly saves the day.  As a bonus, John Abraham is more convincing than expected in the lead role and his performance, along with some excellent cinematography make Madras Cafe well worth a watch.

Madras CafeMadras Cafe

The first half of the film sets up the story, starting with a fairly graphic depiction of the atrocities committed against the Tamil people leading eventually to the development of armed resistance.  It is at times confusing as numerous characters are briefly introduced before the action moves quickly along, but once the whole cast is assembled the story settles down to describe the events leading up to the Prime Minister’s resignation and eventual death.  John Abraham plays the role of Major Vikram Singh, a RAW agent sent to Sri Lanka to ensure elections to secure the peace process go ahead.  To this end he has two aims, to move support away from the head of the Tamil Liberation Force (LTF) and instead to promote the more acceptable (to India) Shri, leader of the Tamil political party TPA.

Madras CafeMadras Cafe

Madras CafeMadras Cafe

The LTF is led by the charismatic Anna Bhaskaran (Ajay Ratnam), who is ably supported by his inner cadre of Pandyan (Johnson Manjali), his Intel chief; Mallya (Arijit Dutta), deputy leader and army commander; and Rajasekharan (Dinesh Nair), spokesperson and arms dealer. Vikram manages to meet up with Shri (Kannan Arunachalam), who demands weapons for the fight against the LTF, but the mission to deliver these goes wrong and the weapons end up in the hands of the rebel force. Vikram suspects that someone in the Indian RAW group has betrayed them, and so begins a cat and mouse game to identify the traitor while attempting to keep the peace process on track.  During his mission Vikram meets Jaya (Nargis Fakhri), an American journalist based in London, who is in Jaffna to report on the plight of the refugees.  Jaya has a number of informers and sources, who later prove important contact points for Vikram, but otherwise her role seems fairly pointless and not helped by Nargis’s lacklustre performance. The initial meeting between Jaya and Vikram suggested that there may be some conflict between the two over nationalism and journalistic integrity, but this never materialised, perhaps because there is already plenty of conflict onscreen.

Madras CafeMadras Cafe

 

While the traitor is still providing the rebels with details about the Indian army plans, Vikram’s colleague S.P. (Rajeev K. Panday) intercepts wireless transmissions that provide details of an LTF plot to kill the former Indian Prime Minister during his campaign for re-election.  The assassination plot is developed during meetings between Anna’s representative Rajasekharan and nameless Western corporate executives who meet in the Madras Cafe.  The last half hour of the film moves into overdrive as the clock ticks down and Vikram and his boss Robin Dutt (Siddartha Basu) desperately try to put all the pieces together before their time runs out.

Madras CafeMadras CafeMadras CafeMadras Cafe

 

The screenplay by Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya is realistic and gripping, even if you don’t know much about the original story – in fact it may be better if you don’t.  Excellent performances by most of the lead actors, including Prakash Belawadi as Bala, the Indian head of operations in Sri Lanka help to paint a plausible picture of the events leading up to the final assassination.  The pace does pick up in the final half hour although in general the film is kept understated, with a subdued performance from John Abraham, suiting his role as an undercover agent.  He’s perhaps a little too muscular and brawny to be 100% convincing, as I expect undercover agents to be more wiry and less memorable, but his mannerisms and emotions are much better than his previous films and seem fitting for an army officer.  At least there is none of the dreadful melodrama and over the top emoting which often seem to be required for a ‘hero’ role.

Madras CafeMadras CafeMadras CafeMadras Cafe

On the other hand Nargis Fakhri seems completely miscast and never convinces as a war reporter, while her appearance seems even more outlandish than in Rockstar. Rashi Khanna does a better job in her role as Vikram’s wife and the large supporting cast all are well suited to their roles with some excellent individual performances from the various cabinet members, Sanjay Gurbaxani as the Prime Minister and the members of the LTF cell in Madras.

Madras CafeMadras CafeMadras CafeMadras Cafe

The film looks beautiful despite the subject matter, and the cinematography by Kamaljeet Negi is superb.  There are contrasts between shots of beautiful countryside and scenes of complete devastation caused by the conflict.  The framing is excellent and often characters are shown hemmed in by their surroundings, just another way of showing there is no escape from the consequences of war. My only complaint is that the same two helicopters seem to make their way into a few too many shots, but since I always associate the sound of a helicopter with an army presence (from my childhood growing up in Northern Ireland) this just added more realism for me.

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There are no songs as such in the film, but the background score by Shantanu Moitra is hauntingly beautiful and fits the imagery well.

Madras Cafe is not a film for everyone and at times is more of a documentary than a drama, however the subtle build-up of tension and attention to detail make for compelling viewing – even if I kept thinking that surely an undercover operative in Jaffna would speak Tamil!  A beautifully shot and well-made film, Madras Cafe is a fictional account that aptly illustrates the horror of conflict and the civilian cost. 4 stars.