Atrangi Re

So far I haven’t been a huge fan of Aanand L. Rai’s films but Dhanush is a big draw card (and Raanjhaana wasn’t completely awful), so I thought I’d try Atrangi Re. But again, I’m left thinking that there is too much that is problematic for me to really enjoy the film. There is a lot that works well, but sadly, there is a lot more that doesn’t. The good is the music, most of the first half and Dhanush, who really is excellent despite playing a rather shady character. The film also looks great and it’s a shame I couldn’t see it on the big screen since the sets and the staging are amazing. But the bad unfortunately hits around the end of the first half, and from then on, it’s frustrating to watch some good ideas smothered under the weight of poor portrayal. Be warned that there are spoilers here as it’s difficult to discuss the problems without revealing the twist in the film, so if you don’t want to know the major twist, skip past the pictures of kittens when we get to that part!

The film starts with Rinku (Sara Ali Khan) running from her abusive family to elope with her Muslim boyfriend, whose name she steadfastly refuses to reveal. The family catch her at the train station where Vishu (Dhanush) and his friend MS (Ashish Verma) have arrived for a medical camp and they see the drama unfold. To solve the problem of Rinku continually trying to elope, her grandmother Rajjo (Seema Biswas) decrees that the family must kidnap a groom so that they can get rid Rinku and all the trouble she causes. But the family mistakenly kidnap Vishu who is supposed to be getting engaged himself to the daughter of his College Dean in just a few days. After being drugged though the wedding, Rinku’s family put the newlyweds on the train to Delhi, where Vishu is studying to be a surgeon. Luckily for Rinku, she finds out about Vishu’s upcoming engagement which give her the perfect opportunity to leave him for her Sajjad (Akshay Kumar), the long standing fiancé whose name she reveals to Vishu.

So far so good and the confusions and potential love triangle are (mostly) dealt with well. Dhanush is excellent as the earnest and slightly nerdy doctor, but Sara Ali Khan’s Rinku comes across as more forced and manic rather than someone desperate to escape an intolerable situation. But once in Delhi, the true situation is revealed and that’s where the film slides off the rails. 

Despite having a fiancée at home in Chennai, Vishnu seems to fall instantly in love with Rinku even though there is no real reason for him to do so. Vishu knows about Sajjid immediately after the forced marriage as Rinku immediately tells him about her fiancé while Vishu seems to be happy with his fiancée Mandy (Dimple Hayathi) given his many attempts to call her while in Bihar. At the very least, as a Tamilian she is at least able to speak the same language. On that point, I do like listening to Dhanush speak Hindi which he enunciates clearly meaning that I can actually understand what he says for the most part. My Hindi is pretty limited so it’s always extra enjoyable when I can understand the dialogue without subtitles. 

This instant love affair is annoyingly unrealistic but even more problematic is that once Vishnu finds out more about Rinku, he manipulates her into staying with him. His love for her apparently means it is OK to lie at every turn to make sure that she stays with him. It’s frustrating that the original sweet, slightly geeky doctor becomes a rather creepy, obsessive stalker, although Dhanush at least is convincing in the role. We get happy, awkward happy dancing Dhanush (my favourite), emotional Dhanush declaring his love and practical and resourceful Dhanush capably manipulating the situation in his favour. The performance is perfect, but the character of Vishu is so fundamentally flawed that it’s difficult to accept that he does actually love Rinku.

Skip past the cute kittens if you want to avoid the more major spoilers. Less spoilery review resumes after the second set of kittens.

What really annoys me with this film is the terrible way Vishu and particularly MS treat Rinku despite knowing she has a mental illness. One which is so extreme that she is hallucinating and convinced that what she sees and hears is real. Bollywood has rarely treated mental illness well, but the jokes at Rinku’s expense and the farcical way she is treated is the worst I have seen for a while. Both Vishu and MS are doctors (albeit students) and should know better, but so much of what they do is simply wrong and made me really mad!

I can cope with Akshay Kumar being Rinku’s love interest since once we know exactly who he is, it makes sense of much of Rinku’s earlier behaviour and the way she treats Sajjad. I also like that in the flashback sequences Akshay is made to look young and happy, while in the sequences with Rinku he looks old and tired. I don’t find this relationship as problematic as Vishu’s with Rinku, because here Rinku is in the driver’s seat. It’s her hallucination, her psychosis, and the reason she thinks of Sajjad as her fiancé is because she needs him to be her hero. And right now, the person she needs to take her away from her family is a husband, so naturally that is how she thinks of him. Here, where Sara Ali Khan could legitimately get away with manic behaviour, she dials it back but still seems to force much of her performance. Her character is such a mass of contradictions, that I blame much of her issues on the writing and direction. She is better when she plays the second role of her mother, but these are ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ moments that don’t make much of an impression. Between Sara Ali Khan’s over-acting and Dhanush’s manipulative character, by the end of the film I really had had enough of this irritating couple!

End of major spoilers

A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack is a real plus for the film and I really enjoyed the songs. I also found the interplay between Dhanush and Akshay funny with some good comedy in the various looks and side glances between the main characters. Perhaps it’s because he’s not in the film all that much, but I found Akshay much less irritating than usual, although the OTT touches with the tricks and performances did wear thin very quickly. How come no-one’s hero is ever a car mechanic or something more normal in these films?  But by far and away the main reason to watch Atrangi Re is Dhanush. Despite playing a selfish and inconsiderate character, he is as charming as ever and ensures we are invested in his story. I just wish it had been more sensible! 3 stars (all for Dhanush!)

Jai Bhim

It took me a few weeks to watch this film as I just couldn’t get past the brutalisation of Rajakannu, Sengeni and their families by the police. However, it’s well worth sticking it out past the first hour as the film ends up as an excellent legal drama with superb performances from the entire cast. In particular, Lijomol Jose stands out as a tribal woman fighting for justice against an entire system which discriminates against her at every turn while Suriya excels in a more subdued role as the advocate fighting for justice.

The film starts with a demonstration of wanton discrimination with prisoners being selected to be charged with false cases based on their caste. It’s a short and callous scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film illustrating that there is no mercy and no justice for those who have no social standing or who cannot afford bribes. The film then moves to Rajakannu (Manikandan) and his family trapping rats for the local famers and catching snakes. Although they have been employed by the landowners to carry out this work, they are treated as vagabonds and ruffians, seemingly due to their poverty and inability to rise above their lowly status. The tribal people live in a vicious circle of being unable to obtain the rights other villagers take for granted as they cannot obtain documentation, without which they cannot vote, register for land or tribal grants and are therefore not seen as existing at all.

In the midst of all this callous and barbarous treatment, Rajakannu and Sengeni (Lijomol Jose) hope for a better life, dreaming of one day owning a brick house in the village. It’s somewhat ironic then that Rajakannu has to leave and work as a labourer making bricks while Sengeni is pregnant and stays at home to look after their daughter. However, a jewellery theft at the local headman’s house results in Rajakannu being accused of the crime after he was known to have been at the house to catch a snake, despite being nowhere in the vicinity at the time. As Rajakannu is away at the brick factory, his brother Iruttupan (M. Chinraasu), his sister Pachaiammal (Sujatha), his brother-in-law Mosakutty (Rajendran) and the very pregnant Sengeni are all taken to the police station and tortured to find out his whereabouts. Once they have Rajakannu, the two women are released, but the torture continues for Rajakannu and the other 2 men as the police, Sub-Inspector Gurumurthy (Tamizh), Constable Veerasamy (Supergood Subramani) and Constable Kirubakaran (Bala Hasan) try to beat a confession from them.

Arriving at the police station the next day, Sengeni is told that her husband Iruttupan and Mosakutty have all escaped, but there is no trace of them anywhere. Desperate, Sengeni enlists the help of Mythra (Rajisha Vijayan), an educated woman who has been teaching the adults to read and write. Mythra also struggles to make her voice heard, but on finding out about a lawyer who fights pro bono for human rights cases she enlists his help for Sengeni. Once Chandru (Suriya) takes the case, Sengeni finally has someone who is listening to her who will fight for her right to justice.

The first hour of the film is unforgivingly brutal and difficult to watch. The torture of the women and men is shown in enough detail to make for gruesome viewing, and it seems to be never-ending. In between the scenes of beating and torture, the general social injustice shown to the tribal people is also shockingly inhumane, particularly since it is shown to be so casual and ingrained with villagers who themselves are living quite poorly. It took a couple of attempts for me to get through this section of the film, as it really is quite horrific and depressing. Thankfully, once the court case starts, there is more optimism and despite the investigation team having to revisit the horrors of the men’s imprisonment and torture, there is respect for Sengeni and her determination to find out the truth. 

Chandru is assisted by IG Perumalsamy (Prakash Raj) who, despite his dislike of lawyers and support of police brutality, vows to conduct a fair and thorough investigation. As more and more corruption comes to light, Advocate General Ram Mohan (Rao Ramesh) takes over the police defence and attempts to get the case thrown out of court. Perhaps unrealistically, Chandru seems to have little difficulty in getting the judges to see his point of view. He is able to get time to conduct investigations and support for his questioning of witnesses without too much difficulty and his speeches in court are simple and to the point. The drama and suspense is kept for the investigation into what has happened to the 3 men, with Chandru racing across the countryside trying to find witnesses who can discredit the police story. There is also constant pressure on Sengeni to back down which includes more intimidation from the police as well as offers of large amounts of compensation if she will drop the case.

What makes this film for me is the strength and determination shown by Sengeni in the face of so many obstacles. Despite her lack of literacy and knowledge about the legal system, she is steadfast in her desire to find out the truth no matter how impossible it seems. Lijomol Jose is simply brilliant and her portrayal of Sengeni drives home the almost insurmountable challenges faced by someone of her status trying to challenge the state authority. She makes Sengeni’s love for her husband a natural extension of their family life together, and her terror while in the hands of the police, followed by her devastation when Rajakannu disappears is perfectly shown. The character of Sengeni comes alive in her capable hands and she invests the audience in her story at every step.

Suriya is also excellent, although his performance focuses more on Chandru’s determination for justice rather than on flowery court speeches or dramatic discoveries. There is little backstory and no explanation of why he so strongly supports human rights, but despite this he is credible as a lawyer and the more restrained performance suits the story. It also helps to focus attention on Sengeni and the police brutality as the key elements of the film. The contrast between his more humane approach and that of almost everyone else in the film, also emphasizes how endemic discrimination against people like Rajakannu and Sengeni is within the rest of society.  

Director T.J. Gnanavel wrote the screenplay which is based on a true story according to IMDb etc. (Rather annoyingly the subtitles didn’t translate any of the written material on screen, which I think covered this aspect of the film).  While the story is compelling, the overly long and frequently repeated scenes of police brutality and torture seemed unnecessary and at times almost voyeuristic. Perhaps Gnanavel was trying to shock his audience and drive home the issue of police violence, but for me they made the film difficult to watch as the torture scenes went on and on without any end in sight. What I found more shocking was the casual discrimination faced at every turn by the tribal people, something that had a more lasting and significant impact than all the violence shown in the police station because it was more realistic and believable. Despite these issues with the screenplay, the characterisations of the main characters are all excellent and once past the torture scenes the rest of the film works well. Issues of caste and social justice are often harrowing to watch but the overwhelming feeling from Jai Bhim is one of hope and resilience, despite the downbeat start to the film. The music from Sean Roldan is also emotive and fits well with the screenplay while S.R. Kathir’s cinematography impresses with his skill at framing and his contrast between the claustrophobic scenes in the police station and the light and air of the courtroom.

As I wrote at the start, this was a difficult film to watch, which I think was the point T.J. Gnanavel was trying to make. I’m not sure if this was the best approach for such an important subject and I’m sure that making the torture scenes shorter would still get the message across just as well without reducing the impact. If you can make it through the first hour, the rest of the film does impress. Not for the faint-hearted but well worth it for Suriya, Lijomol Jose and the rest of the excellent cast. 4 stars.

Khoon Bhari Maang

Ah the Eighties. When hair was big, shoulder pads were bigger and glitter eyeshadow was essential. Khoon Bhari Maang is a quintessential eighties movie that I love, despite its addiction to gore and systematic overuse of Khader Khan. I can’t say that it’s a good movie, or even that it falls into the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ category we all know and love, but somehow once I start watching I’m hooked by Rekha’s transformation and quest for revenge.  It’s over the top, trashy and melodramatic, but for a nostalgic wallow in the swamp that was eighties drama, you can’t go past Khoon Bhari Maang!

The film is based on an Australian miniseries from 1983 called Return to Eden. I’ve never seen the show, but Wikipedia makes sound like Australia does Dallas, so it may be worth tracking down online too.

The story starts with Aarti (Rekha), a young widow with 2 young children, who is also the heir to her father’s huge business empire. In the first 5 minutes her father (Saeed Jaffrey) is murdered by his close friend Hiralal (Kader Khan) who then wastes no time in introducing Aarti to his wastrel nephew Sanjay (Kabir Bedi). Sanjay has a penchant for removing his shirt and a plan to marry Aarti to gain control of her millions, despite carrying on an affair with Aarti’s best friend Nandini (Sonu Walia).

Aarti’s husband Vikram (Rakesh Roshan) was killed in a car accident some years before and she lives for her children, so Sanjay befriends Kavita (Baby Shweta) and Bobby (Master Gaurav) as the way to Aarti’s heart. There are a few flashbacks to happier times with Aarti and her husband where Rakesh Rohan looks incredibly uncomfortable on the other side of the camera, as he frolics with a frumpily dressed Rekha. And for the first part of the movie, Rekha does look rather dreary. She’s still Rekha, but has dark shadows under her eyes, a large mole on her face and rather protuberant teeth. Sanjay describes her as ugly, but she just looks exhausted and in need of a brighter wardrobe, especially when compared to the dazzling Nandini.

Nandini is a model who is drawn into Sanjay’s machinations because of her love for a man who can look good in swimming trunks and very short shorts. It has to be noted that Kabir Bedi does look rather fine, and he makes the most of scenes at the pool and every other possible opportunity to remove his shirt. However, rather than his sleek chat up lines and body flaunting, it’s his attentions to her children that convinces Aarti she should marry Sanjay and provide them with a father figure. With the bonus of someone she trusts to run the business.  

It doesn’t take long after the wedding (actually the next day), for Sanjay to rid himself of his troublesome wife by throwing her to the jaws of a waiting crocodile. Queue screams, lots of fake blood and Sanjay threatening Nandini to keep schtum about her part in his devious plan. But Aarti escapes! After being rescued by an old man (Paidi Jairaj) she sells the jewellery she was wearing at the time of her attempted murder and heads off to the US for some needlessly graphic plastic surgery. The now apparently unrecognisable Aarti returns home as model Jyoti and is immediately picked up by Nandini’s photographer J.D. (Shatrughan Sinha). Naturally this doesn’t go down well with Nandini, and the rivalry between the two models culminates in a wonderfully crazy dance-off where attitude and sheer sass seem to be the criteria needed to win. After destroying Nandini’s professional career, with her new glamourous looks and the support of JD, Jyoti sets out for her next goal: revenge on her murderous husband.

The story builds slowly during the first half, but this is more than made up for by the drama and total fashion insanity of the second half. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of craziness in the first half, but it’s off set by the annoying presence of Khader Khan and Rekha’s irritatingly meek Aarti. Once Rekha transforms into Jyoti, everything gets bigger, bolder and much more dramatic – and that’s just the fashion! Jyoti is determined to get her revenge and she sets out to destroy Sanjay with the sort of bloody single-mindedness usually reserved for male heroes in Bollywood. I love that Rekha is given the opportunity to have her revenge without relying on anyone else, and that revenge is just as satisfyingly gruesome as could be expected. Despite all its faults, the saving grace of the film is that Aarti is quite capable of rescuing herself, saving her family and getting her revenge, all without any male assistance or even advice. You go girl!

Rekha is awesome throughout. She nails the meek and mild-mannered Aarti, but is so much better as the stunning model out for revenge. Her Jyoti is stardom personified with attitude that simply sizzles off the screen with a sneer sharp enough to draw blood. Rekha takes ownership of all the ridiculous outfits and outlandish hairstyles too, so that when she ends up in black leather and wielding a whip, it seems less an erotic fantasy and more a practical outfit for revenge – easier to get blood off leather I imagine.  Kabir Bedi is excellent too in this negative role where he hams it up as a seductive suitor who quickly shows his true colours once the knot is tied. It’s a great performance and who can complain if he spends most of his time by the pool in various stages of undress. I do draw the line though at the needless appropriation of Vangelis Chariots of Fire theme into a tacky song visualising a romp in the pool between Kabir Bedi and Sonu Walia. But for the rest, Kabir is nicely wicked and appropriately charming as he woos Aarti and then Jyoti. Poor Sonu Walia doesn’t have anything like as good a time as her Nandini is a bit of a wet blanket who falls over herself to do whatever Sanjay wants.

One of the best parts of the film for me is right near the end when Jyoti removes her green contact lenses. A move that makes her INSTANTLY RECOGNISABLE!!! Who knew just changing the colour of your eyes could have such an effect? Also worth looking out for are Aarti’s heroic dog Jumbo and smart horse Raja, who know what is going on well before any of the human characters, and the various servants and supporters of Aarti who add more drama to the proceedings whenever possible.

Khoon Bhari Maang is not a good film, but Rekha makes it worth watching for her crazy outfits, huge eighties hairstyles and bloodthirsty quest for revenge. I know most people skip straight to the second half, but I like the slow build-up through the first half and the gradual monsterisation of Kabir Bedi as his true colours start to show through. For fans of 80’s Bollywood, big hair, crocodiles and revenge, this is surely as good as it gets. 4 stars.