19 (1) (a)

This début film from Indhu VS is beautifully shot, but takes a long time to ultimately say not very much. I’m aware that as someone who does not live in India and does not follow Indian politics closely, I have probably missed many of the nuances here, but regardless, the message of freedom of speech and expression seems to be lost by the end of the film. While Nithya Menon and Vijay Sethupathi put in excellent performances, as do the rest of the cast, this was a disappointing watch that promised so much, but ultimately failed to deliver.

The film follows Nithya Menon’s character as she deals with a manuscript left by a customer at the printing shop where she works. The shop is owned by her father but since the death of their mother some years ago, he has become distant and disengaged from day-to-day business. Each day Nithya rides her scooter to work and spends the day coaxing her elderly computer to work and dealing with random power cuts that prevent her from using the photocopier. Meanwhile her father (Srikant Murali) spends his days lazing around, talking to his friend Allen and watching TV. Nithya seems to rarely speak to her father and their relationship seems strained and difficult.

When Gauri Shankar (Vijay Sethupathi) leaves his manuscript to be copied he asks Nithya what time she closes. But then goes on to ask her if she will wait for him, as he may be a little late. Nithya doesn’t object to this despite not knowing the man’s name, contact number or what time he will actually return. And she does stay very late, falling asleep at her desk, but Gauri does not return. Indhu seems to be suggesting that Nithya has so little control over her own life that she cannot do anything else but wait for Gauri to return. But earlier, when she asks Gauri if she should bind the copy, he answers that she should do as she wishes. This simple reply makes Nithya smile, and when she remembers this response in the days that follow, it seems to give her licence to move beyond her usual routine.

The opening credits show what has happened to Gauri, so we already know why he has not returned. When Nithya sees the news that Gauri has been killed, she is shocked and then, when the reporter explains further, she becomes worried about the work he has left with her. Gauri Shankar is a political writer and his murder appears to be linked to his latest manuscript, of which Nithya has the only hand-written copy. As she struggles to decide what to do, she begins to make decisions for herself and moves out of her usual daily pattern, which changes her relationship with her father and her friends.

19 (1) (a) refers to an article in the Indian Constitution which states “All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”. At the start of the film Nithya appears to have no freedom as she has given up college to come home to look after her father when her mother died. She spends her days copying other people’s words, but has no way to express her own individuality. But when a stranger gives her the option to choose, this brief interaction allows Nithiya to develop freedom of expression. While the idea is good, Nithya doesn’t become more assertive or expressive. She still keeps to herself, dresses the same and by the end of the film doesn’t seem to have changed. What she does do is try to find out what to do with Gauri’s manuscript but even then she meets people who help her by chance, and doesn’t seem able to tell the key people she meets about Gauri’s work. There is a real lack of purpose in Nithya’s attempts to decide what to do and the film fails to give a final outcome to the story with many of the threads left hanging. One involves Nithya’s friend Fathima (Athulya Ashadam) who works in a clothing store beside Nithya’s printing shop. Fathima is upset by her arranged marriage which she feels will put significant constraints on her life and destroy her freedom. But although the story is explored briefly, there is no resolution of Fathima’s concerns and this lack of any sort of conclusion is frustrating, especially when Nithya and Gauri’s stories are also left unfinished.

Nithya Menon is the main lead here and she does an excellent job with a role that relies on her facial expressions to get her emotions across. For the most part her character is thoughtful and considered, but she comes alive in the moments when she is speaking with her friends. Her gradually developing confidence is also handled well, although this does waver at the end. Vijay Sethupathi is also very good and in his conversations with his publisher, gets across the political ideas that underpin the film. But these didn’t always make sense and I found it difficult to understand exactly what Gauri’s views were that were so dangerous. While metaphors and analogies can work well to get across a subtle meaning, here the message seems buried beneath too much innuendo and obfuscation.

The film does look beautiful with Manesh Madhavan ensuring each frame is perfectly composed. I love the attention to detail and the framing used when Nithya is preparing fish and throwing the fish heads to her cat. Scenes of Nithya and Fathima eating their lunch together in the shop where Fathima works are also well done and Manesh also captures the stifling atmosphere inside the printing shop well. The music too is good and seems to suit the slow development of the story well. Subtitles by Vivek Ranjith seem fine (there isn’t much dialogue and what there is appears stilted) but irritatingly none of the written documents are translated. I’m not sure how relevant to the story this is, but it is frustrating not to be able to see how the words Nithya reads impact her actions. As the camera frequently lingers on the pages, I am sure there must have been some relevance, given that much is not directly said about gauri’s political beliefs. Although perhaps not, since the final excerpt, read over the closing scene, doesn’t shed any more light on Gauri either.

Despite my frustration with parts of the film, I did enjoy watching Nithya Menon gradually begin her journey towards self-expression, and Vijay Sethupathi is always engaging on screen. The idea of the story is good, but the execution seems too sloppy despite the care taken with the cinematography. I am sure that some of my dissatisfaction is due to not being able to understand the language, but I wish that the story had a clearer message and a better resolution. Still worth a watch for the main leads and the excellent cinematography. 3 stars.

The Gray Man (2022)

I don’t watch many Hollywood films and haven’t seen any of the Russo Brothers previous works, but with Dhanush in the cast I decided to watch their latest film: The Gray Man. While the film was an okay watch, it hasn’t changed my view that USA action films rely too heavily on firepower and heavy-handed morality while skipping essential elements like characterisation and storyline. While there is plenty of action, most of this relies on gun fights and blowing things up, making the few physical fights scenes stand out in comparison. Thankfully these mostly feature Dhanush too, but otherwise, the film consists of a series of action sequences, loosely bound together by a vague storyline that’s full of clichés. It’s not a bad film, but it’s also not particularly memorable and slots neatly into the standard US action mould that’s a reasonable timepass but not much more.

Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling) is recruited from prison by Donald Fitzroy aka Fitz (Billy Bob Thornton) to become a black ops agent for the CIA. In exchange for his freedom, he becomes the nameless Sierra Six who carries out assassinations for the organisation as directed – no questions asked. The film opens with Sierra Six in Bangkok to remove a target, later revealed to be another Sierra agent who passes on details of corruption within the agency. Six escapes with the information but CIA boss Denny Carmichael (Rége-Jean Page) sets private contractor and ex-agent Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) on his trail to eliminate Six and retrieve the information. Lloyd is a psychopath with no boundaries, which ensures plenty of collateral damage as he chases after Six. This includes kidnapping Fitz and his niece Claire (Julia Butters) to try and flush out Six, leading of course to a rescue mission by Six. Lloyd has numerous teams of assassins who attempt to kill Six in various locations across Europe while causing mayhem, carnage, and destruction in the process, but completely failing to succeed in their mission.

Dhanush appears well over an hour into the film as Avik San (aka Lone Wolf), an assassin also hired by Lloyd to eliminate Six. While the other mercenaries are all faceless teams, Avik San works alone and relies on his wits and fighting skills rather than weapons and gunpowder. This means that Avik has a few lines of dialogue and a couple of well-choreographed fight scenes that look awesome and stand out compared to the rest of the repetitive bloodshed. In comparison to Lloyd’s other mercenaries, Avik San also has a strong sense of morality which leads him to break with Lloyd, when he discovers his reckless methodology. This leaves Six and another CIA agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) free to finish Lloyd if they can.

The film has a great cast, but most have thinly sketched characters who appear, either help or hinder Six, and are then disposed of. Six is also a caricature of a man on the run and despite flashbacks explaining his crime and his childhood, there is never any real sense of who he actually is and what he thinks of his whole situation. If his enemies weren’t so bat-shit crazy, it would be difficult to care whether he wins or not given how little empathy is given to the character. Chris Evans fares somewhat better as Lloyd, who has several character traits (mostly all psychopathic), which at least make him a more interesting character, even if it is one we are meant to hate. With so many one-dimensional characters and a continuous turnover as they are shot, beaten to death or blown-up, the only real interest in the film are the locations and the overall appearance of the scenes. But even then it’s only the title on screen that explains where the scene is set, since little of the location is shown onscreen. While an action sequence in Prague is beautifully staged and well shot, most of the other action set pieces are so dark it is difficult to see what is going on. Even the best fight scene, with Dhanush and Ana de Armas, is hard to follow due to the low lightening and smoke that hides the action. Since there isn’t much happening in between action sequences it seems strange that these aren’t shot more clearly so that the choreography can be better appreciated. For a film that is all about the action, it seems an odd choice. 

The story itself is generic and the dialogue mostly consists of a series of one-liners and off-hand quips that may have read well on paper but don’t translate well on screen. Alfre Woodard as Margaret Cahill, the former head of the CIA London branch, has some of the best and most effective dialogue, but Lloyd generally sounds petulant and seems to be trying too hard, while Six has little to say for much of the film. I’m not the target audience for this kind of film and while I enjoyed the brief appearance by Dhanush, this entire film seemed to waste so many good opportunities to be more than just another action movie. I missed the masala mix of Southern Indian cinema and the heavy reliance on guns and explosives here rather than fight sequences became boring by the end. 2 ½ stars.

Band Baaja Baaraat

After a busy week I wanted something undemanding but still entertaining to watch, and what better than revisiting Ranveer Singh’s debut movie Band Baaja Baaraat. This fun romance was a sleeper hit back in 2010 and its aged reasonably well, mainly due to the great chemistry between the two leads. Add in all the glitz and glamour of several weddings with Salim-Sulaiman’s great soundtrack to make the perfect weekend watch on a cold wintry Melbourne day.

The film is essentially a standard filmi romance: boy meets girl, girl can’t stand boy, various incidents later girl falls for boy but he’s moved on and after tears, drama and outside interference, eventually everything works out fine. The difference comes in the setting, which here is the world of weddings and wedding planners, and in the convincingly human reactions Anushka Sharma’s Shruti displays when her romantic ideals fall short. The situations themselves are highly contrived and unlikely, especially the finale, but the emotions themselves are realistic and that’s what I enjoy about Band Baaja Baaraat.

When we meet Bittoo Sharma (Ranveer Singh), he’s a college kid, gate-crashing weddings with his friends for free food. But at Minki and Binny’s celebration, he’s spotted by Shruti Kakkar (Anushka Sharma) who calls him out as not being an invited guest. She’s helping with the organisation of the party as her ambition is to run her own wedding planner business and knows the key to success is not running out of food. Bittoo claims he is there with his friend to video the event and is immediately attracted to Shruti when he sees her dance. But after tracking her down, she rejects him firmly saying she doesn’t have time for romance as she is chasing her dream of her own business.

After being disillusioned by the shortcuts and cons run by famous wedding planner Chandra Narang (Shena Gamat), Bittoo and Shruti set up their own business partnership called Shaadi Mubarak. Shruti has a strict rule that love and business do not mix and this allows a genuine friendship to develop between Shruti and Bittoo. They each take care of their own part of the business and as Shaadi Mubarak become more and more successful, this translates into even bigger ideas. Bittoo is the one with more business savvy who pushes Shruti to work outside her comfort zone, while Shruti helps to keep Bittoo grounded with some of his more unachievable ideas. 

Anusha Sharma is charming as Shruti and is excellent in her portrayal of a college student who has great ideas and is able to capitalise on her dreams. She’s smart with quick come-backs but still has an innocence that allows her to be outraged when she finds out about Chandra’s short-cuts and scams. I also love that she thoroughly enjoys the weddings she plans and throws herself into the celebrations while still making sure everyone else is having a great time. It’s also interesting to watch Ranveer Singh in his first role and see the beginnings of the persona he now presents so confidently. He is clearly talented and his energy fits perfectly into the role of Bittoo. His all exuberance and joy is here, with hints of the traits we’ve come to see in many of his films. That irrepressible smile and barely contained energy reverberate off the screen in what is now classic Ranveer style. This was surely the perfect debut for him, and it helps that he has amazing chemistry with Anusha (which we see again in Ladies vs Ricky Bahl and Dil Dhadkane Do).

When Shruti and Bittoo end up spending a night together, the dynamic completely changes. Shruti sees it as a new chapter and the start of a romance, while Bittoo seems confused and unsure of what to do next. Bittoo has strictly followed Shruti’s rules and when she makes a move on him, it seems as if he doesn’t want to say no in case she is offended, but at heart doesn’t really want to go any further. But he’s a guy, so of course he’s not going to say no! But Bittoo is worried about the effect any romance may have on their working relationship and he’s also not looking for love and a permanent partner at this stage of his life. So, in his emotional confusion, when Bittoo tells Shruti it was a mistake, her first reaction is to save face and agree with him. But the pain and hurt build up and she lashes out, dissolving the partnership and breaking all ties with Bittoo. This seems a very honest and realistic response to me, and I totally understand Shruti’s motivations here. It was her idea in the first place and if Bittoo doesn’t want her, then she wants none of him either. I also think writer Habib Faisal gets Bittoo’s reactions just right as well. He’s also hurt by Shruti’s reaction and responds with anger and a desire to beat Shruti to show her she was wrong to reject his friendship. It all works well in terms of the emotional impact even if the resolution is rather less probable.

The supporting cast here are mostly peripheral to the story, but they serve as sounding boards for Bittoo and Shruti and call out the worst of their behaviour. Neeraj Sood as the florist Maqsood and Manmeet Singh as the caterer Rajinder are both very good and have the most impact to the story, but Puru Chibber and Revant Shergill as Bittoo’s friends are also good. There are so many excellent references to real life in the dialogue as well, which always make me smile. For instance, I love how Bittoo steps up to deliver the final big song and dance routine when Shahrukh is unable to attend the big society wedding at the end. So good on so many levels!

Salim-Sulaiman’s soundtrack is excellent and provides an upbeat background for the story. The hook from Ainvayi Ainvayi plays throughout the background music which helps anchor the story firmly in celebration mode while bringing the focus back to Bittoo and Shruti as it’s ‘their song’. Habib Faisal’s screenplay suits the upbeat approach taken by writer/director Maneesh Sharma and the whole film explodes with colour thanks to Aseem Mishra’s excellent cinematography. Even 12 years on, this is still a fun film and a great start to Ranveer’s career. Well worth revisiting! 4 stars.