Tikli and Laxmi Bomb

Note: I was given the opportunity to see Tikli and Laxmi Bomb when one of the producers got in touch. I was free to write about the film if I wanted to, and they haven’t asked for content approval or seen the review.

The poster is regrettable, as I think it is unnecessarily salacious and makes the film look like a tacky sex comedy. Aditya Kripalani’s film is more of a study of women who want a fair go in their field of employment, which happens to be sex work. I read some articles about the movie and they seem to take a superficial view, maybe taking a cue from the poster, that this was all happy girl power shenanigans. There are moments of dark humour that provide some levity, but the women are vulnerable and the system is rigged against them. I hope that PR misdirection isn’t detrimental to the film when it is released.

Laxmi (Vibhawari Deshpande) has been around for a while and is given a new girl, Putul (Chitrangada Chakraborty), to train. Laxmi is decidedly non glamorous and businesslike, maybe more like the wives her clients have at home. Putul is younger, more confident in her looks and with a sassy personality. Putul, also known as Tikli, is outraged that while a cut of her earnings goes towards protection and police bribes, it’s all meaningless. The men she pays view her protection money as their income, not a service she is entitled to. If she pays A.T (Mayur More) for security, how is it that he can ignore her calls for help and she ends up being at fault. If the police accept bribes, why do they still raid the women and why is raping a prostitute one of the perks of their job? Tikli wants a revolution and Laxmi knows how to work the system. The women set up on their own, cutting out the useless men who lived off their labour. Will they be allowed to succeed? Can they beat the system?

This isn’t Pretty Woman.

Laxmi is struggling emotionally, and does her best to get her life back under control. She doesn’t have family and the women become that for her. Vibhawari Deshpande has a stolid, enduring strength with flashes of warmth and a bit of sarcasm. She has no expectations on anyone else and often says “our safety, our responsibility”. Tikli is impulsive and seems brash but is a damaged young woman, more lonely than she lets on. Chitrangada Chakraborty doesn’t try to make Tikli glamorous or even particularly nice, but explores the emotions driving her character. She snores like a truffle pig, which is not a great characteristic for a room mate. Laxmi initially mocks Putul’s indignation but slowly they become friends and co-conspirators, and the actors bring that to life beautifully and believably. Tikli has the daring they need to contemplate a different way, and Laxmi knows how to get shit done. Tikli’s rallying cry is “our business, our bodies, our pain, our shame”. If she has to wear the shame and the fear, she wants the benefits of her business.

Sparky Tsamchoe (Kritika Pande) welcomes Tikli, takes care of those around her, and embraces the new way of working. Her girlfriend, doll faced Sharanya (Divya Unny) is sweetly dim, and an easy target. Veteran Manda (Suchitra Pillai) is reluctant to change and sacrifice what little security she has. Her work persona is a little old school too. But the money talks and hope starts to spring. Their growing friendships and collaboration is one of the film’s strengths and the scenes have a lively and often spontaneous feel. Conversations in the small hours are full of ribald jokes about punters, wistful plans, and gossip.

These women are smart and resourceful, and I found myself getting caught up in the same hopes they had. That they would find a place in this man’s world, and live comfortably and safely. Such a small dream, but so powerful. When the women realise they need a safety plan when jumping into a car with men, they come up with a way to spin that into a value added service. When they are chased off the street and the dodgy hotel triples it’s prices they use their local knowledge to find another option. Mobile phone technology can work for them too. And their female security guards never get distracted. The gang grows as other working girls hear of how Tikli and Laxmi Bomb treat their team and how much they earn.

They all run up against men who believe that consent is not necessary. If a man pays for a quickie, can a hooker refuse his friends who suddenly turn up or decline to perform some sex acts? If you’re paying for sex, does that give you the right to be insulting or threatening? Laxmi and the ladies want to be able to earn their living without it costing their lives, but Tikli is the one who puts the wind up the local punters. The men in the film are almost entirely awful. Mhatre (Upendra Limaye) is a slimebag, and corrupt policeman More (Uday Atrolia) is worse, both using brutality and rape to assert their dominance. There is always a hint of violence surrounding the women, but also a lot of strength and warmth in their own small gang. Actually, there is one seemingly decent man in the film – the dude who runs the cigarette store and lends the girls a scooter. And sparks a nice little Sholay moment as Laxmi and Tikli drive home.

There are some clunky scenes, and I found some things a little predictable, or maybe just inevitable given the subject matter. The largely female crew has done a good job of avoiding unnecessary graphic sleaze and objectification while still revealing the brutality of this world. The male gaze is there in scenes where pimps are auditioning new girls or assessing their assets. But when the women are together they are shown as people who sell sex, not sex objects. The film is shot on location and with synch sound so it has an immediacy and a sense of life in Mumbai. The city is both huge and incredibly tiny and intimate. The girls who work their back street are a diverse bunch, often speaking a hit and miss Hinglish to communicate through regional language barriers. Mumbai is where everyone comes to chase their dreams. Laxmi sings to Mumba Devi as another woman who is constantly besieged by freeloaders and gives her all, taken for granted and treated like a possession.

I’m always interested in seeing more women represented on screen, and seeing diverse stories. The cast delivers a good ensemble performance and don’t fall into filmi clichés. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is full of heart but not too preachy or idealised, sometimes funny, and doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities.

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Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren

Poster

Arumuga Kumar’s debut movie Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren is a quirky comedy drama that’s a bit hit and miss. When it’s right, the film is pretty funny, but more often than not, the situations and the dialogue aren’t amusing at all, and it’s hard to know exactly what Arumuga Kumar was trying to achieve. It’s frustrating too since there are some good ideas that should have worked much better, mixed in with a few too many tired and clichéd scenes. According to the subtitles, the title means “I’ll tell you when the auspicious time is right”, and a number of the characters repeat this line at various intervals. Since it’s impossible to tell what is really going on for the first hour of the film, I was hoping that someone would finally decide that the auspicious time was right sooner rather than later, but it does all finally come clear at the end.

The film starts with a short astronomy and geography lesson voiced by Vijay Sethupathi, starting in deep space and finishing in a small village somewhere in Andhra Pradesh – Yamasingapuran. The village is inhabited by around 200 tribal villagers, who wear black, drape themselves in gold and worship Yama. They are led by Yeman (Vijay Sethupathi) and his mother Arumugakumar (Viji Chandrasekhar) who appear appropriately outlandish and over the top to rule a group of death-god worshipers somewhere out in the forest.

The villagers are a very proficient clan of thieves, and as their star performer, Yeman is sent to Chennai on a mission to steal more gold. Also, along on the trip are his two side-kicks, the competent if rather unenterprising Purushothaman (Ramesh Thilak) and Sathish (Daniel Annie Pope) – a bumbling failure whose antics must have sounded funnier on paper than they turn out on film.

While robbing a house in Chennai, Yeman spots a photograph of someone he calls Abhaayalakshmi, but who is actually Soumiya (Niharika Konidela), a fresher college student who is blissfully unaware of the existence of Yeman and Yamasingapuran. Unfortunately for her, she is about to become closely acquainted with both. Convinced that Soumiya is Abhaayalakshmi, Yeman and his inept associates fumble around using various ridiculous disguises in an attempt to ‘steal’ (ie kidnap) Soumiya and take her back to their village. Foiling their plans is Harish (Gautham Karthik) and his best friend Narasimhan (Rajkumar), for no real reason other than Harish finds Soumiya attractive.

Harish is a male version of a typical ditzy Tamil heroine, complete with half-baked ideas, ridiculous clothes that are totally unsuitable for a rescue mission to a forest, and an unnatural attraction to his sunglasses. This works well, for the most part, although some of the situations are too predictable to be funny, while others are simply not funny in the first place. However, there are some moments where dialogue, situation and character all come together and work perfectly – there just needed to be a few more of these. Gautham Karthik is fine but since his character is such an idiot it’s difficult to empathise and feel much connection to Harish. It’s quite a departure from his last role in Rangoon though and he doesn’t do badly with the comedy he has, so it will be interesting to see what he does next.

More reliably amusing is Vijay Sethupathi’s laconic portrayal of a desperate man in search of his long-lost bride. He gets to wear a succession of ridiculous wigs and costumes, but it’s the matter of fact attitude that Vijay Sethupathi exudes that makes his appearance so funny. Adding to this is his rationality when faced with all the absurdity of his mother, Harish and his misguided rescue attempt, and the multitude of mistakes made by Purushothaman and Sathish. Although Yeman is more subdued when in Chennai, once the action moves back to the village, the film does get funnier as everyone gets more and more outrageous.

Less successful are the characters of Narasimhan and Sathish. Both are bumbling idiots whose slapstick is presumably supposed to add more humour, but mostly falls flat while having two similar characters just makes it even more obvious that this type of comedy really isn’t funny. Both actors do their best with what they are given, but none of their dialogue is even remotely funny, and even their interactions with Harish and Yeman fail to raise more than the odd smile. I also have little to say about Niharika Konidela who didn’t live much of an impression at all. This is through no real fault of the actress, but she just had very little to do for most of the film.

Gayathrie Shankar is the one person who gets to play a reasonably straight role and she does it beautifully, making me wish that she had more to do in the film. She is so much better here than in her last outing with Vijay in Puriyaatha Puthir which has made me move Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom to the top of the ‘to-be-watched’ pile. While Gayathrie needs to ensure her character Godavari is relatively sensible to make the role work wihin the story, Viji Chandrasekhar needed to be crazier as Yeman’s mother Arumugakumar. Apart from a few wide-eyed stares, she’s actually quite restrained which is a shame since the film needed the sort of boost that only a totally OTT ma character can bring. A lost opportunity for sure!

Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren is a film that is funny in short bursts, and the overall impression is of a screenplay that didn’t get enough time to fully mature before being harvested for the big screen. Vijay Sethupathi is as watchable as ever and there are enough funny moments to make this worth seeing in the cinema, but expect to be mildly entertained rather than crying with laughter.

 

Padmaavat

Padmaavat

Note – this review contains spoilers

After all the hype, the protests and controversy, Padmaavat finally released in the cinema last week. And now that’s it’s actually here, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. With sumptuous costumes, lashings of sparkly jewellery, fantastical sets and very one-dimensional characters, the only possible way to describe Padmaavat is as a very expensive fairy tale. The main characters are all either very, very good, or very, very bad and there is no grey, no hint of any depth or any room to move outside the very strict boundaries of each persona. The film is based on a poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, so it’s obvious that Sanjay Leela Bhansali hasn’t set out to make a factual historical drama, and there are plenty of disclaimers at the start to drive home that point. And while there are some problems with the story, most particularly around the problematical ending of the film, it is exquisitely made, stunning to look at and a beautiful work of art. But it’s a work of art that has no soul and even with all the pomp and circumstance, ultimately Padmaavat ends up being surprisingly dull.

The story follows the exploits of two kings, Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the Rajput king of Mewar, and Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), ruler of Delhi. Ratan Singh is very, very good. He often wears white clothes, talks a lot about honour and Rajput bravery and is committed to following his rather strict principles. Alauddin Khilji is very, very bad. He murders his uncle to take the throne, sleeps with prostitutes on his wedding day and is generally portrayed as a rapacious monster, instantly ready for any kind of depravity. Ratan Singh is always very clean, Alauddin Khilji wears black and has dirt or blood smeared all over his face. There is no middle ground; these two are the quintessential opposites – the white king and the black king, pure good and pure evil – what else can Padmaavat be other than a fairy tale?

Ratan Singh meets Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) when he takes a trip to Sinhala to buy pearls for his first wife Nagmati (Anupriya Goenka). Padmavati is beautiful and clever, the white queen to Ratan Singh’s white king and although they meet when Padmavati mistakes Ratan Singh for a deer she is hunting and shoots him, they are instantly attracted to each other. The romance is stylised and extravagant. When Ratan Singh is recovering and getting ready to leave, Padmavati takes her dagger and slices open the wound, declaring that now he has to stay longer. But even with all this posturing, there is little chemistry between the two – smouldering looks aside there is very little substance to their relationship even after they are married and back in Mewar. Possibly it’s all the formality and ceremony that comes between them, the application of colours at Holi for example feels cold and ritualised rather than the usual spontaneous flurry of powder, but Ratan Singh’s Rajput pride seems a major barrier to any genuine relationship.

This is partly why Ranveer Singh’s Khilji makes more of an impression. Being totally evil, Khilji gets to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants with whoever he wants, and as a result is exuberantly happy, even when he is pining for Padmavati. A woman whom he has never seen, but still desires because he has to have everything that is unique in the world. Some of his excesses are so ridiculous that they are simply hilarious, such as spraying perfume on a female servant and then rubbing himself against her to transfer the scent.

Ranveer throws himself into the role with such passion and energy that of course by comparison Shahid’s Ratan Singh appears rigid and cold. He is, but the contrast between the two men makes the white seem insipid, while the black resonates with evil intensity.

While both men turn in excellent performances, Ranveer stands out for the sheer lunacy of his portrayal. Khilji is a monster, and Ranveer conveys his evil nature and total obsession while still managing to make the audience laugh. He brings everyone with him on his madcap ride into depravity and ensures that he is the central focus of any scene, no matter what else is actually happening around him.

Deepika Padukone has more to do since Padmavati has a fraction more depth than her husband. Think ivory rather than pure white. She’s also got more common sense than everyone else in the film put together, illustrated by her detailed plans and well thought out rescue of Ratan Singh after he is captured by Khilji. Of course, most of that could have been orchestrated by her two faithful generals, but Padmavati gets the chance to prove that she can fight and develop a plan of attack. Better than her husband to be honest, who bizarrely keeps believing Khilji will act with honour despite never seeing any indication that this will be the case. All of which makes it seem odd that Padmavati would commit all the women to jauhar rather than grab her trusty bow and arrow and die fighting. Regardless, Deepika Padukone looks stunning, even managing to rock a unibrow, and looks perfectly graceful and regal whether she is dancing for Ratan Singh, running through the forest or explaining her strategy to the generals.

A few of the peripheral characters also fare rather better. Jim Sarbh is excellent as Malik Kafur, Khilji’s assistant, general and sometime lover. Aditi Rao Hydari is also very good as Khilji’s first wife Mehrunisa and Raza Murad is excellent as Khilji’s uncle Jalaluddin.

However, Ranveer’s histrionics, the wonderful fabrics and stunning sets aren’t enough to disguise what is a rather lacklustre story. Every scene seems to be drawn out unbearably long to add yet more speeches about Rajput honour and bravery, or showcase beautifully designed costumes and breath-taking scenery that simply distract from the plot.  It’s also predictable and that makes it somewhat dull, no matter how stunningly beautiful the film looks, or how ridiculous Khilji’s excesses become.

However, much of that is as expected for a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film – his attention to detail is amazing and every single scene is constructed as if it is a still-life painting with wonderful balance of light and shade, colour and depth. We expect extravagance, and that is what he delivers. What is more problematic though is the final scene where all the women commit jauhar rather than submit to Khilji’s victorious army. Despite the disclaimers at the start of the film, Bhansali seems to glorify the women’s march to the flames and adds many unnecessary details. It also goes on for a very long time so that the inappropriateness of the camera angles and discordant notes of the triumphant theme are emphasised. While the final act of jauhar may be true to the poem, and a historical reality of the time even if Padmavati herself is perhaps not, it doesn’t seem right that such actions should be seen as a ‘victory’ for the women and not a tragic loss of life. This is disturbing on many levels and while I don’t disagree with Bhansali’s addition of the final chapter to the story, I do feel that such celebration and exaltation is completely the wrong way to approach the subject. It’s a disturbing and jarring end to the film and simply doesn’t fit into the fairy-tale of the preceding two and a half hours.

Padmaavat is a stunningly beautiful film with much to enjoy in the sets and costumes. I could spend hours pausing this film on DVD and marvelling at the fabrics, the details in the palace floor tiles and even the plates and cutlery. Ranveer too is amazing despite his Khilji being such a one-dimensional construct and Padmavati is generally a strong female character. But the finale seems a direct contradiction to the disclaimer at the start while the story, for all its fantasy elements, never really comes alive. All of which makes Padmaavat a visual treat for anyone who enjoys the artistry of Bhansali films, but unfortunately not essential viewing for anyone else.