The Gentleman (1994)

Bhatt’s remake of the Tamil film Gentleman had the opportunity to be excellent. Unfortunately despite having all the necessary ingredients – a solid central idea, an AR Rahman soundtrack ready for Anu Malik to put his name to, and of course Chiru! – it never quite hits the mark.

A note on the print quality. And by “note” I mean rant. It doesn’t seem to matter which VCD or DVD I tried, the quality is so awful so you may as well watch a dodgy YouTube copy. I never found subtitles for this so that wasn’t a factor. Nobody who owns the movie seems to care if it’s watchable. I ended up taking screencaps from Youtube because my disc had a strange pixellation along the edges of the picture.

Chiranjeevi is Vijay, a small business owner and gentleman thief. He steals from the rich to build a school for the poor, all explained in a tragic backstory flashback. Chiru is excellent and quite restrained, unless he is in a comedy disguise when all bets are off. How much do I love the bit where he rips off a grey moustache only to reveal his own moustache underneath? Gold.

I really liked his characterisation and his dramatic range got a workout as Vijay experiences both the highs and the lowest of lows. The action scenes are on a grand scale and Chiru gets to throw himself around. He even has to do a bit of home surgery on himself. The dubbing artist for Chiru (I think it was Shakti Singh) is pretty good but I always seem to struggle with hearing another voice come out of a familiar face. Since there were no subtitles, and I understand more Hindi than Telugu (still not much) it should have been easier but it just sounds Wrong. Chiranjeevi did his own dubbing for fights and crying scenes so it was both familiar and a bit jarring to hear. And there was a very good opportunity for a rousing “Bastards!” that never happened, and you know how much I look forward to that. Especially when Paresh Rawal is playing one of the bastards in question. The cat and mouse with the police never quite hits high suspense. Vijay’s elaborate schemes and disguises always fail but for some reason the police always fail to capitalise on his mistakes. Even when they know about the Significant Ring.

The styling for the songs is largely standard filmi 90s hideousness but I did like seeing Chiru work his way through all the dressy-uppy options. From European prince to ye olden warrior to biker aerobics gear to a cross between a pharaonic headdress and a doo-rag, he made it his own.

Of course all the ladies love Vijay and while none of the female characters contribute much, the threat of romance does make it easier to fit the songs into the movie. And allows for an extra number featuring Roja. Most of the songs were lifted from the original soundtrack so while they look terribly dated they still sound quite good. The one song Anu Malik actually contributed (by nicking it from Haddaway), “What is Love?” is terrible and yet it is hard to stop watching no matter what your ears are telling you.

The female characters get the rough end of the pineapple. From honka-honka comedy horns when Roshni (Juhi Chawla) and Babli (Heera Rajagopal) hugged (because boobs), to writing that aspires to be tissue thin, and a costume department out for some kind of vengeance on Heera, it is a mess. Juhi spends approximately 83% of the film grimacing in the background as Roshni makes eyes at Vijay and hates anyone who appears to get in her way. There is no chemistry between her and Chiranjeevi, so the few scenes of Roshni’s jealous rage seemed silly rather than anything else.

I am pretty sure Juhi only signed on to be in Roop Suhana Lagta Hain because that is her moment to shine.

Heera Rajagopal plays a character who is dangerously stupid, a bit of a kleptomaniac, and extremely shrill. Only Babli could find herself in an attempted rape scenario by being lured into a ball pit. Yes. I know. And she was wearing heels when she went in. It is really hard not to victim blame when a character has absolutely no ability to learn from experience and apply those learnings to future situations. She still didn’t deserve the whole “be a decent girl like Roshni who is always covered up and in the kitchen” speech. But she moved on straight into a song fantasy so I assume no lasting harm was done to her self-esteem.

Paresh Rawal and Deepak Tijori play the two police most likely to catch the elusive Vijay. There are no surprises in either performance, but they largely avoided going over the top on the comedy. I like Paresh Rawal more as a villain than as an angry but honest cop, I have to say. It felt like a waste of his abilities but I appreciated the intensity he brought to the confrontation.

The tone wanders from slapstick to deep tragedy and grief, and while the actors seem to have a handle on what they are doing I can’t say the same for the direction. Rather than give Vijay’s backstory as things unfolded, the film ground to a halt while we found out what had happened to his mother and brother and why he became a thief. Then back to a long and talky court scene as Vijay attempted to show that society and greedy rich people were to blame for his crimes before a jump to 6 years later.

Of course this is one for the Chiranjeevi fans, but it is not a bad film. Just an uneven one. 3 ½ stars! (Points off for badly written female characters, points on for the songs, points off again for trying to pass the songs off as Anu Malik’s)

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Stree (2018)

Stree

Amar Kaushik’s Stree starts with the intriguing message that the story is based on a ‘ridiculous true phenomenon’, apparently referencing a folk-tale from Karnataka, but which really could be any one of a number of similar stories world-wide. The film is billed as a horror comedy, and manages to be both funny and scary, which is an excellent achievement in a genre that generally manages one or the other, but rarely both. The story takes place in the wonderfully atmospheric town of Chanderi, making Stree worth watching just for the architecture alone, but in addition, Rajkummar Rao is excellent, Pankaj Tripathi and the rest of the support cast are brilliant, and the blend of social commentary, dark humour and ghostly appearances makes for an unusual but entertaining film.

The basic premise of the story is the annual haunting of Chanderi by a female ghost that preys on the men of the town. For the first four nights of Navratri, Stree calls to any men she sees alone at night stealing them away and leaving behind nothing but their clothes. The best part about this is that she calls their name three times, and if they turn around, she takes that as consent. Naturally then, all the men have to do to be safe is not turn around – but somehow they seem unable to manage this. I love the idea of a female ghost that looks for consent, particularly in Hindi cinema where the men don’t usually give women the same consideration, which is of course the whole point.  But also, and more subtly, there is the message that the men are so desperate for love that they can be easily seduced by the ghost despite knowing the consequences.

Protection from Stree can also be gained by writing a message outside the house asking Stree to come back the following night. Surprisingly the literate Stree obeys, keeping the menfolk safe from her clutches as she continues to follow the directive and return the next night until her time is up. The presence of Stree means that the tables are turned and in this story it’s the men who are terrified and unable to go out alone at night. Some even resort to dressing as women to be able to venture outdoors at night safely, while the rest huddle behind their womenfolk in fear. The film has a lot of these ‘role reversals’ that shine the spotlight on the treatment of women in India. There is even an item song with Nora Fatehi gyrating away in front of a crowd of young men, but at the end she is politely escorted away by bodyguards, totally in control of the situation, while one of the men ends up as Stree’s first victim.

Against the backdrop of the ghost, the film follows Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), a ladies tailor who can gauge his clienteles’ measurements with just a glance, and his romance with an mysterious woman. Despite his obvious talent, Vicky feels that he is destined for bigger and better things, but while he’s waiting for them to happen, he spends his time in Chanderi stitching clothes and hanging out with his friends Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Jana (Abhishek Banerjee). At the start of Navratri, Vicky meets an enigmatic female visitor (Shraddha Kapoor) who has come to the town for the festival, and who commissions Vicky to make an outfit for her. Although his friends are sceptical and even suspect the newcomer may be Stree, Vicky is instantly smitten and ends up on a couple of dubious ‘dates’ with the mysterious stranger. At the same time, Stree has started her annual haunting, although Vicky denies her existence until Jana is one of the men taken by the vengeful spectre. Suddenly Vicky has a reason to find out more about the ghost, and he enlists the aid of local bookstore owner Rudra (Pankaj Tripathi) and even his mysterious girlfriend to track down Stree and rescue the men she has taken.

Part of what makes the film work so well is the humorous dialogue between the three friends and the mix of jokes, physical comedy and deliberate misdirection. When interspersed with some hair-raising moments as Stree creeps up behind yet another victim, the relief gained makes everything seem even funnier and also serves to exaggerate the horror element even more. The first half in particular is well written to blend story development with comedy and horror, and although the repeated attempts to lay the ghost start to drag a little in the second half, there is still enough that is unexpected to give a few shocks right up to the very end. Rajkummar Rao is in his element and he is brilliantly funny as a small-town tailor who is mostly oblivious to the world around him. His reaction to discovering a pretty girl seems interested in him is entertaining and his slave-like devotion to her every wish is cleverly milked for every last drop of humour. Aparshakti Khurana is also excellent as Vicky’s cynical and more sceptical friend, while Abhishek Banerjee is hilarious as the more gullible and susceptible of the trio. I love the contrast between their friendly banter and the more serious discussions going on around them as Stree makes her reappearance into the town while they seem totally oblivious of the danger.

When it comes to the more spooky elements of the story, Shraddha Kapoor does a good job of shrouding her character in mystery without overdoing the ‘silent stranger’ vibe. Although she doesn’t have too much to do other than appear mysterious, her character does keep you guessing, particularly since writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. throw in some lovely red herrings (or are they?) along the way. I really enjoyed their previous film Shor in the City, which had a blend of action, violence and comedy, but Stree is a gentler watch that adds more social commentary into the mix. Part of the novelty of the film comes from the tweaking of stereotypical gender roles and the subtle but definite insistence on women’s rights (including the right of a prostitute to insist on the use of a condom) throughout the screenplay.  Although much of the film is very dark, Amalendu Chaudhary makes excellent use of the old buildings as a backdrop, while maintaining a suspenseful atmosphere even during the daylight scenes. Director Amar Kaushil does a good job of keeping everything together with only the odd misstep towards the end of the film.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a good entertainer and the digs at patriarchal society add an extra dimension to the story. Worth watching for clever dialogue, plenty of laughs, a few good scares and excellent performances from the cast. 4 stars.

Stree

Hichki

Siddharth P Malhotra directed and co-wrote this adaptation of an autobiography by Brad Cohen. While there are absolutely no surprises in this classic underdog story, the film made some changes to the book including making the lead a woman.

Rani Mukherjee delivers a rock solid performance as Naina Mathur, a part time animator who wants to be a teacher. She also has Tourette’s Syndrome. I have reservations about casting non-disabled actors in roles where the character has a disability, and I am all for real representation. But in the Hindi film industry where being visibly different (old, fat, dark, pale, disabled etc) is often the trigger for some very unfunny shenanigans, this film does a pretty good job of portraying Naina as a woman with a neurological condition and a rich and satisfying life, not as a sideshow. I read the director and Rani did quite a bit of work on getting her portrayal of the symptoms right. So is this at least some kind of progress? I tend to think so in this context but of course it is far from the end goal of inclusion and real diversity. It seems so long since Marlee Matlin won her Oscar and yet. Here we are.

Naina wants to be a teacher because she once had a teacher who inspired her, made school a place of acceptance, and helped her accept herself. She wants to be that teacher for other kids and to show that she was herself worthy. St Notker’s needs a teacher for their terrible 9F class, the slum kids nobody wants at the fancy private school. They are desperate and Naina is determined.

Naina lives at home with her brother and mother, in a happy middle class household. Her father left the family, partly because of his own issues at having a disabled child. I love her mum and brother. They seem so affectionate and relaxed. They get her, even though they know she is doing it tough and they can’t fully understand her, they make sure they are there for her.

Naina meets each stupid comment or startled reaction head on and with practiced charm. She has both vocal and motor tics, and Rani modulates the timing and severity to show the effect of stress or high emotion. Her anxiety before interviews, the techniques she uses to minimise or delay her tics, her habitual façade of good humour are all tied to Naina’s life and challenges, not just an acting improv challenge. Rani’s expressions were subtle but conveyed the stress she felt when a tic was imminent and the toll people’s judgements took. When she was in full flight with her class, her tics flowed into the back and forth of their chatter and subsided or became part of her own jokey delivery. Naina’s relationship with her dad (Sachin) is strained as he is ableist and patronising where she just wants to be treated the same as her brother. Their conversations have a grinding banality with none of her customary humour or energy.

The kids were painted much more broadly. There are boys who refuse to trust outsiders, bright girls who could do so much with their lives, the quiet one, the hip hop dude, the nerd who is great at maths thanks to his gambling sideline. All the usual pranks and hijinks ensued. I did appreciate that when middle class Naina took a picturesque stroll through the slum where the kids lived, she saw supportive parents and families who wanted their kids to do well. They may not have turned up at Parent Teacher meetings but it was not for lack of interest. Sure it’s cheesy but I am quite tired of the misery porn genre and I liked that Malhotra didn’t make all of his kids have terrible lives full of dramatic suffering. Class and group dynamics can do as much to hold kids back as outright abuse can. There’s a bit of magical thinking around how disadvantaged children can overcome setbacks by working hard and being positive, but generally the logic was pretty sound if the delivery is a little sugar coated.

Every hero needs a villain, and the honours go to Neeraj Kabi as Mr Wadia. He is a protector of the status quo, a gatekeeper against the influx of undeserving poor. He hates everything Naina stands for, but despite this is one of the few teachers at the school who will actually speak to her. He constantly tries to get her kids expelled and his students, the golden children of 9A, follow his lead. I’d like to make his final speech compulsory viewing for all actors who have to deliver a big emotional capitulation. He nails the emotion but doesn’t get stuck in the cheese.

Although the story was super predictable, the film played with my expectations in a few ways. I had a giggle at Naina’s mum being played by Supriya Pilgaonkar who is maybe 10 years older than Rani, which surely reinforces Rani as a genuine box office Hero. And although Naina’s dad and her student Aatish did have some character development and growth, they weren’t given the red carpet treatment just for catching up to the rest of the world. Instead when it came time for a tangible recognition of excellence, it was the girls who were rewarded for their capability and persistence. I was particularly fond of fiery little Oru (Sparsh Khanchandani) and shy unless he was rapping Ashwin (Benjamin Yangal). The soundtrack by Jasleen Royal is integrated into the drama with just a few montages to hammer the message home. Songs that involve the students tend to have a more improvised and frenetic beat where other songs suit Naina’s introspection and exploration. It’s a shame to have Rani and no big dance number but it just wouldn’t have worked within the film. So it’s just as well they did a promo track to add some colour and movement and hit you over the head with that message again!

I am always keen to see films with great female characters who have agency. I wasn’t blown away by the tried and true story but I was delighted by Rani. It’s also nice to see a film that is gently subversive in a mild and family friendly way. 3 ½ stars!