Dear Zindagi

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Gauri Shinde follows up English Vinglish with another heroine-centric film. The amazing Alia Bhatt is ably supported by a very fanciable Shah Rukh Khan, and I loved seeing some more realistic modern relationships in the story. But it’s a bit heavy-handed and there are a few things that left me vaguely dissatisfied.

This is Alia’s movie. She is Kaira, an up and coming cinematographer who lives alone in Mumbai, and pretty much does as she pleases. Kaira takes herself and her work very seriously, but she is fun in a bratty way. She has a closeknit group of friends – the smart one, the ditsy one, the chubby guy and the gay one. And that’s one of the issues. Her friends mean so much to her and yet we barely get to know them. Her relationship with her maid Alka is better developed. Kaira has issues with emotional intimacy and trust, and is destructive in her romantic relationships. That holding back may be why her friends are so shadowy, and there is a question about how much attention she really pays them. Her life is thrown into chaos when building management decide they will only let married couples and families live in the complex, and she is evicted for being single. She breaks up with nice but boring Sid (Angad Bedi), is jilted by not so nice but not boring Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), and lands up at her family home in Goa where she meets Rumi (Ali Zafar). She’s in a bad place emotionally and career-wise; stressed, cranky, and not sleeping, she is a ball of nervous energy. Alia delivers the rapid play of emotions with honesty and commitment to Kaira in all her messiness.

In a clunky filmi coincidence, Kaira happens to be shooting a promo video at a hotel hosting a mental health awareness event. Dr Jehangir “Jug” Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is the only speaker that makes sense to Kaira. He says that people are always prepared to talk about a physical ailment, but not their mental health, and surely the brain is just another part of the body.  She decides to go see him because she can’t sleep and no medicine has been able to help her. Jug does sometimes sound like an inspirational quote calendar (and I suspect Gauri Shinde watches too much Doctor Phil), but he gets through to Kaira largely by allowing her to discover her own answers. When Jug hears the opening he needs to set the next stage up he does it through conversation and prompting Kaira to articulate her feelings, not by telling her what to think. Shah Rukh gives the appearance of being present and spontaneous, and he and Alia have great chemistry. The inevitable transference scene was handled gracefully and was true to both Kaira and Jug’s characters. And who wouldn’t succumb to transference with Shah Rukh as their therapist?

I loved that the big name star didn’t show up until late in the first half and that he simply disappeared when his work was done, leaving to Kaira to continue on her way. It’s a gutsy move by Gauri Shinde and also by Shah Rukh to trust the story. Frankly I could watch Shah Rukh play kabaddi with the ocean for 2 ½ hours and would listen to him read the phone book (there’s an app idea for the insomniacs!) but I really do think he delivers a good and generous performance here.

It’s unusual to see a mainstream Indian film that doesn’t portray mothers as saints. When Kaira finally blows her top at the family and declares she is in therapy because of them, it’s the catalyst for some self-reflection for everyone. Except her little brother Kiddo (Rohit Saraf), a golden boy who has his own style of managing the parentals. It’s big, when you start to see your parents as human beings. She also struggles with her inner voice judging her for past dalliances. She calls herself a slut (some of the movie audience agreed, sadly) but Jug says as long as you understand yourself and know why you do what you do, then baseless judgement by others is irrelevant. How refreshing to have the nominal hero really not give a rats about who a young lady may have slept with, instead caring that she was able to articulate what she was looking for in a potential partner. And I like that Kaira does this without becoming sweet or saintly – she is still herself, just a bit more resilient and positive. So ladies, try those chairs out and make sure you get one that’s right for you!

I feel I should be able to say more about the support cast but they had little to do and even less material to work with. The romantic interests played by Angad Bedi, Kunal Kapoor and Ali Zafar are all OK-ish guys who Kaira liked for a time, but there is nothing to any of their characters. Her relationship with Rumi (Ali Zafar) is a little more interesting because she starts to ask for what she wants. Rohit Saraf looked and sounded perfect as Kaira’s little brother but he only got a couple of lines so I half wondered why the character was there. Ira Dubey and Yashaswini Dayama play the sensible friend and the ditsy friend, and Raj Bhansali is the gay friend who inadvertently plants the idea of seeing a therapist. They’re all good, but Gauri Shinde doesn’t develop their characters or give them scope to do it themselves.

I liked the visual design for Kaira and Jug’s worlds. Hers is full of colour and movement and herself while his is more restful and neutral, although both live in a state of work in progress. I felt that they actually inhabited these rooms and the spaces were shaped by the character, not just by the set dressers.

Amit Trivedi does what he always does. And seriously – stop with the banjoes. They do not make the music of love. I did laugh a lot at the cheesefest that is the title song. Alia got sent to take her inner Manic Pixie Dream Girl for a good run in the park, hugging trees, flying kites, marvelling at the ocean. The only things missing were a puppy and a mime.

Dear Zindagi is well worth seeing, but you may find your patience is tested…by the audience*! I loved Alia and Shah Rukh, and they rescue the film from some underdone writing and heavy handed message moments.

 

*A note on the audience. Judging by the fidgeting and volume of conversations it seems the desi boys of Melbourne were not so comfortable when they had to listen to a woman talking about herself, but were all rapt attention when it was Shah Rukh’s turn. A mate in London said some of the dialogues set off the homophobes in the crowd, and there was a little of that here too. A line about a character coming out was greeted with a bit of muttering and shushing while a tired old joke confusing Lebanese/Lesbian had most of the audience in stitches as they kind of missed the point of why that line was being trotted out. And a special shoutout to the lady who sat near me, texting for the whole film and then reading the messages to her husband.

Tashan

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Tashan is not really a good film. I am at best indifferent to the cast. And yet I have a fondness for the movie that surprises me. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the total masala style, maybe the excellent work by the costume department, or the spectacular locations. But if you need to see a colourful movie that makes you throw popcorn at the screen and at your friends, this could be quite rewarding.

Vijay Krishna Acharya opens his film with Jimmy (Saif Ali Khan) in a car, underwater, and at gunpoint. How he got there takes up the first half. Most of the fun seeing this was the “surely they’re not…oh yes, they did!” moments and laughing at the shenanigans as the cast justify the next big set piece. There is a heavy use of flashbacks and characters speaking directly to the viewer so it heightens the unrealistic and fantastical mood, as do the songs. Jimmy and Pooja (Kareena Kapoor Khan) meet when Bhaiyyaji (Anil Kapoor) hires Jimmy as his English tutor. As Bhaiyyaji mangles every language he knows, Jimmy and Pooja fall in love. There is the matter of Pooja’s debt to Bhaiyajji, but there are also cases full of cash coming to the office every month. Bachchan Pande (Akshay Kumar), is an unhinged hitman hired by Bhaiyyaji. He is told to get Jimmy and Pooja and all manner of double crosses and shenanigans ensue. Who is what they seem, and who can you trust, especially when large sums of money are at stake? Things get complicated. And then everything blows up.

Saif Ali Khan used to be quite appealing when he was the second lead. As a leading man, he is inexplicable. It’s not that he doesn’t try to act, and it’s not just the porno moustache, it seems that his charisma has the depth of a teaspoon. And what is with the red belt he wears for the whole film? He is almost completely superfluous to the second half, yet he clearly refused to go home and just hung around whining until they promised him a big heroic Dhoom style action scene. Jimmy is not heroic though. He is self-serving most of the time, and a sleaze. He didn’t so much evolve as have a character transplant for a few minutes. I think one of the biggest issues is that the only person Saif seemed to have chemistry with was himself. He had a gleam in his eye when talking to himself or direct to camera, which was lacking in ensemble scenes.

Kareena has total commitment to the trout pout but Pooja is an interesting character who does more than pose. She does seem to have a polarising effect on the wardrobe team, or maybe it’s just their special way of showing love. Pooja is manipulative, and she has a clear goal in mind. Her romantic scenes with Jimmy have no spark to speak of, where her crackling chemistry with Bachchan is evident as is their knockabout friendship. Unlike Jimmy, Pooja has lots of layers to her character to reveal. Her contribution to the final fight scene is quite something, and I may have cheered out loud. Nice to see a lady causing the distress and staying ahead of the game.

I feel I ought to like Akshay Kumar more. But I have flashbacks to Tees Maar Khan (one of only two films I have walked out on) and I retrospectively dislike his films I may once have been more tolerant towards. And there is the established Youtube Poker rule that Akshay and a body of water will result in something hideously disturbing. But his Bachchan Pande is the saving grace of this film in so many ways. He is overwhelmingly self-confident, handy in a fight, and not overly complex intellectually or emotionally. And he has an excellent intro scene. Bachchan is also the one character with real principles, so I found myself caring more about what happened to him. Akshay gets lots of action scenes (by Peter Hein so you know, it’s pretty cool) as well as some discombobulated hick comedy, and it suits him down to the ground. And the shoe department agreed his grounding is important – he gets some excellent and flamboyant footwear.

God, I feel for the team that had to remove Anil Kapoor’s pelt. You know there would have been hedge trimmers first, then electric clippers, then waxing. I reckon we’re talking at least a full day of hard labour. My friend interviewed Anil a few years ago and told me ” One of my opening remarks was: “Anil, you have a lot of hair for your age. Is it hair weaving?” He pulled up his jacket like this and I quickly told him I got the drift…” I’m haunted by that anecdote. Anyway, his performance is fun and so over the top it all kind of makes sense. Unlike his outfits. Bhaiyyaji is determined to make it to the big league of dons and never averse to a bit of killing and mayhem along the way. His mangled Hinglish is hilarious and a bit sad as he worships Jimmy’s ability to speak like George Bush or Prince Charlie. Starting out as an urbane businessman he deteriorates into a snarling (shaved) beast, and Anil Kapoor goes all out.

The Vishal-Sekhar songs are what they need to be for a film, and the picturisations range from WTF to delicately lovely, making the most of their spectacular locations. Nothing can really explain “Dil Dance Maare” though. Kareena is more of a gyrate on the spot kind of dancer, and Saif does uncle stomping with a bit of flailing so I didn’t see much value added by Vaibhavi Merchant there, although the backing dancers earn their money.

Tashan is the kind of film that takes off and doesn’t stop until it stops. It’s high on visual impact and the pace never drags. See it if you need a rattling masala timepass, and don’t mind characters breaking laws of the land, laws of logic, and laws of physics. 3 ½ stars!

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

 

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You know what you’re going to get with a Karan Johar film and his latest film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil doesn’t contain any surprises. As usual the film is all about unbelievably wealthy characters who look fabulous, live in amazing houses and agonise over simple human relationships the way only the truly idle rich can afford to do. It’s fluff, but beautifully filmed fluff that makes for a reasonable time-pass if you can ignore the few serious flaws that prevent the film from being a total success.

The film follows the antics of Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) as he wastes his father’s money while studying an MBA in London and secretly dreaming of becoming a singer. One night he meets Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma) another rich kid who doesn’t even get a back story to explain her family wealth or her presence in London. Despite already having a girlfriend (Lisa Haydon), Ayan falls head over heels in love with Alizeh but unfortunately for Ayan, Alizeh is also already in a relationship (although unlike him she has no qualms about a quick one-night stand) and has no interest in anything other than friendship. Alizeh still has feeling for her ex – a DJ with a roving eye (Fawad Khan) and there is no room in her heart for anyone else.

It’s a wafer thin story and the theme of unrequited love is one that’s been told many times before, but that’s not the problem with the film. The biggest flaw here is Ranbir’s character Ayan who seems to be the worst possible reprise of almost every role Ranbir has played to date. Ayan is an overly emotional man-child with anger management issues who depends on his partner’s maturity and tolerance to solve all his problems for him. Like JJ in Rockstar, Ayan blames the object of his unrequited love for his issues and totally fails to see that only he can take responsibility for his own emotions. It’s hard to feel any empathy for such a self-centred character, particularly when he behaves like a five-year-old, bawling his eyes out when his girlfriend leaves him and pushing Alizeh around when she doesn’t fall into line. At least Alizeh pushes back, but this kind of violence without repercussions is just not acceptable and has no place in any film that purports to be a ‘romance’. Ranbir puts in a good performance, possibly no-one can pull off bratty man-child as well as he can, but his character here is too obnoxious for me and I seriously questioned Alizeh’s judgement when she decided that Ayan was her BFF.

My other big issue is the dreadful cliché used to resolve Ayan’s emotional immaturity at the end of the film. It’s such a let-down and a weak finale, especially when Ayan’s behaviour becomes even more appallingly self-centred and he is quite brutal in his treatment of Alizeh.  It’s disappointing as there are plenty of good points to the film too, but with the end such a let-down the overall feeling on leaving the cinema is one of dissatisfaction.

It’s not all bad though and the first half in particular has plenty to enjoy. Thankfully, apart from her poor friend choice, Anushka Sharma’s Alizeh is a more sympathetic character and appears charming and likeable, even in her loyalty to her philandering boyfriend. Her decision to marry DJ Ali despite her awareness of his indiscretions rings true to real life relationships, and the mistaken but frequent belief in marriage as a cure for infidelity. As if! Alas, Alizeh’s love for Ali seems much greater than Ali’s love for Alizeh and both Anushka Sharma and Fawad Khan are excellent in their portrayals of this mismatched couple in a seemingly doomed relationship.

What also works well is the friendship between Ayan and Alizeh, which sparkles off the screen in the first half. I love that they have a shared love of old cheesy Bollywood songs (after all, who doesn’t!) and that they re-enact them on the snowy slopes of Europe. As someone who has run around Golkonda in Hyderabad trailing a scarf and singing the songs from Magadheera, I have immediate rapport with anyone attempting the same thing, especially when they take the time to dress appropriately for the occasion! There are a few glimpses as flashbacks in the song below but this scene is definitely worth catching in the cinema and for me was totally worth the price of admission alone.

Anushka Sharma is the best thing about the film and her portrayal of Alizeh’s down to earth pragmatism and sheer common sense ensure she is the most relatable character on-screen. She looks great and gives Alizeh plenty of pep and personality to counteract frequently Ranbir’s snivelling Ayan. It’s not that Ranbir doesn’t put in a good performance – he does – but his character is nothing he hasn’t done before and in this instance his immaturity is particularly annoying when compared to the other characters in the film.

Also excellent is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who appears in the second half as a divorced poet Saba Khan. Saba begins a love affair with Ayan just as his heart is broken by Alizeh’s marriage and the two have an interesting relationship.  Ayan is as callous and immature as ever, but hs a genuine affection for Saba, while she is mature enough to revel in a love affair that has no expectations. Aishwarya is stunningly beautiful and gracefully elegant as she swans around her amazing apartment in Vienna, again with no indication of how a supposedly struggling poet could afford to live somewhere quite so spectacular and expensively furnished. Of course there is her ex-husband (Shah Rukh Khan in a brief cameo) who is supposedly a successful artist, and is still in love with his ex-wife so perhaps he is happy to fund her wealthy lifestyle. The relationship between Ayan and Saba is much better realised than that of Ayan and Alizeh, and here the contrast between Saba’s maturity and Ayan’s self-centred youth makes for a more plausible relationship. Even the way it ends is well written and perfectly acted by Ranbir and Aishwarya, something that makes the final scenes even more disappointing in comparison. After all if K-Jo could write this part of the story so well, why not have such a satisfying conclusion to the main relationship too?

I wanted to like As Dil Hai Mushkil more as there are some very funny moments and clever situations in the first half that work really well. The songs are good, the sets spectacular and all the actors perform well. But no matter how much I enjoyed the friendship between Ayan and Alizeh, or the relationship between Ayan and Saba, it’s all overshadowed by the clichéd ending and the general unpleasantness of Ayan’s character. Worth watching for Aishwarya and Anushka and the wonderful re-enactment in the snow but be prepared for the banality of the ending and seen-it-all-before sameness of  Ranbir’s character.