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!

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Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota

Vasan Bala takes all the required masala ingredients and tosses them around. And throws in some real talk about love, loss and growing up, wrapped up in offbeat humour, visual gags, movie references, and tons of Hong Kong film style action.

I knew I was probably going to like this film from the get go when the hero flashes back to when he was still in utero…with his parents watching Chiru dancing to It’s A Challenge in Aaj Ka Goonda Raj!

Surya grows up under the care of his dad (Jimit Trivedi) and granddad (Mahesh Manjrekar) after his mother is killed in a bungled theft. He has congenital pain insensitivity and according to the movie medicine, will probably die by the age of 4. So his anxious dad almost literally wraps him in cotton wool. His only childhood friend is Supri, a neighbour who is his opposite in many ways. She never says anything but she feels pain. Her abusive drunk dad is the opposite of Surya’s too. Ajoba feeds Surya a diet of action and masala movies to try and teach him what pain means and how to recognise injuries, and insists that he stay well hydrated. There is some sense in teaching the kid how his body works and what could go wrong but it didn’t help his emotional development. Both kids become obsessed with Karate Man, a one-legged karate master who once beat 100 men in a single fight. Surya believes that life will conform to the rules of films, and he is a hero – the next Karate Man. So when people treat him as a villain, he is bewildered and annoyed. The family moves out of town to his grandfather’s house and Surya loses touch with Supri.

Adult Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) quotes his grandfather who said “Behind every mind blowing story are some pretty bad decisions”. He is an unreliable narrator, often rewriting scenes on the fly or drifting into a filmi fantasy before the world crashes in. He is as influenced by Bruce Lee and the Terminator films as he is by Amitabh and Rajinikanth. And he’s not particularly bright so he is almost guaranteed a succession of mind blowing stories. Dassani has classic chocolate hero looks, an exuberant acrobatic physicality, and an expression of intense innocence that can be hilarious or can make me want to deliver the one tight slap he sometimes needed.

Supri (Radhika Madan) re-enters his life in a beautifully choreographed fight underscored by Kishore Kumar singing “Nakhrewali”. I really loved that rather than race in to take over, he watched her kicking arse and was utterly enchanted by her skills and strength. It took a while for them to recognise each other but Karate Man divided them and brought them back together. Radhika Madan clearly worked hard for this role. She does a lot of physical action and portrays Supri as strong but not invincible, and not just a comedy prop for the men in fight scenes. I liked her performance a lot and found her character a necessary and welcome counterpoint to Surya’s more cartoonish perspective. She is resilient, and a sound thinker who doesn’t carry shame or guilt that isn’t hers to own.

Supri’s life was no fairytale. I cringed to hear her dad tell her boyfriend Atul to just slap her if she was difficult. It so unusual for films to even hint at domestic violence issues that I was pleasantly surprised when Supri and her mum had some real talk. Ma doesn’t want Supri to throw her life away on a bad marriage but Supri is struggling to know what else to do. She doesn’t earn, they need money for medical care, and she simply doesn’t know where to start. Mother and daughter talk about their feelings and the demands of life and there is no drama, just love. Supri says her mum sacrificed to nurse an abusive husband back to health so it is her turn now. But Ma is an interesting woman and she says she can’t break her internal programming to keep supporting her husband, but she doesn’t want Supri to follow in her footsteps. She encourages her to get out and live her own life.

Gulshan Devaiah rounds out the main cast in a brilliant dual role performance. We get the history of Mani and Jimmy in a funky flashback as one becomes a cliché drunk karate master and the other a cliché psychotic villain. How good is this retro funk sound?

Gulshan hits all the right notes in both roles and he commits. I loved his Karate Man style and if there was an award for best use of citrus fruit in a fight sequence, he would win it hands down. Mani is Supri’s mentor although he knows Atul is giving her grief and pushes her away for her own good. He reluctantly acquires Surya as a sidekick on his quest to get the locket back. Jimmy is grandiose, verbose, and constantly disappointed and dismayed by his goons and their lack of style. And when they are together, it’s like they’re both 9 years old again.

The film comes across as a loving tribute to movies and action, not just a piss take. It’s often laugh out loud funny, with a succession of blink and you’ll miss them references. Karan Kulkarni and Dipanjan Guha riff on some classic sounds and the songs are generally well placed. I loved the use of old filmi songs in the background, and the hoardings and murals that featured movie stars. Apart from being lovely it helped fuse Surya’s inner life to the world where this action was taking place. Bala uses some visual gimmicks to allow viewers to be aware of what was going on in real time, but the fight scenes are real and very physical with none of the bad CGI so prevalent. At its heart the movie is full of old school mass goodness.

The movie is on Netflix so you have no excuse. 4 stars!

 

Tumhari Sulu

Suresh Triveni’s film is a lovely, warm, very funny, domestic story about an ordinary middle class housewife who has dreams that take her on an unconventional path. It’s generally a kind and well considered film although it goes off the rails a little towards the end.

Sulochana or Sulu (Vidya Balan) was never academic but she is energetic and curious. She is mocked by her stitched up sisters and father for her trail of hobbies and her relentless participation in school sports events like the lemon and spoon race. Her husband Ashok (Manav Kaul) is the lone voice of sanity at his eccentric workplace but he is soon displaced by a grasping grandson. He has a playful side which he sometimes uses at Sulu’s expense. But they have great rapport and laugh at the same dumb jokes, sing the same old songs. Even if they argue before sleeping they’ll wake up in each other’s arms.

Sulu wins a radio competition and goes to the station to collect. Her morning journey is intercut with a song including guys doing parkour. Her seamless navigation of obstacles is different but equally unique. She sees another competition but this time the winner will be an RJ. Nobody is very interested in helping her but she is politely insistent. The station staff seem equally appalled and enchanted by her unselfconscious repartee and lack of embarrassment at what they see as kitsch or suburban. They decide to let her audition, assisted by people’s poet Pankaj Rai Baaghi (Vijay Maurya). Sulu finds the cheesy lines and the breathy sexy delivery a bit too hilarious and she and RJ Albeli Anjali (RJ Malishka) lose it several times. But station boss Maria sees potential in Sulu. She goes home, full of spark and with a free pressure cooker to give her sister.

As luck has it, Maria decides to give Sulu the job as payback for Pankaj storming out in a hissy fit. Sulu gets the late night agony aunt/love song dedications gig after demonstrating how she would (sexily) berate her husband for his self-pity. Sulu does things her way – proudly wearing her sarees and speaking the way she feels comfortable. Pankaj tries to coach her but he is all cheesy insincerity while Sulu comes from the heart with genuine empathy, a wink, and a laugh.

It seems the greatest tragedy that can befall a man is having his wife get a better job than he has. Ashok is a little snakey about her new job but he wants to support Sulu. His job may be in doubt but his love for Sulu seems solid. But her family mock her, assuming it’s one of her wild ideas again, and Ashok isn’t sure she will make it or stick with it. While Ashok and Pranav get used to getting themselves up and out the door, Sulu’s sisters are adamant that she is on the slippery slope to who knows and she must give up her job. When they say that she’d come running to them if anything goes wrong she agrees saying they’re family after all.

I really loved the way Sulu articulated her feelings, and Vidya’s characterisation is lovely. I laughed with her, and sometimes at her which made me feel a little guilty about being a judgemental snob. The writing is so good and I would catch my own judgement being reflected back by other characters, raising questions about my reaction. And it’s funny, not preachy. Sulu has second thoughts, but Maria says never look down while you are climbing up. She seems to be where she is meant to be and pretty soon everyone is dancing madly to Hawa Hawaii.

The changing dynamic between Sulu and Ashok plays out through domestic responsibility and commitments. He is under pressure at work and transfers that pressure on to Sulu but she is more determined and happier in her work. When she tells him it is OK to quit – as he wants to – and once she gets a pay increase they can set up their own business 50/50 – as he had offered her before – he cracks the sads. He is trying but not coping with the change in breadwinner status. And Sulu is so happy despite knowing that she is not able to be as hands on a mum and housewife as she had been before. Ayushmann Khurrana makes a fun special appearance as himself, highlighting how her world has expanded beyond her own household. Manav Kaul and Vidya Balan are utterly delightful. Their conversations, whether flirty of fiery have a ring of truth and it’s easy to believe they’re an established couple. I had some frustrations with Ashok’s inability to support Sulu when her family went on the attack, but he is an introvert and the pacifist in the marriage so it wasn’t unexpected.

Unfortunately for reasons I cannot fathom, Triveni comes unstuck towards the end of the movie. It’s a pity because the songs, which could have been an unwelcome interruption, are used to perfection. The music is just okay but the lyrics and visuals amplify and extend the drama. He manufactures an incident involving Pranav that tips everyone into overacting crisis mode. As a result Sulu realises she can’t have it all if she has to do it all and be responsible for it all, all by herself. And that is all fair and reasonable and many women come to the same realisation. But in place of the beautifully organic story and character development, things end with another wave of the Happily Ever After wand.

I loved the story, except for the wobble at the end. This is a film that takes you right into the characters world, and the performances bring it to life. 4 stars!