Dharam Veer

Sometimes in a world full of mean spirited decision making and demonstrations of crushing privilege it really does the soul good to see some unambiguous comeuppances and outrageous costumes. This being a Desai film, I got my wish. But the exercise of privilege and bad decision making was never too far away, although usually dressed up in fabulous boots and an explosion of ruffles.

However. The very sensible and worthy women in this film get short shrift and I did have the occasional moment of murderous rage.

Princess Meenakshi (Indrani Mukherjee) is out in her gilded chariot, searching for game to hunt. She spies a stuffed tiger on a rock in the river and goes to kill it even more. Villains appear, paid off by her brother Satpal Singh (Jeevan, aka Creepy Jeevan). Just as her death seems imminent, a stranger appears. The unknown warrior is Jwala (Pran!), who had been alerted to the kerfuffle by his trusty falcon Sheroo (Sheroo). Meenakshi offers him any reward he names, and he names her. Jwala has been harbouring a secret love for the princess, and had made a hideous statue of her. She is a woman who believes in keeping her word, and I think was swayed by his artistic flair, and they marry there and then with the fire as their witness.

Then follows some tiger wrestling, a misidentified corpse, and Meenakshi becoming catatonic with shock.

She remains in shock long enough for her father to get her married off to Pratap Singh (Pradeep Kumar) who says he doesn’t mind that she is basically a living doll.

How good was Pratap Singh to stop her killing herself, and accepting that she had an heir in the oven while acknowledging that he had no right over Meenakshi’s body. But how does a headache provide a pregnancy diagnosis? But how creepy is Pratap Singh to marry an unconscious woman and plan to consummate the marriage. You know you’re in a topsy turvy world when that is one of the good guys.

Satpal Singh steps up his efforts to rid himself of rivals and avoid unpleasant destiny. More bad decisions help the chaos along and babies are swapped, swapped again, and face near certain death. It’s only about 20 minutes in the movie at this stage and already there is so much plot.

Question: If you picked up a baby swaddled in red velvet who had been delivered by a falcon, and you worked for the palace that was awash with rumours of a baby swaddled in red velvet who had been stolen by a falcon, would you not put two and two together? I’m not blaming Sheroo for protecting his family. But come on humans!

In what represents the present day Meenakshi’s babies have grown up (a lot) to be Dharam (Dharmendra) the adopted son of the blacksmith, and Veer (Jeetendra) the prince.

And Satpal’s son Ranjeet Singh is played by Ranjeet so you already know all you need to know about him. But here are some of his many moods.

Will Dharam and Veer ever find out they’re twins, not just bromantic soulmates? Will Ranjeet ever meet a woman without trying to rape her? Will the family be reunited, true love win, and villains get their just deserts? Whose couture will reign supreme? And what of highly intelligent and faithful Sheroo?

The heroes are the least interesting people in the film, which may explain the costume choices. If you lack substance, add more ruffles. Perhaps a fringed leather mini dress will distract from the absence of matter between your ears. They have some cracking dialogues, especially when their friendship is under strain and Dharam calls Veer out on his privilege. But they also do bad comedy costumes and behave boorishly to the people they supposedly love. Pran is my pick of the heroic litter. His costumes and wigs are a sight, he has a sparkle in his eye when he leaps into the fray, and he has integrity. He isn’t great at decision making, but who is in this world. Luckily Desai amped up the action with jousting, gladiator style fights, and pirate action on shonky looking ships so there is no need for nuanced acting. Now if 80’s Chiranjeevi had some of these fancy duds added to his wardrobe, I’d be delighted. There might be some boot plagiarism afoot as this is a Megastar-less Megaboot treasure trove.

Meenakshi is a stickler for the law and honour but she understands her son and sees through his flouncing. Her weakness is that she expects everyone to be as honourable as she is. And Indrani Mukherjee’s probably younger than her “children”. She and Jwala are kept apart due to their own unbending principles. But she is warm and approachable as a mother, and is affectionate to Veer and Dharam.

However women aren’t actually people with individuality, needs, or rights. When Dharam’s mother is murdered and the royal family is framed, he demands a mother to replace his mother. The queen must go be his Ma. And he is genuinely delighted. It’s like his poor deceased mother never existed, as long as he had someone to feed him and tell him he was perfect. And he had no remorse about taking the queen, his bestie’s mother, away because a manly man’s man needs his mummy.

Pallavi (Zeenat Aman) is a bossy, entitled, aristocrat. Sadly she fails to put a stop to Dharam and Veer who tag team with dated shtick about having to keep a woman on a tight rein so you can be sure to break her. That would have been justifiable homicide I reckon. Dharam thinking that he can just take any woman because he is so awesome is very unpleasant and when he ties Pallavi up and sings to her about how he is worthy of her love…blergh. Dharam’s amazing super strength and very short skirts eventually win her over, because it’s not like she has a day job or anything to occupy her mind. On the upside Zeenat gets some fabulously OTT costumes and some kickarse action scenes which slightly compensate for her “dancing”.

Speaking of “dancing” – Jeetendra is literally carried around for most of this.

Veer meets Rupa (Neetu Singh) when he is hiding from Pallavi’s brother and fiancée and of course has to scrub Rupa’s back while she is in the bath. It’s interesting that the older generation in this film are no nonsense about sex and relationships but the “boys” are quite sleazy. It’s a shame Veer wasn’t more like his progressive but creepy dad. Oh that’s not a good aspiration.

Veer falls for Rupa but like his BFF, decides that treating her mean will keep her keen. Rupa is almost raped by Ranjeet. And then when she is traumatised and shaken, Veer pretends he has no feelings for her. Unfortunately before Veer can sort out their engagement, Ranjeet wins Rupa from the gypsy king and things look grim. Rupa was indignant at the injustice but she didn’t get anywhere with actually changing the outcome. It took Dharam speechifying to make the men decide they could do the right thing. But generally, Rupa was up for rescuing herself and others and never sat back waiting for a miserable fate. Neetu is feisty and fun, and certainly made the choreographer’s life easier.

Manmohan Desai is a master of apparently throwing random masala ingredients together but actually having a tightly plotted and well planned story to tell. Dharam Veer has the stars, the spectacle and the silliness in spades. 4 stars!

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Dil Se..

Dil Se..

Dil Se is the third film in Mani Ratnam’s terrorist trilogy following on from Roja and Bombay. This was actually the first of these that I watched, mainly due to the presence of Shah Rukh Khan who was the major draw for me at the time, but also because the film is in Hindi, which I was trying to learn. It’s remained one of my favourite Mani Ratnam movies though and I find it hard to believe that it’s now 20 years since its release in 1998. I love this film for so many reasons, the amazing music, wonderful choreography and stunning scenery but also because the story grabs hold and remains captivating – every single time. Dil Se wasn’t a hit in India, despite winning awards at festivals and doing well in the USA and UK, but it now has a deservedly classic status and is well worth watching or revisiting if you haven’t seen it for a while.

Dil Se is the story of a Dehli-based radio journalist who falls in love with a mysterious woman he sees on a deserted railway platform one night. Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) describes it as “the shortest love story ever” when she leaves on the next train after sending him off to get a cup of hot tea. What I love here is the contrast between them, even in these first few minutes. She doesn’t say a word except for ‘a cup of hot tea’ while Amar never stops talking. It’s an early clue that these two aren’t likely partners but also raises questions about why Amar becomes just so obsessed by this woman based on this one brief meeting.

Amar’s assignment for All India Radio takes him to the north of the country where insurgents have been engaged in terrorist activity and Amar wants to speak to them as well as garner regional thoughts on the 50thAnniversary of Indian Independence. When he does finally reach his destination, after the wonderful Chaiyya Chaiyya on the train, he spots the same woman in the crowd and immediately runs after her. While Meghna (Manisha Koirala) is perfectly plain that she wants absolutely nothing to do with him, Amar refuses to take no for an answer and pesters her persistently until her friends take matters into their own hands and beat him up.

This starts out as the usual stalking = love trope seen in so many Indian films. It is really annoying that Amar fails to take no for an answer and is completely relentless in his pursuit. What I do like though is that Meghna is brutally clear, trying everything from ignoring Amar, to telling him that she is married, just to get away from him. All my sympathies are with her at this point, and I really don’t like Amar who just seems to be selfish and frankly obnoxious. But this seems more than just stalking. Amar is completely obsessed with this girl who won’t even give him her name and even the beating fails to dampen his desire.

Amar follows Meghna on a bus, walking with her when the bus breaks down and even attempting to force her to kiss him. Meghna has a panic attack at this point and hints that she has had experiences in the past that may have contributed to her determined refusal of Amar. She also continually tells him that she isn’t what he thinks she is, and finally we learn that she is part of the terrorist organisation. Manisha Koirala is completely amazing here. She appears ethereal and wraith-like, as if a strong gust of wind would blow her away, but also shows such incredible mental strength demonstrated by her continual refusal to yield to Amar. It’s clear as the story develops that she does have feeling for him, but her allegiance to her cause is deeper, possibly just more entrenched, and her emotional turmoil fleetingly moves across her face each time she has to interact with Amar. It’s a brilliant performance, particularly in the scenes where she reveals what has happened to her and tries to explain to Amar why she has turned to terrorism.

Gradually rapport develops between the couple, but Amar is left devastated when Meghna leaves him during the night and he ends up returning to Delhi alone to prepare for his upcoming wedding to Preeti (Preity Zinta). Preita is wonderful here in her début role portraying a confidently independent but still innocent girl from Kerala. Ok, the Malayali bit is a tad strange, but the rest is brilliant! I love how she refers to sex as “honka bonka bonks”, and her directness is refreshing after all the mystery and secrets surrounding Meghna. She also gets a cool song in Jiya Jale, which has some of my favourite picturisations in the whole film.

I’ve read a number of times that the film depicts the seven stages of love from Arabic literature comprising attraction, infatuation, love, reverence, worship, obsession and death. Using this theme, Amar’s obsession makes more sense and it helps to explain why he continually follows Meghna despite her apparent disinterest. There is the moment of attraction when he glimpses her face on the railway station. Infatuation where he sees her everywhere and thinks about the mystery woman before this deepens into love. Reverence and worship are pretty much covered in Satrangi Re where Meghna appears in all seven colours of the song. Like most of the songs this seems to be another fantasy sequence, although it’s not clear if this is Amar or Meghna’s dream.

Throughout, the contrast between Meghna and Amar is stark. Meghna is at home in the mountains and dresses in all enveloping costumes that hide her identity just as much as her refusal to speak. When she does talk, she is clear and articulate – she knows exactly what she is doing and why, and has little time for anything that will take her away from her mission. Amar is a city boy whose father was in the Army and he has little understanding of the world outside Delhi. In an interview with one of the terrorist leaders, the questions he asks and his comments make it clear that he has no understanding of the issues faced by minority groups or why they feel so betrayed by the government. This makes his refusal to leave Meghna even more poignant as he will stand with her even though he cannot believe in her view of the world.

There is so much detail in this film too. Right from the start there is the threat of violence with soldiers stopping and searching Amar’s taxi on the way to the train station. In Assam there are army checkpoints and barbed wire barricades, some of which even make an appearance in the song picturisation for Dil Se. The scenery the north of India here is beautiful and stunning with the first sequences set in Assam and then later in Ladakh. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan does a fantastic job and brings surrealness to the scenes shot in Ladakh where Meghna and Amar are alone and able to talk to each other without the pressures of his family and her responsibilities. Back in the city the contrasts between Meghna and Preeti are emphasised by clever camerawork including a memorable scene where Amar’s mother (Sheeba Chaddha) asks Meghna to be a stand-in model for Preeti’s bridal jewellery. Added in to the wonderful visuals is the superb soundtrack, one of A.R. Rahman’s best, and I love every single song. Farah Khan’s choreography is spectacular too, and it’s hard to believe that there could ever be a better dance routine on top of a moving train. This is also one of SRK’s best ever performances where he moves between joy and despair at the drop of a hat and really nails the role. He throws himself into the choreography too, and his facial expressions are brilliantly expressive, particularly when he is trying to understand Meghna’s actions.

Dil Se is simply a great film. The subject matter is tragic but there is a lot of joy in the film too and the combination of stunning scenery with a good story and excellent music means there really is something for everyone. The cast are all fantastic and with so much detail to the story there always seems to be something new to pick up on with every viewing. This is a film I rewatch regularly and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it before. 4 ½ stars.

Badhaai Ho (2018)

The Kaushiks live in a cramped old apartment in a colony overflowing with other lower middle class families. Priyamvada (Neena Gupta) runs the household and her husband Jeetu (Gajraj Rao) is a ticket inspector on the railways and sometime poet. They have two sons, 20-something Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana) and stroppy teenager Gular (Shardul Rana), and Jeetu’s overbearing mother (Surekha Sikri). After a particularly trying evening, tired of keeping the peace, Priyam retires to her room. Jeetu reads his latest poem to try and sooth her hurt feelings. The poetry, the stormy night, the emotion…one thing leads to another. And 19 weeks later, the Kaushiks find out Priyam is pregnant.

When people find out about the pregnancy, reactions are varied to put it mildly. The GP and his wife are supportive of Priyamvada but give Jeetu the side eye as though to say he should have been more careful. The boys are just horrified that their parents still have sex, and are embarrassed by their degenerate behaviour. The mother-in-law goes full harpy mode and criticises Priyamvada, saying she is no better than she ought to be. And the gossip mill goes in to overdrive as news spreads.

Jeetu tells Priyamvada he’d prefer she had an abortion, but she won’t contemplate that option. He gently tries to make her see the downside, but says finally it’s her body so it should be her decision. Good man, Jeetu. I really enjoyed seeing an older couple as the focus of the story, and Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao are wonderful. They are both conditioned to defer to their elders and maintain the peace. She looks elegantly middle aged, her face showing gentle lines and character. He is sweetly reticent, all business and stingy as hell on the surface but secretly romantic.

I loved a scene at a family wedding where he manoeuvred his way to be close to her in a photo, his face alight with booze and proud affection. The female relatives and wedding guests are less happy with the pregnancy and make free with their remarks, tormenting mild-mannered Priyamvada. Neena Gupta was quietly compelling but easily switched to perfectly timed comedic beats. Seeing Jeetu and Priyam navigate their way through a life changing surprise, their relationship, and all the reactions was highly engaging without being overly dramatic. It was disappointing when the film shifted focus to Nakul and his girlfriend as their relationship is one you see in every other film. I liked seeing the often invisible people get their time front and centre.

In the midst of all the talk of reproductive rights and safe sex, the male characters’ idea of masculinity rarely strays from the often toxic manly man stereotypes. Jeetu is in demand as a fertility coach among his peers, asked to counsel a troublesome nephew who remains childless despite two marriages. The nephew is introduced dancing enthusiastically to a Sridevi hit song as onlookers make snide comments. Gular is considered to be fine once he has beaten up a bully and asserted his masculinity. Nakul made fun of an impotent friend and hides lest he be on the receiving end. His jokes are funny, in a mean spirited and rehearsed way, but it is kind of telling that his friends are really frenemies. The men seem less supportive and rarely get real in their conversations with each other. The women bitch and bicker but ultimately they seem to get that family is what it is and in the end all they may have is each other. And bingo.

Ayushmann is delightful as the sooky, moody manchild Nakul who is the centre of the universe. His timing in the dialogues and his physical reactions are just about perfection, and when Nakul isn’t brooding he has a goofy energy that lights up the screen. But Nakul is an entitled dick and everything is about him. Everything. And although I was happy to see some character growth, I grew tired of the perfection of reformed Nakul, Best Son Ever. Even when the baby is born, he makes it about him. I just never really got why the boys were so horrible. Shocked, sure. But feeling betrayed – why!?! When the film detoured over to focus on him and Renee, I did lose some interest. On the upside he and Sanya Malhotra are great together and also do some excellent eyebrow choreo in the big production number, Morni Banke, that closes the film. I love an all-in end titles extravaganza!

Sanya Malhotra is charming but Renee is a little under-written, a standard issue modern girl. I liked that she has a career and that she straight up called Nakul out on some things. But when her supposedly progressive mother, played by the elegant and considered Sheeba Chaddha, criticises the Kaushiks and Nakul fires back, Renee breaks up with him. It seemed a bit convenient for the plot given her previous behaviour, but I didn’t care so much about that relationship. She has appealing looks and energy, and was a good match for Ayushmann.

Jeetu’s mum likes an orderly world where people pay attention to god and their elders, but she might not be as backward as she seems. Surekha Sikri is over the top as cantankerous Dadi at first, but when restraint was needed she wound it back nicely. Dadi helped demonstrate the strong familial love and support that helped the Kaushiks get through everything. Mostly by demanding maximum forbearance from everyone around her.

I was so relieved that Priyamvada is not simply fodder for tacky jokes, despite the dreadful poster designs. Writer Akshat Ghildial and director Amit Ravindernath Sharma deliver humour, pathos, social critique and a warm respect and affection for most of their characters. I like a good slice of life middle class social comedy and this delivers in spades. A great cast, a smart screenplay, and beautifully immersive visuals make this a delight to watch.