Befikre (2016)

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Easily the best thing about Aditya Chopra’s Befikre is Paris, and thankfully the characters spend plenty of time wandering past significant landmarks and meandering through lane ways full of beautiful buildings giving the city ample opportunity to shine. It’s not that the rest of the film is that bad – it’s just not that good. At its best, Befikre is funny and both Ranveer and Vaani are full of life and energy, but the plot is nonsensical, the dares that are used to further the love story ridiculous and there are so many WTF moments that the farcical ending is no surprise. And to cap it all off, it’s such a shame that a film set in the ‘city of love’ contains so little actual romance.

The opening sequence shows numerous couples kissing over the credits but what starts as possibly sweet and romantic moves to voyeuristic and just a little bit creepy as it goes on for that little too long. Any thought of love is also quickly dashed when we first meet Dharam (Ranveer Singh) and Shyra (Vaani Kapoor) as they’re in the process of breaking up. Neither one appears as an attractive character during the ensuing slanging match, while Dharam in particular seems to be typical of the chauvinistic man-child so often portrayed in Hindi cinema. Despite all the drama, the break-up is actually quite funny, at least until Dharam does the unforgivable and calls Shyra a slut (more of that later) before she finally leaves.

The film quickly moves back a year to when Dharam and Shyra first meet and their ’love’ story starts.  Dharam is a stand-up comedian who has moved to Paris to appear at a club run by his friend Mehra (Aru Krishansh Verma). Sadly Dharam isn’t funny at all as a comedian but he is quite amusing when he’s hanging out with Shyra. Initially Shyra doesn’t want a bar of him and is quite happy with a one-night stand, but a silly game of dare results in the two heading out together on a date and the relationship develops from there.  Both Shyra and Dharam resolve never to say “I love you’ and to keep things light and carefree with no commitment, but despite this agreement, Shyra ends up moving in with Dharam. The relationship moves forward through a series of ever more ridiculous dares, all of which would have resulted in arrest and possible jail time if, for example, anyone really did hit a policeman or perform a striptease in a library. Of course Dharam and Shyra are never seen to have to deal with any repercussions from their actions, some of which are a little too risqué to be easy viewing and despite all their antics there is never any sense that the two are anything other than friends-with-benefits. It’s Paris for goodness sake – where’s the wining and dining, the romantic walks through parks and along the Seine? Sadly for Dharam and Shyra it’s all night clubs and bedrooms with little else between – no wonder their relationship eventually breaks down so spectacularly.

The film moves back to the present day where Dharam and Shyra meet up again by chance and renew their friendship. And this time they are strictly friends as Dharam is happily working his way through a number of French women and Shyra is content with her single life. But then she meets Anay (Armaan Ralhan) and everything changes. Shyra embarks on a mature and adult relationship which seems to be happily heading towards commitment, but even here there are cracks in the screenplay. Who leaves their possible fiancé at the top of the Eiffel tower and runs off to ask their friend for advice? Would anyone seriously still be waiting for an answer after that? And while the easy camaraderie and friendship between Dharam and Shyra suits them much better than any romance, how can two people who parted on such bad terms ever develop the easy relationship shown here? At least Dharma apologises for his slut comment, accepting that it was inexcusable and less about Shyra and her previous lovers and more about him and his immaturity. Finally a small step (OK, maybe less of a step and more of a toe-dip) in the right direction, and rightly applauded by the audience too.

What keeps the film going are the performances from Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor. No matter that there is zero sparkage between the two of them, they are both so energetic that it’s just possible to overlook the idiotic dares and juvenile behaviour and enjoy the craziness of two OTT people rampaging their way through Paris. This works better when they are friends rather than lovers, but for the most part their scenes together are funny and full of joie de vivre once they move past the bedroom antics. I love Ranveer Singh when he hams it up and exaggerates every possible expression and gesture as he does here. Similar to his roles in Kill Dil and Gunday, here he’s loud, brash and looks to be totally enjoying every minute as his enthusiasm colours every frame. He has great comic timing throughout and his one-liners had the entire cinema in stitches, while once again he sparkles through the songs.

Not to be outdone, Vaani Kapoor is equally buoyant during the flashback sequences while the evolution of her character allows her to be more reserved and restrained in the second half of the film. Vaani expresses a range of emotions well and her wavering and indecision about commitment is very well done in the latter half of the film. She also fits well into the European-Indian styling she is given and at least in the second half of the film does deliver some French-style sophistication during her romance with Anay.

Despite the ridiculous storyline I did enjoy most of Befikre – although nothing could make me enjoy the ending, not even Ranveer. It was a real pleasure to see Paris as the backdrop for the film even if more could have been made of its reputation as a city for lovers. While both Dharam and Shyra are irritating during the flashback sequences, for the most part their friendship is more accessible and I did find a lot of the humour very funny. Most of the audience were laughing too and the general atmosphere was pretty upbeat in the cinema. The songs from Vishal-Shekhar are great and suit the overall mood of the film and of course the whole film looks stylish, but Befikre really needed a much better story-line and more depth to the characters. The end result is a romantic comedy that basically has no romance despite the best efforts of Ranveer and Vaani. Worth watching for the beautiful views of Paris and the exuberant Ranveer Singh who really can make anything engaging!

Khoon Pasina (1977)

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Sometimes when the world has gone mad, you just need the reassuring presence of The Big B dishing out dishoom and justice.

Shiva and Aslam grow up besties in one of those happily diverse communities. Their dads are also friends, teasing each other about being rubbish at being a Muslim or a Hindu because they can’t even remember their own religious celebrations. Both dads make a powerful enemy when they stop a flamboyantly bewigged and fringed Kader Khan killing a bloke. He decides to foment communal strife in order to kill them without the police suspecting him, and somehow this is linked via a montage to Partition. The family is torn apart by a house fire that kills Ram and Rahim, leaves Aslam lost, and places young Shiva with Aslam’s ma (Nirupa Roy) as his only family.

The kids are indifferent actors, probably chosen for their evolutionary potential to end up looking like neighbourhood thug Shiva, aka Tiger (Amitabh Bachchan), and principled dacoit Shera (Vinod Khanna). Tiger hasn’t forgotten his past despite being raised by Nirupa Roy while Shera is trying to find death, but even death is worried by his body count.

Amitabh gets the best and worst of the film. Shiva/Tiger is an impulsive thug who is motivated by the right reasons but doesn’t stop to think about collateral damage or even just stop to think, a dictator in his own manner. He also gets stuck with a wardrobe that I wish I could say was part of the comedy track. It annoys me so much that he is called Tiger yet wears leopard print. Really! But Amitabh has such charm that the glib one-liners work a treat and he can switch effortlessly to show Shiva’s darker side. And some of the comedy track is funny despite itself. I particularly enjoyed the wedding party being entertained and fed by the crooks who had come to steal the bride. I suppose in a different film, Tiger could always have picked up work as an event planner.

Tiger sees the curvaceous and feisty Chanda (Rekha) at the market and is smitten. She challenges him to back up his bragging by wrestling a tiger for her. So he does. But Chanda has been engaged to gangster Raghu (Ranjeet) since childhood, and he is not inclined to give up his claim. Raghu tries to get Shera to kill Tiger but Shera says it would be better if Raghu died. Raghu has other ideas and starts messing with Zaleem Singh who is still alive and scheming.

Shera still mourns his lost family, and believes himself alone in the world. Like Shiva, he has a strong commitment to justice as he sees it, and like Shiva he doesn’t pay attention to the law. Vinod Khanna was saddled with some dodgy hair and a lot of pleather, but Shera is certainly the cooler of the grown up boys. Probably because he doesn’t have his mummy choosing his outfits. But he is also afflicted with the faux leopard trim. Vinod delivers his cheesy lines with a detached and weary cynicism threaded with sentimentality about families and honour. It’s the kind of role that I usually expect to see Danny Denzongpa in and I think he might have added a little more spark to the pathos. The long lost friends spend almost all the film apart and their few scenes together are good. I wish they had interacted a bit more to ramp up the tension a bit.

Chanda faces Raghu down with the full support of her father who says she cannot be married off against her will. Hurrah for that dad! Naturally Raghu decides to eliminate Tiger, but being a weasel he takes many indirect routes rather than simple confrontation. Rekha’s body language is quite masculine and often aggressive in Chanda’s pre-marriage scenes. She owns her space and doesn’t let unwanted contact go past without payback. She falls for Tiger but then he plays hard to get. They have a push and pull in their dynamic that is amusing but not emotionally healthy. And when it comes to Tiger choosing between his wife or his ma, you’d better believe he is a mummy’s boy who will slap his wife into the middle of next week if she disagrees with Ma. Rekha and Amitabh have that chemistry of course, but I enjoyed Chanda’s scenes where she was going about her daily routine alone and her interactions with other people in the village. Rekha can be funny as well as dramatic, and despite a few airhead moments Chanda is quick-witted and interesting.

Shanno or Shantidevi (Aruna Irani) is another defiant woman. She loves her husband Mohan (a very restrained Asrani) who is a gentle, law abiding man and they talk about their conflicting beliefs and all seems really respectful and solid. Except when Mohan is threatening Shanno to prevent her from telling her brothers or when Shanno is telling Mohan to pop on some bangles and let her be the man of the family. Shanno also happens to be Zaleem Singh’s daughter and bears her Monobrow of Fury with elan. Her immediate reaction to any insult is to grab a gun and try and kill the offender, saying her brothers will clean up the legal issues. When Raghu burns down their farm and pretends he is Tiger, it sets up yet another conflict. After a tense family visit, and a huge random edit, Mohan decides to go kill Tiger so Shanti also runs off after him with a gun.

Shiva relocates to the jungle and ends up working on a plantation owned by Zaleem Singh. He gets a nice Kalyanji-Anandji number that looks like a rehearsal for Mr Natwarlal, and Helen makes an appearance to dance for the landlords. He builds new relationships and becomes the voice of workers’ rights and social justice. There’s even an “I’m Spartacus” scene. Chanda is gradually sidelined but she remains a strong force in the film and in Shiva’s life. Nirupa continues to give him pointless and conflicting instructions. The lack of emotional blackmail opportunities drives her to almost commit a crime so she can stop herself and “Nahiiiiin!” about it.

There are so many bad guys! Ranjeet gets his shirt off for no reason, Kader Khan is slimy and arrogant as Zaleem Singh, Mac Mohan is natty in pleather as Singh’s flunkey, Vinod Khanna is a cut above this material, and there are so many beefy shirtless dudes running around beating people up that I suspect that was the main industry for the village. There are also abundant good guys, many of whom speak with sense, logic, and empathy. It’s quite pleasing to have some good life advice doled out to the hero.

And all the while Shera is on Tiger’s trail, paid to hand Tiger over to Zaleem Singh but not really believing that he is a miscreant.

What happens next? Please, you already know. And yet there is always that bit extra that makes you go “Huh?” The action scenes are woeful as I don’t think Rakesh Kumar had the faintest idea of how to shoot or stage a fight so there is minimal choreography of the stunts and lots of bizarre angles and edits to skip over the lack of detail. There is a very long and quite unnecessary horse chase, although it did prove Moti knew what was what. It’s the kind of film where wallowing in quicksand is not enough, you have to simultaneously wrestle a snake. It’s the kind of film where if you want to kill someone you have to first build an enormous wooden edifice and tie them to a stake at the top. It’s the kind of film where Moti the horse should have been making key decisions.

Despite being quite slapdash, the story contains some interesting little bits and pieces. See it for Amitabh and Vinod emoting fiercely with Rekha and Aruna Irani being fierce. 3 ½ stars!

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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.