Delhi Belly

Abhinay Deo loads up Delhi Belly with self-conscious references and imagery of Bollywood and “India”. The opening sequence includes Rishi Kapoor prancing in a blinding white suit from the medley from Hum Kisise Kum Nahin intercut with a slick airport and some slum kids. I wanted to like this. I like the caper genre, I like Guy Ritchie films (of which this is heavily derivative), and I even quite like Imran Khan. But it feels a bit empty, like a film set in India and made for people who have never been there themselves.

Note: I watched the Hinglish version of the film which is heavy on the profanity, with some characters swearing as much as I do. I believe the Hindi version is not quite as graphic.

Tashi (Imran Khan) is a journalist of sorts, interviewing starlets he despises when he isn’t writing up serious crimes. Tashi’s flight attendant girlfriend Sonia (Shehnaz Treasurywala) does a dodgy deal with Vladimir to drop off a package to a local address. Of course the package contains smuggled diamonds. Nitin (Kunaal Roy Kapur) is a perve, and a photographer, as well as Tashi’s sidekick and roommate. The other flatmate is Arup (Vir Das in a terrible wig), the geeky graphic artist charged with making a banana look happier but not too happy. Menaka (Poorna Jagannathan) is a journalist colleague who is there because someone has to have a crazy ex-husband who wants to hunt Tashi down. Tashi tells Nitin to drop off the package to Somayajulu (Vijay Raaz) but Nitin comes down with Delhi Belly, and sends Arup to drop off the package AND his stool sample. Yeah, you can pretty much guess the rest.

The film is stylised, with quirky sound and visual effects emphasising the comedy and dramatic beats. It’s meticulously planned, with all the intersecting plotlines and near misses neatly plotted. And that is one of the problems I have with Delhi Belly. While it is visually accomplished and great to look at, there is not enough fizz or life in the story or the characters.

There is an overabundance of trashy puerile boy humour that might put some people off, but at least it is frank about sex and avoids unnecessary coyness. And as you would expect from the title, there is scatological and toilet humour galore, and that is carried over to Raj Sampath’s soundtrack. The bad language and smutty jokes are largely for shock value and not driven by a genuine insight or moment. That is what I found distasteful and even worse, boring. Making a man run down the street while wearing a burqa is not champagne comedy. One rare comedy highlight is Arup fantasising about breaking up a wedding in his Disco Fighter avatar (and announcing his equal opportunity approach to oral sex) before bursting into song. It’s a little bit Mithun and a little bit Wedding Singer post the break up.

Imran Khan is stuck with a character who doesn’t seem to have much motivation but ends up in an ever more threatening and strange set of circumstances. His nice middle class boy aura never really leaves him, no matter how squalid the surroundings, and I never quite believed in Tashi. I did like his Rajinikanth shirt though. Tashi is apparently acceptable husband material to a wealthy middle class family but he chooses to live in a hovel and not really have much of a career. How does that work?

Imran has no chemistry at all with Shenaz or Poorna which is disappointing considering Tashi gets very hands on with them. Imran and Kunaal Roy Kapur are much more fun together. But despite Kapur’s rambunctious performance and occasional zingers I got so tired of Nitin and his digestive tract that I wanted his scenes to be over NOW. And Vir Das was sort of reprising his role in Go Goa Gone so I felt he was a bit underutilised. And his wig was truly terrible and a great distraction.

Shenaz Treasurywala delivers an entertaining performance in a role that didn’t demand one. Sonia is a confident upper middle class girl. She can afford to be nice to almost everyone because other than choosing a lipgloss she doesn’t have much to tax her brain with. Poorna Jagannathan plays Menaka as more of a world weary cynic, but again she will go out of her way to help a hopeless boy. As mentioned, I couldn’t see the appeal of Tashi to either lady and given they formed a mild love triangle it would have been better if there was more chemistry.

Leading the villains, Vijay Raaz and the gang of henchmen do their best to be OTT. I appreciated their commitment, and some scenes had real tension. But the film couldn’t commit to playing it straight so there were forays into unnecessary slapstick that fell flat. Often literally. A dishonourable mention goes to Rahul Singh as Menaka’s ex. His character was so unpleasant it was hard to believe such a smart confident girl would have married him against her family’s wishes, and his acting was completely suited to the role.

I have to mention Aamir Khan’s appearance as Disco Fighter in the closing song. Aamir is one of the film’s producers and according to the goss, attended some special advance previews to find out why audiences weren’t responding to the film. But his disco antics are there for added box office appeal, not for the film and not for fun. And not because the world needs any more actors in blackface. Jeez. Anyway, it’s not like he needs any more proof he is a terrible dancer so I guess he really likes his nephew.

It’s a clever but ultimately joyless effort. The film lacks the verve of proper masala embodied by Rishi’s performance in the opening visuals. Great masala films crackle with the energy and velocity of dodgem cars and roller coasters, not the methodical progression of chess. 2 ½ stars!

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Phillauri

Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is set in two different timelines, and is a movie of two very different halves. Usually things take a turn for the worse after Intermission, but in the case of Phillauri it is the first half that I found a chore.

Kanan (Suraj Sharma) goes home to India to get married to his longtime girlfriend Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Just before his engagement he is told he has a problem in his horoscope, and the only way to avoid future calamity is to marry a tree. He is sceptical but does what the families want. Soon after the tree wedding, he is woken by a sparkly spirit hovering above his bed. Shashi (Anushka Sharma) found herself transported to the house, but had no idea how or why. Only Kanan can see or hear Shashi, just adding to his already troubling behaviour. He is ambivalent about marrying Anu, Shashi is unhappy at her lot, and Anu is miserable that the guy she loves is turning out to be a wuss. So it was a huge relief to skip back in time and learn more about Shashi and the love of her life, Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh). Shashi and Anu between them force Kanan to examine his decisions and motivations. Will Kanan and Anu get married? And what happened that Shashi spent 98 years alone, her spirit connected to the tree?

The modern story line is the least interesting by far. It feels glib, done by numbers, and is not helped by some weak performances. Suraj Sharma is particularly flat as Kanan, and terribly unconvincing in scenes where he is supposed to be overcome by fear. Speaking in a weedy falsetto is not enough. Mehreen Pirzada gets almost nothing to work with. Anu has been in love with Kanan since school, she has never had any other plan than to marry him, and I have no idea if she has a job or finished college or anything else. Anu is a weepy, sullen girl which is a bit tiresome although understandable. I did like that she confronted him and demanded he articulate his feelings and make a decision, not just try and passively weasel out as she deserved better than that. There is the usual array of parents and relatives, and a pickled grandmother who starts drinking at breakfast. And there’s a rather nasty “joke” about Kanan being gay and maybe a paedophile. It’s mostly a jumble of clichés, and where the dialogue is a bit more realistic the acting falls over.

The earlier timeline seems to be given so much more love, the writing is more solid, and the performances are stronger. Shashi helps her brother the village doctor, who has raised her since she was young. She is educated but conservative, knowing how a girl from a good family is expected to behave.  Shashi’s one weakness is poetry, and she waits every week to see the poems of Phillauri in the journal. Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh) uses the same name but his songs are bawdy drinking fare, not the more heartfelt and literary work that Shashi loves. He is a flirt, and she shuts him down when he pretends to have written lines that she knows the real Phillauri wrote. But their mutual love of poetry and music, and of love, brings them together. Anushka and Diljit have a beautiful low key chemistry that makes their scenes together shine. She is expressive even without speaking and he inhabits the role of country layabout turned honest man so comfortably. It was a pleasure to get back into their timeline, and not just for the nostalgic beauty. Shashi’s story served to show how the status of women hasn’t improved significantly in almost 100 years, and was also a sterling example of a relationship built on equality, consent, and honesty.

One of the most understated but surprising scenes was a conversation after Shashi’s affair had been discovered. Her brother (played beautifully by Manav Vij) was furious, and laid into both Shashi and Roop Lal. All typical filmi villain thwarting True Love stuff. But later he took her a drink and spoke to her about how he had raised her like his own child and always wanted her to have everything she deserved, and that he loved her. Not what I was expecting at all, although I may have muttered something about the patriarchy. When Shashi and her best friend Amrit (Nidhi Bisht) were talking discreetly about her virginity situation, the scene was nicely gossipy but also quite sweet and not salacious. I liked seeing Shashi being herself, and having people love her for it, without Anushka taking so much as a step towards the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl line. And I don’t want to spoil the story but there are scenes where Anushka and Diljit show a whole arc of story just through the emotions playing across their faces.

The film’s mythology is a bit patchy. Is technicolour glitter cannon heaven a thing for Sikhs? Does every ghost have tinkerbell sound effects and shed a trail of sparkles? Why did Shashi usually float on an awkward horizontal rather than gliding vertically? Why could she wear Anu’s dupatta but not be seen or felt by anyone other than Kanan? Who knows.

But for all the cheesy effects, there are songs like Dum Dum and Sahiba that take us into the story and reveal more of the rich inner lives of Shashi and her bloke. Anvita Dutt wrote the screenplay and some lyrics, and her dialogues were a highlight in the olden days timeline.

Phillauri is not a masterpiece but it does show flashes of excellence. If Lal had been more disciplined in that draggy first half, and maybe pushed Suraj Sharma to try more nuance in his squeaking, it would have helped. But I liked seeing a full blown romance centred on two people who were genuine, honest, and respected each other. Tolerate the first half and enjoy the second half!

Raman Raghav 2.0

Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 takes us into a cat and mouse game between coked up cop Raghavan (Vicky Kaushal) and self-possessed serial killer Ramana. There are no heroes here, in a Mumbai that is more like a jungle peopled by predators and those who so easily become their prey.

Anurag Kashyap has never struck me as a wallflower, and his style is as much a feature of the film as his actors. There is a lot of technique out on display and the stylised effects actually do work pretty well with the action and narrative. When Ramana describes his thinking there are often sound effects like rain, or static, that make it seem like a genuine recollection but also that his imagination is his reality.  Kashyap supposedly employed guerrilla filming tactics to shoot his story out in the city, and very occasionally you see an extra execute a nice double take. The colours, the lighting, the ambient noise, it all says Mumbai and reminded me that every mega-city is a collection of villages. There is a real tension in some of the chase scenes that is as much “will they make it down that street in one piece” as it is about the story. I get why he used the chapter structure to string together disparate scenes and save on explanation, but they are a bit annoying and really don’t add anything other than exposition. I was more invested in following the characters than being hit over the head with the intent of the next section.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is that terrifying movie bogeyman – a mild mannered, unremarkable, serial killer. His performance gives Ramana a menace and intelligence that helps gloss over some of the less plausible moments. Scenes that appear to be him reacting to something can later be seen as a rehearsal or test for how to get the desired reaction. He has a casual brutality driven by a rigorous inner logic, with a touch of religious mania. He seems to be guided by cats more than is good for a sane man. Ramana’s Mumbai is part forest and little shacks, not many people around him at times, and part concrete jungle. He is matter of fact and almost seems to expect people to agree with him that they must be punished. When he tracks down his sister and finds her recollection of events not to his liking, he cannot let that go by. His scenes with Raghavan are particularly mesmerising as Nawaz the actor and Ramana the character each play with the onlookers emotions and logic. His final scene with Raghavan was sick and creepy and yet held a sweetness that implied redemption had once been possible, perhaps. Kashyap should be thanking his lucky stars he got Siddiqui to star as I can’t imagine another contemporary actor being so prepared to show such unapologetic darkness, and making it look exquisite.

Vicky Kaushal is the coked up cop Raghavan. He disregards Ramana’s hints that they have seen each other before and leaves him as a harmless nut job to be scared off. He is on his own downward spiral, and there is no end in sight. Raghavan doesn’t seem to have a single honest or healthy relationship in his life. Like Ramana he believes he knows best and that whatever he does is somehow sanctioned. Raghavan is a nasty piece of work but I never felt drawn into his inner world the way I was with Ramana. Vicky Kaushal relied more on external expression of his turmoil – the sniffing and irritability that went with his habit – than showing the demons driving him. I rarely felt much connection with Raghavan as a person. I could easily detest him but I couldn’t really invest in his fairly predictable journey.

His sort of girlfriend Simmy (Sobhita Dhulipala) tolerates his behaviour although I really don’t know why. He makes it clear she is there for sex not forever, and he certainly doesn’t care about any consequences of their relationship, but she doesn’t seem to take his aggression and threats seriously. Sobhita is convincing with her party girl ennui and casual acceptance of Raghavan’s violent side. If only Simmy also had better attention to self-preservation. Some of the women in the film exhibit what could be called non-traditional values, and I couldn’t help but notice that none of them comes through unscathed. It’s a high body count film so that is not inconsistent, but I wondered why female sexuality had to be the trigger for punishment so often. I spent a fair amount of my viewing time urging the women in it to RUN.

The rest of the supporting cast play the friends, family, cops and robbers of this world. They’re all good but very much pushed aside by the two lead characters. I particularly liked Amruta Subhash as Ramana’s sister Lakshmi, and Mukesh Chhabra as the wishy washy loan shark.

Raj Sampath’s score is driving and percussive for the most, underpinning the tempo of the city and the chase. The songs are obligatory rather than necessary but do speak to the characters inner state. And there are some nice touches as when the romantic music wells as Ramana explains to Raghavan that he is his soulmate. It’s a twisted but seemingly genuine love at first sight.

Whenever Nawazuddin is on screen I felt a chill. Unfortunately too much directorial faffing around to try and look cool drained the film of tension, and Vicky Kaushal wasn’t able to overcome either a compelling co-star or an underwritten role. 3 stars.