Andhadhun

 

What a smart, darkly funny, thriller this is. I’m going to try to avoid too many major spoilers but really if you haven’t seen this yet, stop now. Go see it. Then come back and let’s talk.

Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a blind musician who teaches privately while practicing for a competition. Sophie (Radhika Apte) is a kind girl who accidentally runs him over and then finds him a job playing piano in her dad’s restaurant. As Sophie leaves Akash’s apartment it seems he can actually see. He meets Pramod Sinha a.k.a Pammi (Anil Dhawan), a star of yesteryear, at the restaurant when he plays one of the old man’s signature tunes. Pammi then hires Akash to play a private concert in his apartment as an anniversary surprise for his wife Simi (Tabu). Akash turns up and sees signs that something disturbing has happened. He keeps playing blind and makes his excuses to leave. Does Simi suspect he is a witness? What did he really see? Simi is paranoid, and decides to take further investigative action. And then things get really crazy.

This is a rare film where the entire cast and crew is completely in synch. The dialogues flow, beautifully delivered by a superb cast, and underscored by great visuals and sensitive use of music. The comedy and the drama both veer into dark territory but despite my finding some acts repugnant, I was so invested in finding out what on earth would happen next. Relationships are complex and can change. I liked that while most of the people were kind of despicable, it was often unclear who was playing it for real or faking it at any given time. There are double crosses and shady deals happening all over the place as Akash and Simi both try to hide their secrets and protect their dreams.

Simi takes to crime with elan. She is a hard edged almost star, with the drive and ego to do what she believes is necessary to protect her brand. She married the much older Pammi to boost her career but her breakthrough is elusive. Tabu is awesome as she has to do deliberately bad acting, just plain bad acting, and also delivering some exceptionally good comedic acting, sometimes all in the same scene. Her facial expressions are superb as calculating and narcissistic Simi tries to find the best way out of any adverse situation. Simi is a recognisable “type” but she isn’t played as a caricature when it would have been so easy to do that. It’s a fine balance, and Tabu nails it.

Ayushmann Khurrana’s blind acting, and the transitions between pretending to be blind and using his sight, are beautifully played. Whether the scene is funny or tense, he literally does it in the blink of an eye. As things go from great to bad to worse he keeps believing things will sort themselves out if he could just get a break. He’s manipulative and uses other people but when backed into a corner he can also be vicious. Akash tells a lot of his own backstory so it’s impossible to know how much is genuine and how much is self-serving, especially when he is trying to impress Sophie. Akash is a slippery character and I felt that Khurrana gave a fully developed characterisation of an unreliable and untrustworthy character. I never felt that there was anything missing but I also knew that Akash wasn’t what he seemed or that we had seen the real man. Like Tabu, he really gets his character so he can push the pathos and comedy without becoming a parody. And hurrah for an actor who bothers to learn how to look like they may actually be playing their instrument.

Sophie is a good person. She helps Akash because she feels she owes him after the bingle. Later when attraction sparks between them, she doesn’t agonise over her feelings or his blindness. She goes for it, accepts him for who he is, and tries to understand how life is for him. When she discovers that much of his identity is a lie, her reaction is equally frank and fully articulated. Radhika Apte is the straight man to Tabu and Ayushmann and her role is small, but she has impact. Someone in the film had to have a moral compass, and that was Sophie.

Tonally similar to films like Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrel or In Bruges, the movie sweeps between witty one liners to shocking confrontation to observation driven humour. Based on a French short film L’Accordeur I prefer this extended mix, I have to say. The high and lows, the tension and release, are all masterfully orchestrated by Sriram Raghavan. I loved the set design and locations. I got a real sense of Akash’s neighbourhood and the disorientation when he was outside of his literal comfort zone. Simi’s apartment screamed nouveau riche socialite. I don’t often like Amit Trivedi’s soundtracks as they can sound a bit samey and repetitive. But in this case, the music is intrinsic to the story and the mix of retro songs and original pieces is excellent.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Andhadhun and I was absolutely delighted. It’s a smart, pacey thriller with great, and very flawed, characters driving the crazy action along. Every time I would think “surely they won’t?” they did! One of the best of 2018!

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Manmarziyaan

Manmarziyaan

The performances from the three main actors are the reason to watch this romantic love triangle written by Kanika Dhillon and directed by Anurag Kashyap. Taapsee Pannu and Vicky Kaushal are the carefree couple indulging in their lovemaking whenever and wherever they can, while Abhishek Bachchan plays ‘the most patient man ever’ as Taapsee’s potential husband. The story doesn’t break new ground but the ever-present music and stunning locations make this a more watchable film than expected, even with its clichéd finale. And it’s good to have another female-centric film from Bollywood that doesn’t portray Rumi as a bad girl just because she indulges in pre-marital sex.

Taapsee Pannu’s Rumi initially appears manically impulsive which makes her rather more irritating than I suspect was intended. She’s also incredibly selfish, but then that applies to all the characters in this story, so her absorption with her own affairs sits easily beside the rest. But as the story unfolds, the complexities of her character become more apparent and Rumi’s ‘no apologies’ approach to life starts to make sense as her circumstances are revealed. She lives with her grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousin as her parents are dead, and she helps to run the family sports store. She used to play hockey at state level and still runs – for exercise, for enjoyment and also when she’s sad, upset or just plain angry.

Rumi is in love with Vicky (Vicky Kaushal), a free-wheeling DJ with spiky dyed hair and a collection of The Doors t-shirts. Vicky hops over balconies to have sex with Rumi behind her family’s back, although it’s pretty much an open secret in the neighbourhood since the lovers take a haphazard approach to concealing their activity. This is an entirely new side to Vicky Kaushal and he nails the man-child aspect of his irresponsible character with complete enthusiasm. He’s totally into Rumi and the two have an intensely passionate affair that all comes crashing down when Rumi’s aunt finds them together in the bedroom. Naturally the only solution is marriage, and rather surprisingly Rumi agrees. Perhaps she too has had enough of the sneaking around and she wants Vicky to finally ‘put a ring on it’. What moves the film forward here is Rumi’s family’s acceptance of Vicky as a husband if that’s what she wants. They may not totally approve, but there are refreshingly no demands to only marry the man of their choice. Rumi also takes a pragmatic view of the entire idea although her immaturity is on show when she declares that she will marry anyone the family chooses if Vicky fails to appear.

Although Rumi has absolute faith that her lover will agree to getting married, for Vicky that’s a step too far. He’s not ready for marriage, but he does at least admit his reluctance to an astonished and devastated Rumi. At this point the family contacts Kakaji (Saurabh Sachdeva), a marriage broker who has also been contracted to find a bride for Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan ), an NRI living in London who is back in India to search for a wife. Robbie might tie his turban on arrival in the airport to appease his rather traditional family, but is determined follow his own path as he searches for his life-partner. He falls in love almost immediately with Rumi’s picture despite the best efforts of Kakaji to provide a range of options. With Vicky’s refusal to commit, Rumi agrees to marry her family’s choice, but despite the wedding preparations, Vicky still isn’t able to let Rumi go and continually makes promises he just cannot seem to keep.

One of the areas that works well in the film is the depiction of Vicky’s commitment issues. There’s never any doubt that he is head over heels in love with Rumi, but his irresponsible nature doesn’t allow him any thought for the future. There’s an excellent scene where the two lovers run away together, only for Rumi to stop the car and ask Vicky where are they going and how will they survive. When he can’t answer, she knows that for all his passion in the bedroom, Vicky really isn’t husband material. Vicky’s father also has some harsh words for his son that ring true, telling him that he sees Rumi as a possession that he cannot bear to lose leading Vicky to make countless promises and break them over and over again. When we were discussing the film, a friend asked me why Rumi believed Vicky when it was so obvious that he wasn’t going to follow through? And that is the other part of the film that works for me. Rumi obviously loves Vicky and doesn’t want to lose him. So, she is prepared to do anything, say anything and believe him yet again when he says he will come and marry her. It’s a common scenario for women who believe they can change the men they fall in love with, and it takes maturity and experience to know that it’s simply not true. I could very much relate to Rumi’s attempts to hold on to the love she desperately wants to keep, despite being let down time after time after time.

Taapsee Pannu really is excellent here and after the initial overdone manic enthusiasm she settles down into a wonderful performance of a woman who is torn between her heart and her head. Her best scene for me was when she runs down to the river on her honeymoon and simply sobs, heartbroken and mourning the love she has lost. It’s a very powerful moment that’s followed up beautifully by her indifference to Robbie and her need to get drunk to sleep with him. Even when the story lags and the dialogue becomes repetitive, Taapsee is always engaging and convincing in her role.

What doesn’t work is Robbie’s insistence on marrying Rumi when he knows all about her relationship with Vicky. For all his talk about finding a life partner, his actions don’t appear to follow his words and his willingness to put up with Rumi’s bitchiness and indifference seems unlikely. Abhishek plays the sensible, sober and responsible Robbie well, but his character is simply too patient and understanding until towards the end of the film where he finally loses his calm façade.

The first half of the film has plenty of energy and sparkle that’s driven by Taapsee Pannu and Vicky Kaushal. Much also comes from Amit Trivedi’s fantastic soundtrack which is embedded in the very heart of the film and is used to good effect. Anurag Kashyap has added in twins who dance behind Rumi in a few of the songs and they are absolutely brilliant, adding yet more colour and vibrancy to the first half. Amritsar too is becomes part of the story as the city is beautifully filmed, and technically the film is excellent. Look out too for the gorgeous tea cups used by Rumi throughout the film and the thought that has gone into dressing Rumi and Vicky’s respective rooms.

Unfortunately, Manmarziyan loses steam in the second half and becomes rather repetitive although scenes between Vicky and Rumi still have an impact. The ending too is rather disappointing and tame after all the fireworks and energy at the beginning, and also much too predictable. This is a film to watch for the characterisations and the clever staging of a number of scenes rather than for the screenplay, which does tend to drag at times. But with such outstanding performances from the three leads Manmarziyan is still a step up from an average love story and definitely worth a watch.

Udta Punjab

udta-punjab-poster

After a very wordy anti-drugs and pro-Punjab disclaimer riddled with spelling and grammar errors which may or may not indicate its sincerity, Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab opens with an intense, crass, loud and proud drug anthem.

Visually strong and often confronting, Rajeev Ravi’s high impact imagery is balanced with scenes of delicate loveliness. The take seems to be that Punjab is turning into a place with the morals of a Mexico or, ahem, Goa. Packages of heroin are making their way across the border nightly, and dubious shipments of pharmaceuticals are waved past by police. We see a young girl, one of many out of state workers coming to labour on farms. The divide between the worlds of privilege and subsistence is evident, and the film doesn’t shy away from the gory, violent, consequences of disrupting the status quo. It’s powerful stuff, and quite gripping. Unfortunately the second half revolves around unnecessary and unconvincing romance just when the main plot should have been in laser sharp focus to bring it all together.

Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) takes the sex, drugs, and rock n roll mantra to heart. Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) is a mid-rank cop with flexible morals, happy to overlook the drugs as long as he gets his cut. Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) specialises in treating addicts and wants to cut the problem off at the source. The nameless girl finds a package in the fields, and thinks she can make some fast money. The film shows the close but not quite intersecting paths characters take, passing each other without a blink or occupying the same space at different times. There is definitely a pervasive feeling that some lives are held cheap and existence for many people has become the wait for death. The sense of connection and community, what affects one will affect many, is clearly drawn out.

Sartaj’s brother Balli ODs on the drug that Sartaj had waved through a checkpoint. In the blink of an eye Sartaj becomes a crusader for justice and decides to help Preet take on the system. The girl is forced into prostitution and drug dependency, and one of the men she has to service is Sartaj’s boss. Tommy attempts to get cleaned up but his own friends get him using again, and fans have no interest in a more honest, introspective star. They want their bad boy back. After a near riot, Tommy runs away and encounters the girl, now also a fugitive. Sartaj falls for Preet, Tommy falls for the girl. All for love and love for all. Apparently all you need is a girlfriend and you will immediately develop moral fibre and a resistance to highly addictive substances. Poor Balli is locked in a treatment cell and all but forgotten, with no magical insta-love to rescue him.

I’m sure Shahid wasn’t at a loss for examples for playing a coked up celebrity. Tommy comes across as a very naughty boy, not a complex or dangerous man in the grip of addiction. Is it bad that in one of his meltdowns I found the elaborate toilet lid more compelling than the dialogue? He thinks rapping about his cock is HILARIOUS. When he ends up in jail, two young boys in the cell perform one of his hits before quietly admitting they killed their mother because she wouldn’t give them money for drugs. Shahid shows Tommy’s growing fear and uncertainty as he realises he is in serious trouble and tries to get off the gear. It’s when Shahid reverts to his bunny-teeth boy in love shtick that he seems most comfortable, and yet nothing made much sense. How can such a famous man with a memorably bad haircut travel across country with no money and not be recognised, even when wearing one of his own crew t-shirts? And what about the girl, who we are expected to believe could fully and easily recover from the trauma of being a sex slave and a drug addict just because Tommy likes her. And don’t mention the ballad.

Alia Bhatt’s performance is excellent, and reminded me a little of her role in Highway. She has minimal dialogue as the Bihari farm girl and even less as a sex slave. Her character is smart and strong, but the brutality of her life with the drug barons is overwhelming and Alia lets her expressive eyes go dull. The girl doesn’t ever give up on herself though. It’s a little disappointing that Chaubey seems to think Tommy is the cure for her, and sad for her that she will acquire a manchild for her troubles. And I could have slapped someone for the oh so clever name they reveal at the end of the film. I was half expecting her birthday to be on April 20th.

Kareena’s approach to Preet is less makeup = Serious Lady Doctor, plus coquettish hair tossing and simpering. Unfortunately her lightweight characterisation exposes her weaknesses when compared to the rest of the cast, and then her character turns stupid. In a film about the social cost of drugs, should a scene where Sartaj is accidentally injected with the same drug that nearly killed his brother be turned into comedy? And should Preet and Sartaj be all awkward about the dopey flirting and forget the medical issue of someone having ingested a highly addictive drug made in a shed who knows where with who knows what chemicals and being stuck with a needle that may have had someone else’s blood in it and so exposing the injectee to Hepatitis or HIV? No. Why would a doctor worry about that? It’s a shame as Preet had potential to be interesting and she certainly had the only fully operational moral compass.

I’ve sat through the trailer for Sardarji a few times now so having Diljit Dosanjh actually in the film I had gone to see was almost disorienting. He delivers a competent performance, and tries to generate some one-sided chemistry with Kareena. His character in some ways is the most complex, although the film moves on too quickly from moments of epiphany, self-loathing, and despair in favour of simplistic love and revenge.

The large supporting cast is good but while I recognised some familiar faces, I couldn’t put names to everyone. I took a violent dislike to one of the girl’s captors in particular, and wanted to get my Tight Slap Administrator gloves on with some of Tommy’s cousins. The production values are high, and I can appreciate the effort and care given to the visual design and soundtrack. Amit Trivedi has gone beyond his usual tweedly guitars and tried to extend Tommy’s character through his featured songs.

Maybe if you see the film as an allegory this second half works a little better, to a point. The girl is perhaps a representation of salt of the earth Punjab tempted by easy money and being screwed over by the drug cartels and cops, Tommy is the privileged class who can largely avoid consequences, Sartaj is the system that has neglected its duty to protect the people and uphold the law, and Balli is at the end of the line with no one to pass the blame or damage on to. But Chaubey leaves us with the message that all you need is romantic love. And a gun.

I was disappointed by the direction Udta Punjab took after such a powerful start. But I am happy to regard my ticket as a contribution to supporting and encouraging filmmakers’ freedom of artistic expression after all the ridiculous censorship shenanigans.