Mr Natwarlal (1979)

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I love Mr Natwarlal. It has so much masala goodness, it always puts a smile on my face. We are given Amitabh as a hero with some unheroic ideas, Rekha as a gorgeous and quick witted village belle, Amjad Khan as a typical Amjad Khan villain, more familiar faces than you can poke a stick at, a catchy Rajesh Roshan soundtrack and writer/director Rakesh Kumar continues working out his tiger wrestling fetish. The only major negative is that some of the horse stunts have a look of careless finality for the horses that always makes me queasy.

Mr Natwarlal-playground

The film is framed with Amitabh narrating the story of a child that turns out to be himself, telling the story of his past to his own child. I only mention that so I have an excuse to post this picture of an awesome playground complete with lion statue. I suspected immediately that despite the plethora of cute kid actors I was going to love this.

Natwarlal (Amitabh Bachchan) is a smooth talking fast thinking criminal with Robin Hood tendencies. This dates back to a traumatic childhood incident when he was played by Master Laddu, and his older brother Ghirdharilal (Ajit) was entrapped by Evil Vikram (Amjad Khan). Natwarlal has been raised by his brother and sister-in-law (Indrani Mukherjee), who treats him as a son. Grown up Nattu is tricked by a heavily scarred man into stealing a diamond necklace and smuggling it out of the country. Scarface is actually Micky (Satyendra Kapoor), Vikram’s old (betrayed) business partner who is pretending to be one of Vikram’s Victims. Vikram likes his V symbolism. Poor Ghirdharilal keeps trying to nab his little brother to set him straight but Natwarlal easily produces alibi after alibi. He is determined to become a big enough crook to go after Vikram and set things to rights. Micky wants to use Natwarlal to take Vikram other out so he can take over the secret diamond mines. Revenge is a long and complex game, especially in masala films.

Natwarlal is an audacious crook and easily carries off the heist, even under the watchful eye of his brother. He heads to Chandanpur as instructed, arriving to find the village under a siege of sorts. Vikram is using a tiger (pleasingly, she is credited as Bharati) as a smokescreen for kidnapping villagers in small batches and forcing them to work in the mines. Now. Since the mining operation seems to take place on the river bank just a stroll or a long and desperate horse ride from the village, I would have thought people might notice their “dead” loved ones wandering about. But thanks to the filmi laws of locality blindness it seems not.

Natwarlal arrives suited and booted, toting a gun, unaware that village leader Baba (Kader Khan) has sent for a hunter to come and deal with their tiger issue. He isn’t interested at first in the village problems, being more focussed on the diamonds, but agrees that he is Avtar Singh, the hunter.  Amitabh makes switching from high drama to slapstick comedy look effortless. He is also nattily dressed for the country and Natwarlal must have been very efficient at packing such an extensive wardrobe into one small valise. And I suspect his boots have bullet evading properties.

That tree covered in people always makes me wonder how they got them up there, how long were they up there, and how they got down safely again. Also, given the speed and agility of those ladies the villagers may have been better advised to let them go battle the tiger while the menfolk stayed safely indoors. Sassy Shanno (Rekha) quickly sets her cap at the tall dance-challenged stranger, so Natwarlal gets a little distracted and seems quite happy to wait around.

Zimbo is despatched to check out the impostor as Vikram is quite certain he slapped the real Avtar Singh with a dead pigeon before having him killed. Poor Zimbo wasn’t mourned for long, if at all, when he disappeared under the quicksand. Ah well. No one is irreplaceable. Vikram is a surprisingly rational villain despite being completely nuts, and Amjad Khan seems to be having some fun with the grandiose threats. Vikram tries not to draw police attention, he acts with moderation to achieve a logical goal. But he can’t help branding everyone and everything he owns with a V and can’t just move on quietly or shoot the hero from a safe distance. Nooooo.

Natwarlal realises Vikram is behind everything and goes in search of trouble. Trouble finds him easily enough. Natwarlal rescues Shanno from Vikram’s not very bright goon squad. She is not good at taking orders not to stay out of harm’s way and actually rescues him back on multiple occasions. And they invent a new couples activity – tiger wrestling!

Rekha and The Big B’s on screen chemistry is always wonderful and while Shanno appears to fall for insta-love, Rekha plays her as funny and direct in their many scenes together so the relationship comes to life. Shanno gets her share of the big scenes too, and Rekha gave her fire and resolve. Amitabh also had good rapport with the tiger so I was vaguely hopeful that Bharati was not too traumatised by her many and varied fight scenes.

A lot of the humour comes from how the dialogues are delivered or those small beats in timing. There are some light Sholay references which made me laugh despite the drama brewing, especially Shanno’s Basanti-esque dance while she was being held captive at the diamond mine. I also enjoyed the irascible Natwarlal’s journey to loving something more than himself.

Will they overcome the dastardly Vikram and his all singing all dancing food juggling henchmen? Will Ghirdharilal and Natwarlal make their peace? Will Shanno get her man and her sheep? Will the starving villagers eat the tiger? (Spoiler – no!) Will Natwarlal ever stop blaspheming? Will Vikram get his comeuppance in a satisfyingly poetic manner? So much plot, so little time!

The locations are gorgeous and so is the cast. If you like masala with a modicum of moderation this is a great film.  4 stars! (Deductions for animal welfare concerns and annoying ghostly subtitles.)

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Shamitabh

Shamitabh

Shamitabh is the third film featuring Amitabh Bachchan from writer/director R. Balki and it’s definitely my pick of the three. I may however be somewhat biased, given that this film also stars my favourite Tamil actor Dhanush, who never fails to impress with his performance and delivers yet again in Shamitabh. I’ve found that while Balki’s previous two films Cheeni Kum and Paa have clever and overall engaging ideas, the execution doesn’t always live up to expectations. And to a lesser extent it’s the same with Shamitabh, although here there is more hit than miss and the film succeeds in humorously poking fun at a number of different aspects of the film industry. There are a few too many contrivances to make the plot really gel and the dodgy medical science is a drawback, but the central theme of two warring egos against the backdrop of the superficial and glamorous world of Bollywood is compelling enough to ensure an entertaining watch.

The film opens with a success event for début actor Shamitabh (Dhanush), and the impact on the room of invited guests is much the same as for the film audience when Dhanush opens his mouth and the voice of Amitabh Bachchan rolls out. The contrast could not be greater and it’s this combination of actor and voice that has made Shamitabh such a success in his first film. But before the phenomenon that is Shamitabh there was Daanish, a mute boy so obsessed with films that he dreamt of running away to Mumbai to be a hero. I don’t know who the young actor is who plays the young Daanish but he is absolutely brilliant, particularly when his exasperated teacher makes him act in front of the class. The anguish in his portrayal of despair at the supposed death of his mother is incredible and from that point it does seem possible that perhaps Daanish could be a hero despite his lack of a voice. However once he grows up and does make it to Mumbai, it’s evident that no matter how good an actor Daanish is, he will never be able to make it into the film industry without a voice.

Enter a young and ambitious AD Akshara (Akshara Haasan) who is impressed by the aspiring actor and decides to try and help him gain his dream. There is a wonderful irony in the rejection of an actor because he cannot speak in an industry that relies heavily on dubbing, which is of course the whole point. In one of those plot contrivances, Akshara’s father is a doctor whose laryngologist friend just happens to have heard about revolutionary new surgery in Finland. Somehow Akshara convinces her father to send Daanish for the surgery, which involves implanting a device in his throat which can store and then play back someone else’s speaking voice. As Bollywood medicine goes it isn’t the most ridiculous I’ve seen, but it’s certainly close and it’s probably best not to dwell on the lack of logic or the major holes with the technology and just go with it for the sake of the plot.

Naturally then, given the choice of absolutely anyone who could become his ‘voice’, Daanish decides to go with an older alcoholic who doesn’t look as if he will make it to the interval before succumbing to liver failure, let alone the entire career span of a young and upcoming actor. Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan) came to Mumbai years before with a similar dream of being a hero, but was rejected because of his deep and powerful voice, ending up in the gutter where Daanish and Akshara find him. Despite his shabby and homeless appearance Amitabh lives in a graveyard, symbolism definitely intended, and doesn’t take too much persuading to sign up as the voice of Daanish. The idea is that he will in some way get his own back on the industry that denied him a chance at success, although he settles for a small proportion of Daanish’s earnings and the position of valet to hide his real occupation.

The composite of Daanish and Amitabh as ‘Shamitabh’ (a necessary change to deal with numerology issues) is instantly successful and Balki throws in plenty more digs at Bollywood clichés including product placement (the film is called Lifebuoy) and the inevitable romantic song. These, along with camero appearances by the likes of Rekha and Karan Johar keep the audience smiling despite the underlying tension and hostility between the ‘actor’ and his ‘voice’.

The relationship between Daanish and Amitabh is not a happy one, as Daanish struggles to deal with his unpredictable partner and Amitabh becomes ever more resentful of the fame and recognition heaped on Daanish. Daanish for his part is determined to prove that his charisma and acting skill is enough and the voice irrelevant, while Amitabh strives to prove that without his voice Daanish would be nothing. Akshara is forced to be the mediator in the middle, a role she neither wants nor fully accepts which leads to further tension and discord.

Amitabh has a tendency to ham it up as the gruff and grumpy alcoholic, particularly when he is the main focus of a scene, but he is excellent in his interactions with Dhanush and their mutual enmity boils off the screen when they face off against each other. Dhanush is as amazing as ever in a role where he never speaks but still conveys frustration at his predicament or excitement with his success with consummate ease.  The two actors work well together and their relationship is perfectly nuanced as they battle it out despite the occasionally forced and laboured storyline.

Akshara Haasan is also good and holds her own beside two such good performances from Dhanush and Amitabh. She has her own obsession and I like the way her character holds true to this dream, refusing to be merely the bridge to success for Shamitabh or even worse just a passing love interest. Her character is more interesting than that and Akshara is impressively successful in bringing her ambitious assistant director to life.

Although the relationship between the two men is well captured some of the story veers into ridiculous a little too often. I don’t understand the Bollywood obsession with toilet humour, and here Balki adds so much bathroom based comedy that I can’t be sure if he’s being satirical or whether he does actually think this is funny. Some of it works, but like Amitabh’s continual references to whiskey and water as similes for himself and Daanish, it does wear thin after a while.

Although the first half is excellent, the film falters towards the end, with the climax in particular being drawn out and almost clumsy in execution. By the end, neither Amitabh nor Daanish are particularly likeable as the success of their composite Shamitabh brings out their worst qualities, so it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for their plight, although the relationship itself is fascinating as it self destructs. However the rest of the film more than makes up for the clunky end, and the excellent performances from the three main leads ensure that the good idea of the story isn’t lost somewhere behind the dodgy medicine. Worth watching for a satirical look at the Bollywood film industry and an unusual relationship that is cleverly drawn and intelligently developed despite the manipulations required to start it in the first place. 3 ½ stars.

Piku (2015)

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Shoojit Sircar’s Piku could be summarised as two hours of Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) and his shit, literal and figurative. He is a man obsessed with his ever-present constipation, and that and his intelllectual superiority are his favourite topics of conversation. Luckily there is more than just a constipated old man to this story and for me, Piku (Deepika Padukone) is the real heart of the film.

Bhaskor is well intentioned but domineering and contradictory. I found him slightly monstrous as his self-absorption is limitless, and for all his manners he is often unkind. He won’t let his daughter marry saying that is a ‘Low IQ’ thing to do and he wants more for her than to be a man’s wife, but he also insists she do as he says. On the one hand he talks about how much he loved his wife, then criticises her for being so unhappy (because he made her unhappy by marrying her). He introduces her to prospective suitors by telling them she isn’t a virgin, and asking if they have a problem with that. They mightn’t care, but for me his lack of empathy for Piku is very off putting. The family is loud and shouty, all of them totally obsessed with their bowels or Bhaskor’s motions, but there is no lack of love. Arguments get heated then suddenly devolve into giggles or reminiscences, a nicely realistic note.

Piku-Bhaskor

Amitabh effortlessly dominates the scenes he is in, even when he is sleeping. He does a little OVER!ACT!ING!, particularly towards the beginning of the film when Bhaskor is being set up as irascible and a bit quixotic. But when he hits his stride, he is delightful and charismatic. My favourite scene was when Bhaskor comes home from a party a little drunk. He puts on old records and starts dancing. At first he is playing to his judgemental daughter, twisting and mugging to get a laugh and stop her from telling him off. But then his moves change and he seems to have journeyed back to an earlier happier time, not even looking at Piku, as he gently dances to a much loved song. Her expressions are perfect as she moves from anger to concern to grudging amusement before sashaying back to her room, half dancing along. For me, that perfectly expressed the love and tension when the child becomes the caretaker and has to deal with their parents’ mortality.

At first I thought this was going down the path of a modern woman has to be an aggressive, unpleasant, and possibly slutty woman. But Piku is overruled by her father and his innards, her clients often ignore her design advice, and she has no one who will really listen so I can’t blame her for getting irritable. Piku is aware of how much her father’s needs and demands are shaping her days, but she is doing what she thinks is right so doesn’t feel bitter. Her love life is limited to the occasional hookup with her business partner Syed (Jisshu Sengupta) and she doesn’t invest time in notions of romance. At first glance Piku is abrasive, but Deepika is lovely, warm, and…real as she adds and removes layers to her character. The rapport between Piku and Rana develops slowly, borne by the conversations and observations of people stuck in a car with a cranky old man. He sees past her tough front, and she sees his apparent laziness is more of a weary pragmatism which she can relate to.

Irrfan (apparently he needs no surname these days) can be hit (Life in a Metro) or miss (do we all remember Krazzy 4?). This performance is a hit for me, and Rana suits his slightly offbeat delivery and everyman style. He and the Big B do indulge in one scene that is more like an improv no one knows how to end, but generally he concentrates on being Rana rather than on skills demonstrations. I felt Rana was a kind of proxy for the viewer as at first he is overwhelmed by Piku’s bolshy character, all the cacophony, and the incessant examination of digestive functions, but gradually he sees behind the bluster. He tries to offer advice and be helpful at home and at work, but his platitudes are rejected. It’s only when he gets real that he is heard. The nascent relationship between Piku and Rana is based on mutual understanding and respect and there is no insta-love personality transplant or makeover required.

Moushimi Chatterjee is a whirlwind as Piku’s Aunty, and brings some fun and a much needed opposing voice to Bhaskor’s benevolent dictatorship. Budhan (Balendra Singh) is a hapless servant, attending to all Bhaskor’s bathroom related chores. While I did laugh at some of his scenes, I could have lived without all the poo jokes.

Whistling in a soundtrack is generally an indicator of whimsy, which is not my most loved style. But apart from a propensity for emo guitar tweedling, Anupam Roy’s soundtrack suits the drama and the pared back style very well, and I enjoyed it and the songs used in the background.

Piku has a flavour of the middle cinema of the 70s; not realism but realistic. The characters felt like they had roots. While the cinematography was beautiful, it wasn’t distracting, more often giving the viewer a fly on the wall glimpse of what was going on. There were a few indulgently arty shots in Kolkata, but who could complain about that? Some of the dialogue feels improvised and Juhi Chaturvedi’s screenplay gives a distinct voice for each character, whether through their blend of languages or the formality of their speech.

Not much really happens in Piku, but all the characters go on a bit of a journey beyond the physical road trip. I laughed, the lady sitting next to me cried and we all did a bit of ‘you go girl’ affirmative nodding. See this for Deepika Padukone giving a fine performance as a modern, complex woman and for some late career Big B magic.

(Note: Maybe don’t see this if even mild toilet humour grosses you out.)