Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga deserves praise for daring to tackle same-sex relationships in a film industry where gay people have mainly seem to appear only as comic relief. Although Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film is a sanitised and strangely unemotional journey, showing even a fraction of the prejudice and discrimination faced by anyone who does not follow cultural norms is surely a step in the right direction. The story is kept safe and family-friendly with the actual romance not getting much attention, while most of the light and shade comes from the excellent support cast. Rajkummar Rao is outstanding, Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla bring warmth and real affection to their roles while Abhishek Duhan manages to encapsulate every negative thought or emotion pertaining to homosexuality within his character. This is definitely a film worth watching, although I wish it had shown more of the heartache and allowed the lead character to fight her own battles rather than relying on the various men in her life to shape her destiny.

Sonam Kapoor plays the character of Sweety, the daughter of businessman and garment factory owner Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor). She lives with her father, brother Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) and grandmother (Madhumalti Kapoor) in the Punjabi town of Moga but her path crosses with Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao) during a visit to Delhi. Sahil is the son of a rich producer, but he’s trying to make his own way in the world as a writer and playwright. Unfortunately, the film he wrote for his father has been wildly panned and his new play doesn’t seem destined to reach any great heights either, given the small theatre where it is being produced and a seemingly limited budget. However, a chance encounter with Sweety intrigues Sahil and as he aids her escape from her brother, he decides he wants to know more about her self-described long and complicated story. A few vague ideas about producing a play in a regional town with local actors is enough for Sahil to travel to Moga with the theatre caterer Chatro (Juhi Chawla). Once in Moga he finds Sweety easily enough but as he learns more about her Sahil becomes drawn into her struggle to be the person she really wants to be.

What works really well in the film is the character of Sahil, and Rajkummar Rao is fantastic, infusing Sahil with understanding, empathy and a good sense of humour right from the start. Although initially he is smitten with Sweety, his transformation to her champion is very believable and done with plenty of humour and warmth. Even his brief interactions with his own parents have some clever by-play that gives further insights into Sahil’s character and provide an interesting contrast with Sweety’s family. Anil Kapoor is another major strength in the film and he strikes exactly the right note as a wealthy businessman who only wants the best for his daughter. In a nice parallel he has had to hide his love of cooking all his life as his mother doesn’t find the kitchen an appropriate place for a Punjabi man. Although I did find that odd given that most top chefs are in fact male. Perhaps it was more of a status thing (which didn’t come across with the subtitles), but it does mean that Balbir has experience of hiding the thing he loves from his mother, something that gives him the ability to develop an understanding of his daughter’s problems later in the film.

I love Juhi Chawla and she is brilliant here in a role that allows her to showcase her excellent comedic talents. Her Chatro is convinced she is a mind-shattering actress, although no-one else believes in her talent. She is a superb cook however, and this is the talent that’s appreciated by Balbir and leads to some hilarious interactions between the two. Chatro is confident in her abilities – whether it’s cooking or acting, and Juhi makes her a wonderfully warm and likeable character to boot. It’s no wonder Balbir is smitten, and the scenes between these two brilliant actors really are the absolute highlight of this film for me.

Sonal Kapoor is a little more disappointing as Sweety, which is a shame as writers Gazal Dhaliwal and Shelly Chopra Dhar have given her some great material to work with. The stories Sweety tells Sahil about her life and the difficulties she has faced should have been some of the most heart-wrenching moments of the entire film, but the emotion never goes quite deep enough. Although this is probably the best performance I have seen from Sonal, there doesn’t seem to be any real pain behind her dialogues. Although she is obviously trying hard, Sweety appears just sad, not anguished or distraught, even when she was discussing such monumental decisions as ending her life or marrying anyone just to get away from the constant pressure from her family. While I can accept that a lifetime of repression would make someone less prone to show their emotions, to make the film more effective, I really needed to feel her pain much more deeply that she ever manages to express here. Where Sonam is better however, is during the climax of the film where she responds to her father disapproval, and here she brings the emotion and drama that’s missing elsewhere in her performance.

What I really like about the film is the depiction of how difficult it is to reveal homosexuality to family, friends and the community in India. With the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, perhaps there will be some changes, but given how much prejudice and shame there is still attached to same-sex relationships in the West, I feel this will be a long and difficult process. The first Hindi film I saw that touched on this subject was Onir’s excellent My Brother… Nikhil, which also starred Juhi Chawla, but this I think is the first main-stream Hindi film that has tackled the subject of lesbianism within India. In Margarita, with a Straw for example, the character was only able to embark on her same-sex relationship when she left the country and was studying overseas. From that perspective I think that this is an important film, as it does bring to light the difficulties experienced by people who identify as LGBTQIA and openly shows the prejudice and discrimination they receive. The need to keep everything secret and repress their sexuality is clearly discussed, even if only briefly. Sweety’s brother Babloo is vehemently opposed to her relationships and this character allows some of the range of hate against homosexuality to be exposed, even when disguised as concern for the person or their family. Babloo is an unpleasant character, but there is a lot of truth in Abhishek Duhan’s portrayal and I felt that he totally nailed the animosity and disgust his character felt while projecting care and consideration for Sweety and the entire family. This bigotry is effectively done and is one of the important points that Shelley Chopra Dhar gets across so well in the film.

I also love the response of the audience to Sahil’s play about Sweety and how Shelley Chopra Dhar captures the conservative ideas and morals of a small town. The contrast between young girls with their faces full of rapt attention as they followed the story, with the adults in the crowd who got up and left with angry gestures, sums up the story beautifully and illustrates just how far communities need to change to overcome these unreasonable and biased attitudes.

In this way it’s the subject matter and the idea of the film that is important, and in this I think Shelly Chopra Dhar has exceeded expectations. The film itself doesn’t fare quite as well, given the rather conservative approach to Sweety’s relationship. Her partner Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) only appears onscreen briefly, which is rather a shame since Regina sparkles when she is on camera and I would have liked to see more of her character and even heard Kuhu’s story too. Instead the film concentrates on the family relationships, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but some of the romance needed to be included to give some balance to the story. I can understand that the director probably didn’t want to alienate main-stream audiences, but it does mean that the film is lacking emotional attachment.  It’s still an enjoyable film and one that can be watched without delving too much into the politics and societal issues, which hopefully means it will reach a wide audience. It deserves to.

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Tashan

tashan_poster

Tashan is not really a good film. I am at best indifferent to the cast. And yet I have a fondness for the movie that surprises me. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the total masala style, maybe the excellent work by the costume department, or the spectacular locations. But if you need to see a colourful movie that makes you throw popcorn at the screen and at your friends, this could be quite rewarding.

Vijay Krishna Acharya opens his film with Jimmy (Saif Ali Khan) in a car, underwater, and at gunpoint. How he got there takes up the first half. Most of the fun seeing this was the “surely they’re not…oh yes, they did!” moments and laughing at the shenanigans as the cast justify the next big set piece. There is a heavy use of flashbacks and characters speaking directly to the viewer so it heightens the unrealistic and fantastical mood, as do the songs. Jimmy and Pooja (Kareena Kapoor Khan) meet when Bhaiyyaji (Anil Kapoor) hires Jimmy as his English tutor. As Bhaiyyaji mangles every language he knows, Jimmy and Pooja fall in love. There is the matter of Pooja’s debt to Bhaiyajji, but there are also cases full of cash coming to the office every month. Bachchan Pande (Akshay Kumar), is an unhinged hitman hired by Bhaiyyaji. He is told to get Jimmy and Pooja and all manner of double crosses and shenanigans ensue. Who is what they seem, and who can you trust, especially when large sums of money are at stake? Things get complicated. And then everything blows up.

Saif Ali Khan used to be quite appealing when he was the second lead. As a leading man, he is inexplicable. It’s not that he doesn’t try to act, and it’s not just the porno moustache, it seems that his charisma has the depth of a teaspoon. And what is with the red belt he wears for the whole film? He is almost completely superfluous to the second half, yet he clearly refused to go home and just hung around whining until they promised him a big heroic Dhoom style action scene. Jimmy is not heroic though. He is self-serving most of the time, and a sleaze. He didn’t so much evolve as have a character transplant for a few minutes. I think one of the biggest issues is that the only person Saif seemed to have chemistry with was himself. He had a gleam in his eye when talking to himself or direct to camera, which was lacking in ensemble scenes.

Kareena has total commitment to the trout pout but Pooja is an interesting character who does more than pose. She does seem to have a polarising effect on the wardrobe team, or maybe it’s just their special way of showing love. Pooja is manipulative, and she has a clear goal in mind. Her romantic scenes with Jimmy have no spark to speak of, where her crackling chemistry with Bachchan is evident as is their knockabout friendship. Unlike Jimmy, Pooja has lots of layers to her character to reveal. Her contribution to the final fight scene is quite something, and I may have cheered out loud. Nice to see a lady causing the distress and staying ahead of the game.

I feel I ought to like Akshay Kumar more. But I have flashbacks to Tees Maar Khan (one of only two films I have walked out on) and I retrospectively dislike his films I may once have been more tolerant towards. And there is the established Youtube Poker rule that Akshay and a body of water will result in something hideously disturbing. But his Bachchan Pande is the saving grace of this film in so many ways. He is overwhelmingly self-confident, handy in a fight, and not overly complex intellectually or emotionally. And he has an excellent intro scene. Bachchan is also the one character with real principles, so I found myself caring more about what happened to him. Akshay gets lots of action scenes (by Peter Hein so you know, it’s pretty cool) as well as some discombobulated hick comedy, and it suits him down to the ground. And the shoe department agreed his grounding is important – he gets some excellent and flamboyant footwear.

God, I feel for the team that had to remove Anil Kapoor’s pelt. You know there would have been hedge trimmers first, then electric clippers, then waxing. I reckon we’re talking at least a full day of hard labour. My friend interviewed Anil a few years ago and told me ” One of my opening remarks was: “Anil, you have a lot of hair for your age. Is it hair weaving?” He pulled up his jacket like this and I quickly told him I got the drift…” I’m haunted by that anecdote. Anyway, his performance is fun and so over the top it all kind of makes sense. Unlike his outfits. Bhaiyyaji is determined to make it to the big league of dons and never averse to a bit of killing and mayhem along the way. His mangled Hinglish is hilarious and a bit sad as he worships Jimmy’s ability to speak like George Bush or Prince Charlie. Starting out as an urbane businessman he deteriorates into a snarling (shaved) beast, and Anil Kapoor goes all out.

The Vishal-Sekhar songs are what they need to be for a film, and the picturisations range from WTF to delicately lovely, making the most of their spectacular locations. Nothing can really explain “Dil Dance Maare” though. Kareena is more of a gyrate on the spot kind of dancer, and Saif does uncle stomping with a bit of flailing so I didn’t see much value added by Vaibhavi Merchant there, although the backing dancers earn their money.

Tashan is the kind of film that takes off and doesn’t stop until it stops. It’s high on visual impact and the pace never drags. See it if you need a rattling masala timepass, and don’t mind characters breaking laws of the land, laws of logic, and laws of physics. 3 ½ stars!

Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)

Dil Dhadakne Do

Zoya Aktar’s third film follows the members of a dysfunctional, wealthy, Punjabi family as they celebrate the 30th wedding anniversary of Kamal (Anil Kapoor) and Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shah) on a 10 day cruise around Greece and Turkey. Along with their son and daughter, Kamal and Neelam have invited friends and business associates on a voyage that soon hits very choppy water indeed. This is a road trip movie on a grand scale, but despite the luxurious setting the problems are fairly standard for an Indian family drama – unhappy marriages, a failing business and parents interfering in their children’s lives. Soap opera stuff, but beautifully done with some unexpected plot threads for good measure. While the story could really be set anywhere and have the same effect, the gorgeous locations and all-star cast ensure Dil Dhadakne Do is an entertaining, although rather overlong watch.

The film is narrated by the family dog Pluto, voiced by Aamir Khan, which surprisingly isn’t as irritating as it sounds, despite a tendency for Pluto to state the obvious. Pluto’s commentary on the inability of his humans to communicate effectively and the overall irrationality of the human species generally, ensures he’s the most sensible Mehra of the lot – and the cutest!

The Mehras are not a happy family. Kamal’s business is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy while Neelam binge eats as compensation for silently enduring her husband’s frequent affairs. Their children have issues too. Son and heir to the family business Kabir (Ranveer Singh) has no desire to step into his father’s shoes, and little aptitude for the job either, while daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) struggles to hang on to her own successful business as her chauvinistic husband Manav (Rahul Bose) and interfering mother-in-law (Zarina Wahab) pressure her to start a family. Putting them all together for ten days seems like a recipe for disaster, particularly since each is determined to keep up appearances and pretend to the rest of the party that everything is fine.

Zoya and co-writer Reema Kagti don’t stop there either. Every other person on the cruise has their own issues too, from Neelam’s circle of toxic friends and their unceasing gossip about each other to Kamal’s best friend Vinod Khanna (Manoj Pahwa) who hates fellow guest Lalit Sood (Parmeet Sethi) and is dismayed that Kamal has invited him along. Each character has a part to play in the unfolding drama and every thread is carefully woven into the story to provide colour and texture to the plot.

Every moment is perfectly portrayed too, from the fake teeth-baring ‘smiles’ on the faces of rival wives Vandana Khanna and Naina Sood as they greet each other, to Ayesha’s reaction to her ex Sunny (Farhan Aktar) when he joins the cruise.

The Sood’s have been invited as possible investors in Kamal’s company, but they have the additional advantage of an unmarried daughter Noori (Riddhima Sud) who might be persuaded into an alliance with Kabir.  Not that Kabir has any inkling of his parents’ plan and instead falls deeply and most unsuitably in love with one of the dancers on board the ship. Farah Ali (Anushka Sharma) is a Muslim who is estranged from her family and has to work for her living, which means that the ships policy of non-fraternizing with patrons could cost her her job.  She’s understandably more cautious, while Kabir rushes into the relationship without any further thought. Ranveer and Anushka have fantastic chemistry together and their developing relationship is beautifully portrayed in the song Pehli Baar.

Ranveer Singh is also excellent in his role as Ayesha’s brother and shares an easy camaraderie with Priyanka that really does make them seem like brother and sister. Ayesha looks out for Kabir and tries to help him stand up to their father, even as she fights her own battles without any family support. Ranveer keeps it cool and laid back in the scenes with his family but is full of his usual energy in the songs and his performance is one of the highlights in the movie. Priyanka is just as good, and she pulls off another stunning performance, using her eyes and facial expressions to excellent effect and making her Ayesha one of the most relatable characters I’ve seen recently.

The rest of the cast are also well cast and complement the lead actors. Gallan Goodiyaan sees most of them dancing in classic ‘everyone knows the choreography’ style, but it’s made even better by the sheer number of aunties and uncles joining in. I’ve always been cautious approaching any film with Anil Kapoor after the trauma of seeing him shirtless in many of his Eighties films, but he is a fine actor and is superb here in a role that lets him show vulnerability as well as the more usual autocratic  behaviour expected from a Bollywood father. Shefali Shah too is very good in her portrayal of a betrayed wife who puts up with her husband’s infidelities because that is simply just what you do. Everyone seems perfectly cast, although initially Rahul Bose seems out of place as Ayesha’s husband, but after a memorable tennis match I cannot imagine anyone else reacting so perfectly to the barrage of vicious volleys Ayesha sends his way.

The family dynamic is well written into the screenplay with many small touches that consolidate the relationships and illustrate the friction bubbling away under the surface. Despite their differences Neelam and Ayesha are more similar than they realise, nicely demonstrated by the way they both react with their hands to their mouths when shocked by Kamal’s behaviour. The theme of equal rights for women is also well integrated into the narrative without becoming too preachy or sanctimonious, while the generation divide provides yet more opportunities to explore the different approaches to love and marriage.

I love this film, even with it’s overly melodramatic conclusion and cheesy method of tying up the few the loose ends. My only complaint is that the music from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy isn’t as catchy as expected and a few of the songs don’t fit well into the screenplay. However the leads are all fabulous, the support cast equally excellent and the story a perfect mix of comedy, drama and social commentary. Maybe it’s my love of soap opera from the nineties coming back to haunt me, but the characters in Dil Dhadakne are engaging and the story more relatable than expected considering the amount of overt wealth on display. Well worth watching for Ranveer and Priyanka, and light-hearted character-driven drama that gives everyone a chance to shine.  4½ stars.