Baazigar

Abbas-Mustan’s 1993 thriller is an out and out classic. It is a freemake of “A Kiss Before Dying”, but loaded up with all the requisite masala ingredients. Starring Shahrukh Khan in an award winning turn, along with Kajol and Shilpa Shetty, it is also high on filmi glamour.

Ajay (Shahrukh) is a nice boy who lives with his widowed Ma (Raakhee). She is suffering from some kind of post traumatic disorder, and Ajay pretends his deceased father and little sister are still alive and well, trying to preserve his mother’s happy memories. He is also secretly dating Seema (Shilpa Shetty), daughter of the filthy rich Madan Chopra (Dalip Tahil). It’s all very sweet until Ajay also turns up as playboy race driver Vicky and starts dating Seema’s younger sister Priya (Kajol). When Seema apparently commits suicide, Priya cannot believe it and keeps pushing to find her killer. There is a long flashback explaining Ajay’s hatred of Madan Chopra. Vengeance and overacting begets more vengeance and overacting, and Ajay/Vicky sets an increasingly convoluted plot in motion.

Ajay is initially presented as sympathetic. He has helped his mother through some traumatic times. His powers of manipulation and maybe self-delusion are also visible from the start. Good Boy Ajay is altogether too bouncy and hyper. I do like a bit of moderately evil Shahrukh, and SRK is much more believable as Vicky/evil Ajay than he ever is as puppyish Ajay. I like the intensity and calculation that he brings to his villainous side, and the flashes of stifled rage under the plausible charm. It’s an interesting character because first we see him as likeable and even heroic by filmi son standards and he maintains that pure motivation even as his actions become more and more reprehensible. Shahrukh really builds the layers of deceit while retaining enough sincerity that his relationships seem real. So much conflict. Also, the transformative power of a contact lens is really something. In some scenes it may be used to show the duality of his nature, in others just a costly error.

It pains me to say this but SRK cannot hold a candle to Chiru in the horseback or cape swishing stakes. I think the hat was to stop his hood blowing back. And he has no dynamic swish control of his cape. But compared to Manic Pixie Bride Kajol he does seem to get the better deal.

Shilpa Shetty is not given a huge acting challenge with Seema, but she is pretty and lively, and has a warm rapport with Ajay. She is a victim of 90s camera work and if you don’t recognise her butt instantly it might take a while before you realise it is indeed Shilpa arriving on the scene. Serious Fashion Question. Were zippers really such a novelty or was that moment in Kitabein Bahut Si just another chance to focus on Shilpa’s shapely derriere? I recall odd zippercentric choreo from some other films around this time so who knows. I suspect the answer is obviously the latter.

Kajol makes a bad girl entrance, strutting around, shouting, and snapping a belt like a whip, and cannot communicate in anything less than a shriek. She even expects big sister Seema to ditch her exams just to go be rich and idle at the races. But as Priya experiences more real emotions – loss, grief, anger and romantic love – Kajol takes it down a notch. Priya becomes more subdued but also harder, and she starts to notice, and question, some of the little details that don’t add up. She thinks she has a lead when Seema’s friend Ravi says there are photos from a party that show Seema and her mysterious boyfriend. But the killer hears of this and follows Ravi, staging another suicide. Priya takes matters into her own hands when her father, her fiancé, and even her old friend Karan (a policeman with a sad crush on Priya), all tell her to drop any investigation. It’s quietly impressive for a heroine to disregard the men in her life so thoroughly.

Raakhee is impressive as Mrs Sharma. She had minimal dialogue but her suffering was evident, as was her painful realisation about her beloved son. It’s all about loving your family…I felt bad for Priya that even if she stuck by Vicky to the end, she still got shut out by a filmi Ma.

Dalip Tahil plays Madan Chopra with spite and a dash of sleaze. He is very urbane and successful, and his daughters (who really were old enough to form memories but seemed not to have any clue) had no recall of how he became so wealthy. The veneer cracks as soon as his good name is threatened by scandal or by the complicated revenge plot, and Madan becomes a snarling dog in an expensively hideous microfibre suit. Siddharth Ray is chunky and despondent as Inspector Karan. And if ever there was a story that did not need Johnny Lever, this is it.

The Anu Malik soundtrack is so familiar, and so cheesy. Ah, the porno sax background version of Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhein. But the picturisation on SRK and Kajol is iconic, taking place in one of those not for profit nightclubs that sacrifices paying patron seating for a dance floor the size of an ice rink. Even Batman seems to be a fan.

Ajay’s own crimes are shown with more realistic detail, and somehow the struggle adds to the disturbing attraction repulsion thing Shahrukh has going on. He is given to exposition and declaiming and I quite liked his line :“You are like the invalid who needs crutches to walk but has no hands to hold them” Food for thought. Overall though the film takes an energetic but not very realistic approach to the action and violence. Bullets cannot kill a man but drop a fishtank on someone and they’re a goner. The finale is full throttle and the props department lashed out for a really big tin of red paint.  It’s almost 20 minutes from the first gunshot to the very end.

If you’ve already seen Baazigar, maybe it’s time to dust it off for a rewatch. Some things in the film haven’t aged so well as its stars. The story wouldn’t work in our digital/social media world as Facebook would have tagged Ajay before he knew it. And people today answer their own phones which they carry everywhere. But if you are one of the 973 people on earth who haven’t seen it yet, maybe it is time to experience this classic. 4 stars! (Johnny Lever, you cost the movie a star. You and your comedy sidekicks. Repent!)

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Dum Laga Ke Haisha

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I wasn’t optimistic about Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Hindi films don’t have the best track record with how overweight characters are depicted, and it is produced by Aditya Chopra who is not the most progressive when it comes to portraying gender roles. Luckily director Sharat Katariya knows what he is about and this is a poignant and sometimes sweet story about an arranged marriage, grown-ups growing up, inter-generational issues and so much more.

It’s 1995, Haridwar, and conditions are shabbily picturesque. Prem (Ayushman Khurrana) is an under-achiever and high school dropout, working in the family audio-cassette shop. I have to say that I liked the idea of being able to order a bespoke mix tape, but I could see his business was likely to be in trouble as technology passed them by. Prem is happy sitting in the dusty shop listening to Kumar Sanu songs and generally passing the time with minimal effort. His dad pressures him into marrying, and so he is introduced to Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar). She is a larger figured girl, not to Prem’s taste at all. But the family say she is educated and can get a decent job teaching and bring some much needed money in. Sandhya likes the look of Prem but he is disgusted by her. He is That Guy ; the one who has little to recommend him but still demands a stick insect super model astronaut chef wife with boob implants as his due. Sandhya accepts the match with warmth and an open heart, assuming Prem is doing likewise.

Her wedding is a joyful day and the start of her new life, but Prem sees it as an ending of his hopes. He refuses to touch Sandhya and her mum tells her it’s her duty to satisfy him. She is surrounded by people who don’t try to understand her and don’t care that they hurt her feelings. His family think she is a snob and her family are worried they will send her back. Sandhya is sympathetic but not perfect. She is a little bit of a snob and she does flaunt her education at times, but she is not mean spirited and she tries so hard to adjust to her new family and life. Prem seems to delight in every rebuff and insult as vindication of his own disregard for Sandhya.

Sandhya leaves Prem after she overhears him say something particularly vile and confronts him about his lack of respect for her. Sandhya’s family greet her with dismay and recite a litany of things she should have done better and why she was lucky to have any husband at all. She toughs it out but once she is behind closed doors she cries quietly with grief and disappointment. I got the feeling her parents only educated her because they knew she would not be coasting through life on looks alone. But Sandhya won’t be denied her chance at a good life, respect, and affection. If marriage to Prem isn’t working, she will end the marriage and move on. How many times have I hoped a filmi heroine would do just that?

While Prem is whiny and Sandhya is bolshie they do have a bit in common, and that makes it sad when the marriage falters. They both struggle with being among the first generation in their respective families to use education to have a shot at moving up in life, and there is a kind of class tension between them and their parents as a result.  They’re both a little low on self-esteem and are practised at deflecting criticism. The biggest difference is that Sandhya will put on a bold front and go for it, but Prem will get bogged down in his sense of hopelessness.  There is a moment when Prem watches Sandhya stride towards a job interview and his expression is both impressed and bemused, as if he can’t quite understand how she does it.  When they are forced to live under the same roof pending the divorce hearing, the façade drops and they start see each other as individuals. Sandhya understood Prem was unhappy with himself but felt powerless to change things or to articulate his feelings to his parents, so he just felt more trapped and angry. He started to see that her generous spirit that stopped her from becoming bitter and kept her moving towards a better future. Both actors deliver excellent characterisations and they played well off each other. I take it as a mark of Khurrana’s excellent acting that I wanted to throw Prem into the river. Bhumi Pednekar is lovely and conveyed all the hope and giddiness of a newlywed and the firm determination Sandhya had to not just settle.

My subtitles helpfully declared the movie title is “Heave-Ho, Carry That Load”. I was so pleased that the only fat jokes are made by people clearly shown to be unpleasant or just thoughtless and Sandhya is never required to endorse their views. The device of a wife carrying competition is this film’s stand in for other more standard filmi heroic physical challenges. It also serves as a heavy handed metaphor for relationships – do you drag the other person along in your wake as Nirmal does, or do you take turns to give and take, to take the lead or fall back to support each other, as Prem and Sandhya eventually do?

The relationships with family and between family members add richness to the story. Sanjay Mishra is Prem’s father, and a look at future Prem unless someone sorts him out; permanently aggrieved, always hoping someone else will fixthings. Alka Amin as Prem’s mum and Seema Pahwa as Sandhya’s ma are vintage filmi mothers, throwing guilt trips and shoving food at people in equal measure. I like that despite the heated conversation over the future of their shop, when Prem’s Mum insists they have a piece of her birthday cake everyone does – using it to gesticulate or shouting with mouths full. But she is the one who finally insists Prem do the race. Aunty Naintara ( Sheeba Chaddha) rounds out the household and makes sure that Sandhya never forgets how lucky she is to have a husband.

Prem is an idiot, but Sandhya is the one to give him the reality check he needs and the motivation and support he lacks. She wants to be married and wants a good life with a partner who loves and respects her and Prem can be that man if he grows up. I ended up thinking that they had done just enough of the real talk to get their relationship on a much healthier track. And if things went wrong, Sandhya already had a good lawyer!

And as if all the subtle colours, beautiful sets, and gorgeous locations were not enough, the film ends on this delightfully retro and colourful Anu Malik number that celebrates love and cheesy choreography.

If you want to see layered and realistic relationships and an unconventionally attractive cast, see this film! 4 stars!

Duplicate (1998)

If not for the presence of Shah Rukh Khan I probably would have avoided Duplicate, since I’m not a fan of slapstick comedy and usually detest buffoonish characters. But despite all the farce I totally loved it, although even though I’ve now watched it multiple times, I’m still not entirely sure why it appeals to me so much. Of course Shah Rukh in a double role is enough to explain at least some of the attraction, but no matter how many times I watch Duplicate I still find it funny even though I know the plot is preposterous and the end completely ridiculous. It all comes down to the charm of the lead couple and an excellent supporting cast who manage to hold the film together, keeping it genuinely entertaining the whole way through. Plus there isn’t even a whiff of Johnny Lever which is always a win in any Hindi comedy as far as I’m concerned!

Shah Rukh plays the dual roles of Bablu Chaudary – a rather gormless and naïve chef, and his duplicate in appearance Manu Dada – a vicious gangster out for revenge on his former partners in crime. He keeps the two characters totally separate and it’s always very clear who he is at any time in the film.

Bablu is the son of a Punjabi wrestler and since he has no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps he is a severe disappointment to his mother (Farida Jalal). Bablu comes across as the lovechild of Frank Spencer and Norman Wisdom as he indulges in pratfalls and causes general mayhem when he goes for a job interview at a posh hotel. Despite all the face-pulling and foolish grins, Bablu isn’t quite as stupid as he looks and gets the job after proving he can whip up a rather un-Japanese looking Japanese meal in 20 minutes while dancing with various vegetables and duly impressing the banquet manager Sonia Kapoor (Juhi Chawla) with his multi-tasking skills. It’s quite silly but rather engaging at the same time.

This initial attraction between Bablu and Sonia develops into a romance that isn’t quite as creepy as it might have been given Bablu’s essentially child-like nature and Sonia’s more mature outlook on life. Although she is appalled when his secret fantasy is to feed his bride potato dumplings on their wedding night, they do seem to reach an understanding during the songs. Sadly Juhi’s character seems to have been cursed with the worst shoe costume designer ever as she appears in a number of terrible ankle boots throughout most of this, but otherwise it’s a very cute song and there are some good shots of Prague in the background.

While Bablu is getting to know his boss, Manu escapes from jail although why he is wearing nifty pleather pants accessorised with circa 80’s Madonna-style jewellery for his jail-break is a total mystery. Manu is on the trail of his previous accomplices who set him up for his jail time and then absconded with all the loot from their criminal activities. The gang includes Dhingra (Sharat Saxena), Gappa (Rana Jung Bahadur) and Gulshan Grover as Shalaku – the man who rather significantly does not have a death line on his hand. They are an incredibly inept gang of criminals and seem totally unable to recognise Manu when he turns up to kill each of them. Of course he is a man of mystery and a master of disguise, at least according to the equally inept police team who are out to catch Manu and send him back to jail.

Manu dresses in drag as part of his plan to get past security and eliminate Dhingra. I have to say that although Shah Rukh does make a particularly ugly woman, he is disturbingly convincing as he dances provocatively before whipping off his wig and revealing his true persona. It’s a classic scene and it’s made even better by the wonderful decor in the background.

It’s inevitable that the police find Bablu and mistake him for Manu which starts off a chain of mistaken identity that Manu uses to his advantage. But Manu makes a mistake when he captures Bablu’s mother as this forces Bablu to take action. Bablu decides to impersonate Manu to get his mother back from the gangster’s clutches and while his attempts to mimic Manu’s menacing persona fall far short of the real thing, he does manage to convince Mnau’s girlfriend Lily (Sonali Bendre) and Manu’s gang. This leads to a totally crazy song where Sonia is out with Manu, thinking he is Bablu, while Bablu does his best to avoid Lily’s attentions. I’ll just point out that Karan Johar was responsible for Shah Rukh’s costumes and leave it at that since I think that explains it all.

The confusion gets more and more ridiculous but Shah Rukh keeps it easy to decipher whether we’re watching Bablu pretending to be Manu or Manu pretending to be Bablu, even if the police, Shalaku and his cronies, Sonia and Lily can’t manage to work it out. Although Shah Rukh overplays both characters it works in the film since it’s all totally over the top and silly. Watching Bablu (pretending to be Manu) and Shalaku battle it out in a bathtub (thankfully) full of bubbles and squeaky toys should have been absurd but instead it’s hilarious.

The supporting cast are all excellent and Farida Jalal is perfect as Bablu’s mother. Her loud and overbearing personality make it seem quite understandable that she would have a son as foolish as Bablu and her rapport with her son comes across clearly. Sonali Bendre is also well cast as the sexy girlfriend Lily, and ably portrays her obvious attraction to bad boy Manu warring with her common sense. Lily is quite aware that Manu takes her for granted and only wants her for one thing, but she still can’t help herself and is irrestibly drawn towards him. Shah Rukh also manages to convey an aura of dangerous desire even though Manu really is quite repulsive with his repetitive tongue flicks and strange sneers.  There is so much detail in Shah Rukh’s performance that it does take a few viewings to fully appreciate every nuance. I love the way that Manu uses a burning TV set to light his cigarette as he leaves the scene of one of his crimes, and also snags some chicken from the table on the way out while Bablu lets every emotion show in his expression, exactly like a small child.

Juhi Chawla is one of my favourite actresses and she is simply wonderful here. I’m not sure how she manages to keep a straight face through some of Shah Rukh’s more insane moments, but she plays Sonia as quite a serious career woman with a tendency to lecture in English. Although I do prefer her romance with Shah Rukh in Yes Boss they still make a sweet couple here. This is my favourite song from the film and I love the way Bablu changes his expression as he looks from Lily to Sonia and also manages to totally change his posture and body language – brilliant!

Apart from the great performances, there are plenty of small touches that make this film appealing. Bablu lives in a very colourful house with a wonderfully brightly painted bathroom and some very groovy pictures on the walls while Manu’s garage has lots of cheery graffiti. The songs by Anu Malik are memorable and the picturisations are all well done with Farah Khan being responsible for the excellent choreography which of course suits Shah Rukh perfectly. Monish Bahl pops up in a small but important role as the hotel manager Ravi Lamba, and Tiku Talsania is very funny in his brief appearance as the bumbling Inspector Thakur. Kajol also appears briefly in a blink and you’ll miss it guest appearance which I didn’t even notice amongst all the other craziness the first time I watched the film. Although there is plenty of slapstick it is used well and there is plenty of comedy in the dialogue and the situations to help stop the film from becoming too farcical – at least until the end. But really, I think it’s Shah Rukh’s performance and his ability to make his characters so appealing despite their flaws that really make this such a watchable film. I can’t say that it’s good because it does have a nonsensical plot and everyone is overacting like crazy. But it is entertaining, it does make me laugh and it’s a film I can watch over and over again without having to resort to the FF button. 4 stars.