The Gentleman (1994)

Bhatt’s remake of the Tamil film Gentleman had the opportunity to be excellent. Unfortunately despite having all the necessary ingredients – a solid central idea, an AR Rahman soundtrack ready for Anu Malik to put his name to, and of course Chiru! – it never quite hits the mark.

A note on the print quality. And by “note” I mean rant. It doesn’t seem to matter which VCD or DVD I tried, the quality is so awful so you may as well watch a dodgy YouTube copy. I never found subtitles for this so that wasn’t a factor. Nobody who owns the movie seems to care if it’s watchable. I ended up taking screencaps from Youtube because my disc had a strange pixellation along the edges of the picture.

Chiranjeevi is Vijay, a small business owner and gentleman thief. He steals from the rich to build a school for the poor, all explained in a tragic backstory flashback. Chiru is excellent and quite restrained, unless he is in a comedy disguise when all bets are off. How much do I love the bit where he rips off a grey moustache only to reveal his own moustache underneath? Gold.

I really liked his characterisation and his dramatic range got a workout as Vijay experiences both the highs and the lowest of lows. The action scenes are on a grand scale and Chiru gets to throw himself around. He even has to do a bit of home surgery on himself. The dubbing artist for Chiru (I think it was Shakti Singh) is pretty good but I always seem to struggle with hearing another voice come out of a familiar face. Since there were no subtitles, and I understand more Hindi than Telugu (still not much) it should have been easier but it just sounds Wrong. Chiranjeevi did his own dubbing for fights and crying scenes so it was both familiar and a bit jarring to hear. And there was a very good opportunity for a rousing “Bastards!” that never happened, and you know how much I look forward to that. Especially when Paresh Rawal is playing one of the bastards in question. The cat and mouse with the police never quite hits high suspense. Vijay’s elaborate schemes and disguises always fail but for some reason the police always fail to capitalise on his mistakes. Even when they know about the Significant Ring.

The styling for the songs is largely standard filmi 90s hideousness but I did like seeing Chiru work his way through all the dressy-uppy options. From European prince to ye olden warrior to biker aerobics gear to a cross between a pharaonic headdress and a doo-rag, he made it his own.

Of course all the ladies love Vijay and while none of the female characters contribute much, the threat of romance does make it easier to fit the songs into the movie. And allows for an extra number featuring Roja. Most of the songs were lifted from the original soundtrack so while they look terribly dated they still sound quite good. The one song Anu Malik actually contributed (by nicking it from Haddaway), “What is Love?” is terrible and yet it is hard to stop watching no matter what your ears are telling you.

The female characters get the rough end of the pineapple. From honka-honka comedy horns when Roshni (Juhi Chawla) and Babli (Heera Rajagopal) hugged (because boobs), to writing that aspires to be tissue thin, and a costume department out for some kind of vengeance on Heera, it is a mess. Juhi spends approximately 83% of the film grimacing in the background as Roshni makes eyes at Vijay and hates anyone who appears to get in her way. There is no chemistry between her and Chiranjeevi, so the few scenes of Roshni’s jealous rage seemed silly rather than anything else.

I am pretty sure Juhi only signed on to be in Roop Suhana Lagta Hain because that is her moment to shine.

Heera Rajagopal plays a character who is dangerously stupid, a bit of a kleptomaniac, and extremely shrill. Only Babli could find herself in an attempted rape scenario by being lured into a ball pit. Yes. I know. And she was wearing heels when she went in. It is really hard not to victim blame when a character has absolutely no ability to learn from experience and apply those learnings to future situations. She still didn’t deserve the whole “be a decent girl like Roshni who is always covered up and in the kitchen” speech. But she moved on straight into a song fantasy so I assume no lasting harm was done to her self-esteem.

Paresh Rawal and Deepak Tijori play the two police most likely to catch the elusive Vijay. There are no surprises in either performance, but they largely avoided going over the top on the comedy. I like Paresh Rawal more as a villain than as an angry but honest cop, I have to say. It felt like a waste of his abilities but I appreciated the intensity he brought to the confrontation.

The tone wanders from slapstick to deep tragedy and grief, and while the actors seem to have a handle on what they are doing I can’t say the same for the direction. Rather than give Vijay’s backstory as things unfolded, the film ground to a halt while we found out what had happened to his mother and brother and why he became a thief. Then back to a long and talky court scene as Vijay attempted to show that society and greedy rich people were to blame for his crimes before a jump to 6 years later.

Of course this is one for the Chiranjeevi fans, but it is not a bad film. Just an uneven one. 3 ½ stars! (Points off for badly written female characters, points on for the songs, points off again for trying to pass the songs off as Anu Malik’s)

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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!)

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!