Pari (2018)

Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) and his parents are returning from meeting a prospective bride. Distracted and in heavy rain, nobody sees the old lady on the road until it is too late. They discover a girl chained up in the old lady’s house. Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma) is her granddaughter but there is no explanation for why she is chained up. She is certainly odd but seems able to live independently to some extent. A tattoo on the corpse freaks out one of the morgue attendants who was checking her for valuables. He calls Professor Qasim Ali (Rajat Kapoor), a man obsessed with eradicating all traces of a cult dedicated to spreading an ifrit’s bloodline. He has been looking for Rukhsana, the last of the ifrit’s children, for years. Meanwhile Arnab has taken pity on Rukhsana and has grudgingly allowed her to stay in his home. They fall into a cosy domesticity but there are signs that something bad is coming. Who is she? What is she?

Pari was suspenseful in that I wanted to see what happened, especially to Rukhsana. And there are some good jump scares. But Prosit Roy positions too many things as a fact within this film world rather than building the suspense of “is it real or ?”. Rukhsana shows some signs of mental illness, but Roy makes it clear something supernatural is at work. Having said that I liked a lot about the film, particularly Anushka’s performance.

Rukhsana isn’t a child but some childish things like cartoons take her fancy. Arnab brings home little gifts like clothes and art supplies and teaches her how fridges work, how to dunk a biscuit, and things like that. She’s not interested in learning to cook but she is obsessive about clipping her very fast growing toenails. Anushka does great expressions as Rukhsana starts to open up to the possibility of enjoying her life. Rukhsana realises she can eat fresh white rice and food that is abundant and just for her. She enjoys her new clothes and makes paper jewellery, delighting in how it feels to do something pretty and frivolous. She bonds emotionally with Arnab, and after seeing a cheesy romantic scene on TV one day her feelings for him suddenly go beyond friendship.

Anushka has to switch sharply between the mild, girlish, Rukku and her more damaged and aggressive side. Rukhsana has excruciating stomach cramps, and hides away from Arnab – he assumes it is her period and leaves her alone. But she climbs the wall outsider her room and walks down the street, still in pain. She sees a little dog she had befriended. And kills it suddenly and silently after kissing it affectionately. Face smeared with blood and tears, she is clearly distressed but the pain is gone. She is jealous of Piyali and loses control in front of Arnab. How long can she hold on?

Parambrata Chatterjee is a good fit for the emotionally repressed Arnab. He doesn’t say a lot but is still quite expressive. He doesn’t know what to do about Rukhsana but he feels responsible for the accident. Once they grow closer, he finds excuses not to send her away, and hides the truth from Piyali. He is ambivalent about that engagement but Arnab is the type to try and keep the peace. Rukhsana becomes possessive of Arnab and wants him to break off his engagement with Piyali. But he betrays both women and goes into hiding. Arnab is a bit of a weasel, at best he lacks conviction. But he is the least malignant man in the film so there is that.

Rajat Kapoor is unsettling as the fanatical professor. He genuinely believes he is doing the right thing, and he may be right about Rukhsana, but he is a sadist. He lingers over her demise and wants her to suffer. It’s not a complex character, but the performance is fairly restrained, and creepy.

Ritabhari Chakraborty does what she can with her character. Piyali is generally ignored or forgotten by Arnab but some of their conversations have an impact and she prompts him to think about things from a different perspective. She is open in discussing, and the emotional burden of past relationships. They are chalk and cheese. Piyali doesn’t exist just to make Arnab a better man, although she does seem to have that effect, and she would be perfectly fine without him.

The film is beautifully atmospheric, and lighting and sound are used well. I liked the small world of Arnab’s apartment and the contrast with noisy, bustling, Kolkata.

While not completely successful as a horror movie, Pari also works as a kind of parable. For me Rukhsana also spoke to how women generally have to pay the price for male pleasure. She is the result of a rape, and a man insists she must die because she is an abomination. She never chose to be born but she has a life. Without Arnab’s protection, despite her inherent power, she has no voice in society. He castigates her as if it was all her fault they had sex. The professor and his band of weirdoes don’t just want her to die a clean death, they want her to suffer to pay for existing. There’s also a glimpse of just how quickly people can start to see someone as different and justify inhumane behaviour to them. While the climax of the film is violent and messy, that’s more or less what I expect from this genre. I’d be more perplexed if the evil creatures or the doomsday cult decided they’d had enough and quietly moved on without telling anyone. In the end though, it is a very human gesture that dissipates the threat.

See this for Anushka’s performance in a competent and not so clichéd genre film. Not the scariest thing I’ve ever seen but probably not one for just before bedtime either. 3 ½ stars!

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Phillauri

Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is set in two different timelines, and is a movie of two very different halves. Usually things take a turn for the worse after Intermission, but in the case of Phillauri it is the first half that I found a chore.

Kanan (Suraj Sharma) goes home to India to get married to his longtime girlfriend Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Just before his engagement he is told he has a problem in his horoscope, and the only way to avoid future calamity is to marry a tree. He is sceptical but does what the families want. Soon after the tree wedding, he is woken by a sparkly spirit hovering above his bed. Shashi (Anushka Sharma) found herself transported to the house, but had no idea how or why. Only Kanan can see or hear Shashi, just adding to his already troubling behaviour. He is ambivalent about marrying Anu, Shashi is unhappy at her lot, and Anu is miserable that the guy she loves is turning out to be a wuss. So it was a huge relief to skip back in time and learn more about Shashi and the love of her life, Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh). Shashi and Anu between them force Kanan to examine his decisions and motivations. Will Kanan and Anu get married? And what happened that Shashi spent 98 years alone, her spirit connected to the tree?

The modern story line is the least interesting by far. It feels glib, done by numbers, and is not helped by some weak performances. Suraj Sharma is particularly flat as Kanan, and terribly unconvincing in scenes where he is supposed to be overcome by fear. Speaking in a weedy falsetto is not enough. Mehreen Pirzada gets almost nothing to work with. Anu has been in love with Kanan since school, she has never had any other plan than to marry him, and I have no idea if she has a job or finished college or anything else. Anu is a weepy, sullen girl which is a bit tiresome although understandable. I did like that she confronted him and demanded he articulate his feelings and make a decision, not just try and passively weasel out as she deserved better than that. There is the usual array of parents and relatives, and a pickled grandmother who starts drinking at breakfast. And there’s a rather nasty “joke” about Kanan being gay and maybe a paedophile. It’s mostly a jumble of clichés, and where the dialogue is a bit more realistic the acting falls over.

The earlier timeline seems to be given so much more love, the writing is more solid, and the performances are stronger. Shashi helps her brother the village doctor, who has raised her since she was young. She is educated but conservative, knowing how a girl from a good family is expected to behave.  Shashi’s one weakness is poetry, and she waits every week to see the poems of Phillauri in the journal. Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh) uses the same name but his songs are bawdy drinking fare, not the more heartfelt and literary work that Shashi loves. He is a flirt, and she shuts him down when he pretends to have written lines that she knows the real Phillauri wrote. But their mutual love of poetry and music, and of love, brings them together. Anushka and Diljit have a beautiful low key chemistry that makes their scenes together shine. She is expressive even without speaking and he inhabits the role of country layabout turned honest man so comfortably. It was a pleasure to get back into their timeline, and not just for the nostalgic beauty. Shashi’s story served to show how the status of women hasn’t improved significantly in almost 100 years, and was also a sterling example of a relationship built on equality, consent, and honesty.

One of the most understated but surprising scenes was a conversation after Shashi’s affair had been discovered. Her brother (played beautifully by Manav Vij) was furious, and laid into both Shashi and Roop Lal. All typical filmi villain thwarting True Love stuff. But later he took her a drink and spoke to her about how he had raised her like his own child and always wanted her to have everything she deserved, and that he loved her. Not what I was expecting at all, although I may have muttered something about the patriarchy. When Shashi and her best friend Amrit (Nidhi Bisht) were talking discreetly about her virginity situation, the scene was nicely gossipy but also quite sweet and not salacious. I liked seeing Shashi being herself, and having people love her for it, without Anushka taking so much as a step towards the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl line. And I don’t want to spoil the story but there are scenes where Anushka and Diljit show a whole arc of story just through the emotions playing across their faces.

The film’s mythology is a bit patchy. Is technicolour glitter cannon heaven a thing for Sikhs? Does every ghost have tinkerbell sound effects and shed a trail of sparkles? Why did Shashi usually float on an awkward horizontal rather than gliding vertically? Why could she wear Anu’s dupatta but not be seen or felt by anyone other than Kanan? Who knows.

But for all the cheesy effects, there are songs like Dum Dum and Sahiba that take us into the story and reveal more of the rich inner lives of Shashi and her bloke. Anvita Dutt wrote the screenplay and some lyrics, and her dialogues were a highlight in the olden days timeline.

Phillauri is not a masterpiece but it does show flashes of excellence. If Lal had been more disciplined in that draggy first half, and maybe pushed Suraj Sharma to try more nuance in his squeaking, it would have helped. But I liked seeing a full blown romance centred on two people who were genuine, honest, and respected each other. Tolerate the first half and enjoy the second half!

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

 

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You know what you’re going to get with a Karan Johar film and his latest film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil doesn’t contain any surprises. As usual the film is all about unbelievably wealthy characters who look fabulous, live in amazing houses and agonise over simple human relationships the way only the truly idle rich can afford to do. It’s fluff, but beautifully filmed fluff that makes for a reasonable time-pass if you can ignore the few serious flaws that prevent the film from being a total success.

The film follows the antics of Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) as he wastes his father’s money while studying an MBA in London and secretly dreaming of becoming a singer. One night he meets Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma) another rich kid who doesn’t even get a back story to explain her family wealth or her presence in London. Despite already having a girlfriend (Lisa Haydon), Ayan falls head over heels in love with Alizeh but unfortunately for Ayan, Alizeh is also already in a relationship (although unlike him she has no qualms about a quick one-night stand) and has no interest in anything other than friendship. Alizeh still has feeling for her ex – a DJ with a roving eye (Fawad Khan) and there is no room in her heart for anyone else.

It’s a wafer thin story and the theme of unrequited love is one that’s been told many times before, but that’s not the problem with the film. The biggest flaw here is Ranbir’s character Ayan who seems to be the worst possible reprise of almost every role Ranbir has played to date. Ayan is an overly emotional man-child with anger management issues who depends on his partner’s maturity and tolerance to solve all his problems for him. Like JJ in Rockstar, Ayan blames the object of his unrequited love for his issues and totally fails to see that only he can take responsibility for his own emotions. It’s hard to feel any empathy for such a self-centred character, particularly when he behaves like a five-year-old, bawling his eyes out when his girlfriend leaves him and pushing Alizeh around when she doesn’t fall into line. At least Alizeh pushes back, but this kind of violence without repercussions is just not acceptable and has no place in any film that purports to be a ‘romance’. Ranbir puts in a good performance, possibly no-one can pull off bratty man-child as well as he can, but his character here is too obnoxious for me and I seriously questioned Alizeh’s judgement when she decided that Ayan was her BFF.

My other big issue is the dreadful cliché used to resolve Ayan’s emotional immaturity at the end of the film. It’s such a let-down and a weak finale, especially when Ayan’s behaviour becomes even more appallingly self-centred and he is quite brutal in his treatment of Alizeh.  It’s disappointing as there are plenty of good points to the film too, but with the end such a let-down the overall feeling on leaving the cinema is one of dissatisfaction.

It’s not all bad though and the first half in particular has plenty to enjoy. Thankfully, apart from her poor friend choice, Anushka Sharma’s Alizeh is a more sympathetic character and appears charming and likeable, even in her loyalty to her philandering boyfriend. Her decision to marry DJ Ali despite her awareness of his indiscretions rings true to real life relationships, and the mistaken but frequent belief in marriage as a cure for infidelity. As if! Alas, Alizeh’s love for Ali seems much greater than Ali’s love for Alizeh and both Anushka Sharma and Fawad Khan are excellent in their portrayals of this mismatched couple in a seemingly doomed relationship.

What also works well is the friendship between Ayan and Alizeh, which sparkles off the screen in the first half. I love that they have a shared love of old cheesy Bollywood songs (after all, who doesn’t!) and that they re-enact them on the snowy slopes of Europe. As someone who has run around Golkonda in Hyderabad trailing a scarf and singing the songs from Magadheera, I have immediate rapport with anyone attempting the same thing, especially when they take the time to dress appropriately for the occasion! There are a few glimpses as flashbacks in the song below but this scene is definitely worth catching in the cinema and for me was totally worth the price of admission alone.

Anushka Sharma is the best thing about the film and her portrayal of Alizeh’s down to earth pragmatism and sheer common sense ensure she is the most relatable character on-screen. She looks great and gives Alizeh plenty of pep and personality to counteract frequently Ranbir’s snivelling Ayan. It’s not that Ranbir doesn’t put in a good performance – he does – but his character is nothing he hasn’t done before and in this instance his immaturity is particularly annoying when compared to the other characters in the film.

Also excellent is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who appears in the second half as a divorced poet Saba Khan. Saba begins a love affair with Ayan just as his heart is broken by Alizeh’s marriage and the two have an interesting relationship.  Ayan is as callous and immature as ever, but hs a genuine affection for Saba, while she is mature enough to revel in a love affair that has no expectations. Aishwarya is stunningly beautiful and gracefully elegant as she swans around her amazing apartment in Vienna, again with no indication of how a supposedly struggling poet could afford to live somewhere quite so spectacular and expensively furnished. Of course there is her ex-husband (Shah Rukh Khan in a brief cameo) who is supposedly a successful artist, and is still in love with his ex-wife so perhaps he is happy to fund her wealthy lifestyle. The relationship between Ayan and Saba is much better realised than that of Ayan and Alizeh, and here the contrast between Saba’s maturity and Ayan’s self-centred youth makes for a more plausible relationship. Even the way it ends is well written and perfectly acted by Ranbir and Aishwarya, something that makes the final scenes even more disappointing in comparison. After all if K-Jo could write this part of the story so well, why not have such a satisfying conclusion to the main relationship too?

I wanted to like As Dil Hai Mushkil more as there are some very funny moments and clever situations in the first half that work really well. The songs are good, the sets spectacular and all the actors perform well. But no matter how much I enjoyed the friendship between Ayan and Alizeh, or the relationship between Ayan and Saba, it’s all overshadowed by the clichéd ending and the general unpleasantness of Ayan’s character. Worth watching for Aishwarya and Anushka and the wonderful re-enactment in the snow but be prepared for the banality of the ending and seen-it-all-before sameness of  Ranbir’s character.