Ittefaq (2017)

Ittefaq poster

In this 2017 version of Ittefaq, Abhay Chopra takes elements from the 1969 original and spins them into a police procedural that ticks most of the boxes. There are two conflicting stories that police detective Dev (Akshaye Khanna) has to unravel to find the identity of the killer, but he only has three days to solve the puzzle before he has to let his main suspect walk free. There is a good amount of suspense in this stylish thriller and a better than average story, but it’s Akshaye Khanna as the determined detective that makes Ittefaq worth watching on the big screen.

The film starts with a car chase as famous UK writer Vikram Sethi (Sidharth Malhotra) attempts to escape the Colaba police force, who want to bring him in for questioning over the suspicious death of his wife. They finally catch him in an apartment belonging to a lawyer, Shekhar and his wife Maya (Sonakshi Sinha), but when the police arrive they find Shekhar has been murdered and Vikram is standing over the body. Dev (Akshaye Khanna) is called in to investigate the death of Vikram’s wife Katherine (Kimberley Louisa McBeath) and Shekhar’s murder, with Vikram the prime suspect.

Vikram and Maya both have quite different stories of what happened in the apartment and each version is shown in Rashomon style flashback as Dev asks the relevant questions. Maya tells a story of being held in her apartment by a violent and agitated Vikram before her husband arrived, saving her but ultimately being murdered by Vikram. Vikram on the other hand explains how he was injured after his car crashed and was looking for help, but Maya acted suspiciously from the start. It’s an interesting puzzle that relies on the credibility of each witness and how believable their respective stories appear.

The first half builds suspense as Vikram and Maya recount their version of events while the police search for the truth. For a change, the police aren’t the usual vicious thugs or bumbling incompetents, although there is some comedy relating to the police officers who are first on scene at the murder. However, the comedy here is well thought out and gives the subordinates personality that ultimately makes the film more interesting – making tea at a crime scene, snacking on soaked almonds and joking about a guard dog are all relatively normal activities that contrast with the strange events of the crime.  While Dev barks out questions and mulls over the evidence with the forensics technician, his police officers are changing the light bulb in Vikram’s cell and discussing their views on the murders – which all helps to cloud the truth. The various red herrings and clues scattered through the dialogue work well to further deepen the mystery and the addition of a suicide potentially linked to Vikram and his wife add more potential suspects that Dev has to investigate.

After a good first half, the second has a few more issues as a number of holes start to appear in the narrative. Dev’s piecemeal questioning of Vikram and Maya over the three days doesn’t stand-up to expected police procedure while a possible witness in Maya’s maid seems to go nowhere, but despite these shortcomings, the final outcome remains in doubt right up to the climax and big reveal. Part of this is due to the excellent poker faces from Siddharth and Sonakshi whenever they are interviewed by Dev. Both seem equally credible, and the switch between the two respective views in the flashbacks muddies the waters further. Sonakshi appears furtive and ill at ease during Vikram’s account, while in her own flashback sequences she is every bit the terrified woman held hostage in her apartment. Siddharth too is excellent as he switches between violent intruder and frantic victim while appearing completely sincere and totally devastated by his wife’s death during his interrogation. Of the two, Sonakshi’s character has less dialogue and isn’t as well developed, but both actors are good in their respective roles and manage to make their characters a believable witness and a plausible suspect depending on the viewpoint.

Akshaye Khanna is wonderful as Dev, playing the character fairly straight but with the intensity that’s expected from any fictional detective. Abhay Chopra gives him some background too by adding in a few crucial moments between Dev and his wife (Mandira Bedi) that allow a more human side to his character and lighten the mood when the drama threatens to get too repetitive. Akshaye also gets some of the best dialogue which works to ensure Dev appears as a detective who is smart enough to solve the crime despite the dual handicaps of his less than stellar associates and the restricted time he has to work on the case. It’s great to see Akshaye back in a role that plays to his strengths and he is charismatic and convincing as Dev, while ensuring that the focus is on the investigation, rather than simply the character.

Michal Luka helps create atmosphere by some excellent use of lighting, both in the flashback sequences and during the investigation, while the background music from Tanishk Bagchi adds to the mood without being intrusive. The running time is fairly short too at only 107 minutes, which means Abhay Chopra has to move the story along and establish the characters quickly, all of which helps to add tension although ultimately not quite as much as the story needs. The end too isn’t quite as satisfying as expected, although it is surprising with a clever break in the case that comes from a more unexpected direction. Overall Ittefaq does keep you guessing and although you may not be on the edge of your seat throughout, it’s still a respectable enough thriller with solid performances and good twists. Worth watching as a reminder of just how good Akshaye Khanna can be and then wonder why on Earth we don’t get to see him more often!

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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.

Shaan (1980)

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5 years after his masterpiece Sholay, Ramesh Sippy returned to the big screen with the big action adventure Shaan.  Written by Salim-Javed, the story is a suspense thriller with many of the film elements seemingly inspired by a hotchpotch of James Bond films. Just have a look at the Bondesque opening title sequence for instance.

The movie is still Bollywood at heart though with Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor playing two personable rogues at odds with a police officer who also just happens to be their older brother. In addition to the sibling conflict there is a villain with a fabulous island lair, car chases, helicopters, sharks and even a man-eating crocodile thrown into the mix, adding up to a great masala movie and one definitely well worth a watch.

Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) and Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) are con-artists who make a living by fleecing money from corrupt officials and small time crooks. A little in the style of Robin Hood except that Vijay and Ravi keep the money rather than giving it to the poor. However the shoe is on the other foot when they themselves are conned by uncle and niece team Chacha (Johnny Walker) and Renu (Bindiya Goswami). To get their money back Vijay and Ravi join up with Renu and Chacha to carry out a daring jewellery heist, but are again pipped at the post by fellow thief Sunita (Parveen Babi).  Sunita not only manages to steal the necklace before anyone else but has an audacious method for getting it out past the police search; although I do think recovery might have proved a little difficult if things hadn’t gone exactly to plan. Her introduction is rather fab too as she appears in a wonderfully sparkly dress with glamorous backing dancers who have silver tassels everywhere, even on their boots.

Needless to say Sunita is added to the merry band of thieves who go ahead with another con based on the old ‘holy men walking on water’ scam. This time though they are caught by Police Officer Shiv Kumar (Sunil Dutt), who goes ahead and arrests Vijay and Ravi, even though they are his two younger brothers. Above all else Shiv is a police officer sworn to uphold the law, and that is what he does. Shiv’s character is established early on when he rescues some hostages in a beautifully choreographed action sequence. His wife Sheetal (Rakhee Gulzar) shares the same values although she has a soft spot for Shiv’s two brothers and is altogether more forgiving than her husband. However, once the brothers are released from jail they make a vow to ‘go straight’ and move in with Shiv and Sheetal in their house in Mumbai.

While Vijay and Ravi have been in jail, Shiv has been making inroads into the criminal empire of a villain known only as Shakaal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and his efforts are starting to seriously impact on criminal business. Shakaal sends an assassin Rakesh (Shatrughan Sinha) after Shiv and his family, but after two attempts on Shiv’s life fail, Shakaal ups the ante and sends his henchman Jagmohan (Mac Mohan) instead. After one of the best kidnap attempts I’ve seen onscreen, Jagmohan manages to spirit Shiv to the island hideaway while leaving everyone else totally baffled as to Shiv’s whereabouts.

Shakaal’s lair is absolutely wonderful and mixes many of the best elements from various other villain hideouts. It’s located on an island some 300km off the coast of India but in reality was filmed on the island of Steep Holm near the UK. The lair has long corridors with rough-hewn rock for walls but fancy modern automatic doors and nifty surveillance cameras. Shakaal lords it over his minions, Blofeld-style in a conference room with a rotating circular table and a retractable floor, underneath which lurks a man-eating crocodile. This allows Shakaal to indulge in a form of roulette to dispose of unsatisfactory employees or anyone else he doesn’t like. Meanwhile sharks (and the odd oversized goldfish) can be seen swimming past the green tinted windows for extra menace. Adding to the ambience in a large audience hall is a massive golden statue of an eagle, and Shakaal has a throne strategically placed underneath for those moments when you just have to be seen to be the head villain! And of course there are plenty of panels with flashing lights and hidden switches– everything your discerning villain could require for world domination, although Shakaal has more modest aims despite his grandiose lair and petulant manner.

Shakaal has his own distinctive look too combining his bald head with black or white military style tunics featuring his ‘S’ logo prominently displayed. His henchmen all wear identical smart white suits, and later on his henchwomen are attired in silver miniskirts and fetching black blouson style shirts – always good to see a properly style-conscious villain!

Shakaal finally manages to dispose of Shiv although it takes him quite a few attempts and the stage is set for Ravi and Vijay to avenge his death. Naturally this involves infiltrating Shakaal’s lair with a song and dance troupe (how else could you possibly sneak into an impenetrable hideaway?) which also features the inimitable Helen leading the way in this excellent song.

There is a lot going on in Shaan, but the plot follows a mostly logical and clear progression building up to the grand showdown in Shakaal’s lair. The comedy works well, the romances are mainly just an excuse for a few songs, but the action sequences and special effects are first-rate. The camaraderie between the two brothers is one of the major assets to the film and Shashi and Amitabh have great chemistry together. Perhaps it’s the enmity between Amitabh and Shatrughan Sinha, but even once Rakesh turns on Shakaal and joins the brothers, there is still just a frisson of tension which makes the shaky relationship between the marksman and the brothers that little bit more believable. Generally the addition of Rakesh halfway into the film is a masterstroke, adding uncertainty to the second half and also an opportunity for another good car chase and action scene. Rakhee Gulzar is also excellent as Shiv Kumar’s wife, both in playing a steadying influence to the brothers and as the grieving and vengeful widow. She has a major part to play in the final proceedings too and she plays her role with grace and elegance throughout. Bindiya Goswami and Parveen Babi have rather less to do, but they get a chance to throw a few punches in the final scene and both do a good job with their rather limited roles.

Kulbhushan Kharbanda is fantastic as a rather different kind of villain; smiling and soft voiced one moment and angry the next. It’s a definite departure from the more usual thuggishly violent criminals and the more subtle psychological approach works well here and enhances the cracking good story. Kulbhushan Kharbanda uses his smile to project chill and menace while his initially affable demeanour serves well to mislead both friends and foes alike. It’s a great performance and Shaan is worth watching for his character alone, even without the good story, excellent action and R.D. Burman’s memorable songs. I love every minute of Shaan and recommend viewing for a great all-round entertainer. 4 stars.