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.

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.