AK vs AK (2020)

The premise of Vikramaditya Motwane’s latest film AK vs AK is immediately intriguing; a film director (Anurag Kashyap) kidnaps the daughter of a film star (Anil Kapoor) and then records the ensuing frantic search against the clock as a thrilling hostage drama. While I had a concern that the film would try too hard to be ‘clever’ and ‘edgy’, and not being a huge fan of Anurag Kashyap, I didn’t jump onto to Netflix straight away. But the story and the trailer were enough to pique my interest.  What I wasn’t expecting was just how funny the film turned out to be, or that it would be quite so entertaining – although it does occasionally almost fall into the trap of trying to be just a little too self-aware. The two AK’s play extreme caricatures of themselves (or at least of their public personas), and the film is peppered with references to their real (and reel) lives in a modern take on a meta film that retains a distinctive Bollywood flavour.

The film starts by introducing Yogita (Yogita Bihani) as a film school student who is recording Anurag for a school project. She follows him with a camera when he is interviewed, along with Anil Kapoor, by Sucharita Tyagi in front of a live audience. Anil is talking about his glory days in numerous hit films while Anurag adds digs about Anil’s recent lack of success. The sniping continues until an audience member asks which is more important, the actor or the director and in the ensuing argument, Anurag throws a glass of water over Anil. It’s brilliantly funny and the various references by each to their respective careers sets the rivalry between the two up beautifully.

As the media splash pictures of the contretemps across the front pages, Anurag is beset by problems, with actors withdrawing from his upcoming film (Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a voice cameo) and backers pulling out. But just when the situation seems dire, Yogita comes up with a plan. Next, Anurag goes onto the set of Anil’s latest film where the actor is finishing early to go home and celebrate his birthday. After forcing his way in to speak to Anil, Anurag manages to convince the star that he has kidnaped his daughter Sonam Kapoor, and that Anil has until sunrise to find her. There are just 3 rules: no police, no outsiders and the camera has to remain on. The hunt is on, and as Anil becomes ever more frantic in his attempts to find his daughter, Yogita keeps the camera keeps rolling while Anurag keeps fanning the flames.

It definitely helps to have some idea about the two AK’s and to know something about their respective careers, families and the stories about each. At times the insults cut very close to the bone, but the film plays on this, aiming for the biggest shocks and the nastiest rumours. There are some brilliant moments; such as a scene in a police station where Anurag convinces everyone that Anil is just acting and an extended chase sequence where Yogita is struggling to keep up and the bouncing camera adds to the improvised feel of the film. But at the same time there are some scenes that drag on a little too long and Anurag’s overacting starts to become a tad annoying.

What I really loved in the film was Anil Kapoor and his ability to act, overact and be completely convincing as he changed from frantic father to consummate performer at the drop of a hat. The perils of stardom are shown everywhere as Anil is pressed into posing for selfies by almost every person he meets. Throughout it all there is no question at all that Anil Kapoor is a star. Even when he’s running through the streets, dashing along platforms and accosting taxi drivers, he is never put out by the attention he receives or the demands for selfies. He just smiles, poses and then resumes his search. That struck me as perhaps being the most true-to-life part of the entire film – this endless affirmation of stardom that becomes so all pervasive that it’s not even noticeable any more.

As part of the chase, Anil ends up at a Christmas party where the revellers won’t help him until he performs for them in a brilliant ad hoc dance performance. What makes it even better is Anurag clapping and cheering at the very edge of the crowd. Despite all his digs about Anil’s slide into obscurity, he seems happy to be watching the crowd’s reaction to their hero, or, is he just enjoying the delay to Anil’s hunt for his daughter? The manic look on Anurag’s face tends to suggest it’s much more likely to be the latter. There is ambiguity everywhere, a few unexpected twists and plenty of self-aware backslapping which somehow all works better than it should.

I enjoyed this film much more than I expected. The opening scenes are fantastic and create expectation for a perhaps more nuanced film, but once Sonam is kidnapped and the chase is on, we’re back into more familiar action territory. There is a lull in the middle before the film picks up again, but overall this is in turns funny, shocking, surprising but mostly just entertaining. Be warned though – there is a lot of swearing in this film. It was fun to see Anurag’s DVD library which I remember him talking about at a Q and A session here in Melbourne, and great to see such big Bollywood names such as Boney Kapoor taking part in the action. Other things to look out for are the preponderance of shots featuring images of the actors in mirrors and the glimpses of Jogita and her camera that can be seen reflected in windows, Anurag’s tablet and the car windows. All very meta.

So if you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, that’s still very much entrenched in the world of Bollywood, find AK vs AK online, sit back and enjoy the mayhem. 3 ½ stars.

Gehrayee

This 1980 supernatural suspense film follows the fortunes of a family after they sell an ancestral plantation to a soap factory. Aside from the supernatural elements, the story touches on the themes of gender inequality, the issue of caste and even environmentalism with an insightfulness that is surprising in a Bollywood film of the era. Although there are influences from Western films such as The Exorcist, Gehrayee is firmly grounded in Indian culture with references to traditional practices, god-men and sacred rites. Starring a very young Padmini Kolhapure, Anant Nag and Rita Bhaduri, Gehrayee is a rather different Bollywood ‘horror’ film that has plenty of relevance even today.

The film starts with Chennabassapa (Sriram Lagoo) visiting his family plantation in a small village. The plantation is looked after by Basava (Suhas Bhalekar) who lives on the farm with his daughter Chenni (Rita Bhaduri). During his visit, Chennabassapa announces that he has sold the plantation to a soap factory as he needs money to build a new house in Bangalore. He offers Basava a job in the factory, or work in a bank in Bangalore, but Basava is devastated by the announcement and doesn’t take Chennabassapa up on any of his offers. Instead, he bewails the destruction of the forest and what he calls the rape of the land in the name of money. 

On his return to Bangalore, Chennabassapa continues to demonstrate his total lack of empathy when retrenching workers from one of his factories. Despite other members of his team pointing out that it’s not about the monetary compensation, Chennabassapa ignores the humanitarian aspects and continues to concentrate only on profit, although he does pay off his workers in line with government regulations. It’s not that he is mean and only focused on profit, but he sees his workers as just another commodity and not worth any further consideration once he has no further use for them. Chennabassapa is a man of science and rationality, convinced of his own superiority and sure that he is always right, but by the end of the film, this is shown to be a bad thing, and not something to be proud of at all!

Shortly after Chennabassapa’s return from his village, his daughter Uma (Padmini Kolhapure) starts to behave very oddly, waking up screaming and speaking about events from Chennabassapa’s past in an odd voice. Unlike Chennabassapa, his wife Saroja (Indrani Mukherjee) is very superstitious and although she is accepting of the decision to take Uma to see a doctor, she also looks for other remedies and more traditional cures to help her daughter. As part of her treatment Uma undergoes shock therapy, which Chennabassapa’s son Nandu (Anant Nag) vehemently argues against. He is convinced that this will have a detrimental effect on his young sister and instead takes her out for rides on his motorcycle and trips to parks to help try and recover her senses. However, this seems to backfire as Uma then shockingly tries to seduce Nandu in front of their parents, and she continues to reveal indiscretions from Chennabassapa’s past.

One of these revelations is that Chennabassapa seduced Basava’s wife who then suicided by jumping into a well. Saroja takes Chennabassapa to task, telling him that like all men his sexual conquest meant nothing to him but was a major event for the woman that resulted in a death. It’s a small part of the plot, but it makes a big impact as, in a few words, Saroja rips apart her husband’s complacency and points out the inherent hypocrisy of their society. I wish the film had gone further into this and perhaps even brought it into the climax, but it’s still an excellent piece of writing and kudos to scriptwriters Vijay Tendulkar, Vikas Desai and Aruna Raje for including such a frank conversation in the film.

Meanwhile, as Uma appears to be getting worse, the family servant Rama (Ramakrishna) tries to help by suggesting a tantric lime placed under Uma’s bed. Apparently this will rot if she is possessed but will otherwise stay fresh. However the next morning the lemon is missing and shortly after Rama is sacked after the family’s food rots in the pan. At the same time, Saroja starts to look for other solutions and tries a succession of god-men who try to exorcise the evil spirit from Uma. One of these (a youthful Amrish Puri) kidnaps Uma to use in a demonic ritual of his own, but luckily Nandu and Rama are able to rescue her in time. As Uma becomes weaker and weaker the family becomes ever more desperate to finds a solution before time runs out. But perhaps the most shocking revelations occur at the climax of the film, when Nandu tries to find out why his family have been targeted and ends up raising Basava’s ghost to try and get to the bottom of Uma’s illness.

While there isn’t ever anything particularly frightening that happens in Gehrayee, some of the scenes of possession and the final climax are definitely quite creepy. Padmini Kolhapure is exceptionally good in her portrayal of a young girl possessed by a demonic spirit, and even if there are no horrific special effects, her expressions and body language perfectly express the two sides to her personality. Anant Nag is also excellent as Nandu, slowly starting to experience his own mental issues and managing to convey both his despair and his internal confusion as his beloved sister becomes a stranger. Sriram Lagoo and Indrani Mukherjee are also excellent and make the most of their conflicting views to keep the story moving along. The conflict between science and superstition is nicely equitable with both having their successes and missteps although in the end the supernatural problem requires a supernatural solution.

 The background music from Laxmikant Pyarelal also adds to the suspense with odd noises and other-worldly screeches along with the more usual musical build-up. The contrast between Chennabassapa’s belief in science and medicine compared to his wife’s more spiritual approach to the problem works well and adds to the general uneasiness of the film. Nandu seems torn between the two belief systems which ultimately contributes to his own mental deterioration while Chennabassapa’s attitude also highlights the divide between rich and poor, and the harsh struggle to exist for those who live in small rural villages. Basava’s lament for the plight of the land echoes throughout the film, contrasting the lush parks in the city with the barrenness of the village once the factory has taken over the land. One of Uma’s breakdowns also occurs in a park where she is surrounded by trees, where it seems as if nature is taking its revenge on her family.

Although the story is about demonic possession, ultimately it’s the evils of society that end up as the focus of the film, and therein lies the real horror. Vikas Desai and Aruna Raje keep the outcome uncertain right to the very end and the juxtaposition of events that can be explained with those that cannot bring a feeling of unease that persists throughout. It’s very well done to keep the audience unbalanced and waiting for something awful to happen, right up until the climax. More of a social commentary that just happens to have a supernatural element, Gehrayee is a film ahead of its time and one that deserves a wider audience. 3½ stars.

Mee Raqsam

Mee Raqsam is a rather sentimental film by Husain Mir and Safdar Mir about a young Muslim girl learning Bharatanatyam in the face of community opposition. Acclaimed cinematographer Baba Azmi directs, and the opening credits explain that the film is a tribute to his father, Kaifi Azmi, who always wanted a film to be made in his home village. Perhaps as a result, the story leans heavily on sentiment and is light on depth, but for those who don’t mind a dash of schmaltz with their melodrama it’s a reasonable time-pass, especially for fans of dance.

The film opens with the sudden death of Maryam’s mother Sakina as she is showing off her dancing skills to her daughter. It’s a bit of an odd start to the film to immediately kill off one of the characters and there is also no context to why Maryam’s mother is dancing on the terrace of their home. Subsequent scenes with her family make it unlikely that she ever had any encouragement from them to learn dance, although it’s suggested by Maryam that she copied dance steps after watching them on TV. Sakina’s dancing seems to be purely a device to link Maryam’s wish to learn dance with memories of her mother, but it feels somewhat contrived without any backstory or explanation. 

Maryam (Aditi Subedi) is understandably devastated by her mother’s death but decides that she will go to classes to learn Bharatanatyam since this reminds her of her mother. Her father Salim (Danish Husain) is supportive, mainly because he just wants his daughter to be happy again, and he can’t see any harm in letting her learn how to dance. The simplistic nature of this part of the story is rather frustrating as it all happens so easily. Maryam wants to learn Bharatanatyam., there is a class nearby, and her father is fine with the idea. There is no explanation of how a poor tailor is paying for the classes, or why Salim doesn’t think through the consequences a little more before agreeing to Maryam’s request. However, everything runs smoothly, at least to begin with, and Maryam begins classes under the aegis of dance teacher Uma (Sudeepta Singh). Of course, it turns out that Maryam is a natural, and despite her lack of experience is selected to perform at a local event for the dance school sponsors. One of these is local Hindu bigwig Jai Prakash (Rakesh Chaturvedi Om), who is unimpressed by the inclusion of a Muslin girl in the classes, dismissively calling her Sultana and later, actively campaigning against her inclusion in a dance competition.

Meanwhile, Maryam’s maternal relatives are equally horrified by the thought of her dance lessons and complain vociferously to Salim. Her aunt Zehra (Shradha Kaul) is loud and bossy, but despite her dictatorial ways it is clear that she genuinely wants the best for Maryam It’s just that it has to be her idea of what is best. She drags Maryam out of classes and instead gets her to join a sewing circle, but Salim manages to allow Maryam to continue classes and still appear to be compliant with her aunt’s demands. However, the local Muslim community is also opposed to Maryam’s dance lessons and community leader Hashim Seth (Naseeruddin Shah) organises a boycott of Salim’s store. Poor to start with, Salim and Maryam face even more poverty and even violence, with stones thrown through their windows and threats made directly to Salim when he attempts to attend the local mosque. Everything culminates in Maryam’s performance at a local dance competition where talent scouts from Delhi will be in attendance. With both the Hindu and Muslim communities against her, the question is will Maryam manage to dance at all, let alone make her mark at the competition.

The story is kept simple, and all the characters apart from Maryam and her father are essentially one-dimensional. On one side are the people who are good – Uma who is thrilled to have a ‘natural dancer’ in her classes and doesn’t care who she is or what her family does. Maryam’s cousin (Juhaina Ahsan) is supportive while local auto driver Ashfaque (Kaustubh Shukla) persuades his fellow drivers to buy their ‘designer’ shirts from Salim when he sees how the family is being shunned by their regular customers. There is a vague love story between Ashfaque and Maryam’s cousin, but despite initial promise this doesn’t go anywhere, and adds little to the story. A track involving Jai Prakash’s ‘modern’ daughter Anjali (Shivani Gautam) is also a little odd and appears forced into the story partly to show a modern viewpoint but mainly so that Anjali can save the day at the end. On the other side are the bad guys – Zehra is traditional and narrow-minded, Jai Prakash and Hashim Seth are as prejudiced as each other, and the local communities follow their lead blindly. 

Although the story follows a predictable path, what really makes the film stand out are the performances from Danish Husain and Aditi Subedi. Danish excels in the role of an understanding and sympathetic father who is completely supportive of his daughter’s decisions. He’s kind, resigned to dealing with his wife’s family, but also stubborn when it comes down to doing what is right. Aditi Subedi is charming as Maryam and she nicely blends together conformity with her rebellious desire to learn Bharatanatyam. She gets the emotional scenes just right and does look lovely when she dances. Deepali Salil’s choreography suits her well, and my only complaint about the dancing is that there just isn’t enough of it. Disappointingly, the final dance competition is spoiled by some erratic camera angles, but the dance scenes in Uma’s classes are simply beautiful. I also enjoyed the music here; the background score by George Joseph and Ripul Sharma is excellent and suits the atmosphere of the film perfectly.

The idea of the story is interesting, and I must admit I hadn’t ever thought about the difficulties of learning Bharatanatyam aside from how complex and physically challenging it appears to be. I’ve always thought of it as a quintessentially Indian dance and it’s fascinating to see it through the lens of religion rather than simply as an art form. The prejudices and conservative mindset of both the Hindu and Muslim communities are well portrayed, although it would have been even better if there had been some more shading of the characters rather than leaving everything quite so black and white. However, the scenes of family disagreement are better and give more of an insight into the difficulties facing Maryam and her cousins as modern attitudes clash with traditional values. Mee Raqsam may not be as ground-breaking a film as it could have been, but it’s a different take on the clash between cultures and that makes it well worth a look. 3 ½ stars.