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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Andhadhun

 

What a smart, darkly funny, thriller this is. I’m going to try to avoid too many major spoilers but really if you haven’t seen this yet, stop now. Go see it. Then come back and let’s talk.

Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a blind musician who teaches privately while practicing for a competition. Sophie (Radhika Apte) is a kind girl who accidentally runs him over and then finds him a job playing piano in her dad’s restaurant. As Sophie leaves Akash’s apartment it seems he can actually see. He meets Pramod Sinha a.k.a Pammi (Anil Dhawan), a star of yesteryear, at the restaurant when he plays one of the old man’s signature tunes. Pammi then hires Akash to play a private concert in his apartment as an anniversary surprise for his wife Simi (Tabu). Akash turns up and sees signs that something disturbing has happened. He keeps playing blind and makes his excuses to leave. Does Simi suspect he is a witness? What did he really see? Simi is paranoid, and decides to take further investigative action. And then things get really crazy.

This is a rare film where the entire cast and crew is completely in synch. The dialogues flow, beautifully delivered by a superb cast, and underscored by great visuals and sensitive use of music. The comedy and the drama both veer into dark territory but despite my finding some acts repugnant, I was so invested in finding out what on earth would happen next. Relationships are complex and can change. I liked that while most of the people were kind of despicable, it was often unclear who was playing it for real or faking it at any given time. There are double crosses and shady deals happening all over the place as Akash and Simi both try to hide their secrets and protect their dreams.

Simi takes to crime with elan. She is a hard edged almost star, with the drive and ego to do what she believes is necessary to protect her brand. She married the much older Pammi to boost her career but her breakthrough is elusive. Tabu is awesome as she has to do deliberately bad acting, just plain bad acting, and also delivering some exceptionally good comedic acting, sometimes all in the same scene. Her facial expressions are superb as calculating and narcissistic Simi tries to find the best way out of any adverse situation. Simi is a recognisable “type” but she isn’t played as a caricature when it would have been so easy to do that. It’s a fine balance, and Tabu nails it.

Ayushmann Khurrana’s blind acting, and the transitions between pretending to be blind and using his sight, are beautifully played. Whether the scene is funny or tense, he literally does it in the blink of an eye. As things go from great to bad to worse he keeps believing things will sort themselves out if he could just get a break. He’s manipulative and uses other people but when backed into a corner he can also be vicious. Akash tells a lot of his own backstory so it’s impossible to know how much is genuine and how much is self-serving, especially when he is trying to impress Sophie. Akash is a slippery character and I felt that Khurrana gave a fully developed characterisation of an unreliable and untrustworthy character. I never felt that there was anything missing but I also knew that Akash wasn’t what he seemed or that we had seen the real man. Like Tabu, he really gets his character so he can push the pathos and comedy without becoming a parody. And hurrah for an actor who bothers to learn how to look like they may actually be playing their instrument.

Sophie is a good person. She helps Akash because she feels she owes him after the bingle. Later when attraction sparks between them, she doesn’t agonise over her feelings or his blindness. She goes for it, accepts him for who he is, and tries to understand how life is for him. When she discovers that much of his identity is a lie, her reaction is equally frank and fully articulated. Radhika Apte is the straight man to Tabu and Ayushmann and her role is small, but she has impact. Someone in the film had to have a moral compass, and that was Sophie.

Tonally similar to films like Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrel or In Bruges, the movie sweeps between witty one liners to shocking confrontation to observation driven humour. Based on a French short film L’Accordeur I prefer this extended mix, I have to say. The high and lows, the tension and release, are all masterfully orchestrated by Sriram Raghavan. I loved the set design and locations. I got a real sense of Akash’s neighbourhood and the disorientation when he was outside of his literal comfort zone. Simi’s apartment screamed nouveau riche socialite. I don’t often like Amit Trivedi’s soundtracks as they can sound a bit samey and repetitive. But in this case, the music is intrinsic to the story and the mix of retro songs and original pieces is excellent.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Andhadhun and I was absolutely delighted. It’s a smart, pacey thriller with great, and very flawed, characters driving the crazy action along. Every time I would think “surely they won’t?” they did! One of the best of 2018!

Sameer (2017)

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Sameer is an interesting attempt to make a political thriller that delves into the reasons for radicalisation and subsequent acts of terrorism carried out by young Muslim men in India to-day. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver, mostly due to a surfeit of clichés in the characterisations but there are also some major flaws with the plot that derail the political agenda. Where Sameer does work however is as a thriller, and Dakxin Chhara does a good job with keeping the tension high in the second half as the ATS try to stop the terrorists and their bombing campaign. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is excellent and despite the rather flawed reasoning behind his involvement in the bomb plot, it’s his performance as a mole within the terrorist group that makes Sameer worth a watch.

The film starts in Hyderabad with a series of bomb blasts around the city, including in the area around the Charminar and Mecca Masjid. That seems an odd choice of location given the perpetrator is supposed to be Muslim, but it works in terms of shock value. The prime suspect is a young student from Ahmedabad called Yaseen Darji, and the ATS are quick to send in a team to track him down. However, the only person they find in the deserted accommodation block is Yaseen’s roommate Sameer (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) and the ATS Deputy Chief Desai (Subrat Dutta) decides to arrest him as an accomplice. Sameer is brought back to the ATS headquarters in Ahmedabad, and Desai threatens his prisoner with torture if Sameer doesn’t attempt to find Yaseen and turn him over to the authorities.

There are a number of problems with the plot set-up but the most glaring is the assumption that Sameer will be able to infiltrate the terrorist group in Ahmedabad. He has no connection to the city and his only link, that of being Yaseen’s roommate at college, seems a very thin thread to pull. Desai illegally kidnaps Sameer, tortures and threatens him, and then dumps him into an unknown city to try and win the trust of a group of terrorists – it never sounds like a plausible scenario and the film compounds this by adding the stereotypical caricature of a Muslim terrorist to the characterisation of Yaseen’s older brother Shaheed (Chinmay Mandlekar). It just doesn’t seem likely that a government organisation such as the ATS would be given free rein to torture and kill unlimited numbers of citizens in their hunt for potential terrorists, while Desai’s reaction to later events is equally improbable.

Desai’s character is also a mess of contradictions. One minute he’s threatening and intimidating Sameer, while the next he’s trying to charm journalist Alia Irade (Anjali Patil). He’s fanatical about catching the terrorists and seems happy to commit any number of crimes in his pursuit of justice, but he’s such an unstable persona that it seems highly unlikely that anyone would put him in charge of sensitive operations. His scenes with Alia Irade are also painfully awkward, which may be intentional, but It would seem more probable that Desai would bluster and try to bully Alia rather than try to develop a relationship. Subrat Dutta does his best with each facet of his character’s schizophrenic personality, but Desai seems too flaky a character to be in such a critical role.

Sameer is instructed to find a way to stay with Yasin’s mother Mumtaz Khala (Seema Biswas) and gain the trust of Shaheed. Unsurprisingly Mumtaz doesn’t want anything to do with Sameer and refuses to let him stay, while Shaheed is suspicious of Sameer and doesn’t believe his declarations of support. As Sameer wanders the area he meets a street-theatre group who enact scenes of discrimination and social injustice, just in case the audience hasn’t yet realised that this is a marginalised community with plenty of reasons to be discontent. Mumtaz decries the violence and denies she has a son called Yaseen while Sameer cites the Gujarat riots and his father’s death as the reasons behind his brother’s radicalisation. This is politics drawn with a very broad brush and there is no subtlety in Dakxin Chhara’s description of a society under siege. Just in case anyone was still missing the heavy-handed symbolism, Manto’s (Alok Gagdekar) street theatre includes a young disabled boy, Rocket (Shubham Bajrange) who idolises his ‘grandfather’ Gandhi, and whose simple faith allows him to break up a potential fight between the Muslim and Hindu residents of the colony. You just know it’s not going to be a happy ending.

At the same time, journalist Alia Irade (Anjali Patil) is investigating the disappearance of 55 children 10 years ago during the riots, which allows her to mention these previous atrocities every time the subject of terrorism is raised. Her character is basically the ‘voice of reason’ who points out that every story has two sides. However, her attempts to humanise the terrorists are generally unsuccessful, mainly because the terrorists’ violence is directed against the local communities.  This has the effect of ensuring the terrorists really are the butchers Desai describes. I did like Alia’s uncompromising attitude and refusal to willingly help Desai in his crusade against Yaseen and his family, and the final twist to her story at the end is clever, although ultimately cynical and sad.

If you can ignore the clichéd political agenda and instead watch Sameer’s story as a straight-forward thriller, then it all becomes somewhat more palatable. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub does an excellent job with his cringing and pleading student being threatened with torture, and his later attempts to wheedle information from Shaheed and his mother are plausibly clumsy. Sameer isn’t a nice person and Ayyub doesn’t try to make him likeable, he just gives him a valid reason for acting the way he does and then gets on with it. His characterisation helps make the race against time to find the information about the bomb plot seem much more urgent than it really is, while his demeanour during the final scenes is chilling.

I wish Dakxin Chhara hadn’t tried to put so much politics into his film and instead left the story to speak for itself. So much of the window-dressing to humanise the terrorists and explain their back-story really wasn’t necessary and it all detracts from the really quite good thriller underneath. And there are good ideas here. The use of a high-pitched whine throughout and then after the bomb blasts works well, and the final scenes deliver a good twist to the story. The performances are good too – Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Anjali Patil both suit their roles and Seema Biswas stands out in her small role. Sameer isn’t a great film but it does have it’s moments, and it’s always good to see something a little bit different, even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark all the time. 2 ½ stars.