Mala Aai Vhhaychy / Mimi

Recent release Mimi is a remake of Marathi film Mala Aai Vhhaychy, and I thought it would be interesting to watch both before reviewing. Mala Aai Vhhaychy and Mimi are based on a story about surrogacy and what happens when the biological parents don’t want the child, but the approach and therefore the overall impact is quite different. Mala Aai Vhhaychy is the more successful of the two,  winning the National Film Award for best Marathi film in 2011. The remake Mimi skips many aspects of the original story, and unsuccessfully adds more comedy, ending up as a pale although overly melodramatic version of the story. Despite problems with both films, if you have a choice, opt for the original. Umila Kanetkar is wonderful and ultimately the story has more to offer.

Mala Aai Vhhaychy means ‘I want to be a mother’ and the film starts with the arrival of Mary (Stacy Bee) a rich American who has travelled to India with her husband to find a surrogate for their child. Mary appears to have organised everything by herself, and although there is a brief glimpse of her husband, mostly she appears alone. The surrogate Mary has found is Yashoda (Umila Kanetkar), a farmer’s wife whose husband has vanished on a pilgrimage and left her to run their small farm by herself. Yashoda’s farm is at the edge of a small village whose inhabitants are bewildered and fascinated by the arrival of Mary in her low cut tight white dress and high heels – understandably so to be honest! Perhaps writer/director Samruoddhi Porey wanted to foreshadow Mary’s shallowness and poor character by using the familiar tactic of revealing clothing, drinking and smoking to portray a ‘bad woman’, but instead Mary comes across as simply unrealistic given the wealth of information available to foreigners arriving in India.

However, despite her odd choice of wardrobe and tendency to flirt with Yashoda’s brother Ganpat (Vivek Raut) Stacy Bee does make a reasonable attempt at a woman desperate for a child and taps into the many emotional shifts well. A scene where she helps Yashoda cook along with her obvious joy when Yashoda is confirmed as pregnant help to make her a more sympathetic character than first appears. Mary does seem to connect with Yashoda too and she also has a basic, if limited understanding of the difficulties Yashoda faces which again helps make her less one dimensional. 

When a medical appointment reveals that the child may be born disabled, Mary shows her lack of empathy by giving Yashoda money and telling her to leave the child in an orphanage before she leaves India. Devastated by Mary’s abandonment of her child, Yashoda decides to keep the baby and when he is born perfectly healthy treats him as if he was her own child. 

Part of why this film works well is the rationale behind Yashoda’s decision to act as a surrogate and her attitude towards Madav (Aiden Barkeley). Yashoda’s daughter Surekha has a spinal condition and is confined to a wheelchair, so Yashoda uses the money she receives to pay for an operation for her daughter. Along with shining a light on the reality of farming life and the results of poor medical access and superstition in Indian villages, the film also briefly looks at the serious issue of farmer suicide. Yashoda’s best friend Nanda (played by the director) deciding to take her own life when her situation appears hopeless and the film doesn’t shy away from the overarching patriarchy that invades every aspect of Nanda’s life. In contrast, Yashoda is portrayed as someone able to work within the confines of her society to achieve the best outcome she can in the circumstances. Umila Kanetkar is simply brilliant in the role, getting her mixed emotions across as she comes to terms with the blows fate has dealt her while simultaneously looking after her daughter and unexpected son with equal amounts of love and affection. Aiden Barkeley too is excellent, and performs well as a white child trying to understand why he looks so different from his mother.

Even though the treatment of Mary is unrealistic, the rest of the characters all fit well into their landscape and apart from some ill-advised comedy around Ganpat and his fiancée, the screenplay unfolds naturally. It’s not until the end that the film veers into melodrama, but thankfully this is brief and reasonably well supported by the previous characterisations so doesn’t feel too out of proportion to the rest of the film.

Sadly the same cannot be said for Mimi.

Although the remake follows the same basic plot of a young woman acting as a surrogate who is then left to bring up the child herself, the situation is far less believable. This time Summer (Evelyn Edwards) and her husband John (Aiden Whytock) present a more rational picture of an American couple looking for a surrogate, but their choice of mother is rather less successful. Mimi (Kriti Sanon) is an aspiring actress and dancer who decides to have the couple’s child to give her the necessary funds to advance her career. This is such a bizarre choice that isn’t helped by the inclusion of Bhanu (Pankaj Tripathi) as the couple’s driver who ends up staying to help look after Mimi as her pregnancy advances and then later when she is left to raise the child herself. This includes some attempts at comedy such as his being mistaken for Mimi’s husband when she is forced to return to her family for assistance, but none of this works well. Mimi’s attempts to conceal her pregnancy from her family are farcical and further attempted comedy around Mimi staying with her Muslim friend Sharma (Sai Tamhankar) also fall woefully short. 

As in the original story, the child is thought to be disabled and Summer tells Mimi to abort the baby before leaving India. This leads to a clunky scene where Mimi gives an anti-abortion speech that feels outdated and completely out of place before she declares she will go ahead and have the baby. She’s in her final trimester so even a mention of the illegality of such a late-stage abortion would have been better than this terrible attempt at anti-abortion drivel, and even Kriti Sanon looks uncomfortable at delivering such woeful dialogue. Once the baby is born, the melodrama here keeps building leading to an unsatisfactory finale that is full of emotion but no substance. People make odd choices, and excellent opportunity to discuss divorce and childlessness is completely missed when Sharma offers to look after the baby, and is completely ignored. In fact, overall Sai Tamhankar is criminally underused for such an excellent actress and the relationship between the two women is glossed over when this would actually have been a useful avenue to explore.

Kriti Sanon puts in a terrific performance that holds the film together but ultimately the screenplay has so many problems that even she can’t save the day. Moving away from the original premise hasn’t served director Laxman Utekar well, as so much of the important social aspects of the film have been completely lost. The film doesn’t even work particularly well as a general entertainer with so many missteps and diversions that the main story seems continually at risk of being completely buried.

Tackling the subject of surrogacy can be a loaded issue with several different factors playing into the topic. The issue of childlessness is often fraught while the decision to act as a surrogate is emotional on many levels. Mala Aai Vhhaychy goes some way towards capturing these undercurrents and highlights many of the social problems associated with poverty and the simple struggle to survive. Mimi misses most of this and focuses on the surrogacy issue alone, which wouldn’t necessarily be such a problem if it had stuck to the story and avoided the pitfall of too many attempts at comedy and unnecessary diversion. I give Mimi 2 stars and Mala Aai Vhhaychy 3.5

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.