Raees

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Raees (Shah Rukh Khan in case you haven’t worked that out) grows up working for the local bootleggers, learning the business from the inside out. His mother (Sheeba Chaddha) tells him that no business is beneath them, and no religion is greater than business, as long as they don’t harm anyone. Raees hates being poor, and hates being treated unfairly. He wants respect, money, success. He’s the kind of guy who will exploit the tiniest gap to create something you could drive a fully laden truck through. The man trying to stop him is the eccentric and equally driven Superintendent Majmudar (the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

The film is directed like it was the 70s, the story is set in the 80s/90s, but only the technology dates things. Seeing Raees threatening someone over the phone was something else when that phone was a dinky red racing car one. The Fatehpura neighbourhood is a lively backdrop, teeming with people going about their day in the narrow streets. The songs suit the film and tend to advance the story more often than not (the Not being Zaalima). I wasn’t convinced by Sunny Leone as Laila but that sequence is quite gripping.

 

I think they did a good job of harnessing Shah Rukh’s uncle dancing tendencies and enigmatic walking powers, and I am rarely averse to colour and movement. Overall Rahul Dholakia directs with good pace and attention to the emotional arcs, but he throws everything into his story and that is to the eventual detriment of the film. There are too many subplots unravelling towards the end and the energy fizzles out.

Raees has strong ethics in business and personal life. You can argue the toss about selling illegal booze, but he only sells quality gear not the adulterated hooch that killed people when he was a kid. The experiences in his youth have a clear influence on shaping the adult and I felt Raees was believable even if his fight skills were more suited to a Bond. The audience applauded his shenanigans – the chai glass and the press entourage got the loudest cheers – and they seemed to appreciate Raees as the guy who was doing one wrong thing but was otherwise a hero. He is the Angry Young Man who wants to give his family a secure future and help the people who have helped him. His lifelong friendship with Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) adds another layer of humanity, exposing some of Raees less heroic moments. Shah Rukh’s performance is solid but occasionally is too much like vintage Raj or Rahul, although Raees shows more intent than would usually accompany the up-close décolletage inspection. He’s charismatic, nerdy, and impulsive, but also calculating. One question though – Does SRK have an eyedrops sponsorship? First Dear Zindagi, now Raees…

Raees is an anti-hero who knows when he has committed a serious crime and it doesn’t always sit easily with him. I watched an old interview with actor Michael Caine and he was asked about how he could bring himself to play an evil character and make him seem so human. He said the man wasn’t a monster to himself, so he could play him with characteristics of both a decent guy and a cold blooded villain. I think that is what works with Shah Rukh’s portrayal. He looks at ease in Raees skin whether he is praying at his mother’s grave, being carried through the streets in triumph, or going on a brutally efficient killing spree. He shows unusual self-awareness for a filmi hero and a degree of struggle with the consequences of his path. People may see him as a god but he knows he isn’t.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is Majmudar, that most problematic of policeman – the one who wants to get his man.  His epic entrance at the best and tackiest party ever was a perfect set-up for what was to come. Majmudar has a fascination with Raees. He is determined to shut him down but he quite enjoys Raees spirit. I liked how Nawazuddin would smirk, showing a hint of exasperation and a gleam of genuine appreciation when Raees bested him. That and all the sarcastic one liners. Majmudar spent time tapping Raees’ calls, using the helpfully labelled Phone Tapping Centre from the Central Props Department, and seems almost wistful when he overhears a personal call. But then he is still cold and calculating in his pursuit. Raees was the opponent he needed in order to be that cop who never gives up even when the system is against him. Nawazuddin steals all the scenes as Majmudar permeates Raees’ life and he is a strong and unyielding presence that exasperates the pragmatic businessman. Raees and Majmudar treat each other with respect and as much honesty as is possible, and are the most morally articulate characters. They’re both smart, neither has to be a fool or do anything out of character just to move the plot along, and both actors are terrific in their scenes together.

Mahira Khan gives a good and largely understated performance as Aasiya, Raees’ wife. There is no sizzling chemistry but they show a comfortable joy in each other’s company that speaks to a longstanding relationship between neighbourhood sweethearts. In a scene when Raees came home covered in blood, Aasiya gives him a searching look. His reaction of self-disgust and culpability is what reassures her. She knows his line of business and she believes in her husband. Despite being in the domestic background, it is obvious that Aasiya is respected and liked in the community and she steps up in public when needed. True, she appears to have a baby without a pregnancy but frankly I’ve seen stranger things in Hindi films.

Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) rounds out the important people in Raees life and his performance is endearing and realistic. Friends since childhood, Sadiq is the only one apart from Aasiya that can see Raees as just a bloke. They keep some of their cute childhood mannerisms, retell old stories, and they look out for each other no matter what. Even when Raees flies off the handle, Sadiq is there to try and talk him down or remind him of what’s important. It mustn’t be easy to carve out your own space when SRK is going the full Rahul, but this friendship works.

The cat and mouse between Raees and Majmudar dominates, but there are some excellent character actors in support. Atul Kulkarni is charming and vile as the calculating Jairaj Seth who won’t easily let his former employee best him. Narendra Jha is Musa Bhai, the enigmatic Mumbai based don who helps Raees set up on his own.

Raees is at best morally ambiguous, and the ending may not be what you expect, but I enjoyed the film. Rahul Dholakia directs with a vintage masala flavour, but unfortunately messes up the formula so it gets a bit diluted towards the end. It’s an uneven ride but worth it for the excellence of Nawazuddin and SRK and the retro cops and robbers style.

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Kapoor & Sons

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Kapoor & Sons is a refreshingly ‘un-Bollywood’ look at family and family relationships from director Shakun Batra. In conjunction with co-writer Ayesha Devitre Dhillon, Batra has produced a film that delves past the superficial public face of the Kapoor family to reveal the insecurities and arguments that lie beneath. It seems that there is something for everyone to relate to in this story – whether it’s the marriage between Harsh and Sunita that is falling apart, or the sibling rivalry between brothers Rahul and Arjun, most of the film relates to family episodes that are easily recognisable and understandable. While not everything in the story works, the relationships and characterisations do, making Kapoor and Sons a film that stays with you after the end credits have rolled.

I do love Rishi Kapoor and one of the drawcards of this film for me was watching him play the ageing patriarch of the Kapoor family. The prosthetics used to age him appropriately are fairly obvious and his character’s fixation on pornography quickly wears thin, but as the story progresses and Amarjeet Kapoor insists that all he wants as he approaches his ninetieth birthday is a happy family photograph, the character gains depth and intensity. The film starts with Amarjeet ‘practicing’ his death, obviously a common occurrence since his son Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) and daughter-in-law Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah) pay no attention to his histrionics. The couple have their own problems and ignoring Amarjeet, or Daddu as the family call him, just seems to be part of their usual day. Harsh and Sunita have grown apart over the years of their marriage and there is a definite chill as they barely manage to speak civilly to each other. Sunita suspects that Harsh is having an affair with a previous work colleague Anu (Anuradha Chandan) and the two bicker and argue constantly. It’s a well written portrayal of a marriage gone sour where even the smallest comment can start a major argument and there no longer seems to be any common ground between husband and wife.

Their two grown up sons live overseas. Based in London, Rahul (Fawad Khan) has one successful book behind him but is falling behind his publisher’s deadline for the second. Arjun (Siddharth Malhotra) on the other hand is an aspiring writer, but is working as a bar-tender in New Jersey as he tries to find a publisher for his work. Both return to the family home in Coonoor when Amarjeet is hospitalised with a heart attack and the film follows the various relationships within the family as they are reunited under the one roof once more.

For me the most successful character is Sunita whose bitterness at her life flavours every word she says in the first few scenes. Her relationship with Harsh is perfectly portrayed and the hurt and resentment come through in each conversation. She has issues with her two sons too.  Arjun accuses her of always favouring her eldest son and although she denies it vociferously it’s obvious that she does have a definite preference for Rahul.  When she finally discovers the secret Rahul has been keeping from her she is devastated and Ratna Pathak Shah is superb in portraying her feelings of betrayal and loss mixed in with remorse and just a little guilt for some of the things she has said and done. She’s not just defined by the relationships with her husband and sons either, as her dreams of starting her own catering business allow her character to be more than just reactive. Rajat Kapoor too is excellent as the distant husband who wants to save his marriage but can’t seem to take the first step to making the necessary changes in his relationship. Although at times the bickering does seem to go on too long, to the point where I became uncomfortable watching Sunita and Harsh argue, it is true to life with every irrational and tit-for-tat response feeling genuine and realistic. There are moments of tenderness too and despite all the hostility there is a pervading hope that perhaps the two will manage to resolve their differences. The writing emphasizes the emotions of each character clearly and ensures the dialogue feels realistic and genuine.

The two sons have their problems with each other as well as with their parents. Arjun has always felt that he is the outcast in the family, particularly in comparison with Rahul, who always seems to be the perfect son. Returning home to find that his room has been taken over by his mother while Rahul’s has been left untouched immediately reinforces his feelings of alienation, further fuelled by his belief that Rahul stole the story of his first novel. Although Rahul can see the issues bedeviling the family and does his best to smooth things over, he has his own problems to work through.

During his visit home, Rahul wants to work on his latest book and also find a suitable place for an artists’ retreat. His search brings him into contact with Tia (Alia Bhatt) who is attracted to Rahul, but Arjun has already met Tia at a party and decided to make her the object of his attentions. This sets the two brothers up as potential rivals – an added friction that escalates the conflict between them. What makes it more believable though is that even with the issues between the two brothers, they still have typical sibling conversations. It’s not all arguments and fighting and the two share a good rapport that seems very natural. It’s typical family behaviour that adds to the authentic feel of the film and makes the characters more relatable. Both Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra are at their best when dealing with each other, although otherwise Fawad Khan comes out the better of the two in terms of performance.

While Alia Bhatt is fine as Tia, her manic pixie-girl act is occasionally too OTT when added in to all the general angst of the Kapoor family. However, I like that Batra gives her character more depth using her friendship with Bunkoo (Aakriti Dobhal) and her dealings with cook/general handyman Kishore (Pradeep Pradhan) to bring out different aspects of her character. The romance between Arjun and Tia is also fairly standard stuff but does provide some welcome relief from all the squabbling between family members. Sukant Goel as Wasim and Fahim Shaikh as his brother Boobly also ensure there is some lightness amid all the doom and gloom as the rest of the ‘comedy’ is rather more hit and miss. Tia’s ‘jokes’ are not funny at all (although that I presume is the whole point!) while Daddu’s antics at the hospital appear too forced and falling just on the wrong side of offensive to raise anything more than the occasional smile.

Another plus for the film is the soundtrack which maybe works so well due to the number of different composers and lyricists involved. The background score by Sameer Uddin is lovely and the various songs include music from Amaal Mallik, Badshah, Arko and Tanishk Bagchi that give a good mix of different styles that each suit the flavour of the film. My favourite is Kar Gaya Chul above, but each is well placed in the narrative and complements the action. The scenery and beautiful house also give an authentic home-like atmosphere that adds to the overall realism of the film.

Although the film pacing is occasionally uneven and at times the arguments threaten to veer a little too close to farce, for the most part this is a realistic look at middle class family life. The arguments, petty disagreements and relationship flaws within the family are all explored, firstly among the family and then further secrets revealed when private disagreements are suddenly open to public view. The writing is excellent, the characters beautifully  developed and the story flows well from one excruciating argument to the next, with all the angst and self-recrimination that goes along with family fights. I thoroughly enjoyed Kapoor and Sons and recommend it for the wonderful performances, realistic dialogue, plausible situations and overall thoughtfulness that make this one of the better films from last year. 4 ½ stars.

Befikre (2016)

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Easily the best thing about Aditya Chopra’s Befikre is Paris, and thankfully the characters spend plenty of time wandering past significant landmarks and meandering through lane ways full of beautiful buildings giving the city ample opportunity to shine. It’s not that the rest of the film is that bad – it’s just not that good. At its best, Befikre is funny and both Ranveer and Vaani are full of life and energy, but the plot is nonsensical, the dares that are used to further the love story ridiculous and there are so many WTF moments that the farcical ending is no surprise. And to cap it all off, it’s such a shame that a film set in the ‘city of love’ contains so little actual romance.

The opening sequence shows numerous couples kissing over the credits but what starts as possibly sweet and romantic moves to voyeuristic and just a little bit creepy as it goes on for that little too long. Any thought of love is also quickly dashed when we first meet Dharam (Ranveer Singh) and Shyra (Vaani Kapoor) as they’re in the process of breaking up. Neither one appears as an attractive character during the ensuing slanging match, while Dharam in particular seems to be typical of the chauvinistic man-child so often portrayed in Hindi cinema. Despite all the drama, the break-up is actually quite funny, at least until Dharam does the unforgivable and calls Shyra a slut (more of that later) before she finally leaves.

The film quickly moves back a year to when Dharam and Shyra first meet and their ’love’ story starts.  Dharam is a stand-up comedian who has moved to Paris to appear at a club run by his friend Mehra (Aru Krishansh Verma). Sadly Dharam isn’t funny at all as a comedian but he is quite amusing when he’s hanging out with Shyra. Initially Shyra doesn’t want a bar of him and is quite happy with a one-night stand, but a silly game of dare results in the two heading out together on a date and the relationship develops from there.  Both Shyra and Dharam resolve never to say “I love you’ and to keep things light and carefree with no commitment, but despite this agreement, Shyra ends up moving in with Dharam. The relationship moves forward through a series of ever more ridiculous dares, all of which would have resulted in arrest and possible jail time if, for example, anyone really did hit a policeman or perform a striptease in a library. Of course Dharam and Shyra are never seen to have to deal with any repercussions from their actions, some of which are a little too risqué to be easy viewing and despite all their antics there is never any sense that the two are anything other than friends-with-benefits. It’s Paris for goodness sake – where’s the wining and dining, the romantic walks through parks and along the Seine? Sadly for Dharam and Shyra it’s all night clubs and bedrooms with little else between – no wonder their relationship eventually breaks down so spectacularly.

The film moves back to the present day where Dharam and Shyra meet up again by chance and renew their friendship. And this time they are strictly friends as Dharam is happily working his way through a number of French women and Shyra is content with her single life. But then she meets Anay (Armaan Ralhan) and everything changes. Shyra embarks on a mature and adult relationship which seems to be happily heading towards commitment, but even here there are cracks in the screenplay. Who leaves their possible fiancé at the top of the Eiffel tower and runs off to ask their friend for advice? Would anyone seriously still be waiting for an answer after that? And while the easy camaraderie and friendship between Dharam and Shyra suits them much better than any romance, how can two people who parted on such bad terms ever develop the easy relationship shown here? At least Dharma apologises for his slut comment, accepting that it was inexcusable and less about Shyra and her previous lovers and more about him and his immaturity. Finally a small step (OK, maybe less of a step and more of a toe-dip) in the right direction, and rightly applauded by the audience too.

What keeps the film going are the performances from Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor. No matter that there is zero sparkage between the two of them, they are both so energetic that it’s just possible to overlook the idiotic dares and juvenile behaviour and enjoy the craziness of two OTT people rampaging their way through Paris. This works better when they are friends rather than lovers, but for the most part their scenes together are funny and full of joie de vivre once they move past the bedroom antics. I love Ranveer Singh when he hams it up and exaggerates every possible expression and gesture as he does here. Similar to his roles in Kill Dil and Gunday, here he’s loud, brash and looks to be totally enjoying every minute as his enthusiasm colours every frame. He has great comic timing throughout and his one-liners had the entire cinema in stitches, while once again he sparkles through the songs.

Not to be outdone, Vaani Kapoor is equally buoyant during the flashback sequences while the evolution of her character allows her to be more reserved and restrained in the second half of the film. Vaani expresses a range of emotions well and her wavering and indecision about commitment is very well done in the latter half of the film. She also fits well into the European-Indian styling she is given and at least in the second half of the film does deliver some French-style sophistication during her romance with Anay.

Despite the ridiculous storyline I did enjoy most of Befikre – although nothing could make me enjoy the ending, not even Ranveer. It was a real pleasure to see Paris as the backdrop for the film even if more could have been made of its reputation as a city for lovers. While both Dharam and Shyra are irritating during the flashback sequences, for the most part their friendship is more accessible and I did find a lot of the humour very funny. Most of the audience were laughing too and the general atmosphere was pretty upbeat in the cinema. The songs from Vishal-Shekhar are great and suit the overall mood of the film and of course the whole film looks stylish, but Befikre really needed a much better story-line and more depth to the characters. The end result is a romantic comedy that basically has no romance despite the best efforts of Ranveer and Vaani. Worth watching for the beautiful views of Paris and the exuberant Ranveer Singh who really can make anything engaging!