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.

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Missing (2018)

Missing has some things going for it. Well, Tabu and her outfits mostly.

Sleazy Sushant Dubey (Manoj Bajpayee) is on a business trip with Aparna (Tabu) and their three year old daughter Titli. They check in to a fancy resort in Mauritius and Sushant checks out the receptionist before fielding a call from another woman, Kamya (Neelam). It’s clear what his priorities are. But since no other options present, he resorts to sex with his own not very keen partner in an awkward scene that had all the sensuality of Greco-roman wrestling. When Aparna wakes in the morning she discovers that Titli has disappeared from their room. She flies into a panic, while Sushant seems a little too calm. The hotel staff are not very useful, and the police seem to have read the Keystone Cops training manual. Then there is the guy downstairs who seems to be obsessed with little girls. So what happened to Titli? And will her parents find her?
That sounds like the basis of a reasonable thriller. But sadly writer-director Mukul Abhyankar squanders both the idea and his cast in a messy, screamingly obvious film that signals every twist and turn. Just in case you managed to black out and miss anything, listen out for the blaring dun-dun-DUNH! at key moments. One of the twists was evident from the get go, and the only way a red herring could have been any more obvious would have required an actor to wear a red herring mascot suit.
Tabu is stunning as the stricken and slightly unhinged Aparna Did she harm her child, was she the target of a revenge plot, was it just a crime of opportunity, or is something entirely different playing out? Tabu shows great range, from raw and gut-wrenching fear to more subtle and calculating expressions as the truth of her relationship with Sushant is revealed. The film feels quite stagey and is exposition heavy, but she imbues even her more passive scenes with an inwardly focussed energy that constantly drew my attention. Aparna is much more complex than she initially seemed. I really wish the writing had been better. I liked her costumes, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to be checking out the embroidery on her kurtis rather than fretting about the little girl.

I hated everything about Sushant so I guess that is an acting triumph for Manoj Bajpayee. Sushant was craven, opportunistic, and creepy. Bajpayee struggled with some bad writing both in terms of the dialogues and the logic of what Sushant was doing. His feeble obfuscation may have been supposed to build tension and create doubt but it was just annoying and often didn’t serve a purpose. I was so annoyed when the cops nearly pulled the pin just because Sushant claimed Aparna had become mentally ill after being diagnosed as infertile. It was typical of the lazy plotting that tried to jazz hands past inconvenient details, and showed everybody believing women are just a walking uterus with the sole purpose of popping out babies. Sigh. But I cheered up immensely when Sushant copped a tight slap. That made up for a bit of my suffering.
Annu Kapoor is atrocious as Inspector Budhu but the material couldn’t have helped. I was amused that everytime he threw in a few words of French (seeing as he was a Mauritian policeman with an entirely Hindi speaking team and suspect set) the subtitlers gave up and wrote [Foreign Language]. But at times it felt like the lead characters were all in different films, weirdly edited together. Their performances just didn’t gel.
I was so pleased to see Tabu back in a leading dramatic role. I wish the film had lived up to its potential and to the lead pair’s characterisations.

Shab (2017)

Shab

Shab was released last year but was only shown at the Indian Film Festival without a general release in Melbourne, so I’ve had to wait for the DVD release. I loved Onir’s previous films, I Am and My Brother Nikhil, so I was looking forward to this tale of love, lust and loss in the big city. Unfortunately, Shab doesn’t have the same instant impact despite strong characters and intertwining complex relationships. That complexity is part of the problem, since at times the connections are diffuse and confusing, but the main problem is with the dialogue, which often sounds contrived and unnatural. Shab ends up as a series of beautifully posed moments where the underlying relationships are only vaguely described and the expected passion surfaces only in brief spurts – usually from the supporting cast.

The film tells the story of Mohan (Ashish Bisht), a wannabe model from Uttarakhand who comes to Delhi to take part in a competition. Despite his impressive physique and tight silver shorts, Mohan’s small-town attitude fails to impress the judges and he’s sent packing from the show. Depressed and broke, Mohan finds his way to a café where the owner Neil (Areesz Ganddi) feeds him and gives him a place to wait until his bus leaves later that evening. However, Mohan has one last card to play, and calls one of the competition judges who invites him to her house. Sonal Modi (Raveena Tandon) is a rich socialite in an apparently loveless marriage with an industrialist who is rarely at home. She takes Mohan as a lover, christening him Azfar and deciding that he will be her ‘trainer’. Mohan seems happy enough with the arrangement – he’s dazzled by Sonal’s house and flattered by her attention, but as time moves on his arrangement starts to sour, as exemplified by his changing expression in the mirror where he practices his smiles before leaving to meet his lover.

Meanwhile Neil has problems of his own. His lover Nishant (Shray Rai Tiwari) treats their relationship casually and is also preparing to get married to satisfy the wishes of his family. Neil relies on his friend Raina (Arpita Chatterjee) for support as he weathers his on-off relationship with Nishant and she provides sensible advice and the odd kick up the arse when Neil becomes too maudlin to cope. But Raina has issues too. She lives with her younger sister Anu (Aniha Dhawan) who resents the time Raina spends at work when Anu is home from boarding school in Mussoorie. Raina’s life is shrouded in mystery for much of the film, with veiled references to her work outside of her regular gig waiting tables for Neil and strange encounters with people who call her Afia. She’s also good friends with Benoit (Simon Frenay), a French national who has just moved in to the apartment across from Raina and who works as a French teacher and a waiter in an upmarket restaurant. These five lives all become connected through their various friendships and relationships as they wrestle with their hopes and dreams while juggling the pressures of day-to-day life.

The best realised of the characters is Mohan, and newcomer Ashish Bisht is good as the country boy adrift in the big city. Ashish combines naiveté with charm in his interactions with Raveena Tandon and is also suitably desperate in his pursuit of designer Rohan Sud (Raj Suri), but his performance is let down by inconsistencies in the character. It doesn’t seem logical that Mohan should wait so long before approaching Rohan for a modelling job, and his romance with Raina never rings true. While Ashish nails the puppy dog looks and lusting from afar, when the relationship moves up a gear it appears false and unrealistic, which isn’t helped by Arpita Chatterjee’s disconnected performance. Mohan’s gradual realisation of his real relationship with Sonal is treated much better and helped immensely by Raveena Tandon who does a wonderful job with her limited role.

Raina is the thread that connects all the characters, but she’s the most disappointing and the character whose story is the least interesting. Her ‘secret’ is easy to guess after a few confrontations but her lifestyle is not well explored or explained. She works for Neil so it’s not clear why she still carries on in her previous line of work since money doesn’t seem to be an issue. There’s never any explanation of why she made the choices she did with Anu, and since most of those don’t make much sense it would have been interesting to try and understand her motivation. Similarly her rejection of Mohan seems odd given her advances towards him, although the whole relationship is strange and always feels manufactured.

Thankfully the other threads are better. Neil’s story is good, although there are a few too many coincidences that mar an otherwise interesting look at a same sex relationship that’s falling apart. The emotions here are given more screentime and appear much more genuine, while Areesz Ganddi’s portrayal of a man suffering through a relationship breakdown is realistic and believable.  Although Benoit’s story seems rather superfluous since a foreigner in Delhi can be expected to feel alienated at times, Simon Frenay is good and there are elements in his story that help develop the other characters. More could have been made of his antagonism towards Mohan and the reasons behind his dislike, but Benoit is generally inoffensive even if his story seems somewhat incomplete.

Each of the characters has a story that includes loss and feeling alone while surrounded by thousands of other people which should have been the basis for an interesting exploration of alienation in the city. However, the main reason it fails to engage and deliver on that expectation is the clunky and unrealistic dialogue. This doesn’t appear to be a subtitle issue either as even with my limited Hindi, I can understand enough of the dialogue to know it sounds stilted and unnatural. When Sonal taunts Rohan with comments about wanting Mohan in his own bed rather than on the runway, the remarks sound unbelievably immature. It’s also incredibly unlikely she would say anything like this since the two are supposed to be ‘best friends’. Conversations between Mohan and Raina sound equally forced and the only realistic dialogue is when Mohan discovers Neil is gay and blurts out that he doesn’t look ‘like that’. For the most part it feels amateurish and unlike Onir who is normally sophisticated and clever in his use of language.

On a more positive note, the film looks gorgeous and each set is perfectly staged with exquisite attention paid to detail. Ashish spends most of the time shirtless, but his clothes are a good reflection of his personality, including a truly terrible see-though shirt he buys for himself. Perhaps if the film had focused more on Mohan’s story this would have been a more satisfying watch. I would definitely have preferred to see more of Sonal’s story and less of Raina. As it is however, while it is beautifully shot with an excellent soundtrack, Shab seems no more than a superficial glimpse into a small portion of Delhi society. 2 ½ stars.