Phillauri

Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is set in two different timelines, and is a movie of two very different halves. Usually things take a turn for the worse after Intermission, but in the case of Phillauri it is the first half that I found a chore.

Kanan (Suraj Sharma) goes home to India to get married to his longtime girlfriend Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Just before his engagement he is told he has a problem in his horoscope, and the only way to avoid future calamity is to marry a tree. He is sceptical but does what the families want. Soon after the tree wedding, he is woken by a sparkly spirit hovering above his bed. Shashi (Anushka Sharma) found herself transported to the house, but had no idea how or why. Only Kanan can see or hear Shashi, just adding to his already troubling behaviour. He is ambivalent about marrying Anu, Shashi is unhappy at her lot, and Anu is miserable that the guy she loves is turning out to be a wuss. So it was a huge relief to skip back in time and learn more about Shashi and the love of her life, Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh). Shashi and Anu between them force Kanan to examine his decisions and motivations. Will Kanan and Anu get married? And what happened that Shashi spent 98 years alone, her spirit connected to the tree?

The modern story line is the least interesting by far. It feels glib, done by numbers, and is not helped by some weak performances. Suraj Sharma is particularly flat as Kanan, and terribly unconvincing in scenes where he is supposed to be overcome by fear. Speaking in a weedy falsetto is not enough. Mehreen Pirzada gets almost nothing to work with. Anu has been in love with Kanan since school, she has never had any other plan than to marry him, and I have no idea if she has a job or finished college or anything else. Anu is a weepy, sullen girl which is a bit tiresome although understandable. I did like that she confronted him and demanded he articulate his feelings and make a decision, not just try and passively weasel out as she deserved better than that. There is the usual array of parents and relatives, and a pickled grandmother who starts drinking at breakfast. And there’s a rather nasty “joke” about Kanan being gay and maybe a paedophile. It’s mostly a jumble of clichés, and where the dialogue is a bit more realistic the acting falls over.

The earlier timeline seems to be given so much more love, the writing is more solid, and the performances are stronger. Shashi helps her brother the village doctor, who has raised her since she was young. She is educated but conservative, knowing how a girl from a good family is expected to behave.  Shashi’s one weakness is poetry, and she waits every week to see the poems of Phillauri in the journal. Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh) uses the same name but his songs are bawdy drinking fare, not the more heartfelt and literary work that Shashi loves. He is a flirt, and she shuts him down when he pretends to have written lines that she knows the real Phillauri wrote. But their mutual love of poetry and music, and of love, brings them together. Anushka and Diljit have a beautiful low key chemistry that makes their scenes together shine. She is expressive even without speaking and he inhabits the role of country layabout turned honest man so comfortably. It was a pleasure to get back into their timeline, and not just for the nostalgic beauty. Shashi’s story served to show how the status of women hasn’t improved significantly in almost 100 years, and was also a sterling example of a relationship built on equality, consent, and honesty.

One of the most understated but surprising scenes was a conversation after Shashi’s affair had been discovered. Her brother (played beautifully by Manav Vij) was furious, and laid into both Shashi and Roop Lal. All typical filmi villain thwarting True Love stuff. But later he took her a drink and spoke to her about how he had raised her like his own child and always wanted her to have everything she deserved, and that he loved her. Not what I was expecting at all, although I may have muttered something about the patriarchy. When Shashi and her best friend Amrit (Nidhi Bisht) were talking discreetly about her virginity situation, the scene was nicely gossipy but also quite sweet and not salacious. I liked seeing Shashi being herself, and having people love her for it, without Anushka taking so much as a step towards the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl line. And I don’t want to spoil the story but there are scenes where Anushka and Diljit show a whole arc of story just through the emotions playing across their faces.

The film’s mythology is a bit patchy. Is technicolour glitter cannon heaven a thing for Sikhs? Does every ghost have tinkerbell sound effects and shed a trail of sparkles? Why did Shashi usually float on an awkward horizontal rather than gliding vertically? Why could she wear Anu’s dupatta but not be seen or felt by anyone other than Kanan? Who knows.

But for all the cheesy effects, there are songs like Dum Dum and Sahiba that take us into the story and reveal more of the rich inner lives of Shashi and her bloke. Anvita Dutt wrote the screenplay and some lyrics, and her dialogues were a highlight in the olden days timeline.

Phillauri is not a masterpiece but it does show flashes of excellence. If Lal had been more disciplined in that draggy first half, and maybe pushed Suraj Sharma to try more nuance in his squeaking, it would have helped. But I liked seeing a full blown romance centred on two people who were genuine, honest, and respected each other. Tolerate the first half and enjoy the second half!

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Raman Raghav 2.0

Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 takes us into a cat and mouse game between coked up cop Raghavan (Vicky Kaushal) and self-possessed serial killer Ramana. There are no heroes here, in a Mumbai that is more like a jungle peopled by predators and those who so easily become their prey.

Anurag Kashyap has never struck me as a wallflower, and his style is as much a feature of the film as his actors. There is a lot of technique out on display and the stylised effects actually do work pretty well with the action and narrative. When Ramana describes his thinking there are often sound effects like rain, or static, that make it seem like a genuine recollection but also that his imagination is his reality.  Kashyap supposedly employed guerrilla filming tactics to shoot his story out in the city, and very occasionally you see an extra execute a nice double take. The colours, the lighting, the ambient noise, it all says Mumbai and reminded me that every mega-city is a collection of villages. There is a real tension in some of the chase scenes that is as much “will they make it down that street in one piece” as it is about the story. I get why he used the chapter structure to string together disparate scenes and save on explanation, but they are a bit annoying and really don’t add anything other than exposition. I was more invested in following the characters than being hit over the head with the intent of the next section.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is that terrifying movie bogeyman – a mild mannered, unremarkable, serial killer. His performance gives Ramana a menace and intelligence that helps gloss over some of the less plausible moments. Scenes that appear to be him reacting to something can later be seen as a rehearsal or test for how to get the desired reaction. He has a casual brutality driven by a rigorous inner logic, with a touch of religious mania. He seems to be guided by cats more than is good for a sane man. Ramana’s Mumbai is part forest and little shacks, not many people around him at times, and part concrete jungle. He is matter of fact and almost seems to expect people to agree with him that they must be punished. When he tracks down his sister and finds her recollection of events not to his liking, he cannot let that go by. His scenes with Raghavan are particularly mesmerising as Nawaz the actor and Ramana the character each play with the onlookers emotions and logic. His final scene with Raghavan was sick and creepy and yet held a sweetness that implied redemption had once been possible, perhaps. Kashyap should be thanking his lucky stars he got Siddiqui to star as I can’t imagine another contemporary actor being so prepared to show such unapologetic darkness, and making it look exquisite.

Vicky Kaushal is the coked up cop Raghavan. He disregards Ramana’s hints that they have seen each other before and leaves him as a harmless nut job to be scared off. He is on his own downward spiral, and there is no end in sight. Raghavan doesn’t seem to have a single honest or healthy relationship in his life. Like Ramana he believes he knows best and that whatever he does is somehow sanctioned. Raghavan is a nasty piece of work but I never felt drawn into his inner world the way I was with Ramana. Vicky Kaushal relied more on external expression of his turmoil – the sniffing and irritability that went with his habit – than showing the demons driving him. I rarely felt much connection with Raghavan as a person. I could easily detest him but I couldn’t really invest in his fairly predictable journey.

His sort of girlfriend Simmy (Sobhita Dhulipala) tolerates his behaviour although I really don’t know why. He makes it clear she is there for sex not forever, and he certainly doesn’t care about any consequences of their relationship, but she doesn’t seem to take his aggression and threats seriously. Sobhita is convincing with her party girl ennui and casual acceptance of Raghavan’s violent side. If only Simmy also had better attention to self-preservation. Some of the women in the film exhibit what could be called non-traditional values, and I couldn’t help but notice that none of them comes through unscathed. It’s a high body count film so that is not inconsistent, but I wondered why female sexuality had to be the trigger for punishment so often. I spent a fair amount of my viewing time urging the women in it to RUN.

The rest of the supporting cast play the friends, family, cops and robbers of this world. They’re all good but very much pushed aside by the two lead characters. I particularly liked Amruta Subhash as Ramana’s sister Lakshmi, and Mukesh Chhabra as the wishy washy loan shark.

Raj Sampath’s score is driving and percussive for the most, underpinning the tempo of the city and the chase. The songs are obligatory rather than necessary but do speak to the characters inner state. And there are some nice touches as when the romantic music wells as Ramana explains to Raghavan that he is his soulmate. It’s a twisted but seemingly genuine love at first sight.

Whenever Nawazuddin is on screen I felt a chill. Unfortunately too much directorial faffing around to try and look cool drained the film of tension, and Vicky Kaushal wasn’t able to overcome either a compelling co-star or an underwritten role. 3 stars.

C.I.D (1956)

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The film opens with a chain of instructions relayed via numerous phone calls, culminating in a death threat by Sher Singh (a young and dashing Mehmood). His intended victim is Shrivastav, a newspaper man who refuses to publish fake news. Timely. He calls Inspector Shekhar (Dev Anand) for help. Shekhar arrives minutes later with his taciturn assistant Ram Singh (Prabhu Dayal), only to find Mr Shrivastav dying of stab wounds. Petty thief Master (Johny Walker) was hiding under a desk outside the office when the murder took place and saw Sher Singh’s face. It’s all so economical and pacey – the opening throws you right into a world of shadowy identities and questionable motives.

Shekhar is set up as an insightful but not snobbish man in just a few lines exchanged with the regulars (including Tun Tun) at his office. He is very much a man of action but also has a sharp intellect and bursts of intuition. I was just thinking in one scene that it was all a bit coincidental when Shekhar pointed out the same thing. Dev Anand plays him as both world weary and alert, the detective who is rarely surprised but still finds people fascinating. Shekhar’s behaviour, even when he is wallowing in heroic self-pity, is quite rational. And he is prepared to trust people to do the right thing.

Shekhar commandeers a car belonging to Rekha (Shakila) to pursue the mysterious man seen near the newspaper office. She seems most put out and not at all interested in helping the police perform their duty, which is odd considering we later find out she is a policeman’s daughter. She throws the keys out the window, forcing him to stop. Of course they scandalously fall asleep in a sudden downpour that prevents key retrieval and wake up in time for a pastoral idyll lead by Minoo Mumtaz.Her father, played by K.N. Singh is Shekhar’s boss, which makes things interesting when Shekhar finds himself on the run.

While Shekhar is distracted, Rekha finds the keys and drives off leaving him there. She is a scowly pouty girl, burdened with those unflattering compulsory pigtails. I found Shakila the weakest link in the cast. Her facial expressions can be used for a rather lethal drinking game called “Throes of Passion, or Gastrointestinal Discomfort?”

Shekhar seems not to mind Rekha’s shenanigans as much as he could, and uses street performers Sheela Vaz and Shyam Kapoor to facilitate his stalking. Hmmm.

Shekhar uses his connections to close in on the killer, but the mastermind behind this scheme has no intention of being caught. There is a troubling connection with Rekha’s family as the girl who spikes Shekhar’s drink and has him dumped by the road is her childhood friend Kamini (Waheeda Rehman).

Rekha is just a placeholder heroine but Kamini is genuinely interesting. An orphan, she has been installed in a grand house by Dharamdas. Her motives are sometimes unclear, almost as though she is learning her own boundaries as things unravel. Shekhar tells her she is a strategist but not a killer and she seems to agree. Waheeda is of course gorgeous, and her performance is layered and interesting. Kamini has to distract Dharamdas (Bir Sakuja) in one scene and the brittle sparkle of her smile and the slightly forced dance all speak to what is at stake.

Johnny Walker and Kum Kum as his girlfriend offer a comedy track and social commentary on the honest criminals trying to get by. They interact with Mumbai in a way that is more direct and hands on than the others, and they know the ins and outs of the cops and robbers games.

Mehmood was most effective when he had no lines. He looked the part but sounds a little too hammy. It could be drug withdrawals I suppose. Anyway the boss takes no chances and has Sher Singh bumped off, and frames Shekhar for both murders.

In the lead up to the finale, Shekhar escapes through a tunnel but the boss catches a glimpse of the door closing and follows. They play cat and mouse, with Kamini helping Shekhar find all the fake doors, secret switches and endless tunnels. All this appeared to still leave them at the top of the driveway so that was some design genius creating the illusion of space. The tension in this film comes from the chase, the evasion, the holding your breath ’til danger passes, and it really does hold up. It’s pretty clear who did what very early on and it is just a matter of whether Shekhar can join the dots in time, or who else may become collateral damage.

Produced by Guru Dutt and directed by Raj Khosla, C.I.D is an entertaining and engaging thriller. Pitting a suave Dev Anand against a shadowy criminal mastermind, the story is told with tempo and light and shade. Add in the lush O.P Nayyar songs, a young and minxy Waheeda Rehman dancing to choreography by Zohra Sehgal, Johnny Walker actually being funny, and there is so much to love. There are a few points of judicial process that seem unlikely, but not enough to detract from the overall enjoyment of an accomplished yarn. 4 stars!