Billu (2009)

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So. If you are considering a leap onto the “original is best” Malayalam bandwagon and insist that I must see Kadha Parayumbol, please take a moment, breathe, perhaps go make a cup of tea instead. I’m perfectly happy with this film! What makes Billu work so well for me is that I have a high degree of awareness and appreciation of Shah Rukh’s career so the references and sly jabs at and by SRK really resonate. I wouldn’t have that to the same extent with a different regional cast, even if it is Mammootty in the big star role.

Priyadarshan directs a deceptively simple slice of life drama. Billu (Irrfan, in no surname mode) is a barber in picturesque Budbuda. Sahir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan in King Khan mode) is a massive movie star. Sahir suggests Budbuda as the location for the village scenes in his current project. Filming in the village was essential to the story as otherwise how would the Martian brother find his long lost sibling who was wearing a matching locket that beeped. I liked the interplay of real life and filmidom, in scenes when Sahir was enduring the plot narration, or when the villagers watched the shooting as though they were seeing life on Mars.

Mayhem erupts in Budbuda once the villagers find out that Billu and Sahir were childhood friends. Everyone wants to get an autograph, to get their brush with fame, and all the bigwigs demand that Billu introduce them to Sahir. But Billu repeatedly dodges the issue, even when his wife Bindiya (Lara Dutta) and annoying kids keep asking. Eventually the villagers start to believe he lied and accuse him of defrauding them of the gifts they had willingly pressed upon him.

Irrfan relies on his slightly oddball, rumpled, everyman persona for Billu and it works a treat. He comes across as good hearted but a little cynical, proud in himself but overwhelmed by the difference in status between himself and Sahir. Billu has told his family of a childhood friendship with Sahir, but is totally unprepared for how his village reacts when they find out. He is reluctant to contact Sahir, citing bygone time and the difference in their positions. But Billu’s inarticulate objections fall on fallow ground. It’s interesting that when Billu was negotiating with the school or others he could be quite glib, if apparently simple. Billu did go to the shooting and marvelled at the spectacle of Kareena’s duckface in Marjaani along with everyone else, but he flubbed all opportunities to speak to Sahir. I think he just wanted fate to intervene and take care of the logistics so he could see his mate without forcing himself upon Sahir.

Lara Dutta is beautiful but not too filmi glam as Bindiya. I could feel her frustration, not at being poor, but at having to be subservient and cop all the crap that comes with being seen as a beggar. Bindiya dreams of meeting Sahir and of the benefits that knowing a big star could give her family, but isn’t greedy. She just knows how things are when you’re the outsiders, and wants to take opportunities where they arise. Bindiya obviously thinks the world of Billu and it took a lot for her to actually ask him if his friendship was real. I thought it said a lot that there was no rancour in the conversation, and Billu still walked her to the school to hear Sahir speak. They had a solid relationship and as more of their backstory was revealed I had more appreciation for her.

Sahir is often absent from the action, but his presence permeates everything. I like SRK as a bad guy, and as a hero, but I especially like him as a hero who still has a healthy reservoir of cynicism alongside the cheesy entertainer reflexes (I also loved OSO). I enjoyed his character’s observations on controversy, and expectations audiences have, and his little encounters with Chaubey the guesthouse manager. Some dialogue sounded very similar to things Shah Rukh has said himself so I found the added element which may or may not be a reflection of his own views very appealing. Apart from That Speech he keeps Sahil quite sensible and vaguely amused by all the shenanigans unfolding around him, with occasional flashes of crankiness that may be caused by chafing from all the bedazzled outfits.

Sahir’s moment with Billu is quite beautiful, and so much better than the big build up that preceded it. It’s a performance I enjoy both for the overt manifestation of star power and the glimpse under the glossy veneer, and the expert manipulation by a master of crowd pleasing.

Shah Rukh’s own career is referenced extensively in posters on village walls, old movie stills and promo pictures, a montage celebrating Sahir’s stardom. The film within a film device also allowed some spectacularly silly and blinged out song concepts as they didn’t have to fit in with the plot as such, and could also use a parade of Shah Rukh’s recent-ish heroines. In every song there is a moment when he gets a goofy grin and he can’t help uncle dancing a bit despite the choreographers’ best efforts. I love it. Plus I think Evil Anthony makes an appearance.

Each shot serves to express the focal character’s universe, from set design to lighting to the framing. It’s a pleasure just to look at this film. Pritam made Billu’s songs and background music more organic than the filmi stuff, and they were accompanied by lush “real world” visuals lovingly captured by V Manikandan.

“Jaaun Kahan” is a bewildered meditation, while “Khudaya Khair” is a sweetly romantic dream that could star either your husband or Sahir Khan, mood depending. The village setting was glorious and while I’m pretty sure it was in Tamil Nadu I chose not to overthink the geography/language mash up.

The standouts in the support cast were Asrani as Naubat Chacha, a rare voice of moderation and always seeing Billu’s side, and both Om Puri and Manoj Joshi throwing their weight around as self-important and self-proclaimed VIPs. I also liked Rasika Joshi as the long suffering principal who turned out to be not such a bad old stick.

Would this film make you a Shah Rukh fan if you weren’t one already? Maybe not. But it is a departure from his Rahul shtick and there is enough of a gleam in his eye and a quirk to those famous eyebrows to make me think he had a bit of fun playing with his own image. And I’m a sucker for both sublime and ridiculous visuals. 4 stars!

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R…Rajkumar (2013)

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Prabhu Dheva (where did the extra ‘h’ come from?), the dance guru, directing Shahid Kapoor, one of the few Hindi actors who can dance – surely that has to be a good thing?

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Well… the premise is there, but in delivery R…Rajkumar is not as good as expected.  While the dancing is excellent (and it is fantastic to see a director make full use of Shahid’s talents in that respect), there are a few too many distasteful misogynistic moments to make this film anything other than just OK.  Shahid makes a reasonable attempt at masala served southern style, and his goofy shirts, dreadful hair and love struck Romeo are entertaining if somewhat reminiscent of Siddharth in Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana.  Although Shahid does his best, the story is standard fare, and adheres strictly to the usual Telugu formula complete with cartoonish fight scenes and ineffectual heroine.  It’s such a shame when all the ingredients are there to make a much better film, if only a little more thought had gone into the screenplay.

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Romeo Rajkumar turns up in a small town where two rival gangs are battling for control of the opium trade, managing to arrive just at the right time to save Chanda (Sonakshi Sinha) from a stray bullet. Simultaneously he falls deeply in love with her after just one brief glance – so deeply in fact, that the mere sight of his ‘lollipop’ (gah!) is enough to halt him in his tracks.   And I do mean completely stop – no matter what – even when taking part in an assassination or when driving the getaway car after another attack on a rival gang. Much hilarious comedy ensues. Well, to be fair, it is funny the first time or two, but it just gets repeated a few too many times.

Rajkumar signs up with Shivraj (Sonu Sood) and soon becomes one of his top men in the fight against rival gang boss Parmar (Ashish Vidyarthi) becoming good friends with Qamar Ali (Mukul Dev) in the process.  The first half is full of outrageous shirts, bad hair and some amazing dance moves from Shahid along with a brief appearance from Prabhu Deva himself.

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But while Shahid is blowing kisses and generally making an idiot of himself, there are darker scenes such as an apparent rape in the police station which is treated as an everyday occurrence and not worthy of further mention.  Further threats of violence and rape against the heroine are also treated as comedy and while some of the lewd dialogue is funny, most is offensive rather than comical.

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Sonakshi Sinha starts off as a feisty village girl with great attitude as she beats up a gang of louts who dare to wolf-whistle at her and her friends. She berates Rajkumar for his unwanted attentions repeatedly, until she manages to overcome her aversion to eighties hair and loud shirts and decides that maybe Rajkumar isn’t so bad after all. But that’s the end of any personality for Chanda, who rapidly becomes vapid and useless, totally unable to defend herself against her uncle and his plans for her marriage, and completely helpless in the face of Shivraj’s attempts to seduce her. It’s a role Sonaskshi Sinha has done many times in the past but she has less conviction in her character here, and it shows.  There is no energy in her performance and zero chemistry with her co-star which makes me wonder why Prabhu Deva didn’t pick someone like Trisha or even Charme Kaur (who turns up in a song) who surely would have brought more oomph to the role.

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Equally disappointing is Sonu Sood who is less menacing and more buffoonish than expected as a gang boss.  Ashish Vidyarthi is even more of a caricature as his rival, while Asrani is actually rather restrained in his role as spiritual advisor to Shivraj.  It’s bitter sweet to see Srihari appear here as the über villain Ajit Taaka, in one of his last appearances.  Generally he’s fine in spite of a rather unconvincing storyline and one rather bizarre scene where he appears gyrating with some bikini clad women on top of a hotel in (supposedly) Hong Kong. Best to just ignore and move along – when did masala ever have to make sense?

What does work well in the film are the songs by Pritam.  Prabhu Deva does an excellent job with the choreography, as for example here in Saree Ke Fall Sa where he uses the backing dancers and a few basic props to good effect.  The only exception is the last item song with Ragini Dwivedi and Scarlett Wilson which is shambolic with much less of a southern feel.

While the film initially feels like a series of short comedy sketches, everything slows down in the second half and becomes a little more serious with more fight scenes and fewer songs.  The inevitable final showdown is good, although I don’t think Shahid is quite as convincing in ‘back-from-the-edge-of-death’ recoveries as, for example, Shahrukh in Chennai Express, which does make the last fight scene funnier than I think it was meant to be. The film could definitely do with fewer rape references, and a more socially responsible hero would have made for less uncomfortable viewing.  Still, Shahid puts in a good performance and seeing him dance up a storm southern style, makes R…Rajkumar worth a watch, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights I expected.

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Phata Poster Nikla Hero

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Shahid Kapoor is just so likeable. Rajkumar Santoshi should thank his lucky stars he landed a lead actor who could partly overcome some of the major flaws with his patchy action comedy. I didn’t hate the film, but I’m glad I saw it on ‘Tightarse Tuesday’ when tickets are half price and my expectations are that little bit lower.

Vishwas Rao (Shahid) is a young man who has been obsessed with film heroes all his life. His Ma Savitri (Padmini Kolhapure) is a strong woman who raised him alone, working as an auto driver to pay the bills. She has her own reasons for wanting Vishwas to be a good policeman. He wants to be an actor, and when events conspire to send him to Mumbai it seems he might be getting closer to his dream. Dressed as a cop for a photo shoot, he is mistaken for the real thing and his double life starts. A police inspector to his mum and feisty ‘Complaint’ Kajal (Ileana D’Cruz), and a struggling actor to everyone else, Vishwas is headed for comedy complications. Especially once the mob and an expat terrorist get involved. Hijinks ensue.

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Shahid is required to play broad range of emotions from juvenile comedy to emotionally distraught mummy’s boy and steely eyed action hero and he does it all with aplomb. The comedy is not to my liking but I respected his effort to make it all work. The action scenes have the flavour of the month South Indian style, right down to the dramatic earth tremors when Vishwas stamps his foot and the extremely aerodynamic rowdies he despatches. Shahid dances his way through these scenes rather than fights, and I think a bit more grunt was warranted to live up to the mass standard. He declaims heroic threats with conviction and does puppy eyes with the best of them. No one feels sorrier for themselves than an Indian film hero, and Shahid oozed self pity as Vishwas contemplated a life of not being a big movie star. And he does get to dance a bit which made me happy. Especially a wildly silly pole dancing prelude to a confrontation with the bad gang. It’s a great role for him to show off his acting and have some fun.

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I liked Ileana’s role as Kajal, the social worker and love interest. She has her own thing going on, and initially is only interested in Vishwas as an honest policeman in a force overpopulated by corrupt idiots. But she is drawn by his innate goodness or perhaps the way he fills out his rented uniform.

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Their romance develops and is a part of their lives but it isn’t the whole story and is taken for granted rather than overplayed. Ileana is expressive and lively, occasionally veering towards the Genelia Line (beyond which lies Manic Pixie/Escaped Psychiatric Patient territory).  She only does one really stupid thing, and even that was because Vishwas didn’t think to tip her off before she spoke.

The real heroine is Vishwas’ mother Savitri. She is the kind of filmi ma who sees trouble and immediately tucks her pallu at her waist and wades in to help. She raised Vishwas on her own after her husband, a corrupt cop, took off. I think Savitri had read the “Nirupa Roy Guide to Filmi Parenting” but applied her learnings selectively. She laid on the emotional blackmail when she thought Vishwas was doing the wrong thing, and wasn’t averse to invoking god and suicide when he baulked. But as she came to understand her son rather than just seeing her idealised boy, she changed her mind. Their relationship was the emotional core of the film, not the fluffy romance. I also liked seeing a single parent family where the mother had dignity and her own income and wasn’t existing on some nebulous mix of charity and whinging.

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Where the film lost me was partly the comedy. I did enjoy the film references from an excellent cameo by Salman Khan, Shahid’s impressions of yesteryear heroes, right through to Vishwas paraphrasing the famous “Mere paas Maa hai”. They even worked in a Salman style tearing off of shirt, very appropriate for the Chulbul Pandey obsessed fake policeman!  But there are too many comedy uncles and so much slapstick. I started off enjoying a scene where a fat middle aged don and a fat middle aged cop started fighting but were puffed within a few blows. It was funny and believable as these old adversaries tried to face off. But then it went on and on and on, then added another bumbling policeman and there was a kind of bumble-off and that went on for too long and meanwhile there was a timebomb ticking away but hey, let’s go back to the bumble-off. There are ways of building tension and using comedy to defuse it while still maintaining the momentum. Santoshi doesn’t seem to know any of them.

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The soundtrack by Pritam is serviceable. None of the songs have made much of an impression on me for the music alone. “Tu Mere Agal Bagal Hai” is more memorable for the excellent colour and movement and Chihuahua inspired choreo, and Dhating Nach for the inexplicable inclusion of Nargis Fakhri as the item girl. The thing I remember most is not the soundtrack so much as the background soundtrack. It is such a busy, noisy film. Every single gesture is underscored with a chord, a whistle, a trill, a whole freaking orchestra duelling in every conversation. Bosco-Caesar handled the choreography and when they could get Shahid on his own, they gave him decent material to work with. But I guess they gave up on the ladies and went for draping them over trees, or Shahid, in preference to actual dance steps.

Overall I felt that Rajkumar Santoshi couldn’t decide what to concentrate on so he just did a bit of everything and thought that was vintage masala style. Good masala still has pace and purpose. If a character is leading a double life, that can be revealed to heighten the drama or add a twist. But in this case a “twist” was revealed before it needed to be, then was reiterated by several supporting characters in conversations with each other. It was clumsy and again, made the pace drag. Also I take issue with villains who have no sound business plan and seem to plot destruction just for the sake of being bad. Also – what kind of doomsday bomb needs a sophisticated detonator but also has a big red “on” button and an equally big blue ‘off’ button? A comedy bio-weapon, that’s what. I didn’t find it all hilarious and I couldn’t take the supposed jeopardy very seriously.

This is an honest, if unsuccessful attempt at a good all round entertainment and I liked some elements a lot. If you’re a Shahid fan, you’ll like his performance regardless. If you have a tolerance for stupid comedy and slapstick, you’ll find much more to love than I did. Worth a watch, but would be just as good on DVD.