Vishwaroopam II

Vishwaroopam 2 poster

Kamal Haasan’s sequel fills in much of the backstory from Vishwaroopam and there are flashbacks a plenty as RAW Agent Wisam (Kamal Haasan) faces off again against terrorist Omar (Rahul Bose) and his dirty bomb threats. Despite all the explanation, it’s best to have seen the first film to understand the sequel, although the few brief glimpses of key scenes – the warehouse fight, Vis in full dance-instructor mode, are enough to jog the memory so a re-watch prior is not necessary. Fleshing out the background does help put everything into perspective but sadly VII has nowhere near as much finesse and style as the first film. Along with jolting between the past and present, the sequel plot doesn’t get anything like the same attention to detail and the ‘bomb’ situation in VII is over almost before it begins. However, the flash-back sequences are good, Kamal Haasan is still impressive in the action sequences and Rahul Bose is fabulous as Omar suffering the effects of radiation poisoning.

The film starts just after the end of Part 1, with Wisam (aka Vis) taking the body of Dr Dawkins back to the UK, accompanied by his wife Nirupama (Pooja Kumar), fellow agent Ashmita (Andrea Jeremiah) and his handler Colonel Jagannath (Shekhar Kapur). Once on English soil Wisam butts heads with Eshwar Iyer (Ananth Mahadevan), in charge of Indian special operations in the UK in a side plot that is never fully developed. It feels as if there are a number of scenes missing and Eshwar is another character who is gone before he’s made any impact. Of greater urgency is the terrorist’s plot to blow up the shipwrecked SS Richard Montgomery near Sheerness, which leads to a couple of well-choreographed action sequences including one underwater. Full marks for incorporating a real historical incident (the ship sank in 1944 carrying a full load of explosives and has never been fully salvaged due to the risks involved in recovery) but marks off for the lack of suspense since the mission to retrieve the terrorists’ explosive device fails to deliver any tension, despite Nirupama having to dive through the ship’s unexploded ordinance.

And that’s the problem with much of the action this time around. The hunt for Omar and Salim is side-lined for needless scenes including several suggesting some kind of jealousy between Ashmita and Nirupama. These really didn’t work at all and I can’t decide if that was due to the bad dialogue or just the body language from the two actors which suggested that they were both uncomfortable with this angle as well. The romance between Wisam and his wife also occupies far too much screen time for an action flick, especially when it’s at the expense of developing the villains of the piece, who only appear briefly towards the end. In addition, most of the scenes set in the present day appear as set pieces – short bursts of action or dialogue which don’t relate well to each other or to the flash-back sequences. On the whole the flash-backs actually work better, perhaps because they are shedding light on characters motivations and revealing what happened to key players but also because there is more energy in these scenes.

One thread that does work well in the present day is the introduction of Waheeda Rehman as Wisam’s mother. On the wall are pictures of a young Kamal Haasan and youthful Waheeda while the beautiful song Naanagiya Nadhimoolamae plays over her reminisces of her son’s dancing skills. This scene is made all the more poignant by the fact that she has Alzheimer’s disease and doesn’t recognise Wisam as her son. Waheeda Rehman is excellent and still so incredibly elegant, and it makes perfect sense that she should have taught her son all he knows about dance.

The action moves from the UK to Delhi, where finally Omar and Salim (Jaideep Ahlawat) get time onscreen, but it’s too little too late. The film suffers from not having a clear track featuring the villain in the present day, especially when Omar has already had so much presence in the flashbacks. Instead we get various, almost faceless terrorists who are dispatched quickly without too much fanfare. While there is plenty of blood and gore, most of this seems coldly clinical although there is one nicely executed sequence where a splatter of blood turns into a map. Omar’s artificial eye gets another work-out and Rahul Bose’s harsh rasp is chillingly effective, as is the make-up departments dedication to creating slowly dissolving flesh caused by radiation sickness. However, the final showdown seems almost cartoonish in its delivery and execution, especially given that it all happens so very quickly and comes to a sudden conclusion.

After the brilliance of the first film and all the hype (and long wait) for the second it was perhaps inevitable that Vishwaroopam II would fail to fully deliver. Vishwaroopam was a sophisticated spy drama with excellent special effects and clever dialogue that broke away from the more typical masala action film, while VII seems to slip back into more standard fare. While VII does retain some of the original ideas, the dialogue seems more laboured, while the central plot is buried behind the many flashbacks and explanation scenes. Although the actors all reprise their roles well, there seems to be less energy this time round and despite their greater time onscreen, the characters of Ashmita and Nirupama aren’t as well utilised in the plot. Although VII isn’t terrible the screenplay is haphazard with the plot more of an afterthought to flesh out those extra scenes that didn’t fit into the first film – and therein lies the problem. VII isn’t a film that stands up by itself and although it works as a sequel, it really needed to be more than just that.

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Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)

Dil Dhadakne Do

Zoya Aktar’s third film follows the members of a dysfunctional, wealthy, Punjabi family as they celebrate the 30th wedding anniversary of Kamal (Anil Kapoor) and Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shah) on a 10 day cruise around Greece and Turkey. Along with their son and daughter, Kamal and Neelam have invited friends and business associates on a voyage that soon hits very choppy water indeed. This is a road trip movie on a grand scale, but despite the luxurious setting the problems are fairly standard for an Indian family drama – unhappy marriages, a failing business and parents interfering in their children’s lives. Soap opera stuff, but beautifully done with some unexpected plot threads for good measure. While the story could really be set anywhere and have the same effect, the gorgeous locations and all-star cast ensure Dil Dhadakne Do is an entertaining, although rather overlong watch.

The film is narrated by the family dog Pluto, voiced by Aamir Khan, which surprisingly isn’t as irritating as it sounds, despite a tendency for Pluto to state the obvious. Pluto’s commentary on the inability of his humans to communicate effectively and the overall irrationality of the human species generally, ensures he’s the most sensible Mehra of the lot – and the cutest!

The Mehras are not a happy family. Kamal’s business is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy while Neelam binge eats as compensation for silently enduring her husband’s frequent affairs. Their children have issues too. Son and heir to the family business Kabir (Ranveer Singh) has no desire to step into his father’s shoes, and little aptitude for the job either, while daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) struggles to hang on to her own successful business as her chauvinistic husband Manav (Rahul Bose) and interfering mother-in-law (Zarina Wahab) pressure her to start a family. Putting them all together for ten days seems like a recipe for disaster, particularly since each is determined to keep up appearances and pretend to the rest of the party that everything is fine.

Zoya and co-writer Reema Kagti don’t stop there either. Every other person on the cruise has their own issues too, from Neelam’s circle of toxic friends and their unceasing gossip about each other to Kamal’s best friend Vinod Khanna (Manoj Pahwa) who hates fellow guest Lalit Sood (Parmeet Sethi) and is dismayed that Kamal has invited him along. Each character has a part to play in the unfolding drama and every thread is carefully woven into the story to provide colour and texture to the plot.

Every moment is perfectly portrayed too, from the fake teeth-baring ‘smiles’ on the faces of rival wives Vandana Khanna and Naina Sood as they greet each other, to Ayesha’s reaction to her ex Sunny (Farhan Aktar) when he joins the cruise.

The Sood’s have been invited as possible investors in Kamal’s company, but they have the additional advantage of an unmarried daughter Noori (Riddhima Sud) who might be persuaded into an alliance with Kabir.  Not that Kabir has any inkling of his parents’ plan and instead falls deeply and most unsuitably in love with one of the dancers on board the ship. Farah Ali (Anushka Sharma) is a Muslim who is estranged from her family and has to work for her living, which means that the ships policy of non-fraternizing with patrons could cost her her job.  She’s understandably more cautious, while Kabir rushes into the relationship without any further thought. Ranveer and Anushka have fantastic chemistry together and their developing relationship is beautifully portrayed in the song Pehli Baar.

Ranveer Singh is also excellent in his role as Ayesha’s brother and shares an easy camaraderie with Priyanka that really does make them seem like brother and sister. Ayesha looks out for Kabir and tries to help him stand up to their father, even as she fights her own battles without any family support. Ranveer keeps it cool and laid back in the scenes with his family but is full of his usual energy in the songs and his performance is one of the highlights in the movie. Priyanka is just as good, and she pulls off another stunning performance, using her eyes and facial expressions to excellent effect and making her Ayesha one of the most relatable characters I’ve seen recently.

The rest of the cast are also well cast and complement the lead actors. Gallan Goodiyaan sees most of them dancing in classic ‘everyone knows the choreography’ style, but it’s made even better by the sheer number of aunties and uncles joining in. I’ve always been cautious approaching any film with Anil Kapoor after the trauma of seeing him shirtless in many of his Eighties films, but he is a fine actor and is superb here in a role that lets him show vulnerability as well as the more usual autocratic  behaviour expected from a Bollywood father. Shefali Shah too is very good in her portrayal of a betrayed wife who puts up with her husband’s infidelities because that is simply just what you do. Everyone seems perfectly cast, although initially Rahul Bose seems out of place as Ayesha’s husband, but after a memorable tennis match I cannot imagine anyone else reacting so perfectly to the barrage of vicious volleys Ayesha sends his way.

The family dynamic is well written into the screenplay with many small touches that consolidate the relationships and illustrate the friction bubbling away under the surface. Despite their differences Neelam and Ayesha are more similar than they realise, nicely demonstrated by the way they both react with their hands to their mouths when shocked by Kamal’s behaviour. The theme of equal rights for women is also well integrated into the narrative without becoming too preachy or sanctimonious, while the generation divide provides yet more opportunities to explore the different approaches to love and marriage.

I love this film, even with it’s overly melodramatic conclusion and cheesy method of tying up the few the loose ends. My only complaint is that the music from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy isn’t as catchy as expected and a few of the songs don’t fit well into the screenplay. However the leads are all fabulous, the support cast equally excellent and the story a perfect mix of comedy, drama and social commentary. Maybe it’s my love of soap opera from the nineties coming back to haunt me, but the characters in Dil Dhadakne are engaging and the story more relatable than expected considering the amount of overt wealth on display. Well worth watching for Ranveer and Priyanka, and light-hearted character-driven drama that gives everyone a chance to shine.  4½ stars.

Vishwaroopam (2013)

Viswaroopam

I left Hyderabad the day Vishwaroopam opened and of course it was then banned while I was in Tamil Nadu, so I didn’t get to watch the film until its DVD release.  But it was definitely well worth the wait! Vishwaroopam is a slick and well-made spy thriller which features excellent performances from the entire cast.  The only downside comes in the last 20 minutes or so when everything is tied up a little too conveniently for my liking, and unusually for a Tamil film not everyone dies!  The last few scenes set everything up for Vishwaroopam II, and perhaps there will be some bigger fireworks and a more impressive ending for the ultimate finale.  The plot revolves around the ‘war on terror’ and in style and delivery is reminiscent of various Hollywood spy thrillers, combining overlapping story lines and interweaving time frames to ensure the film stays gripping right to (almost) the very last minute.

The film opens with Nirupama (Pooja Kumar) explaining how she has an arranged marriage with Vishwanath (Kamal Haasan), a middle aged classical dance teacher, which enabled her to come to America and obtain her PhD in nuclear oncology (this I couldn’t believe – 3 years and she’s finished already?!).  Despite her marriage, Nirupama is attracted to her boss, Deepak (Samrat Chakrabarti) so she hires a private detective to stalk her husband in the hope that the detective will uncover a reason for her to divorce.  Of course she does – this is New York after all.  Somehow in the process of chasing after this mild mannered dance teacher, the detective stumbles onto a terrorist cell, which leads to the terrorists tracking down Nirupama and her husband.

Now, I ask you, does this look like a man who can counter terrorists?

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Especially considering he’s just demonstrated this:

Well, you’d better believe it.  Vishwanath, or as he later reveals his real name Wisam Ahmad Kashmiri manages to take out the terrorists in a piece of action that’s so good we get to see it twice. It really is worth it though!

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After the Kathak teacher shows us just why it doesn’t pay to mess with a dance master, the story is off and running as Wisam takes us on a flashback into his past in Afghanistan.  Here we see a completely different character since Wisam is a jihadist, living with, and training Al-Qaeda terrorists along with Omar (Rahul Bose) and his sidekick Salim (Jaideep Ahlawat).  Wisam is as different as it’s possible to be from Vishwanath and yet Kamal Haasan makes it easy for us to believe in the transition by ensuring both characters show the same amount of passion for their beliefs.

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Rahul Bose is also excellent as a more fanatical jihadist and the interactions between the two men are a wonderful mixture of camaraderie and suspicion.   There is plenty of symbolism too, which is occasionally a little heavy handed as the point is made in a number of different ways that in every conflict the ones who really suffer are the children.  There are some well thought out glimpses of life in a mujahedeen training camp as the scenes move between day to day life, terrorist activity and attacks by the Allied Forces.  Writer/director Kamal Haasan doesn’t pull any punches here and the depiction of the attacks and the killing of prisoners are reasonably graphic and quite gruesome in parts.  But then again, it’s nothing we haven’t all seen on news reports over the last few years.  From that alone the film does appear to be very realistic.  Cinematographer Sanu Varughese does a fantastic job in capturing the vibe of New York along with some spectacular scenery in Afghanistan, interlaced with claustrophobic shots of the terrorists in their hideouts and caves.

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The first half is full of action as the film moves from the training camps in Afghanistan back to the present day and Omar’s current plans to blow up a dirty bomb in New York.  Best of all for me, Omar now has a glass eye, and there are some excellent shots where it’s very obvious that both eyes aren’t looking in the same direction.  I admire that level of dedication to the character! Occasionally Rahul Bose almost topples into caricature with Omar’s limping shuffle and virtually incoherent whisper due to his physical ailments, but he still manages to keep an aura of menace in most scenes.

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After all the bomb blasts, rocket launchers and gunfire it’s inevitable that when the action moves back to New York there has to be some explanation and investigation which slows things down a little.  However the tense momentum of the first half isn’t sustained in the much shorter second half of the film.  In addition to the slower pace, the answers seem to be found just a little too readily and the explanations are just a little too glib.  Still, these are minor points and overall the story is complex and absorbing.  It’s a spy thriller so of course no-one is quite as they seem, except perhaps poor Nirupama who is caught up in her work to the exclusion of everything else and in typical research scientist mode doesn’t see what seems to have been right under her nose all the time.  Andrea Jeremiah, Jaideep Ahlawat and Shekhar Kapur are also good in their supporting roles.

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As a spy thriller Vishwaroopam fulfils everything expected – there’s a convoluted story featuring plenty of twists, great action spanning fight scenes, car chases and plenty of explosions, and even a hint of romance.  The star of the show is definitely Kamal Haasan who is brilliant as his character morphs from one persona to the next, but Rahul Bose is close behind in the acting stakes, and Pooja Kumar does an excellent job with her portrayal of Nirupama.   Overall it’s an enthralling watch and bodes well for part II. 4 ½ stars.