Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga deserves praise for daring to tackle same-sex relationships in a film industry where gay people have mainly seem to appear only as comic relief. Although Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film is a sanitised and strangely unemotional journey, showing even a fraction of the prejudice and discrimination faced by anyone who does not follow cultural norms is surely a step in the right direction. The story is kept safe and family-friendly with the actual romance not getting much attention, while most of the light and shade comes from the excellent support cast. Rajkummar Rao is outstanding, Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla bring warmth and real affection to their roles while Abhishek Duhan manages to encapsulate every negative thought or emotion pertaining to homosexuality within his character. This is definitely a film worth watching, although I wish it had shown more of the heartache and allowed the lead character to fight her own battles rather than relying on the various men in her life to shape her destiny.

Sonam Kapoor plays the character of Sweety, the daughter of businessman and garment factory owner Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor). She lives with her father, brother Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) and grandmother (Madhumalti Kapoor) in the Punjabi town of Moga but her path crosses with Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao) during a visit to Delhi. Sahil is the son of a rich producer, but he’s trying to make his own way in the world as a writer and playwright. Unfortunately, the film he wrote for his father has been wildly panned and his new play doesn’t seem destined to reach any great heights either, given the small theatre where it is being produced and a seemingly limited budget. However, a chance encounter with Sweety intrigues Sahil and as he aids her escape from her brother, he decides he wants to know more about her self-described long and complicated story. A few vague ideas about producing a play in a regional town with local actors is enough for Sahil to travel to Moga with the theatre caterer Chatro (Juhi Chawla). Once in Moga he finds Sweety easily enough but as he learns more about her Sahil becomes drawn into her struggle to be the person she really wants to be.

What works really well in the film is the character of Sahil, and Rajkummar Rao is fantastic, infusing Sahil with understanding, empathy and a good sense of humour right from the start. Although initially he is smitten with Sweety, his transformation to her champion is very believable and done with plenty of humour and warmth. Even his brief interactions with his own parents have some clever by-play that gives further insights into Sahil’s character and provide an interesting contrast with Sweety’s family. Anil Kapoor is another major strength in the film and he strikes exactly the right note as a wealthy businessman who only wants the best for his daughter. In a nice parallel he has had to hide his love of cooking all his life as his mother doesn’t find the kitchen an appropriate place for a Punjabi man. Although I did find that odd given that most top chefs are in fact male. Perhaps it was more of a status thing (which didn’t come across with the subtitles), but it does mean that Balbir has experience of hiding the thing he loves from his mother, something that gives him the ability to develop an understanding of his daughter’s problems later in the film.

I love Juhi Chawla and she is brilliant here in a role that allows her to showcase her excellent comedic talents. Her Chatro is convinced she is a mind-shattering actress, although no-one else believes in her talent. She is a superb cook however, and this is the talent that’s appreciated by Balbir and leads to some hilarious interactions between the two. Chatro is confident in her abilities – whether it’s cooking or acting, and Juhi makes her a wonderfully warm and likeable character to boot. It’s no wonder Balbir is smitten, and the scenes between these two brilliant actors really are the absolute highlight of this film for me.

Sonal Kapoor is a little more disappointing as Sweety, which is a shame as writers Gazal Dhaliwal and Shelly Chopra Dhar have given her some great material to work with. The stories Sweety tells Sahil about her life and the difficulties she has faced should have been some of the most heart-wrenching moments of the entire film, but the emotion never goes quite deep enough. Although this is probably the best performance I have seen from Sonal, there doesn’t seem to be any real pain behind her dialogues. Although she is obviously trying hard, Sweety appears just sad, not anguished or distraught, even when she was discussing such monumental decisions as ending her life or marrying anyone just to get away from the constant pressure from her family. While I can accept that a lifetime of repression would make someone less prone to show their emotions, to make the film more effective, I really needed to feel her pain much more deeply that she ever manages to express here. Where Sonam is better however, is during the climax of the film where she responds to her father disapproval, and here she brings the emotion and drama that’s missing elsewhere in her performance.

What I really like about the film is the depiction of how difficult it is to reveal homosexuality to family, friends and the community in India. With the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, perhaps there will be some changes, but given how much prejudice and shame there is still attached to same-sex relationships in the West, I feel this will be a long and difficult process. The first Hindi film I saw that touched on this subject was Onir’s excellent My Brother… Nikhil, which also starred Juhi Chawla, but this I think is the first main-stream Hindi film that has tackled the subject of lesbianism within India. In Margarita, with a Straw for example, the character was only able to embark on her same-sex relationship when she left the country and was studying overseas. From that perspective I think that this is an important film, as it does bring to light the difficulties experienced by people who identify as LGBTQIA and openly shows the prejudice and discrimination they receive. The need to keep everything secret and repress their sexuality is clearly discussed, even if only briefly. Sweety’s brother Babloo is vehemently opposed to her relationships and this character allows some of the range of hate against homosexuality to be exposed, even when disguised as concern for the person or their family. Babloo is an unpleasant character, but there is a lot of truth in Abhishek Duhan’s portrayal and I felt that he totally nailed the animosity and disgust his character felt while projecting care and consideration for Sweety and the entire family. This bigotry is effectively done and is one of the important points that Shelley Chopra Dhar gets across so well in the film.

I also love the response of the audience to Sahil’s play about Sweety and how Shelley Chopra Dhar captures the conservative ideas and morals of a small town. The contrast between young girls with their faces full of rapt attention as they followed the story, with the adults in the crowd who got up and left with angry gestures, sums up the story beautifully and illustrates just how far communities need to change to overcome these unreasonable and biased attitudes.

In this way it’s the subject matter and the idea of the film that is important, and in this I think Shelly Chopra Dhar has exceeded expectations. The film itself doesn’t fare quite as well, given the rather conservative approach to Sweety’s relationship. Her partner Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) only appears onscreen briefly, which is rather a shame since Regina sparkles when she is on camera and I would have liked to see more of her character and even heard Kuhu’s story too. Instead the film concentrates on the family relationships, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but some of the romance needed to be included to give some balance to the story. I can understand that the director probably didn’t want to alienate main-stream audiences, but it does mean that the film is lacking emotional attachment.  It’s still an enjoyable film and one that can be watched without delving too much into the politics and societal issues, which hopefully means it will reach a wide audience. It deserves to.

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CityLights (2014)

CityLights

In his reworking of Sean Ellis’s award winning social drama Metro Manila, Hansal Mehta moves the story from the slum areas of Manila to the seedy streets of Mumbai. It’s a tale of grinding, remorseless poverty and the desperation such hardship brings, but there are some lighter moments too and the film morphs into a crime drama about half way through. City Lights is perhaps not quite as effective as the original in telling the story of a young naïve family and their move from the country to the city in search of a better life, but what the story has lost in adaptation is more than made up by the strong performances from the lead actors Rajkummar Rao, Patralekha and Manav Kaul.

City LightsCityLightsCityLightsCityLights

The story opens in Rajasthan where Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao) has a clothing shop in a small town that he is forced to close when he cannot afford to pay off his debts.  Since there appears to be no hope for any work in his village, he sets off for Mumbai with his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) and small daughter Mahi. Rakhi is reluctant to move, once in the city she seems less naïve than Deepak so perhaps she is well aware of the difficulties of trying to live in Mumbai, but ultimately she has no say in the decision. These first few scenes are full of light and laughter, and in just a few brief moments Hansal Mehta paints a picture of a happy family where there is a lot of love and hope that better days will come.

Deepak plans to meet a friend from his army days in Mumbai, but when Omkar fails to turn up at the railway station the family has to find their way in the big city alone. After being swindled out of what meagre funds they have, a chance meeting with a bar dancer leads them to a temporary refuge in a half constructed building.  While Deepak spends his days trying to find any kind of a job anywhere, Rakhi manages to get employment as a dancer in a bar. However this is not work she finds easy to reconcile with her conscience and she continually struggles with the leers of the men and their attempts to get more from her than she is willing to give. Deepak too is not happy about his wife’s job either, but the family is in such desperate straits that he has no other option but to let Rakhi work. Both actors do a fantastic job here of getting the depth of their emotions across using facial expressions with excellent body language and minimal dialogue.

Although their situation seems unlikely to improve, the couple never give up hope, even if it’s a very compliant and resigned kind of hope. There are no impassioned speeches or battles against authority here, but rather calm acceptance of their place in society and the belief if they just keep trying then eventually God will provide a solution for them. It’s frustrating viewing at times when Deepak is unable to push himself forward when looking for work and Rakhi cannot put aside her inhibitions to make more money when she is dancing, but they are simple everyday people and Hansal Mehta portrays them just the way they are. No more, and no less.

Their blind faith appears to work and things start to look up when Deepak gets a job as the driver for a security firm. The money seems good, and Deepak’s new partner Vishnu (Manav Kaul) even offers the family a place to stay. However Deepak comes to realise that his new partner had an ulterior motive for recommending him, and it is Deepak’s innocence and naiveté that got him the job rather than his previous army experience. Vishnu has a plan which needs the co-operation of his partner, and he’s been waiting for an innocent like Deepak to manipulate into following his commands. Deepak is reluctant, but when Rakhi loses her job in the bar it seems as if he has no other option but to go ahead with Vishnu’s plan if he wants to make sure his family survives.

Rajkummar Rao and Patralekha both suit the role of poor immigrants to the city. They both look skinny and malnourished with beaten down postures and downcast eyes, and both achieve that calm acceptance that extreme poverty seems to bring. It’s only with each other that they seem able to look straight ahead and even then Rakhi rarely looks her husband in the eyes. Both exude innocence effortlessly, even in the rather ham-handed treatment of their love scenes, and Rajkummar Rao in particular never puts a foot wrong. Manav Kaul is also excellent in a role that gives him plenty of opportunity to develop his character. He’s the man who knows the ways of the city, and is patently more sophisticated and knowledgeable than his partner from the country. He has a wife and a mistress, but despite his city veneer he also deeply resents the people whose money he delivers every day and despises his own circumstances. In his way, Vishnu is just as desperate and defined by his poverty, even if it’s not as extreme as that experienced by Deepak and Rakhi, and Manav Kaul does an excellent job with the characterisation.

The film does have a couple of songs which are either used over montages of the couple’s life in the city, or to highlight certain moments in their lives. The problem is that the music and lyrics are overly dramatic, particularly in scenes where the actors have already displayed plenty of genuine emotion and the music ends up detracting from rather than enhancing their performances.  The track below which plays over Rakhi’s dancing and Deepak’s drinking in a bar does work better, but most of the other songs are too loud and intrusive to suit the action. The film is also very dark at times; to the point where it is difficult to see what is happening let alone the actors expressions, while the final climax seems rushed and too contrived compared to the rest of the story.

These small issues aside, the film is an insightful look at the dark side of Mumbai and the realities of living in unrelenting poverty as Hansal Mehta successfully translates Sean Ellis’s story from the Philippines to Indian soil. Rajkummar Rao is definitely the standout as he once again completely immerses himself in his character and delivers an amazingly realistic and believable performance as he did in Shahid. Manav Kaul and newcomer Patralekha are also impressive in a film that raises questions about morality, ethics and poverty even if it does turn a tad Bollywood at the end. 3½ stars.

 

Queen (2014)

Queen

It’s heartening that the Indian Film Industry is producing more female-centric movies with the last few years having seen an increasing number of releases featuring a woman as the main lead. Even better, these are strong and independent women who don’t need to be rescued by a hero and can solve their problems by themselves, thank you very much. Queen is another film to add to the list, and a very worthy entrant it is too. In a somewhat similar vein to English Vinglish, Queen tells a story of self-discovery, but in this instance the protagonist is a young bride, jilted just before her wedding. Rather than bemoan her fate, Rani (Kangana Ranaut) packs her bags and heads off to Europe on her honeymoon by herself. It’s a charming look at Rani’s journey, both the physical trip and the metaphorical voyage, that doesn’t follow the expected path despite a number of frustratingly stereotypical characters along the way. I loved Kangana’s quirky take on an innocent abroad and her coming of age story is endearing and at times familiar as she negotiates her  way through the streets of Paris and Amsterdam.

The film opens with the preparations for Rani’s wedding to Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), a rather smarmy and chauvinistic engineer who met Rani in Delhi but is now living and working in London. The initial voice-over, filled with inanities from Rani as she contemplates the celebrations, her family and her approaching first night, is an excellent introduction to her character and is so very common place and normal that straight away you are drawn into her world. Vikas Bahl perfectly captures the excitement, apprehension and happiness of the occasion, and the first song is a lively and appropriate accompaniment to the celebrations.

When Rani is jilted, her family rallies round and is supportive of her decision to go to Europe alone. I was expecting some parental opposition but everyone seems happy to let Rani go, even though she has spent the previous 24 hours hiding and crying in her room.

What wouldn’t be a big deal to anyone else is a huge adventure for Rani and her amazement at the sights of Paris and Amsterdam is infectious, although I did have to wonder that a resident of Delhi had issues crossing a road in Paris. India is a much more confronting place as far as traffic goes!

In Paris Rani meets a young French woman Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon) who introduces her to Paris nightlife and starts to open her eyes to the possibilities of a more independent life. Lisa Haydon is excellent, although her introduction scene is rather more dubious. However, just when you think the film is about to tread a well worth path featuring a shameless Frenchwoman and loud scenes of intercourse, the film switches direction and Vijayalakshmi turns out to be a more interesting character than first impressions would suggest. Of course there is still the stereotypical portrayal of her European loose morals, since she is an unmarried mother who likes to go out clubbing, but Lisa Haydon gives her character plenty of soul and a caring nature, which helps win over Rani’s initial mistrust.

The relationship between the two young women evolves very naturally and doesn’t fall into the plot pitfalls that loom once Vijayalakshmi takes Rani out drinking. My favourite moment is when Rani climbs up onto the bar to dance, and after twirling her cardigan striptease style, rather than toss it away, she stuffs it into her bag instead. Then dances manically to the strains of a remixed Hungama Ho Gaya. It’s such a classic moment and I totally understand what was going through her head right at that moment! It’s a major strength of the film that Kangana is completely immersed in her character and is such a ‘normal girl on her first adventure away from home’, making it easy to relate to her experiences and understand her reactions. It’s not flawless but it feels genuine and Kangana captures that mix of wonderment, elation and confusion perfectly.

Rani moves on to Amsterdam and therefore there are the expected scenes in a sex shop and with a prostitute who of course is working to send money home to her family. But in contrast to these clichéd moments, the developing friendship between Rani and her three hostel roommates is fresh and unexpected, particularly since all three are male! Mish Boyko as Russian Oleksander, Jeffrey Ho as Taka and Joseph Guithob as Tim are an unlikely trio of friends, but they help Rani discover her self-confidence, and support her new-found independence without any schmaltzy romance or unnecessary posturing. I love the interactions between the three as none of them speak each other’s language and also struggle with English, which reminds me of so many incidents in my own travels and keeps the film moving in unexpected directions. The characterisations do threaten to fall into very well-worn stereotypes, but they are spared by the spontaneous feel of the dialogue, and if nothing else, at least they are a hundred times better than the usual portrayal of foreigners in Indian films.

The support cast is excellent, particularly Rani’s family in India (Yogendra Tiku as her father, Alka Badola Kaushal as her mother and Chinmaya Agrawal as her younger brother) but the star here is Kangana, who completely sheds her neurotic persona perfected in previous films. She appears very genuine and natural throughout, with no sense of artificiality in her gradual shedding of inhibitions and development of confidence. The development of Rani’s self-awareness is well written but comes to joyful life with Kangana’s portrayal. She also is credited with writing some of her own dialogues, which, even with subtitles, are encouragingly realistic and non-filmi. Kudos too to Rajkummar Rao who is perfectly shallow, petty and immature in the role of Rani’s ex-fiancé and maintains his obnoxious personality right to the very end.   The music by Amit Trividi is also excellent and the songs are well placed in the narrative, keeping the flow and adding more layers to the story. The late Bobby Singh has also expertly capture of  the streets of Paris and Amsterdam in beautiful detail, although the cities did seem rather sanitised in comparison to my own experiences. Not too sure about the boots with this dress, but this is a beautiful song, and I love the expressions on Rani’s face as she meets and then farewells her friends – perfect!

Queen is a film with much to enjoy, most of it due to Kangana’s portrayal and her character’s travels through Europe, although the writing, direction and editing all perfectly align with the superb cast. The emotional journey is just as entertaining as the physical one, and I love the optimistic and up-beat ending.  Definitely one to watch with girl-friends, but Queen is much more than a chick-flick and I recommend it to everyone who wants to see something a little different. 4 ½ stars.