Befikre (2016)

befikre

Easily the best thing about Aditya Chopra’s Befikre is Paris, and thankfully the characters spend plenty of time wandering past significant landmarks and meandering through lane ways full of beautiful buildings giving the city ample opportunity to shine. It’s not that the rest of the film is that bad – it’s just not that good. At its best, Befikre is funny and both Ranveer and Vaani are full of life and energy, but the plot is nonsensical, the dares that are used to further the love story ridiculous and there are so many WTF moments that the farcical ending is no surprise. And to cap it all off, it’s such a shame that a film set in the ‘city of love’ contains so little actual romance.

The opening sequence shows numerous couples kissing over the credits but what starts as possibly sweet and romantic moves to voyeuristic and just a little bit creepy as it goes on for that little too long. Any thought of love is also quickly dashed when we first meet Dharam (Ranveer Singh) and Shyra (Vaani Kapoor) as they’re in the process of breaking up. Neither one appears as an attractive character during the ensuing slanging match, while Dharam in particular seems to be typical of the chauvinistic man-child so often portrayed in Hindi cinema. Despite all the drama, the break-up is actually quite funny, at least until Dharam does the unforgivable and calls Shyra a slut (more of that later) before she finally leaves.

The film quickly moves back a year to when Dharam and Shyra first meet and their ’love’ story starts.  Dharam is a stand-up comedian who has moved to Paris to appear at a club run by his friend Mehra (Aru Krishansh Verma). Sadly Dharam isn’t funny at all as a comedian but he is quite amusing when he’s hanging out with Shyra. Initially Shyra doesn’t want a bar of him and is quite happy with a one-night stand, but a silly game of dare results in the two heading out together on a date and the relationship develops from there.  Both Shyra and Dharam resolve never to say “I love you’ and to keep things light and carefree with no commitment, but despite this agreement, Shyra ends up moving in with Dharam. The relationship moves forward through a series of ever more ridiculous dares, all of which would have resulted in arrest and possible jail time if, for example, anyone really did hit a policeman or perform a striptease in a library. Of course Dharam and Shyra are never seen to have to deal with any repercussions from their actions, some of which are a little too risqué to be easy viewing and despite all their antics there is never any sense that the two are anything other than friends-with-benefits. It’s Paris for goodness sake – where’s the wining and dining, the romantic walks through parks and along the Seine? Sadly for Dharam and Shyra it’s all night clubs and bedrooms with little else between – no wonder their relationship eventually breaks down so spectacularly.

The film moves back to the present day where Dharam and Shyra meet up again by chance and renew their friendship. And this time they are strictly friends as Dharam is happily working his way through a number of French women and Shyra is content with her single life. But then she meets Anay (Armaan Ralhan) and everything changes. Shyra embarks on a mature and adult relationship which seems to be happily heading towards commitment, but even here there are cracks in the screenplay. Who leaves their possible fiancé at the top of the Eiffel tower and runs off to ask their friend for advice? Would anyone seriously still be waiting for an answer after that? And while the easy camaraderie and friendship between Dharam and Shyra suits them much better than any romance, how can two people who parted on such bad terms ever develop the easy relationship shown here? At least Dharma apologises for his slut comment, accepting that it was inexcusable and less about Shyra and her previous lovers and more about him and his immaturity. Finally a small step (OK, maybe less of a step and more of a toe-dip) in the right direction, and rightly applauded by the audience too.

What keeps the film going are the performances from Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor. No matter that there is zero sparkage between the two of them, they are both so energetic that it’s just possible to overlook the idiotic dares and juvenile behaviour and enjoy the craziness of two OTT people rampaging their way through Paris. This works better when they are friends rather than lovers, but for the most part their scenes together are funny and full of joie de vivre once they move past the bedroom antics. I love Ranveer Singh when he hams it up and exaggerates every possible expression and gesture as he does here. Similar to his roles in Kill Dil and Gunday, here he’s loud, brash and looks to be totally enjoying every minute as his enthusiasm colours every frame. He has great comic timing throughout and his one-liners had the entire cinema in stitches, while once again he sparkles through the songs.

Not to be outdone, Vaani Kapoor is equally buoyant during the flashback sequences while the evolution of her character allows her to be more reserved and restrained in the second half of the film. Vaani expresses a range of emotions well and her wavering and indecision about commitment is very well done in the latter half of the film. She also fits well into the European-Indian styling she is given and at least in the second half of the film does deliver some French-style sophistication during her romance with Anay.

Despite the ridiculous storyline I did enjoy most of Befikre – although nothing could make me enjoy the ending, not even Ranveer. It was a real pleasure to see Paris as the backdrop for the film even if more could have been made of its reputation as a city for lovers. While both Dharam and Shyra are irritating during the flashback sequences, for the most part their friendship is more accessible and I did find a lot of the humour very funny. Most of the audience were laughing too and the general atmosphere was pretty upbeat in the cinema. The songs from Vishal-Shekhar are great and suit the overall mood of the film and of course the whole film looks stylish, but Befikre really needed a much better story-line and more depth to the characters. The end result is a romantic comedy that basically has no romance despite the best efforts of Ranveer and Vaani. Worth watching for the beautiful views of Paris and the exuberant Ranveer Singh who really can make anything engaging!

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.

Bajirao Mastani

Bajirao Mastani

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest epic is another triumph for the set designers, costume makers, make-up artists and jewellers of whom there must have been legion. It’s not just visually spectacular either, with impressive performances from the main leads and a beautiful soundtrack and background score. In fact the story turns out to be the weakest link in an otherwise lavish spectacle since for an epic love story, the film is strangely lacking in romance. However the film still makes an impact and with strong female characters, glittering scenery and plenty of Ranveer Singh, it’s definitely well worth watching in the cinema if you can.

The opening scenes are imperially ornate and immediately set the scene for an epic tale of daring do and palace intrigue. Unfortunately there is subsequently rather less of the daring do, with few scenes of battle and the palace intrigue hinted at doesn’t come to anything either. Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) wins the post of Maratha Peshwar with some rather nifty archery, and immediately heads back to battle to continue the expansion of the Marathi kingdom. While out on campaign he comes to the aid of the King of Bundelkhand and after rescuing the kingdom from an army of invaders, Bajirao falls for the King’s daughter by his second Muslim wife, Mastani (Deepika Padukone).

Mastani is a warrior too and manages some impressive sword work herself, which is presumably why Bajirao falls for her. But what happens in Bundelkhand should stay in Bundelkhand and the trouble starts when Mastani follows Bajirao back to Pune, where Bajirao lives with his wife Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) and his mother Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi). Radhabai is incensed that her family line should be polluted by a foreigner’s blood, particularly since Mastani is Muslim, and she deliberately humiliates Mastani at every opportunity. Radhabai is an interesting character with a little more depth that just a standard outraged matriarch and Tanvi Azmi is excellent as the embittered widow who feels she is fighting for her family’s honour. She is ably supported in her machinations by Bajirao’s younger brother Chimaji Appa (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) and his eldest son with Kashibai, Nana (Ayush Tandon). Her outrage and vehement opposition to Mastani is perfectly vindictive and beautifully balanced by her warm relationship with Kashibai and her devotion to her son.

Ranveer Singh does a fantastic job as Bajirao to the extent that I don’t actually like his character much – impressive when I usually love every character he portrays. Here he is consumed by desire and mostly oblivious to the pain he causes others, making him too arrogant to be a completely likeable character. Bajirao is certainly a fearless warrior, but Ranveer gives him a compassionate side and also allows glimpses of insecurity through his relationship with Mastani.  However he doesn’t see the contempt with which his family views Mastani and seems oblivious to the threats against her life. He is more concerned with his role as Peshwar until he lets his desire for Mastani overcome his sense of duty and allows his obsession with her to rule his life. Ranveer shows little of the swagger and attitude from Kil Dil and Gunday, but transforms himself into an eighteenth century warrior with plenty of imperial remoteness and stately reserve, which may partly explain the lack of warmth in his relationships. Unfortunately Bhansali doesn’t show many battles, and in the few fight scenes Ranveer mainly sits on a horse and swings his curling sword, although he does manage a few good grimaces as he rides to battle. Maybe I watch too many SI films but I was disappointed at the lack of battle scenes and would have loved more action rather than the relatively bloodless clashes here.

As Mastani, Deepika is mesmerizing when she snarls her way through battle but she becomes flat and lifeless once she transforms into the love of Bajirao’s life, losing all her sparkle.  I find Bhansali’s depiction of Mastani in love as insipid and overly compliant. Where did all her passion go? There is definite chemistry between Ranveer and Deepika, but there appears to be little joy in the relationship and I’m not sure that smouldering looks and declarations of’ acceptance’ are enough to explain why Mastani submits to the many indignities heaped on her admittedly capable shoulders. A love that is strong enough to withstand such determined and murderous opposition should be grand, overwhelming and all-encompassing, but that just doesn’t come across in the relationship between Bajirao and Mastani, and that is the most disappointing aspect of the film.

The best of the main leads is undoubtedly Priyanka Chopra as Bajirao’s first wife. She has the passion and joy in her relationship with Bajirao that is lacking in his relationship with Mastani and gets to show all her rage and humiliation when she discovers Bajirao’s infidelity. Priyanka is brilliant here in a perfectly nuanced performance that gives her the opportunity to show passion, despair, hate and compassion and she gets it right every time. Kashibai is the more interesting character and with grace and beauty Priyanka makes the most of the opportunity given to her in a faultless depiction of a betrayed wife.  She gets to dance too, and if Pinga doesn’t quite reach the choreographic heights of Dola Re Dola, Priyanka and Deepika are both beautiful dancers and look absolutely stunning too.

I didn’t know the story of the warrior Bajirao and his second wife Mastani before watching the film, and I’m not sure that I know much more about them afterwards either.  Bhansali takes moments from Bajirao’s life (although for a film about a great martial leader there are few glimpses of this side of his character) and intersperses them with behind the scenes action in his household, but the narrative jumps hours, days and then years without any clear indication, resulting in a disjointed timeline. Each scene is individually good, but doesn’t always totally gel with the preceding or subsequent action, while the lack of passion and joy in the relationship between Bajirao and Mastani is disappointing. However the opulent sets and overall grandeur of Bajirao Mastani are of the overall high quality expected from Sanjay Leela Bhansali and ensure that the film is worth watching even if it’s not as engaging as I would have liked. I’d recommend watching for the visual impact and for the excellent performances from all the cast, especially Ranveer and Priyanka.