Atrangi Re

So far I haven’t been a huge fan of Aanand L. Rai’s films but Dhanush is a big draw card (and Raanjhaana wasn’t completely awful), so I thought I’d try Atrangi Re. But again, I’m left thinking that there is too much that is problematic for me to really enjoy the film. There is a lot that works well, but sadly, there is a lot more that doesn’t. The good is the music, most of the first half and Dhanush, who really is excellent despite playing a rather shady character. The film also looks great and it’s a shame I couldn’t see it on the big screen since the sets and the staging are amazing. But the bad unfortunately hits around the end of the first half, and from then on, it’s frustrating to watch some good ideas smothered under the weight of poor portrayal. Be warned that there are spoilers here as it’s difficult to discuss the problems without revealing the twist in the film, so if you don’t want to know the major twist, skip past the pictures of kittens when we get to that part!

The film starts with Rinku (Sara Ali Khan) running from her abusive family to elope with her Muslim boyfriend, whose name she steadfastly refuses to reveal. The family catch her at the train station where Vishu (Dhanush) and his friend MS (Ashish Verma) have arrived for a medical camp and they see the drama unfold. To solve the problem of Rinku continually trying to elope, her grandmother Rajjo (Seema Biswas) decrees that the family must kidnap a groom so that they can get rid Rinku and all the trouble she causes. But the family mistakenly kidnap Vishu who is supposed to be getting engaged himself to the daughter of his College Dean in just a few days. After being drugged though the wedding, Rinku’s family put the newlyweds on the train to Delhi, where Vishu is studying to be a surgeon. Luckily for Rinku, she finds out about Vishu’s upcoming engagement which give her the perfect opportunity to leave him for her Sajjad (Akshay Kumar), the long standing fiancé whose name she reveals to Vishu.

So far so good and the confusions and potential love triangle are (mostly) dealt with well. Dhanush is excellent as the earnest and slightly nerdy doctor, but Sara Ali Khan’s Rinku comes across as more forced and manic rather than someone desperate to escape an intolerable situation. But once in Delhi, the true situation is revealed and that’s where the film slides off the rails. 

Despite having a fiancée at home in Chennai, Vishnu seems to fall instantly in love with Rinku even though there is no real reason for him to do so. Vishu knows about Sajjid immediately after the forced marriage as Rinku immediately tells him about her fiancé while Vishu seems to be happy with his fiancée Mandy (Dimple Hayathi) given his many attempts to call her while in Bihar. At the very least, as a Tamilian she is at least able to speak the same language. On that point, I do like listening to Dhanush speak Hindi which he enunciates clearly meaning that I can actually understand what he says for the most part. My Hindi is pretty limited so it’s always extra enjoyable when I can understand the dialogue without subtitles. 

This instant love affair is annoyingly unrealistic but even more problematic is that once Vishnu finds out more about Rinku, he manipulates her into staying with him. His love for her apparently means it is OK to lie at every turn to make sure that she stays with him. It’s frustrating that the original sweet, slightly geeky doctor becomes a rather creepy, obsessive stalker, although Dhanush at least is convincing in the role. We get happy, awkward happy dancing Dhanush (my favourite), emotional Dhanush declaring his love and practical and resourceful Dhanush capably manipulating the situation in his favour. The performance is perfect, but the character of Vishu is so fundamentally flawed that it’s difficult to accept that he does actually love Rinku.

Skip past the cute kittens if you want to avoid the more major spoilers. Less spoilery review resumes after the second set of kittens.

What really annoys me with this film is the terrible way Vishu and particularly MS treat Rinku despite knowing she has a mental illness. One which is so extreme that she is hallucinating and convinced that what she sees and hears is real. Bollywood has rarely treated mental illness well, but the jokes at Rinku’s expense and the farcical way she is treated is the worst I have seen for a while. Both Vishu and MS are doctors (albeit students) and should know better, but so much of what they do is simply wrong and made me really mad!

I can cope with Akshay Kumar being Rinku’s love interest since once we know exactly who he is, it makes sense of much of Rinku’s earlier behaviour and the way she treats Sajjad. I also like that in the flashback sequences Akshay is made to look young and happy, while in the sequences with Rinku he looks old and tired. I don’t find this relationship as problematic as Vishu’s with Rinku, because here Rinku is in the driver’s seat. It’s her hallucination, her psychosis, and the reason she thinks of Sajjad as her fiancé is because she needs him to be her hero. And right now, the person she needs to take her away from her family is a husband, so naturally that is how she thinks of him. Here, where Sara Ali Khan could legitimately get away with manic behaviour, she dials it back but still seems to force much of her performance. Her character is such a mass of contradictions, that I blame much of her issues on the writing and direction. She is better when she plays the second role of her mother, but these are ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ moments that don’t make much of an impression. Between Sara Ali Khan’s over-acting and Dhanush’s manipulative character, by the end of the film I really had had enough of this irritating couple!

End of major spoilers

A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack is a real plus for the film and I really enjoyed the songs. I also found the interplay between Dhanush and Akshay funny with some good comedy in the various looks and side glances between the main characters. Perhaps it’s because he’s not in the film all that much, but I found Akshay much less irritating than usual, although the OTT touches with the tricks and performances did wear thin very quickly. How come no-one’s hero is ever a car mechanic or something more normal in these films?  But by far and away the main reason to watch Atrangi Re is Dhanush. Despite playing a selfish and inconsiderate character, he is as charming as ever and ensures we are invested in his story. I just wish it had been more sensible! 3 stars (all for Dhanush!)

Sameer (2017)

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Sameer is an interesting attempt to make a political thriller that delves into the reasons for radicalisation and subsequent acts of terrorism carried out by young Muslim men in India to-day. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver, mostly due to a surfeit of clichés in the characterisations but there are also some major flaws with the plot that derail the political agenda. Where Sameer does work however is as a thriller, and Dakxin Chhara does a good job with keeping the tension high in the second half as the ATS try to stop the terrorists and their bombing campaign. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is excellent and despite the rather flawed reasoning behind his involvement in the bomb plot, it’s his performance as a mole within the terrorist group that makes Sameer worth a watch.

The film starts in Hyderabad with a series of bomb blasts around the city, including in the area around the Charminar and Mecca Masjid. That seems an odd choice of location given the perpetrator is supposed to be Muslim, but it works in terms of shock value. The prime suspect is a young student from Ahmedabad called Yaseen Darji, and the ATS are quick to send in a team to track him down. However, the only person they find in the deserted accommodation block is Yaseen’s roommate Sameer (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) and the ATS Deputy Chief Desai (Subrat Dutta) decides to arrest him as an accomplice. Sameer is brought back to the ATS headquarters in Ahmedabad, and Desai threatens his prisoner with torture if Sameer doesn’t attempt to find Yaseen and turn him over to the authorities.

There are a number of problems with the plot set-up but the most glaring is the assumption that Sameer will be able to infiltrate the terrorist group in Ahmedabad. He has no connection to the city and his only link, that of being Yaseen’s roommate at college, seems a very thin thread to pull. Desai illegally kidnaps Sameer, tortures and threatens him, and then dumps him into an unknown city to try and win the trust of a group of terrorists – it never sounds like a plausible scenario and the film compounds this by adding the stereotypical caricature of a Muslim terrorist to the characterisation of Yaseen’s older brother Shaheed (Chinmay Mandlekar). It just doesn’t seem likely that a government organisation such as the ATS would be given free rein to torture and kill unlimited numbers of citizens in their hunt for potential terrorists, while Desai’s reaction to later events is equally improbable.

Desai’s character is also a mess of contradictions. One minute he’s threatening and intimidating Sameer, while the next he’s trying to charm journalist Alia Irade (Anjali Patil). He’s fanatical about catching the terrorists and seems happy to commit any number of crimes in his pursuit of justice, but he’s such an unstable persona that it seems highly unlikely that anyone would put him in charge of sensitive operations. His scenes with Alia Irade are also painfully awkward, which may be intentional, but It would seem more probable that Desai would bluster and try to bully Alia rather than try to develop a relationship. Subrat Dutta does his best with each facet of his character’s schizophrenic personality, but Desai seems too flaky a character to be in such a critical role.

Sameer is instructed to find a way to stay with Yasin’s mother Mumtaz Khala (Seema Biswas) and gain the trust of Shaheed. Unsurprisingly Mumtaz doesn’t want anything to do with Sameer and refuses to let him stay, while Shaheed is suspicious of Sameer and doesn’t believe his declarations of support. As Sameer wanders the area he meets a street-theatre group who enact scenes of discrimination and social injustice, just in case the audience hasn’t yet realised that this is a marginalised community with plenty of reasons to be discontent. Mumtaz decries the violence and denies she has a son called Yaseen while Sameer cites the Gujarat riots and his father’s death as the reasons behind his brother’s radicalisation. This is politics drawn with a very broad brush and there is no subtlety in Dakxin Chhara’s description of a society under siege. Just in case anyone was still missing the heavy-handed symbolism, Manto’s (Alok Gagdekar) street theatre includes a young disabled boy, Rocket (Shubham Bajrange) who idolises his ‘grandfather’ Gandhi, and whose simple faith allows him to break up a potential fight between the Muslim and Hindu residents of the colony. You just know it’s not going to be a happy ending.

At the same time, journalist Alia Irade (Anjali Patil) is investigating the disappearance of 55 children 10 years ago during the riots, which allows her to mention these previous atrocities every time the subject of terrorism is raised. Her character is basically the ‘voice of reason’ who points out that every story has two sides. However, her attempts to humanise the terrorists are generally unsuccessful, mainly because the terrorists’ violence is directed against the local communities.  This has the effect of ensuring the terrorists really are the butchers Desai describes. I did like Alia’s uncompromising attitude and refusal to willingly help Desai in his crusade against Yaseen and his family, and the final twist to her story at the end is clever, although ultimately cynical and sad.

If you can ignore the clichéd political agenda and instead watch Sameer’s story as a straight-forward thriller, then it all becomes somewhat more palatable. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub does an excellent job with his cringing and pleading student being threatened with torture, and his later attempts to wheedle information from Shaheed and his mother are plausibly clumsy. Sameer isn’t a nice person and Ayyub doesn’t try to make him likeable, he just gives him a valid reason for acting the way he does and then gets on with it. His characterisation helps make the race against time to find the information about the bomb plot seem much more urgent than it really is, while his demeanour during the final scenes is chilling.

I wish Dakxin Chhara hadn’t tried to put so much politics into his film and instead left the story to speak for itself. So much of the window-dressing to humanise the terrorists and explain their back-story really wasn’t necessary and it all detracts from the really quite good thriller underneath. And there are good ideas here. The use of a high-pitched whine throughout and then after the bomb blasts works well, and the final scenes deliver a good twist to the story. The performances are good too – Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Anjali Patil both suit their roles and Seema Biswas stands out in her small role. Sameer isn’t a great film but it does have it’s moments, and it’s always good to see something a little bit different, even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark all the time. 2 ½ stars.