Raees

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Raees (Shah Rukh Khan in case you haven’t worked that out) grows up working for the local bootleggers, learning the business from the inside out. His mother (Sheeba Chaddha) tells him that no business is beneath them, and no religion is greater than business, as long as they don’t harm anyone. Raees hates being poor, and hates being treated unfairly. He wants respect, money, success. He’s the kind of guy who will exploit the tiniest gap to create something you could drive a fully laden truck through. The man trying to stop him is the eccentric and equally driven Superintendent Majmudar (the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

The film is directed like it was the 70s, the story is set in the 80s/90s, but only the technology dates things. Seeing Raees threatening someone over the phone was something else when that phone was a dinky red racing car one. The Fatehpura neighbourhood is a lively backdrop, teeming with people going about their day in the narrow streets. The songs suit the film and tend to advance the story more often than not (the Not being Zaalima). I wasn’t convinced by Sunny Leone as Laila but that sequence is quite gripping.

 

I think they did a good job of harnessing Shah Rukh’s uncle dancing tendencies and enigmatic walking powers, and I am rarely averse to colour and movement. Overall Rahul Dholakia directs with good pace and attention to the emotional arcs, but he throws everything into his story and that is to the eventual detriment of the film. There are too many subplots unravelling towards the end and the energy fizzles out.

Raees has strong ethics in business and personal life. You can argue the toss about selling illegal booze, but he only sells quality gear not the adulterated hooch that killed people when he was a kid. The experiences in his youth have a clear influence on shaping the adult and I felt Raees was believable even if his fight skills were more suited to a Bond. The audience applauded his shenanigans – the chai glass and the press entourage got the loudest cheers – and they seemed to appreciate Raees as the guy who was doing one wrong thing but was otherwise a hero. He is the Angry Young Man who wants to give his family a secure future and help the people who have helped him. His lifelong friendship with Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) adds another layer of humanity, exposing some of Raees less heroic moments. Shah Rukh’s performance is solid but occasionally is too much like vintage Raj or Rahul, although Raees shows more intent than would usually accompany the up-close décolletage inspection. He’s charismatic, nerdy, and impulsive, but also calculating. One question though – Does SRK have an eyedrops sponsorship? First Dear Zindagi, now Raees…

Raees is an anti-hero who knows when he has committed a serious crime and it doesn’t always sit easily with him. I watched an old interview with actor Michael Caine and he was asked about how he could bring himself to play an evil character and make him seem so human. He said the man wasn’t a monster to himself, so he could play him with characteristics of both a decent guy and a cold blooded villain. I think that is what works with Shah Rukh’s portrayal. He looks at ease in Raees skin whether he is praying at his mother’s grave, being carried through the streets in triumph, or going on a brutally efficient killing spree. He shows unusual self-awareness for a filmi hero and a degree of struggle with the consequences of his path. People may see him as a god but he knows he isn’t.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is Majmudar, that most problematic of policeman – the one who wants to get his man.  His epic entrance at the best and tackiest party ever was a perfect set-up for what was to come. Majmudar has a fascination with Raees. He is determined to shut him down but he quite enjoys Raees spirit. I liked how Nawazuddin would smirk, showing a hint of exasperation and a gleam of genuine appreciation when Raees bested him. That and all the sarcastic one liners. Majmudar spent time tapping Raees’ calls, using the helpfully labelled Phone Tapping Centre from the Central Props Department, and seems almost wistful when he overhears a personal call. But then he is still cold and calculating in his pursuit. Raees was the opponent he needed in order to be that cop who never gives up even when the system is against him. Nawazuddin steals all the scenes as Majmudar permeates Raees’ life and he is a strong and unyielding presence that exasperates the pragmatic businessman. Raees and Majmudar treat each other with respect and as much honesty as is possible, and are the most morally articulate characters. They’re both smart, neither has to be a fool or do anything out of character just to move the plot along, and both actors are terrific in their scenes together.

Mahira Khan gives a good and largely understated performance as Aasiya, Raees’ wife. There is no sizzling chemistry but they show a comfortable joy in each other’s company that speaks to a longstanding relationship between neighbourhood sweethearts. In a scene when Raees came home covered in blood, Aasiya gives him a searching look. His reaction of self-disgust and culpability is what reassures her. She knows his line of business and she believes in her husband. Despite being in the domestic background, it is obvious that Aasiya is respected and liked in the community and she steps up in public when needed. True, she appears to have a baby without a pregnancy but frankly I’ve seen stranger things in Hindi films.

Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) rounds out the important people in Raees life and his performance is endearing and realistic. Friends since childhood, Sadiq is the only one apart from Aasiya that can see Raees as just a bloke. They keep some of their cute childhood mannerisms, retell old stories, and they look out for each other no matter what. Even when Raees flies off the handle, Sadiq is there to try and talk him down or remind him of what’s important. It mustn’t be easy to carve out your own space when SRK is going the full Rahul, but this friendship works.

The cat and mouse between Raees and Majmudar dominates, but there are some excellent character actors in support. Atul Kulkarni is charming and vile as the calculating Jairaj Seth who won’t easily let his former employee best him. Narendra Jha is Musa Bhai, the enigmatic Mumbai based don who helps Raees set up on his own.

Raees is at best morally ambiguous, and the ending may not be what you expect, but I enjoyed the film. Rahul Dholakia directs with a vintage masala flavour, but unfortunately messes up the formula so it gets a bit diluted towards the end. It’s an uneven ride but worth it for the excellence of Nawazuddin and SRK and the retro cops and robbers style.

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Dear Zindagi

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Gauri Shinde follows up English Vinglish with another heroine-centric film. The amazing Alia Bhatt is ably supported by a very fanciable Shah Rukh Khan, and I loved seeing some more realistic modern relationships in the story. But it’s a bit heavy-handed and there are a few things that left me vaguely dissatisfied.

This is Alia’s movie. She is Kaira, an up and coming cinematographer who lives alone in Mumbai, and pretty much does as she pleases. Kaira takes herself and her work very seriously, but she is fun in a bratty way. She has a closeknit group of friends – the smart one, the ditsy one, the chubby guy and the gay one. And that’s one of the issues. Her friends mean so much to her and yet we barely get to know them. Her relationship with her maid Alka is better developed. Kaira has issues with emotional intimacy and trust, and is destructive in her romantic relationships. That holding back may be why her friends are so shadowy, and there is a question about how much attention she really pays them. Her life is thrown into chaos when building management decide they will only let married couples and families live in the complex, and she is evicted for being single. She breaks up with nice but boring Sid (Angad Bedi), is jilted by not so nice but not boring Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), and lands up at her family home in Goa where she meets Rumi (Ali Zafar). She’s in a bad place emotionally and career-wise; stressed, cranky, and not sleeping, she is a ball of nervous energy. Alia delivers the rapid play of emotions with honesty and commitment to Kaira in all her messiness.

In a clunky filmi coincidence, Kaira happens to be shooting a promo video at a hotel hosting a mental health awareness event. Dr Jehangir “Jug” Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is the only speaker that makes sense to Kaira. He says that people are always prepared to talk about a physical ailment, but not their mental health, and surely the brain is just another part of the body.  She decides to go see him because she can’t sleep and no medicine has been able to help her. Jug does sometimes sound like an inspirational quote calendar (and I suspect Gauri Shinde watches too much Doctor Phil), but he gets through to Kaira largely by allowing her to discover her own answers. When Jug hears the opening he needs to set the next stage up he does it through conversation and prompting Kaira to articulate her feelings, not by telling her what to think. Shah Rukh gives the appearance of being present and spontaneous, and he and Alia have great chemistry. The inevitable transference scene was handled gracefully and was true to both Kaira and Jug’s characters. And who wouldn’t succumb to transference with Shah Rukh as their therapist?

I loved that the big name star didn’t show up until late in the first half and that he simply disappeared when his work was done, leaving to Kaira to continue on her way. It’s a gutsy move by Gauri Shinde and also by Shah Rukh to trust the story. Frankly I could watch Shah Rukh play kabaddi with the ocean for 2 ½ hours and would listen to him read the phone book (there’s an app idea for the insomniacs!) but I really do think he delivers a good and generous performance here.

It’s unusual to see a mainstream Indian film that doesn’t portray mothers as saints. When Kaira finally blows her top at the family and declares she is in therapy because of them, it’s the catalyst for some self-reflection for everyone. Except her little brother Kiddo (Rohit Saraf), a golden boy who has his own style of managing the parentals. It’s big, when you start to see your parents as human beings. She also struggles with her inner voice judging her for past dalliances. She calls herself a slut (some of the movie audience agreed, sadly) but Jug says as long as you understand yourself and know why you do what you do, then baseless judgement by others is irrelevant. How refreshing to have the nominal hero really not give a rats about who a young lady may have slept with, instead caring that she was able to articulate what she was looking for in a potential partner. And I like that Kaira does this without becoming sweet or saintly – she is still herself, just a bit more resilient and positive. So ladies, try those chairs out and make sure you get one that’s right for you!

I feel I should be able to say more about the support cast but they had little to do and even less material to work with. The romantic interests played by Angad Bedi, Kunal Kapoor and Ali Zafar are all OK-ish guys who Kaira liked for a time, but there is nothing to any of their characters. Her relationship with Rumi (Ali Zafar) is a little more interesting because she starts to ask for what she wants. Rohit Saraf looked and sounded perfect as Kaira’s little brother but he only got a couple of lines so I half wondered why the character was there. Ira Dubey and Yashaswini Dayama play the sensible friend and the ditsy friend, and Raj Bhansali is the gay friend who inadvertently plants the idea of seeing a therapist. They’re all good, but Gauri Shinde doesn’t develop their characters or give them scope to do it themselves.

I liked the visual design for Kaira and Jug’s worlds. Hers is full of colour and movement and herself while his is more restful and neutral, although both live in a state of work in progress. I felt that they actually inhabited these rooms and the spaces were shaped by the character, not just by the set dressers.

Amit Trivedi does what he always does. And seriously – stop with the banjoes. They do not make the music of love. I did laugh a lot at the cheesefest that is the title song. Alia got sent to take her inner Manic Pixie Dream Girl for a good run in the park, hugging trees, flying kites, marvelling at the ocean. The only things missing were a puppy and a mime.

Dear Zindagi is well worth seeing, but you may find your patience is tested…by the audience*! I loved Alia and Shah Rukh, and they rescue the film from some underdone writing and heavy handed message moments.

 

*A note on the audience. Judging by the fidgeting and volume of conversations it seems the desi boys of Melbourne were not so comfortable when they had to listen to a woman talking about herself, but were all rapt attention when it was Shah Rukh’s turn. A mate in London said some of the dialogues set off the homophobes in the crowd, and there was a little of that here too. A line about a character coming out was greeted with a bit of muttering and shushing while a tired old joke confusing Lebanese/Lesbian had most of the audience in stitches as they kind of missed the point of why that line was being trotted out. And a special shoutout to the lady who sat near me, texting for the whole film and then reading the messages to her husband.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

 

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You know what you’re going to get with a Karan Johar film and his latest film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil doesn’t contain any surprises. As usual the film is all about unbelievably wealthy characters who look fabulous, live in amazing houses and agonise over simple human relationships the way only the truly idle rich can afford to do. It’s fluff, but beautifully filmed fluff that makes for a reasonable time-pass if you can ignore the few serious flaws that prevent the film from being a total success.

The film follows the antics of Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) as he wastes his father’s money while studying an MBA in London and secretly dreaming of becoming a singer. One night he meets Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma) another rich kid who doesn’t even get a back story to explain her family wealth or her presence in London. Despite already having a girlfriend (Lisa Haydon), Ayan falls head over heels in love with Alizeh but unfortunately for Ayan, Alizeh is also already in a relationship (although unlike him she has no qualms about a quick one-night stand) and has no interest in anything other than friendship. Alizeh still has feeling for her ex – a DJ with a roving eye (Fawad Khan) and there is no room in her heart for anyone else.

It’s a wafer thin story and the theme of unrequited love is one that’s been told many times before, but that’s not the problem with the film. The biggest flaw here is Ranbir’s character Ayan who seems to be the worst possible reprise of almost every role Ranbir has played to date. Ayan is an overly emotional man-child with anger management issues who depends on his partner’s maturity and tolerance to solve all his problems for him. Like JJ in Rockstar, Ayan blames the object of his unrequited love for his issues and totally fails to see that only he can take responsibility for his own emotions. It’s hard to feel any empathy for such a self-centred character, particularly when he behaves like a five-year-old, bawling his eyes out when his girlfriend leaves him and pushing Alizeh around when she doesn’t fall into line. At least Alizeh pushes back, but this kind of violence without repercussions is just not acceptable and has no place in any film that purports to be a ‘romance’. Ranbir puts in a good performance, possibly no-one can pull off bratty man-child as well as he can, but his character here is too obnoxious for me and I seriously questioned Alizeh’s judgement when she decided that Ayan was her BFF.

My other big issue is the dreadful cliché used to resolve Ayan’s emotional immaturity at the end of the film. It’s such a let-down and a weak finale, especially when Ayan’s behaviour becomes even more appallingly self-centred and he is quite brutal in his treatment of Alizeh.  It’s disappointing as there are plenty of good points to the film too, but with the end such a let-down the overall feeling on leaving the cinema is one of dissatisfaction.

It’s not all bad though and the first half in particular has plenty to enjoy. Thankfully, apart from her poor friend choice, Anushka Sharma’s Alizeh is a more sympathetic character and appears charming and likeable, even in her loyalty to her philandering boyfriend. Her decision to marry DJ Ali despite her awareness of his indiscretions rings true to real life relationships, and the mistaken but frequent belief in marriage as a cure for infidelity. As if! Alas, Alizeh’s love for Ali seems much greater than Ali’s love for Alizeh and both Anushka Sharma and Fawad Khan are excellent in their portrayals of this mismatched couple in a seemingly doomed relationship.

What also works well is the friendship between Ayan and Alizeh, which sparkles off the screen in the first half. I love that they have a shared love of old cheesy Bollywood songs (after all, who doesn’t!) and that they re-enact them on the snowy slopes of Europe. As someone who has run around Golkonda in Hyderabad trailing a scarf and singing the songs from Magadheera, I have immediate rapport with anyone attempting the same thing, especially when they take the time to dress appropriately for the occasion! There are a few glimpses as flashbacks in the song below but this scene is definitely worth catching in the cinema and for me was totally worth the price of admission alone.

Anushka Sharma is the best thing about the film and her portrayal of Alizeh’s down to earth pragmatism and sheer common sense ensure she is the most relatable character on-screen. She looks great and gives Alizeh plenty of pep and personality to counteract frequently Ranbir’s snivelling Ayan. It’s not that Ranbir doesn’t put in a good performance – he does – but his character is nothing he hasn’t done before and in this instance his immaturity is particularly annoying when compared to the other characters in the film.

Also excellent is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who appears in the second half as a divorced poet Saba Khan. Saba begins a love affair with Ayan just as his heart is broken by Alizeh’s marriage and the two have an interesting relationship.  Ayan is as callous and immature as ever, but hs a genuine affection for Saba, while she is mature enough to revel in a love affair that has no expectations. Aishwarya is stunningly beautiful and gracefully elegant as she swans around her amazing apartment in Vienna, again with no indication of how a supposedly struggling poet could afford to live somewhere quite so spectacular and expensively furnished. Of course there is her ex-husband (Shah Rukh Khan in a brief cameo) who is supposedly a successful artist, and is still in love with his ex-wife so perhaps he is happy to fund her wealthy lifestyle. The relationship between Ayan and Saba is much better realised than that of Ayan and Alizeh, and here the contrast between Saba’s maturity and Ayan’s self-centred youth makes for a more plausible relationship. Even the way it ends is well written and perfectly acted by Ranbir and Aishwarya, something that makes the final scenes even more disappointing in comparison. After all if K-Jo could write this part of the story so well, why not have such a satisfying conclusion to the main relationship too?

I wanted to like As Dil Hai Mushkil more as there are some very funny moments and clever situations in the first half that work really well. The songs are good, the sets spectacular and all the actors perform well. But no matter how much I enjoyed the friendship between Ayan and Alizeh, or the relationship between Ayan and Saba, it’s all overshadowed by the clichéd ending and the general unpleasantness of Ayan’s character. Worth watching for Aishwarya and Anushka and the wonderful re-enactment in the snow but be prepared for the banality of the ending and seen-it-all-before sameness of  Ranbir’s character.