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.

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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.

Fan (2016)

Fan- Movie Poster

Aryan Khanna (Shah Rukh Khan) is the reigning King of Bollywood. Gaurav Chandna (Shah Rukh Khan) is 25 years younger and is known in his colony as Junior Aryan Khanna. The resemblance is demonstrated in one awesome, heartfelt, funny talent show turn. He is a superfan, rational in all areas of his life except where Aryan Khanna is concerned. Junior’s passion becomes as destructive as it was once supportive. Aryan says he owes his success to his fans, but he doesn’t want them in his life. Gaurav doesn’t see a distinction between the public persona and the man – he made Aryan Khanna a king, and he can unmake him. Do stars owe their fans anything more than being a star? And why do we care so much about professional liars and dresser-uppers?

Maneesh Sharma gets a great performance from Shah Rukh, a veteran of the twofer deal. Aryan is the big star who lives in in a marble and crystal bubble. All the trademark SRK mannerisms are there – the sarcasm, the dimples, the charm. He lives in Mannat, his wife is called Gauri, he has kids, he gets paid to dance at big society weddings, gets into fights with other stars, is always late, has bad art, owns props and costumes from SRK films. But is he reeeeally SRK? That’s one layer of the game Shah Rukh and Maneesh Sharma play with the audience in this most meta masala. Gaurav is a youthful puppy faced Aryan lookalike. His characterisation goes beyond the fancy visual effects and body doubles to look like a young version of himself. Gaurav has a jaunty walk and several of his hero’s mannerisms too, but just a little bit off beat or jerky looking so it’s close but not perfect. When Gaurav is “doing” Aryan, his expressions change and his voice lowers in pitch to heighten the resemblance.

There is of course a supporting cast, but this is so much about the herocentric world of star and fan that Shah Rukh is in almost every shot. I liked Shriya Pilgaonkar as Gaurav’s crush, Neha. She is a pretty girl next door type and has a good rapport with the nervous and jumpy Gaurav. Yogendra Tiku and Deepika Amin are excellent and very believable as loving parents with a blind spot to their son’s weirdness.

Manu Anand’s cinematography makes Fan look amazing. Bombay is the contrast of Aryan’s cool world with the grimy, seedy, well-worn and fabulous city, Delhi is the intimate and homely neighbourhood, and the Dubrovnik sequence has echoes of Bond. Gaurav has a great chase scene with the police in Mumbai where he leaps from window to window, hanging from canopies and AC units, eventually wrecking the tiffinwallahs delivery success rate by sending dhabbas flying.  But guts and adrenalin can only take him so far, he stills gets nabbed. When Aryan chases Gaurav through Dubrovnik, it is beautiful as well as a pumping action scene. And Aryan has 25 years of being an invincible hero under his belt.

Fan-Gaurav meets Aryan

There is a moment where had Aryan behaved differently, Gaurav would probably have gone home and calmed his farm. But Fan uses old SRK interviews to tell us that Aryan won’t step back from putting himself first, or he wouldn’t have been driven enough to make himself into a huge star. Aryan takes a swing at the press for missing the point and talking about his image when the real story was overlooked. Some confrontations with British police felt OTT to me in terms of the acting (is it just lame white extra acting?), but my experience arriving in London probably doesn’t compare to, say, SRK landing at an American airport. Sharma also blends in footage taken outside Mannat and from the recent Temptations Reloaded tour. So Aryan is shaped by incidents that echo Shah Rukh’s past. It’s a smart way to both add cred and amp up the meta to stir up more questions.

The visuals also convey both the inner worlds and the tension between Aryan and Gaurav. Gaurav’s room shows that Aryan occupies all the space in his life. When the crowds outside Mannat disperse, they leave detritus in their wake – thongs (I’m Australian, that is not as dirty as it sounds), paper, stuff – as the only sign they exist. When Gaurav waits outside to see Aryan on his birthday, the only thing he hears is his own voice. When the POV switches to Aryan, we get a wall of noise and a sea of faces. In one fight scene, the hate is palpable. Aryan really wants to hurt Gaurav, and Gaurav is too far gone to stop himself. As blows are traded their posture starts to mirror each other, almost as though one man was fighting himself.

It’s not perfect. The movie would have ended really quickly had any law enforcement agencies thought to look for fingerprints, DNA, reliable witnesses, or just done their job. But why use science when you can play cat and mouse with your characters and with the audience? Viewing companion The Mahesh Fan felt the second half got a bit unrealistic in the context of the rest of the film being underplayed by Bollywood standards. I didn’t mind the action scenes at all, as I thought it showed in a very filmi way what Aryan was – a movie hero. Of course he could handle a motorcycle chase, a rooftop fight, a long emotional speech, all without batting a stunning eyelash. That is what made him Aryan Khanna. (Sidenote – The Mahesh Fan was an extra in Chak De India and says SRK was given the nickname No-Show Shah Rukh because of his perpetual tardiness. We laughed a lot when Aryan rocked up hours late to an event.)

This is a smart film about the industry, about fan culture, and stardom. There is even a little thread about aging gracefully in the public eye (or not – maybe as one waxwork attests). There is temptation to read into every line and interrogate every symbol, but Fan is also a well-executed ripping yarn and entertainment. All the working bits of your brain can be happily occupied watching it. The Mahesh Fan’s verdict was it needed more songs, more dancing, and about twenty minutes less in run time. I can see her point, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I am so happy I love, and am a bit disturbed by, this film. Nice one No-Show!