Tumhari Sulu

Suresh Triveni’s film is a lovely, warm, very funny, domestic story about an ordinary middle class housewife who has dreams that take her on an unconventional path. It’s generally a kind and well considered film although it goes off the rails a little towards the end.

Sulochana or Sulu (Vidya Balan) was never academic but she is energetic and curious. She is mocked by her stitched up sisters and father for her trail of hobbies and her relentless participation in school sports events like the lemon and spoon race. Her husband Ashok (Manav Kaul) is the lone voice of sanity at his eccentric workplace but he is soon displaced by a grasping grandson. He has a playful side which he sometimes uses at Sulu’s expense. But they have great rapport and laugh at the same dumb jokes, sing the same old songs. Even if they argue before sleeping they’ll wake up in each other’s arms.

Sulu wins a radio competition and goes to the station to collect. Her morning journey is intercut with a song including guys doing parkour. Her seamless navigation of obstacles is different but equally unique. She sees another competition but this time the winner will be an RJ. Nobody is very interested in helping her but she is politely insistent. The station staff seem equally appalled and enchanted by her unselfconscious repartee and lack of embarrassment at what they see as kitsch or suburban. They decide to let her audition, assisted by people’s poet Pankaj Rai Baaghi (Vijay Maurya). Sulu finds the cheesy lines and the breathy sexy delivery a bit too hilarious and she and RJ Albeli Anjali (RJ Malishka) lose it several times. But station boss Maria sees potential in Sulu. She goes home, full of spark and with a free pressure cooker to give her sister.

As luck has it, Maria decides to give Sulu the job as payback for Pankaj storming out in a hissy fit. Sulu gets the late night agony aunt/love song dedications gig after demonstrating how she would (sexily) berate her husband for his self-pity. Sulu does things her way – proudly wearing her sarees and speaking the way she feels comfortable. Pankaj tries to coach her but he is all cheesy insincerity while Sulu comes from the heart with genuine empathy, a wink, and a laugh.

It seems the greatest tragedy that can befall a man is having his wife get a better job than he has. Ashok is a little snakey about her new job but he wants to support Sulu. His job may be in doubt but his love for Sulu seems solid. But her family mock her, assuming it’s one of her wild ideas again, and Ashok isn’t sure she will make it or stick with it. While Ashok and Pranav get used to getting themselves up and out the door, Sulu’s sisters are adamant that she is on the slippery slope to who knows and she must give up her job. When they say that she’d come running to them if anything goes wrong she agrees saying they’re family after all.

I really loved the way Sulu articulated her feelings, and Vidya’s characterisation is lovely. I laughed with her, and sometimes at her which made me feel a little guilty about being a judgemental snob. The writing is so good and I would catch my own judgement being reflected back by other characters, raising questions about my reaction. And it’s funny, not preachy. Sulu has second thoughts, but Maria says never look down while you are climbing up. She seems to be where she is meant to be and pretty soon everyone is dancing madly to Hawa Hawaii.

The changing dynamic between Sulu and Ashok plays out through domestic responsibility and commitments. He is under pressure at work and transfers that pressure on to Sulu but she is more determined and happier in her work. When she tells him it is OK to quit – as he wants to – and once she gets a pay increase they can set up their own business 50/50 – as he had offered her before – he cracks the sads. He is trying but not coping with the change in breadwinner status. And Sulu is so happy despite knowing that she is not able to be as hands on a mum and housewife as she had been before. Ayushmann Khurrana makes a fun special appearance as himself, highlighting how her world has expanded beyond her own household. Manav Kaul and Vidya Balan are utterly delightful. Their conversations, whether flirty of fiery have a ring of truth and it’s easy to believe they’re an established couple. I had some frustrations with Ashok’s inability to support Sulu when her family went on the attack, but he is an introvert and the pacifist in the marriage so it wasn’t unexpected.

Unfortunately for reasons I cannot fathom, Triveni comes unstuck towards the end of the movie. It’s a pity because the songs, which could have been an unwelcome interruption, are used to perfection. The music is just okay but the lyrics and visuals amplify and extend the drama. He manufactures an incident involving Pranav that tips everyone into overacting crisis mode. As a result Sulu realises she can’t have it all if she has to do it all and be responsible for it all, all by herself. And that is all fair and reasonable and many women come to the same realisation. But in place of the beautifully organic story and character development, things end with another wave of the Happily Ever After wand.

I loved the story, except for the wobble at the end. This is a film that takes you right into the characters world, and the performances bring it to life. 4 stars!

Advertisements

Te3n

te3n-poster

Ribhu Dasgupta’s Te3n is an official fully credited remake of South Korean thriller, Montage (2013, dir Jeong Geun Seop). I’ve seen the original so I was more interested in the how than the who or the what. Te3n is a solid remake of a decent film, so I still enjoyed it despite a couple of changes that I don’t think were at all necessary from a film or narrative perspective.

John Biswas (Amitabh) is an old man haunted by the death of his granddaughter Angela. She was killed in a botched kidnapping 8 years go, and the perpetrator was never caught. He spends his days haunting the police station and has nothing else in his life to sustain him. His wife Nancy (Padmavati Rao) is wheelchair bound and never leaves the house. John seems forgetful and vague, giving no energy to his present day and dwelling on the past. But when another child is kidnapped in exactly the same way, he believes he can catch the criminal and get justice (and revenge) for Angela. Sarita (Vidya Balan) has inherited the Biswas case file, and is leading the investigation into the latest crime. Sarita is smart but unimaginative when it comes to solving a complex problem. She will follow the leads and interpret the evidence in a logical and common sense way, not questioning whether she is being lead down the garden path. Martin Das (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) was the original investigator but he left the police force to become a Christian priest. He feels the guilt of his previous failure and the damage done to the Biswas family, and can’t keep away from the new case when Sarita starts her investigation. Although he used to do a fair job of evading John who only wanted to talk about the old crime. Martin’s zeal is less about John or Angela and more about his own personal guilt and need to atone.

It is almost a shot for shot remake of the original despite the new location, so I can’t really say much about Dasgupta’s directorial style. There were changes made in terms of which character did what. (In Montage, the mother of the first little girl is the one who purses the investigation and the police characters are a little different.) I feel that needed some more solid rewriting which didn’t quite happen. And because the film elevates Amitabh above all else, it ultimately buckles a little under the weight of a Star in what is otherwise a solid thriller.

Amitabh shows the best understanding of his character and the genre. I really liked his performance, and thought he built up the layers in John’s character well. There are scenes where he just becomes an old man, bewildered and a little out of step. As he steps up his own investigation, he sharpens up and seems to come into focus more. Because I knew that the original was slightly different, I was looking closely at the changed characters to see if the alterations were for the better. They really added nothing, except maybe funding, as I suppose it is still easier to get money for your movie if the Big B is your star than if Vidya is. But it also made me ask if women are overlooked in society the same way old people are. Maybe since they were both invisible to the people that mattered it actually did make sense.

I never fully understood why Martin had taken vows or why Sarita was a bit flirty with him, but I didn’t feel I needed to know all the details to appreciate the present circumstances. It felt like they split the original ex detective character a little between Martin and Sarita, and added some more emotional baggage for the sake of it. Both Vidya and Nawazuddin have garnered huge audience and critical support for their undeniable talents, but the material here lets them down a little. Their characters were sketchy despite their best efforts to add nuance and a sense of connection.

The story translated well to Kolkata. Pardon my saying so, but the Indian police and legal systems are not exactly a byword for judicial excellence so the scenes where things went wrong seemed almost inevitable. The bureaucracy and sheer time spent in nothing much happening also seemed quite realistic. Sarita was surrounded by mountains of old files and new ones, everything showing that the Biswas case was just one of many. The streets and old houses added to the mood with hints of things happening under the surface, out of sight. Despite the huge city setting, the characters all live their lives in quiet little pockets of their own making. The neighbourhoods and houses are lived in and have a sense of history and context that we are just glimpsing as we skim past.

The use of sound was excellent except for when a song like Grahan was forced into the mix. I did like the recurring use of Kyun Re during montages of uncertainty. I don’t know that the Amitabh version was needed as it was subtle as a sledgehammer, but it suited the moment. The ambient sounds and silences were far more powerful than the pretty generic musical stylings.

The investigations – John’s and the official one – are both quite logical and it all makes sense. Korean and Indian movies often share a sense of outrage at the lack of justice for victims of crime, and then go looking for that reparation outside of the system.

See this for a fairly restrained big budget take on an indie film subject, and for the well structured plot. It’s not the usual high level histrionics and it does showcase late career Big B in a role that lets him comfortably play to his strengths.

The Dirty Picture

Even without knowing the now denied Silk Smitha association The Dirty Picture is a road well travelled. A young girl runs away to become a star and fame changes her life, not always for the better. Vidya Balan delivers a sensational performance in every meaning of the word. I can’t imagine any other current day actress in the role. She gives Silk a robust earthiness that is a delight to watch and her performance rescues the film from the danger of being a mere ode to sleaze.

Vidya doesn’t rely on just hip thrusting and heaving her ample chest. Despite being lightly sketched as a character, Silk grows and changes and the subtle nuances that illustrate this are all in the acting. Silk starts off Reshma, a quick witted attention seeker who doesn’t care how she gets noticed as long as she gets into the movies. She is outrageous in a ridiculous attempt at being sexy, using lewd tongue gestures and whip fondling to show she is a very bad girl. Her performances in the films within the film become more realistic and practiced as her off screen relationships develop. Silk becomes a real vamp as she delivers what men want but does it in her own style, on and off screen. Through it all, she rarely loses her joyous smile and the wicked sparkle in her eyes. She keeps her cheerfully smutty humour intact, simulating an orgasm and then winking at the director as they joke like schoolboys about who she was imagining. When her story takes the inevitable turn for the tragic, Vidya has a maturity and subtlety that makes the resolution genuinely moving. She shows Silk’s heartbreak, anger and her resignation.

So I have to mention Vidya’s boobs. Yes, they are front and centre for a lot of her screen time. When Silk is performing a dance or scene, putting herself on display, the camera crawls over her body in a voyeuristic way. But if Silk is at home or not on show, the focus is usually more on her face or a full body shot. I was pleased to see that distinction from the unadulterated sleaze of the films Silk was making. She has no false modesty about why men look at her, and she happily uses her body to make an impression.  Silk doesn’t just fall into bed with anyone, but she doesn’t see any reason not to when she is interested. Vidya has the ample curves of a 70s item bombshell and exudes confidence. She also shows the physical changes of a woman aging and paying the price for some riotous living, and that helps make Silk more sympathetic.

Naseruddin Shah is ‘Smashing’ Surya, a parody of aging 1970s Tamil film heroes. He is a narcissist and sleazebag, wanting this fresh piece of meat but turning on her when Silk’s notoriety starts to eclipse his fame. His performance is very good but he has played this kind of aging womaniser so often that I felt it was a bit stale, silly cowboy hats notwithstanding.

Emraan Hashmi is director Abraham. He narrates a lot of the film in a voiceover that sounds bored and it was unsubtitled at times which annoyed me. Abraham represents the arty side of film making and professes to hate Silk. His character is so vague that his motivations are muddled or not evident. When he and Silk eventually bury the hatchet, he does seem more relatable but I don’t think Emraan added anything to the film.

Tusshar Kapoor is also in a thankless role as Surya’s spineless skivvy-wearing younger brother Ramakant. He completes a love triangle but again a weakly written character and a so-so performance left the element of tension lacking. Tusshar did have a fun scene when he cut loose and danced to Silk’s signature song but that was about it for him.

These men represent different attitudes to Silk – the predatory, the judgemental and the romantic. She is the subject of desire, hatred and gossip but is blissfully unaware for ages as she only looks at pictures of herself and never reads the scathing articles. Silk is a huge fan of Silk. When Surya says she has no place in a home only in someone’s bed, that is how she is seen by ‘society’. It is only when Silk’s relationship with Surya ends that she starts to think about the implications of being notorious. That breakup is the catalyst for a downward spiral into drinking and wild behaviour as her career falters. She is surrounded by men who want her, but none who really like her. That’s what made me sad.

The story is the traditional rags to riches, and the exploitation of a woman providing an embodiment of sexual fantasy is not really surprising either. There are some really interesting bits as the movie industry is critiqued, and the script has some funny one-liners. Even though Rajat Arora has some zingers in the dialogue, the main characters lack depth and the way the story is told is quite stilted. There isn’t quite enough tension between the three men and Silk, although the brothers have some good scenes as Ramakant is forced to bow to his older superstar sibling. I’ve mentioned the voiceover by Abraham and director Milan Luthria uses other narrative devices that made me feel distanced. Nayla, a gossip columnist, often appears to make prophetic statements about Silk but rarely interacts with the scandalous actress. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it really doesn’t fit to have this Greek chorus of one pop up and comment. I really liked Anju Mahendru in the role of Nayla. She made the gossip queen a strong and vivid presence, a woman who had seen it all before and only cared as much as it contributed to her next headline.  Maybe it is a characterisation drawn from her experiences?

The retro style music by Vishal-Shekhar is lots of fun as it is mostly used for Silk’s item numbers.  I don’t think there are any future classics in the soundtrack but I loved seeing the cheesy picturisation to the Bappi Lahiri and Shreya Ghoshal duet on Ooh La La. Ishq Sufiana is quite lovely but I don’t think it was necessary to have the 80s style picturisation complete with Emraan in a see through shirt. It felt like an afterthought. Nakka Mukka is used as a recurring theme for Silk, and it encapsulates her energy and physicality. The art direction is great, and the costumes are straight out of films from the 70s and 80s. There are lots of references to famous dances or scenes, and I had a great time trying to place the original. Alas, there was no Chiranjeevi-esque dashing lycra clad hero for this Silk.

When I heard about this film and that Vidya had been cast I did wonder about the dancing as I’ve never found her to be terribly good. That question is neatly dealt with when an assistant director criticises her for missing a beat and his producer says ‘Never mind the beat, look at that heat’.

Silk said it best – Audiences want three things; entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. And Vidya as Silk is entertainment.