AK vs AK (2020)

The premise of Vikramaditya Motwane’s latest film AK vs AK is immediately intriguing; a film director (Anurag Kashyap) kidnaps the daughter of a film star (Anil Kapoor) and then records the ensuing frantic search against the clock as a thrilling hostage drama. While I had a concern that the film would try too hard to be ‘clever’ and ‘edgy’, and not being a huge fan of Anurag Kashyap, I didn’t jump onto to Netflix straight away. But the story and the trailer were enough to pique my interest.  What I wasn’t expecting was just how funny the film turned out to be, or that it would be quite so entertaining – although it does occasionally almost fall into the trap of trying to be just a little too self-aware. The two AK’s play extreme caricatures of themselves (or at least of their public personas), and the film is peppered with references to their real (and reel) lives in a modern take on a meta film that retains a distinctive Bollywood flavour.

The film starts by introducing Yogita (Yogita Bihani) as a film school student who is recording Anurag for a school project. She follows him with a camera when he is interviewed, along with Anil Kapoor, by Sucharita Tyagi in front of a live audience. Anil is talking about his glory days in numerous hit films while Anurag adds digs about Anil’s recent lack of success. The sniping continues until an audience member asks which is more important, the actor or the director and in the ensuing argument, Anurag throws a glass of water over Anil. It’s brilliantly funny and the various references by each to their respective careers sets the rivalry between the two up beautifully.

As the media splash pictures of the contretemps across the front pages, Anurag is beset by problems, with actors withdrawing from his upcoming film (Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a voice cameo) and backers pulling out. But just when the situation seems dire, Yogita comes up with a plan. Next, Anurag goes onto the set of Anil’s latest film where the actor is finishing early to go home and celebrate his birthday. After forcing his way in to speak to Anil, Anurag manages to convince the star that he has kidnaped his daughter Sonam Kapoor, and that Anil has until sunrise to find her. There are just 3 rules: no police, no outsiders and the camera has to remain on. The hunt is on, and as Anil becomes ever more frantic in his attempts to find his daughter, Yogita keeps the camera keeps rolling while Anurag keeps fanning the flames.

It definitely helps to have some idea about the two AK’s and to know something about their respective careers, families and the stories about each. At times the insults cut very close to the bone, but the film plays on this, aiming for the biggest shocks and the nastiest rumours. There are some brilliant moments; such as a scene in a police station where Anurag convinces everyone that Anil is just acting and an extended chase sequence where Yogita is struggling to keep up and the bouncing camera adds to the improvised feel of the film. But at the same time there are some scenes that drag on a little too long and Anurag’s overacting starts to become a tad annoying.

What I really loved in the film was Anil Kapoor and his ability to act, overact and be completely convincing as he changed from frantic father to consummate performer at the drop of a hat. The perils of stardom are shown everywhere as Anil is pressed into posing for selfies by almost every person he meets. Throughout it all there is no question at all that Anil Kapoor is a star. Even when he’s running through the streets, dashing along platforms and accosting taxi drivers, he is never put out by the attention he receives or the demands for selfies. He just smiles, poses and then resumes his search. That struck me as perhaps being the most true-to-life part of the entire film – this endless affirmation of stardom that becomes so all pervasive that it’s not even noticeable any more.

As part of the chase, Anil ends up at a Christmas party where the revellers won’t help him until he performs for them in a brilliant ad hoc dance performance. What makes it even better is Anurag clapping and cheering at the very edge of the crowd. Despite all his digs about Anil’s slide into obscurity, he seems happy to be watching the crowd’s reaction to their hero, or, is he just enjoying the delay to Anil’s hunt for his daughter? The manic look on Anurag’s face tends to suggest it’s much more likely to be the latter. There is ambiguity everywhere, a few unexpected twists and plenty of self-aware backslapping which somehow all works better than it should.

I enjoyed this film much more than I expected. The opening scenes are fantastic and create expectation for a perhaps more nuanced film, but once Sonam is kidnapped and the chase is on, we’re back into more familiar action territory. There is a lull in the middle before the film picks up again, but overall this is in turns funny, shocking, surprising but mostly just entertaining. Be warned though – there is a lot of swearing in this film. It was fun to see Anurag’s DVD library which I remember him talking about at a Q and A session here in Melbourne, and great to see such big Bollywood names such as Boney Kapoor taking part in the action. Other things to look out for are the preponderance of shots featuring images of the actors in mirrors and the glimpses of Jogita and her camera that can be seen reflected in windows, Anurag’s tablet and the car windows. All very meta.

So if you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, that’s still very much entrenched in the world of Bollywood, find AK vs AK online, sit back and enjoy the mayhem. 3 ½ stars.

Lootera

Lootera-poster

Lootera is a restrained and melancholy romance, a love story between two flawed adults set against turbulent times. Based on O Henry’s story ‘The Last Leaf’ it is a quiet and introspective film for the most part, with few false steps by writer/director Vikramaditya Motwane.

It’s the 1950s. A rich Zamindar and his consumptive daughter Pakhi live in their ancestral village and seem oblivious to the impending change to their legal status. Varun, an archaeologist, arrives to help excavate a site near the family temple. Love blooms between the daughter and outsider, and their wedding is arranged. But Varun is not what he seems, and betrayal and ruin intervene. Summer turns to winter and Pakhi’s life is torn apart. Time passes before she and Varun cross paths again and Pakhi wants some kind of justice, some reparation for all she has lost.

 

Prior to this I had only seen Sonakshi Sinha in Dabangg and an appearance in OMG Oh My God so I hadn’t seen a lot of her acting skills put to the test. She is exceptional as the indulged rich girl Pakhi. Her romance with Varun (Ranveer Singh) develops immediately but slowly as Pakhi finds ways for them to spend time together. There is very little dialogue and Sonakshi builds Pakhi’s character through her expressions and deportment. In one scene Varun is driving Pakhi home and in the space of seconds Sonaskhi’s sparkling eyes and smile conveys flirtatiousness, amusement at his reaction and quiet joy at her own happiness. Pakhi never hesitated to lie to get what she wanted, but she was not a truly bad person, just a girl whose father indulged her every whim. In the first half of the film Pakhi wears rich colours and pretty light cotton sarees with delicate decorations. She dreams of being a writer and can only see a future in which she is happy and fulfilled.

Lootera-winter

Once things take a turn for the worse, she moves to Dalhousie. The cold bright mountain exteriors and the dim interiors frame her in darkness as do the dark maroons and blacks that she wears. Sonakshi seems weighed down and heavier in her tread, her eyes and her speech. Death is looming and Pakhi does nothing to prolong her own life. She can’t write, she can’t move past the loss of her father and home. She is just waiting.

 

Ranveer Singh is Varun. He is not exactly what he seems and nor is his friend Deb (Vikrant Massey). They are thieves and the Zamindar is their latest target. Based on his previous roles, I didn’t expect such restraint and internalised emotion from Ranveer. Varun comes across as someone who knows what he wants but is overwhelmed by fear and obligation. He tries to break things off with Pakhi in an effort to not make the eventual betrayal any worse but really, the damage had been done. He is a very modern creature and lives in a dog eat dog world, his sharp edges a contrast to Pakhi’s romantic softness. Varun is always wary, and Ranveer shows the struggle between heart and logic, and the ever present tension of being ready for things to go pear shaped. Varun’s character doesn’t transform as Pakhi’s does, but he reveals more of his true self over time. There is a definite sense that Varun could be a decent enough guy in all but his means of earning, but his ingrained drive for self-preservation would override any finer feelings.

 

Ranveer and Sonakshi have great chemistry together. Their characters are sometimes confused, sometimes unpleasant but mostly just relatable in their uncertainty and hopes. The initial relationship between Pakhi and Varun is flirty but heartfelt and both actors show the deepening of feelings through small gestures and their gaze. When they met again I could believe Pakhi’s conflicted feelings towards Varun as she was also coming to terms with her own mortality. Varun saw a chance to do something right finally. It wouldn’t change how he had betrayed her before, but he could fight to let his better nature prevail this once. It’s an intense relationship, passionate and at times fuelled by anger as well as love. Sonakshi looked perfect as a beauty from the 50s and Ranveer was a modern wide boy, each visually representing the changing tide of society.

The story is dominated by Pakhi and Varun although there is a small and effective support cast. Shirin Guha and Arif Zakaria are very good in the summery first half. The charismatic Adil Hussain and ever reliable Divya Dutta make strong appearances in the dramatic conclusion.

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I saw this with a friend who hadn’t read the O Henry story and she asked if there was a clear link,  and there is albeit only a small part of the narrative. It is when the film is closest to the story that I think it shows weaknesses. A clumsy conversation along the lines of ‘Can you paint leaves?’ ‘Why yes I can’ occurs early on. There is a needless scene of Ranveer dangling from a tree branch after nearly falling that was surely only there to show him off as a ‘movie hero’. It was a momentary lapse from the beautifully internalised character based tone that made Lootera so engaging.

I’ve never been a big fan of Amit Trivedi and his emo guitar tweedling. The soundtrack works best in the first half where the music reflects a more optimistic and celebratory mood (e.g. Sawar Loon). Once things got more dramatic I found the songs a little intrusive and unnecessary.

The camera work (under Mahendra J Shetty) and set design is very beautiful yet not ostentatiously so. I rarely felt distracted from the central action yet the locations and scenery gave a richness and depth to the sense of place. I did find myself admiring the architecture and layout of Dalhousie in one pivotal scene but I can only watch a chase scene for so long before my attention wanders!

Lootera requires patience as the story is shown rather than told. There is minimal dialogue so there is nowhere for the actors to hide, and they deliver beautiful characterisations. That is not to say the characters are inarticulate – there are some excellent dialogue driven scenes. Motwane’s intelligent direction gives his actors the time and space they need to breathe life into the story. I thought his much lauded Udaan was a very average film that garnered praise more for the subject than the execution so I was hesitant about Lootera. But it is a beauty. Highly recommended, especially if you’ve been feeling the dearth of interesting adult lead characters in Hindi films and want a more layered and complex set of relationships.

Udaan

Udaan was the first Indian film in seven years to be selected for the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section at the Cannes Film Festival, and also won the Best Audience Award and Best Music Score at the Giffoni Film Festival. Sadly the film didn’t have a cinematic release in Australia, which is unfortunate as I think it is the best Hindi film I have seen so far this year. Overall Udaan is a simple story brilliantly told with some fantastic performances by the young and inexperienced leads.

Rohan is a seventeen year old who has been at boarding school in Shimla for 8 years. In that time he has not been home, nor has his father or any of his family visited him. His friends are his surrogate family and they follow the ‘all for one and one for all’ motto. Their various escapades, including a late night trip out to see am adult movie, result in their expulsion from the school and Rohan has to finally return home to Jamshedpur. His father barely acknowledges his arrival at the train station, not speaking a word, and leaves Rohan to drag his trunk across the platform and up the stairs into their flat  by himself. 

Once home, Rohan finds that while he was at school his father had married again and he has a six-year-old step-brother Arjun. The relationship between them is off to a bad start as neither knows of the others existence, and as the bigger and older brother, Rohan totally pushes Arjun aside. 

Rohan’s relationship with his father, never a happy one, deteriorates further as Bhairav Singh decrees that Rohan will work in his factory in the morning and attend engineering college in the afternoon.  Rohan wants to be a writer, and throughout the film we hear his poems and stories. When he is looking after his step-brother in hospital, everyone crowds around to hear his stories, so we believe that he really would be able to make it as a writer despite his young age.  Engineering however is not his calling and he struggles continually. He tries to be the son his father wanted and perseveres with his studies, but he is only seventeen and the lure of his writing is too strong to be ignored.  He skips school to sit in the fields and write, so inevitably fails his courses.  

His father is an authoritarian bully, an alcoholic, and is determined that his son will follow in his footsteps and take over the foundry.  He is continually disappointed by Rohan’s seeming failures and physically and verbally abuses him.  He also forces Rohan to run and train with him daily, trying to mould him into the man he wants him to become.  His treatment of his younger son is equally appalling and results in the two step-brothers finding some common ground. Bhairav has a younger brother, Jimmy who has a happy but childless marriage, and he becomes an ally for Rohan in his attempts to get his father to accept his writing.  But Jimmy has issues of his own with his brother and cannot stand up to him when it comes to the two boys.  Rohan rebels by stealing his father’s car and heading off to the bars in Jamshedpur where he goes drinking with some new friends. Rohan has to decide if he will stay, become an engineer and end up like his father, or leave to try to realise his ambition.  As his step-brothers fate also seems to lie in his hands, this is not an easy decision to make.

For me, the film works so well because Rohan’s dilemma is very realistically portrayed.  Like most of us, he wants his father to approve of him and he tries very hard to win this approval.  He can remember how much his mother loved him, and is desperate for some feeling from his father. Rohan’s rebellions seem very typical of a teenager, and his reaction to his step-brother rings true.  The issues of alcoholism and abuse are dealt with in a very matter of fact way.  There is no attempt by director Vikramaditya Motwane to either sensationalise or underplay the brutality and cruelty in the relationships between Rohan, Arjun and their father. The harsh reality of the story is allowed to speak for itself and it is to the director’s credit that the film is such a moving and poignant story.  

The performances by Rajat Barmecha as Rohan and Aayan Boradia as Arjun are extraordinary.  Both are flawless in their roles and we really feel the developing relationship between them.  For such young and inexperienced actors they have given truly excellent performances. The experienced actors also can be credited with some very good acting. Ronit Roy is fantastic as Rohan’s father, Bhairav Singh.  He keeps his expressions grim when dealing with his sons and while at work, but is animated, smiling and laughing with his friends. His alcoholism is always hidden from the rest of the world and he keeps his treatment of his sons an equally well guarded secret. Ronit Roy manages to convey so much of his character through these basic themes and with minimal changes in his expressions. Ram Kapoor also does a great job with his role as Jimmy.  He manages to make his character affable and ineffectual with some nicely underplayed acting.

The film has plenty of symbolism, which gives it a very European feel. The school as Shimla is set in the forest, and the transition on the train to the industrial sights of Jamshedpur makes a sharp contrast.  Shots of Rohan’s father are often framed by the barbed wire fence surrounding their home, and his scenes are often dark and heavy in feeling.  My favourite of these moments is probably Rohan’s T-shirt which states Love Happiness, but when he sits down it folds to read Lose Happiness. An excellent find by the wardrobe department!  The music by Amit Trevedi won an award at the Giffoni Film Festival and is beautiful and haunting.  Although often part of the background, a number of the songs also serve to move the film forward and are very well placed to do this. The last song is just perfect and a lovely memorable end to the film. 

There is nothing to find fault with in Udaan.  The screenplay by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap is excellent, and the dialogue, going by my basic Hindi and the subtitles, seems appropriate for the story.  A sad film, but one which touches the heart and I totally loved it. 5 stars.  Heather