Udta Punjab (#16 of 52)

The thing about movies like Udta Punjab – which are trying to bring ‘social’ issues to the mainstream is that they mustn’t be preachy. Or take themselves seriously. Which I think Udta Punjab does really well. There’s a scene in the movie where the drug-addled rockstar Shahid Kapoor suddenly has a conscience flash and he starts telling his audience at a concert about why they shouldn’t get carried away by drugs. And the audience shuts him up, hooting him down causing him to lose it. I liked that touch, that’s exactly what’s likely to happen in real life and it showed an awareness of the films own subject matter and how it needs to be presented to be effective.

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So we go to Punjab, where the utopian land of prosperity and green fields has been replaced by something more sinister. The opening montage tells us about all the characters and there intentions. So there is the problem statement : a land beset by drugs. We will look at it from 3 distinct point of views : (a) Rockstar who sends the message (b) Cop who lets the system ferment for not knowing better (c) Unwilling labourer who get’s caught up in this murky world. Add (d) Innocent young addict brother (e) Corrupt cop who intentionally lets system ferment (f) Well meaning doctor working on reform – who’re also tossed into the mix. We know that somewhere these stories will meet, that parallels will be drawn. And it’s done quite well – give an outside an ELI5 version of the problems plaguing the state.

The Shahid Kapoor track was nice, a little too caricatured to ring true, but engaging and conveying the emotion. His sudden and extemely unrealistic transformation was probably the worst part of the movie though for me – 108 kms on bicycle is a little too much. The Alia Bhatt track, although short on too much background was the strongest – pulled up by the sheer strength of performance. The Kareena-Diljeet one was the weakest, bordering on farcical with playing detective in a manner that would make Nancy Drew roll her eyes. It’s the smaller scenes pieced within that leave you though – the one with Tommy in jail with the kids who’d killed their mother, the rant that Alia’s character finally let’s rip on Tommy, some of the scenes with Balli, the reactions of the cops etc.

Udta Punjab works because its entertains first. And therefore educates best.

★★★★

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Raman Raghav 2.0 (#17 of 52)

The one word which stands out above all for Raman Raghav 2.0 is slick. Right from the trailer, the opening credit montage, the pulp-fictiony titles on screen, the way the story is divided into chapters with cool names, the background score – the overall production values are absoultely top notch. And while that itself does not make a good film, it does add a certain joy to the experience of watching it. It made me very happy, and at an intellectually visceral level (excuse the oxymoron and understand the bhaavna :P) – proud as well that an Indian film could be this flawless.ramanraghav.JPG

Now, the story of Raman Raghav 2.0 has little if any suspense or mystery about it. (I liked that they took that minute to show why it’s 2.0, and build the connection – however tenuous upfront). It’s linear, it’s straightforward and as Anurag Kashyap’s told us himself on Facebook – explained down to the last T. We have Ramanna, whom we’ve known since the trailers is a psychopath – a murderer who’s unhinged and can go to any limits. But we’re also shown in the first 10 minutes itself how unhinged Raghav – the cop who’s on his case is as well. We know the lengths he can go to, to an extent the depravity he’s capable of. (Suprateek Chatterjee on HuffPost made an interesting point about how this couldn’t have been shown – and I’ve been thinking about that ever since). We therefore know once we find out that Raman is looking for his Raghav, who this Raghav is – the question is only about how he will get there. It is therefore not the greatest movie plot ever. It is however captured on-screen an extremely engaging manner in which this tale is told sucking you in and keeping you engaged for the 2 hours 20 minutes of its length. At various points of time I found myself holding my breath, flinching, leaning forward in my chair – an immersive cinema experience. And isn’t that what we go to the movies for?

The other issue which you seem to realise after stepping out of the theatre is that while the protagonist is certainly Ramanna, who is very well fleshed out – we know his quirks, his background, his philosophy (wonderfully explained in manner and matter I thought), we don’t quite know enough about Raghav. It may be a conscious call to not muddle the mind of the viewer, but as an aftertaste – it’s something you can’t quite put your finger on.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui has been there and done that with such characters before (Talaash comes to mind), but he still puts on an acting clinic in every scene he’s in. His mannerisms for walking, eating and talking, enunciation of certain words and matter-of-fact expressions are something worth revelling in – this is a unique performer at the top of his game. Vicky Kaushal, I had slightly mixed feelings about – but while he may not make you go wow, he never jars and is a worthy foil to the master in front of him – he certainly holds his own. Amruta Subhash is excellent at conveying the horror of a sister in a slightly disturbing role, as are some of the actors playing smaller roles too. I loved the girl (Sobhita Dhulipala, Google tells me) – there are many roles as a siren coming her way for sure – she looks stunning and in a limited role, plays her part. Eventually though this is the director’s film through and through.

★★★★

Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train (#11 of 26)

This was the potboiler that had been making waves for quite some time now and I’d consciously avoided picking it up after Gone Girl. Then I’d once dabbled with the possibility of listening to the audio-book version of it but Audible failed me then. With the impending movie hurtling towards and Amazon offering a nice discount, the bullet was finally bit.

First things first, the comparisons with Gone Girl are justified because of the basic theme – there is no escaping that. A missing girl, man-hunt, mixed up relationships, the police on the heels of the central protagonist – the similarities are quite stark and will have you deja-vu’ing in no time. So the good – the writing style is smooth, easy and hookable – it’s unputdownable without exaggeration.There’s genuine tension created, there’re some solid twists (although mildly predictable I felt) and a basic premise which is very relatable. After all who hasn’t sat in a train and wondered about the lives of the people we see? It’s voyeuristic and yet familiar.

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Where the two books differ is in character building and narrative styles. I thought one of the big successes of Gone Girl was how Gillian Flynn had us rooting for Amy in the first half, and then Nick in the second half. TGOTT didn’t quite do that for me – I couldn’t find any of the three point-of-view characters sympathetic, least of all Rachel who takes up most of the time and footage. And while it’s still a page-turner by all means, it’s one of those page turners where you’re rushing through to get over the ‘unknown’ instead of relishing in all its glory. It’s difficult to root for a character who’s constantly in a drunken stupor, constantly cribs and complains, does nothing reasonably sensible – in fact does things which are completely ridiculously stupid, shows no intent to buckle down and make things work, right up to the end.

My other peeve was the way information was revealed. Again, I hate to compare to Gone Girl but while we had unreliable and dishonest narrators, it seemed that was the way they were. The diary entries were misleading, but intentionally so – and while we didn’t know that till later, no one else did either. Likewise with a lot of Nick’s dirty laundry, it was gradually revealed to the reader as it was (or before it would be) to the rest of the world outside – or when the protagonist got to telling that part of the story. In TGOTT, I got the feeling the author was ‘cheating’ a bit. First with the dates – the whole part of Megan’s story running in a completely distinct timeline was the key to the whole book. And that’s not really fair, if you want to let in information like that – use a better plot device like the diary. Secondly, while it’s okay to not have a character be completely honest – to be selectively dishonest is even worst (I know it’s a thin line). So if Megan never mentions Tom, or there’s a throw away reference about how she doesn’t want to speak about Tom maybe – that’s OK. What’s unfair again is speaking about Tom, meeting him, knowing his relationship with his wife but then leaving out a big fat point of data – only because it would have taken the sting out of the story. And finally I kept feeling throughout that the drunken memory loss – even with the swerve – is a lazy crutch to tell a mystery story.

The masala Bollywood movie equivalent  – don’t overanalyse it, go with the flow and you’ll have a lot of fun.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names (#10 of 26)

Date of Purchase : 11th October 2014

Date of Completion : 4th June 2016

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I’d bought this sometime in late 2014 on one of those Amazon binges, probably paired with some other books happily ‘suggested’. I assume it was released around then. It then moved from bookshelf to cardboard box to bookshelf to bookshelf in the interim, for a reason I can’t really put my finger on (I also realise now that there were other books like this in that set!). I mean there are some books which you consciously don’t read, or give up somewhere through despite being impressed (*cough* Alain de Botton *cough*). With this book, I never even started…and I don’t have a clear reason for why I deferred either – maybe it was the excessively colourful cover? Anyways, some form of shame around the number of unread books you have lying about and yet buying more made me pick it up once again in this Summer of ’16 (FYI – Bryan Adams sung that song 47 years ago!!).

There were two reasons I can now recall having bought this though! One was I was coming of a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie marathon and was in love with her style and work, thirsting for something more – something beyond the UK and the US perhaps? And secondly, Zimbabwe. I’ve always maintained sport has taught me more geography than everything else put together and in no case was that more true with cricket and Zimbabwe. This is a country which is quite far removed from the mainstream, which could easily have become one of those southern African countries that we all confuse with each other. But as a cricket playing nation, it has a unique identity in Indian society – one that is mourned by every cricket fan thirsting for more opposition. And thanks to this anchor laid in my younger days (the 1996-97 SA-Zim-India tri-series remains an epochal event in my childhood memories), I’ve followed Zimbabwe in the news through all the upheavals, the political crises, the infighting and civil war, the hyper-inflation and much more. So there was always a curiosity to hear a voice from that part of the world that is not Liam Brickhill.

The book in itself is unconventionally written, seemingly on the surface about a kid’s world – yet hitting hard in places while seemingly maintaining an irreverence about the extremely prickly issues it speaks about. We’re transported to life in a shanty-town from the view of a young girl and her friends, and how a life which is agonizingly unfair and difficult for an outsider, is looked at by those for whom have to live it themselves, for those for which this is ‘normal’. It’s not a unique narrative style I’m sure, but an incredibly powerful one, one which allows the author to shock and cause us to count our blessings, without ever seeming like sermonising. The protagonist in the second half moves half-way around the world to the United States, to become part of that world of immigrants which then helps us look at the First World from the view of the Third World, and the pains of the immigrant’s journey. Again, not unique – but NoViolet Bulawayo’s style, her characters and her observations make it seem very fresh.

This is also one of those books where the moments stay with you longer than the story. Stealing the shoes of a girl who’s just hung herself, watching a white family being slammed out of their ivory towers, what people at the other side of an NGOs camera feel, what young kids and non-believers would be thinking in the middle of a religious fervour, the attempts at home (field?) abortion, the AIDS, the rape, the political murders, the killing of hope – these parts will haunt and stay for sure. The second half of the book is more reflective – the immigrant’s travails, the WTFness of #FirstWorldProblems and the transition for what once seemed your’s suddenly doesn’t remain so and how you become what you thought you weren’t. I loved this part, I’ve read a lot about the Indian and subcontinental immigrant experience thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri, Sandip Ray, Khaled Hosseini et al..but this – without the papers, the legal status and the complete inability to go home is obviously a different one. It all comes up in a magnificent chapter towards the end titled ‘And how they lived’ which should be worth the price of the book just in itself.

I note the major criticism of the book online is that it takes a checklist of Third-world/Africa issues and ticks them off one by one. Uhh, I think that’s absolutely kaka(!). Those checklists, those lists of horrors exist for a reason – the narrative of the book allows them all to fit in and it is not too difficult to imagine that the protagonist would have had cause to experience them.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★

PS : I was unable to make up my mind about what I felt about the language. I came about this on the author’s website which seemed so wonderfully apt 🙂

“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in
English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it”

Chinua Achebe

Waiting (#15 of 52)

Waiting had the cutest trailer which released over a month before the movie and piqued my interest. Watching this on the back of Nil Battey Sannata – was expecting something quite similar.

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The concept is indeed unique, relate-able and very very fresh. The word Waiting comes from ‘Waiting Room’ – Naseeruddin Shah & Kalki are the spouses of two patients stranded (?) in the waiting room of a posh Kochi hospital. And such waits are agonizing – often as in this case there is no timeline, nothing concrete to look forward to every day and a lot of agonizing moping around. The movie does show us this through the monotony of keeping vigil, the moments of solitude which you try to share, the stages of grief the loved ones of a patient are likely to go through.

Different people also react to these situations differently, and that is the premise of the core story within the movie. The director uses the first half an hour to contrast the two central characters – Old world, suave, zen-like Professor who lives his peaceful life of solitude in pleasant Kochi offering coffee (or Cochin as the movie keeps referring to it) who keeps his issues and problems to himself and asks ‘what’s the point of Twitter?’. Posh, loud, social-media savvy, expletive-dropping Tara from Mumbai with millions of axes to grind with the whole world. Both heavily loaded in cliches and stereotypes. And how while their inherent honesty to each other and the situation draws them together, how their world-view and philsophy to life eventually influences the decisions they make. Is the Professor only holding on because once he loses his wife, he will have to reinvent his life and give it a new meaning? Is Tara shying away from surgery for her husband because she is scared of being bound down by an invalid husband?

These are some very genuine and valid questions which come up in I am sure everyone’s minds. The problem is I think, the movie seems to conveniently avoid answering how the protagonists change their mind – either that, or in all humility – I did not get that part. The catharsis seems slightly forced over a night of bacchanalia (well, if that term applies to 2 individuals :P). The flashbacks while really sweet, only served the purpose of showing the fickleness of life and ended up feeling a tad too long.

So while it has it’s moments – Waiting does not really stick or stay as a whole. Those moments though do with some lovely dialogues (most of which are already in the trailer)  – Rajat Kapoor has an excellent role as a Doctor who doesn’t mind playing God for the greater good, Tara’s friend laying it on thick as the overbearing friend who causes us all to suffocate and the amiable colleague from SciTech. Unfortunately though – the two protagonists can never rise above their cliches. All in all a great concept for a short TV movie, but just not enough meat I felt for a full length feature film.

★★★