Vince Flynn – American Assassin (#18 of 24)

My adventures with audio-books hit a bit of a road-block after the wonderful reading of The Martian I heard last time. (I’m not counting some Sherlock Holmes stories, wonderful as they were as a complete book.) So when a couple of long bus journey beckoned, I thought it was the perfect time to dive right into a right ol’ potboiler. I had an app with a limited library but The #1 New York Times bestseller for Vince Flynn and the solid ratings on GoodReads were good enough indicators that this should be a fun ride.

American Assassin was the title to be picked up because it was the first in the Mitch Rapp series, although not the first one published. I felt I might as well start properly at the beginning. Mitch Rapp is essentially James Bond + Jason Bourne + Ethan Hunt all rolled into one, and with a nicer more humble personality to boot. This we’re told without too much precursor. This is also annoying because there is zero grey to his character, making him a template, unrealistic superhero. He can do anything physically, is as courageous as could be, has a temperament which his bosses can’t sustain. He’s thoroughly unrelatable in other words.

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Dark events in his past – his girlfriend died in a hijacking – have left him thirsting for vengeance and he is enrolled (how? that we never know) in a secret program that the CIA runs. The first part of the book is about this training program and the war against a bad-ass Jack Nicholson like boss and how respect is grudgingly earned. Then they’re thrown on the field into a couple of missions, first in Berlin and then in Beirut. There’s a motley bunch of Russians, Syrians, Palestinians, Arabs – all different flavours from the cookie-cutter villain factory who need to be defeated (and they will be, whatever the odds). And I’m not even getting into the one-sided missions and the overdose of God Bless America.

American Assassin is not a terrible book – it just seems more cut out for a Hollywood movie or a young-adult literature genre. There’s some interesting parts about Beirut and if you’re particularly aware of the geo-political situation there in the 80’s and 90’s, you might be able to connect the dots, some nice details of intensive training routines and torture mechanisms – but it all grew stale for me pretty soon. I could never really get stuck in to the book, it’s solid if unspectacular. Perhaps a good first attempt for a young first-time writer. But for someone as experienced as Vince Flynn, it tells me that this is not an author after my own tastes.

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

RK Narayan – Under The Banyan Tree & Other Stories (#17 of 52)

My first memories of RK Narayan are unlike most Indians of my generation – not the TV series Malgudi Days set in the eponymous town of Malgudi, but a small set of stories called Swami and Friends which I must have read in primary school. And although I don’t remember the finer details, it was a book that has stayed stuck in memory, a young boy crazy about cricket as he grows up in a town middle-class India.

RK Narayan’s wonderful set of short stories – Under the Banyan Tree, is what I’d like to classify as comfort reading. Because it seems achingly relate-able, warmly inviting and enticing the reader into its world, minus the shame of a voyeur. It is set in a milieu of the 1950’s to 1980’s I assume, in small towns across South India – which is I’m sure a world away from the India which we inhabit today. And yet, it draws you in with the constants of everyday life, the way we think and interact with each other – those which may never change – which is why in the opening note Narayan speaks about the timelessness of short stories.41704z0bp8l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

The prose is simple yet elegant, the characters are often weird or flawed but definitely believable. Most of these stories are what they call ‘slice-of-life’ tales – there is often no head or tail, no moral at the end, no lesson to be learnt. It’s just a colourful and detailed picture into the life of people around you.

I read it over the period of a month – in cabs when stuck in traffic, in the nights before I dozed off, in crowded metro trains and never once did it seem to be a task to read it. I could pick up a story from anywhere and it would happily crackle to life, reinvigorating the dormant data-point from the recesses of my mind. I wished it could go on and on and I could return to it whenever I wanted something comfortable, which reminded me of home – like dal-chawal and ghar-ki-chai – this is ‘comfort literature’ at its very best.

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

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (#21 of 52)

Karan Johar movie’s are an event by themselves. So ADHM can not exist as just ‘ADHM’ – but it is Karan Johar’s ADHM which means that any views and opinions about the movie must be looked at objectively through that lens. In fact it’s impossible I’d say – especially with a movie embroiled in as much controversy as this – to not view it through that lens.

I’ve always had a soft corner for Karan Johar the person – maybe it’s the cooliyat and poshness which has a halo effect, but also I think there is a tendency to root for him because he always seems like a bit of an underdog (yes I am aware how full of irony that statement is) with his young age (once upon-a-time) and vibe of vulnerability, effeminate mannerisms, under-a-cloud sexuality, the number of pot-shots he’s subject to etc. So I quite enjoy Koffee with Karan, I don’t mind his columns on NDTV and think he’s quite brave about it and I therefore always seem to want to like his movies as well.

I was too young to be aware of the macro-environment around Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, but I think I liked it then because quite frankly it was cooler than any other Hindi movie I was then aware of. I recognized how silly Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham was, but I had fun I remember (my dad did not, this also I remember). I went out of my way to watch Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (see my review here from 2006) – and I don’t know whether I was being subconsciously defensive, but 18 year old me seemed to like it and I still think it was a mature effort. Student of The Year I was massively disappointed with (there was 0 surprise in the movie if you’d watched the trailers) – but I look at that as an anomaly in the KJo universe – it’s so different from most of his other movies. Long story short, I had expectations from ADHM. Not to be blown out of the park but that this should be an interesting take from a seemingly intelligent man at least.

After ADHM however, I’ve kinda lost faith in Karan Johar. Because this movie was quite frankly a ridiculous ego-trip, attempt at pretentious intelligentsia with enough wink,wink…nudge,nudge while catering to the masses at the same time. So the rest of this piece is going to read like a rant. You’ve been forewarned.

The beginning itself did not seem fresh – this was exactly how 2 States had been played back with Arjun Kapoor as a narrator. A shrink at least makes sense to go into memories, why you would do that for a magazine interview…but this is in the overall scheme of things – a minor quibble. Anushka and Ranbir meet while on a night out in town, a premise in itself I never understood. She kind of picked him up to make out with him, then decided this wasn’t fun. So normal people leave. Madam however invites the guy over to travel across town. Then she without rhyme or reason, calls his girlfriend a gold-digger (she may have been, but this had zero reason established), fights with her, then again calls Ranbir out for another double date and so on until they’re both single, and become best friends rather too quickly. Quick recap now: Hot-ex comes into the picture. A seemingly independent, strong, free-spirited girl who was giving gyaan about love crumbles in a minute against character. Heartbreak Hotel ensues. Spurned Ranbir finds a cougar Aishwarya (of course with a cool profession like a shayar, no one can be a banker or HR manager in a Karan Johar movie no?) to hang out with (read: sleep with). Seems to learn something, but actually learns nothing. Learns some lessons on one-sided love from cougars ex. Pursues Anushka again who is now married. Channels this grief to make music mean something (again borrowed from Rockstar). Becomes successful singer. Anushka leaves hot-ex in meanwhile. Reunites with Ranbir. Some more lessons on one-sided love. Exit scene.

Okay – so where does one start the litany of complaints which I left out mid-way? I am grateful I read an article the morning I watched the movie in which Yash Johar explained why all characters in his movies are rich: ‘So that the focus can be on emotions and not on the economies of everyday living’. So that’s Ranbir and anyways, he ‘wants to be’ a singer. But WTF is Anushka Sharma up to for the whole movie? Not once do we get an inkling of what she is doing or what she wants to do except for attend Bollywood dance classes in the middle of the day. Likewise the not-so-successful shayar in Vienna. The only guy with at least an interest in earning a living is the relatively bad guy (smoker, tattoos, grunge-profession like DJ – yep all stereotypes met).

On that note, why is this whole movie shot in random pretty European cities? Shoot anywhere you want – but at least build some connection of the city to the plot. London has nothing to do with Ranbir (Ayan) and Anushka (Alizeh) – they could have been rich brats in Delhi. Why in blue hell is an Urdu poet/shayar (what’s the difference?) in Vienna of all the places? If you wanted to force-fit Vienna into the story, at least make Aishwarya’s character (Saba) an Austrian temptress from whom the kid learns a few lessons.

But wait. What lessons? Again I totally missed the point or take-away of the whole Saba track. Was it just to tell Ayan that he’s still besotted with Alizeh? The only lesson about iktarfa pyaar that came in actually came from her husband. The whole breakdown, the epiphany, run to the hotel – what did it tell him? The way Ayan reacted after being turned down, was that not enough of an indicator for Alizeh to understand he’s never going to grow up? But at least we stuck to the whole no means no part here.

And what was the deal with Saba anyways – as they say in MBA lingo – WIIFM (What’s In It For Me)? Was she just looking for a boy-toy initially? Side note – why was Ayan singing Hindi songs with goras in the middle of Europe? And oh – the denouement (I overuse that word) with that convenient exit option – Cancer. Where could we have possibly have seen that before? And what exactly happened at the end? While I appreciate the fact that at least like KANK, there was no forced happy ending – was this a sad ending?

I personally think one-sided love is a wonderfully interesting topic to make a movie upon. The most underrated Indian gem around this is a 2011/12 movie Ek Mein aur Ek Tu which even though was a rom-com handles the issue with a bit more nuance than ADHM. This movie fails in my mind because of more than a few reasons. One the characters other than Ayan are ridiculously one-dimensional. It is just difficult to take any of them seriously when they behave, talk and react like most people would not. Especially both the key women. What are they smoking as a Firstpost article asked us? At least Ayan is a petulant kid who know’s he’s a petulant kid.  The other for me was the whole set-up – the whole London, Paris, Vienna sojourn, the aimless wandering which just kept gnawing at me even though I knew it should not be a big deal. The dialogues are stilted. Anushka whom I really like has over-acted. Aishwarya is weird at times. And Ranbir seems to have played this man-boy too many times in his career already.

There are pieces of the movie that work – the outbursts, the raw-ness of the emotion, the maturity of confessions, two wonderful songs in the second half and of course some killer one-liners. Also the fact that for a mainstream mein mainstream movie like this, there are risque choices – Ayan and Alizeh making out minutes after they meet, the refreshingly un-judgemental way in which Saba has been portrayed. But all of these are buried so deep under a labyrinth of ridiculousness that they’re a glass of water to a man in the desert. They’ll help you go a little further, but hardly going to help you recover to safely.

★★

MS Dhoni : The Untold Story (#19 of 52)

It was quite baffling as to why an active cricketer would indirectly produce a movie about himself, before his playing days are over. I have to be honest and admit I thought it was crass to say the least and of all the people – not something I’d have expected from MS Dhoni. This is after all a man who famously shuns the spotlight, who in his golden moments has more than once stepped aside and let the others take center-stage. So uncharacteristic to say the least. However this is India, we’re talking about cricket and MS Dhoni is a remarkably reticent man – so the ‘Untold Story’ is something you would look forward to, despite your raised eyebrows.

Neeraj Pandey is a director whom after the wonderful Special 26, expect to get the setting right. Which he does as we start off – Ranchi in the 1980’s is wonderfully nostalgic even if you didn’t stay there. And while parts of the growing-up story are a bit silly (suddenly the whole school turning up for an unknown batsman doing well?) there are parts which are great, will resonate with everyone – the hard-nosed coach, the dad who want’s you to study more, the friends who are the most important thing in the world. This then takes us to the most powerful stretch of the movie – the battle between what one believes the world owes you and what the world really owes you. The opportunity to play with Indian Railways, the frustration of a life doing something you don’t thing you’re meant to do, your peers moving ahead and the hard calls that need to be taken – the whole Kharagpur chapter is the high point of the movie.

But after that it goes down-hill, and how. It’s almost like Sushant Singh Rajput gets on the empty train before the interval – little knowing that the train in the movie is heading towards a train-wreck of epic proportions. There are two long romantic angles complete with their own songs, which totally suck any momentum out of the movie. And the Untold Story of the cricketing career is almost forgotten – no captaincy, no IPL, no number 1 in tests and anything which is remotely interesting. Instead we get the usual suspects – the a few early games with the family cheering him on (which was nice), 2007 WC exit (very bad, nothing behind the scenes), T20 WC win (see previous)  and straight to the 2011 WC final (1 dressing room dialogue with Kirsten) – with an exaggerated, one-sided and factually incorrect ‘drop 3 seniors’ part added to create just the requisite controversy.

Even this may have been alright considering creative liberties and time constraints of an already 3 hour movie had there been a semblance of an attempt to not make this a hagiography. Alas, that is not to be with any nuance possible furiously cut away to the backward-point boundary. In a profession like the one MS Dhoni is in, with the position that he has and how much it matters to the country he’s in – it is difficult to not be a polarising figure. But  even Dhoni’s most ardent fans and advocates would admit that he has his shades  of grey, parts to his personality  which may not make sense to the world outside but there are reasons to it. This is not even considered though as Demi-God Dhoni is as close to perfection as you may. He always remembers his friends however big a star he becomes, never drinks, even when frustrated is respectful to his parents, perfectly romantic without appearing stalkerish (drive down to Aurangabad suddenly?) any kind of girl and so on. A little bit of weakness, a touch of vice, some quirks and moments of introspection would have added some balance to this extra-saccharine dessert.

Sushant Singh Rajput is great – as someone said he’s got the fine line between imitating/mimicking and getting into the character perfect. Except for the parts where some cheap CGI has put his head on to the real deal – was that EA sports look necessary? This and factual inaccuracies like the Tendulkar poster going back a decade make the the direction tackier than I’d have expected from Neeraj Pandey.

The  other part which weirded me out was the willingness of someone to take major (not minor) creative liberties with his own life! Basic reading tells me that there’s a brother who is completely ignored, the first love story was before even an India debut was made, there was a family connection to  his current-wife (with the meeting in the hotel highly exaggerated), he’s not in touch with any of his friends from his old life (take this with a pinch of salt). And of course it’s his life, his story and there’s nothing technically wrong with changing it to make it more masaaledaar but it just seems a bit – uncomfortable.  Not to mention then get you thinking about the veracity of the rest. Anything for a buck then, even if you’re one of the richest sports-persons in the world.

★★