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.

★★

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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.

★★

Happy Bhaag Jayegi (#18 of 52)

Happy Bhaag Jayegi is a clean feel-good comic movie. That in itself shouldn’t be a big deal but it is. I can’t recall the last proper Bollywood funny-movie (not indie) which did not have

  • Rohit Shetty type stunts and general over-the-topness
  • Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgan’s by-now old routines or cast with Aftab’s, Ritesh Deshmukh’s, Shreyas Talpade and co.
  • A group of scantily clad bimbettes on the poster with not much of a role
  • Making fun of dumb/deaf/injured people, or those with accents or cuckolded husbands doing a slapstick routine (I’m looking at you Tanu Weds Manu 2)
  • General innuendo-ish or toilet humour

Basically something beyond the Golmaal or Housefull stereotypes.

I realise I sound like the ultimate urban Indian snob while writing all this – but if you’ve watched Happy Bhaag Jayegi you’ll realise that isn’t the case. Again, as with Madari – it’s not a great movie. But it’s a very very refreshing movie in this genre in Bollywood.

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The plot is simple enough. The girl Happy wants to run away from a marriage she’s forced into. She ends up in Pakistan. Her true love, her forced love and her dad want to rescue her. The Pakistani family she’s landed up in wants to send her back without too much of a fuss. Cue standard confusion routines which you can probably see some distance away and a climax borrowed from any Priyadarshan book. But it’s been done very sensitively. I especially liked (really liked, as in made me happy) that they showed Pakistani’s as pretty normal people. The characters are all a little dumb and except for Abhay Deol, very one dimensional. But they’re nice to each other – even the supposed villains. The acting seems decent enough without being outrageously good or bad. There are plot holes, but you know you’re not watching a very realistic movie anyways (unlike Madari for example), so I found myself more willing to ignore them. And I came out feeling quite happy and in a good mood.

Good enough 🙂

★★★

Madari (#17 of 52)

Madari is not a great film even if you watch it independently, without any biases. There are too many plot holes, for a story based on realism and which requires the viewer to empathize with the protagonist it requires a fair suspension of belief and the payoff at the end is a bit of a meh. It’s not an awful movie, but it’s not a great one either.

But movies don’t exist in a vacuum by themselves – and Nishikant Kamat, a national award winning director with a pretty long filmography should be aware of that. The biggest problem I had with Madari was that I found it all – been there, seen that. And I’m not the biggest watcher of movies – Indian or anyways. Dombivali Fast in 2005 was about a man rallying against the system. A Wednesday (and even Mumbai Meri Jaan which released around the same time 2008-09ish had similar elements) kinda took the concept forward, only adapting it to the era – adding mobile phones, cellular tracking and a lot of gizmos. Madari now adapts that to 2016. So there’s a bit of social media, children brought up in new-age urban India and the people taking power into their own hands (a la the Nirbhaya incident of 2012). I actually thought A Wednesday was also by Nishikant Kamat because they’re so much alike.

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Even Jimmy Shergill seems to be playing the same character he was in that movie – only half a decade older. He seems to be relishing playing these foxy cop roles (and thankfully he doesn’t have a love interest), Irfan Khan does his shtick (which is good, but again he could probably sleepwalk through it now) and there’s a precocious young boy who’s kidnapped who sort of grows on you as the movie progresses. The supporting cast is a mess though – I could recognize lots of Marathi TV or theater stars who seem to have been roped in by the director, and who also seem to have woefully misunderstood the medium. Note the Home Minister and the other minister who overact like their lives depend on it.

This is old wine in a new bottle, the wine has gone stale (if that can happen, it’s a metaphor) and the bottle by itself isn’t that pretty either. And the wine makes you smug and feel you’ve done something as well, when you’ve just heard a relative narrating an old story you’ve already heard again.

★★

Stephen King – Pet Sematery (#15 of 26)

There are some authors you ‘discover’ as you grow older, as you read more about reading, meet more people and in general as you broaden your horizons. And there are some whom you’ve always known of but you still ‘discover’ their work at a later point of time. Stephen King is one of the latter category of authors. I remember this even from when I was younger – much much younger – as I waddled (I assume) to Shri Gajanan Circulating Library as a 7 year old to grab my Enid Blyton’s or a few years later when I gravitated to the mysterious Franklin W. Dixon & Carolyn Kleene – Stephen King’s works would always be there in those bookshelves, within reach and seemingly worn out. Why then I never thought (or dared) of picking them up over the last 2 decades I do not know. I explain it in recent times with a rationalisation – since I seem to have developed an aversion of sorts to the horror genre – whether it is books or movies. But before that I have no logical answer – it just seems to be ‘one of those things that can’t be explained’.

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Pet Sematery, my first Stephen King has a few ‘things that can’t be explained’. But it’s an enthralling and captivating read above all because it does start of trying to explain. Lois Creed – the protagonist – is a skeptic like every intelligent reader would like to be, explaining away mysterious occurrences and rationalising every experience that he can seem to for as long as seems humanly and logically possible. And even his descent into the murky world of magic and powers he can’t control is made extremely relatable – something which I can and I’m sure you can, believe happening to you. It has battles in the mind and decisions that don’t make sense but you know that maybe, just maybe in that kind of situation you may have taken that kind of call yourself. Or maybe you’re too chicken to do so but you could certainly empathize with someone who did take that kind of call.
Alas, I get ahead of myself. It took a chance comment on a Facebook group, a second-hand bookseller on Amazon who gives away wonderful books at throwaway prices and a quick Google search for me to pick up Pet Sematery and then actually pick it up to read it as well. One of the reasons was to explore newer authors and territories in this endeavor over 2016, which is why I did not pick up the DI Rebus work lying besides this. Another reason was to attempt to find out if a fear of fear existed with the general unwillingness to go towards this genre or was it just basic Resistance to Change 101. I started reading this on a flight where I should have by all means been sleepy, but I didn’t feel so once I started reading this. And then over a busy 4 or 5 days – time was squeezed in while travelling, in the wee hours of the night after everyone has gone to sleep and when logic tells you it’s not a good time to read spooky tales, and one particularly delightful session with a vista I would like to believe I will always cherish and relish.

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King is a master of creating an atmosphere and the initial part of the book certainly takes it’s time doing so. Atmosphere isn’t quite the perfect translation of what I want to say, although it’s probably the closest – the Hindi word mahaul seems to have more subtle undertones around it which convey the idea. The beginning is as idyllic as the blurb on the back would tell you – picture perfect American family, lovely country house by the woods, a seemingly friendly old couple across the street – you’d be forgiven for expecting some more cliches to come pouring out of the pages that follow. But there aren’t – he takes his time creating this utopia, opening up the characters incident by incident, chapter by chapter of differing size. And so we learn about the eponymous pet cemetery, Lois’ world at work, his wife’s fears and backgrounds, the undercurrent of tension in the extended family, the fears of a young girl, the simple joy of a father flying a kite with a son and the history of this small-town – all unveiled bit by bit.
I could realize why this is an author who is oh-so-successful, King has a way with words to convey the most complex of thoughts by breaking them down into the easiest to comprehend pieces. And also a talent for knowing when to release some information to keep you well and truly hooked – something that mirrors what TV novellas and series look to do with their still-to-come’s but in an almost casual manner. And an imagination bar none – to be able to pick up from real life incidents as he’s mentioned in interviews, do what I’m sure was extensive research and on folklore and customs and then mix and match the two together. There were parts where I found the descriptions too detailed – especially the exhumation scene – where I would constantly be skimming through the pages, only to catch myself and with a reproach read it properly – where perhaps crisper editing could’ve helped. But it’s a minor quibble, maybe more to do with an incorrect self-assessment of my own patience levels and which could have led to a lesser mahaul. It also was a nice flashback to a life without omnipresent mobile phones, cameras and computers – without which certainly this tale would not have been possible – along with a Norman Rockwell-ish portrait of 1980’s Americana.
Mid-way through the book you kind of figure out what’s going to happen in the second half and you put two plus two together. A pet cemetery that brings pet’s back from the dead and a dead human being – you know what’s coming. But there is a masterful pulling of the strings to try to get you to side with Lois although you know you shouldn’t be and this can’t end well. And the third part (which is hardly a part) but which will give you the goosebumps that you knew were prickling up.
Pet Sematery has convinced me to accord more respect to the category or genre as a whole. Mr. Stephen King, I will definitely be back.
Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

Ian Rankin – The Beat Goes On (#14 of 26)

I have a Ian Rankin novel (Let It Bleed) which has been lying with me for a while now but I somehow never got around to reading. Amazon has forever been pushing ‘And The Beat Goes On’ to me as something ‘I might like’ or under ‘this was bought by people who also bought something else which I happened to buy’. I was tempted but didn’t bite because there already was one of his works lying in wait for me. Until, there was some super sale and I got a 500 odd rupee book for a 100 odd rupees. As an Indian, I’d like to think that I know a good bargain when I see one so I latched on to the bait. And boy, am I glad.

Background for the uninitiated (as I was until a few months ago) – Ian Rankin is the author of the best-selling series of novels all based around the central protagonist Deputy Inspector Rebus (DI John Rebus), set in and around Edinburgh, Scotland – part of a genre which is now known as Scottish Noir.

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The Beat Goes On is a collection (a large collection at that) of short stories about Rebus from over the years – an omnibus of sorts. The wonderful part about the character is that he’s aged over the years as a normal person would do, when Rankin started writing about him in 1984 – he was a forty something detective, divorced and with a young daughter. Over the years he’s grown in rank, experience and curmudgeon-liness perhaps? Rebus is a fascinatingly normal character though – refreshingly free of any Hercule Poirot-ish behavioural quirks and Sherlock Holmes-ish genius. He has at best a discerning eye, a keen sense of intuition for who’s a bad penny and what’s wrong but at no point does he seem like superman which is what made him so endearing for me. His overall character is also well roundedly normal – a world weariness and cynicism towards his job, a love for music which goes deep into indie territory, an affinity for some drink with special mention for IPA, a platonic friendship with a junior detective.  And in a way an omnibus of stories like The Beat Goes On is the best way to see this transition over the ages – the adjusting to technology, time, age and the world around you in general.

A fine fine read, the perfect kind of book to curl around with a cup of tea on a Saturday evening. DI Rebus, you’ve got me hooked for your longer works.

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

John Le Carre – The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (#13 of 26)

Ended up reading this book on many a lark – first purchased because it was cheap in a second hand book store online, and then picked up for reading because it was small and compact making it the ideal travelling companion. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold comes with a lot of baggage – from Le Carre’s self-assessment that this was the book that changed his life and ensured he would never write in the same carefree way again to Graham Greene’s recommendation on the book cover reminding us that this is the book that changed the espionage genre – there was plenty of pressure anyways.

I think there are 2 aspects to every book – well fiction at least. The first is obviously the plot. Content is King. A good plot can in most cases salvage everything else. Realistic or fantastic, past or future – but a good plot is step 1.spywhocameinfromthecold

Step 2 is how that plot is presented. This is in other words – the writing style of the author. The manner in which the content is put across, how easy it is to read, how words are pierced together to form beautiful sentences, how suspense is created, how tension is strung, how readers are caught in a web (OK I’ll stop, you get the idea). Whether it is the writer or the editor who takes responsibility for this is something I as the final reader am not too concerned about.

The problem with passing judgement on famous books is that everyone (as well as at a subconscious level, you yourself) feel – ‘who are you to be saying these things’? Hence one treads with caution.

I think (as have millions before me I’m sure) that the plot of TSWCIFTC is fantastic. A double, double cross – or is it a triple cross (?) which is complex enough for you to not be able to understand until every layer is peeled away one by one is the work of a genius. The other part though, the Step 2 which I mentioned above – well, if I can be polite I will just say it didn’t come across well to me. And this is more about the small things – characters who speak in prose and polemics, who ‘cried’ and express themselves in stilted dialogue – especially the ‘commies’. And an atmosphere of cold-greyness which seems thrust on us rather than inviting us into it.

By no means do I mean to say that this is the same as a writer not being skilled. To unravel a plot like that by releasing information at the right time is no mean feat. There are complex ideas and thoughts presented as well in a pithy manner – what a pity they’re not more quotable or relevant today. It’s just a style which is not fluid or graceful like many others.

 I wondered if this was a product of the era from which the book came from, but I then I remember Arthur Hailey’s books which are from the same time zone and had a tremendous amount of irrelevant content, but still always seemed to ‘flow’ ( I can’t think of a better word to explain what I meant). Likewise for Agatha Christie going a few decades further back, and even to an extent Arthur Conan Doyle despite the Victorian era influences making them a little more ‘formal’. Would be interesting to read a recent work of Le Carre who has continued to churn out works even as an octogenarian and see if this is an issue which persists. So once I could accustom myself to the discomfort of the way the characters speak and think and sink my teeth into the story, TSWCIFTC is gripping and educating like few others.

PS : A great influence on how I perceive this work comes from this wonderful break-down of the book by the Guardian in their Rereading column. I am convinced more and more, there is little point to watching a movie, reading a book or for that matter experiencing any form of art unless we take the time out to discuss and deliberate about it, read about it and the context in which it was written and exchange thoughts on how it came across to us. A stunning exposition which helped me view TSWCIFTC in a much brighter, if not new light.

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