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Recommends: We Bare Bears (Cartoon Network)

We Bare Bears (Cartoon Network) 

We Bare Bears airs on Cartoon Network, a channel I abandoned when I turned twelve and Disney brought in live action shows such as That So Raven, Lizzie McGuire, etc.  It was a 9 year old friend of mine who recommended this show to me. While his personal favorite cartoon was Motu Patlu, a show I personally find unbearable, he could relate to and identify with the characters in We Bare Bears a lot more. I randomly checked out 4 episodes and was so impressed with the originality and wit and humor within the show that I binge-watched all 26 episodes (of 11 minute each) of Season 1 during Diwali Break. The show’s main characters include Grizzly, Panda (fondly called ‘Pam-Pam’, and Ice Bear, three brothers with distinct personalities of their own. Grizzly, the oldest, is more extroverted and jaunty, and leads the pack (often into the worst of situations). Panda is more bashful by nature, but also the most active on social networking sites. Ice Bear, the youngest, is the most sedate and the most talented of the lot, self-trained in martial arts, origami, world cuisines, French etc. The episodes follow the three talking bears as they attempt to assimilate with humans, who in most cases do not take kindly to their presence.

The best part about We Bare Bears is that neither the plot nor the characterization feels stuck in a rut, a common problem among many Indian and Japanese (and some American, especially the Superhero-based) cartoons. Although the overarching themes of unity and companionship are emphasized in every episode, there is a constant change in situations. In episode 2 ‘Viral Video’, in an attempt to make tons of new friends, Grizzly and his brothers try to become famous on social media after becoming inspired by Nom-Nom, a celebrity Koala whose cute-videos go viral; in the end, however, they realize that the millions of followers on social media are no comparison to true friendship and relationships formed in the real world.  Later, in the much lauded Episode 7 ‘Burrito’, Panda and Ice Bear attempt to put an end to Grizzly’s unhealthy fascination with a giant burrito. Both (and many other) episodes girdle the bond between the three brothers, but you can see that they are vastly different in their storylines. This along with the crackerjack humor is We Bare Bears biggest strength. Recurrent characters, including the 6 year old Korean-American child prodigy Chloe and obnoxious yet well meaning Bigfoot Charlie, add a great dynamic to the show.

The reason why I connected with We Bare Bears so much is that it is a show about outsiders, who may be the most amazing and warm and benevolent of creatures, but are often misunderstood by the world and kept at a distance. The show encourages viewers to be more accepting of diversity, and one thing that I especially love about the show is that it nicely captures the multiethnic climate of Bay Area, San Francisco where it’s set. Although I wish it is able to highlight the peculiarities of various cultures and their customs in coming seasons.

Overall, We Bare Bears is definitely a must watch both for children and adults. It refreshes your mood and makes you fall in love with cartoons again.

Other Plus Points!  

  1. Excellent voiceover
  2. A very catchy and hummable Theme Song I’d love to keep as my ringtone
  3. Practical and realistic use of gadgets on the show. The bears using laptops, gaming devices and mobile phones for purposes including finding a date, uploading videos, finding a location, taking selfies, etc. In one episode, a photo taken on the mobile phone plays a vital role in saving the bears’ home. The show rarely features fantastical gadgets like those on Doraemon

Paris is Burning Review

PIB.jpgDirector: Jennie Livingston

Starring – Dorian Corey, Pepper Labeija, Willi Ninja, Octavia St. Laurent

Rupaul’s Drag Race may be among the top binge-watching television series for many LGBTQ individuals. Its highlights are plenty. The stunning runway walks that feature exotic & daring costumes. The spectacular ‘lip-sync for your life’ decider rounds. The backstage gossip, and the shade (explained in Paris is Burning by Drag veteran Dorian Corey as ‘when a queen doesn’t have to say you are terrible because you already know it yourself!’). The savage commentary, especially by comedy queens Bianca Del Rio and Darienne Lake. The over-the-top weekly challenges that no producer on any other programme on American television may air. And the standout candid moments that counterbalance the entire spectacle with a humane touch.
The show resembles a gaudy elaborately decked Christmas tree decorated

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Season 6 of Rupaul Drag Race

with anything and everything available at bargained prices (most of the show’s drag queens can’t pay for originals, one exception being Alyssa Edwards and her $3000 wig). Kudos to the mega-successful Rupaul, an African American drag mother still killing it her stilettos as she hits fifty, for pulling her show for eight consecutive seasons, including introducing various spin-offs along the way. And props to each of the drag contestants who’ve brought a much needed variety to identity. We find parts of ourselves – the diva persona, the bubbly face, the goofy self – in the broad spectrum of characters they so explicitly present to us.
Even with all this praise, I cannot turn a blind eye to the show’s shortcomings. These queens are often encouraged to be critical and snaky (to generate ratings, like on most reality shows). Sometimes the judges’ feedback tends to get brutal, especially as it targets the person’s appearance. For a show which at root is about ‘the acceptance of every size and shape’, the focus on pageantry often kills the cause. And finally, what’s often shrug under the carpet is the marginalized presence of African American drag queens in the race. Even in Season 6, it was sadly evident that a competent Trinity K Bonet would invariably be the last in the pecking order.
Paris is Burning shows that one of the cornerstones in drag history drags back to the ball culture in the 80s, mainly shaped by African American and Latino trans and gay communities. The documentary, made by Jennie Livingston was filmed in the late 80s and found (to many people’s surprise) a successful release in American theatres. And the various ramp walks, taking place in dinghy & cramped quarters than on expensive stages we now see on Rupaul’s show, evince a majority of African American and other minorities. This is evidently a stark contrast from the professional runways, magazines and movies back then, which gave even less opportunities for black people in media except in secondary/minor roles.
Each of the drag queens of colour interviewed here, including Pepper Labeija – mother of ‘House of Labeija’, Freddie Pendavis and Willi Ninja – mother of ‘House of Ninja’ and easily the most famous of anyone in the movie – identify not with famous black women, a few and far in between the tons of white celebs, but with Monroe and other successful white women. And the film exposes their problematic aspirations to blanche the black out of them to fit into the mainstream society. It is unfortunate these immeasurably strong individuals, who inspired by Egyptian

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Drag Veteran Dorian Corey Interviewed in Paris is Burning

hieroglyphs and gymnastics, created the distinctive dance form of voguing, couldn’t fully embrace their African American heritage and so casually slighted it as inferior to the ‘white culture’ of sophistication. It is one of the few white drag queens Dorian Corey featured in the film who underlines this misguided ambition of many African American drag queens. She is the astute one to observe the dangers of drag life – the escapism from reality, the intrusion of pageantry. Her remark that no matter how hard one tries to hide oneself through disguise, one cannot escape the harshness of the real world – is the realest moment in the entire film.
No matter how much Rupaul show glamorizes the drag world, the hardships, pains and prejudices of the world outside drag exist. And one must’ve forget them.

Dilwale Review

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Rating – 1 out of 5 stars

Dilwale is akin a faux-John Constable work whose restoration efforts are handed to an age-11 gen-Z kiddo whose fancies include va-va-voom Hot-wheels cars, hunky-dory send-dem-enemies-flying-outta-buildingz superheroes & ‘cool’ romanchic-magnets. The yellows-glowing petals and gleeful-green meadows from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge, the original malady that struck the Indian audiences’ hearts back in 95 and affected them with symptoms that most prominently include an affinity to idealistic romance, have found a much bigger, more life-sapping derivative in the form of Dilwale. And its Dr. Strangelove/Mogambo is none other than Golmaal trilogy/Chennai Express master-of-the-mindless Rohit Shetty.

You’d find more excesses in this Shetty wreckage than you’d get to see if you creep into a Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz concert. At least the liberally-louche Cyrus, despite drowned in a glitter, goo and dildos, gets (most of her) her songs just right. Conversely, Shetty puts on a spectacle as slipshod as that recent TOI headline referring to Modi’s surprise Pak sojourn.

He reunites Kajol and Shahrukh Khan, the superstar screen couple who reigned over Indian screens as Simran and Raj in DDLJ. Queen K looks as gorgeous as ever, and with cryogenically frozen features she struts through the film like it’s her runway. Her costume designers pull out all the stops to drape her like she’s the star of the most expensive ad for a 4K resolution Samsung TV. (Watch the Gerua video to catch snippets of the couple claiming unknown icebergs, crashed airplanes and practically any unfound corner of the earth like Columbuses’ Indian counterparts). Well, who wouldn’t be psyched to get paid in crores for flittering around the streets of Bulgaria in florals? Later, when a plot twist requires her to shift base to Goa, she gets in Charlie’s Angels mode for a moment to bash up Johnny Lever in a fake-Tamilian getup. And when the big baddies come into picture, she comfortably steps back like an obedient Bollywood heroine and lets King K take charge.

King K goes through the motions, bumping off enemies like a Masterchef chopping veggies, posing shirtless with his arms spread wide, and staking claim on Kajol with a momentary Bolly-gaze (‘hero spots heroine. Looks into her eyes. And she’s bought!’). He has aged, and suitably plays a peacable garage-owner in Goa who goes by the name Raj. Except his face very clearly shows he’s got a past and he needs to revisit it because if he doesn’t… no shirtless scenes, and no frontin with Kajol in his arms, right? And for this, he needs a trigger.

And the mention of ‘Kaali’ does the trick. Who’s this mystery person ‘Kaali’? Well, guess who? It needs Varun Dhawan, playing his younger bro Veer and hamming his way to glory, and his brawly antics with local drug dealers to threaten Raj’s hidden identity from tumbling out of the closet. Till then, the plot revolves around Veer perving on Ishita Malik (newbie Kriti Sanon) until she’s head over heels in love with him (Bollywood lesson-on-romance 101 – Act inappropriate until the girl finds it cute). But once Kaali’s subplot takes over, the films switches to a lengthy flashback in Bulgaria that extends until interval.

We learn Raj was actually Kaali, the son of a underworld don living in Bulgaria. He’s in a speedy car chase until it takes an untimely halt when Kajol is sighted. And then begins the predictable romance track between Kajol’s Meera and Kaali as they romp around cafes, lakes and in case of Gerua song, Windows wallpapers. But wait – there’s a bigger twist. There’s more to Meera than meets the eye; she turns out to be the daughter of the rival crime-lord. The betrayal is a high point in this otherwise tepid affair. But for how long can one see SRK and KJ in rivalry mode? So, by the next two scenes, Shetty has them patch up. And then there’s family opposition. And finally a gunshot that sends Kaali to Goa, where he resigns from his former life.

The film gets back to Dhawan’s run ins with drug baron King (played by Boman Irani) and his henchmen. But that’s all fluff. There’s nothing much that can be done to this tale, so Shetty adds Sanjay Mishra as unauthorized dealer Oscar Bhai and Varun Sharma as Dhawan’s friend Sidhu. The padding done is so glaring it embarrasses. By the time Sharma ended his Pyaar Ka Punchnama inspired rattle about the fairer sex, I scuttled out of the theatre. My greatest regret – paying Rs. 320 for this busted product.

News Editing Assignment #1 – Updated A Touching Tale Of Humanity; a Tribute To Our Unsung Heroes

The article on Heart Transplant featured in Times Of India is a poignant example of humanity that often goes unnoticed in newspapers that choose to impregnate their copies with saddening and shameful articles on corruption and violence. Featured at the bottom of the front page that, as expected, is otherwise buried knee-deep in scandals, this article stands out as refreshing and reassuring.

The headline itself raises curiosity about the article’s content – ‘Traffic stops to help youth get heart in time’. Referring to the traffic that gave way for police vehicles and ambulances that carried the heart all the way from Pune to Mumbai in record time to save a person’s dear life, it beautifully encapsulates the essence of the article. I’ve seen ambulances with sirens blaring struggling to move past traffic, and Mumbai traffic can truly give the most horrible time, ultimately resulting in the unfortunate untimely death of someone. But to read an article that captures the selfless effort of the Mumbai and Pune police, often represented as apathetic and venal by media, really comes as a pleasant surprise.

I was reminded of some Bollywood films, so boundless in their optimism that they undo with all logic for a happy ending, as I was reading this. The happy ending in this story is that the person’s new heart was beating and his kidney and liver that had got affected in the last few months were showing signs of normalcy. The heroes here are the team of police and doctors, pumped with the passion equivalent to Munna Bhai, who saved a life without expecting any reward or appreciation.

The article in Times of India is perhaps biggest tribute to these heroes.

Sherlock Holmes Review

Note – I wrote this article as part of my college assignment. 

Sherlock Holmes, the protagonist of BBC’s Sherlock, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories of the same name, is the Superman both for intellectuals and otherwise. The aspect about him that endears more than his alchemic ability to crack cases is his role as a savior, a protector of his near and dear ones. The series would’ve been bloodless and only a cerebral exercise that drew in a selected upper-crust of the intelligentsia had it sapped out sentiment, and creator Mark Gatiss and writer Steven Moffat wisely avoid that. That’s precisely why the series has become so popular amongst audiences and, in a way, is endangering itself over time. The last season (season 3) teetered on the saccharine by unwisely putting breaks on the mystery, Sherlock’s ultimate takeaway, to camp on the chemistry between the series’ recurring characters. I hope the mistake isn’t repeated in the upcoming season, predicted to hit televisions by 2016.

It is the first two seasons are the tenderloins of the whole series, brilliant because the case is the cake here while the chemistry is the cherry and not the other way round. The former is stacked with puzzle-solving, but it isn’t one that invites audiences to a guessing game because that’s Sherlock’s territory. We’re left at his mercy as he deconstructs the crime scene and his suspects to make observations, notice patterns and ultimately form an assumption that mostly turns out right. This is evidenced in the first episode, titled A Study in Pink based on a story of the same name, in which the then unknown consultant detective gets almost every first impression on Watson correct, including the fact that the latter was gifted a phone by his sibling; he only gets the sibling’s gender wrong and unless you’re a total sod who’s critical of just about everything on planet Earth and beyond, you’ll be super impressed by Holmes’ almost supernatural abilities.

There’s usually an unsolved problem which persist throughout the episode and put things in place once figured out, for example, a name (A Study in Pink) a cryptic number (The Blind Banker), a neglected case (The Great Game), a password (Scandal in Belgravia), an acronym (Hound of Baskervilles). And although the characters and certain situations may seem familiar, Moffat, who also stars in the series as Sherlock’s elder brother Mycroft Holmes, has worked expertly to revise the storylines, make them compact to work as ninety minute episodes and revamp scenarios to the present world (instead of basing the stories as Watson’s personal writings as in Doyle’s books, for example, the series instead turns Watson into a popular blogger whose articles on their cases is what gives both Watson and Holmes popularity). I’ve always preferred Christie’s works to Doyle’s because even though both end up fooling readers by concealing some information until the climax, at least Christie’s works allows readers to participate in guessing games by throwing in irresistible clues at certain points while Doyle’s only rely on Sherlock’s lengthy deductions on how the murder was committed rather than who actually did it. On visual medium, however, it’s exhilarating to watch how differently Sherlock perceives the same scene to come up with extraordinary conclusions.

Moffat strength lies in not dumbing down the series for television audiences while retaining a widespread appeal. Sherlock’s observations are just as sharp, even more so now that the latest developments in science and technology are taken into account. His character himself is far more sharp-tongued than the Shelocks we’ve seen before, whether in Doyle’s series or the earlier BBC series or the cinematic adaptation starring Robert Downey Jr. His insults and jabs hurt as much as Irene Adler’s whip (Alder, a professional dominatrix, is the woman he has a brief fling with in Scandal in Belgravia) and just about no one’s spared, not his buddy Watson nor his landlady Mrs. Hudson nor the Detective Inspector Lestrade nor his lab assistant Molly and certainly not the suspects or those who think they know better. Much friction, especially between Holmes and Watson, stems from Holmes’ cold, detached, asocial attitude as well as his inability to sympathize. It’s both enormously entertaining and touching to watch Holmes humanize through the series and until season 3, where goodness is forced onto him to the series’ detriment, the transition seems natural. Moffat also infuses quintessentially British humor, sophisticated, wry and pointed, to the script which is best witnessed in Sherlock’s jabs, his interactions with Holmes, his repartee with Mycroft and his small talk with Mrs. Hudson.

Seasons 1 and 2 are unmissable, the highlights being ‘A Study in Pink’, ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ and ‘Hound of Baskervilles’. Season 3 goes out of the way to be a crowd-pleaser, paying homage to the series’ fandom as well as to minor cases from Doyle’s series, and is criminally lackluster by comparison. In fact, one can skip Season 3 entirely by just keeping three things to memory – a. Sherlock’s alive b. his arch nemesis from the first 2 seasons Jim Moriarty is back and c. Watson’s married to Mary, a former assassin. Both Gatiss and Moffat need to reshift their focus back to the cases because in the absence of interesting cases, detective stories lose their novelty value rapidly and even the presence of a great cast can’t save it for long.

Both Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey’s portrayals of Sherlock have been strong and distinctive and for this series, its British actor Benedict Cumberbatch who takes on the detective’s role. Cumberbatch’s pale bony face, curly hair and tall and lean frame all suit his character’s distinctive appeal to a tee. This guy’s best playing emotionally aloof characters who stand out from the crowd and I’m sure he didn’t find it too big a challenge to find the right tone to his version of Sherlock; the unaired pilot episode, re-filmed with better production values and script alterations before being televised, in fact reveals he only had to get a shade or two nastier to become the Sherlock we’ve come to love. There is evidence of humanity in this Sherlock and if you look deeply into his eyes, you’ll catch it, and this is what differs him from his elder brother, who is more stoic and unpleasant than the former, which is why Sherlock’s way easier to root for. Both Cumberbatch and Moffat channel this difference in their characters which is applaud worthy. Martin Freeman, as Dr. Watson, is very amusing (his disaster dates in the first two seasons are especially a hoot) and charming; the promise of a homosexual bonding between Holmes and Watson, hinted in the first episode, doesn’t really pick up but it results in some hilarious quips and awkward moments that are a treat.

There is much to admire about the series’ cinematography, editing, production design and music. Jump cuts are used judiciously especially from Sherlock’s point-of-view as he zip-zaps through the various clues and takes mental notes, which appear as text on screen. It’s fascinating to enter Sherlock’s head, sometimes via POV shots and text, sometimes by actually placing him at the location he’s musing about and crisp camerawork and editing are to be credited for this. As for the production design, Gatiss puts its perfectly when he says ‘it fetishizes Modern London the way the period versions fetishize Victorian London’. The music, with violins frequently used, along with the jumpy camerawork is elemental in adding to the much needed pacing and tension. The most memorable tune, composed by David Arnold and Michael Price, is the one playing during the opening credits, which wonderfully encapsulates the tone of the series – dramatic, mysterious and exciting.

The best way to describe to end this review would be to use Irene Adler’s password that she’s kept to unlock her phone, which Holmes only decodes at the end of The Scandal in Belgravia after realizing its kept after the person whom she truly loves – I am ‘Sherlocked’.

RESTORING DELETED REVIEWS (PART 3) – JAI HO, MISS LOVELY, DEDH ISHQIYA

Note: These reviews got deleted from ourvadodara.in, a site I no longer work for. So am posting the missing reviews here.  

 Jai Ho 

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Rating: 20%

Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s Chief Minister, proclaimed himself an anarchist recently. Were Salman Khan elected chief minister (i.e. based on the impression I get watching his character in Jai Ho, which seems like a personal statement from the actor), the capital would’ve been run by a psychopathic animal.

The health care industry would have an overfull demand, with every single room taken up by the hapless victims of his merciless pounding. The municipal corporation would be permanently on its heels, mopping up the literally bloody mess off the streets. Women, unless unattractive or disabled, would be eve-teased in full public view. It’s a fetching Gujarati lass this time who’s the butt of all jokes for wearing pink panties; she’s nicknamed ‘Pinky’, get it? Because she wears “pink” panties? I cracked a smile just once for it was a young kid who coined the name, but the film inexplicably made it a running gag with no variation whatsoever. Severe groaning ensued on my part.

The cabinet would be dolled with beautiful gals and strapping lads, all newcomers from the entertainment industry. The ‘groundbreaking’, ‘humanist’ proposals would be championed greatly whilst campaigning, only to be forgotten during power. Of course, like a quintessential politician, he’d fund reminder ads on television to hoodwink citizens into thinking that progress is taking place.

Other predictions: motocross racing in the midst of traffic would be encouraged. No FIR reports shall be filed for assault and murder of the party’s enemies. With the boost in killings, population shall be reduced to one-third. The military would barge into scene in tanks and stand up for the leader when he’s in trouble, leaving behind its national duties. The capital would turn into a hell-hole.

Cinemarc turned a hellhole for me when they played Jai Ho, an attempt billion times lazier than Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha at raising social consciousness. But a few predictions can be made.

The money would be recovered in the opening weekend itself. Trade analysts would throw their hats in the air when it enters the two-hundred crore club. Taran Adarsh would marvel its ‘ambitions’ and ‘entertainment quotient’, and use ghisa-pita adjectives to extol Salman and his team. Tabu (from Chandni Bar to this) would henceforth appear in similar, masala films and less in quality productions. And Daisy Shah, a talented dancer no doubt, shall find no takers.

Sohail Khan, Salman’s younger brother and the film’s director, remarked in an interview that all hit films need not be good ones, adding that he sincerely worked to ensure that a quality project is begotten. He’s made commercially successful romantic comedies comedies (Pyaar Kiya to Darna Kya, Hello Brother) before, and with Jai Ho, he intends to prove himself a ‘serious’ director. Did he seriously think this baasi roti of a project would help foster social awareness and make the world a better place?

I hated the film’s pretentions. Its concept, that one man does a good deed for another and in turn urges three good deeds from him towards others, has trickled down from Kevin Spacey-Helen Hunt starrer Hollywood film Pay It Forward, where a eleven year old ‘kid’ began the movement (one can overlook part of the farfetchedness when the concept revolves around a kid). Then, writer-director AR Murugadoss borrowed the concept for his Telugu film called Stalin, a Chiranjeevi starrer. Dilip Shukla, a writer (he currently has no Wikipedia page, and I bet he wouldn’t in the future), looked to Stalin for inspiration more than Pay It Forward only to retain the dhishoom-dhishoom, maar-kaat, gandi-baat Indianized flavor.

Salman Khan was roped in as protagonist Jai Agnihotri for the film complements his philanthropic image; most would know he’s the founder of the popular ‘Being Human’ charity initiative. That Sohail Khan was appointed director reeks of nepotism. Frankly speaking, it wouldn’t make a difference if one Altaf Ahmed or Chintu Zhaveri was made director, for the script is maddeningly directionless. In marketing, there’s a term called ‘rifle approach’ which refers to accurate market segmenting, targeting and product positioning by marketers. Contrary to this is the ‘shotgun’ approach, where strategies are haphazard and aimed at everyone. Jai Ho splatters the film’s core message every now and then.

One performs a good deed; the other says “Thank You”. The first then says “No Thank You. Instead, help three people and tell them to help three others and so on”. We hear this on ten different occasions in the film, the repeatability reminding us of secondary missions from Spiderman II videogame, where Spidey would say the same damn thing after saving somebody.

The film has little else to say. So it crams in a done-to-death good guy vs corrupt neta angle to fill out its screenplay. The concept itself could’ve been an ad campaign (and maybe an effective one). What else….oh yes, there are about five song and dance sequences – three in the beginning with watchable choreography, a predictable slow romantic number a few minutes post interval and one embarrassingly pointless Gujarati dance number later.

Many new faces pop up along with a few old-timers and has-beens to decorate the scenery. Shah, Pulkit Sharma (of Fukrey fame), Sana Khan (post Bigg Boss a household name), Bruna Abdullah (post Grand Masti, in my Hall of Shame) are assigned roles of Jai’s girl, good cop, evil politician’s evil beti and… something, I think a friend respectively. Suneil Shetty, Tabu, Danny Denzongpa, Genelia D’Souza, Yash Tonk, Mohnish Behl, Mukul Dev, Nauheed Cyrusi, Varun Badola, Vikas Bhalla, Aditya Pancholi, Sharad Kapoor and a list of other familiar faces (phew!) step into cardboard characters and end up a few lakhs richer.

I’ll tell you what – retain that two hundred rupees you were planning to expend on this film and buy a Being Human t-shirt instead. Pass this message to three others. Everyone’s happy, the charity gets its donations and the society is served.

 Miss Lovely 

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 Rating: 80%

Retro disco beats partnered with matching visualizations play around the opening credits, where we learn that jack-of-all-trades-and-master-too-yay! Ashim Ahluwalia multitasked as director, scriptwriter, editor and sound designer (have I left out anything?). A pair of eyes, large and red, then glares at us. It’s soon established that the scene we’re watching is a B-horror film inside the film. Similarly, Ahluwalia’s debut narrative feature film (having made a feature-length documentary called John & Jane in 2006, and a couple of short films and installation art) is spectator to a variety of tales and themes.

In broad terms, and as hinted perhaps in trailers and the film’s thunder-thigh baring poster, it witnesses the transformation of C-grade film industry between late eighties and early nineties, but it isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. It glimpses at sex, alcohol, career rivalry, albeit not in a cheesy, caricature-heavy Madhur Bhandarkar manner we’ve grown accustomed to.

It espies almost with cold indifference the gradual depredation of school-girl innocence in rotten company, but it isn’t Raj Purohit’s Sixteen, a film on loss of innocence which surprised everyone after snagging five nominations at the Screen Awards (and stumped me completely for it was picked for best story and editing over Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus).

It occasionally catches a love story in its sleazy setting, but escapes the ‘love triumphing over all odds’ cliché. Ashim Ahluwalia to film commentator and critic Sean Malin in an interview that he wants to ‘drop that recognition the audience inherently has with this kind of (i.e. love) story. Two brothers fighting over a girl it sees, but there are no traces of ‘Meri Brother Ki Dulhan’, the Imran Khan-Ali Zafar-Katrina Kaif starrer. It certainly watches a confluence of two genres: noir and pulp, except it narrowly avoids getting categorized either into a ‘Coen Brothers’ film or a ‘Tarantino’ film. Ahluwalia reveals he drowned himself in works by Japanese New Wave auteurs, including Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki, about whom I have no idea, and newer artistes such as Takashi Miike (I saw his stomach-churning Odishon when I was sixteen) and Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express, his dreamy, dazzling work was screened at Fine Arts faculty of MS University during their December film fest). It definitely can’t be termed a satire or parody, even when it’s replete with footage from C-grade movies and happenings behind-the-scenes.

The camera hardly films from a subjective perspective. It films the love story from a distance and at odd angles. In fact, it devotes way lesser screen time to lovey-dovey scenes than any conventional Bollywood or Hollywood movie. Ashim Ahluwalia’s (remember the name) Miss Lovely defiantly speaks ‘Categorize me, I’ll defy every label!’ (borrowed the line from singer Janelle Monae’s single Q.U.E.E.N – check that song too). This film deliberately wants you to feel uncomfortable, like you’ve been kicked by Bruce Lee in the stomach. If you get a bitter aftertaste just as the closing credits spill in, the film has done its job. A brutally cold, detached, and screwed up take on a simplistic storyline, Miss Lovely is the holy s**t film that Ajay Bahl’s BA Pass failed to be last year. And one of the best films you’ll get from the Indian New Wave cinema and absolutely one of the finest that could release in multiplexes this year.

The world of C-grade cinema as depicted here seems sad, dismal and drained of humanity. Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddique, yes, the same guy in hits like Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunch Box. Why aren’t people flocking to see this film?) wants to opt out when elder brother Vicky (Anil George), a director of such films consents to add adult (i.e. porn) content to get wider audience response. He wanders dispiritedly through parties and shooting sessions like a protagonist of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s film. Pinky (Niharika Singh), an aspiring actress yet in school, leaves him lovestruck. Despite having no money, he promises to cast her as the lead actress in his obviously fictitious film which he calls Miss Lovely. She hangs out with him, but is discomfited by Vicky, who also sets his hungry eyes on her. There is a Bollywood-ish ‘darar’ between the two bhais, but the film repudiates falling into any convention.

Usually, people tend to ask “How were the performances?” but that won’t work here. The characters are depersonalized; they function like objects, set in to fulfill the film’s purpose. Outtakes and real footage have been included into the final product. The soundtrack choice includes scores by Illiyaraaja, disco producer Biddu, as well as rare works by Italian composers Egisto Macchi and Piero Umiliani.

With such violations of conventions, it’s no wonder the audience response as of now has been pathetic. Cinemarc as well as PVR cancelled their shows, and Inox played it to an audience of ten. All ten remained till the end, fixated on the radical work playing in front of their eyes. If you are patient enough to look at how it challenges itself by bending its approach towards the art of filmmaking, genre and narrative, I guarantee you’ll yearn for such films in the future.

Dedh Ishqiya

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Rating: 50%

Before I begin my review, I’d like to tell this: The mellisonant verses of a shaayari won’t appeal to the unaccustomed eyes of a child – that’s one thing parents should consider before bringing a child below ten to a screening of Dedh Ishqiya. The languid pacing coupled with sexual content are two valid reasons to leave them at a day care center instead of letting the little children suffer. A tiny kid sat next to me imploring his parents to take him home. He wasn’t in for Madhuri’s beauty, neither was he moved by the shaayari, nor was he hungry to watch a prostitute humping Arshad Warsi. It was almost inhumane to force him to sit through the entire duration. Okay, now moving on to the review:

Although a good deal of words are spoken, Dedh Ishqiya falls short on exploring its characters’ dilemmas as they betray and double-cross each other without batting an eyelid. The first half dawdles through mildly humorous moments, Urdu poetry and doting proclamations and reserves much of the plot development for post-intermission. While this is a common trait among ‘arty’ or ‘offbeat’ films, i.e. centering on a given situation/scene for unusually long periods of time without moving the plot ahead, the successful ones make their intentions clear from the opening shot. I cannot compute a film that includes a scene of enchanting poetry and then follows it with a ridiculous, almost off-color product placement for Apple IPhone 5. Films low on storyline compensate it with lengthy monologues, impressive repartee and philosophical musings both using dialogues as well as cinematography and editing. Tarantino has forged a career scripting fabulous epic-length monologues for his characters. Dedh Ishqiya’s screenplay, written by Vishal Bharadwaj, Abhishek Chaubey and Gulzar, three notable figures in Bollywood, doesn’t boast of stand-out writing, in spite of its successful endeavor at invoking the poetic lilt of shaayari. Pleasantly unexpected moments do appear, but they’re rare and fleeting; in one scene, the film’s protagonists and antagonists stand in the same spot all through the night pointing their guns at each other without a single fire – its cleverly amusing, but a follow-up ‘awesome’ moment takes a good deal of time to arrive. Until then, it’s either Arshad getting horny on Huma or a puerile castration joke.

Now imagine if the film had spotlighted instead on Madhuri Dixit’s character’s motivations. Her character Begum Para, a reclusive widow residing in an antiquated haveli, could’ve possessed more shades than Paris Hilton’s entire wardrobe (saw Sofia Copolla’s fantastic Bling Ring, which filmed a portion in Hilton’s personal residence). Instead of giving us access to her thoughts throughout the film, Abhishek Chaubey goes for a ‘big reveal’ moment that would ultimately lead to an account of her back story. The reveal is a no-brainer for anyone who’s seen Ishqiya (we learn her companion Muniya, played by Huma Qureshi, is conspiring to kidnap her. Now guess who the main conspirator turns out to be?); in fact, the only major change is the location. Shifting its base to the Mahmudabad, there is much to be admired about the production design. It helps Dixit to ease into the scenery and set hearts on fire as the nawab sahiba hosting a swayamvar for herself. The actress permits the camera to capture the scintillating glow on her expressive face. Her beauty may enchant throughout, but what’s problematic sometimes is her attempt to stand out in every frame, which often works against the character’s nature. Para claims she’s abandoned her passion of dancing, but when left alone in her chamber in one scene, the stimulating mood and music revive her long-lost love and she breaks out in the most graceful fashion, dancing ‘to the cameras’. Unless it’s in a dream sequence, it wouldn’t be easy for anybody to achieve the feat of dancing so well after years of discontinuation. The kalai ka moch, kamar ka dard and cramps will soon show up if dormant muscles are subject to rigorous movements all of a sudden. The scene needed the gradual crescendo of choreography that we saw in the otherwise hopeless 1983 Hollywood hit Flashdance.                    

Like Sherlock and Watson, Khalujan (Naserruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) make an interesting pair; you should know, by the way, that Sherlock the series is returning soon on television. Khalujan is naturally charming, eloquent, poetic and gentlemanly while Babban is more coarse-mannered. In spite of knowing this, when a repulsive-looking small-time don named Mushtaq bhai orders them to rob a jewellery store, its Babban who impersonates as a nawab while Khalujan plays his servant. It’s a treat to watch a servant speak so fluently and assertively to the store owner, with the nawab barely uttering a word. After their plan bungles, both make a run for it and Khalujan mysteriously vanishes, leaving Babban to face Mushtaq, who’s itching to cut off his ‘little boy’ (that’s how the subtitles put it). Babban escapes from Mushtaq’s clutches as well, and later finds out Khalujan is perfectly fine and on a trip to woo Para playing a dhongi poetry-loving nawab. Threat in Mahmudabad turns up in the form of Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz), another dhongi poetry-waxing nawab (although this man doesn’t even write his own poetry. He’s kidnapped Noor Mohammad Italvi, an actual Nawab (Manoj Pahwa), and kept him captive to write couplets for him day and night.

Both Shah and Warsi share a magic together that they lack with the leading ladies, especially Warsi, who transforms into Uday Chopra from the Dhoom series in his scenes with Huma. And Raaz is relishing as the villains with toadying hyenas in the form of henchman surrounding him and ‘wah-wahing’ everything he utters. And as the writer is Bharadwaj, the character dynamics echo those of Shakespeare’s plays (Raaz as the love-lorn, reckless lover, Madhuri’s own selfish intentions, Qureshi’s scheme etc). The film still disappoints by failing to depict their inner conflict, and another thing that bothered me was that the characters, including the ones newly introduced for the sequel, play their roles as if they’re continuing from an unknown, unreleased prequel everybody missed. I think a lack of exposition is to be blamed for this. The final product seems like a work still in developmental stage that needs more tweaking, more polishing before it deserves a wah-wah.

Annabelle Review

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Summary: Annabelle doesn’t scare. The end result is Anna-bleh!

Rating: 30%

Director: John R. Leonetti

Cast

Annabelle Wallis – Mia

Alfre Woodard – Evelyn

Ward Horton – John

Tony Amendola – Father Perez

Suppose you’re reading a crime novel, a murder mystery set on a secluded island. There are four prime suspects and one includes a rambling alcoholic with bloodshot eyes and a ghastly appearance. This man claims to have committed a thousand odd crimes in his past and the story also explicitly suggests his animosity towards the victim. Now would it in any manner stun you if this very man is found to be the murderer after a few hundred pages or so? Most probably not, unless you are so non-judgmental you’ll not find any reason to doubt even an ‘alcoholic with bloodshot eyes, a ghastly appearance and hostility towards the victim’.

Now tell me this, what is so startling about a creepy doll that’s possessed by the ghost of a ‘deranged Satan-worshipping cult member’? Now, a demonic doll possessed by an evil spirit may be blood-curling spooky if it were in real life but on film, that too one releasing in late 2014 where films have successfully shocked by making the source of fear unknown, the idea comes off as unoriginal. Another problem is that the entity is all skin and bone in terms of characterization. In James Wan’s Conjuring, which introduced the Annabelle doll fleetingly, kept shut in ghost-hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren’s museum, the spirit at least had a story to tell. While I wasn’t a fan of the film itself, I can say that at least their ghost didn’t seem like a throw-in. This one, thanks to lazy writing, feels more like a shadow of a ghost and such a figure can never be terrifying. If you’ve read Strange Robert Louis Stevenson’s Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you’ll know exactly what I’m trying to say; what made Mr. Hyde so fearfully enigmatic a character was the vivid description provided about him through secondhand encounters. Omit the details, and just put ‘Mr. Hyde was a loathsome boor feared by every townsman’, there’s hardly an impact created.

Now, while may sound ludicrous, but even ghosts have a modus operandi and horror is effective only when the boundaries within which a supernatural entity works to spook the human characters is well-defined. For instance, in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger had infinite scope to haunt his victims but his playground was restricted to his character’s dreams. So audiences would dread the moment a character heard Freddie’s menacing voice or sensed something distorted about his environment, which implied that she or he had fallen asleep. Blair Witch Project, a modern horror classic filmed entirely using handicams, had an invisible cause of fear but one that haunted at only at nighttime.

Annabelle meanwhile takes generous liberties with the spirit of Annabelle Higgins, the runaway daughter of the Higgins family who returns only to kill her parents, is shot dead by the police along with her boyfriend after the two Satan-worshipping outcasts attack the film’s protagonists, a pregnant Mia and her husband John Form, both neighbors of the Higgins, and possesses one of Mia’s (most repulsive-looking) dolls, newly gifted to her by John. Annabelle toys with the kitchen stove and starts a fire. After Mia and John change homes post their daughter Lia’s birth, she re-appears despite John disposing her of at Mia’s insistence. It haunts Mia day and night, which John, a doctor, at first attributes to post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are two effective ‘horror’ scenes in the film. One includes Mia’s encounter with Annabelle’s spirit in her new home, where Annabelle firstly assumes the form of her young self as Mia looks on stupefied from another room and suddenly transforms to her freakish adult form as she dashes into the room Mia is in. The other one is more elaborate, and involves Mia, a dimly-lit storage unit in a basement and an elevator that refuses to leave it.

The preposterous, rule-bending moment comes later, when a priest, who role until then involved doling out platitudes intermittently, is brought in to deal with the situation. The priest, Father Perez, takes the doll in his possession so he can ‘work on it’ (a priest has been a staple of every horror film involving demonic possession, none bettering Father Damian Karras, the priest in Exorcist who actually had depth in terms of character) but meets with a supernaturally-caused accident. Now here comes the incredulous ‘fear-for-fear’s-sake’ (for convenience, I’ll call it FFFS) moment that may frighten at first glance but upon first thought seems incredibly force, more like a foolish desperate ‘whatever it takes’ attempt on director John R. Leonetti and writer Gaby Dauberman’s part to incite fear.

Father Perez survives the accident and informs Mia’s husband John about the spirit’s maleficence while he’s hospitalized. He phones Mia, who’s at home with Evelyn, a middle-aged bookseller who intuits her trauma and voluntarily comes to her help. Before he can warn her, there’s a knock at the door. Mia looks through the peephole and finds Father Perez with his back turned towards her. She opens the door and calls him out. But we know that Father Perez is in the hospital with John. So who’s this fellow? It obviously is the spirit disguised as Father Perez out of the blue to momentarily spook us before vanishing to spook us as Annabelle or the Demon, the way it is intended to spook. It’s fairly obvious that this never-seen-before ability of the spirit is nothing but the redundant, desperate rule-breaking FFFS moment I was speaking of.

Annabelle could’ve worked out well, especially as it included a decent enough set-up – the event happens in 1967, there’s news of the Manson family’s arrest, both John and Mia profess love and support for one another, and their conversation doesn’t seemed canned, like most horror film conversations do. The film could’ve done so much by exploring the extent to which the spirit of Annabelle tests the couple’s loyalty and support towards each other. But John is hardly utilized in the film, and the character of Mia could’ve had more potential; she’s fighting to save her baby so surely she could’ve reacted more passionately. Annabelle Wallis, who plays Mia, doesn’t bring the vigor that a person like Mia needs while facing such drastic situations. She does timidity and helplessness well, but when it comes to fighting back, her face needed to display that resistance and will-power. Ward Horton, playing her husband John, is passable but as I said above, his character is grossly underutilized.

And then there’s poor Evelyn, played by Alfre Woodard, who displays such an incredible level of selflessness towards the end of the film. Her character’s treatment in the film’s climactic moment (which I shan’t reveal for fear of being unbraided for spilling spoilers) is totally WTF-level absurd. The problem over here again is the underwritten narrative. Dramatic climaxes work only if we’re well acquainted with our characters, and this can happen only if they are well-defined and for this, the filmmaker and writer need to give them more time, especially if they wish to do pack everything – good storyline, deep characterization, big themes, jump scares as well as real horror – in a single film.

Annabelle, trying to do everything within its compact time frame of 90 minutes, fails. The end result is Anna-bleh.