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.