Dir. Gauri Shinde
Dir. Gauri Shinde
Dir. Sujoy Ghosh
For Sujoy Ghosh to call this film Kahaani 2 inevitably sets certain expectations, and Kahaani 2 inevitably fails to meet them. It is a competent and entertaining thriller in its own right, but it lacks the freshness and riveting energy of Kahaani, lacks the vibrant sense of place, lacks most of the qualities that made Ghosh's 2012 work such an intense and special film. Even Vidya Balan is less compelling here, without the trembling intensity and sense of rage just bitten back that made her fill the screen and drive Kahaani through its terrific twist and conclusion.
In particular, in comparison to its outstanding predecessor, Kahaani 2 bears a structural weakness that makes the twist and reveal disappointing. (I don't consider it a spoiler to say that there is a twist and reveal, because that's part of the expectation Ghosh sets by choosing the name. And I won't disclose any of the facts of the twist and reveal here.) In Kahaani, there is only one key fact concealed from the viewer that is revealed in the climax - that Vidya Bagchi isn't really pregnant. That one new fact unravels nearly everything in the narrative, and this is shown from flashbacks, in the style of The Usual Suspects, to moments from earlier in the movie that take on entirely new significance in light of the newly revealed information. In Kahaani 2, though, the structure is almost opposite. Rather than presenting one momentous fact that forces startling reinterpretation of everything that came before, the reveal comes in the form of quasi-flashbacks to moments that had been omitted, moments had simply not been shown to the audience as the story unfolded in its apparently straightforward sequence. It is a legitimate enough narrative technique, but it feels cheaper, lazier; it is inherently less satisfying.*
Kahaani 2 also lacks an anchoring sense of place, the way Calcutta provided a thrilling, shifting presence in the earlier film. Kahaani 2 is mostly set in Chandannagar, a small city in West Bengal, but to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there's no there there; it could be anywhere. Even one of the film's characters, Rashmi (Manini Chadha), wife of the slightly disgraced police officer at the center of the film, Inderjeet Singh (Arjun Rampal), complains repeatedly of the boring sleepiness of Chandannagar compared to Calcutta, as if she is apologizing for the film's failure to replicate this superlative aspect of Kahaani. The scenes from the hill station Kalimpong provide a little more visual interest, but not much in the way of atmosphere.
But it isn't entirely fair to keep picking at all the ways in which Kahaani 2 is not Kahaani. Mostly, it is a serviceable and entertaining movie. Arjun Rampal is never a very expressive actor, and the most one can hope from him, typically, is that he does not ruin the movie one has used him in. He achieves that here, though he adds little, considering how much time he spends on screen. There is a fairly amusing collection of side characters, such as a couple of comical police officers, or the passport forger Goopy who makes a brief but funny appearance. (One excellent blink-if-you-miss-it sight gag occurs during the sequence in which Inderjeet Singh chases Goopy through his warehouse; one room they hurry through contains an easel and a collection of evidently forged masterpieces, such as the Mona Lisa.) The contract killer of this film is no Bob Biswas ("ek minute..."), but she's entertaining in her own right, a frighteningly cold-blooded badass done in by her completely mercenary approach to her job. And Jugal Hansraj as the villain is pleasantly disorienting, as his face still calls to mind the sensitive tear-jerking cutie of Masoom.
And then, of course, there is Vidya Balan. Though she gives a less crackling performance than Kahaani, to be fair to her, this movie's "Bidya" is a less crackling character. In Kahaani 2, she is an anxious, frumpy survivor of childhood sexual abuse, frizzy-haired and tired-looking, and the very ordinariness of her makes both her character's wounds and her occasionally questionable judgment accessible and sympathetic. Balan's character seems an extreme introvert whose life and circumstances push her badly outside her comfort zone; a damaged woman who has fled Calcutta and her past for an isolated life in Kalimpong, she nevertheless comes into relationships and situations that have life-altering consequences. With that theory of her character in mind, Balan is both effective and affecting.**
The points Kahaani 2 has to make about childhood sexual abuse are important, but occasionally heavy-handed; one speech of Vidya's on the subject is especially indulgent. Still, it's rare for a film to take on the most adult aspects of the scars that such abuse leaves. Highway covered the restlessness, the fractured sense of self and broken trust that often comes from it, and though I hated many things about that movie, it was a fairly sensitive handling of the issue. Kahaani 2, though, points its camera straight on at the lasting damage abuse can do to the victim's sexuality and relationships once she is grown. Sujoy Ghosh deserves full marks for taking that on.
* Kahaani 2 suffers too from its use of that hoariest of cinematic plot devices, the debilitating automobile accident. Car accidents that kill or incapacitate key characters at key narrative moments are, I think, disappointingly lazy storytelling. (I was about to say the one I'd seen most recently was in Kapoor and Sons, but then I remembered that I rewatched An Affair to Remember a month or two back. And it was probably already a hoary device by then, in 1957.)
** One thing that Vidya Balan does well, and has done well in many ways in everything from the first Kahaani to Bobby Jassoos to Ghanchakkar and even The Dirty Picture, is allow herself to be completely unglamorous, and here again there is absolutely nothing glamorous about her character. I read that in the early stages of the film's development, Aishwarya Rai was considered for this role, and perhaps the mediocrity of Jazbaa - a story in which Rai, like Balan here, searches for a kidnapped daughter - is a measure of how wrong her perfect-haired, perfect-bodied glamour would have been for Kahaani 2.
Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker
So I can't really call what follows a review; it's not entirely fair to the film to judge it on only half of what it offers. But I will say that were I watching this at home, on a DVD or streaming service, I would have pulled the plug much sooner. It's been a long time since I found a movie-watching experience so unenjoyable. Here, in no particular order, are some of the reasons why.
The costumes. I don't have expectations about historical accuracy in the costumes or anything else – it's not as if I would know what fashions prevailed among the Indus Valley peoples. But once freed from historicity, a film like this has an obligation to provide visual interest in its costume design. Mohenjo Daro disappoints. The men wear shirts that look like torn and roughly sewn t-shirts. Sarman (Hrithik Roshan) wears parachute pants. The one woman in the village, Sarman's aunt, wears a strange dress of the same inappropriate material, in a one-shouldered cut that reminds of Wilma Flintstone.
Even the grand costumes of the one woman in the story, Chaani (Pooja Hegde), are an ungepatchka* mess. Her headdress is a visual jumble, with feathers flying out at awkward angles and strings of parti-colored stones weighing down her poor head. Her gowns, rather than elegance, are patchwork randomness, with strategically-placed holes that look like undone buttons. These are neither breathtakingly over the top (as in, say, Bajirao Mastani), or amusingly over the top as in 70s costume classics like Dharam-Veer. They are simply uninteresting. Only the costumes of the visiting foreign delegations – loosely inspired by Mespotamian and Egyptian art – offer anything of interest, and even these lack sophistication of design. Kabir Bedi's longhorn headdress is a rare and ridiculous highlight.
The story. For a film that ought to have been epic, Mohenjo Daro lacks narrative complexity. A dreamy yokel heads to the big city and discovers he has a mysterious ancestral connection to it and its tyrannical ruler. He meets a girl who is already promised to the tyrant's son. And those hoary elements are pretty much it. Any potential for larger scope – and there is potential, with mention of warring cities, laborers on the edge of a tax revolt, and possible mystical elements – lies unexploited. To be fair, it's possible that more of these start to matter in the portion of the film I didn't get to.
The acting. I have been charitable toward Hrithik Roshan's earnestness in the past – look at the indulgent words I had for his work in Koi Mil Gaya years ago. But here, where a little sense of wonder might have been appropriate, Roshan gives a flat performance. He isn't overly earnest, but then he isn't overly anything. He renders Sarman mechanically, lifelessly. Likewise, Pooja Hegde is unfocused and generic, boring when she goes breathlessly girly and unconvincing when she attempts regal strength. As Sarman's sidekick Hojo, Umang Vyas is an uninteresting cliché, the sheltered young man who gapes like an idiot at the thought of girls. Alas, the men who render the villains, Kabir Bedi and Anurodhay Singh, seem the only members of the cast who understand what kind of movie they are in and how to play their parts, with scene-chewing relish.
The visuals. Mohenjo Daro has a lot in common with Baahubali, which also features a hunky country boy finding his way into the halls of power and discovering that he has regal ancestry and a savior's destiny. But Baahubali does all of it much more thrillingly, especially with respect to visuals. The waterfall sequence alone puts Mohenjo Daro's crocodile-wrestling to shame. Baahubali's CGI views of its city complex are not great, but Mohenjo Daro's are both antiseptic and cheesy. Indeed, the drab, and colorless, uninspired visuals are perhaps Mohenjo Daro's most egregious missed opportunity. One can forgive a lot of weaknesses in an epic film if it gives you a lot of dazzling things to look at. Gowariker should watch Bajirao Mastani and take a lesson from it. I say these things as a huge fan of neither Baahubali or Bhansali's films (except the superb Ram-Leela, also a thousand times more visually interesting than Mohenjo Daro).
That's not all that irritated as I squirmed through as much as I could manage of this unwatchable mess of a film. There are no women of consequence apart from the one who represents the mother goddess herself, and vast sequences in which not even a single woman is on screen. Couldn't one or two of the guild leaders, or someone in the market, or one of the foreign dignitaries, have been a woman? It's not as if Gowariker is aiming for historicity of any kind. And the soundtrack is a disappointment as well – even A.R. Rahman seems to have phoned it in this time. The sound is terrible too, with rerecorded dialogue as badly mixed as any 90s movie. It's just one more detail of Mohenjo Daro that comes across as lazily executed.
But the upshot is that it's hard for me to believe that the same director responsible for Lagaan – the film that brought sync sound to Hindi cinema, among its many other qualities – can generate such a dreary series of mistakes as Mohenjo Daro. I never thought I'd say I'd rather watch a Bhansali film than a Gowariker film, but when it comes to pseudo-historicals, it seems for now that Gowariker has lost his touch. I wish I'd gone into his film armed with a little Mohenjo Daaru.
* Yiddish, meaning ornate, overly decorated, and busy to the point of absurdity.
गोलियों की रासलीला राम-लीला
Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Bhansali films have been a mixed bag for me. For instance, while I am very fond of Khamoshi and Bajirao-Mastani, Saawariya hits some terribly wrong notes, and my seething hatred of Devdas is well-documented. Bhansali's aesthetic sense is strong, and even if he doesn't always pull it off, it's clear that he always has a grand vision in mind. In Ram-Leela, Bhansali fires on all cylinders. Everything that Bhansali sets out to do in all his films with such mixed degrees of success, he achieves in Ram-Leela - his fairy-tale settings, his superstars so sexy it almost hurts, his visuals so splendid they are almost edible. For me, Ram-Leela turns out to be a nearly flawless film, and one that has only improved with repeated viewings.
"Inspired by Romeo and Juliet," as the title cards put it, Ram-Leela sets its love story in the fantastical city of Ranjaar, and like any good fairy tale, it is firmly fixed neither in place nor in time. Ranjaar sits on the Gujarati seacoast, although bits of it are quite recognizably shot in Udaipur. And while the characters carry mobile phones and talk about Twitter, nearly all wear elaborate, traditional-style dress, dhotis and shawls and turbans. Only Ram Rajadi (Ranveer Singh), the rising scion of one of Ranjaar's two warring families, wears jeans and button-front shirts. And from the moment Ram comes rolling on screen, reclining in a beefcake pose on a motorcycle that seems to drive itself, propelled by Ram's awesome sexiness alone, it's clear that he's the black-sheep rebel of Ranjaar.
In Ranjaar, an astonished tourist tells his friend at the film's opening, guns and gun-sellers are as common as bhel puri and sugarcane juice stands in Mumbai. The half-millennium feud that dominates this landscape pits the smuggling Saneras against the gun-running Rajadis, and no one, not even small children, is exempt from the fight. Alone among both families, Ram longs to set down his weapons and make love, not war. In pursuit of this noble goal Ram strides boldly into a holi celebration in Sanera territory, and a few colorful and smoking-hot flirtation scenes later, is bound in love to the Sanera scion, Leela (Deepika Padukone).
But you can't grow up in an environment steeped in toxic masculinity without absorbing some of it into your own blood, and Ranjaar is nothing if not a sultry breeding-swamp for testosterone-fueled violence. It is the kind of place where completely absurd and reckless dick-fights routinely end in bloodshed. In one such contest, instead of dropping their dhotis and breaking out the measuring sticks, a group of virile young Rajadis and equally manly Saneras each decide to prove their superiority by shooting bottles off of the others' heads, William-Tell style. Unsurprisingly, Ram's brother is killed. In response, the peace-loving Ram loses his cool, and pumps Leela's brother full of bullets. In the aftermath, Ram and Leela flee, vowing to end the cycle of violence. But their families scheme to put a quick end to their elopement, and thus comes the thin end of the wedge that drives our lovers apart.
Ram-Leela puts one entertaining twist on its testosterone-soaked fever dream: The leader of the Saneras is a woman, Dhankor Baa (Supriya Pathak), Leela's mother. Dhankor is as vicious and ruthless as any of her deputies. She is also a treat to watch. Supriya Pathak both chews scenery and adds subtle emotive touches that keep her grounded. As hot as Ram and Leela are, Dhankor is the real scene-stealer of their movie, alternating carefully calibrated bursts of vicious temper with unctuous displays of measured wryness. It is a brilliantly controlled melodramatic performance. On a recent rewatch I found myself wondering what Ram-Leela would look like with Shabana Azmi in the role of Dhankor; I quickly realized that such a movie exists, and is called Godmother. Like Rambhiben of that movie, Dhankor Baa operates far outside the sphere of traditional femininity, wielding nearly incontestable power and commanding terrified respect. But Rambhiben is embedded in a matrix of realism, while Dhankor resides in a fable. And that gives Supriya Pathak a little more latitude to have fun with her menacing role.
I didn't even get to mention Richa Chadda, almost unbearably hot and fierce as Leela's bhabhi.
Though the film at first hews pretty closely to the Romeo & Juliet outline - warring families, clandestine balcony rendezvous complete with an adaptation of the "rose by any other name" line, brothers slain in revenge, secret elopement, even a suitor for Leela (a hilariously bumbling NRI archaeologist) - in a rather thrilling embellishment, Bhansali ups the stakes with events that propel both Ram and Leela to the heads of their respective families. And so the final showdown begins as a face-off and negotiation between Ram and Leela themselves, standing for Rajadi and Sanera in toto - an intense blending of business, vengeance, and passion.
The film is full of sequences like this, full of amped-up explosive intensity. Ranveer Singh pulls off this kind of barely-restrained mania like no other actor, and with both his oiled pecs (Leela actually makes fun of Ram's perfectly hairless chest) and Deepika Padukone on the screen, there is almost too much beauty to bear. They look amazing together, and while this worked well enough in Bajirao Mastani, it is off the charts in Ram-Leela. The color palates of Ram-Leela are gorgeous as well; there is a running metaphor involving peacocks, and at times the whole film seems peacock-colored, shimmering blues and deep blood reds. In one of the film's generous complement of songs, Priyanka Chopra looks good enough to eat on a backdrop that is somehow both infinitely parti-colored and soothingly pastel blue, a set that puts the excess of Devdas to shame in the way it successfully layers more and more and more and yet stays just this side of too much.
If there is a flaw in Ram-Leela - and this is such a nitpick - it is some ill-advised choreography. In one song Ram and his army of background dancers do (and overdo) a move that must have been lifted out of a dandruff-shampoo commercial, flapping their palms on the backs of their heads long enough that you start to feel a little embarrassed for them. In another, Ram and Leela recall the 90s with some very goofy side-by-side dancing worthy of Govinda-Karishma or Jeetu-Sridevi. Still these are such minor complaints. The songs themselves are marvelous, now recalling Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, now Devdas, and all visually dazzling. The film is just pure joy to watch, and to watch again - sexy, beautiful, gripping, and damn good fun.
Dir. Dibakar Banerjee
The events of Shanghai unfold in the fictional city of Bharatnagar, India City, a city that is any city in India, a microcosm of India. In Bharatnagar, political rallies halt traffic daily, working people's homes are bulldozed to make way for shiny commercial developments, and police and state officials collude to manipulate process. Shanghai exposes a strain of naivete in many of its characters, in a contrast to the hardened cynicism one might expect of people who live in that sort of city.
Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) spends the film on the edge of hysteria, barely contained. But her devotion is patently to her mentor and, it would seem, erstwhile lover, the professor-activist Ahmadi (Prosenjit Chatterjee). Indeed, she is devoted to the professor himself far more than to his cause, protection of poor communities threatened by the relentless pace of development that lines the pockets of the corrupt and unprincipled. Shalini's maid lets slip that the professor's life is in danger. But after she refuses to say how she knows this, Shalini fires her. The maid returns to her home, in the very neighborhood that the party is trying to raze to make room for the new high-class developments. The maid is one of the resettled people for whom the professor risks and loses his life, and Shalini casts her out without a second thought. Koechlin's performance in this role is frenzied and on edge, conveying a sense that Shalini is beyond all reason. Her naivete comes in believing that others in the professor's circle are as irrational as she; when the professor's wife expresses weariness at his constant exposure to danger, when she says that the professor's crusade is his and not hers, Shalini is uncomprehending.
The videographer, Jogi (Emraan Hashmi), is a character of surprising depth, a more realistically drawn version of the classic tapori hero with a heart of gold - think Aamir Khan in Ghulam, who like Jogi, also develops a rough-hewn sense of justice and goes up against powerful politicians. He starts the film a gaping idiot, all stupid smiles and even stupider come-ons to every woman he encounters. But Jogi's attraction to Shalini motivates him to help her uncover the professor's killer, even after he sees his own boss murdered - as the stakes get higher, Jogi's character becomes more focused, more purposeful, and takes greater and greater personal risks to help her. In Jogi's turning point, Shalini comes to Jogi to demand information. Jogi grabs and threatens her, and Shalini, desperate at this point, tells him he can do whatever he wants with her. Jogi lets her go, and gets to work on the footage she is asking for. Jogi is no longer the horny half-moron of the early parts of the film; he has become a man willing to take risks to expose the political conspiracy that he and Shalini are uncovering.
The young hired thug, Bhagu (Pitobash Tripathy), goes beyond mere naivete into fatal stupidity. He is cavalier about the work he does for the party, whether inciting riots or helping with the professor's murder. But he's also cavalier about his place in the party pecking order. He confronts the party's top hired heavy, demanding the return of the truck that he and his uncle Jaggu (Anant Jog) used for the murder, at a public rally in front of dozens of onlookers, threatening to rat if he doesn't get what he wants. How can Bhagu not see that this will get him killed? Bhagu is all id, high on his moment of importance, hopelessly incapable of foreseeing consequences to his actions. He is emblematic of the endless supply of prospectless young men to which the party has access to do its dirty work.
In Bharatnagar, though, naivete is not limited to the uneducated or rough-hewn types. The bureaucrat T.A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol) is, in his own way, as shockingly naive as Bhagu. Putting him in charge of investigating the professor's death, Krishnan's boss Kaul (Farooq Sheikh) tells him in almost so many words that the investigation is a sham, its conclusions (scapegoating a junior police officer) foreordained. Krishnan seems not to believe what he has heard, and investigates in earnest despite Kaul's increasing frustration with him. By film's end Krishnan's goody-two-shoes innocence is broken, and he learns to use party machinations to further his principled ends.
The interplay of these characters, with their blind spots, varying motivations, and waxing dedication as the stakes get higher, makes for a damn good story. I love films like this, films that expose the ways human needs and desires grease or gum up the grimy wheels of politics. Shanghai is a very satisfying exemplar.