Thursday, September 27, 2012

Coke Studio Pakistan – At a crossroads

(Published in, on August 31, 2012, retrieved from
Khabaram raseedah...imshab
Khabaram raseedah imshab kih nigaar khaahi aamad
The words are beautiful; the voices that sing them mellifluous. And yet, I find that instead of being overwhelmed as I usually am by the qawwali of Farees Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, enraptured by the transcendental waves of their music, parts of my consciousness are held down, niggled. Perhaps it’s the constant drumming and strumming, perhaps it’s the psychedelic sound waves zipping across giant screens, perhaps it’s the acoustics that throw back bits of the singers’ strains at them. But the Coke Studio version of Khabaram Raseedah doesn’t affect me the way even scratchy recordings of live, open-air concerts do.
Well, let me make full disclosure here, thus allowing people who’re already frowning to skip right over to the ‘Comments’ section – I’m one of those purists. Actually, let’s face it, we’re classical chauvinists. My idea of fusion is jugalbandhi, you know, the kind where Bhimsen Joshi and Balamurali Krishna would dart alaaps and swaras at each other. So, I began as a sceptic, wrinkling my nose at the spangled headphones, neon outlines and cardboard cut-outs of Coke bottles. But, at one point, Coke Studio was beginning to win me over. After watching Duur from Season 1, where Hussain Bakhsh Gullo was accompanied by Strings, and the mix felt just right, I’d begun to, as a friend puts it, “hope that the people who read Chetan Bhagat will eventually graduate to Kafka.”
Fans of fusion often feel the need to defend themselves. The usual argument is that “the younger generation”, raised on rock music and Western instruments, can be channelled into looking into their own musical heritage, so that folk music and Hindustani classical and indigenous instruments may be stoked back into life, so that they may reach a larger audience. And then, of course, there is the more appealing, less pedantic argument – that there is space for both modern and traditional music, and that it tests the creativity of exponents of both forms when they’re asked to jam.
To me, the tragedy of Coke Studio is what started out as a conversation between two genres of music has got so wrapped up in itself that it has sold out to its image. It is the cool, ‘in’ thing, the trend-setter in the subcontinent. The noble cause it stood for, the lofty ideal of bringing everyone together, breaking barriers of genre, religion, nationality, and to some extent, language, is laudable. And there is no doubt Coke Studio has achieved this ‘bringing together’ of people.
What I find disappointing, though, is that instead of pushing further in search of the not-yet-popular, Coke Studio has begun to corporatise. It has chosen to sex itself up by turning to the likes of Meesha Shafi, Rachel Viccaji and Komal Rizvi – actresses and models whose bodily gyrations win more approval than their vocal acrobatics, who are clearly more comfortable on the ramp than in the studio.
However, they’ve established a fan base that may be responsible for the corporatisation of Coke Studio – and that this is what matters to the programme was obvious from the fact that the fifth season finale was Meesha Shafi’s frequently off-key version of the Iqbal Bano-Faiz classic Dasht-e-Tanhai. The song is a difficult one even for good singers to attempt – the magic of Iqbal Bano’s music lay not only in her voice and style, but the special quality of plaintiveness that would highlight what the words conveyed. Though I was initially baffled as to why Meesha Shafi had chosen such a challenging song, it strikes me as a clever decision now – with the music camouflaging most of her errors in the latter part of the song, it has served to elevate her status as a singer among the public.
One can’t deny that there have been some brilliant renditions of popular songs, and lovely poetry too, in Coke Studio. The likes of Abida Parveen, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Asif Hussain Samraat, Tina Sani and Javed Bashir adapt quite masterfully to the instruments around them, controlling the music and knowing just how much to give the microphones. There have been some incredibly memorable performances, including Arif Lohar’s Mirza Sahibaan from Season 3, and the programme can boast of discoveries like Sanam Marvi, who largely owes her popularity to Coke Studio.
But there are many among the classical musicians and folk singers who are confused by all the new sounds, whose virtuosity is lost in a profusion of beats that their music doesn’t really lend itself to. At times, Coke Studio seems to forget that not every song is made for throaty gasps, high-pitched harmonies, hoarse trail-offs and westernised vowel intonations from backup singers; that one can jam with traditional instruments too, as was done so hauntingly in the case of Moomal Rano by Fakir Juman Shah and his group.
With a dedicated audience, Coke Studio can afford to be bold enough to throw in the odd song which is pure classical, or unadulterated folk. Saieen Zahoor, Akhtar Chanal Zahri, the Chakwal group, Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi, Ustad Naseer-ud-din Saami and the many qawwals who have been featured in Coke Studio sing songs meant for the great outdoors, songs that ought not to be limited by space. Their instruments are muted, just enough to keep time and provide the slightest accompaniment. The Coke Studio performances of these artists have worked best when the accompanists have chosen to exercise restraint, so that the delicate twirls of their syllables weren’t lost in instrumental fervour.
And that’s also why Coke Studio needs to be more careful about picking the combinations of groups and singers who can perform together. To bring Ali Zafar and Tufail Ahmed together is begging for disaster. Performers like Ali Zafar, Zeb and Haniya, Bilal Khan and Noori may be popular with the public, but it takes musicians of the calibre of Atif Aslam, Shafqat Amanat Ali and Strings to hold their own against the doyens of the traditional forms.
It must be acknowledged that, with its excellent sound systems and talented instrumentalists, Coke Studio has often pushed the better musicians to excel. Atif Aslam’s rendition of Dholna is quite unforgettable, as is Shafqat Amanat Ali’s Kuchch Ajab Khel Karatar Ke. And often, the more average performers have made me either seek out, or go back to, the original versions of the songs they pick.
But there is the more dangerous trend of people feeling pushed to come up with something magnificent, and getting “inspired” by iconic bands or songs. One example is ADP’s Sultanat, the guitar riffs of which reminded me immediately of Running Wild’sThe Ghost. Another is Karavan’s Kaisay Mumkin Hai, which seemed rather heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin and Kiss. Then, there have been rather awful covers of AichaI’m a Believer, and Billie Jean (the last was, admittedly, improvised).
There are times when I feel the artists –some of them, at least – on Coke Studio are better than the programme. But the show itself, the brainchild of Rohail Hyatt, could well be history-in-the-making in the musical discourse of the subcontinent. It has caught the public’s imagination and has the potential to dig out little known talent and catapult it to fame. There have been interpretations of music that I have gone back to several times over the years. And I probably spend less time shaking my head at modern interpretations of Rabindra Sangeet that look beyond the tabla and harmonium, and of Carnatic that go beyond the mrigandam, flute, violin and veena, thanks to this show broadening my perceptions of what music can be.
However, Coke Studio may have arrived at a juncture where it needs to re-evaluate itself, and figure out which way it wants to go – higher TRPs, or better music. And if it is not to lose sight of the purpose it has claimed to be standing up for, we all know what the choice should be.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Dirty Picture, Version 2.0

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 23 September 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal, Randeep Hooda
Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Rating: ½ star
Here’s my theory on how Heroine was written – Madhur Bhandarkar closed his eyes, and did “Inky Pinky Ponky” on a roomful of gossip rags from 1960-2012. He then tore out random pages about troubled heroines, meshed them together, glued the gaps with his ubiquitous gays, hard-boiled agents, catty media hounds, and bitchy rivals. Throw in sex tapes and a lesbian moment to titillate, and you have a caricature of Bollywood, replete with cheesy dialogue.
Where’s the “insider’s perspective” in reproducing the same tired story any film on film has told? Worse, when you use the same stereotypes? Bhandarkar goes out of his way to show us everyone in the film industry drinks, smokes, and has sex. This time, a film-journalist narrator guides us through the story of Mahi Arora (Kareena Kapoor). Broken home, bipolar disorder, box office flops, sordid affair(s). Wait, what’s new? Failed adoption, clash with lover’s wife, bina makeup day, MMS scandal...oh, new, you said?
Kareena Kapoor, playing the eponymous character, is present in almost every frame, and seems to have no clue what to do with her screen time. She spends a good chunk crying, smoking and stumbling in a (presumably) alcoholic daze. She divides the rest between throwing things at people and feeling herself up. For foils, she has a bunch of nondescript friends, most of whom flap their hands about madly to prove they’re gayer than Paris. For sex, she has Aryan Khanna (Arjun Rampal), whom she illogically accuses of using her. For masochism, she has Tapanda – Ranvir Shorey trying hard to lampoon a Bengali art-house filmmaker with a schizophrenic accent.
The only relief to this display of shoddy acting comes from unexpected quarters: Helen as a yesteryear star who is now a “character actor”, and Arjun Rampal, who takes on the slightly negative role he’s executed well in many of his films – a man who rates his work above almost everything else. Rampal has shown promise in the few good scripts he’s had, such as Rock On and The Last Lear, but he has little to do here. Randeep Hooda, who I’ve often felt is an excellent actor stuck in bad movies, has such terrible lines even he can’t make them work.
The film meanders to a limp end, with jumps in time that only serve to convince us the filmmakers have literally lost the plot.
The Verdict: Heroine could be a poor remake of Dirty Picture, with a little less flab on the actors and a little more on the storyline.

Scouting for Attention

(Originally published in, on May 18, 2012)

Cast: Jared GilmanKara HaywardBruce WillisEdward Norton, Bill Murray and others
Director: Wes Anderson
Rating: 4.5 stars
Maybe it’s the serious expressions of everyone in the Bishop household; maybe it’s the fact that a home run military style, complete with a loudspeaker to announce meals, shouldn’t house so many slobs; maybe it’s because the misfits in the film are always neatly turned-out.  But from the word go, you’re laughing at all the wrong times in Moonrise Kingdom. Yet, it seems the film demands that. Couched in a soft palette of pastel shades and delicate hues, it forces us to confront cruelty, loneliness, and compromise in a fantastical world that feels strangely suffocated by reality.
It’s 1965, and we’re on an island that appears to be populated only by the characters in this film. Our guide is an eccentric narrator (Bob Balaban), who pops up every now and again with reporter-on-site style weather updates, reinforcing the idea that we can’t help but imbue the forecast with significance vis-à-vis the lives of the characters.  
The film is loaded with contradictions. Solemn occasions look ridiculous, and ridiculous ones solemn; characters don’t die when you expect them to, and die when you’re sure they won’t; children display their maturity when adults get petty. And all of this is infused with the innocence of a fable. Yet, this is a dreamscape where even intelligent kids will stick their fingers in electric sockets, where we sense the frustration of some characters when others insist on conforming to nonsensical rules.
With stylised moves, minimal dialogue, and quirky music, the film embraces the bizarre. Try this exchange: “Does it concern you that your daughter’s missing?” “That’s a loaded question.” At its simplest, Moonrise Kingdom is a growing-up story – of Sam (Jared Gilman), of Suzy (Kara Hayward), of Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), of Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). At its most complicated, it questions the meaning of love, comfort, responsibility, morality, friendship and family ties.
Wes Anderson's signature style is to play on the subtle moments - a cadet pushing open the door after everyone else has squeezed through the gap, a sudden pause and shake of the head, a cat's meow at just the right time, a stamp of the foot that nearly kills everyone, a kid jumping on a trampoline in the background as two other people are making what they think is the most important decision of their lives. Here, the music deserves special mention - it's incredible how Hank Williams and one operatic piece can drive an entire film.
I doubt there’s ever been an ensemble cast where everyone has so much to do, especially when the kernel of the story is the approach of adolescence, and its accompanying restlessness, uncertainty and curiosity. Pragmatic issues like custody are raised by a wacky character known only as Social Services (Tilda Swinton).
The delightful mix of the impractical and the sensible, so reflective of the movie, is best illustrated by the contents of a runaway duo’s luggage. Indeed, there are moments when we wonder whether the entire film may be a daydream, especially when we find out where it got its name.
The Verdict: A charming film that makes us nostalgic for a time when we could escape into stories, when our imagined worlds seemed more real than our daily lives.

Old wine, old bottle

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on 23 September 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal, Randeep Hooda, Helen, Mugdha Godse, Shahana Goswami, Ranvir Shorey
Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Rating: 1 star
A car pulls up at a pavement, a woman (Kareena Kapoor) is thrown out. Weeping, she screams, “Bastard!” Then, she heads to the police station, where gaping cops gasp, “Arre, yeh toh Mahi hai na?” and indulge her as she weeps through the night. When she leaves, to face the media glare, flashing cameras and thrusting microphones at her, I groan. It’s obvious that the storyline will be insipid, the film will be populated by stock characters, and the actors will ham their way through most of it.
It gets worse. The film doesn’t stop at the token gay man. It’s teeming with them. And they all flutter their fingers like they’re learning to fly. More annoying are the aspiring and established actresses, who dig their claws into each other’s careers, even as they air kiss. Even the techniques are overused – people smile, wave and hug as they trade nasty comments. The only innovation in the film is camaraderie with an award-winning Bengali actress (Shahana Goswami), which leads to more intimacy than Mahi bargained for.
The film doesn’t offer any insight into the big bad world of Bollywood, except to assert that it’s no place for good people. The only character with any depth is played by Helen, who makes a guest appearance as a yesteryear actress, who speaks with cheery nostalgia of how the entire unit would eat together back in the day, when stars didn’t have vans, but would plonk themselves under umbrellas for sun protection.
It isn’t that all the actors in the film are bad – not by a long way. Randeep Hooda, who plays Vice-Captain of the Indian cricket team, has a genuine boy-from-Ludhiana-who-made-it-big appeal. But the script gives him very little scope. He delivers lines like, “Tum log ko siraf istmaal kar sakte” and “Jab career hai, heroines pyaar chahte hain. Jab pyaar hai, tab career” with conviction and panache.
Arjun Rampal, who has made an admirable transition from model to actor, plays Aryan Khanna, a star whose affair with Mahi wrecks his home. His frustration with her tantrums comes through, as does his attraction, and later, affection for her. But the script doesn’t allow him to explore his character much further than as an accessory, and his screen time is too limited for him to make the character’s ambiguous feelings believable. He excels in one scene, where he remains completely silent while driving Mahi home, despite her attempts to provoke him into saying something.
However, the most damning aspect of the film is that neither Kareena Kapoor’s character nor her portrayal of it elicits our empathy. She sidles through the first ten minutes, and seems to cry for most of the film. There are occasions where she actually begins to act, but those descend quickly into melodrama, aided by cloying music.
The Verdict: Heroine is disappointingly run-of-the-mill, offering nothing new to an audience that has seen several movies of this ilk.

Wham, bam, thank you, 3D Cam

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 22 September 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris
Director: Pete Travis
Rating: 3.5 stars
There are some of us whose childhoods were sullied by a terrible movie called Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone. When we grew older, we were further messed up by the discovery that the lines curled out by Stallone’s wooden Dredd, played like every other character he’s essayed, had their origins in a comic book series that began before we were born. Those of us can draw succour from this new interpretation of Dredd, a film that pares the story down to what it really is – an action movie free from the trappings of sentiment and logic.
Because, let’s be honest. We all know a film whose locations are ‘Cursed Earth’ and ‘Mega-City One’, whose tough-guy hero is ‘Dredd’, whose villain is ‘Ma-Ma’, and which documents a war on a drug called ‘Slo-Mo’ has to be unimaginative. But Dredd (3D) is one of those films that shows us unimaginative fare can still be enjoyable, provided the 3D effects don’t stop at ammunition heading right for us. Of course, it helps if you’re into blood spurting and squirting all over the place. It also helps when the bloodshed prompts parents who’ve brought their spawn to an adult movie to take their wailing kids out of the cinema.
Back to the movie. You don’t expect any film spawned by a dystopian graphic novel whose eponymous hero is a masked-but-licensedvigilante to bother with plot or character development. Naturally, the setting is a wasteland where futuristic technology and rigid lawmakers infuse a sort of sameness into society. We enter the story, as usual, when a villain’s wreaking havoc.
In a film of this ilk, some things are a given:
  • Everyone wears stupid costumes and tries to look tough
  • The head of operations is a woman, and executor of operations is a man
  • The executor is accompanied by a woman whom he may or may not kiss at the end
  • Everyone wants to kill the lead pair
  • At some point, we want everyone to succeed
  • There’s lots of gore and gunfire

Here’s where Dredd scores. The 800 million strong megacity is so intricately represented that it’s completely believable the project was shot using 3D cameras on practical sets. Though most of the action happens inside a single building, we enter it through a world that seems so real we want a sequel, just so we can explore it. The filmmakers know they must capitalise on the scope of the 3D camera, and we find ourselves pulled into every experience in this film – including a rather enjoyable virtual narcotic trip.
Karl Urban – or more specifically, his jaw – looks the part of Dredd, the Street Judge with a firm hand, golden heart and penchant for growling out his lines. Lena Headey, whom I last recall seeing as a scantily-clad queen in 300, looks as sinister as she can with weird facial scars and a name like ‘Ma-Ma’.
A lot of complicated action choreography later, you reflect that the movie would have been over in five minutes if the psychics had used their power with some forethought. Ironic, huh?
The Verdict: Dredd (3D) is a happily unimaginative action film which is redeemed by its exploitation of 3D.

Friday, September 21, 2012

‘Anti-Islam’ propaganda: Why rise to the bait?

(Published in, on 20 September 2012, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: Unauthorised use of this image is prohibited.

I live in a city that is arguably the most peaceful metro in this country. A city where there isn’t much communal tension, certainly not enough to cause rioting. A city where a few people routinely set themselves on fire in support of some cause or protest against some decision, and where there will be the occasional fracas in colleges or courts, and where political parties and the film fraternity go on relay fasts every now and again over the Tamil Eezham issue, or over some water crisis – but a city that hasn’t been the focus of national attention since Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in nearby Sriperumbudur in 1991.
But for the past few days, traffic has been stalled for hours, and posses of police personnel have been manning the streets, because of large-scale protests by several Muslim organisations outside the US Embassy in the heart of Madras.
And this wasn’t an ordinary sit-in, or run-of-the-mill protest with sloganeering. It was one of the most intense I’ve witnessed anywhere. The streets were choked for hours. A 20,000-strong crowd had assembled, appropriating the arterial Mount Road. The sloganeering was only interrupted when the entire assembly stopped for evening namaaz. To my horror, I saw images on television of motorcycles that happened to be parked nearby set on fire. A vehicle that belonged to a Tamil television channel was apparently burnt too.
As the anti-American sentiment among Muslims spreads from the Middle East to the subcontinent, access to the offending video, an English clipping from a film called Innocence of Muslims, has been blocked. I saw it a little over a week ago, when Egyptians stormed the American embassy in Cairo. One journalist had described it on Twitter as “a very unfunny remake of The Life of Brian”.
Yes, a very unfunny, terribly shot, awfully scripted remake. Reportedly made by a Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and promoted by Pastor Terry Jones, the crazy extremist who organised a Quran-burning fête despite the US administration trying desperately to reason with him. It was apparently shot with actors who mouthed completely different lines that were altered by dubbing. They’re believed to have been paid minimum wage.
What I don’t see is why a bizarre film made by a nutter deserves so much importance. Or should cause so much hatred against the country he happens to belong to. How are American embassies across the world to blame for one man making a home video? Why is American President Barack Obama being burnt in effigy and held responsible for the actions of a man who happens to live in the country whose Presidency Obama assumed four years ago?
As violence sweeps across this part of the world, people are being killed every day. “Foreigners” are being targeted – foreigners who have nothing to do with the man or people who made the film. In Afghanistan, a suicide bomber killed at least twelve people, who were all aviation workers. Most weren’t even American; even if they had been, there was no reason they or anyone else should have been killed. Not even the makers of the film.
By reacting in such a manner to the film, whose existence we came to know of only when it was uploaded on YouTube, dubbed in Arabic, and pushed into the media’s ambit, followers of Islam have played right into the hands of the makers of this ridiculous film. What better way to besmirch a religion than to provoke its followers into frenzy, and then count the bodies?
The wave of angry protest reminds me of the Prophet cartoons controversy of 2005, when Danish embassies were stormed and Danish flags burnt, in response to a single newspaper publishing cartoons that ridiculed Islam and Prophet Muhammad.
Since the clippings sparked similar reactions, spoof site The Onion put up a caricature of Jesus, Moses, Ganesha and the Buddha in an orgy, titled, ‘No one was murdered because of this image’. French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo went further, publishing cartoons that depicted a Jew wheeling Prophet Muhammad someplace on the cover page, and the Prophet in an imitation of Brigitte Bardot from And God created Woman in the inner pages. Since then, France has announced that it will shut its embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday, as a preventive measure.
It’s true that the Islamic faith may have been targeted by extremists of other persuasions. And it’s only natural that anti-Islamic propaganda should be disturbing to its followers. But at a time when any fool can shoot an offensive video and upload it online, maybe the only solution is to ignore such provocation and go about one’s daily business. After all, by taking to storming embassies and setting off suicide bombs, no one is doing their faith any favours, whatever the faith may be.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Is Sycophancy Exempt from Sedition?

(Published in on 16 September 2012, retrieved from

While cartoonist Aseem Trivedi has become a national hero for the self-proclaimed supporters of freedom of expression, and remains a seditionist for the self-proclaimed guardians of patriotic spirit, let’s look beyond his cartoons for a while.
Let’s look at what he has been accused of – sedition, through disrespecting national emblems. And how has he “disrespected” them? One of his cartoons depicts the lions of the Ashoka Pillar as bloodthirsty wolves, with the slogan Sathyameva Jayate (Truth alone triumphs) altered to Brashtameva Jayate (Corruption alone triumphs). Another depicts the Parliament as the base of a Western-style latrine with flies hovering around it. Another depicts Ajmal Amir Kasab as a dog urinating on the Constitution.
Let’s say the charges against Aseem Trivedi are valid, and that he has indeed disrespected symbols enshrined in our democracy. If that is the case, then, shouldn’t the sycophantic party workers who tack our politicians’ faces on to national emblems be tried for the same alleged crime?
How is it, then, that these party workers have plastered public walls in metros and other large cities with posters desecrating national symbols, complete with their own photographs, so we know whom to blame, and got away with it?
 A few years ago, a Congress party member called Kailash Sonkar supplied his name, photograph and mobile number on a poster that had Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s face superimposed on a picture of the Rani of Jhansi, complete with a baby bag for her son Rahul. She was bearing the Indian flag, just in case her mission – or representation – wasn’t clear enough.
I have seen posters that represent Sonia Gandhi as the Bharat Mata in my own hometown. These are usually put up when the ruling party in the state, whichever it may happen to be, strikes up an alliance with the Congress.
As the controversy over Trivedi broke out, actor Ashwin Mushran tweeted a photograph of a poster that seems to have been put up in Madras. The very same emblem Trivedi has been accused of disrespecting is shown bearing the faces of Rahul Gandhi, P Chidambaram and his son Karthi Chidambaram. At least five names, one mobile number, and the photograph of one grinning party worker have been supplied on the poster itself.
But has any one of these party workers been punished? Has any of them even been accused of sedition? Or do the powers that be at the Centre consider themselves representative of national insignia? Do they deem it natural that the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi should be portrayed as the Bharat Mata, or even as the Rani of Jhansi? Incidentally, the Congress is yet to find a foothold in the state the Rani hailed from.
There have been several debates earlier over the representation of politicians as Gods. Following the uproar over a photograph of Obama in the magazine Newsweek, that seemed representative of Lord Nataraja, this blog posted several of the poorly-Photoshopped images the writer had come across.
These included a tribute from the DMK to its atheist leader Karunanidhi and his son Stalin, represented as Lord Krishna and Arjuna respectively. Also pictured is a portrayal of Sonia Gandhi as Ma Durga. The BJP, which usually objects to the representation of politicians as Hindu Gods, should probably take a closer look at the face of the Ma Durga in the last photograph on the page.
In a country where textbooks are scoured for “offensive” cartoons, a professor gets arrested for circulating a cartoon of Mamata Banerjee, and a cartoonist is accused of sedition, is it all right for the faces of politicians to be mounted on national and religious icons? Or are our “leaders” so blinded by their double-standards that the irony is lost on them?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

We, the one per cent

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 16th September, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Richard Gere, Tim Roth, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Rating: 4 stars
For the first time in the history of this career – you know, the one where I’m paid to watch movies – I Googled the name of a film before heading to the cinema. Because I had a feeling “Arbitrage” wasn’t the name of Richard Gere’s character, though the posters could have one fooled. Apparently, it involves making money from the price difference between two or more international markets. It sounds legal; it definitely seems logical.
If we’re lucky, even the most business-linguistically challenged of us will figure out why most of America’s pissed off with Wall Street, from Abritrage. We will also follow what most of the characters are saying most of the time. True, the actors enjoy spitting out jargon like it was the only vocabulary they grew up with. But the story transcends this, to keep us hooked.
Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki crafts an exceptional script, where strong characters dictate the story, so that the events and their follow-up seem natural. Circumstances and the primal urge to save one’s own skin, at all costs, eliminate the need for the crutch of coincidence.
It gives me special pleasure to watch Richard Gere in a dastardly role, perhaps I grew up in a generation that sighed and swooned over his Pretty Woman line, “Not all men hit.” Some aspects of Edward Lewis do carry over to Richard Miller, though – he’s a troubled billionaire, with a weakness for the wrong kind of woman. And he has a secret – but this isn’t a crisis of conscience that a hooker with insight can soothe. Here, he’s truly an awful man, with no thought for anyone but himself.
And no one would have been any the wiser if it weren’t for a nosy daughter and a chatty cop. An accident brings Detective Michael Bryer into Miller’s life. You never let the cops in when you have something to hide – especially when the something involves hundreds of millions of dollars. The inspired casting of Tim Roth in the role of the detective ensures that our attention is riveted, but our loyalties are never divided.
We are always on Miller’s side. His baseness of character finds foil in his nobility of countenance. And this appears to work on the premise that there is nothing more attractive than a haughty billionaire – except a handsome haughty billionaire. And though we’re not sure he’ll worm his way out of the mess, we’re sure we want him to. Even if it means the ruin of all the good people we sympathise with, but strangely, don’t relate to.
The Verdict: Arbitrage is a gripping thriller of the calibre of Match Point.

An eloquent silence

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 16 September 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Ileana D’Cruz
Director: Anurag Basu
Rating: 4 stars
True, the story takes some liberties with logic. True, we’re not sure whether Priyanka Chopra’s character is deaf, autistic or both. True, Pritam’s ubiquitous band is annoying. And yet, when Barfi! ends, I can only think of Rumi’s saying, “Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.”
So infectious are the delightful innocence and easy optimism of the characters that we can’t fault any of their decisions. We’re so deeply involved in their lives that when one of them must choose between the realisation of her love, and the happiness of the man she loves, we want her to be selfish, to fight for the bond she gave up all other ties for.
The film bounces us between the present day, 1972 and 1978, taking us through the interwoven lives of three people – Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz), Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor) and Jhillmill (Priyanka Chopra). A criminal plot ushers in the suspense, complicating the narrative and pushing it beyond the traditional love triangle.
Even when the film takes depressing turns, the characters never demand our pity. Instead, they give us cause to laugh. We meet Barfi as the deaf-mute village prankster and the bane of Inspector Dutta’s (Saurabh Shukla’s) existence. Dutta angrily blames him for shrinking his 52” waist to 42”. We learn how Barfi got his name through a quirky song, the lyrics of which include the line, “Radio on hua, Amma off hui”.
His relationships with Shruti and Jhillmill make us wonder about the things love can make us do – and the things it can’t. When you meet The One, would you trust him or her enough not to run away when you think a pole is about to fall on you? Would you trust fate enough to run away from a life that promises comfort and contentment?
The film’s magic is in its treatment of its tender moments – a reversed ‘B’ that’s faithfully copied, an indulgent feint of surprise, a lonely girl’s longing to fit in at a party her parents throw, an ingeniously stolen cigarette, a beautifully-taken shot of a portrait being painted, a signboard whose irony hits home.
Though Pritam leaves his mark with a brazen copy of the 1951 Tamil hit Aiyya Saami for the opening bars of Aashiyaan, the music nudges us into a world whose allure is its silence, a world where we’re enchanted by masked dancers and fireflies glowing inside soap bubbles.
The Verdict: A charming storyline and superlative performances make the few contrived elements in this film forgivable.

The Lure of the Wrong Side

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on 16 September 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Richard Gere, Tim Roth, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta, Nate Parker
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Rating: 4 stars
What is it about a thoroughly corrupt man, who snaps, “Everyone works for me!”, and would rather send an innocent man to jail for ten years than have his face in the tabloids, that draws us to his side? Why do we want him to get away with everything – fraud, manslaughter, cheating – especially when he’s too proud to apologise for anything? His only defence to his detractors is that this is the way the world works, and yet we want him to come out unscathed.
Maybe it’s the director’s skill. Maybe it’s the fact that Robert Miller is played by Richard Gere. But Arbitrage has us rooting for ‘evil’ from the word go. What’s wrong with rich people wanting more and more? Why should someone be dragged to the chopping block just because a relatively safe bet he hedges backfires? What is wrong if his principles are for sale?
A good actor can lead us to his side even when he’s playing a despicable man, but it takes something else to make us resent his righteously angry wife, especially when she’s played by Susan Sarandon. And to make us dismiss his daughter as a sententious twit, when everything she says is right.
The brilliance of the story, written by director Nicholas Jarecki, draws from the credibility of his characters. No one is good. No one is bad. People are driven by circumstance, and their natures drive their reactions. Philosophy is incidental to the film – we can debate whether the end justifies the means, or whether some lives are worth more than others, but that isn’t its main concern.
This is best exemplified in the character of Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a man who doesn’t mind breaking the odd rule, or even framing a man, for a larger cause. Roth’s scene with Gere is particularly enjoyable, drawing out the best in both actors – Gere’s cool assurance and Roth’s self-deprecating wit.
The only character that doesn’t seem etched well enough is that of Miller’s wife. We don’t quite get a handle on her feelings for him. Is she in love with him? Did she make a safe choice in marrying him and staying with him? Or is it a sham marriage? If it is, why does she want to go on vacation with him all the time? And why does she care enough about him to give him a pep talk when he needs it?
The narrative is punctuated with well-timed comebacks and clever wordplay. The subplots are subtle – Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of Miller’s now-dead employee, says more with his tears as he hugs his girlfriend than he could have with a long tirade.
Logic tells us that a criminal who covers his tracks so messily that a detective pins him down five minutes into their conversation will be caught. Our consciences tell us that a man who barely grieves for someone he claimed to love, a man who plays with other people’s money and lives, should be caught. But we want him to go scot free. We cling on to the few good things he does, and tell ourselves he deserves a chance.
The Verdict: Arbitrage is an achievement of storytelling, acting and direction that shouldn’t be missed.

Where words have no place

(Published in The New Indian Express, on 15 September 2012, Saturday, retrieved from

Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Ileana D’Cruz, Rupa Ganguly, Saurabh Shukla
Director: Anurag Basu
Rating: 4 stars
Every once in a while, along comes a movie that urges us to look beyond its trappings. To lose ourselves in the lives of its characters, and the simple, but powerful, emotions that touch their lives. Barfi! is one such. Navigating between the present day and the 1970s, it tells us two love stories – one that is stifled by pragmatism, another that is spurred by trust.
The opening song, Picture Shuru, which tells us “Mobile bachche dono off rakhna”, pulls us into its happy sweep. But the opening scene bewilders us. Who is this Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor), who seems to live all alone in a home for old people? And why does he matter so much to Shruthi Ghosh (Ileana D’Cruz), a social worker based in Kolkata?
We’re pitched into 1978, where a hilarious chase by the overweight Inspector Dutta (Saurabh Shukla) takes us into a flashback-within-the-flashback. We meet Jhillmill Chatterjee (Priyanka Chopra), a deaf girl who shies away from communication with most people. An alcoholic mother and a hen-pecked father drive her towards her Nanaji and “Dadu”, the head of a home for special children.
In a story that spans 1972 to the present day, with delightfully subtle scenes that allow us to experience the characters’ little delights and endearing innocence, we’re left wondering what love really is. How do we know when we’re truly in love? Do we construct our lives based on practical concerns? When we’re older, are we thankful we weren’t driven by our emotions into wrecking our lives? Or do we wish we’d jumped on that train, leaned out of that window, or posted that letter that could have changed our fates?
And what really tells somebody that you love him or her? Is it blind trust? Is it an act of cruel selflessness, of letting go when the time of reckoning comes, because that’s what the other person needs you to do? What tells him or her that he or she loves you back? Is it the protective instinct roused in him or her when you’re around? Is it the colourlessness of life without you? Or is it that nothing else matters when you’re not around?
Three powerful characters populate this film, and they all have choices to make. The character we relate to most is perhaps Shruthi, who must make three tough decisions, the final one being the worst.
For a while, the film takes us into a world where there is only silence, and our lives depend on the kindness of others. A world where we cheer ourselves up by telling our sob stories with funny music for accompaniment, where we play tricks on people so they won’t feel sorry for us, where only we know what a silly game can actually reveal about a person.
The music helps the story along, with the title song, lifted from the M L Vasanthakumari Tamil hit “Aiyya Saami”, getting us into just the right mood for the film.
The Verdict: A breezy film that makes us laugh as much as it makes us fret, Barfi! is thoroughly engaging.

Of sharks, snuff films and scars

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 15 September 2012)

Cast: Dustin Milligan, Sara Paxton, Chris Carmack, Joshua Leonard, Donal Logue, Katharine McPhee, Joel David Moore and others
Director: David R Ellis
Rating: 2 stars
Shark Night (3D) begins like most thriller-horror films involving gore and teenager-types – with happy college kids heading off to a remote spot, on vacation from their lives of sloth. But these aren’t beach bums. One of them, Nick (Dustin Milligan) wants to be a doctor. His roommate Gordon (Joel David Moore, the wingman scientist from Avatar) wants him to lose his virginity. His friend Malik (Sinqua Walls) has got a B+ thanks to Nick’s coaching. And his other friend Blake (Chris Zylka) makes pocket money modelling for art students who paint nudes. So, you see, all these are good boys. The three girls who come along are, of course, The Vamp, The Virgin and The Girlfriend.
Nick is hitting on Sara (Sara Paxton), so naturally, everyone heads to Sara’s family cabin. As is usual in such movies, we aren’t troubled with introductions to their parents, or indeed any sphere of their lives outside of the vacation. And, of course, these are the kind of college kids who will venture into the wilderness without precautions – they know their mobile phones will be out of range, but they don’t carry walkie-talkies or any device that can send out distress signals. Sara’s family has a lovely cabin in the middle of nowhere, but hasn’t had the forethought to install a telephone in it.
Now, all we need for the romance to blossom is a jealous ex-boyfriend and a shark or two to facilitate a display of heroism. A faithful dog will help the story along, especially if he contrives to get killed more heroically than the hero. To its credit, the film doesn’t completely tread the beaten path. It links some of its sub-plots to create a premise that may have been worth our while, if it had been less skeletal.
The film bores us into indifference in the first half, with cheap 3D effects – sharks, limbs, and voluptuous women gush through the waters at us – and cheaper one-liners. It’s populated by stock characters, who evoke no empathy from the audience. We perk up later, when the story finally takes a sinister turn, and it’s largely because the villains are somewhat interesting. But by this time, it’s too late for it to engage us.
The events in the film are precipitated by the idea that gore – like deaths caught on camera – will be lapped up by a pay-per-view audience. Lines like “There’s no such thing as ‘sick’ anymore, it’s all moral relativism” may have been more fitting in a subtler film. While there is the odd show of restraint – early on, we see an icebox marked ‘Live Bait’ – the film lacks the finesse to explore the idea thoroughly. It ends with the hint of a sequel, but since the film released in America more than a year ago, and there’s been no second edition so far, we may be spared.
The Verdict: Cheesy graphics and a mundane storyline stifle an intriguing theme, making this a run-of-the-mill shark attack movie.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Allen, minus the madness

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 9 September 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg and others
Director: Woody Allen
Rating: 3.5 stars
A bevy of stars playing small roles, check. Woody Allen playing a neurotic character, check. Happy couples thwarted by temptation, check. Unhappy man whose passions are stirred, check. Man with a bizarre case of conditional talent, check. Yes, it’s one of those fun movies Woody Allen makes between his truly great movies.
Now, Woody Allen is either the awesome guy who regularly messes with our heads, or the weird guy who married his almost-stepdaughter. But, whatever he is, his one-liners make us laugh. (Try, “I was never a Communist. I could never share a bathroom.”) And his films make us think, even when they probably don’t intend to.
Arguably the most famous New Yorker in Hollywood, Allen has set a lot of his recent output in Europe. Here, he never lets us forget that this is Italy. It appears everyone in Rome constantly plays, sings, or thinks Volare. But there’s a certain magic to Allen’s direction that makes us feel we could be in all these places, walking with all these people.
To Rome with Love has a surreal feel to it. It may be the quirky characters, and their strange persuasions. Or the fact that the crazy things they do seem only natural. Or maybe it’s the way Alec Baldwin seems to materialise out of thin air to give advice to a man torn between his girlfriend and his lust. Whether he’s the sententious voice of society, or personification of avuncular concern, is left to us to contemplate, if we’re in the mood to.
We trace four stories, which share a tenuous link, occurring in the same city – Rome – and dealing with aspects of the same ideal – love. My favourite is the one involving Allen himself, as a retired opera director who chances upon a great find in the bathroom, when all he wants to do is meet his future son-in-law and leave.
The whims of the paparazzi, and what they can drive one to do, have been the premise of several films, including Matteo Garrone’sReality. Here, Roberto Benigni plays Leopoldo, an ordinary man who catches just a glimpse of life under the flashbulbs. Would you trade your privacy for fame? And when you’ve been famous, can you ever be comfortable with anonymity?
The two other stories dwell on appearance and fortune. What happens when a simple country girl meets an actor she has fantasised about? Can a colourless woman morph into a seductress? The perfect casting and the Woody Allen template channel our concurrence towards the characters’ decisions.
The Verdict: Breezy and offbeat, the film is likeable even when it brazenly demands our indulgence.

Reliving the Ramsay Era

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 9 September, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Bipasha Basu, Emraan Hashmi, Esha Gupta
Director: Vikram Bhatt
Rating: ½ star
Remember the wash basins from which creepy-crawlies would emerge? The showers that spewed blood on a heroine, bewilderingly bathing in her swimsuit? The monsters with molten wax-like faces who would have their way with a screaming virgin? The tantric chants? The cracked, burnt hands that would wind their way around sundry necks? The fiery hero who would take on the dark forces, usually to his own or his lover’s detriment? Well, throw in Daddy issues and freaky clowns, and you’ve got Raaz 3.
Apparently, the film is titled ‘The Third Dimension’. And apparently, the movie starred Esha Gupta and not Sunny Leone. I just can’t tell the difference between those two, though I’ve seen them in various Bhatt productions. I think it has to do with the fact that they both constantly pant, irrespective of what’s happening on screen.
The story? Well, Shanaya Shekhar (Bipasha Basu) is a megalomaniac has-been actress who switches allegiance from the Gayatri Mantra to Kabristani tantra faster than you can say, “And the award goes to...” Emraan Hashmi reprises his perennial role as movie-director-turned-serial-kisser. His name here, if you must know, is Aditya Arora. Sanjana Krishna (Esha Gupta) is a newcomer whose inability to act is less stupefying than her ability to win awards. Whaddya know, they’re linked by a sad back story. As if this weren’t a good enough recipe for a mess, there’s a shrink who looks like a bouncer, a langda godman-of-sorts, and an aatma who has worms pouring out of crevices they burrow into.
Let’s move on now to how stupid each of these characters is. Shanaya believes the best way to kill an actress’ career is to make her dance nanga on a table at a party. Sanjana believes love will lead her out of a nightmarish existence where people hang themselves and get beheaded in her presence. Aditya believes he can get laid in secret, when the women he’s laying are famous actresses.
The story is facilitated by a woman who takes pictures of her daughter cowering, as a clown who appears to be a sexual predator corners the girl. Its twists are facilitated by a woman whose math is so poor she assumes Room 3 will adjoin Room 7. Dude, don’t youknow paint has a way of dripping down sinisterly to turn ‘8’s into ‘3’s in horror movies?! And you call yourself an actress?!
The Verdict: The most logical scene in this film has Emraan Hashmi’s character reading Open magazine while waiting for a ghost.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.