Director: Anubhav Sinha
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Sushil Pandey, Sayani Gupta, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub
The posting was a punishment. Ayan Ranjan, newly minted Indian Police Service officer, the tuck of his shirt crisp as a new banknote, readily admits the reason he’s sentenced to the bleak badlands of Uttar Pradesh. Ranjan had agreed with a senior officer without sounding officious enough — he had said “Cool, sir”, a yes-man forgetting his only line — and the perceived insubordination was enough to land him in a world where half the people don’t touch the other half.
Article 15, Anubhav Sinha’s searing film about the indignities endorsed by the caste-system in modern day India, does not play it cool. Inspired by the real-life Badaun killings — and a stirring tribute to Alan Parker’s 1988 procedural thriller Mississippi Burning — this film features policemen hushing up the murder and gangrape of three 15-year-old girls because they belong to a lowered caste. Us, and Them. It is a grim, unrelenting and essential film, one throwing up truths we choose to forget.
“Welcome to Page 7 India,” says Ranjan’s wife, when he calls and texts her, his eyes wide with newly discovered outrage at the plight of the Dalits and the downtrodden in middle India. Reports about these atrocities are relegated to the little-read middle of the paper, far from the front and sport pages. Ayan, a young Brahmin who likes his single malt, and walks around with a holster suavely sticking out from underneath a well-cut blazer, feels as much a stranger to that locale as an Englishman. The policemen below him are keen to make sure he isn’t some young fool out to change the system after watching too many renegade cop movies starring Ajay Devgn. ‘They get transferred,’ grunt old cops in the know, ‘while we get killed.’ Us, and Them.
Written by Gaurav Solanki and Sinha, the film has the stench of honesty. It is hauntingly shot by Ewan Mulligan, who slides through the shadows to zero in on acute specifics: the breakfast prepared before a murder, the everyday banality of a crime scene, and — most unforgettably — a man cleaning a filthy black drain. He cleans our world because we won’t do it ourselves.
As policemen plod through a marsh, Ranjan asks about politics, and the men good-humouredly state why they vote for the Elephant one year and the Cycle the next, and for the parties their mothers told them to always vote for. Rebels use Whatsapp, while cops keep tabs on activism by seeing what messages are being forwarded. The filmmakers cannily use texting to educate the leading man, the messages from his level-headed wife becoming the voice in his head. We do not need a hero, she insists. We just need people to stop waiting for a hero.
Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ranjan with inevitable entitlement. His elitist indignation while barking orders gets things done, but also distances him from the policemen answering to him. In one remarkable scene he matter-of-factly asks the cops about their places — and his own, for he is privileged enough not to know — in the caste hierarchy, and the distinctions between caste-and-Kayastha are maddening. One of them says he is a Jaat, and was ‘normal,’ but has now been granted Other Backward Class status, while Jaats in other states have not. This is illegal. Ranjan asking them their caste, I mean. Not the division, but the pronouncement of it.
Khurrana is spot-on, consistently harrowed and, building on the everyman baggage of his earlier films, immensely relatable. He eschews showiness to stay true to the part, a protagonist who is aware he will be looked on as an upper-caste saviour, aware that it isn’t his role.
Sinha surrounds him with a superb ensemble. Manoj Pahwa is frighteningly good as a higher-caste cop. Berating a junior, he clenches his teeth so hard it feels like he doesn’t trust himself to open his mouth, for fear of biting someone of a lower status. Top performances come also from Sushil Pandey as a lowly policeman who seems like the nicest bloody guy; Kumud Mishra as the son of a sweeper who is now a policeman (yet relentlessly reminded of his background); and Sayani Gupta as sister to one of the missing girls, her gigantic plaintive eyes an indictment of India itself.
The mercurial Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub plays a revolutionary, a rebel who can’t afford to lose hope because he has become a face of it. He gets the film’s most memorable lines, achingly confessing how he has been so romanticised that he is left without romance. With the horrors around, it felt criminal for him to smile at a girl he loves. In the land that allows Us and Them, all pleasure feels guilty.
What do you do when the system is the bad guy? There are no revelations here. We’ve read about such cases, we’ve sighed about these horrors. Article 15 is not a film in search of easy answers. It is instead a reminder that we already know the questions, but don’t ask them enough. Not cool, sir.
Joker movie review: Joaquin Phoenix delivers Oscar-worthy performance in dreary and distressing masterpiece
Director – Todd Phillips
Cast – Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Marc Maron
“All it takes,” the Joker famously said once, “is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” And that is all that separates him from the rest of society. One bad day.
This quote, as fans of the Batman comics would know, comes from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s seminal 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke, which is one of only a handful of recognisable comic book influences on director Todd Phillips’ Joker. I couldn’t think of a more thematically relevant quote to sum up this incendiary new film, which is at once a fable about moral decay, and a cautionary tale about societal division.
Watch the Joker trailer here
Besides a couple of tacked-on moments (including a cute speech by the Trumpian Thomas Wayne about men who hide behind masks), Joker has very little to offer fans of comic book movies. It is, instead, inspired (heavily) by the bleak philosophy of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy; an unrelentingly distressing drama about loneliness and unchecked mental illness.
From its gloriously gripping opening scene to its jaw-dropping final moments, it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance as Arthur Fleck, as much as you might want to. But it is this very repulsion that Phillips, I believe, is attempting to tap into.
There were several moments in the film, including Arthur’s introductory scene, when I wanted to avert my eyes, as many of us do when confronted with things that make us uncomfortable. Our first instinct, understandably, is to get as far away from the discomfort as possible. But no matter how far we run, the source of our problems will remain, festering in its own misery; drowning in its own despair.
Phillips looks at Arthur, a mentally ill loner, not with judgement, but with a mixture of pity and empathy. Despite his troubles, Arthur — crucially and controversially — isn’t a bad person. He is eternally ridiculed, bullied, and beaten up; living at the mercy of a system that doesn’t give two hoots about him or his ailing mother.
Now this may well be problematic for some audiences. God knows I’ve struggled with what to feel about it myself. A sympathetic portrayal of a someone who is clearly modelled after one of those mass murderers that we hear about on the news, especially in 2019, a year in which there have been a reported 334 mass shootings in America, seems highly irresponsible.
Joker isn’t an easy film to watch; nor is it particularly easy to understand. It isn’t meant to be. For instance, I don’t for one second believe that Phillips could be tactless enough to glorify a psychopath in the manner that his film suggests. Arthur is most certainly humanised, but he is never idolised. He is a product of the same civilised society that has dedicated itself to pushing him to the fringes of existence and ignoring his frequent cries for help.
After an unrelentingly grim couple of acts, Joker transforms into a broad (but pitch-black) satire towards the end. This switch in tone, in my opinion, is what pulls the film off the ledge that it was fully prepared to leap from.
And Arthur is, lest we forget, a highly unreliable narrator. Coupled with the knowledge that he is prone to imagining things — like Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, he has a tendency to bathe himself in delusions of self-grandeur — I fear that there is a very real chance for the film to be misinterpreted by precisely the sort of people who shouldn’t be seeing it as a validation of their dangerous feelings.
The risks, tragically, are quantifiable. A Taxi Driver fan tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Mark David Chapman had a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket when he shot John Lennon. Charles Manson heard secret messages in the music of the Beatles. And only Shahid Kapoor knows how many sexist Tik-Tokers Kabir Singh has spawned.
That being said, I find it ridiculous that the same people who reject the notion of movies being responsible for inciting real-life violence are the ones panicking about Joker inspiring mass shooters. This is a reductive theory that wastes everyone’s time by diverting attention from where it should be (gun control and mental health treatment) to where it shouldn’t (movies, books, video games, etc). No sane person will watch this film and feel compelled to assassinate their least-favourite politician.
But then again, aren’t we all just ‘one bad day’ away from pulling the trigger?
It is possible, however, that Phillips might have overestimated the intellect of his audience. By leaving such a crucial aspect of the film open to interpretation — that finale can stoke exactly the sort of polarisation that Phillips is trying to pulverise — the filmmaker might have bitten off more than he could chew. He ditches his typically playful ‘A Todd Phillips movie’ credit in favour of the infinitely more self-serious ‘A film by Todd Phillips’, but these are just cosmetic changes, not unlike Arthur slathering his face with makeup to mask his damaged psyche.
But despite pretentious flourishes such as this, Phillips must be celebrated for extracting an all-time great performance out of Phoenix. Much of the film frames him in painterly portraits shot by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, highlighting his sorrowful eyes; his distinct features; and the pain on his face as he erupts into involuntary bouts of mirthless laughter. Observe how the camera switches perspective as the film goes on, surrendering its position of superiority as Arthur’s transformation takes place. And do not miss the subtle shift in Phoenix’s body-language, as he sheds Arthur’s skin and slaps on a thick layer of clown makeup.
This is largely a one-man show, and the supporting actors, including Zazie Beetz and Robert De Niro, appear mostly in extended cameos. They’re solid, just underused. The biggest presence besides Phoenix, you’d be surprised to learn, is the eerie score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, who honed her skills under the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson. Her wailing cello perfectly captures Arthur’s fraying mental state.
Joker is a great film, not because of what it provides, but because of what it withholds. It’s brave, beautiful, and bound to annoy some people. Expect Oscars.
War movie review: Hrithik Roshan-Tiger Shroff drama is high on action, low on story
Director – Siddharth Anand
Cast – Hrithik Roshan, Tiger Shroff, Vaani Kapoor
War has swag, style and sass in abundance, and comes peppered with high-octane action scenes, car-and-bike chases and jaw-dropping series of twists. What else do you expect from a film that has Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff as the lead pair?
Directed by Siddharth Anand, War is an espionage thriller that serves you with just the right amount of action, humour and tops it with ridiculously good-looking people. However, don’t expect too much from story because with two bonafide action stars fighting it out on the big screen, everything else is secondary.
Watch the War trailer here
War opens with Kabir (Hrithik Roshan), a rogue agent, killing his own. Through a flashback sequence, it is established how he met Khalid (Tiger Shroff) who went on to join his unit in an intelligence agency. Story takes an interesting turn when Khalid, who has always worshipped Kabir as his mentor, is assigned the task of finding and arresting him. Khalid is also supposed to find out why Kabir went bad and another flashback sequence post intermission reveals his reasons.
Throughout War, Hrithik and Tiger’s onscreen camaraderie is on point. It is the USP of the film — just as makers intended. Each frame where the two appear together receives whistles and cheers from fans. Whether they’re fighting or dancing, or just flaunting their six-pack abs and chiselled bodies — it’s nothing short of a visual treat. The best aspect of War is that no actor is aiming for one-upmanship, instead you see them feeding off each other’s energy. There’s a pleasant comic vibe, too, between Hrithik and Tiger and director Siddharth Anand uses it cleverly without it sounding awkward.
Hrithik — Bollywood’s resident Greek god, unapologetically flaunts his age and swag. You’d love those wrinkles. Tiger — the hot favourite among youth — delivers an honest performance even though he seems absolutely star struck by his reel and real life mentor. But who’s complaining?
Unfortunately, War doesn’t give any scope to its female lead to perform. Vaani Kapoor only appears in the film in its second half, and before you can even understand what her role in the plot is, she disappears. The 20-minute forced cameo, with a song thrown in, doesn’t impress one bit. Vaani’s role seems to be limited to adding glamour to the film. It’s sad that even in today’s day and age, that’s what many filmmakers cast female actors in their film for.
And you’ll feel the same for supporting actors too. Fine performers such as Ashutosh Rana and Soni Razdan are wasted in War, even though they somewhat justify their screen time with whatever little comes their way. Anupriya Goenka, however, does make her presence felt.
The one element that you get in abundance in War is beautifully-choreographed action. The first half has these sequences in plenty and it only gets better in the second half. Shot at exotic international locales like Morocco and Portugal, as well as Delhi and Kerala, the film excels in the action department. War gives a callback to action extravaganzas such as Mission Impossible and Fast & Furious, and Hrithik’s earlier outings Dhoom 2 and Bang Bang.
Amid all this, you wonder what happened to the story if at all there was any. Just like we had Saaho a month back which was all things action but no story, War too makes you question why filmmakers don’t put enough thought into having a substantial plot. War suffers from a relatively weak screenplay that does not go unnoticed as the two good-looking actors overshadow everything else.
Also, no matter which genre a film belongs too, if it’s Bollywood, you can’t do without songs. However, we have no complaints as it is a treat to watch Tiger and Hrithik dancing together. Jai Jai Shivshankar might seem like it came out of nowhere but when these two show you their moves, you just can’t enough of them.
War, a big spectacle film, is definitely worth a watch for the sheer joy of seeing this dream pair of Hrithik and Tiger on the silver screen.
Bard of Blood review: Emraan Hashmi’s Netflix series pales in comparison to Amazon’s Family Man
Bard of Blood
Director – Ribhu Dasgupta
Cast – Emraan Hashmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Vineet Kumar Singh, Kirti Kulhari, Jaideep Ahlawat
Ironically for a show about espionage that tips its hat to Shakespeare, Bard of Blood is undone by its rotten writing and a glaring lack of intelligence. Unfolding across seven painfully convoluted episodes, Netflix India’s latest has neither wit, wisdom, or value. And based on expectations alone, it is the streaming service’s most disappointing Indian original series.
Arguing that Bard of Blood is intended for an audience that isn’t accustomed to dense, thought- provoking drama is disrespectful not only to millions of paying Netflix subscribers, but also to an industry that is yearning to be more ambitious. It is so disappointing to see such wonderfully talented actors, each of whom has proven themselves on multiple occasions — Raazi actor Jaideep Ahlawat has shone even in the same genre — be wasted on such drab material.
Watch the Bard of Blood trailer here.
You feel for poor Vineet Kumar Singh, who was so mesmerising in Mukkabaaz, as he struggles with his accent, which is supposed to be Punjabi, but sounds like it took a hard right from Chandigarh, and entered Haryana. I have a suspicion that he re-recorded a majority of his lines in post- production, unlike his cast-mates. You feel for poor Emraan Hashmi, eternally pigeonholed in the wrong boxes, like a dignified movie star at the mercy of a stylist who insists on dressing them in ill-fitting casuals.
But nothing can compare to my dismay at seeing the glorious Sobhita Dhulipala, who has been outstanding in literally everything she has done, be reduced to an exposition machine. In one scene, when the name of a Balochistani separatist leader is mentioned, Sobhita’s character, Isha, provides viewers with a quick summary of his hypothetical Wikipedia page. “Bashir Mari?” Isha says, “Yaani Balochistan ke Yasser Arafat? Kuch saal pehle unki death hui thi. ISA ne hi maara tha unko.” She says this in the presence of two others, both of whom are guaranteed to be aware of this information already.
This happens a lot in Bard of Blood. Information that should, ideally, be relayed through story and character, is simply blurted out loud. Every emotion, every thought, every fleeting idea is verbally explained, but rarely ever shown. After a point, watching a story that relies on such inelegant means of communication becomes exhausting. You’re hearing things, but not really listening to them. For a moment, I thought I’d been transported back to school, sitting in an unbearably boring class.
But even my maths lessons were occasionally more enjoyable than the seven hours it took for me to finish Bard of Blood, a show that feels at once glossy, yet bafflingly cheap. Based on the 2015 novel by Bilal Siddiqi, it tells the story of former spy Kabir Anand (Emraan Hashmi), who is plucked from his life as a Shakespeare professor at a Mumbai college, and hurled headfirst into a dangerous mission in Balochistan. Kabir has a personal history with the region, and with the Indian intelligence agency that threw him under the bus after a botched job there several years ago.
I must confess that I haven’t read the book, but I am aware that several key changes have been made to the text. For instance, the names of the Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies have been tweaked, and Isha Khan has been renamed Isha Khanna. I wonder why; her name certainly bore no relevance to her character. But I was pleasantly surprised by how Bard of Blood avoided jumping on the patriotic bandwagon, especially when it could have, so easily, turned into a celebration of national pride. Neither is it antagonistic towards Pakistan, which, in today’s turbulent times, comes across as a minor miracle.
The central objective of Kabir’s mission requires him and his team — he is joined by the rookie Isha and the veteran Veer (Vineet) — to go rogue as they infiltrate enemy territory and attempt to rescue four Indian spies who’ve been kidnapped by the Taliban.
There are several interesting ideas in this premise that Bard of Blood flirts with, but never fully commits to exploring. It could, for instance, have examined the idea of patriotism, and how tragically some agents are treated by the government. The four kidnapped spies are considered collateral damage by the agency, whose flat-out refusal to stage a rescue compels Kabir to take matters into his own hands in the first place. But even in captivity, the prisoners of war display a sort of blind faith in their country that begs to be scrutinised, but is sidelined in favour of scenes that serve absolutely no purpose in the plot.
For example, on one occasion, Kabir concocts an elaborate plan to have himself kidnapped in order to arrange a meeting with a young separatist, when all he needed to do was simply knock on his door. They are old acquaintances. And then there is the objectively pointless romantic track, which was quite literally shoehorned in; it did not exist in the book. Again, handled with a delicate touch, the romantic storyline could have breached some morally dubious themes, in addition to making grand humanist statements, but Bard of Blood’s stilted writing makes Murder 2 look like Before Sunrise.
It is one thing to have a poor script to begin with, but the problems metastasise when neither the filmmaking nor the acting is able to elevate it. Director Ribhu Dasgupta maintains a consistently messy style, and handles the multiple threads by routinely tangling them up. But there is little he could have done with the material he had. Ladakh doubling for Balochistan provided him with a suitably large natural sandbox to play inside, but the extras are laughably exaggerated, and the locations are distractingly glossy for a war zone. They don’t have a lived-in feel — instead, the several towns and villages our central trio visit appear to have been dressed mere hours before their arrival. The scenes set in Mumbai and New Delhi, meanwhile, give off a distinct whiff of having been completed in haste.
To discuss Bard of Blood’s handling of the very real, very relevant socio-political context of its story would be admitting that the show should be taken seriously. It shouldn’t. The very idea that a series which reduces Islamic terrorists to sloganeering, kohl-eyed caricatures can exist in the same world as Raazi, or even Amazon’s The Family Man, is mildly aggravating.
All this is evidence of a troubled production; of a building that was, in typical Indian fashion, constructed despite a rocky foundation, upon unstable land, and with subpar raw material.
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