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Tag Archives: #ukasianreview

#UKAsianReview: Irrfan Khan is superb but ‘Talvar’ struggles to convince.

Based on the controversial Noida double murder case of 2008, Meghna Gulzar’s ‘Guilty’ falls between an unresolved whodunnit and social commentary. 

The brutal murder of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar and the parents held responsible for the apparent ‘honour killing’ was sensationalised by the Indian media, blatantly feeding into the voyeuristic appetite of millions of television viewers.

While the case hung suspended between police procedure and judicial enquiry, a nation entered this middle class home and ripped apart any sense of dignity or privacy.

Writer Vishal Bhardwaj takes the ‘Rashomon’ route to narrate the incident through different perspectives of the accused.  The real life case lies unresolved, truth evades several enquiry probes, justice and law lie defeated.

The scene of crime is revisited and reconstructed as each accused throws up a contradictory angle.

This fictionalised thriller is based on one of the most controversial and intriguing murder cases in recent Indian history.  This is ready stuff for gritty tightrope drama but the treatment and pace falters. 

As real as constructed-for-camera drama can appear, the sequence unfolds repeatedly. 

Helmer Meghna Gulzar keeps characters at bay and there is no empathy built for any. 

The victim's mother Nupur (Konkana Sen Sharma) and father Rajesh (Neerja Kabi) play out their sketchy roles like wooden characters.  It is a sad waste of acting talent as there is no inward subjective space offered.  

The only character who negotiates layered space is Irrfan Khan’s CDI cop Ashwin Kumar.  Brought into the case with reluctance, Irrfan’s wry humour, sceptical and sadistic interrogations engage us much more than the case itself. 

Virtuoso actors, Irrfan and Tabu create a convincing relationship in just two scenes but their story finds no organic space in the larger narrative.

The most convincing and assured sequence emerges at the end in a round table gathering of investigators, each running down the other shadowing a larger political tension between police departments, judiciaries and government officials. 

The more convincing characters are the local Noida cops (Gajraj Rao, Prakash Belwadi) who callously destroy vital evidence and open the path to what many believe, was a deliberate miscarriage of justice.

The very premise of a middle class girls’ murder in an honour killing is ready meat for the home audience and the diaspora.  The rest of the world will also watch with curious eyes.

And the repeated revisiting of the bloodied bodies and the bedroom whet the very voyeurism which the electronic media has milked over the years.

Despite an uncomfortable premise and unsustained narrative pace, ‘Talvar’ does throw up questions about India’s crime and justice machinery, about private lives, scandals and public verdicts. 

The sword of justice manages a thrust or two, leaving the viewer unsettled and questioning.

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#UKAsianReview: Manoj Bajpayee is masterful in Hansal Mehta’s powerful ‘Aligarh’.

Events around the world increasingly reveal the construction of the “other” and the politics of exclusion – whether through nationality, religion or gender. 

Such events also underline social mind sets about the normative and the acceptable. 

Countering this world view is an urgent call for inclusiveness and tolerance, for human rights and dignity to be shared by all people of the world.

If this is the big picture, on a microcosmic scale we see the debate played out in Hansal Mehta’s new film ‘Aligarh’.  Here is the power of making the local, global.

In a small university town in north India, a middle-aged professor (Manoj Bajpai) is forced to quit his job after his sexuality is exposed.  A young journalist (Rajkummar Rao) from Delhi meets him to find out more about his story.

Bajpai’s Professor Ramchandra Siras lives as a bachelor in the university quarters.  Following a sting operation, he is found in his bedroom with a young rickshaw puller.

University authorities witness his humiliation and the next day he is suspended from his job.  Soon after he is persuaded to vacate his apartment and rent elsewhere.  Persuaded by the young journalist as well as supporters from Delhi, Siras challenges the University in a court case. 

Despite having an empathetic lawyer, Siras is further shamed in court with the prosecutor’s questions and the video uploaded on social media.  He wins the case but kills himself a day before he is due to return to his job.

Based on true events, Siras’s story is reconstructed through a series of meetings with the journalist.

He is an affectionate teacher and a sensitive poet, who asks how his emotions can be defined by the word “gay”.  

Bajpai’s Siras is complex and deeply layered, subtly nuanced like his poetry, credible and entirely humane. 

Dishevelled and crumpled, clutching his bag and papers, the vulnerable Siras seeks human touch and warmth and painfully clutches at the last vestige of dignity life can offer.

His social ostracisation, his fear and paranoia, his bewilderment and bemusement engages and involves the viewer. 

In his shabby apartment or in the gloom outside, his eyes shine in the shadows as he talks of his emotions which are like poetry, his desire which is sharp and urgent. 

Like poetry is to be found in the gaps between words, Bajpai’s Siras is constructed from unsaid words, subtle gestures and unrewarded feelings.

‘Aligarh’ captures the reality of the small town in great detail and the claustrophobia of a man whose choices are different in life. 

This is a fresh narrative about an older gay academic who is isolated without the bravura or solidarity of urban collectives. 

Director Hansal Mehta has been on a roll with socially relevant films after his national award winning ‘Shahid’. 

Committed to telling real life stories he was driven to make the film after he was sent the real life case of Prof. Siras.  Writer Apoorva Asrani had a personal stake in the project as it was his “coming out” script. 

Rajkummar Rao is a very credible young journalist who brings urbanity and even humour in the film. 

Ultimately, ‘Aligarh’ belongs to Manoj Bajpai, who owns his character, bringing to life the 64-year-old professor, betrayed by his colleagues, hounded by neighbours, facing a loveless life of solitude.

An actor of tremendous ability and range his understated performance is a study in eloquence, residual like poetry.

Mehta is on a roll this October after Aligarh received a standing ovation at the Busan Film Festival, great audience feedback at London Film Festival and it’s now set to open the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival next week. 

Mehta’s career has evolved a long way from his early producer days of the popular TV food show ‘Kana Khazana’ with Sanjeev Kapoor.   He has also been lucky finding distributors for his films. 

‘Aligarh’ is distributed by Eros International, a welcome initiative by a traditionally mainstream Bollywood distribution company.

Things have moved forward from the struggle of making Onir’s ‘I Am’ and the closeting of Rituparno Ghosh’s early films. 

Although Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was decriminalised in 2009 (just before the real life incident in ‘Aligarh’) an upholding of the Supreme Court criminalised homosexuality again in December 2013. 

Although officially same sex preferences are still punishable by law, gay identity is today a global human rights issue. 

Siras’ story needs to be told, heard and accepted. 

‘Aligarh’ is undoubtedly one of the most sensitive films about the gay experience, the politics of identity and the heartbreaking cruelty of intolerance.

I caught up with Hansal (albeit briefly) for a chat during the London Film Festival.

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#UKAsianReview: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Warm and Good-Natured

Movie sequels are rarely a good idea.

However, the people behind 2012's surprise critical and commercial hit 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' seem to have drawn inspiration from the collective wisdom of the film's veteran cast who return for a second jaunt over to Rajasthan.

Mindful of its existing audience - India lovers as well as, crucially, those on the verge of retirement - the producers have named the sequel the 'Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' - perhaps not as life-affirming as the first but hopefully entertaining.

The story picks up where the first movie ended with the advanced-in-years residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel nicely settled in, the colourful chaos of India not posing too many problems - not even for the eternally cantankerous Muriel Donnely (played by the magnificent Maggie Smith).

Muriel and her fellow 'outsourced' retirees - Evelyn (Jude Dench), Douglas (Bill Nighy), Madge (Celia Imrie), Norman (Ronald Pickup), Carol (Diana Hardcastle) are enjoying the warm sunshine and vibrancy of colourful Rajasthan with just the intrigues of romance causing them some mild stress.

There is something of a "plot" - the residents of the Exotic Marigold are busy preparing for the wedding of hotel owner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) to Sunaina (Tena Desai) whilst Sonny is trying to close a deal on a second property (get it?).

Into that basic structure is placed numerous parallel narratives - most noticeably, the burgeoning romance between Evelyn and Douglas and the arrival at the hotel of the American silver fox Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) and his wooing of Sonny's mother Mrs Kapoor (Lilette Dubey).

Given the formidable talent on show, the assortment of narratives is entertaining rather than confusing, in particular how everything in life - from the weather to social conventions - appears to impede the pursuit of the simplest form of happiness in one's old age.

The romance between Evelyn and Douglas takes centre stage as the pair struggle to overcome their personal anxieties to be happy whilst Guy's sweetly relentless wooing of Mrs Kapoor is hindered not only by social customs but by business concerns as well.

Meanwhile, the once-prejudiced Muriel is struggling to come to terms with the contentment she has found at the Marigold, uncertain how best to embrace and enjoy it.

The problems seem to permeate down to the younger members of this community - Sonny is unable to decide what will make him happiest: the girl whom he so determinedly wooed in the first instalment or the promise of business expansion.

And the list goes on.

Whilst there's an Indian wedding, a trip to Mumbai and, of course, a dance number, the plot points seem designed merely to provide each one of the film's veteran actors a platform to tug at your heartstrings and they do so, yet again, to magnificent effect.

Each and every one of them is utterly compelling in their individual roles - from the achingly vulnerable Dench and the conflicted Nighy through the towering Maggie Smith and the effortlessly charming Richard Gere all the way through to the eternally hassled Lilette Dubey who carries the flag for the "home team".

Patel once again hams it up to a nearly-annoying level, perhaps trying to overcompensate for the thespian talent around him.

That's a minor quibble though, for the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel may be second best but it is as charming, good natured and warm as the first.

An entertaining romp through the travails of old age - travails that all of us are bound to encounter.

'The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' is in UK cinemas 27 February.

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#UKAsianReview: ‘Dara’ at the National Theatre – Sweeping, Powerful

Ambition has long been a trait of productions at the National Theatre on London's Southbank. 

In recent months the National has been ramping up the ambition quotient with two epic productions inspired by topics that are uniquely sub-continental - first with 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' and now, 'Dara'.

'Dara' is a dramatization of the life of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal, and the conflict between his two sons.

The play focuses on the insecurity of Shah Jahan and the power struggle between his sons, the religious conformist Aurangzeb and the reformist Dara.

Shah Jahan's northern Indian empire was defined by its opulence, decadence and grandeur as well as the political intrigues, greed and religious dogma. 

Directed by Nadia Fall from an Tanya Ronder adaptation of a play by Pakistani journalist and playwright Shahid Nadeem, 'Dara' replicates all of those characteristics to wonderful effect among the austere grey concrete blocks of the Southbank.

The interplay of emotions between the father and sons as well as elder sister Jahanara will keep you hanging on to the edge of your seat, savouring every moment, every dialogue and every emotion.

The sets are a sight to behold.

From the marble-effect flooring to the intricate details on the sliding doors, the attention to detail is magnificent and transports you centuries into the past. 

The performances are outstanding, in particular Zubin Varla and Sargon Yelda who play Dara and Aurangzed respectively.  Dara's anguished screams seem to reach out and tug at your heart.

The sub plot of the near-fanatical Aurangzeb and his mistress Hira Bai helps brings out the more humane side of Aurangzeb, a man widely considered a murderous tyrant. 

Aurangzeb would do anything for her, even indulge in the occasional tipple despite his religious conservatism.  She brought out his softer side, one which many thought he didn't possess.

'Dara' is resplendent in powerful scenes but one in particular stands out for me.  It takes place inside a Sharia Court where Dara is being tried for the 'crime' of polytheism.

The raging debate between the opposition lawyer and Dara really brings to light not only what it must have been like to be a reformer in a court such as that of Shah Jahan but also to be human. 

The play poses questions that are relevant in today's world and the role of hardliners in the rise of religious extremism - not least in how Dara was willing to explore the relevance and goodness inherent in all religions.

Nadia Fall's direction is excellent, never allowing the visual spectacle to distract from her primary role of providing clarity to a complex historical affair that has resonance in the present day.

Dara is not without flaws. 

Jahanara is portrayed by the servants and workers in the palace as a powerful and strong woman capable of bringing peace between her two warring brothers and yet here, she is presented as someone who is meek and submissive. 

Her character is too one-dimensional - I would have wanted to see more shades to her character.  In a bid to keep the plot alive, Fall also resorts to frequent flashbacks that can be a bit disorienting. 

These are small quibbles.  Perfection, after all, is an utopia. 

Overall, 'Dara' is a powerful, moving and illuminating work and well worth the trek in the sleet to the Southbank.

'Dara' is at the National Theatre until 4 April.

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#UKAsianReview: Salman Khan’s ‘Doctor Cabbie’

Salman Khan’s foray into crossover cinema proves better than the monstrosity that was Marigold (2007) yet is still miles off the mark.

With the potential to be the natural successor to Harold & Kumar for second-generation immigrants, Dr Cabbie fails to appeal to its natural audience. 

Dr Cabbie tells the story of an Indian doctor (Indo-Canadian actor Vinay Virmani) forced to drive taxis due to the Canadian medical system disregarding Indian qualifications.

In the meantime, he hangs out with his perverted friend Tony (Kunal Nayyer, suffering a serious bout of over-acting) and romances a twelve-foot-tall blonde woman.

The film’s most hyped cast member Isabel Kaif - younger sister of Bollywood starlet and former Salman flame Katrina Kaif - has a handful of lines, including the poignant “what is he doing?” and “no.”

Casting is completely off the mark with a Canadian actor playing the role of an Indian, and the star talent, Nayyer, in a supporting role.

Virmani’s strong Canadian accent is extremely distracting, evoking Apu from The Simpsons at times.

Virmani’s triple role as co-writer and creative producer of the film partly explains the gross miscasting.

Dr Cabbie’s script has moments of brilliance, aided by fantastic ad-libbing by Nayyer.  There are a few laugh-out loud jokes with clever undertones exploring issues such as a failing immigration system. 

It is reminiscent of Harold & Kumar’s gross-out teenage comedy underpinned by social commentary.

However, Dr Cabbie exploits offensive racial stereotypes including an American Italian named ‘Bruno Babagelata’.

The portrayal of the main romantic interest (G.I. Joe: Retaliation star Adrianne Palicki) is the exact sexism expected from a Salman Khan heroine: one dimensional breasts-on-a-stick created solely to sexually entice the male protagonist.

The juxtaposition of Rani aunty (American actress Mircea Monroe) and Vinay’s anglicized mother Nellie (Lilette Dubey) proves to be the film’s saving grace.

Monroe steals the film as a Caucasian woman obsessed with India, albeit needlessly sexualised. 

The pro-immigration message is important in the context of the rise of nationalist sentiment around the world, and is communicated subtly and without pretension.

The enjoyable aspects of Dr Cabbie are offset by a distracting and unnecessary background score.

The average comic scene might need a guitar or ukulele in the background to feel like a comedy.

Instead we are forced to endure an orchestra of crying violins which belong in a melodramatic 1990’s Khan Melodrama.

The poor man’s Honey Singh, Raftaar, makes an unwelcome appearance, fresh from his ‘Swag Mera Desi’ fame (or rather, infamy amongst hipsters who listen to him ironically).

‘Dal Makhani’ has similarly inane lyrics although it lacks the simplicity of Swag.

It was nice to hear Canadian singer Raghav return briefly from his exile in mela circuit obscurity.

Dr Cabbie could have easily become a crossover hit with its funny script and serious message, had Eros International and Khan not intervened.

The high points in the film are punctuated by gross-out teenage humour, and are offset by inappropriate music.

Dr Cabbie fails to understand the definition of a cross-over film, choosing instead to mutate an enjoyable teenage comedy into a melodramatic and cheesy Bollywood film.

The pro-immigration message is drowned out by a string quartet.

To be watched solely if suffering from a severe hangover or if it happens to be on TV.

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#UKAsianReview: ‘Behind The Beautiful Forevers’ is a great theatrical experience

During the interval of this riveting production I found myself drawn into an all-too-familiar debate about the unease with which Indians deal with the harsh truths about their country’s deep social divide.

It was the same debate that flared up when Danny Boyle audaciously took his camera into the slums of Mumbai with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

The stage version of Katherine Boo’s ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ takes that audacity a step further with a live audience.

From the moment go, we know we are in for a special kind of ride as plastic bottles rain from the sky.

The story is simple enough, about the Husain family whose matriarch, adeptly played by the talented Meera Syal, is determined to make her family’s life in the slums a little better.

As she succeeds in saving enough to get closer to her dream of a concrete roof over their heads, her entire world comes crashing down around her as she is confronted with the deep-rooted corruption of a creaking old system.

The play is an extremely canny portrayal of a wide range of issues that a modernising India is struggling to cope with.

The religious divide that makes Muslims the instant suspects in any crime is set against the irony of an easy communal harmony at the lower rungs of society, where the lack of money proves a kind of comforting equaliser.

Middle class apathy is played out with sheer brilliance every time the shadow of a plane heads for the runway of the National Theatre.

While the production design is a star in its own right, Syal as Zehrunisa is joined by a whole host of talented co-stars who bring the Mumbai slum of Annawadi alive miles away on the banks of the Thames.

Thusitha Jayasundera deserves a special mention for her dual performance as “one-leg” Fatima and corrupt Judge Chauhan.

Besides the sense of unease at the stark realities on stage proving difficult to shake off, this production is a must-see simply as a great theatrical experience.

After its run at the National, I just hope it can find its way into some of the plush theatres of Mumbai and New Delhi to try and shake out some of that middle class apathy.

As Shane Zaza’s Abdul Husain would say, we can always hope for the better.

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ is on at the National Theatre in London until April 2015.

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#UKAsianReview: Haider – To Watch or Not To Watch. That is NOT the Question.

Freedom from revenge is the central theme of Vishal Bhardwaj’s mesmerising new film set in the troubled vale of Kashmir. It completes his Shakespearean trilogy after ‘Macbeth’ (Maqbool) and ‘Othello’ (Omkara) and this time the tragic protagonist is not just ‘Hamlet’ (Haider) but the Valley itself.

This is undoubtedly Bhardwaj’s most political film, which gives a voice to the local folk who seem to have been forgotten in the game of “border-border” between India and Pakistan for decades. The filmmaker brings his inimitable style to this adaptation, which stays true to the Bard but is equally at ease straying away from its confines.

Haider Meer (Shahid Kapoor) is a young boy who is emotionally blackmailed by his mother Ghazala (Tabu) into leaving his small Kashmiri town to study in Aligarh after she finds a gun in his school bag. He returns after years because his doctor father is “taken” by Indian military officials to an unknown location for aiding and abetting a militant.

Haider soon joins countless other local Kashmiris desperate for some news of their loved ones who have disappeared without a trace. His quest reveals uncomfortable truths about his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), who also seems to be getting inappropriately close to bhabhijaan (sister-in-law) Ghazala.

A conversation with Roohdaar (Irrfan Khan), purportedly his father’s close friend, serves to confuse him even further and Haider sets off on a destructive path of revenge. His only confidante is childhood sweetheart Arshee (Shraddha Kapoor), who inadvertently also gets caught up in the web of lies and deceit.

Haider’s love for his father, the betrayal of his uncle, his obsession with his mother and the pervasive gun culture of the Valley inevitably have disastrous consequences.

Bhardwaj’s genius lies in his ability to immerse himself into the milieu he chooses as the setting for his film. This time he lives and breathes Kashmir in the 1990s at the height of its troubles. It is not simply the Kashmir of breath-taking beauty, snow-capped Himalayas, the glistening river Jhelum or Emperor Jehangir’s “paradise on earth”. This is a more discomfiting Kashmir over-run by Army trucks and gun-totting officials at every corner. It is the Kashmir of constant curfews and crackdowns and half-widows who have no idea if their men folk are dead or alive.

This Kashmir is one wrought with suspicion and unease, where locals suffer from a “New Disease” that prevents them entering their own homes until a full-body search. And in the words of the poetic dialogue of the film itself: “All of Kashmir is a prison”.

As a result, it is the perfect setting for one of Shakespeare’s most tragic tales of suspicion and revenge. By the time Haider gets to his “to be or not to be” moment, we as an audience are feeling every bit of his inner turmoil. Bhardwaj has not shied away from addressing uncomfortable truths, be it the allegations of torture against the Indian Army or terror training across the border. This unflinching approach makes ‘Haider’ by far the most honest film to be made on Kashmir. It chooses not to take any sides but gives the audience a fair glimpse into the yearning for “freedom” in the region.

It is packed with some hard-hitting performances by Shahid Kapoor, Kay Kay Menon and Irrfan Khan. However, it is Tabu who upped the ante with her subdued glares and teary stares. Gertrude is one of Shakespeare’s most complex female characters and Tabu seems to have immersed herself into its darkest depths.

The dialogues are witty and despite the seriousness of the subject, even manage to inject humour thanks to some farcical Salman Khan fans and the clever unravelling of the word “chutzpah”.

The overall result is a haunting melody of a film which rings with earthy folk tunes of the region and transports you to the strife-torn paradise. It is the kind of film that will get under your skin and stay there long after you have walked out of the cinema.

A tip: Hang on through the credits to not miss the heart-warming ‘Aaj Ke Naam’ sung by Rekha Bhardwaj at her soulful best.

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