TiG Reviews: Inferno

Dan Brown strikes me as a particularly efficient traveller.

I can imagine the author of pulpy bestsellers such as The Da Vinci Code on a trip to Florence, Istanbul and other such places, visiting ancient monuments with a notebook and pen, jotting down details furiously while tourists around him click photos. He may be the only one listening intently to what guides really have to say, which explains why in most of his novels there is at least one moment where the lead characters have to consult a tour guide for help.

In Inferno, the latest Renaissance-themed crime thriller by the author that has been adapted to the big screen, his regular protagonist Robert Langdon returns to solve a crime that has world-altering potential (again). As in the previous two movies (The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons), Langdon is played by Tom Hanks. The professor of religious symbology (which is not a real thing, by the way) at Harvard University finds himself in a hospital bed in Florence, bleeding from the head and suffering from short-term memory loss. Luckily for him, he has company of the attractive and female kind in the form of Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). She’s the doctor at the hospital who speaks with a British accent, aside from speaking flawless Italian and French, and is quick to shield him from a murderous, uniformed policewoman channeling Famke Janssen from GoldenEye (1995).

Truth be told, I get the appeal of Brown’s stories, even though his writing is atrocious. They’re an intriguing blend of history, art, science, and alarmist prophecies with enough twists and turns to keep a viewer sufficiently engaged. With a director like Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Rush) on board, one would expect a polished and highly entertaining thriller. However, the problem with Inferno is that it doesn’t seem as though there has been much thought given to making a good film out of it. David Koepp’s screenplay is a by-the-numbers adaptation with clunky dialogue and paper-thin characterisation — the kind you’d expect from a pulpy Bollywood thriller, only with much higher production values.

The film opens with a bearded billionaire named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who is delivering some sort of TED Talk about the perils of overpopulation. Why anyone would go for this beats me, because all he does is parrot out the most obvious facts about population growth before leaving the stage — his speech has all the heft of a Facebook status. Soon, we see, he is being chased by a group of men in black overcoats, one of whom happens to be played by Omar Sy. This doesn’t end well; Zobrist throws himself off a tower to avoid getting caught.

However, we’re soon told that he had a secret plan that someone else can execute in the event of his death. In keeping with Dan Brown tradition, this isn’t a set of instructions that has been given to said person orally, in writing or via an encrypted device; it’s a series of elaborate clues that requires a Harvard professor’s expertise and active participation without letting him know what the endgame is.

Things get messy soon after, with multiple plot strands creating knots everywhere. Hanks delivers one of his most listless performance in years, opting to play Langdon as a man with an expression on his face that suggests chronic ulcerative colitis. Jones’ talents are wasted in a one-note role. On the other hand, Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen, as WHO officer Dr Elizabeth Sinskey, are competent enough.

Meanwhile, the movie’s big draw for viewers in India, Irrfan Khan, does not disappoint as Harry ‘Provost’ Sims, the mysterious, enigmatic head of a covert security agency. It’s a weird part to be given — why an Indian man is called Harry Sims is never explained, and the dry, clipped humour suggests a character written for someone like a Jude Law or a Tom Hiddleston. But Khan, despite occasionally losing control of his diction, manages to hold his own and delivers the movie’s funniest and most honest scene, in which he murders a character and deadpans, “Sorry for the messy job.”

He may as well have been apologising for the movie, which goes further south in its third act. As if annoyingly expository dialogue and unbelievable plot twists weren’t bad enough, the movie caps it all by staging a preposterous climax in Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern. All of this is exacerbated by Hans Zimmer’s unremarkable and highly unimaginative background score — definitive proof that the composer is well past his prime and should perhaps call it a day. As should Robert Langdon.

TiG Review : Ae Dil…

Note : This review contains spoilers. If you haven’t watched the film and are here, I suggest you don’t watch the film. 

If only real life were like Karan Johar’s movies.

I too want to live a carefree life in London (err, okay, perhaps a city with better weather) where I can be a student but have access to a private jet, hop across to other parts of Europe at will, and go to posh clubs and restaurants. Sure, there are people who have this in reality, but in Johar’s films, people are given professions for cosmetic reasons, the way dressing is added to salads. Everyday realities aren’t always taken into account.

So, in his latest film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) is purportedly studying for an MBA degree, but secretly harbours dreams of being a singer. Yet, once this is established, it never really comes in the way when Ayan embarks upon impulsive European sojourns with Alizeh (Anushka Sharma), a girl he meets at a club. What does Alizeh do, you ask? There’s some line about working at yoga studios, but mostly she’s a full-time, Bollywood-loving sass (who can be a trifle annoying, truth be told). They meet-cute like Kapoor and Deepika Padukone’s characters in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha, a film that Ae Dil… has much in common with. There’s plenty of, ahem, classy self-referencing — Johar harks back to lines or moments from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kal Ho Naa Ho multiple times, with no attempt at subtlety. There’s enough self-awareness as well — when two characters speak in chaste Urdu, the script has the good sense to make someone ask, “Have you guys rehearsed this?”

The most controversial film of the year, one that has fought tooth and nail to get to theatres, is perhaps also its most generic. Aside from Tamasha, there’s more than a whiff of Rockstar in here, a pinch of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, and — this may be a bit of a spoiler but unfortunately it merits a mention here — a dash of Katti Batti. Once again, Kapoor plays an immature, entitled, and tortured lover who learns that heartbreak and suffering will benefit his art. Once again, Sharma plays a fast-talking, fully filmi patakha who becomes the object of the leading man’s affection. And once again, the phrase ’till death do us part’ acquires too literal a meaning.

As is the case with all of Johar’s movies, the usage of background music torpedoes the film quite a bit. Pritam’s score sounds like a brief has been followed to the T, with peppy Cuban playing music during allegedly funny scenes (a double-date sequence that attempts to find humour in slut-shaming), and heavy duty strings during emotional ones. Every ebb and flow of emotion is underlined, which ironically ends up diluting the actual impact of the scene instead.

Perhaps the only surprising thing about Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, aside from three starry cameos (one offensively bad, the second satisfactory, and the third absolute disastrous), is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. She plays Saba, a poet from Vienna, whom Ayan meets on a flight but waits three months to call back; perhaps it’s because she’s annoyingly fluent in shaayari and he isn’t? Anyway, the point being that Bachchan, after a long time, is poised and completely reined in — this may be her best performance in years. Ayan seems completely taken in by her and moves to Vienna to live with her, whilst occasionally dabbling in music so that Pritam’s catchy, hit songs can get great — albeit somewhat unrealistic — picturisations.

I know what you’re thinking: why on earth would anyone look for realism in a Karan Johar movie, right? But it isn’t as much about realism as it is about world-building and honesty. For instance, I have no complaints with choreographed numbers, like ‘Cutiepie’ and ‘The Breakup Song’, because if done well, it’s a form of its own that fits the situations well (one is in a wedding; the other in a nightclub) and don’t really require justification.

But when you deliberately skimp on characterisation in order to simplify your script (i.e. not work harder at it), it shows. For instance, Ae Dil… wants us to think of Alizeh as a free spirit, so it goes out of its way to never really introduce us to, say, her parents or any other friends. Later in the film — don’t say I didn’t warn you about spoilers earlier — when she falls terminally ill with final-stage cancer, she continues to be inexplicably alone, so as to make it easier for Ayan to re-enter her life when the right time comes.

Speaking of the big C, that is the point at which Ae Dil… nosedives. We’re treated to visuals of Kapoor and Sharma wearing fake-looking prosthetic scalps (he ‘shaves’ his head out of solidarity), looking like a cross between Ouro from Paa and the characters from the TV show Alien Nation. A scene in an ambulance makes a valiant attempt at redemption, but for me, the damage done was irreversible. Not only do they look ridiculous — why couldn’t they have actually shaved their heads? — but also because it makes the entire story take a painfully sentimental and predictable turn.

Up until then, it’s generic but mostly harmless fun, with some watchable chemistry between Kapoor and Sharma, and later him with Bachchan. A scene where a drunk Ayan peers into a mirror and fantasises about marrying Alizeh is one of the best scenes, and Kapoor, who is now a bona-fide expert at portraying the emotionally fragile millennial, absolutely nails this part of his performance. Fawad Khan (in a seven-minute role) plays the rakish Ali, a scruffily handsome professional DJ whom Alizeh ends up marrying, is effortlessly charismatic. What a pity we may not get to see him on screen again for a while.

TiG Review : SULTAN

Fear not, Bhaisexuals — all is well with the Salman Khan Image Makeover Machine.

His latest, Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan, is as much evidence as is needed. This year’s solo Eid release — a Khan staple — is an unabashedly gung-ho sports melodrama about a Haryanvi wrestler named Sultan Ali Khan. In this film, Bhai is often shirtless and beating up people. He’s also a simpleton who manages to get the girl of his dreams. In a bizarre party sequence, women in cocktail dresses ask him in accented Hindi to leave his wife and go for one of them instead, but Bhai smiles shyly and instead croons a romantic song dedicated to his significant other.

*Ka-ching!*

It won’t matter to the box-office or to legions of Khan’s fans that Sultan is, at best, a somewhat-above-average star vehicle that uses well-worn commercial cinema tropes along with a few engaging wrestling/mixed martial arts sequences to cast its spell. The result is a familiar-ish, crowd-pleasing spectacle that occasionally skimps on basics like good writing and solid characterisation. While it is far ahead of last year’s abysmal MMA drama Brothers (2015), with which it has much in common, it still sacrifices authenticity here and there for the benefit of rousing ‘filmi’ moments.

When we first meet Sultan, he is a 30-year-old beefcake with a fledgling dish antenna business in his hometown (Rewari, Haryana) and the proud possessor of 1 nos. heart of gold. He doesn’t wrestle, however; all those bulging muscles (including the ones in his head) are the result of his ability to successfully chase kites better than kids, some of whom are half his age. On one such run, he chances upon Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), who is also a wrestler — a state champion at that — despite the fact that she possesses literally zero muscles and somehow always finds the time to get her make-up just right. Perhaps Meera from NH10 (2015) grew fond of rural Haryana and decided to stay back.

 In what has become a bit of a trend in Salman movies of late, the best actor in the film is the guy who plays the star’s best friend: Anant Sharma, who plays sidekick Govind with plenty of enthusiasm and the film’s most believable Haryanvi accent. As Sultan falls head over heels in love, with song situations for numbers like ‘Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai’ and ‘440 Volt’ being spelt out as clearly as possible, Govind is with him every step of the way.
Zafar — who is also credited with story, screenplay, and dialogues — makes it very clear that he isn’t interested in subtleties. His film, while peppered with several watchable moments, is unabashedly male, with some mild feministic posturing that eventually rings hollow. For instance, Aarfa, who is shown to be wildly independent and focused on her dream (winning an Olympic gold medal), resists Sultan’s amorous advances at first. Taking this as a challenge, Sultan approaches her father Barkat Hussain (a typically genial Kumud Mishra), who runs a local akhaada, and asks to be trained for the state championship. A couple of Benny-Hill- and Rocky-inspired montages later, Sultan has become so good that he’s vanquished someone twice his weight. Suddenly, Aarfa has fallen in love with him. Later, she even gives up on her own dreams so that he can chase them. (Spoiler alert: he does, and succeeds! So much for years of training and discipline.). The only real reason given for this change of heart is that she’s in love and wants him to be happy, and this seems out of character.

Meanwhile, many years later, a sports entrepreneur named Aakash Oberoi (Amit Sadh), who is one of the people behind a failing franchise called Pro Takedown, attempts to bring Sultan into an MMA league (featuring actual Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters such as Tyron Woodley), eight years after a tragedy came between Aarfa and him (this, again, is literally fed to the audience) and led to him quitting wrestling forever. The second half, as one would imagine, is all about his return to the ring in a quest to win her back.
Khan, who has been playing the brawny simpleton for a while now, coasts through on his looks and the practiced ease with which he can disguise arrogance with almost child-like innocence (note: I’m only talking about his acting here). Despite often looking too old for the role, he somehow makes it work, and even displays surprising agility in some of the fighting scenes as well as one signature break-dance move in the song ‘Jag Ghoomeya’ (I was actually shocked by how well he did it).

Aesthetically, the film has all the hallmarks one would expect from a commercial entertainer: ever-present background music (Julius Packiam), sweeping shots and predictable usage of slow-motion, thunderous sound design… you know, the works. Towards the latter half, Randeep Hooda makes an enjoyable, Burgess-Meredith-like appearance as Fateh Singh, a man who runs an underground fighting club in old Delhi, and takes a gone-to-seed Sultan under his wing. “Saala saand,” he mutters delightedly, as he watches Sultan win a fight on TV — one of the film’s more pleasurable moments. Other moments, which attempt to hammer in cheesy, ‘It’s about fighting what’s within you’-like life lessons, didn’t work as well for me, admittedly.

But my biggest problem with Sultan is that it just doesn’t try hard enough to escape its own limitations, something Kabir Khan managed well with last year’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). In a year in which movies like Airlift, Neerja, Kapoor & Sons: Since 1921, and Udta Punjab — to say nothing of the Marathi blockbuster Sairat — have changed the idiom of commercial cinema, Sultan is happy to stick to a more dated form and indulge in fan service.

At the end of the day, Zafar’s film is likely to have mass appeal and even win appreciation. But the yardstick being used is Salman’s filmography itself, and I reject the notion that the star is his own genre because it’s a convenient excuse to make mediocre films that will be over-praised merely if one gets a few of the basics right.

Final Exams : Because No One Deserves To Be Happy

Day 6
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This picture has been shared around a lot on Facebook. But from what I saw over the last week, I’ve realized that this is a gross misconception. The actual last five minutes (or the last thirty, in my case) were spent thusly:

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I even tried asking one of the invigilators what was causing my fellow classmates to make such obvious physical effort in filling out the answers, while I was counting the number of fans on the ceiling. Perhaps there was some kind of a secret puzzle that had to be cracked in order to reveal another question or something. On the first day, I even tried putting all the letters of each line together to see if that would lead me somewhere, only to get “EDSHUI SSATPP MPPW”. How intriguing. It actually didn’t sound a whole lot different than the actual question they had asked, like “What is GQMWP?”

I finally decided that the most effective way to spend all my free time would be to take a quick nap. You’d understand my astonishment when everyone came out of the examination hall and told me that there was no time to finish writing everything they wanted to.

The way I see it, there are two possible explanations here. Either I’m selectively blind to some kind of invisible ink that they use to print the back of the question paper, or I’m just plain dumb. I’m not too sure about the invisible ink.

Anyway, that was a week ago, and then we went on to watch this random B-graded Hindi movie. After a week of not sleeping, you don’t usually care much for such things as quality when you select a movie. Plus, after this ordeal, my mind wanted something titillating.
But unfortunately for me, the one we went to watch got me worked up all the more. Rather than having actresses dance in the rain amidst a jungle, or censored impromptu sex scenes peppered adequately with flashes of cleavage, this one had some strong advice for the audience, delivered in typical Tamil-movie-style ; advice that no fresh-out-of-the-exam-hall college student wants to hear. Advice on the importance of education and studying hard.

Everything That Is Wrong With Aamir Khan

Once upon a time in India, Lagaan released.

The film was a smash hit, was sent as our choice for the Oscars ( but couldn’t win, as the jury grew old and died during the interval ) and Aamir Khan suddenly became the thinking man’s conscience. The guy who would never attend film awards because he didn’t believe in them, suddenly seemed to be jumping up and down the red carpet, promoting his film. But of course, he was doing it for the nation.

When Lagaan lost out to No Man’s Land, Aamir Khan told the press that the other film deserved to win. When I saw it, said Khan, I knew that it was better than ours. From that moment on, Aamir Khan has somehow projected and marketed himself as the voice of the nation/youth/continent/solar system.

And it’s fucking annoying.

How come no one considers me a freedom fighter? I won a cricket match against England, yo!

Alright, so he chooses to do one movie at a time, reads his scripts, and does extensive preparation for it. But all that is fucking expected from an actor in the first place. Just because ours is a hare-brained industry, doesn’t make someone a goddamn Socrates.

A few months before the release of Rang De Basanti, Aamir Khan sat with the Narmada Bachao Andolan protesters to speak up for their rights. Since then, there has been no word of his involvement with the issue whatsoever.

He then made a film on Mangal Pandey, and has been on a Bhagat Singh trip since, telling the nation what’s right, and what’s offensive. In Taare Zameen Par, he showed us how we are all a cruel, insensitive nation that doesn’t know how to deal with special children. In 3 Idiots, he showed us what is wrong with our education system. In PK, he showed us the problems with religion and godmen.

And tactful and insightful that our media is, we made him the voice of the nation. Aamir Khan tells the nation not to litter. Aamir Khan tells the nation to have proper sanitation. Aamir Khan tells the nation to be nice to foreigners.

Aamir Khan is a thinking man. How? Because all his films have long shots of him staring into the distance, thinking about the welfare of the cosmos. Aamir Khan is a perfectionist. Why? Because he undergoes a physical transformation for every role (which, as any theatre actor will tell you, is the fucking basic thing to do. Also, he gets paid crores for every film). Aamir Khan is a socially aware star. How? Because he blogs about issues.

However, as we all know, even Vishwamitra’s penance was disturbed. So Aamir Khan, the ever-aware thinking man’s Gautam Buddha slipped out of character and blogged about Shah Rukh Khan licking his toes while he sat on his table.

And of course, there is Satyameva Jayate. Now, I personally have no problems with the show. A star like Aamir Khan talking about issues that we Indians never bother to speak about, is commendable. Kudos.

I also have no problem with him projecting himself as this new-age Carl Shehnanigan who tells the nation how to live – much of an actor’s image comes from this. It is no different from Salman Khan being the large-hearted bhai, Ranveer Singh being a horny guy, and Honey Singh the nation’s Mahalingam. I have no problems with that.

satyameva jayate

I defeated the English in one of my movies. Now I’ll change the world.

My only problem is with Aamir Khan’s opinions on other artists. You see, Mr. Perfectionist doesn’t give a fuck about other artists. His work is sublime and pure and unadulterated and heavenly. The rest can go fuck themselves.

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Take for example the controversy regarding 3 Idiots.

Now, even though Chetan Bhagat is the Rakhi Sawant of Indian literature, he wrote the book and sold millions, and no one can take that away from him. If you’ve read 5 Point Someone, and watched 3 Idiots, and you possess the IQ of a garden lizard, you’ll know that the film is more or less an adaptation of the book. However, since it is Bollywood (and fuck writers!), Bhagat wasn’t given opening credits. He raked up the issue and Vidhu Vinod Chopra asked a journalist to ‘Shut Up’. Which is at least an honest response.

Mr. Khan, however, using his special 8th Sense, somehow had it all figured out. He told Bhagat off in public, calling him a cheapskate who will do anything for publicity. Which is fine, till someone asked him if he’s read the book. To which his response was – ‘Ahem, no.’

Fuck you, dude, fuck you!

How the fuck do you know that it isn’t an adaptation, if you haven’t even read the goddamn book? But Aamir Khan, yo. Intellectual actor.

When he released Delhi Belly, he appeared on Aap Ki Adalat (that classy, artful show with a completely non-creepy looking host), and justified the language in the film. His logic was, the youth of the nation today talk in that manner. If you can not stand such language, please don’t watch the film. All good.

Now, the AIB controversy. Since our media has no fucking work, they went and asked Aamir Khan, the brahmaguru of wisdom, what he thought. Aamir Khan first looked at the sky, blinked seven times, sipped some water, and then gave out his thoughts. That the show was offensive, hurt people’s sentiments, blah blah blah.

But then, here’s the key – HE HASN’T WATCHED THE FUCKING SHOW.

If you haven’t watched the show, and someone randomly told you there were jokes on body shape, sexuality, and religion without providing any context, it’s the partial truth. You’re like the blind man of Hindustan who held the elephant’s ass and thought that’s what an elephant looks like.

But no. Aamir Khan ko kaun samjhaye? He is the voice of the cosmos.

The universe works in perfect motion because he approves of it. Every time Aamir Khan sheds a tear, a kid in Africa gets cured of AIDS.

It’s bloody annoying.

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Dear Aamir Khan, this isn’t the 60s. Where you could do a few patriotic movies and become a national hero. The audience you deal with is thirty years younger to you, a completely different generation. They understand subtleties, read between the lines, and can tell an actor from a chutiya. Just because you did regressive shit for 20 years, and suddenly conscience struck you like lightning, doesn’t mean the rest of the nation is a bunch of chimpanzees.

Also, like Russel Peters said, you are an actor. You appear on the set, mouth lines written by others, get numerous takes to perfect your craft, and get paid a bomb for it. Which is all fine.

But just like you’re an artist, there are others too. Who are attempting to make an honest living by pursuing what they think is art. If you really are an artist, at least have the fucking decency to look up their work before commenting.

Like I said, you’re not fooling anybody. This is a generation that sees through bullshit. And right now, for all your decades of carefully constructed PR, you come across as an aging douchebag.

I hope you aren’t offended by this blog. But if you are, I hope you at least read it before getting offended.