Love Aaj Kal is probably Imtiaz Ali’s most honest movie and hence his most vulnerable. It is naïve, but in an inquisitive way. It is so easy to dismiss the film and the characters as idiotic. The two lead characters don’t even feel like any real people we’ve met. They are foolish 20 somethings looking for eternal love. They are manifestations of the hopeless romantic (read IDIOT) deep down within Imtiaz Ali, who wants unconditional, uncompromising love forever and after. While Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) is the feisty exterior confidently facing the world, Veer (Kartik Aryan, present day) is the extremely under confident interior constantly in chaos, looking for answers which don’t exist. Together they go through intense turmoil trying to find ever-lasting, eventually settling for something transient but real.
I love the fact that Imtiaz Ali still prefers big narratives rather than small intimate ones. He is still a legitimate big screen film-maker. He structures this movie in a typical hindi pickchur way, with a big betrayal halfway. But the mechanics within are very fresh. Though the concept of two love stories influencing each other is reused from Love Aaj Kal (2009), it is much more potent here. The flashback serves as a romantic booster as well as a cautionary tale subverting our expectations dramatically. This narrative within a narrative gives a wonderful quality to the movie. It feels like watching a movie in a conversation with itself. Every argument for ‘LOVE’ has an equally strong rebuttal from ‘LIFE’. In the world of Imtiaz Ali, ‘LIFE’ is our reality, the never-ending, almost inescapable cycle of existence, while ‘LOVE’ is moksha/nirvana, the only thing that can redeem the gross human within us. Imtiaz has always been team ‘LOVE’. He has celebrated and romanticized it to crazy extremes (love can make your WBC count go up – Rockstar). He has always treated ‘LIFE’ as an irritating hurdle to be crossed (think of all his heroines and their ex-lovers), completely inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. But first time, he has given ‘LIFE’ its due. He sincerely accepts that there is nothing permanent about ‘LOVE’, and ‘LIFE’ is a reality to be dealt with, not escape. His pain and grief in accepting this is visible in the broken characters, who undergo intense turmoil within and in case of Veer (Kartik Aryan, present day), he is almost dysfunctional in the real world.
Most people think that Imtiaz Ali has overstayed his welcome. His movies keep getting more and more difficult to relate with. Breezy romances have given way to traumatic love stories. His characters are getting more and more internalized. In his last movie – Jab Harry met Sejal – he shut out the audiences completely from the inner lives of the two lead characters. Interestingly, in Love Aaj Kal (2020) he writes himself in the movie. Raghu (Randeep Hooda) is clearly a stand-in for the director himself. A man with a penchant of mythologizing true love through stories, but with no lasting relationships in real life. His breakdown towards the end while narrating the final parts of his doomed love story is Imtiaz’s most bare-naked moment on screen. When Raghu (Kartik Aryan, flashback) recounts how he kept staring at Leena’s picture for hours before going to sleep, I could imagine each and every male lead of previous Imtiaz’s films staring at the picture of their lover, in almost psychopathic fashion. In crude terms, all his male characters have been losers in love, and no points for guessing where it comes from. And this is true value of an auteur. The cringy, uncomfortable personal truths emerge out of narratives. Till date, though Imtiaz has always stayed true to himself, he never showed an awareness of his shortcomings. He in fact doubled down on romanticizing true love just to shield himself. But in Love Aaj Kal (2020), he has everything on display in spectacular fashion.
One aspect of the movie that instantly nagged me was the overbearing parent trope. Zoe’s mother emotionally blackmails her to stay away from relationships till she finds a financial footing (I know all Indian mothers do this). As a result Zoe is terrified of serious relationships. It reinforces that we are shaped not by of our experiences, but rather by domineering parents. I’m not opposed to the idea completely, but the way movie uses it as a screenplay trope was troubling me. But since then thinking about the movie as a whole, it fit nicely with the movie’s running theme of Indian social conservatism vs modern liberalism. The characters in the modern India milieu are free-birds to seek love, but still held tightly on leash by their parent’s experiences and baggage. Should the young ones be left alone to explore the world and make mistakes OR is it the responsibility of the parent to influence them based on their past experiences? The movie makes a convincing argument either way. Both Zoe and Veer carry their parent’s experiences as baggage which is so heavy, that they are incapable of a stable relationship. On the other hand, the dramatic flashback story from their other father figure, helps them gain a perspective about love and relationships. It encourages a reality-check when looking for long-lasting relationships. So I guess the movie advocates for a sort of modern conservatism, the cool father figure.
Many of you might feel that all this analysis is just a pedantic way to cover up the fact that the movie doesn’t work emotionally. I have read many complaints that the movie is just not relatable and the characters are a bunch of bumbling idiots, behaving like confused trauma patients. I understand this completely, but there are many moments throughout which hit me viscerally and aligned me emotionally to the movie. Especially the flashback. We’ve seen movies like Alaipayuthey (Saathiya in Hindi) and Sairat, where things don’t remain rosy after a hard-fought union. But here, we see Raghu deserting his first-love in cold-blood. It reminded me of times when I sat hand in hand with a person, but not feeling an iota of affection. At that moment it felt natural to move on to greener pastures, but it doesn’t feel the same in retrospect. It brings an ache of a wrong-doing. It was the moment I lost my innocence, a part of me died there, and it was painless then, in fact a relief. But as the years passed by, a guilt and a shame stayed with me associated to the memory. The movie of course turns it into a yearning for lost love, which I didn’t really mind in the context of the movie.
There are many ways to dismiss the current day characters of the movie, Veer and Zoya. They don’t feel like real people at all. Veer is pre-packaged damaged goods, too young to be looking for inner truths. Zoe’s single mindedness about career becomes laughable after a point. It feels she has already seen Marriage Story and has concluded that love, marriage and career cannot sail in the same boat. Left leaners will make them out to be privileged numbnuts. Right leaners will view them as overly mollycoddled youth unable to handle life situations. I am ready to concede all the dismissals, but still many scenes between them felt real and lived. The most memorable one was the scene when a drunk Zoe asks Veer to hold her, but he refuses because they are not ‘together’. It is heartbreaking to watch Zoe refused solace in a moment of weakness, but at the same time we see Veer too battling with himself and Zoe to earn respect. Ironically, the scene is preceded by one which has another man ditching Zoe in middle of nowhere because she wouldn’t submit herself to him. Sabko full Zoe chahiye!!
Maybe I’m overselling the movie here, and it’s possible that Imtiaz Ali doesn’t need art, but needs a therapist. But I’m so glad he has made an attempt here to face his incessant notions of ONE TRUE LOVE, head on, and in the process acknowledging impossibility of his desired utopia. The movie ends on a very humble note, not once suggesting a happy ending. For all we know, Veer and Zoe break up once again when back from Manali.
I re-structured this piece multiple times, thinking about ways to wrap my opinions on a myriad movie-related things. I started with Hindi only, but while compiling the ‘best’ list, I realized that most of the movies I loved were non-Hindi. But the ‘other-than-best’ lists, trends and benchmarks are still ‘Hindi’, because that is the only film industry I can claim any right to give unsolicited opinions about.
‘Bhai ka pickchur’
Whatever you want to think about the quality of Hindi movies this decade, one thing you cannot argue upon is Salman’s resurgence as the new super-star. He was always a star, but Dabangg (closely on the heels of Wanted) skyrocketed his value at box office. On his tv show Big Boss, while looking back at his career, he noted that how audience took him from Salman to Sallu to finally the Bhai we know of now. His movies became event movies. His most hated movies of this decade – Jai Ho, Tubelight and Race 3 – also managed to cruise past 1 crore footfalls. We can all argue about the dull and generic quality of his films throughout this decade, but I wanted to make sure that his super-stardom of this decade is noted. Personally, Jai Ho was my favorite Salman movie, especially for being the most quintessential ‘Salman’ movie, with the extension of his off-screen ‘being human’ persona along with the ‘maar-dhaad-kapda-faad’ action he started with Wanted. And the Suneil Shetty-bringing-a-war-tank-on-the-road moment was the absurdity his movies came to be known for.
Along with the rise of Salman, dialogue-baazi also made a grand re-entrance with Milan Lutharia’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. The punch-lines started gaining prominence with Dabang, Rowdy Rathore and Dirty Picture. But the most memorable manifestation of this has to be Singham. The sheer repeat-value Singham has is unimaginable. At family/friend gatherings, Singham has become the common denominator for entertainment. Personally, I’m not too big on the dialogue-baazi part unless it is done with some economy. The way Rajat Arora and Milan Lutharia has abused it, I think it’s on the way out.
‘Beta (β) is cool as ever’
Macho heroes do drive the box-office, but the appeal of beta males is on the rise, especially in the urban/small-town multiplex audience. In a way it started with Saif in Dil Chahta Hai, but it really caught up steam at the fag end of the last decade with Ranbir Kapoor’s turn as the quintessential urban boy in Wake up Sid, head over heels for an elder woman who transforms him into a responsible ‘man’. Though the decade started with Farhan Akhtar in Karthik Calling Karthik playing the under confident lead, it was Imran Khan who made this role his own with Break Ke Baad and Ek Main Aur Ek Tu. Ranbir later reclaimed it with Tamasha and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Tamasha especially very skillfully explores this gender dynamic (The woman falls for an alpha, but then finds out that he is nothing of that sorts). But the most beta (β)award of the decade can be shared by Ayushman in Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu (and Returns).
All this talk about alpha-beta might have already triggered the ‘woke’ junta. Which brings me to the birth of a whole new level of Hindi film discourse through the lens of progressive politics (read ‘political correctness’). The surprise hit of 2011 ‘Pyaar Ka Punchnama’ made sure that ‘misogyny’ officially entered the hindi film criticism vocab. It was followed by Habib Faisal’s provocative Ishaqzaade in 2012, when Raja Sen showed disdain for the way the heroine ‘was shown her place’. But the watershed moment was Cocktail (also in 2012), when the hero choses a docile and homely woman over the flamboyant and independent one. Woke cinephiles stood up and took objection. The movie was called regressive. The dam had been opened. All reviews and even retrospectives now had an extra layer of progressive values. In this charged atmosphere, came Raanjhna. It made all cinephiles look back at stalking in Hindi cinema. Poor David Dhawan too felt the pressure when Judwa 2 released. All reviews ensured to condemn the butt-slapping hero. But all this pales in comparison to the reception of Kabir Singh. People outraged over and over again. Personally it was an exciting time to read arguments, counters, counter-counters and so on. At one point it became literally political. Kabir Singh became a stand-in for BJP. If you are supporting Kabir Singh you might be a ‘sanghi’, if you are against, you might be a ‘libtard’. It was a crazy time and a perfect way to bookend this decade.
(Hindi) So Bad it’s Good
This genre is a dying one now. With evolving sensibilities, it’s become impossible to make an outright bad movie that is entertaining. 90s was peak with tons of B-grade stuff with A-list actors like Dharmendra, Mithun, Jackie, Shakti, Gulshan. The 2000s had some classics like Wafaa and Himesh’s films. This decade it was Abbas Mustan (previous A-Listers) who managed to create some hilarious bad films like Players, Race 2 and Machine. The best of the lot being Machine, a launch pad for their (I mean one of theirs’) son Mustafa. True to their reputation they come up with a bizarre anti-hero story (I guess trying to replicate Baazigar success), with plenty of incredulous and hilarious moments. The best moment being in the climax when the justification of the movie’s title is explained by the lead hero – “I don’t have any emotions, I’m just a Machine”.
Special mention: Prince – It’s Showtime, Genius (Anil ‘Gadar’ Sharma’s putramoh)
(Hindi) Unpopular favorites
Many times throughout this decade, I would read abysmal reviews of movies, but would end up liking them (one of them is on my final top 10). For instance, Kill Dill. I know its not a great one, but it was so much fun. It had my favorite Ranveer Singh performance. The genuine innocence and casualness he brings in the performance reminded me of the khans from early 90s. Complete lack of preciousness. Another example, Break Ke Baad, a wonderful pitch-perfect love story with honest gender-dynamics. But the reviews almost trashed it as another ‘I Hate Luv Storys’. But the most surprising one was Akira. This remake of Mouna Guru (Tamil), was a supremely crafted action-drama-thriller with some great scenes and rousing moments. I was stumped by the complete indifference shown by both critics and audience alike.
Special mention: Rahasya (Manish Gupta)
(Hindi) Great movies.. almost!
There are couple of movies which are otherwise perfect, but due to some fundamental disagreements with the approach, I cannot honestly hail them as the best.
Mukkabaaz – What’s not to like in this cracker of a film by Anurag Kashyap. Well.. Vineet Singh writes a Rocky and Anurag converts it into a politically charged and an almost art-house boxing film. Mukkabaaz fails to rise above the politics of the region the movie is set it, unlike Rocky which soared to celebrate human triumph. There are many glimpses of the crowd-pleasing rouser this film could have been. But all the dramatic stand-offs and seeti-maar moments are either muted or rushed past by Kashyap. The need was a lean and mean boxing epic, but what we got was a boxing drama overstuffed with politics. And I cannot forgive him for it, because Vineet Singh, was on his way to become a STAR.
Talvar – This one is unlike any other Hindi movie we’ve seen. A hard-core procedural, enveloping the viewer with information and unraveling the mystery with great precision. But the entire approach to the movie is extremely biased. It doesn’t take an inquiring approach but rather sets out to prove a theory, which I concede it successfully does in a rather intriguing and enjoyable way. By the end of it viewer feels satisfied and in a way superior to all the incompetent people in the system who botched up the case. Thinking back, it just doesn’t feel right.
Before I dive into my all India decade’s best, let me just remind you that different people seek different things from their movies. We value different aspects of movies. The aspect I value most is scale and visceral impact. Its not just the big sweeping landscapes or multi-location narrative that gives scale. It can be achieved in variety of ways like stakes (both existential and emotional), narrative over a long period of time or even sweeping character arcs. I always end up picking an epic narrative over an intimate cracker. Movies which reward a theater viewing with a packed audience. I recognize this inherent flaw, and therefore will start with a precursor list of absolute stunning movies but either felt short in scale or didn’t affect me as viscerally as my top 12. But they deserve every right to be called the decade’s best!
Ishqiya/Dedh Ishqiya – This double whammy from Abhishek Chaubey is truly original hindi movie-making. I had completely missed the bus with Ishqiya back in 2010, but as I slowly understood the structure and started viewing it from Krishna’s (Vidya Balan) point-of-view, I couldn’t stop raving about it. The follow-up Dedh Ishqiya might not be as dramatically potent, but is a much more delightful movie set in an environment of Nawabs, Begums and Mushairas, romanticizing and spoofing the royalty in equal measure.
Udaan – This story of a teenager set in a motherless household with a father who is more of a bully than a disciplinarian is an extremely visceral experience. It is as much a prison escape movie as a coming-of-age one.
Ugly – Anurag Kashyap’s most focused movie since Black Friday, without his usual indulgences. It is a taut thriller with knockout performances by Ronit Roy and Rahul Bhat
Harishchandrachi factory/Elizabeth Ekadashi – The first one might be my favorite biopic ever. Paresh Mokashi makes a potential idolatry epic into a minor vignette about a cozy family on an adventure. On very similar lines, his follow-up is another joyous adventure with kids teaming up to save a bicycle. Both these films overflow with tremendous goodness in people, which I think is very valuable in the cynical times we live in.
Sundarapandian/Vetrivel – There is something about the craft of these two Tamil village based potboilers. The screenplay and specially the editing is so precise, creating a rhythm unlike any other movie. I wonder if Sasikumar ghost-directs these movies, because both these movies are made by different directors, but still carry the same energy and rhythm.
Dharma Durai/Rekka/Sethupathi – In a way this decade belongs to Mr. Vijay Sethupati, rising from a two-bit appearance in Naan Mahan Alla to the main villain in Sundarapandian and finally becoming a legit leading star (that too with a moniker ‘Makkal Selvan’) in Vikram Vedha. With equal measure indie, rural, a-list, mass movies under his belt, he is discreet as well as prolific. The 3 movies that I selected might raise many eyebrows, but each one is a classically well-made B-movie with Vijay Sethupati adding legitimacy. Where Dharma Durai is the typical rural drama with drunkards and suicides, Rekka is the typical small-town action-drama with goons behind the leading lady, and Sethupati being the most respected of the lot set in a city about cops and gangsters. He is effortlessly relatable in all these 3 milieu. But still the way he breaks into a drunkard dance at a funeral in Dharma Durai remains a clincher for me.
Andhadhun(Sriram Raghavan, 2019) – It does take its basic idea from a short film, but still deserves all the accolades. Especially the first act knocks it out of the park. I still remember sitting through the entire piano-dead-body-disposal scene agape with amazement. The movie takes a darker turn in second half subverting expectations, but it slowly lose its steam as it ventures into black comedy territory. Nonetheless, Sriram Raghavan’s best since Johnny Gaddar.
Here we go….
And here comes my best of the best from 2010-2019. They are mostly listed randomly, except the last one which is closer to my heart than any other movie.
Simha – The film I’ve watched the most (thanks to my wife who loves it too) this decade is Simha. It’s a film that doesn’t need subtitles. Each scene and dialogue is underlined with crazy visual kinetics, making sure it resonates in your body. The over-the-top violence, which is equated with God meting out punishment, is grandly entertaining. And all this is carried by Natasimha Nandamuri Balakrishna’s thundering on-screen avatar. My love for Balayya is difficult to articulate. It goes beyond the so-bad-its-good element. His dancing, overacting, action and angry outbursts, all add up to a unique experience. Josh Hurtado’s letterboxd review of Jai Simha articulates this perfectly. The captain of the ship Boyapati, a true auteur, is the campy version of Rajamouli. He recently took his shtick to crazy extremes in Vinaya Vidheya Rama where the villain is decapitated and his flying head is nabbed by vultures in mid-air.
Natarang – We’ve seen a lot of bright and cheerful follow-your-passion stories, but this one gets to the reality of it, exploring the consequences when a village pehlwan decides to leave his wife and kid to follow his art, also sacrificing his muscular masculinity on the way. Heartbreaking yet rousing. Ajay Atul’s score captures the soul perfectly.
Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa – In a way I hate Gautham Menon, mostly because he celebrates banal adolescent fantasies of falling in love, mostly at first sight. But most of the times, it cuts a bit too close for me, to ignore him. The joy I get watching his lead pair fall in love is almost too embarrassing to accept. Here he does make a very interesting love story mainly driven by this almost mythical character Jesse who starts out as an opaque placeholder for the guy to idolize and worship, but then slowly revealed to be a girl-next-door with daddy issues. It is largely the AR Rahman soundtrack that justifies this movie as decade’s best.
Tanu Weds Manu Returns – Kanagan Ranaut’s superstar turn in this movie about confused identities is one for the ages. She makes Datto the hero among two confused souls who resent each other but still can’t leave each other. It’s a full-blooded hindi pickchur with seeti-maar scenes and songs. My thoughts here.
Aurangzeb – Another movie with a double role. Another true hindi pickchur, this time with 70s tropes like ‘good’ gangster, imandaar cop, naajayaz aulad, twins separated at birth et al. It’s an expertly crafted action thriller with killer performances from Rishi Kapoor, Sikander Kher and Prithviraj.
Gangs of Wasseypur Part 2 – Apart from the explosive first 30 mins of Part 1 in the mining fields of Dhanbad, Part 1 left me generally cold with its wandering narrative. It just felt like a setup for the explosive Part 2, where Nawaz becomes the vengeful Michael Corleone. But for whatever reason, part 2 delivered the bang that was promised, an epic revenge drama spanning over multiple generations. Anurag Kashyap outdoes himself with great use of songs in action set pieces, notably the chase sequence set to ‘Chhi Chha Ledar’ and a desperate escape set to ‘Moora’.
Arjun Reddy – Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s unabashed, untethered and unpretentious exploration of an alpha male’s journey from sublime to destruction to redemption is probably the most debated movie of the decade. General audience loved it, cinephiles were polarized. My thoughts here.
Sairat – Nagraj Manjule gives us a typical Indian love story which encompasses all aspects from heavenly infatuation to societal resistance to elopement to married couple squabbles to finally honor killing. In process he delivers a visceral epic which did shake my general apathy towards ground reality. My thoughts here.
Angamaley Diaries – It is a sensory experience like no other. The sight, the sound, the food. It overloads the viewer with these elements each designed to just leave you with an effect, an impression, coherency be damned. And then for the finale, it decides to just pause and take in all the chaos in a single 12 min immersive and a thrilling take.
Visaranai – A powerful rebuke of the middle-class convenient morality. Unflinchingly explores the moral landscape of a city. Each one is culpable. None of us is holier than thou.
Jigarthanda/Iraivi – Though vastly different, it both explores how audience sympathy can be precisely shifted around to drive home a larger point. Jigarthanda sees a mafia boss earning grace after suffering terrible humiliation, while a wannabe director turns into a movie mafia after a success. Iraivi on the other hand was best described by Baradwaj Rangan – “… is an unusual feminist film, in the sense that it’s seen entirely through the prism of sympathetic male characters”
Bahubali: The Conclusion – Cinema for the big screen. Epic in every sense. Rajamouli creates his own mythological world and delivers a rousing tale of jealously, betrayal and loyalty in true Telugu hyper-real fashion. Not surprisingly it was the most watched Hindi movie since Gadar, and probably the most watched Indian movie ever. Genuine blockbuster cinema!
and by a mile at least, the best of the decade for me is ….
96 – A thrilling tale of unfulfilled love with nothing but grace from start to finish. The soul-stirring music elevates the movie to dizzying heights. Intimate yet epic!
Mental hai kya is hardly a bizzare or edgy movie it promised to be. It is a pretty straight forward movie about a mentally unstable protagonist nailing a serial killer. The mental stability could have been subtly wrapped within the unreliable narrator trope, but the movie decides to wear it with a badge of honor. This makes the narrative arc a fairly simple 3 act structure. Bobby (Kangana Ranaut) suspects Keshav (Rajkumar Rao) is a killer, Bobby is proved to be totally unreliable and diagnosed with acute psychosis, but finally she accepts her inner voices and manages to unmask Keshav.
This 3 act structure could have been a visceral emotional roller coaster, if the movie had decided to keep the audience inside Bobby’s head, seeing the proceedings from her perspective, but it decides to switch the perspective regularly to a third person’s viewpoint, maybe to deliver whodunit thrills. But this decision is an utter failure, because we as audience never really fully empathize with Bobby, and always see her has a crackpot doubting her theories. So the rug pull at the interval where Bobby is proven to be a completely unreliable character, feels alienating. No real sympathy is generated for Bobby. We are no more invested in the story. It feels like a short film ending.
The 2nd half is a tedious recreation of the first half. We see the characters going through the same motions, and few minutes into it, we are sure where the film is heading, because that’s the only alternative for the writer to carve out some dramatic impact at the end. It’s an absolutely terrible screenplay by Kanika Dhillon (Manmarziyan, Kedarnath) . It aspires to be about ‘gaslighting’, and simplifies it by making the movie completely literal. Right from introducing a cockroach to symbolize psychosis to adding the clichéd Ramayana-from-Sita’s-pov motif throughout the 2nd half. It is a terrible attempt at symbolism. The overall arc of fall and rise that she attempts with Bobby’s character fails miserably, because her fall alienates us from her completely. We see her from other characters POV, rather than the other way round. At the end when she embraces her inner voices, we are supposed to feel a sense of elation for Bobby, but there too the movie decides to cut to shots of Bobby talking to thin air like a mad person. It makes us impossible for us to root for Bobby.
The film is shot with the usual Indian indie artistic flourishes of hand-held, sunlight spraying across the frames, short focal length cameras, elaborate expressionistic production design. Compare this to an inferiorly acted and produced movie like Game Over, where too there is a mental stability angle. It is more classically shot. Only pov shots are handheld, rest is all long lens. Still it ends to be way more effective. Maybe because it sticks to a genre and makes sure audience is firmly rooted with the protagonist’s pov.
There is a very fundamental difference between Hindi films and South (I mostly mean Tamil/Telugu) films. South films are more connected to the id (unconscious driving force to fulfill basic urges). They are more upfront and honest about sexuality. I am not talking about the obvious sexual expression of love-making, making out or talking about sex. Because the new era Hindi movie characters do these things very flippantly which makes it damn routine (maybe Hindi films have grown past it and I still haven’t). The south movies on the other hand, do not show any action, but always carry a sexual charge, never failing to acknowledge the sexual tension. Of course, they make a big deal out of it, but that’s what most of us do in real life. A very simple innocuous example would be the first physical contact between boy and girl. It does not carry much weight nowadays in Hindi films. However, a South film treats it as a dramatic beat with slow motion, music drowning out etc.
I start conversation on Arjun Reddy with this is because Arjun Reddy clearly carries the burden of sexual taboo, and it stands right at the cusp of the north-south mainstream film divide. It tries hard to handle sexual expression the Hindi film way, but is held back by the weight of the milieu. It actively tries to rescue kissing from the burden of social taboo, by having the lead pair kiss in every scene (even on poster!). I could clearly see how hard it was trying to normalize kissing and bring it to the level of a hug. Whether it succeeds or not completely depends on the eyes of the beholder. But the rebellion has a candor and naivety that is difficult not to empathize with.
Arjun Reddy has obvious similarities to Dev D. Where Dev D is more indivualistic in its approach, Arjun Reddy approaches its subject from a collectivistic cultural perspective. Arjun Reddy (titular character) is almost a force of nature, which rips apart this collectivism and debunks politically correct scales of behavior. He stands out as a raging bull. He treasures id satisfaction over any other reward. He sees himself as a superior being trapped in the ways of the civilized world. When he is denied the thing he feels he has an indisputable right on, hell breaks loose and he just cannot accept this with his chin up. It is a failure of massive proportion, which sends him on a trip of pain and RAGE. He is angry on not only himself, but also the people around who denied him his right and now asking him to move on. It seems unacceptable to him. Still he is never able to tear himself away from the people. There is a constant intrusion of the outside world into his space of manic rage. Sometimes it mitigates, sometimes it aggravates. He has to eventually make peace with the outside world.
Earlier I compared Arjun Reddy (the character) to a raging bull. Along with the obvious metaphorical meaning of it, there is a strong sense of animalistic gratification and an archetypal alpha animal ruling the jungle, throughout the movie. The most in-your-face example is a stunningly staged sequence where all the fresher girls (first year) line up for breakfast in a serpentine queue around a bench, where Arjun Reddy is seated behaving all alpha (posturing, smoking). In slow motion, we see him checking out each girl, making eye contact with everyone. Then finally fixing his eyes on one of them and following her throughout the moving line. To today’s progressive eyes this might feel disgusting, but we have all been to college, where world does not confirm to today’s politically correct standards. There are obviously guys trying to score, and there is a prevailing hierarchy dominated by seniors who feel entitled to impose them on the freshers. You might ask, why glorify it? Same reason violence is in movies. Movies do play a role in giving a visual to fantasies. Good, bad, ugly. Hyper masculinity connects viscerally with the audience, both men and women.
Reactionary digressions aside, this scene – set to the beautiful semi-classical ‘Madhuram’ – really sets up the movie and the character on path to the sublime, destruction and redemption. The movie’s absolute single-minded focus on the protagonist almost builds him up as a fallen GOD. Arjun Reddy is a genius (college topper and top surgeon) which we all wish we were. He acts out on all impulses, good bad and ugly, which we secretly wish we could. As we saw Khaleesi – another victim of God complex – lighting up Kings landing, here our guy lights up himself with unlimited drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, ultimately leading to his fall. It all catches up when he botches up a surgery in drunk stupor. He truly falls down in his own eyes, which is very important, because until then it really does not matter to him what the world around him talks or thinks about him, he feels he is a GOD. Interestingly, his progressive ideas of caste-less society, individual freedom etc. add up building the god complex within. He gives sermons to his best friend explaining why no one around understands him, and are trying to control his fate. Many of these things are not new to Indian cinema, numerous versions of Devdas and more importantly the critical darling Dev D. I think what sets Arjun Reddy apart is the doggedness of staying away from self-pity. Anger is something that he uses frequently to shield himself from pity. Until the surgery accident, he does not allow us to feel any pity or sympathy for him, which makes it difficult for the audience.
This brings us to the climax. Devdas does not get his girl, nor does Dev D (I know he finds redemption with Chandramukhi instead). But our man Arjun Reddy gets her, which many commentators took objection with. ‘He is getting away with all the bad behavior and also getting the girl?’ However, it is a terribly heart-breaking moment when he finally meets her. While Arjun Reddy was drowning his sorrows in style, Preethi is the one who truly suffers, but maintaining dignity. She runs away from her wedding, realizes she is pregnant, and stays a solitary life trying to give stability for the baby in her womb. Suddenly the nature’s inequality hits us. Sex is always without consequences for the man, but it could change a woman’s life forever. It is truly a humbling end for Arjun, as well as for us.
Addendum: I did not feel the need talk about the woman’s perspective, because I thought her motivations, though not underlined, were pretty self-evident. But the latest uproar in the hind film critic fraternity requires me to respond to some concerns (believe me I’m not strawman-ing their concerns)
Is she really in love or is she hostage in the relationship (Stockholm syndrome)? At the start of the relationship there are circumstances which could pressurize the girl into consent (seniors pressure, whole campus watching), but on the other hand some perks (rise in hierarchy by dating college stud, campus protection) too. And finally primitive attraction to the alpha male, and how he is mild and tamed with her. So I would say it is a mixture of all this, which is honestly depicted.
Why does she accept him? Deep inside, she would have of course wanted the guy to show remorse and ask her to come back, right? If you feel her self-respect should have overridden that, you need to understand that, she does get the moral victory over him at the end. That should be enough to assuage her hurt self-respect.
She has no agency; she is always a victim of her environment, always under pressure from either lover or parents. Agree that she is the victim of her environment, but why do you discount her brave decision (agency) to run away from her marriage and raise a child on her own? Regarding parental pressure, of course in some areas like marriage, women are more restricted. It is a cultural thing. The woman has to leave comfort and venture into the unknown. So obviously, parents get protective and hence more restrictive. Do you want the film to denounce it? If you look closely, it does, emphatically! Arjun Reddy throughout his phase of pain and rage gives sermons about how this society holds back individuals from attaining their happiness.
Gully Boy’s aim at authenticity is commendable. The locations, the texture, the music all build up an authentic world of the origin of Gully rap. But the protagonist, the Gully Boy himself is fake and hollow. Not false in the way many of the gully rappers are, wearing their hoodies and flat-rimmed caps just imitating the hip-hop pioneers, but in a way how clean-cut he is without any spunk, neither has a single negative nor a rebellious streak in him. Zoya Akhtar and co. have created a character out of their imagination of how an ideal rapper is, or rather ‘ought’ to be as per their standards.
Are emotions inherently adolescent? Karan Johar thinks so, as he gets Ranbir Kapoor – who has built his career playing the man-child needing a relationship to grow up – to play his surrogate. He names his character Ayan – of course after his still-growing-up protege Ayan Mukherjee (director of 2 movies starring Ranbir getting life lessons from sorted women) – who is an adolescent navigating a world of adult relationships, finding it impossible to deal with his one-sided love. In the process of making Ayan realise “That’s life buddy!!!”, Karan Johar comes up with a movie which is essentially a distillation of all Imtiaz Ali movies into a tremendously clear minded closure to unrequited love and everything that comes along with it.Continue reading “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil Movie Review : Karan Johar re-invented”
Sairat is a very easy movie to respond emotionally. Nagraj exhibits tremendous control on the craft of mainstream cinematic tropes in the first hour, that the viewers have no choice but to surrender and submit themselves to the movie. And in doing so they are at the mercy of Nagraj, who takes advantage of this and takes unsuspecting casual movie viewers on a stark journey leading to a soul crushing defeatist ending. It took me almost 3 days to recover emotionally, gather my thoughts and make sense of things intellectually. Like many of us, I crave to relive the movies emotionally. Sometimes I get desperate and watch a movie multiple times in a theater just to relive the emotion I felt for the first time. I fail most of the times.Continue reading “Sairat Movie Review”
Most of the times I do not pen my thoughts on movies which are an experience (for me) rather than an exercise (for me). Reason being, I have nothing specific to say about them. I’m awed by them, they transport me to a place and I’m in the film-maker’s control for the entire length, I’m not viewing it critically, I’m just experiencing it (like the good ol’ 90s). So instead of wasting time in hyperboles and adjectives like stupendous, fantastic, amazing, I just lay low with a brief little Facebook status hailing the film. (Probably I’m not breaking these movies down, so as not to ruin my experience, because I’m still that guy who is insecure about his favorite movies). So that’s what I did with Bajirao Mastani. Just a provocative statement on FB “SLB makes Rajamouli look like an amateur” and I was done. But the general indifference and reserved/hesitant praise from our mainstream movie critics (probably the worst in the world) and the Bollywood blog scene towards Bajirao Mastani has made me angry enough to write this piece.
My main concern here is why there is no excitement? Why no one is really hailing and championing this film vociferously, say like Bahubali. BM is so obviously more spectacular and dramatically satisfying than Bahubali. Of course there are acting inconsistencies, dialogues overkill, bad CGI but don’t all mainstream Indian movies have them? We have attuned ourselves to overlook these as minor mishaps and not let it disconnect us from the movie. Why should we really hold these things against Bajirao, when on the other hand it’s giving us a blockbuster movie experience with grandeur, killer dialogues, drama, music, searing emotions and all this at an exhilarating pace. I know it’s already started sounding like those stupid, silly open letters ranting their personal frustrations in the guise of addressing it to someone. But this is really important to me and I will risk sounding stupid here for a movie which deserves praise for the cinematic experience it delivers like no other in recent times. And when it comes to mainstream hindi movies, it gets personal.
On the night I watched the movie, I texted my friend who is one of the best critics out there Satish Naidu, that he should watch Bajirao without fail. I remember him loving the trailer. But he raised his concerns, and asked if it’s a regular period drama. If it is he said it will be tedious and he will probably skip it. I didn’t exactly understand what he meant. Bajirao is definitely a period film and it definitely is a drama. But tedious? No way. And then during the course of our conversation, I understood what he was alluding to by period drama – Mughal-e-Azam, Jodha Akbar etc. Thankfully Bajirao is not in the same vein as these. Its drama is tense and high-strung and never sagging with the burden of period detailing. And I would like to give credit to the screenplay penned by Prakash Kapadia. It takes the juggernaut narrative approach rather than a ‘grand’ approach, where long scenes are built up around the sets with pauses in dialogues so that audience can absorb each and every detail. And SLB, who has been vocal about his Mughal-e-azam love, would surely have relished the ‘grand’ approach given his OCD about detailing. But thankfully we are spared that and what we get is a thrilling historical re-telling of Peshwa Bajirao Ballal’s love triangle, packed with small scenes with high drama.
I have really nothing insightful to say about the film-making or the films content. All I have are generic overarching statements on how this movie is THE movie. So I’m not going even going to try that. Instead what I’ll do is recount few portions/aspects of the film that literally made me quiver with excitement.
The restlessness of the screenplay is very evident here, as it begins by putting us write into the middle of the arguments about the appointment of Maratha Empire’s next prime minister. And amidst it, Ranveer Singh walks in spectacular fashion. I would like point out two aspects of the scene, both related to period detailing
Shahu Maharaj’s darbar – It consists of a long and narrow open space surrounded by a trench filled with water, leading to the throne. It is surrounded by an elevated area for the darbar members (all standing).
Bajirao’s look and accent – Dhoti clad, bald headed with the bhramin choti speaking Hindi with a heavy Marathi accent.
Firstly, the length of the darbar is used fantastically for effect. First Ranvir Singh is introduced by making him walk the length (from the door to throne). Few moments later he is challenged to split a feather with an arrow. The feather is kept at one end, and Bajiro stands on the other hand with bow and arrow. Secondly, the look , along with being authentic is carried out with real badassery by Ranveer Singh. And finally when he delivers his first dialogue in that Marathi accent, boy!!! Pure joy! And moments after this, he wins the challenge, is crowned the prime-minister and then walks in wearing something much more opulent, head covered with an oversized head gear. Walks again through the same long and narrow space for the ceremony (probably not the same, but looks same, and works perfectly in contrast with the earlier moment), exchanging a look with Kashibai.
Deewani Mastani –
This was promoted as THE musical set piece of the movie. And it lives up to its billing. When it comes to such ‘item’ songs in Hindi movies, I’m very stickler about the placement and the build-up. When a BIG item number like Munni Badnam just starts randomly, I get all worked up and lose all the excitement. Deewani Mastani was one song, which I’d been waiting for. I love the audio. It starts with a rocking Marathi folk prelude and then settles into a grand rhythm. I was conscious, that in the movie if it just cropped without any underlying emotional layers, it would be a dud. But the build-up is nothing short of amazing.
Mastani has arrived in Pune, but is not allowed to meet Bajirao, instead is insulted by putting her up at a brothel instead of a guest house.
After a brief flirtation with Mastani in Bundelkhand, Bajirao returns to his loving wife and is shown making love few scenes before
Kashibai is ecstatic of Bajirao’s return and is in LOVE with Bajirao. She mentions to someone, that ‘my’ Bajirao will never look at any other woman.
And amidst this, Mastani is asked to perform (as an insult) at Bajirao’s homecoming ceremony. We see Bajirao dressed ceremoniously sitting on the throne. We see Kashibai and Bajirao’s sisters sitting in the side balcony. They are waiting for the dance to begin. It begins with the folk dancers dancing to the Marathi prelude, and then the beat dies down and there enters Mastani to Bajirao’s surprise. In the course of the song, Kashibai watches nervously from the balcony. The BIG love triangle is NOW set. The song marks the arrival of the turbulence. I’m not sure of the costume and choreography here, but at a musical and emotional level is works fantastically.
Another musical piece that I was excited to see how and where it was used was the Ganesh aarti. Before 1999, no one thought that the ganesh aarti could have a violent cinematic power. But in Vaastav, Mahesh Manjrekar infused the ganesh aarti with a sort of tension and exhilaration that no one could have thought a high tempo prayer recital could be the perfect background score for a Godfather style (the final multiple locations shootouts) action intercutting. And here 16 years later we have SLB using it in undoubtedly the best 5 minutes of Bajirao Mastani. We hear faint echoes of Gajanana playing inside closed doors. Kashibai is on her way to the aarti when she receives a message that killers are on their way to Mastani mahal, save her if she can. She is shocked. She slowly approaches the closed door (from where we hear Gajanana – still faint, increasing slowly) and then opens it to the blast of Gajanana and blood red gulaal filled air. Meanwhile we see Mastani woken up by the intruders. Kashibai proceeds in slow-motion through the crowd with ear blasting Gajanana playing. Mastani is seen defending her child with a sword killing the intruders one by one. We now cut to Kashibai’s close-up, seeing her dilemma, whether to tell Bajirao or just ignore thus getting her souten out of the way. The tempo of the aarti escalates with the intercutting of Kashibai and Mastani. These 5 minutes of pure audio-visual crescendo is absolutely breathtaking and worth every penny of the ticket.
This movie is indeed an event movie. You feel like you’ve watch 4-5 movies packed into one. You get 10 times the bang for every shot in the trailer. Easily the best of 2015 and one of the best ever.
PS: Thanks to my wife for passionately discussing this movie with me and making me realize it is SPECIAL. Also, thanks for pushing me to write this. I feel a lot better than I did at the beginning.
Jab We Met, Break Ke Baad, Ek Main Aur Ek Tu and Tamasha – what do these have in common? They have a stuck-up, somewhat depressed beta-male who is liberated from the monotony of life by a freewheeling sorted-in-life chic. They unlock the guy’s true potential. Out of these movies, 2 have Kareena Kapoor, 2 have Deepika Padukone and 2 are made by the same guy, Imtiaz Ali. It says a lot about all of them. Kareena and Deepika are the true female superstars of the multiplex era. Just like Madhuri and Sridevi (Beta, Chalbaaz) from the 90’s, they fulfill the male writer-director’s fantasy of women with reins (“If I’m going to submit myself to someone, it has to be one of these”). Imtiaz Ali’s lead male characters are highly conflicted (nothing profound, just confused) and eventually turn to the women for life-affirming comforts. With Tamasha, he continues with his adolescent pre-occupations of finding the one-true-special-one, but this time he exhibits a very strong narrative control for almost three quarters of the movie, where he shifts through places, timelines and perspectives much more organically than his other more ambitious films like Love Aaj Kal and Rockstar.Continue reading “Tamasha Movie Review: Performance of Life”