River Song (2018) — Review

Still from River Song
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When I was watching Sange Dorjee Thongdok’s River Song, a film about a cross-culture friendship set in the backdrop of the Dibang dam construction in Arunachal Pradesh, I couldn’t help thinking of two other films with dams at the centre of the story — Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006) and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013).

While Night Moves is evidently a movie (a thriller) that one would not compare immediately with River Song, a drama (in that regard, Thondok’s film is a lot closer to Still Life), I felt there was something akin to the unravelling of the two characters in the respective movies, even though the two characters couldn’t be more different nor their situations. In both the movies, the protagonists commit an act of violence at the climax that, at the beginning of the movie, one would not have expected them to commit, even though there’s enough evidence throughout. The evidence is more in your face in case of River Song.

The comparison with Still Life is less far-fetched. Both the movies focus on the displacement of people because of a dam project and the destruction of the local environment. However, the scope of Zhangke’s film is wider as it provides a more panoramic view of the social and cultural impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the village of Fengjie, China. Thongdok’s film takes a more intimate approach to revealing the disastrous outcome of the Dibang dam project.

The protagonist of River Song, Tashi runs a rundown fuel station at the outskirts of a small town in Arunachal Pradesh, selling fuel out of barrels illegally. Like the desolate tin-reinforced house he lives in, Tashi is a loner, with only a couple of friends, who are socially more active than him. He spends his time fishing, attending the fuel station and occasionally visiting the site where his brother had died. Tashi’s property is one of the many that run the risk of being flooded. He keeps receiving eviction notices from the government, but he chooses to ignore them. One day, he meets Eshna, who is in the town with her husband, who is in charge of overseeing the construction of the dam. Away from her home in a new place and an indifferent husband, Eshna too is a loner. Despite the language barrier Tashi and Eshna hit it off; they find a kindred spirit in each other, with both dealing with loss, guilt and loneliness.

The theme of displacement runs throughout the film. The tribals and locals of the town are being displaced because of the dam. Some are leaving the place, but many more are fighting for the land they grew up in, the memories that they have of the place, the ecology they hold so sacred. Tashi too fears the prospect of displacement, so he holds dearly on to his property and his memories of this place. Eshna too deals with displacement both physically and metaphorically. Both of them are awashed with a sense of guilt. Even as they try to hold on to something stable — Tashi to his property and Eshna to her marriage — the two keep drifting in the vastness of loneliness and uncertainty. When they find each other, they find in the other an anchor. They find a relationship that they can rely on — a risky notion in the face of an ecology rendered unstable and a community uncertain.

As much as it is about displacement and dealing with personal traumas, River Song also is an allegory of how mainland India treats the hill regions of Northeast India. From imposition of language to forcing of consent, the natives of the region find themselves at the mercy of the intruders. Eshna’s story is introduced like an intrusion into the film as she literally knocks on Tashi’s door. I wonder if it’s by design that her scenes with her husband seem a bit in disharmony with the rest of the movie. However, when she is with Tashi, the movie sails smooth.

The movie turns a critical eye towards the intrusion of the government that is insensitive to the environmental concerns of the region, which is a seismic zone, and the lives of the people. Thongdok uses real protest footage and sound bites from radio and places them strategically to amplify the voice of protest even as Tashi slowly finds himself reluctantly becoming part of the movement against the project.

The cinematography by Pooja S Gupte, who had also shot Thongdok’s National Award winning debut Crossing Bridges (2013), captures the beauty of Arunachal Pradesh in all its natural glory. The colour grading seems close to the natural hues of the greens and mist that descends upon the hills. The preference for natural and ambient light adds to the realism of the movie, even as a layer of surrealism is apparent in the fabric of the narrative.

The performances are natural, with Tenzing Khechog’s grounded portrayal of Tashi at the centre of it. Although I felt the performance by Vinamrata Rai, who plays Eshna, didn’t have quite the bottled-up intensity that the character required. However, that does not mean Rai was not good. In fact, she did a good job; it’s just that I felt it could have been better. The rest of the cast is a competent and does a great job in helping flesh out the wider concerns of the story.

Watching River Song in the wake of the tragedy in Chamoli, Uttarakhand, where the death toll has reached 70 and nearly twice as many are missing, provides perspective into the importance of the voice of the tribals, the locals and experts who time and again warn the authorities of the risks such developmental projects pose to the environment.

A scene in the police station sums up the government’s stance on the management of resources and the treatment of the locals. The officer in charge of the station, a non-native, assaults Tashi for beating up government officials. He rebukes Tashi for not speaking Hindi (confused by many to be the national language when it is one of the official languages) and apparently not knowing the national anthem. The government’s use of nationalism to impose policies and decisions on people is evident in the police officers’ use of the nationalist vocabulary to discredit and accuse Tashi. The centre uses similar tactics to discredit criticism and imprison opposition. For the government and the corporate sector the resources are theirs to exploit. For them the locals mean nothing, their history, beliefs and experiences are pushed under the carpet of a monolithic narrative of nationalism that benefits the people in power.

To further humiliate Tashi the police officer orders him to sing a song while standing on one leg. Tashi sings the river song, “O sacred river, sacred river. / You keep flowing and all our lives, sustain and nourish us. / O sacred river, sacred river.” This is what the tribals and the locals stand for. This is what they want to protect.

Still Life (2006) by Jia Zhangke — Review

Still Life 17

Jia Zhangke’s Still Life is set during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, and it was released the same year as the dam became operational — in 2006. Among the project’s many achievements, such as being the largest hydropower plant in the world, the China Three Gorges Corporation had then listed down the resettlement of nearly 1.13 million people as a world record.

Still Life focuses on the impact of the construction and the resulting resettlement drive on the socio-economic fabric of the county of Fengjie. It suffices to say that Zhangke’s style of mixing documentary and fiction does not adhere to the state’s narrative of achievement, rather in telling the human side of the story, Zhangke highlights the issues the Chinese government failed to mention while presenting the resettlement figures as a world record. Still Life calls out the resettlement drive for what it is — displacement.

The film follows two characters in their search for their families in Fengjie. The first plotline sees Han Sanming, a coal miner from Shanxi province, arrive at Fengjie on a ferry cruising along the Yangtze river, carrying a motley crew of individuals, mostly migrant workers. Han Sanming has not seen his wife and daughter for over sixteen years, and the only way to find them is an address Sanming’s wife Missy Ma had left him when she ran away from Shanxi. Unable to locate his family, he joins a team of workers assigned with demolishing buildings to support himself during his stay in Fengjie.

In the second story, Shen Hong (played by Zhao Tao), a nurse in Shanxi province, comes looking for her husband who she hasn’t seen in the past two years and has only heard from him only once when he called her up to check if she was alive.

Both the characters come from two different economic backgrounds, and the film rightly chooses to show the direct impact of the Three Gorges Dam on Sanming’s quest, rather than on Shen Hong’s. The hydel project plays out more like an exotic backdrop for Shen Hong’s story — it serves a more metaphorical purpose. And, it is not by coincidence that the documentary element is more prominent in Sanming’s story than in Hong’s. However, that does not mean that Hong’s quest for her husband does not give us any insight into the lives of people in Fengjie. In fact, it is through Hong’s interactions with other characters (both those living on the margins on the verge of being displaced and those benefitting from the demolition of settlements) that we get a clear picture of how differently people of different classes are being affected by the project.

Still Life is an evocative presentation of the powerlessness of ordinary human beings at the face of a state’s ambitions and the (consequential) changing economic and social dynamics — after all, how can people expect to build or salvage something in a place crumbling into dust and debris and where a power less arbitrary than fate, but as ruthless, is at work? Despite such bleakness, Still Life is filled with moments utterly humane and, sometimes, humorous. In an early scene, Sanming is duped by a cabbie (a motorbike rider actually) who hides the fact that the address Sanming is looking for has been flooded. However, later in an act of sympathy, he secures Sanming a lodge on discount, to which the lodge owner remarks, “You are siding with the customers.”

We would love to hear your thoughts on the film in the comments section. 

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Five Deadly Venoms (1978) — Chang Cheh channels heroic bloodshed via mystery

Director: Chang Cheh

Cast: Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, Wei Pei, Lu Feng

Story: A kung fu student must fulfill his master’s final instructions and face some of his evil seniors who are more skillful than him.


Considered as the most prominent filmmaker from the Shaw Brothers’ stable of directors, which at one point of time included King Hu, Chang Cheh made some of the most popular kung fu films to come out of Hong Kong. His efforts include cult favorites such as One-Armed Swordsman (1967), The Heroic Ones (1970), Five Elements Ninja (1982), Crippled Avengers (1978) and, of course, Five Deadly Venoms (1978).

The movies of Chang Cheh could be seen as bearing the prototypical elements that would go on to form the heroic bloodshed genre, a category of Hong Kong action movies that still inspires action cinema all over the world. To put it simply, heroic bloodshed focuses on male camaraderie, a strong moral code, revenge, and redemption. These films had some staple characters such as a good-at-heart gangster and an honest police officer, who would often team up to bring down the bad guy. Across movies, there were subtle variations in the motives of characters, the degree of their cockiness, and to what extent the protagonists were humor-resistant, but one thing was certain: hyper-stylized violence, as much as Chow Yun-fat with dual Berettas.

Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms and most of his kung fu movies (haven’t seen them all) were very much the precursors to the heroic bloodshed movies, with ample display of moral codes, brotherhood, intense violence, reverence for the masculine and commitment to the marginalization of the feminine.

I recently watched Five Deadly Venoms on Netflix and realized how long it had been since I had watched a 70’s Hong Kong movie that was not Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978) or Drunken Master (1978). It was fun!

Five Deadly Venoms begins with a dying kung fu master revealing to his pupil the not so positive reputation of his school, which is kind of obvious if you name your school the Poison Clan, and the possible nefarious designs of his five former pupils, each of whom has mastered a particular fighting technique — Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad. The sixth pupil, who has mastered none of these techniques but is a jack of all, receives the instruction to prevent his seniors from succeeding in their evil plans. With inferior skills to his seniors, the sixth pupil’s only hope is to hope that not all of them have turned evil and that he could join the ones who still have their integrity and honor intact and defeat the others. The catch is even the master does not know the identity of his pupil because, for some reason, they practiced with masks on. However, again, for some reason, the master seems to know that some of the pupils might know each other individually.

I will agree that the plot is far from perfect and that a lot of things do not make much sense. However, I did find the structure and the themes that stem out of that slightly weird premise interesting and, mostly, effective. Thanks to the hidden identities, the movie is part mystery, which would have seemed unnecessary and less engaging had the writers chosen to keep the audience in the dark, too, like the characters (the identities of all but one pupil are revealed). Now, although the audience is a step ahead of the characters, they are still in the guessing game, with regard to the identity of the last pupil.

The themes, too, are varied and layered and provide a welcome change of pace in an action movie largely meant to showcase the physical prowess of the actors and the intricate fight choreography. For example, there is the theme of trust and masks. The master trusts only the sixth pupil because he has seen his face; later in the movie, the audience is able to guess how the events would unfold for characters who rest their trust in someone who has not revealed his identity. Themes such as honor, brotherhood, revenge, redemption common in heroic bloodshed movies are also observed. In addition, finer character details, such as a character whose skin is invulnerable to weapons is also the most vulnerable of the lot when it comes to trusting people, make Five Deadly Venoms a wholesome viewing experience.

The action choreography is highly imaginative and meant for most impact. Each character has his own combat style and Chang Cheh makes sure that we see the different techniques as the extension of the characters, as distinguished as their personalities. Although, I would have loved the final fight to last a little longer, what we get is nonetheless one the best fight scenes from that period. The training montage of the five pupils alone could be considered as one of the best training montages ever filmed.

Chang Cheh makes the most of the male form on display in all its beauty and strength. He ensures that the camera does not shy away from the brutalities on display, the horrors being inflicted on these bodies and captures the essence of what these characters live and die for —  their code of honor and brotherhood.

What are your thoughts on the film or on kung fu movies in general? We would love to hear from you in the comments below. 

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Padmaavat (2018) Review Published at Asian Movie Pulse

A lot has been made about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s adaptation of Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem “Padmavat” (1540). Even before its release, the film had been mired in controversy due to rumors regarding tampering with Rajput (an Indian community historically known for their valor and honor) history and a prominent figure, Rani Padmini, in their lore. From vandalism on set and threats to the actors and Bhansali himself by right-wing groups to the eventual delay in its release (it was supposed to release on December 1, 2017), “Padmaavat” has been through a lot of trouble (it even lost the ‘i’ from its title). All of this trouble with an extremist right-wing group gave an impression that probably the film could build a counter-narrative against the glorification of ‘jauhar’ (self-immolation Rajput women used to perform in order to save their honor from victorious enemies) in Rajput lore. But alas! It was too much to expect from Bhansali. [Read the full article here]

Mukkabaaz Review – it takes a brawler to overcome odds


To start with the review, let me first address the most important aspect of the film or at least as the title suggests – boxing. The actors throwing punches at each other and ducking and blocking those really looked like boxing, both in the alleys of Bareily and in the ring. That is really something given Bollywood’s record of disrespecting sports by either filming sports moves with lack of authenticity or expecting that realism in movie-sports don’t apply as long as you have a charming actor facing the camera. Of course, movies these days are really going an extra mile to make sports look legit on screen – Dangal, Saala Khadoos (Mary Kom – as in the movie – was so lame), Chak De India are some good examples.

Sports on screen looks only as good as the commitment of the actor pretending to play it, and Vineet Kumar Singh, who plays an aspiring boxer in Mukkabaaz, looks every bit a boxer, right from his boxing moves to his physique to his gait. You can see the level of commitment this actor has shown for the film; it is way more than make-believe. Full marks there for commitment.

Mukkabaaz (The Brawler), even with its overriding themes of ambition and love against all odds which inevitably clash with each other, is a story of oppression and people rising against it. With the opening shot – a gang of gau-rakshaks or cow vigilantes clobbering a couple of people for allegedly trafficking cattle for slaughter and recording it for circulation – Anurag Kashyap introduces a politically charged atmosphere, where crime against the minority is the order of the day.  While Kashyap doesn’t further indulge in commentary on communal politics (except in one more scene in the middle of the movie), he expands on the issues of caste, gender, and boxing – a sports equivalent of the marginalized in India.

Shravan Singh (Vineet) is the best boxer in Bareily, and under the tutelage of Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill), a former boxer and now a local gangster cum sports promoter, he aspires to make a name for himself as a boxer. Ever heard that love has the power to raise people out of their miserable existence? Well, Shravan Singh discovers just that when he sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Mishra’s mute niece and is quickly inspired to defy Mishra by refusing to do his bidding. Mishra takes a punch to his face and his upper-caste male ego, and from then on takes up the task to ruin Shravan’s boxing career. Things spiral out of hand when Sunaina, who falls for Shravan for standing up against her uncle, and Shravan decides to marry. To add salt to Mishra’s wounds, even Sunaina’s parents decide to set caste aside and bless the marriage.

That was just the skeleton of the movie. To get to the dense flesh you have to watch the film. At one point in the film, Ravi Kishan’s character, an upright boxing coach, tells Shravan to decide whether he wants to be a ‘mukkebaaz’ (boxer) or a ‘mukkabaaz’ (brawler), whether he wants to waste his talent fighting the system from outside the ring or make a future fighting it from within. This becomes a metaphor for the struggle of life – where you either brawl your way to glory or fight the hurdles while still playing by the rules of life -.as well as Kashyap’s own relation to the movie industry. I wonder could the ending of the movie be any reference to his experience of going mainstream with Bombay Velvet.

While a large portion of the movie is about Shravan’s fight against system and caste to realize his dreams and Mishra’s evil plans to sabotage Shravan’s career and his marriage, a tender loves story blooms amid all the hate and brawling. Shravan and Sunaina’s love is so intricately woven with the rest of the fight, that Shravan’s every fight becomes a fight not just for his boxing dreams or to defy social norms but also for his love for Sunaina. And as all of these motivations come together, we get a climactic fight that is cathartic, to say the least.

Zoya Hussain gives a knock out performance with her mute turn. She plays the role gracefully and with charm. There is no single emotion that she doesn’t manage to emote with just her eyes. The level of commitment that Hussain shows with her learning of over sign language is in no way second to Vineet’s. She portrays Sunaina’s love for Shravan, her angst at not being understood, he hatred and defiance of the patriarchy with deafening silence. It is not by the mere whim of the screenwriters that Sunaina is mute, it stands for the voicelessness of women who suffer every day at the hands of patriarchy. The rest of the cast also does a fantastic job and lends the movie a depth by assisting Kashyap and co-writers realize an immersive world which the film takes two and a half hour to build.

It is the storytelling talent of Kashyap, his sense of songs (great music by Rachita Arora, Prashant Pillai, and Nucleya) and dialogues that elevates what could have been another populist masala film by a lesser filmmaker. The way Kashyap weaves a tapestry of social issues around a masala framework and gives it a gritty and rustic treatment validates the point yet again that Kashyap is at his best when he walks the thin line between the commercial and the indie.

‘Wet Woman in the Wind’ – a raunchy tale of the battle of the sexes filled with visual wit


image via justwatch.com

Wet Woman in the Wind is one of the five films released under the Roman Porno reboot project by Nikkatsu. To anyone aware of Japan’s oldest film studio Nikkatsu, the name Roman Porno is likely to ring a bell. Roman Porno, a film series devoted to the showcase of an abundance of sex and nudity in films ranging across multiple genres, is accredited to have revived Nikkatsu’s market share, which had suffered a considerable drop with the advent of television. Established in 1971, the films under the label were essentially softcore porn with better production value than a pornographic film and considerable artistic merit; a lot of these films were critically acclaimed.


The makers of the reboot films stick to the sex and nudity clause – Akihiko Shiota (Wet Woman in the Wind) even goes beyond the call of duty and infuses the last half of the film with more sex than a pornographic film – while giving them their desired artistic touches.

Wet Woman in the Wind is one of the best entries in the reboot project. On the surface, it is a breezy sex comedy with lots of sex and as much humour. but under it runs a psychological tension of one-upmanship between the representatives of both the sexes. To put it in other words, the film puts the sex in the battle of the sexes and takes the battle part quite literally as naked bodies indulge in one amusing coitus after another.

Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka) is a Tokyo playwright who is taking a break from the world of art and from ‘women’. He puts up a ramshackle camp in the woods and spends his time scavenging abandoned furniture and other domestic articles and brewing himself a cup of coffee. But this apparent idyllic existence comes to end when Shiori (a brilliant Yuki Mamiya) comes literally crashing into his life. Shiori, who has a hyperactive sex life, marks Kosuke as her next target in a rather usual Roman Porno and general movie tradition playing a sex-crazed vixen out to lure the man out of his disciplined existence. However, as the movie progresses and as Shiori manages to break through Kosuke’s guard bit by bit, we see Kosuke’s past catching up with him and undoing his pretenses.

Even before Kosuke’s guard is down we see a glimpse of his past ways with women when he tries to tame Shiori with his “intellectual superiority”. In a later moment in the movie, his old colleague arrives with her secretary and a troupe of male performers dressed identically as Kosuke. The series of orgies that follows humorously lays bare social hierarchy’s role in something as intimate and organic as sex. At the top of this hierarchy is a man, here Kosuke. Shiori is a rogue element, she does not acknowledge this hierarchy. For her, in a coupling, having the upper hand is as important as an orgasm. She brings down this hierarchy by literally bringing down the house and emerging on top, from the debris after the battle.

There is no doubt that the sex scenes are mostly for male gratification (the movie is a homage to older Roman Porno canon), however, by giving Shiori the agency and exaggerating the mostly hetero sex scenes and making the only lesbian sex scene the most erotic, Shiota subverts and takes a dig at the Roman Porno tradition.

Theeran Adhigaram Ondru – Review


‘Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru’ is the best police procedural action thriller from India that I have seen, or maybe I have not been looking in the right places. Bollywood seems to have forgotten how to make one (I remember Sarfarosh). Although this movie wouldn’t give you a hardcore police procedural thriller like ‘Zodiac’, it squeezes in just the right dose of it to keep you engaged, I mean how many films can compare to Zodiac’s brilliance.

The movie has all you have come to expect from ‘South Indian’ movies (a generalisation of cinema – by people in mostly Hindi speaking regions – that is not Bollywood and is much richer than the latter) of the dubbed versions of which are frequently shown on Set Max and the likes. However, it cuts on the over the top fight scenes (there are still hints in it), gives you characters that are not caricatures, doesn’t treat the audience as children, and hence is smart (not for the sake of being smart), gives a menacing villain although underdeveloped, great performance from the lead, and edge of the seat thrill.

It could have done a bit more by offering a good character study of the lead, given the time spent on his domestic life apart from his life as a police officer. I wish they would stop casting actors from North India to play ‘heroines’, I mean are there not enough women in the southern part of India? And only if the foot chase scenes were good… Nobody is asking for an ‘Apocalypto’, but a bit more effort in editing and from actors would surely do wonders.

Having said all that the movie is still very good. Recommended viewing.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan Review

Tamil filmmaker, R S Prasanna, heads to B-town with his debut Hindi feature Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, which is a remake of Prasanna’s 2013 Tamil movie Kalyana Samayal Sadhan. A rom-com at heart, the movie deals with the issue of erectile dysfunction, a growing concern among the young office-going population in urban centres.

I went into the theatre with very little expectation and with a very basic idea (as much I as could glean from the trailers) about the movie. And I am glad to say it didn’t disappoint. In fact, even if I had gone with a bit of expectation, given the effective pairing of Ayushmannn Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar (Dum Laga Ke Haisha) and the fact that it has been produced by Anand L Rai, there is not a lot to be disappointed with in the movie.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan tells the story of Mudit (Khurrana), who falls for Sugandha (Pednekar) and is soon (in a matter of a few funny scenes and probably a song) engaged to her. There is not much in way of complication for the two (unless you count Sugandha’s “na-mein-haan” or whatever logic) until one night in the absence of Sugandha’s family, they discover in the heat of a novice sexual encounter that nothing else apart from awkwardness rises. What follows is Mudit and Sugandha’s humorous yet determined attempt at getting married despite external and internal impediments.

Most of the humour in the movie comes from the fact that it is strangely nostalgic in the use of innuendos, at least in spirit (remember flowers making out?). While the innuendos are not that shy, they do not reach the vulgarity of Pahlaj Nihalani’s “Khada hai” song. The innuendos range from giggle-evoking to the absurd AIBish manhood analogies. Besides it also offers humour on the meta level – Vicky Donor. But what makes the film really worthy of a watch is its criticism of how society sees masculinity. And although the movie suffers from a lackluster final act, it is nevertheless highly entertaining, thanks to strong performances from the leads and the supporting cast and humour (bodering on the absurd and at times threatening to throw it off the rails), which mostly works in its favour.

Jagga Jasoos aims high but misses the mark

It is astonishing that in an industry (Hindi film – better known as Bollywood) where films without songs are an anomaly, very, very few films actually employ songs to drive the narrative, let alone try a musical: where songs are not only organic to the story but also embody the essence of the world the characters of the musical inhabit. In fact, song and dance go so hand in hand with Hindi films (true for all Indian films) that in the west or for that matter any part of the world where these films are seen (and loved) it is taken for granted that they are all musicals. Which is far from the truth.

Well, Jagga Jasoos, the newest offering from director Anurag Basu, is here to give the audience a taste of what a musical is like; it is the only attempt at the genre ‘I’ remember since Jaan-e-Mann (2006), which again is not the best of examples. Jagga Jasoos tries and does well, but unfortunately only till the first act, after which it is a long way downhill only to catch my interest again (I’ll talk about it later in the review)! SPOILERS ahead!

The film opens with a delightful shot of rural Purulia (in 1995 or so) and introduces us to Bagchi (played excellently by Saswata Chaterjee) aka Tutti Futti and Badluck Bagchi, whose status as the mascot of bad luck results in a classic goof up that sets the ball in motion. Then jump to present day Kolkata Book Fair where Katrina Kaif’s character, the narrator, introduces children to the books (I believe comics because that would be an obvious nod to Tintin) of Jagga Jasoos (Ranbir Kapoor), the eponymous hero. She takes the young fans down the memory lane of Jagga, a stammering orphan who is adopted by a kind and goofy man, Bagchi, who give him lessons for life (including sing-your-speech-to-stop-stammer lesson) and then mysteriously disappearing, abandoning him at a boarding school. At school Jagga develops a knack for detective work largely because he was shy enough to be alone and curious enough to make 2+2=4. Then voila! all of a sudden he’s all popular in school, confident and Sherlock-smart, while being shy and awkward only at the convenience of the script. Numerous things follow: he meets a journalist, Shruti (Katrina Kaif), stumbles on an arms trade trail, finds connection between the dissapearance of his foster-father and the arms trade plot point, goes on a quest to find him. Too much happening to give a damn about.

There are plenty of characters minor, major and numerous story threads and a lot of back and forth non-linear narrative stuff, which I kind of liked and I think worked for the movie because it is a movie about a sleuth and, let us face it, with a linear approach the plot with so many threads to follow would have resulted in a snoozefest. The movie takes a lot of time setting up things, too much time even for origin-story standards. Yet it is this part that I enjoyed the most in the movie. Jagga, in between flashbacks, solves two cases in the first act and these are staged amazingly to music and lyrics. I would have preferred these two cases to make up the whole movie instead of using them as a set up for something grand, which sadly doesn’t materialize. The next act that follows seems tired, with absolutely no steam left in it barring a few moments of fun (few being “Sab Daru Pi Ke Khaana Kha Ke Chale Gaye” song and Saurabh Shukla’s villianous turn). 

Another problem with this film is that while all the other actors perform really well, Katrina Kaif manages to mess up scenes which would otherwise have been fun to watch. This has been said a lot of time, I know, but my problem is not with Katrina’s performance alone, it is the casting choice that bothers me. I think she was a miscast as Shruti here and it really affected the whole experience of the movie. Besides her character was very underdeveloped as the rest of the characters in the movie, even Jagga’s. The only character arc Shruti completes is turning from a damsel in distress to a sidekick (who is the butt of most of the slapstick ridicules in the movie) and losing all interest in her quest to expose the arms dealers (for goodness’ sake! they killed her boyfriend! and there is also something called love for profession), letting the man of the movie, Jagga’s quest the centre stage. Really sad!

The globetrotting adventure that follows in the second act is beautiful to look at, as was the choice of settings in India, with lush greens of Assam and Purulia to the sands of Africa. Beautiful cinematography! However, this picturesqueness, our ‘good-looking’ lead pair and really good performances from Ranbir Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla, Saswata, and Rajatava Dutta, and some genuinely amazing moments fail to lift this overlong, unnecessarily convoluted film with underdeveloped characters from an average affair to an exceptional piece of film, which it had the potential to be had the producers been more confident of the movie and not crammed so much in one movie. Could have explored the character and his adventures in sequels, which this movie hints at. I would so go and watch the sequel despite the uneven experience with this one because it is revealed at the end that Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the main bad guy, who is polycephalic, and has kidnapped Jagga and his father. Talk about cliffhangers! Move over Bahubali!

The Poetry of ‘Masaan’

Bollywood-Masaan-Film-Review-Rating-Box-Office-Collection-Hit-FlopI write this post a day after watching Masaannot because I needed time to overcome the emotional impact of the movie to analyse it more objectively, but for the evocative poetry that renders each and every strand of emotion in the film, endearing (and that had me looking up the poets on the internet). Poetry not just of the great Urdu poets – Brij Narayan Chakbast, Dushyant Kumar, Bashir Badr – that were used in the film, but also of Varun Grover’s soul-strumming lyrics: he has deftly woven his passionate words around that marvel of a line by Dushyant Kumar – Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main kisi pul sa thartharaata hoon  (O, how I shudder like a bridge when, like a train, you rumble by).

The simile becomes all the more potent in the film with the romance between Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) and Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi). The great social and cultural divide that pose as a certain impediment to the joyous union of the lovers – caste – stands as one of the many symbols of the undying tradition that spawned along the banks of the river Ganga thousands of years ago.  Deepak belongs to the Dom community while Shaalu is from a higher rung of the caste ladder. Coming from a completely different background, Deepak, otherwise confident, is apprehensive of the perky, poetry-reciting Shaalu. The conversations between them, which have been realised in a very convincing manner, reiterate the cultural gorge between them.

The closest that Deepak comes to poetry is through songs – he makes a mash-up of popular Hindi film songs and lines of the great poets (mentioned above) and gifts Shaalu on her birthday. This is perhaps one of the first attempts in the film to bring about a happy marriage of the traditional and the new way of life(one of the prominent themes of the film is the conflict between the old and the new).

The music by Indian Ocean hits all the right chords. Coming from the masters of fusion rock, the music adds to the theme of the film. The sufiyana depth of the lyrics and the bold, in-your-face rhythm of rock music is apparent in all the three songs in the movie. The lyrics of Varun Grover weaves mystic and the worldly into one and that too so enchantingly that it becomes difficult to imagine the movie without the songs. In an age when the voice and intent of movies and their songs have grown so apart, the songs of Masaan restores faith in the necessity of songs in movies.

I just came across a post on Firstpost where Varun Grover has ‘decoded’ two of his songs –Mann kasturi  and Tu kisi rail si. Hum the tune and ponder on the beauty of the lyrics. Click here. 

Also, tell me what is your favourite line from the songs in the comments section below, mine is – Main hoon paani ke bulbule jaisa / Tujhe sochoon toh phoot jaata hoon.