The Front Row Review of Gunday

In an interview I did with Ranveer Singh, the actor described the brief that director Shaad Ali gave him on the sets of the upcoming Kill Dill. The one line instruction was: Just Bachchan it, baby. Ranveer should have no problem with that because he has already Bachchaned the hell out of his role in Gunday.

Gunday, directed and written by Ali Abbas Zafar, is an unabashed love letter to the 1970s - the height of our romance with Amitabh Bachchan's Angry Young Man. A time when heroes, even if they were criminals, were honorable men. When friendship was bigger than love. When the system was always the biggest criminal. Though the story is set in the 1980s, Zafar recreates a classic 70s vibe with punchy dialogue-baazi, scenes designed to make you applaud and a relentless background score by Julius Packiam that underlines every beat just in case you missed a high note. Gunday is all slow-motion and swagger with nods to Deewaar, Sholay, Kaala Patthar and sprinkles of John Woo's doves and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

This masala mix works for the first half - Ranveer and Arjun Kapoor are electric as Bikram and Bala, two Bangladeshi refugees, who are inducted in childhood into a life of crime. The story is both implausible and clumsy but sheer attitude - or tevar as we are reminded repeatedly - pulls it together. It's the second half, when Bikram and Bala are at each other's throats, that the film loses its spell. The narrative momentum is broken by unnecessary songs and a prolonged Bikram-Bala fight, in which Zafar succumbs to the Salman Khan rule - eventually shirts come off and well-oiled chests hurl against each other.

Still I enjoyed Gunday because of Ranveer and Arjun. Priyanka Chopra kills it in one nicely written emotional stand-off scene, Irrfan Khan brings a sly amusement to his role of the cop assigned to break Bikram and Bala and a special mention of Saurabh Shukla who shines in a brief role as the hapless lawyer assigned to make the boys, somehow legal. But this film would be dead on arrival without the energy of the male leads - even when they are hamming, they are doing it with a glorious style.

I'm going with three stars for Gunday. One is for Ranveer and Arjun.

The Front Row Review of Her

I started my review of The Lunchbox with writer E. M. Forster's famous exhortation: Only Connect. Watching Spike Jonze's ingenious new film Her, I was reminded of that. Like The Lunchbox, Her is also about desperately lonely human beings making tenuous connections. But unlike Saajan Fernandes in The Lunchbox, Her's Theodore Twombly doesn't even find another human being to connect with. He slowly and inexorably falls in love with his computer operating system - Samantha.

The film's genius is that this doesn't seem at all implausible. Jonze creates a perfectly realized futuristic Los Angeles, in which Twombly, broken-hearted after a separation, lives. Twombly, played by the brilliant Joaquin Phoenix, is odd, awkward, unspeakably sad. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is his virtual companion. She cleans up his hard-drive, organizes his appointments and makes him laugh. She becomes his soulmate without a soul. He takes her, through his earpiece on dinner dates and walks. You hope that somehow, this man and this lovely piece of technology will live happily ever after.

Her has a profound melancholy. It directly speaks to our harried, technology soaked lives and our many selves who are, at once, virtually over-connected and yet, emotionally unmoored. In places, this film feels long and stretched. But it shifts something within you. When Theodore's love affair ends, as it must, I cried.

Go see Her. If only to see the miracle of Scarlett Johansson creating a full-bodied, three-dimensional character using just her voice. I'm going with four stars.

The Front Row Review of Fandry

This week, I also want to make a special recommendation: the award-winning Marathi film Fandry. Fandry means Pig. In this film, the word signifies status and occupation. It serves as both insult and weapon. Fandry is the story of a Dalit schoolboy named Jabya, played winningly by the non-professional actor Somnath Awghade. Jabya's family, the only untouchables in the village, are treated mostly with contempt. Among other things, they are responsible for keeping the disruptive pigs around the village in control. Jabya is keenly aware of his lowly status and especially of his dark skin. He is besotted by Shalu, a fair-skinned, upper-caste girl in his school. Jabya bristles against the shackles of poverty and caste that grind his family daily like a millstone and yet he hopes to someday win Shalu's heart.

The beauty is that debutant director Nagraj Manjule doesn't give us a shrill polemic on the soul-crushing ugliness that exists in modern India. Instead he creates a poignant portrait of a keenly intelligent boy whose dreams defy his circumstances. Manjule gives us lovely little details - so Jabya, hoping to go a shade lighter, enthusiastically powders his face before school. And his bright, charming face fills with longing when he sees a pair of jeans, which are prohibitively expensive but essential in his Shalu plans.

But there can't be any happy endings for Jabya or his family. The last 15 minutes of this film are gut-wrenching. And yet, amidst a brutal pig chase, there is a moment of humor so dark and so unexpected that it takes your breath away. Ultimately, as he must, Manjule indicts us all.

Fandry is not comfortable entertainment. But it is a film with exceptional power. Make time for it.

The Front Row Review of 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is the most devastating experience I’ve had in a movie theater in years. I first saw the film alone in LA and by the end, I was weeping uncontrollably into my popcorn. Salman Khan once said that going to a movie should be like going to a nightclub. If you believe that then don’t step into this one. But if you want to experience a film that is, in equal parts, brilliant and brutal, then head to a theater now.

Based on a book of the same name, 12 Years a Slave is the true story of a free black man in 1840s America, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Solomon Northup, played magnificently by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is then passed on from owner to owner, until he lands into the hands of the psychotic plantation boss Edwin Epps. In a space and time defined by evil and cruelty, Edwin, played with a horrific malevolence by Michael Fassbender, is the evilest and cruelest of them all. His slaves are his property and he will do with them, as he likes.

This includes rape, whipping and random acts of assorted cruelty, like waking up his slaves in the middle of the night and making them dance because he wants to be amused. In one scene, as he’s talking to someone, he uses a slave like a table to lean his hand on. The boy becomes furniture, unmoving and unfeeling. Director Steve McQueen focuses an unflinching gaze on the institution of slavery. We cannot look away, even as Edwin whips his slave and object of affection Patsey, to near death. There is no sentimentality here and no redemption. But what keeps us going is the moral dignity and humanity of Northup, who refuses to break. He is downgraded from human to animal but he doesn’t curdle.

12 Years a Slave is a difficult film but please don’t let that deter you. This is a great movie, which will enrich you. It deserves your time. I’m going with four and a half stars.

The Front Row Review of One By Two

Mid-way through One by Two, an exasperated ex-girlfriend screams at the still-besotted boyfriend whom she dumped recently: You are so boring. Aur toh aur tumhara naam bhi boring hai. I felt her pain. Boredom weighed me down too as I watched this film.

One by Two is one of those determinedly contemporary romantic dramas that are entirely played out in the world of stylish offices, coffee shops, malls, multiplexes and nightclubs. Here the beautiful, affluent, lonely young folk of Mumbai work out their angst. Among these is Amit Sharma, played by Abhay Deol, a nerdy computer type, who can’t get over his ex. And Samara Patel, played by Preeti Desai, a dancer, who we are told has, a BA with honors in contemporary dance. They don’t meet for a long time but their lives intersect in strange and unexpected ways. So for about two hours and twenty minutes we watch him mope. Meanwhile she struggles with her alcoholic mother, her distant father and a television dance contest that she desperately wants to win.

Of course neither appreciates what they have – he, loving affectionate parents and friends. She, a gorgeous terraced apartment that we in Mumbai would consider the ultimate lottery. The story by writer-director Devika Bhagat isn’t half-bad but these characters whine too much to be interesting company. Devika’s dialogues don’t help either – so early in the film as Samara is getting cosy with another dancer, she shifts awkwardly and says: sorry thong adjustment. It’s the disadvantage of trying to be sexy all the time.”

But when the film veers away from this forced cool vibe, it’s fun. At one point, Amit becomes fabulously unhinged when his prospective in-laws come to see him. There’s a sweetly touching police mushaira, in which cops read out awful poems that they’ve written. And there’s Shishikha, the seemingly uncool, plump girl, hand-picked by Amit’s mom for marriage. In one scene, she picks up his guitar and starts to sing absolutely off-key. Amit looks stricken and asks: Poora gaana gaogi?

I wish there was more of this. I’m going with two stars.

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