Sunday, September 24, 2017

REVIEW 530: POKKIRI SIMON – ORU KADUTHA AARADHAKAN


Release date:
September 22, 2017
Director:
Jijo Antony
Cast:


Language:
Sunny Wayne, Sarath Kumar, Jacob Gregory, Prayaga Martin, Srinda Arhaan, Saiju Kurup, Dileesh Pothan
Malayalam


If you are looking for a ruminative film on the nature of stardom and fandom, skip this one.

Pokkiri Simon: Oru Kadutha Aaradhakan revolves around a bunch of crazed Malayali devotees of the Tamil megastar Vijay. They are the sort of guys who run fan clubs with the enthusiasm regular folk would invest in a professional enterprise, bathe the actor’s giant cutouts in milk before his theatrical releases, dance madly in the hall, watch each film repeatedly until they know the dialogues by heart, and then make so much noise repeating those lines in subsequent viewings that other members of the audience cannot hear a word of what is going on. In short, just the kind who solemnly address Vijay as Ilayathalapathy (Young Commander).

At first, this is fair enough, as a rather nice cast’s energy spills over from the screen and humour flies about in the film. Sunny Wayne plays Simon, nicknamed Pokkiri Simon after one of his idol’s hits that the north knows in the form of its Hindi remake Wanted with Salman Khan and Ayesha Takia.

Simon and his friends – Hanuman Biju (Jacob Gregory) and Love Today Ganesh (Sarath Kumar) – seem to want nothing more in life than to be photographed with Vijay. Towards this end they work hard to outshine rival clubs both in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, including one commandeered by Naushad (Saiju Kurup). Their families are anxious about their unhealthy obsession with their god, but lest we viewers too view their pursuit as frivolous, they put their network to good use to nab criminals that the establishment is too afraid to touch.

A light-hearted take on filmaniacs would have been fine, but Pokkiri Simon becomes a victim of its desire to prove that it is more than that, just as the story’s Vijay worshippers are determined not to be seen as aimless empty heads. And so after a fun – even if cliched – first half hour, in which director Jijo Antony and writer K. Ampady imply that they are up for a spot of spoofing, it turns out they want their film to be taken seriously. They then start packing too much into the plot, ranging from a discussion on the profound significance of the protagonists’ film fanaticism to household challenges, unemployment, classism and a romance before switching dramatically somewhere in the second half from the comedy genre to thriller mode.

It is not that Ampady completely lacks imagination. There is a point being made in the fans’ irreverence towards holy cows such as religion and the national anthem, in sharp contrast to their unquestioning zeal for Vijay. That said, these instances of nuance in the script are fleeting.

The post-interval portion does not work at all for the simple reason that by then the film is already overly long and over-stuffed. Though Pokkiri Simon focuses on an important issue – child trafficking – after the break, and to be fair, Antony does not treat the subject lightly, the theme does not sit well with the narrative because it comes so late in the day that it feels like an afterthought: not a concern to which the team is committed, but a device to introduce unexpected twists and sustain audience interest.

It is worth mentioning that a character in the film claims that Vijay fans respect women. Baah! Witness the abuse they spew at women who critique the star on the social media in real life. Their misogyny is reflected in Pokkiri Simon, which becomes increasingly sexist and venomous as it moves along. A man in the film discusses a cow’s udders swollen with milk, then looks meaningfully at a buxom woman. While it may well be argued that this crudeness comes from the principal villain, and therefore cannot be seen as a trivialisation of degrading objectification, someone please explain what we are to make of one of the ‘nice guys’, played by no less a personage than Nedumudi Venu, telling a stranger on a beach that her “body shape” is good? The creepy old chap is a retired rocket scientist and one of Simon’s friends.

That is not all. The camera leers at the heroine as she jogs. Later, the hero stalks her. Elsewhere, a snide remark about learning to cut fish aimed at Simon by his mother reveals the writer’s amusement at the thought of a husband managing his house while his wife goes out to work.

Most unnerving though is the casualness with which the supposedly good men in this film threaten to beat their female partners. Ganesh’s wife Jaya (Srinda Arhaan) storms off in the middle of a fight when he raises his hand to hit her, but she does not specifically object to his action. Worse, Simon’s otherwise feisty mother falls silent and quakes in fear when his father – an honest police constable – hollers at her with threats.

This, by the way, is a regular feature in a certain kind of Malayalam commercial cinema. Indulgent viewers may argue that such films do nothing more than hold up a mirror to a state where domestic violence is known to be prevalent. Stop making excuses. The objection here is not to the portrayal of a reality, but to the normalisation of that condemnable reality.

As far as performances go, the cast does as well as they possibly can with such average written material. Saiju Kurup is funny while he is around, which is not enough. Prayaga Martin serves no other purpose than to be the hero’s eye candy. He seems to need a greater incentive than her good looks to fall for her, which is the only the reason I could imagine for why the makeup artist slaps so much blush-on on to her chubby cheeks.

This brings me to Pokkiri Simon’s unnaturally cheery colour palette, starting with a grand opening aerial shot of the town in which it is set, where the rooftops look so bright, spotless and picture-book-like that even a novice might spot the extent of mindless colour correction that has gone into that frame. To what end?

If that effort had been invested in the writing instead, it might have made sense. It would have also made sense for a Malayalam film featuring so many Tamil dialogues to carry subtitles for its Tamil lines. In that department as in the rest of the film, it seems like no one wanted to tax their grey cells too much while making Pokkiri Simon. Such an insipid tribute to Vijay is as good as an insult.

Rating (out of five stars): *

CBFC Rating (India):
U
Running time:
146 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Poster courtesy: IMDB


REVIEW 529: PARAVA


Release date:
September 21, 2017
Director:
Soubin Shahir
Cast:




Language:
Amal Shah, Govind V. Pai, Dulquer Salmaan, Shane Nigam, Jacob Gregory, Srinda Arhaan, Arjun Ashokan, Zinil Zainudeen, Soubin Shahir, Sreenath Bhasi, Indrans, Siddique
Malayalam


Unless every single Hindi film released in the coming three months turns out to be a work of genius, I am sticking my neck out and saying this has been annus miserabilis for Bollywood buffs. Relief for serious Hindi viewers has come from indies. Relief for me as a critic reviewing both Bollywood and Mollywood works has come from blessed, beloved Mollywood. Malayalam cinema’s affair with experimentation has continued in 2017, with avant-garde projects featuring both unknowns and established stars striking gold at the box office.

It is in this context that actor Soubin Shahir makes his directorial debut. Parava (Bird) – which he has also co-written with Muneer Ali – is the story of two teenaged boys in Mattancherry juxtaposed against a tragedy in the neighbourhood that tore apart a gang of men friends, including the brother of one of those teens. Irshad (played by Amal Shah) and Haseeb (Govind V. Pai) are best buds barely surviving academic challenges and blossoming hormones while they devote themselves to the sport of pigeon racing. This is no innocent pastime. When we first meet them, they are coping with the disappearance of one of their feathered charges and with an aggressive rival played by Shine Tom Chacko.

(Possible spoilers ahead)

As we spend time with these youngsters, another story emerges, of Irshad’s brother Shane (Shane Nigam) and his pals. Imran (Dulquer Salmaan) is the mature one of the lot, and popular among their elders. They are a group of five, the rest played by Jacob Gregory, Arjun Ashokan and Zinil Zainudeen. Cricket and frivolous squabbles are their favourite games.

As separates, both segments are interesting. The pigeons in flight are a visual novelty, we are given a bird’s-eye view – pardon the easy pun – of the local culture, and a vein of pleasant humour runs through the narrative along with a throbbing soundtrack.

Shah and Pai are darlings – Pai, in particular, is a live wire to watch out for. As it happens, they have excellent on-camera chemistry, and their classroom interactions and schoolyard pre-occupations are a hoot. If you want to portray gender segregation in educational institutions, this is how you do it, not with the ugly misogyny that we saw just recently in Chunkzz. Make no mistake about it: Shahir views the community through a narrow male gaze (as, unfortunately, do most Malayalam filmmakers), all his primary and secondary characters are male, and women here are mere adjuncts to men, but at least it can be said that he does not treat the female half of the population with contempt or suspicion.

The rest of the cast is immensely likeable. And Salmaan is a joy to watch, as always, in an extended cameo designed to dominate the others while it lasts.

There are also two truly OMG moments in Parava: one involves the fate of a good-looking girl at school, which tells us so much about the social setting of the film; the other is the poignant reason why the older lot split up.

With so much going for it, it is impossible not to be attracted to Parava. Yet, the film does not quite come together. The engagement with its characters remains superficial because they are overwhelmed by the director’s extreme awareness of his artistic inclinations and his transparent ambition to be another Dileesh Pothan. Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and Maheshinte Prathikaaram worked because their style clearly came naturally to Pothan. In Parava though, Shahir appears to be trying too hard to be whatever it is he wants us to believe he is. The result is self-conscious writing and direction beyond a point, leading to inconsistencies in tone and pretentious over-stretching.

Initially, the connection between Irshad-Haseeb and Team Shane is revealed bit by bit in an intriguing fashion. Once Shane & Co gain primacy in the narrative though, the film starts sinking, as Shahir struggles to balance the two threads and sustain his tone.

Irshad and Haseeb get the benefit of well-rounded characterisation. The older chaps – with the somewhat exception of Imran – are products of sketchy writing, and the evident effort to give pride of place to the big commercial star in the cast, Dulquer Salmaan, strains at the cohesiveness of the narrative.

The last straw is the highly melodramatised choreography of a needlessly elongated fight towards the end, which is a complete departure from the general tenor of the film.

In the overall analysis then, Parava comes across as a pretty patchwork blanket rather than a smooth jacquard weave. The concept and narrative structure have potential, but Shahir drowns in his own failure to keep it simple. I liked many elements in this film, and the film itself in parts, but at no point did I find myself completely lost in its flow.

Still, it is nice to see a producer with Anwar Rasheed’s box-office track record risk his neck on this experimental venture, and the spark Shahir shows here makes him a directorial talent definitely not to be brushed aside. Here’s hoping Mollywood gives him a second chance at the reins.

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
147 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:




Saturday, September 23, 2017

REVIEW 528: HASEENA PARKAR


Release date:
September 22, 2017
Director:
Apoorva Lakhia
Cast:

Language:
Shraddha Kapoor, Siddhanth Kapoor, Ankur Bhatia, Priyanka Setia, Rajesh Tailang
Hindi
                                                                                                                   

Sometimes real life offers you more promotional opportunities than a marketing genius could imagine. The Thane police’s arrest this week of underworld kingpin Dawood Ibrahim’s brother Iqbal Kaskar on charges of running an extortion racket against builders and others, could not have been more timely: it came just days before today’s release of director Apoorva Lakhia’s Haseena Parkar, based on the life of Ibrahim’s late sister.

The eponymous film takes us from the siblings’ impoverished childhood to his rise as a criminal, his escape to Dubai, the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the 1992-’93 Mumbai riots, her ascent in the 1990s to the position of the dreaded Haseena Aapa, all the way to this decade. The role of sutradhar is played jointly by Parkar (Shraddha Kapoor) and public prosecutor Rohini Satam (Priyanka Setia), during the former’s courtroom interrogation while she is on trial for extortion in the near-present day. Some flashbacks come in the form of Parkar’s answers, some come when we are allowed access to her memory bank while she refuses to answer certain probing questions.

This is a true story with staggering potential. As one character in the film says, “There have been many Bhais in Bombay but only one Aapa.” Who was this woman who took to organised crime in a way we usually associate with men? According to a recently published profile in Hindustan Times, Parkar muddied her hands after her husband Ismail was murdered by Arun Gawli’s gang in 1991.Thereafter she apparently took “control of D-Company’s operations in Mumbai” following which she “grabbed land, extorted money, kidnapped, ordered killings...” Hers is an intriguing tale crying out to be told.

Not this way though. Notwithstanding the real life drama surrounding its release, Haseena Parkar is dull in the overall analysis. The first half has promise with its atmospheric recreation of the grubby Mumbai locality where one of the world’s most wanted men and his sister spent their early years in financial struggle. The costumes, styling and production design are effective, though I will leave it to experts on 1960s-80s Mumbai to comment on the accuracy of the nitty gritty.

Kapoor is sweet for the most part as the younger Parkar, mining her natural child-like charm to portray her character’s youthful innocence – sweet enough that I am willing to look past that irritating suhag raat scene, and that other scene where a terrified Parkar rushes home to swab the floor of her house, fearing the wrath, it seems, of her cleanliness-obsessed spouse (an oddly inconsistent piece of writing considering that he comes across as a sweetheart who treats his wife with love and affection until then). The star’s brother Siddhanth Kapoor too makes an impression in the role of Dawood Ibrahim, and Ankur Bhatia as Parkar’s husband is noticeable for his strapping physique.

After a point though, it is clear that the script is going nowhere as it avoids taking a position on any of the parties involved. And so, the dominant image of Ibrahim here is of a thoughtful elder brother, what we get of Parkar too is a rose-tinted view, neither is projected as being particularly evil or culpable, and the film does not offer a single bit of information or a new insight to justify its take on them, nothing about the duo that you would not gather from news reports and editorials. In fact, Haseena Parkar is so gentle on its protagonists, that you might be forgiven for assuming that they are/were amateur pickpockets and shoplifters, not hardened criminals.

Following a series of calls to a local police station after the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, Parkar explodes in anger at one point. “Ek hafte se unko waqt par khana milta hai ya nahin, mere bachche school tak sahi salaamat pahunchte hai ya nahin, kuchh nahin pata, kyunki meri galti na honey ke bavjood, main yahaan ke chakkar kaat rahi hoon (For an entire week now, I have had no clue whether my kids are being fed or are getting to school safe and sound, because despite being blameless I am being repeatedly summoned here),” she yells at a senior policeman.

He yells back: “Chup! ... Ek hafta kya, ek mahina aana padega agar bulaaoo toh. Blast ka ilzaam hai tumhare bhai par, koi deshbhakti ke kaam ka nahin.” (Shut up! ... Why just one week? If I choose to summon you for an entire month you had better come. Your brother is accused of bomb blasts, not of executing a patriotic duty.)

This exchange reminded me of a sequence from a monumentally superior film, Onir’s I Am, in which a Kashmiri Muslim woman expresses her frustration at the constant visits to her home by Army personnel, at which her Kashmiri Hindu friend snaps back after listening to her complaints for a while, reminding her that her brother, who lives in the same house is, after all, a surrendered terrorist. The implication, of course, being that the Army’s eye on the family is justified. That scene in I Am, the build-up to it and what follows unarguably rank among the most intelligently, sensitively written and directed passages ever seen in a Hindi film. In Haseena Parkar though, the back and forth between Parkar and the cop remain hanging there without offering the viewer any food for thought.

As it rolls along, Haseena Parkar ends up being a staccato narration of facts, rather than a story pulsating with life. Even while seeming to state those facts, it uses kid gloves on the parties involved, with one exception: Muslims are clearly identified as the initiators of the violence in the Mumbai riots, after which blame is equally apportioned between communities – the narrative is careful not to single out majority community leaders such as Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena whose role in the riots is chronicled by the Justice Srikrishna Commission Report. I am not for a second saying Muslims played no role in Mumbai 1992-93, I am merely pointing out the cowardice in pinpointing Muslim culpability while skipping any mention of how some prominent Hindu names, as per records, openly incited mobs at the time. Why make a film on a prickly subject if you lack courage to say it like it is almost every step of the way?

Early positives are thus soon overshadowed in Haseena Parkar. The film’s lack of nuance in places is painfully literal. When a character says Parkar became an outlaw because she was tired of the fingerpointing she was subjected to merely for being Ibrahim’s sister, the director feels the need to actually show us a montage of people pointing fingers. Uff!

The court scenes become boring too, as Satam makes allegations without presenting any evidence, so that when at one point the defence lawyer asks, “Are you a lawyer or a news reporter?” it feels like a slap in the face of good investigative journalists.

As the older Parkar, Ms Kapoor is as bland as the screenplay. She tries to appear mature and menacing, but the effort shows too much. Besides, it is almost amusing to see the aging process being depicted by sticking ping pong balls inside each of her cheeks (I’m kidding but you know what I mean), while her skin remains as smooth as a baby’s bottom over several decades. After his initial spark, Mr Kapoor gets little chance to show off his acting chops since Ibrahim fades into the distant background.

The most interesting part of the film comes right in the end when, accompanying the closing credits, we get a sepia-tinted series of photographs of the real people depicted in this story. Those pictures would have held far more meaning for us though if Haseena Parkar had breathed life into its characters. Sadly, we don't learn much more about them from watching the film in its entirety, than if we had spent about two hours scouring newspaper archives or just staring at those pics.

Rating (out of five stars): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
124 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Poster courtesy: Epigram Digital PR