Sunday, February 18, 2018

REVIEW 573: CAPTAIN


Release date:
February 16, 2018
Director:
G. Prajesh Sen
Cast:


Language:
Jayasurya, Anu Sithara, Renji Panicker, Siddique, Saiju Kurup, Deepak Parambol, Janardhanan, Cameo: Mammootty
Malayalam


A former captain of the Indian football team who allegedly committed suicide by throwing himself before a moving train in 2006 – this is the sort of real-life saga crying out to be made into a film. In this country though, where we obsess over cricket at the expense of other sports, and where contemporary history remains a risky proposition for scriptwriters due to a national penchant for turning violent over “hurt sentiments”, V.P. Sathyan has remained in the shadows after his death.

This week’s new Mollywood release starring Jayasurya as the late football hero, takes us through his childhood in Kerala’s Kannur region to his rise on the sporting firmament, his descent into depression and tragic death. You would think that this poignant subject combined with Jayasurya’s natural affinity for the camera would guarantee a quality film. Charismatic stars, concepts and themes have limited value though, unless backed by strong writing and direction.

After opening with a winning shot from a tournament that was one of Sathyan’s career highlights (I am not quibbling over dates and locations here), the film switches to the title plate. Its full name is Captain: Story of an Unsung Hero. It then transitions to a shot of a grieving woman telling a large gathering of journalists around her: They killed my Sathyan.

The woman is Sathyan’s widow Anitha (played by Anu Sithara). One assumes she is alleging that the system murdered her husband as surely as if it had actually physically pushed him on to that railway track, and that the “how?” raised by her pronouncement would be answered in ensuing scenes. That introduction, as it happens, mirrors the tone of the rest of Captain: highly melodramatised, but insubstantial. Because nearly two and a half hours later, when Captain returns to the same scene and dialogue, it turns out that in that time we have still not seen or heard enough to support Anitha’s claim.

Sure, there is a segment in between where Sathyan is shown being victimised by an officer of the Kerala Police who resents the government practice of giving sportspersons jobs without putting them through the grind required for regular folk to qualify for such posts. Sure, in one scene, Sathyan is humiliated in the dressing room. However, these are only a small part of this 145 minutes long film, and however troubling they may be, they do not come across as having the power to break a tough man such that his wife can rightfully allege that the system killed him.

In fact, what stands out in writer-director G. Prajesh Sen’s narrative is Sathyan’s own asinine insistence on playing a crucial match with a serious and extremely painful leg injury, against the advice of his fond coach (Renji Panicker) and his doctor. His stubbornness ends up causing his body irreparable physical damage.

Sen appears to admire Sathyan’s actions, when in fact they were, if true, remarkably stupid. Yet later, having ruined his own fitness levels, he is shown arguing with selectors – subtly villainised – that determining whether or not he is fit to play should be his prerogative and that his confidence is his fitness. Umm…no.

You do not have to be a sports buff to know that that is a load of rubbish. Perhaps here the film could have addressed the question of whether foolhardiness prompted Sathyan to continue playing with his injured leg or depression had already taken hold of him. Sen, unfortunately, views Sathyan with an uncritical and unanalytical eye, and as a result, what we get here is a fan film steeped in cinematic clichés rather than an in-depth study of an interesting character.

(Possible spoilers ahead)

His childhood is shown in the form of slow mo shots of little Sathyan playing his favoured game in Kannur over Gopi Sundar’s background score. The music – loud, loud music! – is still on when we get a glimpse of his poverty. He plays wearing shoes that he found discarded by the wayside. We see too that his damaged leg was a result of an attack by bullies back then.

This is a long-distance view of the boy, and these scenes are no different from bullet points in a hurried print media article about him. They do nothing to draw us into his story.

Having cursorily wrapped up that part of Sathyan’s life, Captain shifts to the only part it seems genuinely keen on: his adult years as a footballer.

The narrative here gets an episodic feel. Bits and pieces of Sathyan’s journey form interludes between long passages visually dominated by close-ups and slow motion shots either on the playing field or with his wife, where the overbearing music takes centre-stage.

What Sen seems to consider likeable about Sathyan is in fact arrogance. He is shown ticking off Anitha for her disinterest in football despite being the future wife of India’s football captain. On their wedding night he peremptorily and without provocation tells her he will divorce her the day she stands in the way of his football. Weird pillow talk, that. And in what Sen seems to consider a comical moment, he reduces her to tears seconds later by telling her he is already married to his first love – we can see the laboured joke coming from a mile, but she weeps till he asks in surprise why she is crying considering that he is referring to his football.

Their pre-wedding relationship adopts the Mollywood formula for man-woman romances: she pretends to dislike him, but her barely suppressed smile – following a conversation in which she was really rude to him – sends out a different message.

(Spoiler alert ends)
                                    
In fact, Captain in its entirety is a parade of clichés by a director of indifferent talent. It is obvious that in Sathyan’s life there is a lovely story waiting to be told. In Sen’s hands though, we neither get a complete sense of the man’s achievements nor truly grasp his struggles.

Even if you, like me, are not a football fanatic, if you combine media reports about Sathyan with snippets from the film, it is evident that a well-researched, well-written biopic of the man could have offered rich insights on human nature, Kerala society, India’s destructive sporting establishment, the fallout of childhood bullying, depression, alcoholism and more.

What we get instead with Captain are broad brush strokes in a plodding drama that is more pre-occupied with looking and sounding large and grand than telling a nuanced human story.

The effort at grandeur at one point translates into embarrassing pompousness considering India’s poor track record in world football. In the film’s closing scene, when Sathyan hits a clinching goal in a crucial match, he shrugs off the feat by telling his teammate that no goalie had the strength to stop a ball that was filled with the breath of crores of Indians. Err, okay, that explains why we are such achievers I guess?

After the interval, the narrative becomes unequivocally boring. The insufferable use of music – mournful and theatrically suspenseful or celebratory by turns – might have made Captain intolerable if it were not for Jayasurya’s presence. The actor throws himself into this role, and gives it more of himself than the script deserves. His take on Sathyan’s pain, that crumbling face shrunk down from its youthful hauteur, is the only reason why I managed to sit through this film without dozing off.

In the end, Captain’s achievement is that it made me hope for a better-made film on Sathyan.

Rating (out of five stars): *

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
145 minutes 

This review was also published on Firstpost:




Friday, February 16, 2018

REVIEW 572: AIYAARY


Release date:
February 16, 2018
Director:
Neeraj Pandey
Cast:



Language:
Sidharth Malhotra, Manoj Bajpayee, Rakul Preet Singh, Pooja Chopra, Kumud Mishra, Adil Hussain, Naseeruddin Shah, Vikram Gokhale
Hindi


There is a formula writer-director Neeraj Pandey adopted in his 2015 hit Baby that he carries forward into this one: show a bunch of smart-looking, well-dressed people going somewhere, anywhere, at all times at a clipped pace, keep the characters moving – literally, physically – throughout, use brisk edits to cut back and forth between them, rope in an intense background score to scale up the energy, and give them clever-sounding dialogues that hold out the promise of something interesting to come at some point during the rest of the film.

Aiyaary adds an uncommon title to the mix along with Manoj Bajpayee, Sidharth Malhotra and the repeated use of top-to-bottom tilt shots of cityscapes. The tweaks to the blueprint do not save this film from its hollowness or air of déjà vu though. This is Baby Redux minus the chest-thumping nationalism, still convinced that it is far cleverer and cooler than it actually is. 

“Vacuous” is a mild choice of adjective for Pandey’s new film, the latest in a series of thrillers he has churned out since the sleeper hit A Wednesday! in 2008. Its troubling politics of anarchy notwithstanding, at least A Wednesday! had a story and meaning going for it. Baby had Taapsee Pannu playing that rare female character given impressive stunt scenes in a Hindi film. Aiyaary has nothing.

As with Baby, Aiyaary too revolves around a covert ops team of the government of India, this one formed within the Army. It is headed by a Colonel Abhay Singh, played by Bajpayee. Malhotra is Major Jai Bakshi, an agent gone rogue. Their unit was formed with government sanction, on the understanding that they would be disowned by the sarkar and the sena if they are ever found out.

No one discovers them, but Jai decides to expose them to the media for reasons that are completely unclear even after the end of the film.

(Spoiler alert. Yawn.)

Jai claims he is blowing their cover because during surveillance operations he realised that everyone is corrupt – yes, his grand revelation is as non-specific as that. However, since it is evident that he considers Colonel Abhay clean, there is no clarification about why he rings the good man’s death knell too or why, at the last minute, he chooses to issue repeated warnings to him to get out of there. Where is “there”? Beats me.

Abhay’s undercover cell had the government’s okay, but was put together by army chief General Pratap Malik with funds that were not authorised on the record. So the chief (Vikram Gokhale) is in trouble too, although it is never apparent why Jai decides to ruin him either since he too seems to be a nice guy.

Oddly enough, Jai is working for a corrupt arms lobbyist who was formerly with the army. Lt General Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) wants to punish Pratap Malik for objecting to the inflated quotation offered by a group he represents in a defence deal. Why is sweet, innocent, disillusioned Jai aiding bad, bad Gurinder in bringing the General down? Again, beats me.

Jai’s ‘explanation’ for his actions, when it does finally come, is so empty, so bereft of detail and logic, that it feels like an act of betrayal on the part of Pandey the scriptwriter. There is also an Adarsh scam-like reveal that is hyped up throughout the film and then recounted in a silly, over-dramatised fashion in the climax.

Jai is in hiding and undercover from the beginning of Aiyaary but all that glib talk from him amounts to a lot of hoo-haa considering that he epitomises stupidity in the way he allows a civilian to discover his true identity by leaving his army I-card lying around in his absence. Besides, Abhay manages to find him with just a click of his fingers, at which point our hero and his girlfriend/accomplice react like hapless babies.

(Spoiler alert ends. Yawn.)

Oh yes, before I forget, in the picture is a girlfriend cum software specialist whose professional talents come in handy for Jai’s hanky panky.

Her name is Sonia Gupta (Rakul Preet Singh), and like Jai’s colleague, Captain Maya Semwal (Pooja Chopra), she has little to do beyond be attractive and provide the director with an alibi in case he is accused of excluding women from his all-male story.

Singh is just fresh from the success of the Tamil film Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru in which she got to play a cutesy female trifle in an otherwise gripping thriller about a no-nonsense male cop. Here she gets to go a step further and give us proof of her character’s hacking abilities by typing furiously on Jai’s laptop with her impeccably manicured fingers.

Poor Chopra comes across as being capable of something more than just standing around, but in Aiyaary, that is all she gets to do.

Meanwhile, Adil Hussain, who was fabulous in last year’s fabulous Mukti Bhawan, is so unconvinced of his role as an arms dealer here, that he seems to be suppressing his laughter while playing the part. I swear I could sense a medley of giggles just below the surface in all his scenes.

Bajpayee somehow pulls off the incredible feat of appearing earnest in an ocean of fluff. Malhotra looks sincere and delicious from start to finish. His pretty face and sensitive eyes are worth the price of a ticket in the worst of situations, but here we get the bonus of his slim physique encased in battle fatigues. It is a sight that, I assure you, is guaranteed to have any healthy, artistically inclined human being go weak in the knees.

Barring the low-priced extras the casting director settled for in Europe, as Bollywood often does, money has obviously been spent on producing Aiyaary. Now if only time had been spent on thinking the script through.

With his 2013 film Special 26, starring Akshay Kumar and Bajpayee, Neeraj Pandey proved that he has what it takes to execute a solid thriller. Aiyaary – which means shapeshifter, trickster, and more – is an example of what happens when a filmmaker, like most of the industry he operates in, mentally differentiates between a thinking, niche audience and a commercial audience (read: the masses), and blatantly takes the latter for granted.

Aiyaary’s first hour is engaging because it gives us reason to assume that great twists and turns will unfold at any moment. That promise is unfulfilled in the remaining 100 minutes of the film. Pace and bluster cannot compensate for lack of substance. This wannabe James Bond flick is nothing but a blast of hot air.

Rating (out of five stars): *

CBFC Rating (India):
UA 
Running time:
160 minutes 10 seconds

This review was also published on Firstpost: