For all but a few of Shamitabh‘s two hours and thirty minutes, I wished I was anyplace other than the theater. I would spare you that same pain.
The element of Shamitabh that should’ve precluded it from ever being made is its asinine premise. Dhanush plays Danish — all three leads play characters with variations of their own names — a mute, small-town guy who wants to be an actor. He fails to break into the Mumbai film industry until a sympathetic assistant director, Akshara (Akshara Haasan), takes him under her wing. Akshara’s father is a doctor whose colleagues in Finland have created a revolutionary technology to aid mute people.
The technology involves implanting a chip in the patient’s throat that acts as a receiver. When words are spoken aloud by someone wearing a connected earpiece/microphone, the sound comes out of the mouth of mute patient when he moves his lips. In essence, the technology turns a mute person into a living ventriloquist’s dummy.
This invention is idiotic. Why would a mute person want to speak if he always had to do so in someone else’s voice, never able to speak his own thoughts? Who would want to be the person permanently tethered to mute person, effectively rendered mute themselves for the sake of someone else?
Somehow, Danish becomes a superstar actor after he hires Amitabh (Amitabh Bachchan) — a drunk with a great baritone — to supply his voice while making movies. No one on the movie set wonders why a 30-year-old guy sounds like a man in his 70s.
The sheer stupidity of the premise is reason enough to avoid Shamitabh, but there are many other reasons to dislike it as well. Writer-director R. Balki clearly intends for Shamitabh to be an exploration of the actor’s craft and filmmaking in general. The stupid premise might have worked as a satire, but Balki’s Shamitabh is a straightforward wannabe tear-jerker that provides no insight on its subject matter.
For a movie about filmmaking, there’s a distinct absence of craft in Shamitabh. Shots are framed awkwardly. Transitions are jerky. The editing is poor. Scenes are too long. A romance scene between Danish and an actress is totally out-of-place. The dialogue is too on the nose.
More distracting than any of these flaws is the movie’s music. The songs are horrible, but the incidental music is downright clownish. Any emotional moment is punctuated with garish musical cues so amateurish that it’s hard to believe that this is Balki’s third film.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of a film that’s supposed to be about actors is that the acting is terrible. Dhanush’s movements are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree, as though his body is rebelling against the fact that he can’t talk. Akshara’s facial expressions are bizarre, and she delivers her dialogue in either a monotone or hysterical screaming. She needed better direction in her debut film.
There are moments when the legendary Bachchan shows his skill, in subtle reactions to some ridiculous request by Danish. But Bachchan gives a number of excessive monologues that would be tiresome no matter who delivered them, and they destroy the flow of the film.
Watching Shamitabh is a uniquely painful movie-going experience that should be avoided at all costs.
Bhoothnath Returns is only intermittently entertaining, because writer-director Nitesh Tiwari fails to take his target audience into account. Why does a film geared toward children have a runtime of 155 minutes? And why are so many of those minutes devoted to discussions of how to file paperwork?
2008’s Bhoothnath (“Lord of Ghosts“) starred Amitabh Bachchan as the titular not-so-scary ghost. The sequel finds Bhoothnath the target of jokes up in Ghost World — which looks a lot like Hogwarts — due to his inability to scare children.
Bhoothnath returns to earth to redeem his reputation, only to run into another fearless kid who can see him, even though no one else can. Savvy street urchin Akhrot (Parth Bhalerao) teams up with Bhoothnath, solving the problems of other earth-bound ghosts and earning money. As their friendship grows, Bhoothnath realizes that Akhrot’s future will never be secure while murderous thugs like Bhau (Boman Irani) run the government. Thus is born India’s first campaign to elect a ghost to political office.
For a while, the discussions of the bureaucratic technicalities surrounded Bhoothnath’s run are entertaining, aided by Sanjay Mishra’s funny performance as Bhoothnath’s lawyer. As the second half of the film rolls on, the story gets bogged down in heavy-handed patriotic speeches and lengthy montages depicting differing versions of what will happen on election day.
There is a surfeit of montages in Bhoothnath Returns. Instead of briefly panning the camera across the festively decorated grounds before Bhoothnath’s big rally, Tiwari devotes in excess of a minute to a sped-up version of the decoration of the rally grounds. When the movie is already so long, why devote more than a few seconds to something no one cares about?
The movie’s strangest sequence also takes place in montage form. As Bhoothnath comes to grips with depth of India’s problems, the song “Sahib” plays accompanied by a montage of photos of desperate, starving people. It’s very grim for a movie geared toward kids, especially since the impoverished state of Akhrot’s own neighborhood is already established.
It’s also hypocritical. Earlier in the film, Akhrot derisively mentions making money from foreign tourists looking to experience Slumdog Millionaire in person. How is turning images of peoples’ suffering into a music video in a major motion picture any different?
The film’s tedious heavy-handedness rankles because it detracts from an otherwise cute movie. Irani’s villain is the right mix of sinister and clownish. Bachchan is both grudging and caring as he puts up with his willful young friend.
Bhalerao does a terrific job as Akhrot, cracking wise but never coming off as a jerk. The young actor is great in a touching scene in which Akhrot tries to conceal the risks of their venture from Bhoothnath.
All the fine performances can’t keep Bhoothnath Returns from turning into a glorified public service announcement. Encouraging people to vote is a worthy goal, but it has to be done within the context of the story.
The pro-voting message comes across clearly through the story of Bhoothnath Returns, but Tiwari doesn’t leave well-enough alone, tacking on at least twenty minutes of condescending speeches. Jarring celebrity cameos by Ranbir Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap, and Shahrukh Khan — whose presence is the only one that makes a lick of narrative sense — just add to the feeling that Bhoothnath Returns is as much an overly long PSA as it is a movie.
Anand (“Bliss”) is as happy a movie about terminal illness as you’re likely to find. Nevertheless, this classic Hindi film raises interesting questions about how healthy people should interact with the sick, and whether preemptive grief makes things worse.
The story unfolds through the diary entries of Dr. Bhaskar Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan), a thirty-year-old cancer specialist who’s already overwhelmed by the amount of death he’s seen in his career. His own sense of futility — “Oh, God! Such frightening helplessness.” — makes him persnickety with his patients. He sees no point in giving them false hope.
Being a bachelor, Bhaskar is the logical choice to host Anand (Rajesh Khanna), a friend of a friend who wants to tour Bombay. Bhaskar and his friend and fellow doctor, Prakash (Ramesh Deo), are tasked with treating Anand, who’s suffering from terminal intestinal cancer.
Anand talks non-stop, joking with friends and strangers alike. Such relentless cheerfulness would normally grate on a man as taciturn as Bhaskar, but the doctor sees the melancholy behind Anand’s permanent grin.
While the most obvious message in the movie would seem to be “live each day to the fullest,” a more interesting theme relates to how healthy people are supposed to interact with the terminally ill. Anand knows he’s dying, yet he chooses to remain upbeat. He’d rather have fun while he’s here, and he wants his friends to be happy when they’re with him.
At one point, Anand threatens to leave rather than endure anymore of Bhaskar’s forlorn looks. The film makes a persuasive case that the ill have the right to dictate how they are treated by others. Just because our own inclination may be to mourn what we know we will lose, it doesn’t mean we should subject the person who is dying to those feelings.
More than forty years after its original release, the shots of Mumbai (then Bombay) make the city look like a very cool place to be in the early 1970s. Bachchan looks dashing, and the furnishings in Bhaskar’s house are fabulous.
The only aspects of Anand that don’t really translate to the modern-day are its aggressive musical cues (though plenty of directors still rely on them). Any time Anand gasps for breath, the sounds of an orchestra blare to ensure the audience knows that the moment is significant. The effect is more shocking than instructive, especially in cases where the music intrudes on an otherwise quiet scene.
The relatively small cast delivers great performances, particularly in regard to the way they react to Anand’s sickness. Bhaskar’s beloved, Renu (Sumita Sanyal), is rock steady, while Prakash’s wife, Suman (Seema Deo), loses her courage. Bachchan keeps the core of Bhaskar intact, opening him up to Anand — and the world — gradually.
While playing a character who’s described as a “tornado,” Rajesh Khanna carefully ensures that Anand feels realistic, rather than like some outrageous film creation. Anand is fun-loving, but not a clown. He has moments of melancholy, but he’s not harboring a dark secret. He really is just a guy who wants to be happy while he can.
Thanks to fine performances and a charming lead character, Anand is easy to watch and enjoy.
Indian politics is tricky business. Not only is it plagued by the usual greed and corruption that seems to affect governments everywhere, but there’s also bribery at every level of bureaucracy, from the lowliest clerk to the highest minister.
Still, it’s not so complicated that it’s beyond comprehension, even to one who lives outside the system as I do. In Satyagraha, writer-producer-director Prakash Jha offers such obvious, detailed explanations for everything that it borders on condescending.
Among the larger themes critical of a government so bloated it can no longer serve the common man is the story of the moral improvement of an aspiring telecom magnate: Manav (Ajay Devgn). He’s introduced on the occasion of his best friend’s wedding. Akhilesh (Indraneil Sengupta) dreams of improving Indian infrastructure before one day following in the footsteps of his father, Dwarka (Amitabh Bachchan), and becoming a teacher. Dwarka criticizes Manav for choosing big business over a life of social service, and Manav leaves before he can see Akhilesh wed to Sumitra (Amrita Rao).
Three years later, Manav returns to the town of Ambikapur for Akhilesh’s funeral, which follows what appears to be a random road accident. (Be warned that his death scene is gruesome.) Investigative journalist Yasmin (Kareena Kapoor) discovers that Akhilesh’s death may have been connected to the collapse of a bridge he was working on. Also during Manav’s return, Dwarka becomes the face of a revolution, after he’s jailed for slapping a corrupt bureaucrat (who totally deserved it).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the story, it’s just the way it’s told. Thematically, Satyagraha is like an imitation of Swades — a very heavy-handed imitation. Instead of allowing Manav’s inevitable change to social activist to occur in the course of the story, we’re told at every step of the way why things are happening. Dwarka’s preaching on the evils of capitalism are emblematic of the film’s tendency to tell more than it shows.
Even the music goes over the top to provoke emotions: A crowd gathers to protest Dwarka’s imprisonment; patriotic music swells; the crowd begins to sing: “The public rocks!” It’s corny.
Considering that Satyagraha is all about corruption, an instance of product placement — in which Sumitra instructs her maid to open up a box of name-brand rice: “because we have to cook the rice right” — feels particularly icky.
The A-list cast generally delivers performances befitting the actors’ stardom. Manoj Bajpayee is at his reptilian best as the most corrupt of the corrupt politicians. Arjun Rampal’s hair is as luxurious as ever in his role as a student leader.
Again, there’s nothing really wrong with Satyagraha. There are just more inspiring political films out there.
2003’s Boom was brought to my attention by Shah Shahid of Blank Page Beatdown as an example of a movie that is so bad that it is actually good. Shah Shahid is absolutely correct. This is a terrible movie that is a lot of fun to watch.
Let me clarify what, in my opinion, makes a movie “so bad, it’s good.” The movie must be entertaining or funny in an unintentional way. “So bad, it’s good” movies can never be made ironically or with any kind of self-awareness. They result from the earnest efforts of a filmmaker that fall woefully short of competence and quality.
There also has to be a sort of inevitability to the failure, as though anyone reading the script would think, “This will never work.” And yet the filmmaker manages to secure the money to make it and convinces people to participate in the filming, in spite of what should be glaring flaws. My best Bollywood example — before having seen Boom — is Jism 2. Birdemic and The Room are my favorite American examples.
Boom meets all the criteria. Writer-director Kaizad Gustad clearly envisioned making a sexy, edgy crime flick to push the boundary of what passes for good taste in India. It fails miserably.
Setting the action within the fashion industry allows Gustad to cast his three main actresses for their willingness to don revealing outfits, and not for their acting ability. In the film’s opening scene, a bra-less Padma Lakshmi struts the catwalk in a see-through shirt, the opening salvo in a barrage of breasts that continues throughout the film.
Lakshmi plays Sheila, one of a trio of model friends that includes Katrina Kaif (in her film debut) as Rina. The group is led by Anu (Madhu Sapre), who’s presumably in charge because she’s the only native-born Indian. The foreign-born status of Sheila and Rina — who speak primarily in English in the film — is mentioned often, seemingly to justify their wearing skimpier outfits than Anu.
The friends find themselves in trouble when Anu fights with another model in the middle of a fashion show, and dozens of stolen diamonds spill onto the runway from their hiding place in the model’s hairdo. The other model flees, leaving the three ladies to account for the missing diamonds.
The diamonds were supposed to make their way to Dubai, home of crime boss Bade Mia (Amitabh Bachchan) and his brother, Medium (Gulshan Grover). Bade’s co-conspirator in Mumbai, Chhote Mia (Jackie Shroff), sends his muscle, Boom (Javed Jaffrey), to force the trio of models to cooperate. Things get complicated when Boom starts making his own plans, with the help of the models’ maid, Bharti (Seema Biswas).
The plot doesn’t make a lick of sense. Boom’s scheme to get out of debt to Bade involves stealing Bade’s own diamonds from him, then selling them back to Bade. This is the same Bade who snaps one of his employees necks because the toilet paper in his hotel was folded incorrectly. Sending a bunch of inexperienced models in to negotiate with Bade and Medium seems phenomenally stupid.
Also stupid: getting the models high before forcing them to rob a bank, although the mass-hallucination dance party that they experience mid-robbery is spectacular.
Predictably, the film’s ending makes no sense. Turns out Bharti and Bade’s oft-humiliated secretary, Alice (Zeenat Aman), are criminal masterminds in their own right. Apparently, they schemed for years in the hope that, one day, Anu would accidentally pick a fight with the one model who happened to be smuggling diamonds, thereby providing them with a means to ascend to the top of the underworld.
But plot irregularities are the least of Boom‘s problems. The performances are crazy, across the board. Kaif and Sapre are almost unbearable in their big screen debuts, making Lakshmi look like Meryl Streep by comparison. Aman and Biswas are fine, given the odd tasks that are required of them, including Aman doing a table dance in a conference room.
All of the male characters — apart from Medium — are completely wacky, and bless the actors for playing them as such. Bachchan sports a white wig and drives around a Toys R’ Us in a child-sized motorized car. Shroff growls through his dialog while sitting behind a desk that his female assistant lives under. He also licks a newspaper photo of Bo Derek.
Did I forget to mention that Boom features Bo Derek in the world’s most under-utilized cameo? Besides having her photo licked and having Bade bark to Alice, “Get me Bo!”, Bo — who’s in either Mumbai or Dubai (or both?) for a book signing — is only seen in Bade’s dream sequence, emerging from the ocean in a gold saree. She has no dialog and doesn’t interact with anyone else in the cast.
While the model characters dress rather butch when they’re not sporting bikini tops, Bade and Chhote wear outfits that even Liberace would consider garish. Bade dresses in all white (to match his wig), favoring lacy shirts with flouncy sleeves. Chhote wears black hot pants with a shirt that appears to actually be a lady’s sheer, fur-trimmed robe.
Jaffrey’s Boom is equally over-the-top. His giant handgun is an obvious metaphor for his penis, made that much more obvious when he lays it on his lap, barrel pointed toward his face, and strokes it for a good two minutes. When he’s not stroking his gun, he pokes the models in the breasts with it as a way of emphasizing his conversational points.
As is always the case with “so bad, it’s good” movies, a written account of Boom‘s oddities does not do it justice. It must be seen to be believed. It’s awful, but it’s always entertaining.
Department is a comedy, right? It must be, because it made me laugh out loud.
Director Ram Gopal Varma’s latest political thriller focuses on a special branch of the police force designed to stop organized crime. The special department is cleverly named: “Department.” Whenever a character in the movie says the word “department,” it’s accompanied by a musical fanfare. It’s a lot like when someone said the “magic word” on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and all of the characters had to start screaming.
The Department is headed by Mahadev (Sanjay Dutt) and rising star Shiv (Rana Daggubati). Both prefer to shoot first and ask questions later, even if it means firing at a bad guy while standing in the middle of a group of children playing catch.
The main objective of the Department is ostensibly to stop a turf war between rival gangsters Gauri and Sawatya (Vijay Raaz). When gangster-turned-politician Sarjay (Amitabh Bachchan) gets involved, alliances become less clear and the Department falls apart.
Since the plot is just a disorganized excuse for innumerable bloody shootouts and embarrassing slow-mo chase scenes — look at Shiv leap over that small bag of rice! — I’ll ignore it for now. Department‘s biggest problems are visual.
Varma is clearly in love with camera technique. If there is a table with a glass top in his vicinity, you can be sure that he will position a camera under it to shoot a scene.
Department was shot using a number of cameras small enough to be mounted to almost any object, which Varma hoped would create “a completely new viewer experience.” It’s a technique Sam Raimi used back in the Evil Dead movies in the 1980s, to better effect. In order to get a first-person shot of the actors in Department, cameras are mounted on everything from a newspaper to a coffee cup. Ever wonder what driving a car is like from the perspective of the steering wheel? Watch Department and wonder no more.
Rapid cuts and awkward closeups make the action hard to follow, while some editorial choices are downright mystifying. Take, for example, the following sequence of shots.
A man stands on the beach drinking from a coconut.
Closeup on another man’s dreadlocks.
Upside-down closeup on a messenger bag. The camera rights itself as a hand draws a gun from the bag and fires a shot at the man drinking from the coconut.
Why did the camera need to be upside down?! And why do we need a closeup of the dreadlocks? (It must be a theme, because there a number of strange closeups of body parts, including at least a dozen shots of dirty feet and toenails.)
About two hours into the screening that I attended, the picture flipped upside down. Only when the audio started running backwards — complete with upside down, backwards subtitles at the top of the screen — did I realize that this was a projection problem and not just another strange directorial choice.
Getting back to the plot, it contains a number of attempts at sexiness that nauseate rather than titillate. First, the item song “Dan Dan Cheeni” features an unintentionally hilarious performance by Nathalia Kaur, who gyrates as seductively as someone having a seizure.
Then there are Sawatya’s amorous underlings, DK (Abhimanyu Singh) and Nasir (Madhu Shalini), who exist entirely to try to heat things up on screen. They fail miserably. While soaking in a bathtub, Nasir strokes DK’s thick mat of wet chest hair with her un-pedicured feet as he blows cigarette smoke into her mouth. Gross!
If you’re in the mood for a laugh — punctuated by occasional dry heaves –see Department. It’s ridiculous.