Tag Archives: Manoj Bajpai

Movie Review: Shootout at Wadala (2013)

ShootoutAtWadala3 Stars (out of 4)

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Two men reminisce about the circumstances that led them to abandon their idealistic principles for a more practical, cynical approach to morality. One man is a gangster, the other the police officer who has mortally wounded the former. Such is the opening of Shootout at Wadala, a thrilling action film that raises moral questions with no easy answers.

The film is based the real-life extrajudicial killing of mobster Manya Surve in 1982. It was the first officially documented “encounter killing” by the Mumbai police, setting the stage for decades of unofficially sanctioned police murders of known gangsters. As at-odds as the practice is with the rule of law, the film makes the case that both the police and Surve felt that circumstances left them with no good choices.

As Manya (John Abraham) slowly bleeds to death in the back of a police van, he tells Officer Baaghran (Anil Kapoor) how his promising college career gave way to a life of crime. In 1970, Manya was unfairly jailed for life as an accessory to a murder committed by his step-brother. Manya quickly learns that an ability to instill fear is his best defense in jail.

Eight years later, Manya and his crony, Munir (Tusshar Kapoor), escape prison. Rather than settling for being underlings in someone else’s gang, they recruit members and form their own.

The action periodically returns to the present day so that Baaghran can recall events from his own perspective. Just before Manya’s prison break, Mumbai was run by a ruthless gang of murderers and rapists lead by a man named Mastan. The police watch in frustration as the gang members they arrest bribe their way back onto the streets.

An enterprising newspaperman suggests that the police employ sibling thugs the Haskar brothers — Zubair (Manoj Bajpai) and Dilawar (Sonu Sood) — to clean up Mastan’s gang. It puts the police in the uncomfortable position of choosing which underground syndicate will control the city. When Manya’s gang runs afoul of the Haskar brothers, leading to even more violence, Officer Baaghran and the rest of the police force decide to deal with the problem without waiting for the judicial system’s approval.

Writer-director Sanjay Gupta makes the case that, regardless of the morality of their decisions, both Manya and Baaghran felt forced into their choices by a broken system. The cops are outgunned by the criminals and have no support from judges or politicians. As a result, the public doesn’t trust the police to keep them safe. Locking up innocent bystanders and low-level crooks like Manya and his step-brother temporarily soothes the cops’ sense of futility, even if it creates bigger problems later.

Even while acknowledging the moral conundrum, Gupta manages to make his movie very cool. The background score is atmospheric, and everyone looks awesome in their early-’80s get-ups, especially Bajpai and Sood (as seen on the poster above). Mustaches and aviator sunglasses abound.

Manya’s plotline also includes a complicated love story. His college sweetheart, Vidya (Kangna Ranaut), encourages Manya to rescue his step-brother, who then stabs his attacker while Manya restrains him, to Manya’s shock and horror. Manya resents Vidya’s role in his imprisonment and her seeking his permission to move on with her life; she blames him for robbing them of their future together. When they reunite after Manya’s escape, both the love and resentment remain. Abraham and Ranaut portray this tension expertly.

After an information-packed first hour, the film starts to drag. A couple of song montages are clumped together in the middle of the film, and there are three ridiculous item numbers. (Sunny Leone’s abundant cleavage in the song “Laila” will prompt easily scandalized audience members to run screaming from the theater.)

There’s also a funny training montage early in the film. In an effort to disguise Abraham’s Hulk-ish physique, Manya’s college student avatar is forced to don absurdly oversized shirts. In prison, Manya enlists a mentor to transform him into a fighting machine in the span of a month. Cue the training montage in which Manya is suddenly transformed into a Mr. Universe competitor!

A couple of silly problems aside, Shootout at Wadala distills a complicated true story into a stylish and entertaining action flick that also engages the brain.

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Movie Review: Special 26 (2013)

Special_Chabbis_movie_poster3 Stars (out of 4)

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If the movies have taught us anything about being a professional thief, it’s to never openly declare that you’re going to retire after “one last job.” This final job is always more risky and complicated than any previous job, and your odds of getting caught are much higher than normal. Better to take your present pilfered earnings, move to Aruba, and spend the rest of your life on the beach.

Of course, the main characters of Special 26 (also written as Special Chabbis) fail to heed the lesson of countless movie thieves before them and find themselves on the verge of retirement with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) breathing down their necks. They may be foolish, but their exploits make for an entertaining film.

Ajay (Akshay Kumar) leads a group of three other robbers — Sharma (Anupam Kher), Joginder (Rajesh Sharma), and Iqbal (Kishor Kadam) — who pose as government officials to raid the homes of corrupt politicians and businessmen. Their victims are more worried about bad publicity should news of their corruption be made public, so they never report the theft of their ill-gotten gains to the police.

Early in the film, a raid on a minister’s house is inadvertently aided by the local police, fooled into thinking that Ajay and his crew are CBI investigators. Two of the police officers — Ranveer (Jimmy Shergill) and Shanti (Divya Dutta) — are fired for their part in the debacle. In order to clear his name, Ranveer gathers evidence on Ajay’s crew and turns it into the real CBI, where he works with CBI officer Waseem (Manoj Bajpai) to foil Ajay’s “one last job.”

The story, set in 1987, is based on a real-life heist. The film has cool period flavor in everything from the costumes to the musical score. Even the movie’s lone chase scene eschews modern CGI in favor of a low-tech footrace, which is plenty exciting without special effects. The film’s runtime could’ve been shortened a bit, but it’s never boring.

What really makes the movie is uniformly great acting by the whole cast. It’s nice to see Kumar drop the wacky comedy-action routine in favor of a more muted performance. Ajay doesn’t have the depth of some of the other characters, but Kumar plays him as a confident leader.

While one just expects greatness from Anupam Kher, it is still fun to watch him work. He’s terrific as Sharma, the nervous Nellie of the bunch. He projects confidence while posing as an investigator, but shrinks with worry when he’s alone with Ajay. Even the hair at his temples gets in on the act: slick and orderly while on the job, messy and pointing in all directions when he’s at home.

Rajesh Sharma and Kishor Kadam are solid as the other members of the crew, but I wish their characters would’ve been fleshed out. Same for the two female characters in the film, Shanti, and Ajay’s love interest, Priya (Kajal Agarwal). Jimmy Shergill has the most substantial supporting role as Ranveer, and he’s tremendous.

The best performance of the lot is by Manoj Bajpai. As with Kher, this isn’t a surprise, but Bajpai is more interesting to watch than just about any other actor. I would happily watch a film that was nothing but three hours of Manoj Bajpai walking toward the camera with an intense look on his face. There’s a lot of that in Special 26, so I was in heaven.

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Opening February 8: Special 26 and ABCD

Two new Hindi movies make their way into Chicago area theaters on February 8, 2013. Special 26 (aka Special Chabbis) has the greater star power of the two, starring Akshay Kumar alongside notable character actors Anupam Kher and Manoj Bajpai.

Special 26 opens on Friday at the Big Cinemas Golf Glen 5 in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, and Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 40 min.

I’m more excited for this weekend’s other new opening: ABCD (Any Body Can Dance), India’s first 3D dance film. For anyone who’s fond of Bollywood movies for their dance numbers, this should be a gold mine. The movie stars choreographer Prabhu Deva in the lead role and features So You Think You Can Dance Season 3 competitor Lauren Gottlieb.

Starting Friday, ABCD will be showing in 3D at the South Barrington 30 and AMC River East 21 in Chicago and in 2D at the Golf Glen 5. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 25 min.

Race 2, which has earned $1,371,815 in the U.S. so far, gets a third week at the South Barrington 30, Cantera 17, and Regal Gardens Stadium 1-6 in Skokie.

Other Indian movies showing in the area this weekend include the Tamil version of Vishwaroopam at the Cinemark at Seven Bridges in Woodridge and Golf Glen 5, which is also carrying Vishwaroopam in Telugu, as well as Ayalum Njanum Thammil (Malayalam) and Mirchi (Telugu).

Movie Review: Gangs of Wasseypur — Part 1 and Part 2 (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Gangs of Wasseypur debuted on the festival circuit as a five-hour-plus Indian crime epic. When it finally released into theaters (and on DVD), the film was chopped into two halves, released months apart as Gangs of Wasseypur Part I and Part II. It’s a decision that makes sense from a distribution standpoint, but it does the film a disservice.

Gangs of Wasseypur is truly a single film written with a place for a pause in the middle to grab snacks, not for a break of several weeks. Like those who saw the film in the theater, I watched the DVDs weeks apart, and I think the viewing experience suffered for it. If you have the opportunity to watch both parts of Gangs of Wasseypur back-to-back, do it.

With that caveat, how does the film stand up as a cohesive work? Director Anurag Kashyap is something of an outlier in Indian cinema due to his willingness to let scenes breathe and unfold at their own pace. It’s wonderful to watch, but not indefinitely. There’s so much material in Gangs of Wasseypur that I would have enjoyed it more as two distinct films with two sets of midpoints, climaxes, and denouements. As it exists, Gangs of Wasseypur is a bit too much.

The plot chronicles a story of revenge that spans multiple generations of two families in the town of Wasseypur. After the British depart India in 1947, a young industrialist named Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) assumes control of the local mine. He hires a goon named Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat) to force the local laborers to work in deplorable conditions.

One night, Ramadhir overhears Shahid talking to his son, Sardar Khan, and his cousin, Nasir (Piyush Mishra, the film’s narrator) about his plans to kill Ramadhir and take over the mine himself. Ramadhir acts first, luring Shahid to his death, though his plot to murder Sardar and Nasir fails. Young Sardar vows to one day murder Ramadhir in retaliation, eventually passing on his hatred of the industrialist to his own sons.

That setup encompasses about the first hour of the film. The remaining four hours deal with the ongoing power struggle between the Singhs and the Khans and the resulting bloodshed. This is a gory film by any standard, but especially so compared to other Hindi films.

The bulk of the story centers on the two most charismatic members of the Khan family: Sardar (Manoj Bajpai) and his second oldest son, Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Rather than murdering Ramadhir outright, Sardar plots to become his equal and destroy everything Ramadhir has built. Sardar makes a fortune stealing iron ore and intimidating the populace. This long game gives Sardar time to raise a family (or two) while plotting his revenge.

Sardar is an interesting choice for a lead character because he’s an awful person, regardless of his tragic beginnings. In addition to being a violent crook, he’s a terrible husband to his first wife, Nagma (Richa Chadda), whom he abandons to marry a second woman, Durga (Reema Sen), whom he eventually leaves to return to Nagma. At various times, Sardar neglects his four sons with Nagma and his one son with Durga. To varying degrees, all of his children hate him as much as they fear and respect him.

Such a negative character only works as a lead because Manoj Bajpai is so talented. Sardar shares moments of genuine affection with both of his wives when he’s not being a total narcissist. Bajpai plays Sardar with such swagger and menace that it’s easy to understand how he achieves the success he does.

Faizal is not much like his father. With an older brother, Danish (Vineet Singh), as Sardar’s natural heir, Faizal can waste his time getting stoned. Circumstances eventually force him to take a more active role in the family business, and Faizal proves to be unexpectedly ruthless.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui owns every scene he’s in. He’s talented enough to make scenes in which Faizal sits starring some of the most riveting scenes in the movie. Faizal’s conflicted feelings about his violent lifestyle make him more relatable than his father, and he’s downright charming as he woos the lovely Mohsina (Huma Qureshi).

The problem inherent in revenge films is that the characters often have little room for growth. Either they get their revenge, or they don’t, whether by choice or failure. Revenge is an okay motive for a shorter movie, but my interest waned after the third hour or so.

Also at around the three-hour mark, the story pushes two new characters to the forefront: Sardar’s two youngest sons, Definite (Zaishan Quadri) and Babua (Aditya Kumar). At that point — about 60% of the way through the film — I didn’t have the energy to get invested in two essentially brand new characters. Had Gangs of Wasseypur Part II been a proper sequel, the introduction of the new characters wouldn’t have seemed so late.

What ultimately makes the film worth seeing is Kashyap’s directing style. In addition to letting the scenes breathe, he uses music to incredible effect. He has mastered the montage. In addition to star turns by Bajpai and Siddiqui, Kashyap gets great performances out of the rest of the cast as well.

Gangs of Wasseypur would’ve been better as two distinct films, but I applaud Kashyap’s effort in trying to push the boundaries of Indian cinema.

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Movie Review: Chakravyuh (2012)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Chakravyuh is the latest offering in the Bollywood sub-genre of topic-driven films. The concept of building a film with a political or social issue as the foundation — then adding a story and characters around it — generates films that patronize as often as they entertain. Recent topics to grace the screen have included fairness in education (Taare Zameen Par and Aarakshan), honor killings (Aakrosh and Ishaqzaade), and farmer suicides (Summer 2007 and Peepli Live).

Chakravyuh exemplifies how to do an issue picture the right way. It starts with an on-screen note explaining that the film is based on actual events in the Indian government’s ongoing struggle against the Naxalites, a Communist separatist group. Writer-director Prakash Jha finds the common threads in these real-life events and weaves them together into a cohesive narrative that presents all sides of a complicated conflict.

The first five minutes of Chakravyuh are spent bringing those audience members unfamiliar with Communist separatism in India up to speed. Jha efficiently explains who the Naxalites are and what they want, without belaboring the point for those who already understand the conflict.

The story is told from both sides of the conflict: the police hired to enforce the law, and the separatists who seek self-rule. Adil (Arjun Rampal) volunteers for the position of chief of police of the town of Nandighat: a rural town on the edge of Naxalite-controlled territory. Adil, full of confidence acquired during his relatively easy journey through life, sees himself as the only man who can drive out the Naxalites and restore local confidence in the Indian government.

Adil is only in town for a few days when he is shot in the line of duty. His ne’er-do-well friend, Kabir (Abhay Deol) — who was kicked out of the police academy for hitting a superior officer — sneaks into the police station to see Adil. Kabir offers to infiltrate the Naxalites and act as Adil’s informer.

Because of Adil’s overconfidence and Kabir’s nonchalance, they don’t appreciate what a dangerous idea this is until Kabir is being beaten up and shot at by both the cops and the Naxalites. After spending some time with the separatists and witnessing the way the police treat the locals when Adil isn’t watching, Kabir begins to sympathize with the group he was meant to destroy.

Chakravyuh‘s sets and scenes are gripping. Nighttime police raids are dark, disorienting, and terrifying. Villages of homes built largely of sticks fly hammer-and-sickle flags in their yards, as armed insurgents walk through town calling each other “comrade.” The Naxalite camp is little more than tarps strung up between trees in the forest.

Adil and Kabir are terrific characters to guide the audience through the film. Both have enough power to influence some events in their lives, but not enough power to actually end the conflict. Kabir, while valuable, is too new in camp to make it into the Naxalite inner circle. It takes Adil a long time to realize he’s merely a big fish in a small pond; the real power lies with the federal heads of the police department, the politicians who appoint them, and the industrialists who finance the politicians’ campaigns.

Rampal and Deol are both superb in their roles. Each man is sympathetic, if not always right. The history of their friendship is illuminated by minor glimpses into the past but is apparent in the way events play out in the present.

Esha Gupta does a nice job as Adil’s wife and fellow police officer, Rhea. She ardently defends Kabir, but her loyalties lie unambiguously with her husband and her badge. Manoj Bajpai is gripping as the Naxalite leader, Rajan, as is Anjali Patil as Juhi, Rajan’s executioner. The story of how Juhi came to join the insurgents captures the sense of frustration and helplessness that could drive a person to rebellion.

At the heart of Jha’s story is compassion for the poor and the seeming futility of their struggle for a better life. The villages in Chakravyuh lack plumbing, electricity, and medical facilities. When Adil puts antibiotic cream on a villager’s wound, the man’s face beams, accompanied by a corny, patriotic musical swell.

The Naxalites intimidate the villagers into brandishing weapons against the police, but the rebels also provide the people with a sense of control, a way to fight back against a government that ignores them until valuable natural resources are discovered under their land. At one point in the film, an army of paid thugs with machine guns rolls into town on bulldozers, bellowing through bullhorns that the government’s forced demolition of the town is “for your benefit.”

Chakravyuh places blame equally on the government and the Naxalites, while acknowledging that both parties undoubtedly regret needless bloodshed. Yet, with neither group willing to be the first to renounce violence, the conflict rages on, and it’s the poor people caught in the middle who suffer.

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Movie Review: Aarakshan (2011)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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As a general rule, a movie should only have one main idea or theme; anything more complex than that, and the messages can get muddled. Filmmaker Prakash Jha overreaches with Aarakshan (“Reservation”), his meditation on the failings of the Indian education system.

The title refers to the Indian government’s version of affirmative action, by which a percentage of government jobs and spots at public universities are held for members of the lowest caste. The policy aims to level the playing field for people denied such opportunities in the past, to the chagrin of some in the middle and upper classes who feel the policy denies them opportunities in the present.

In Aarakshan, the policy pits two college friends against one another: Sushant (Prateik), who opposes it, and Deepak (Saif Ali Khan), himself a member of the lowest caste. Caught in the middle is Deepak’s girlfriend, Poorbi (Deepika Padukone), whose father, Professor Anand (Amitabh Bachchan), runs the college they attend.

When Anand expresses his belief that the policy of reservation could have some merit, it gives his opponents on the school board a chance to oust him. He’s replaced by his slimy vice principal, Mithilesh (Manoj Bajpayee), who’s gotten rich by running a chain of tutoring centers on the side. Mithilesh doesn’t show up to teach his college courses, which forces kids to pay to go to his tutoring centers if they want any hope of passing the class. Evil genius.

Despite the title’s nod to the more emotionally charged social issue, Aarakshan is primarily about education’s change from a right to a marketable commodity. Reservation is hardly brought up during the second half of the film, as Anand wages a personal battle against those who would turn his college into a diploma factory.

This is where Jha gets in to trouble. Aarakshan tries to be too many things. It’s a drama about a friendship riven by a controversial policy. It’s a warning against the diminishing quality of education. It’s a story of one man struggling against a corrupt system.

There’s no way to successfully shoehorn so many themes into one movie. Characters are reduced to giving long-winded speeches defending their positions, accompanied by dramatic music. (Wayne Sharpe’s background score is one of the film’s few highlights.) It’s an artless way of making a point, and it inflates the movie’s runtime to a boring 2 hours and 45 minutes.

What’s more unforgivable is that, during all that time, only one character undergoes any development. Sushant realizes that belittling Deepak’s heritage has cost him his two best friends, so he relents his opposition to reservation. Had the movie focused on the three friends, the development would be significant.

But, because of the sweeping societal criticism Jha invokes, it’s notable that none of the movie’s bureaucrats or officials have a change of heart by film’s end. All remain steadfast in their opposition to reservation and their support of for-profit education.

During the climactic showdown, Anand emerges victorious simply because his supporters outnumber those of his opponents on that particular day (and thanks to a little help from a deus ex machina). He gains no converts, and all of the bureaucrats with their bulldozers and eviction notices live to fight another day. The system doesn’t change, nobody has learned anything, and there are no consequences for being on the right or wrong side of the issue.

With significant editing, Jha might have been able to make a statement with Aarakshan. But the movie is too dense and ponderous to provoke any meaningful consideration of educational policies. If the characters within the movie aren’t prompted to change their minds, why should the audience?

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Movie Review: Raajneeti (2010)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Early in Raajneeti (“Politics”), a veteran politician worries that the hot-headed young members of his party will screw up everything that he and his allies have worked for their whole lives. And that’s exactly what happens in this political soap opera.

Prithvi (Arjun Rampal) and Veerendra (Manoj Bajpai) are rising stars in a political party headed by Veerendra’s father, Bhanu. Bhanu’s brother, Chandra (Chetan Pandit) — who’s also Prithvi’s father — is his right-hand man. Chandra’s youngest son, Samar (Ranbir Kapoor), returns from studying in New York for his uncle’s birthday party.

When Bhanu suffers a stroke on his birthday, it sets off a power struggle between Prithvi and Veerendra, who sees himself as rightful heir to lead the party, despite his villainous mustache and penchant for satin suits. Handsome Prithvi is more popular, but he’s not such a great guy either. Bhanu recovers enough to name Chandra acting president in the hopes of maintaining party unity. It doesn’t work.

Veerendru tries to consolidate his power by taking under his wing a popular local athlete interested in running for office. The jock, Sooraj (Ajay Devgan), is the adopted son of Chandra’s chauffeur — and also the secret love-child of Chandra’s wife, Bharti (Nikhila Trikha), making him Pritvi & Samar’s older half-brother.

When Veerendru and Sooraj resort to violence to achieve their ambitions, Samar steps in to help his brother (the one he knows about, not the secret half-brother). Aiding him is Bharti’s brother, Brij (Nana Patekar), who’s long been the family’s clean-up man. The violence spirals out of control, ruining the lives of everyone involved.

With so many characters, it’s hard to keep track of everyone in Raajneeti. Oops, I left out two of the women critical to the story. There’s Sarah (Sarah Thompson, who played Eve in the final season of Angel), Samar’s American girlfriend. And there’s Indu (Katrina Kaif), who loves Samar but is forced into a political married to Prithvi by her wealthy father.

The story sounds convoluted, and it is. But the filmmakers take nearly three hours to tell the story, allowing enough time to give each character depth. There are no heroes in Raajneeti, and no one’s really innocent apart from Sarah, and that’s only because she’s an outsider.

I found Sarah’s perspective invaluable in the film. Every Hindi movie I’ve seen on the topic portrays Indian politics as violent and corrupt. It makes me wonder why anyone would want to enter the field, given the high mortality rate of Bollywood politicians. It was nice to have an onscreen avatar acting as shocked by the carnage as I was.

Indu also plays an important role, giving women a voice in a male-dominated arena. While she could’ve acted a few scenes more forcefully, Kaif is competent in her portrayal of a manipulated woman. It’s an ambitious choice for Kaif, and the right one if she’s looking to branch out from comedies.

While no one character dominates the screentime, Raajneeti wouldn’t work without Patekar as Brij. His character is involved in almost every critical decision, even if peripherally. Brij is a clean-up man who never gets his own hands dirty, allowing him to remain in good standing with the constituents. Patekar plays him as cool and controlled, manipulating people with a smile.

Brij is the eye of a storm that spirals out of control in the last 30 minutes of the movie. Subtle intrigues are abandoned for an orgy of violence that strains credulity. An important rule that the old politicians adhered to is to always get someone else to pull the trigger for you. The young upstarts forget that, and an unnecessary bloodbath ensues. It might make for a good movie, but it seems like bad politics.

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