In Aiyaary (“Shapeshifting“), things that require little explanation are belabored, while things that would benefit from being shown onscreen aren’t. The resulting movie is a boring spy thriller sans thrills.
Manoj Bajpayee plays Colonel Abhay Singh, leader of a secret group of Indian military intelligence officers — the kind of covert unit the Indian Army top brass promises to disavow should its existence ever be made public. Abhay’s superior officer even says, “No one will ever know what you did for this country.”
Neither will the audience, because writer-director Neeraj Pandey doesn’t show us what they do, apart from one scene of an unspecified assassination that serves two purposes: to establish Abhay’s remorselessness and to beat to death an unfunny joke about a subordinate packing vitamins instead of ammo.
The team consists of seven other officers, only two of whom have specific identities. Maya is the token girl, played by Commando‘s Pooja Chopra, who deserves a role far more substantive than this one. Jai (Sidharth Malhotra) is Abhay’s protegé gone rogue. Abhay intends to find Jai and terminate him if necessary.
Jai uncovers a bribery plot within the Indian Army, facilitated by retired Lt. General Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) on behalf of London-based arms dealer Mukesh Kapoor (Adil Hussain). While Abhay tracks Jai, the protegé gathers evidence with the help of his internet security expert girlfriend, Sonia (Rakul Preet Singh, who also deserves a meatier part).
The details of the uncomplicated bribery scheme are spelled out in scenes bloated with dialogue. Pandey’s fondness for slow-motion shots underscores the film’s snail-like pace.
Of course the bribery scheme is just the tip of the iceberg, but there’s a naiveté to what Pandey considers a scandal big enough to topple the government. Maybe it’s just my American cynicism, but there’s nothing in Aiyaary egregious enough to inspire more than a “they’re all crooks” shrug.
Then again, the problem may be a matter of narrative focus. Pandey spends too much time on crimes that are obvious and easy to understand, before rushing through more complicated schemes that require evidence he neglects to present. Aiyaary‘s biggest scandals are based on hearsay — which wouldn’t stand up to public scrutiny and doesn’t make for good visual storytelling.
Manoj Bajpayee is often the best part of the movies he stars in, and Aiyaary is no exception. The film’s most enjoyable scenes are playful exchanges between Bajpayee and Juhi Babbar, who plays Abhay’s wife. Malhotra is solid, but his character feels flat, as is the case for many of the supporting characters, who only exist to move the story from Point A to Point B. A lot of talent goes to waste in Aiyaary.
Taapsee Pannu’s supporting character Shabana was the best part of the 2015 spy thriller Baby, so spinning off an origin story for her made perfect sense. However, Naam Shabana is dull, doing neither the character nor the actress who plays her justice.
Too much time is spent on the “origin” part of Shabana’s story. We know that she is being recruited by a spy agency thanks to a number of long-distance shots of her overlaid with the markings of a camera’s viewfinder. It’s the same view through which two Indian spies scope out notorious gangster Mikhail in Vienna, right before Mikhail kills both of them.
The long-shots of Shabana are interspersed with the events of her ordinary college life. She’s on the university judo team, she hangs out with her pals, and she takes an economics class with Jai (Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala), a hunk with a crush on Shabana. She shares the details of her tragic childhood with Jai, adding backstory on top of backstory.
By the time the inciting incident triggers Shabana’s first contact with the head of the spy agency, Ranvir (Manoj Bajpayee), the movie is a quarter of the way over. There’s so much build up just get the ball rolling. Even then, the ball rolls very slowly.
Shabana first has to prove herself to the agency, even though they’ve been following her for years. There’s the obligatory training montage. Right when we’re ready for her to take the field and kick butt, Shabana disappears from the narrative for a full twenty minutes while other agents track down a crook named Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran), whom they hope can lead them to Mikhail. When Shabana finally rejoins the fray, the action is interrupted by a ridiculous item number featuring Elli Avram.
Naam Shabana has about ninety minutes of material stretched to fill two-and-a-half hours. When one example of something would suffice, we’re shown two, just to pad things out. Although Baby creator Neeraj Pandey didn’t direct Naam Shabana — that credit belongs to Shivam Nair — Pandey did write the screenplay, complete with his tendency toward overly long runtimes.
A further disappointment is the way Shabana’s character is fleshed out from her small role in Baby. She’s mostly robotic, with a brief moment of hysteria that is drowned out by composer Sanjoy Chowdhury’s over-the-top score. (Did anyone else find the film’s closing theme awfully similar to the opening of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles?)
Shabana’s primary relationship is with her supportive but concerned mother (played by Natasha Rastogi). Their relationship provides the perfect opportunity to explore the natural pulling away from parents by young adults as they leave school and start their own lives–only taken to the extreme when the young adult becomes a spy. Instead, Mom simply vanishes from the story once Shabana joins the agency. It’s a huge miss in that it would’ve given a talented actress like Pannu more to do than just look cool in fight scenes (which she definitely does).
Cameos by key Baby cast members like Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher, and Danny Denzongpa are well-integrated, but they come too late to rescue Naam Shabana from its plodding pace.
Director Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh can be summarized as a film about a professor who loses his job for being gay, but the story is less about the issue and more about the man who reluctantly becomes the face of a civil rights movement.
64-year-old Professor Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) arrives at his apartment on the campus of Aligarh University on a foggy night in 2010. The young man driving the rickshaw brings the professor’s bags upstairs for him but doesn’t come down. The camera lingers voyeuristically outside the building. Moments later, two men — one holding a video camera and one holding a billy club — sneak into the apartment. We hear shouts from within.
The next day, a Delhi journalist named Deepu (Rajkummar Rao) spots a local news item about an Aligarh professor suspended for his involvement in a gay sex scandal. With the recent overturn of India’s Section 377 law that criminalized homosexuality, this seems like a clear violation of Professor Siras’ civil rights.
In Aligarh, Deepu discovers that neither the professor nor his friends share the reporter’s zeal for justice, hoping instead that the matter will go away on its own. The element of the case that piques Deepu’s interest — the videotaped violation of the professor’s right to privacy — is the same one that makes the professor hesitate. He’s an intensely private person, and speaking about the violation publicly will only invite more attention.
When waiting for the issue to blow over ceases to be an option, Siras opens up to Deepu. Siras resists referring to himself as gay, wondering how a person’s being can be encompassed by a three-letter word. He explains that he was attacked not for his sexuality but because of internal university politics. Outing him as gay was just the most expedient method to get him expelled from a conservative, predominantly Muslim school.
The interactions between Deepu and Siras are a delight to watch for how different the two men are. Deepu talks loudly and fidgets in his seat. He even listens aggressively, hunched forward, recorder in hand. By contrast, Siras sits still as a stone. He drinks slowly. He speaks slowly. He is not in a rush.
Out of respect to its protagonist, Aligarh‘s story unfolds at an unhurried pace. There’s an economy of camera movement, with Mehta and cinematographer Satya Nagpaul favoring still shots. Minutes are spent in closeup on Siras’ face as he cries while singing along to an old movie song.
Bajpayee is impossible to ignore in any scene, and Mehta puts the actor’s particular gift to good use. A court hearing regarding Siras’ reinstatement features the two opposing lawyers in the foreground arguing precedent, but one’s attention is drawn to the professor sitting in the corner behind his lawyer, dozing off from boredom.
Rao is one of Mehta’s favorite actors, and with reason. He’s terrific yet again as a young man with a great deal of empathy, but lacking a bit in wisdom. Pairing him opposite an actor as gifted as Bajpayee is magic.
Just as Siras opens Deepu’s eyes to a broader view of humanity, Aligarh provides an important lesson in understanding why a person may choose not to fight. Siras’ sexual orientation is only one part of him, and in the decades that he’s been forced to keep it hidden, he’s cultivated other aspects of his life that give him joy, such as poetry, music, and teaching. He fears that defending the attack on one aspect of his personality could put the other parts at risk. Deepu and the activists who rally to the cause are slow to realize that what’s best for Siras the gay man may be different than what’s best for Siras the professor.
Director Anurag Kashyap’s five-hour crime epic Gangs of Wasseypur made a splash on the festival circuit in 2012. It released theatrically in India but didn’t make the journey overseas. Finally, on Friday, January 16, 2015, select AMC theaters across the United States will carry Gangs of Wasseypur Part I. The following Friday, January 23, those same theaters will carry Gangs of Wasseypur Part II. Both parts of the film will run for one week only.
Through a stroke of luck, my local public library ordered Gangs of Wasseypur on DVD back in 2012, so I was able to review it back then. It’s a fascinating movie, unlike any other Hindi film I’ve seen. However, my viewing experience suffered by having to wait several weeks in between watching Part I and Part II.
The one-week break between the theatrical releases of Part I and Part II sounds about right in order to maintain the film’s momentum. Fans of Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Manoj Bajpayee will want to make a point of seeing this on the big screen.
Follow this link to see if Gangs of Wasseypur is playing in a theater near you.
Arjun Kapoor’s lead character seems more like an interruption than a necessary element of Tevar (“Attitude“).
Don’t get me wrong: as the story is constructed, the fate of Sonakshi Sinha’s character, Radhika, depends entirely upon Kapoor’s Pintu. That’s because Radhika is the most embarrassingly helpless character Sinha has played yet, which is saying something. Instead of a hapless plot device, I wish she’d been capable of saving herself — rendering Pintu altogether unnecessary.
Because Tevar is just another formulaic, hero-driven, Bollywood action flick, the movie opens with a lengthy introduction of Pintu. Surprise, surprise: he’s a slacker who just wants to hang out with his buddies, who repeatedly tell him how cool he is. As is typical in such films, his only flaw is a lack of a girlfriend. Not that he couldn’t get one if he wanted one. He just doesn’t want some chick to cut into his bro time.
Once Pintu’s intro is over, we get to the movie that I really wanted to see. Manoj Bajpayee plays Gajendar, a goon who does the dirty work for his older brother, a politician played by Rajesh Sharma. Gajendar falls madly in love with Radhika when he sees her dance in a concert.
On the advice of his sidekick, Kakdi (Subrat Dutta), Gajendar tries to impress the much younger Radhika, doffing his sweater vest in favor of jeans and a motorcycle jacket. The attempt fails. Gajendar is further humiliated by Radhika’s reporter brother, who threatens to take down both Gajendar and his brother if he contacts Radhika again.
Here’s what I wanted from Tevar: Gajendar tries to pretend he’s something he’s not in order to win Radhika. When that doesn’t work, he resorts to his old, violent ways. Radhika has to figure out how to stop Gajendar and save her family. Why shouldn’t the heroine be the one with “attitude” for a change?
What I got was Radhika waiting helplessly for someone to rescue her. Pintu just happens to get there first. Whenever Radhika takes control of her own destiny, she does something idiotic like leave her hiding place to check on the well-being of Pintu, who is essentially invincible.
That invincibility neuters all the fight sequences. Stuff breaks and people go flying, but the scenes lack gravity and danger. The epic eye roll Gajendar gives when Pintu rises from what should’ve been a mortal blow is spot on.
Pintu’s invincibility is such a powerful aphrodisiac for Radhika that’s she’s willing to abandon the complicated plan to get her to safety just to hear Pintu say, “I love you.” It’s stupid and insulting.
Sinha’s cringe-inducing performance aside, the acting in Tevar is pretty good. Kapoor is charming when the script permits him to be. Bajpayee is one of Bollywood’s go-to villains for a reason. It’s hard to take your eyes off of him.
Yet Dutta managed to steal my attention from Bajpayee on a number of occasions, not with anything flashy, but by doing little things to make Kakdi seem like a real person, not just an automaton who performs only when he’s the focus of a scene. While Gajendar is in the foreground, staring transfixed by Radhika’s dancing, Kakdi is in the background ushering people to their seats and clapping along with the music.
Dutta shows some real menace in spots, too, as when Kakdi strolls in slow motion toward Pintu, flanked by armed guards. Maybe there’s room for another go-to villain in town.
Ultimately, Tevar sublimates its unique elements in order to give us more of the same. Putting a different actor in the role of morally righteous superman doesn’t change anything.
Sonakshi Sinha is imperiled yet again in Tevar, which releases theatrically on January 9, 2015. This time, she needs to be saved from Manoj Bajpayee by Arjun Kapoor. Kudos to Subrat Dutta for landing roles in seemingly every movie these days: Bheera in Roar, the eccentric director in The Shaukeens, and now one of Manoj’s henchmen in Tevar. Check out the trailer:
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.