Tag Archives: Sriram Raghavan

Movie Review: Johnny Gaddaar (2007)

JohnnyGaddaar3 Stars (out of 4)

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Bollywood loves its own history. Too many Hindi films cater to fans with a depth of Bollywood knowledge at the expense of newcomers to the genre, who feel left out of the inside jokes. The neo-noir thriller Johnny Gaddaar (“Johnny the Traitor“) avoids that trap, enthusiastically paying homage to the past while providing enough context to welcome Bollywood newcomers.

It helps that writer-director Sriram Raghavan really understands how and why stories work onscreen. That understanding manifests subtly in the two films he made after Johnny Gaddaar: Agent Vinod and Badlapur. In Johnny Gaddaar, his references are explicit, using clips from other movies to advance his own heist story.

“Johnny” is an alias used by Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh), junior member of a quintet that runs a gambling ring. Veteran crook Seshadri (Dharmendra) holds together the uneasy group, which consists of Vikram, casino owner Prakash (Vinay Pathak), financier Shardul (Zakir Hussain), and the crew’s muscle, Shivay (Dayanand Shetty).

Vikram breaks a cardinal rule by falling in love with Shardul’s wife, Mini (Rimi Sen). In order to get enough cash for the two of them to flee to Canada, Vikram decides to steal the money the group pooled for a deal with the corrupt policeman, Kalyan (Govind Namdeo).

Even though he’s the most educated member of the crew, Vikram is also the newest to a life of crime. He concocts a solid plan to steal the cash, going so far as to chloroform himself in order to time how long his victim will remain unconscious. Yet he lacks the wiliness of an experienced crook, and his plan goes wrong in ways he never anticipated.

The primary theme of the film is the danger of unintended consequences, not just the direct effects on one’s own life but the psychological damage incurred when one inflicts pain on others, intentionally or not.

Vikram and his gang aren’t violent. He doesn’t own a gun, and the others aren’t in the habit of carrying theirs with them. Shiva is a gentle giant. When Vikram experiences his first taste of violence, it disturbs him. Sadly, that first experience makes violence a possible response to future conflicts, in a way it never was before.

It helps that Mukesh — in his first film role — looks as young and slight as he does. He doesn’t appear the least bit tough. It’s easy to accept him as the naive character he plays.

There’s another theme in the film about the nature of love, namely that Vikram doesn’t know what real love is. How can he be sure of his feelings for Mini or her feelings for him when they developed under duress? Vikram protests to Seshadri that their love is real, and Seshadri just shrugs.

Seshadri is one of multiple examples of what true love is that Vikram ignores in pursuit of his affair. Widowed Seshadri reminisces while listening to a recording of his wife singing. Prakash dotes on his wife, Varsha (Ashwini Kalsekar), a proud working mom. Shiva has a sweet, budding romance with the nurse who cares for his ailing mother.

Shardul doesn’t seem like such a bad husband to Mini, at least by mafia-film standards. He comes home and wants to catch up on the day with his wife, but she can’t get away from him fast enough. Her disgust for him is so obvious that you almost feel bad for the guy.

Even Kalyan — who is the scariest character in the film — tries to warn Vikram about the danger he’s in. When Vikram confesses that his favorite actor is Amitabh Bachchan, Kalyan asks if Vikram has seen Parwana, a movie in which Bachchan plays an obsessed lover who resorts to murder when his beloved falls for another man. Of course, Vikram hasn’t seen the movie.

Clips from Parwana are interspersed throughout Johnny Gaddaar, along with snippets of other Bollywood and Hollywood films. For movie buffs, it’s fun to try to spot all of the references Raghavan includes in his movie. The references never derail the story, and Raghavan makes some explicit enough that even non-movie buffs can feel included (as when Seshadri says he feels like he’s in a scene from Scarface as the gang counts their loot).

Johnny Gaddaar is a balanced, solid thriller that feels like a love letter to films of the past. It’s worth watching just to see an early piece of work by a promising director.

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Movie Review: Badlapur (2015)

Badlapur_Poster3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Badlapur is a jaw-dropping thriller that examines the perils of revenge. After a pair of delightful comic performances in his two previous films, Varun Dhawan shines as a grieving husband who becomes a monster.

Heed the tagline at the end of the Badlapur trailer: “Don’t miss the beginning.” The movie opens with a bank robbery and carjacking. The owner of the car (played by Yami Gautam) and her young son are killed in gruesome — if somewhat accidental — fashion during the escape attempt. One of the robbers (played by Vinay Pathak) flees with the loot, while the other, Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), turns himself in to the police.

Badlapur‘s plot follows two parallel stories: Liak’s life behind bars, and the quest for revenge undertaken by Raghu (Dhawan), husband of Misha (Gautam) and father of their son.

The movie is clearly inspired by the Korean film I Saw the Devil — most obviously in a scene in which a man in a car pulls up to a stranded female motorist — which was remade in India last year as Ek Villain. Badlapur is a more fitting successor to the Korean film than the acknowledged remake.

What differentiates Badlapur‘s lead character from the secret service agent at the core of I Saw the Devil is that Raghu has no special skills to aid his revenge quest. He works in advertising before the murders, and takes a job as a factory foreman after Liak is imprisoned.

Because he’s just a regular guy, Raghu’s plans seem a little disorganized. It’s not clear when he will feel his vengeance complete. He intends to wait until Liak’s twenty-year prison sentence is over, then follow Liak when he retrieves his share of the money from Harman (Pathak), his accomplice. Raghu’s timetable is accelerated when a well-meaning-but-naive charity worker, Shoba (Divya Dutta), asks Raghu to petition for Liak’s early release so he can seek medical treatment.

Raghu is content to wait to enact his revenge upon Liak and Harman, but he has far less patience for the women who willingly maintain relationships with the criminals. This goes for Shoba, Harman’s wife, Koko (Radhika Apte), and especially Liak’s girlfriend, Jimli (Huma Qureshi).

Jimli is first to experience Raghu’s rage. Because she is a prostitute, Raghu has no compunction about raping her, thus “ruining” her for Liak. That Raghu feels his money can compensate Jimli for the rape is the sign that he’s gone off the deep end. When Liak asks him what makes the two of them so different, Raghu doesn’t have a good answer.

Every performance in Badlapur is pitch perfect. Dutta and Apte are sympathetic, and Qureshi is superb. Pathak doesn’t get as much screentime as Siddiqui, but he features in the movie’s best scene, in which Harman and Raghu silently size each other up as they ride in an elevator.

Siddiqui is great, but Liak’s character is tricky to embrace. There’s only so much he can do since he spends much of the film in jail, and every scene reinforces that he’s a bad guy. The volume of storytime devoted to Liak has less to do with the character and more to do with a desire to keep Siddiqui on screen for as long as possible.

In only his fourth film, Dhawan extends his acting range in impressive fashion. His portrayal of Raghu is chilling. He’s far scarier than Liak or Harman, but he also has the capacity to act normal when it serves his purpose.

Badlapur has trouble maintaining momentum early on. Raghu’s brutalization of Jimli is followed by flashbacks to his romance with Misha and low-key scenes of Liak’s exploits in jail. Raghu feels a bit absent from the film’s ultimate resolution, but perhaps that fits given that he isn’t a criminal mastermind capable of engineering a dramatic climax.

One thing director Sriram Raghavan excels at is sound design. There isn’t much in the way of background music in Badlapur, and the movie is often punctuated by street noise like barking dogs. The undercurrent of everyday sounds makes the film feel more realistic, heightening its impact.

Not a movie for the faint of heart, Badlapur rewards its audience with great performances and a nuanced take on the revenge genre. If nothing else, it establishes Varun Dhawan as the most exciting young actor in Bollywood today.

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Movie Review: Agent Vinod (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Nothing in Agent Vinod makes any logical sense. It’s all crazy action that couldn’t possibly happen the way it does. Yet Agent Vinod is so fun and so totally committed to its insanity that I don’t care. I really, really liked this movie.

In simplest terms, Agent Vinod is a spy movie. A suitcase-sized nuclear device is stolen from Russia, and Indian spy Agent Vinod (Saif Ali Khan) follows the clues to Morocco. There, he poses as a courier to gain access to David Kazan (Prem Chopra), an international arms dealer with a suspicious personal physician named Ruby (Kareena Kapoor).

Vinod’s search for the nuclear device takes him all over the world: India, Pakistan, Russia, Latvia, England, even South Africa, just for kicks. Why the nuke was stolen is unimportant. What is important is that Vinod gets to fight a lot of people.

There are some spectacular set pieces and moments that are truly startling. For example, a car brakes to a stop, only to be immediately smashed into by another vehicle from out of frame. The effect is akin to a “gotcha” moment in a horror movie, and it’s delightfully effective.

Without a doubt, the film’s best scene is a shootout in the lobby of a fleabag motel in Latvia that is shot in a single take. The technical impressiveness of the scene is topped when an unlikely participant joins the shootout at the end of the scene. It was so unexpected, I laughed out loud.

In fact, I laughed out loud from sheer joy a number of times during Agent Vinod. It’s a great throwback to ’70s-era spy movies, right down to the garish interiors and the catchy “wakka chikka” guitar score that punctuates crucial events.

The special effects are also decidedly low-tech, but very well-executed. Most of the action is hand-to-hand combat or shootouts from close range. The only noticeable computer-generated effect involves a helicopter flying low over Delhi, and it stands out for looking fake.

Khan and Kapoor do an admirable job playing their roles completely straight. The costumer designer and tailors deserve an appreciative nod for making Khan look dashing in his perfectly fitted Oxford shirts.

Khan produced Agent Vinod, in addition to starring in it, which convinces me of one thing: I think this is exactly the film he set out to make. Yes, Agent Vinod is campy and preposterous, and it’s surely not for everyone. But I respect the fact that Khan and director Sriram Raghavan had a vision and executed it. If that relegates it to cult-film status, so be it. If it works for you (as it did for me), it really works.

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